Chapter Thirty-Two: Reseda
I knew it would be a while before Dad got the message. And I forgot how long it took me to drive to Reseda, but I knew it would take Dad a while to get here. I had time to take care of a few things here before I left. And perhaps make things right.
I stopped at a check cashing place and cashed my final paycheck. I’d pay Reza back for the damage I caused. I then continued down Reseda Boulevard. I had another stop I had to make.
Hannah had regained enough strength to stand with a cane.
“May I come in?”
She nodded and stepped away from the door. I glanced at the driveway behind me. Pearl’s car wasn’t there. I stepped inside and closed the door.
Hannah gestured to the sofa in the living room. I took a seat. She lowered herself onto the adjacent love seat. She set her cane against the armrest and looked at me.
“Is everything all right?”
I shook my head and told her everything. I held back on some things at first, the things parents don’t want to know about their children. But I gave in and told her those things about Pearl too. She didn’t seem upset. She listened patiently. When I was finished, she reached across and put her hand on mine.
“Don’t be mad at yourself.” She lowered her head. “I’m responsible for all this.”
“Was it because of those pictures?”
“It started long before the pictures.” She took a deep breath and looked directly at me. “My family came here from Slovenia when I was young. We left because of the war. We lived in Orange County.”
“That’s why you asked about Garden Grove.”
She nodded. “That’s where we lived.”
She let go of my hand and leaned back against the cushions.
“I loved being in America. Americans are so free. They can be who they want and say what they want. And so many different types of people, all living together. When I was in high school, I met this boy.” She smiled broadly. “He called me Hannah. He couldn’t say my real name, Yanka, but I hated that old country name anyway. I loved being called Hannah. I loved being with him.”
She withdrew her smile and lowered her eyelids. I leaned forward.
“When I got pregnant, he offered to pay for an abortion. I -- I couldn’t do that.” She sighed and lowered her head. “When my parents found out, they threw me out of the house.”
“How old were you?”
“They couldn’t do that! You were a minor.”
“They didn’t care. They were traditional. I disgraced them. To them, it would be better if I died in a gutter.”
I watched Hannah as she brushed the corner of her eye with her finger. Looking at her, I saw Zoey. And what would have happened to her if she kept our child. And I saw myself.
I sat up straight. “How did you get here?”
“I found this ad. They were looking for models...”
“You realize how sketchy that was. You could have wound up a prostitute. Or worse.”
“I had no choice. I was going to have a baby. I had no job, no money.”
“Then how did you get here?”
“I was living with a friend from school at the time. Her parents weren’t all that happy with me being there. So they gave me bus money.”
“Even though you could have wound up...”
“They didn’t care what happened to me as long as I wasn’t their problem.”
I sighed. I knew plenty of people in Orange County who were like that. Including Steven and my own mom.
“Then what happened?”
She smiled and had a faraway look. Her eyes seemed to shine as if she recalled something wonderful. “I met Hawthorne. He was the kindest man.”
“The guy who placed the ad?”
“And made bondage porn?”
“He had a website, Hawthorne’s Bondage Village. This was the early days of the World Wide Web, back when most people had dial-up. His was one of the first of its kind.”
“And you knew about this?”
“Of course. He was completely up-front about it. And I told him my situation. He took me right into his home. He found me an ob/gyn and paid my medical expenses. And when Pearl was born, I gave her his last name. He suggested her first name, Pearl. It’s from Scripture.”
“Was he religious?”
“Spiritual. He believed in God, but not religion. He said there’s too much self-righteousness and hypocrisy.”
I nodded. I saw enough of it myself.
“So, you modeled for him?”
“And who watched Pearl when you went to school and work?”
“The girls did.”
“His other models.” Her grin widened. “I was like their kid sister. Loretta was the oldest. She modeled back in the seventies. She called herself our ‘den mother.’ She adored Pearl. And Consuela, her family were refugees like mine. She came from El Salvador. Ginny called herself a ‘chocolate goddess.’ She was indeed beautiful. Santana was a lesbian. We never judged. Angie had a rough life. She was sexually and physically abused by her parents. She said being with Hawthorne was the first place she felt safe.”
“It sounds strange, I know. But we all had complete trust in each other. Because we trusted each other, we loved each other. When you think about it, love is a form of bondage. You give up your freedom for companionship, caring, and support.” She smiled for a moment. Then her expression turned sad.
“So, what happened?”
“Hawthorne died a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” I reached out and held Hannah’s hand. She put her other hand on top of mine.
“We tried to keep the website going, but it wasn’t the same.” She exhaled hard. “I started a new site, one with pictures we took over the years. But since I got sick...”
“Is that the one Pearl saw? Something about a hall of fame?”
“Classic Bondage Hall of Fame, yes. I asked her to watch the site for me, make sure it stayed up and didn’t get hacked.”
“When did she know about your pictures?”
“I think she always suspected. I knew she had an interest in it too.”
I nodded slow and deep. I regretted not understanding that part of Pearl.
“Still, I wanted to wait until she was old enough before I told her. But in middle school, she had a crush on this boy. She was so in love with him. Then, he found my pictures.” She let go of my hands and looked away. “Kids that age could be so cruel, especially on social media. It got so bad, we had to move so Pearl could go to another school. That’s why she went to Reseda High School. But she wasn’t the same after that. There were many boys she liked, but she didn’t date them. She didn’t even go to her prom. She was afraid that if someone found out about me, she would get hurt again.”
I hung down my head. “Like I hurt her.”
Hannah put her hand on my shoulder. “You didn’t know.”
“And I was scared.”
“Of what the cops would do if they saw us. I mean, think about it. A pretty woman like Pearl getting tied up by some homeless dude...”
Hannah’s forehead furrowed. “You aren’t just some homeless dude. Not to Pearl.”
I jolted back in shock.
Her blue eyes became more intense. “She trusts you.”
“She’s seen you at your worst. So many people conceal themselves and try to look better than they really are. When you’re at the bottom, there’s no pretense, no masks. When you find yourself rejected for who you are, you can’t afford to act like you’re something you’re not. And Pearl,” Hannah gave a small smile. “She has her way of finding out who people really are.”
I thought about all those awkward questions she asked me. I thought she was being rude, but she really was searching for the truth. For someone she could trust.
I turned and looked at the dark tan carpet in front of me. I realized how much I avoided the truth. Everything that happened in my life up to that point felt like a lie. I wanted to pretend that I didn’t care about my parents and their divorce. That I didn’t care about failing at school. That I didn’t care about losing Zoey. Or our baby. That I didn’t care about Mom and Steven throwing me out of the house. But I did. Maybe that was why I had such hateful thoughts towards myself. And why I tried to drug them away. Or kill myself to stop those thoughts, and so I didn’t have to lie anymore.
But in Reseda, I found people who honestly cared about me, even though they had no reason to. And all I did was hurt them. And I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t care, especially the way I hurt Pearl. I could still see her balled up against the back of the driver’s seat sobbing. And it brought back that heavy sadness. It bore down on me too hard to pretend.
I looked at Hannah. I had to clear my throat before I could ask a question harder than any question Pearl asked me.
“Did Pearl really love me?”
“Why don’t you ask her and find out?”
I exhaled and shook my head. “It’s too late.”
“It’s only too late when you give up.”
“But Hannah, I already told my dad to pick me up. He’s coming from Orange County.”
“Then tell him not to come.”
“He’s probably on his way now.”
“If you go back to Orange County, you’ll go back to being the person you were. Dylan, you’re here for a reason.”
I found myself muttering, “God takes us where we need to go and teaches us the lessons we need to learn.”
“You can turn your back on that. You can turn your back on Pearl. Or you can try to save your relationship and yourself.”
I found myself rushing up Reseda Boulevard. I hurried past the wash and the old car dealerships at a nearly breathless pace. Hannah said, “It’s only too late when you give up.” But what if it really were too late? What if Pearl was already gone? What if my Dad were already here?
I was relieved when I saw the signal for Sherman Way ahead of me. Just a few more blocks!
And that’s where I stopped.
I saw her again. Long black stringy hair. Baggy, ratty coat. Stained, faded jeans with the bottoms torn up and fringed around her bare feet. She was the same woman who pulled spoiled food out of our dumpster. Now, she was picking through a trash can by a bus stop, looking for crumbs in empty fast-food containers.
I spoke calmly. “Excuse me.”
She looked up and gasped. She backed away from the trash can and looked over her shoulder.
“Wait!” I held up both of my palms towards her. She stopped, but she looked jittery, anxious. Ready to bolt at any second.
I reached into my pocket. I pulled out the entire wad of bills. The crumpled one dollar bills. My cashed paycheck. Everything I had. And I held it out towards her.
“Please. Buy your children some decent food.”
She stared at the money for a moment. Slowly, she inched her hand towards it. I nodded. She reached out and touched the cash. The side of my finger brushed against hers. Her fingers felt rough, but had some spots of softness to them. When I knew the bills were in her grasp, I let go.
She brought the money close to her chest and flipped the edges to count it. That was when her eyes opened wide.
“God bless you, sir!”
She tucked the money into her jeans pocket and fled around the corner.
I smiled. I felt a lightness that drove away all of the heavy sadness and self-hatred I ever had.
But as I stepped towards the corner of Reseda and Sherman Way, I saw Reza’s gas station. I trembled for a moment. I gave that woman the money I was going to use to pay back Reza! I calmed myself down. Reza still had a job. This woman had nothing, except kids she couldn’t feed.
And I had one more thing left to do.
I first stopped behind the abandoned theater. Dad wasn’t there. I would recognize his car. He recently posted a picture of it on Facebook. He got a new white hybrid Lexus SUV. I guess his financial situation did improve. But there was no Lexus parked behind the theater. I still had time for what I needed to do.
I took the back way to the store. I’m sure Ngoc wouldn’t let me in if I cut in from the front parking lot. The stores on Sherman Way were connected by a series of parking lots behind the buildings. When I got to Magdalena’s restaurant, I glanced at the screen door to the kitchen. The smells of spicy beef and tortillas floated out, but there was no sign of Magdalena. I had to keep going.
When I got to the store’s back parking lot, I gave a deep sigh. Pearl’s blue Hyundai Elantra was still there! I had to go around to the front. I went behind the large supermarket and through the alley between the shopping center and the church. Then past the storefronts to Buck & Awesome.
But when I got there, I stopped.
The black lifted pickup truck was parked in front of the store.
I hadn’t even reached the front of the store when I heard the shouting. And when I looked through the window, Need Beer and his goons were harassing Fatima. Ngoc, Pearl, and Kishana tried to get between them. The guy in the white t-shirt grabbed at Fatima’s headscarf. Pearl tried to stop him, and he shoved her away. Ngoc jumped in to fight him, and the guy in the Cobra Kai shirt tossed him to the floor.
I rushed in the door.
“Hey,” I shouted, “Leave them alone!”
I was surprised I didn’t say “Leave them the fuck alone!” I guess I had gotten used to not swearing in the store.
Ngoc and Pearl looked up. Everyone’s eyes turned towards me. But no one said anything. Except Need Beer.
“Whatcha gonna do about it, faggot?”
I stepped up to Need Beer and gave him a military school punch in his face. He staggered back hard. He tried to punch back. He swung wildly over my head. Just as I thought. That big fat pussy couldn’t fight!
But Cobra Kai could. He punched me in the gut. But when I learned boxing, I knew how to take that kind of blow. I gave him an upper cut to his jaw. As he reeled back, I used that one move I saw in the movie and kicked him in the face.
Kishana shouted, “Dylan! You can’t fight in here! We’d be liable...”
“I don’t work here anymore, remember!?”
I didn’t have time to argue with her, not when I turned and saw Need Beer barreling down on me. I ducked under him and threw him over my back. He landed on a display of glass figurines. Hundreds of dollars shattered in a ghastly crash and crackle. But it was worth it to take out Need Beer.
Then shouting all around me. I turned around. The guy with the stained and stretched out white t-shirt and the Confederate flag stood in front of me. He pulled something out of the back of his belt. Was it a gun? If so, I had to stop him. I rushed towards him...