“This is my favorite part,” Thea said, and I nodded, our sleeping bag rustling beneath my chin.
We’d been lying side by side on the hood of her mom’s Cadillac since 3:30 that morning, parked on the edge of a hillside that overlooked a ravine. Summers on the dusty outer limits of Marin County were hot and shadeless, but the nights remained cold and shrouded with fog. Only our heads and a tiny flashlight peaked out of our sleeping bag, my hand holding it unsteadily over The Book of Fairies. It was a collection of old fables that we read only on this car, only on these Sundays, which had become a ritual for us, that summer of 1993. This was our third pass through it, and it had started to feel like the stories belonged to us, like, through reading the book, we had a tiny part in its creation, its significance—that was true of almost anything we did together in those days.
This is where I spent most of my Sunday mornings the summer I was 9—perched on this beast of a car at the top of a hillside, a long line of sleeping cars ahead of us that led to the area’s flea market grounds, a place that was covered in dust and rocks, rotten spring rolls and half-eaten chicken wings. If sellers wanted a chance at a stall, they had to rise at this painful hour and wait until the grounds opened at daybreak.
Britta, Thea’s mother, sat reclined in the front seat, listening to talk radio, her cigarette smoke wafting towards us, making us nauseous. She was from New York, and her voice and demeanor were hard-edged, different than the other mothers in Marin County, one of the richest places in California. As far as I can remember, she never had a real job—she was always moving from one half-baked project to the next, and at this time, she was buying plaster angels in bulk, painting them, and selling them at flea markets around Marin. Boxes of them filled their garage, and they seemed to turn up everywhere around their little duplex—under Thea’s bed, among the cleaning products under the bathroom sink, in the drawers of her mother’s nightstand.
In retrospect, I have no idea who bought these things, or how Britta supported the two of them with this income. But, even though I couldn’t name it, I could sense that measure of risk in their lives, could sense it in the very atmosphere of the flea market—these buyers and sellers were seedy creatures who lived out of vans, scruffy mutts tied to their display tables with course rope, their clothes disheveled and worn. They moved from one market to the next around the hot oven of summer in central California, casting their lots on the margins of society. But it’s these mornings on the car I remember most vividly, the moments when we still occupied the safe worlds of our imaginations, before the sun had fully risen, before we were thrown, headlong, into the actualities of the adult world.
“I don’t want it to be light yet,” I said, but the sky was nearly lit now, the sun already beginning to burn off the cold and condensation of the night.
“All right, girls,” Britta yelled behind us. “You’ve got five minutes.”
I don’t remember the first time I met Thea, but I do remember my first impression of her. She seemed like an exotic creature, one whose quiet movements and hidden nature made me both nervous and intrigued. She had blown into the fourth grade from LA with Maroon hair, silver fingernails, and a budding collection of music I’d never heard of: Queen, Weezer, Aerosmith, Nirvana. Her eyes were dark and sharp, like stones, and the short sleeves of her band t-shirts pinched her plump arms, which were always covered in mosquito bites she was scratching at. With her golden Cherokee skin and British cheekbones, she was a beauty in the making, but it was hard to see that then, when she was still hidden by her baby fat. I spent countless nights in Thea’s room in their little duplex on Girstle road, the grey carpet strewn with half-finished homework. I asked her once why she didn’t at least turn the work in like that.
“I couldn’t,” she had said, and shrugged.
We were, in this way, polar opposites—I thrived on school, channeled my energies into it, using it as an escape from a chaotic and fractured home, something to make the world feel controlled and safe. She was barely making it through. But we were the same in the way it seemed to matter most—we were misfits. In one of the richest counties in the state, our families were the rare cases that faced eviction, food stamps, and the unemployment line.
And we both wanted out. On a worn map of the world in Thea’s room, we’d draw imaginary routes from one country to the next, the trip we would take when we were grown up and free from a world that we hadn’t chosen. I think we both felt like we lived on the edges of things, and for her, that feeling must have in part been born of physical displacement. Year by year, she was bounced back and forth between her mother and father, and I think she wondered whether either of them wanted her.
That morning before the flea market I had woken on Thea’s futon, and discovered she was no longer next to me. I went out into the living room and looked around. And then I’d heard a rustling from behind their red couch.
“Why were you sleeping behind the couch this morning?” I asked her now as we wriggled out of her sleeping bag and closed the book.
“Because it’s safe there,” she said in a matter of fact way. I had found her curled up like a small child, her long, dark hair in a tangle on her face. Her black sweat pants were bunched up around her knees, the nails on her chubby toes painted a hot pink.
“How?” I asked.
“If someone breaks in, they won’t be able to find me back there,” she said. I laughed. But I knew what she meant. At night, I’d wake and check the locks on all the doors and windows in our house, needing to quiet the deep, irrational fear in me that maybe, somehow, the locks had suddenly come undone. Years later, I know that we were guarding against the outside—the only realm we felt we could control—when the danger, or the lack of security, was on the inside. But I didn’t understand that then. I did understand, though, that things were starting to slip at Thea’s house, where I was spending an increasing amount of time, avoiding the constant fight between my parents at home. It was common for Britta to go out at night and return well after midnight. But now, whole nights would pass and we’d wake to an empty house, the sun streaming through the curtainless living room window.
Thea took the sleeping bag, threw it over her shoulder, and then slid off the hood. I turned towards the windshield and saw Britta flick her cigarette off the hillside.
“Come on, girls,” she yelled, then pressed hard against the horn.
Once we finished helping Britta set up shop – putting out a plastic table, covering it with shimmering purple fabric, arranging the angels in orderly rows—Britta let us run free, giving us a couple bucks to buy greasy Chinese food and wander the stalls for the afternoon.
My memories of the flea market itself are dim, though, truncated by my child-vision—I recall dust-covered boots, the undersides of tables where stray cats hid, the lower stratosphere of the world that children inhabit. I could intuit even then that coming to the flea market was in part a sociological quest—I was gathering experiences, the way I continued to gather experiences later in life like cheap souvenirs. But when I sit down to write about those afternoons out under the relentless sun, they all run together in a blur.
Instead, I remember the quiet, the before. I recall those mornings on the edge of sunrise with almost painful clarity—it was the first time it felt like some part of the world belonged to me, subsumed yet significant, a feeling not unlike falling in love.
Is it possible that the moments in which we’re really made are in the quiet, that the experiences we gather for the purpose of telling aren’t the ones, in the end, that are even worth recounting? I try to summon those days at the flea market, but my mind keeps returning to that car, one of the spools around which the thread of my life continually gathers.
As time moved forward, Britta started taking us out with her to smoke-filled parties on the sketchy edges of Oakland. By 11, we were hanging in some precarious balance between the world of children and the world of adults. One night—the last night I ever went out with Thea and her mother, the night my parents finally woke up to my whereabouts—Britta took us to a rave in some shadowy corner of San Francisco. We lost her minutes after we arrived, and wandered the dank hallways, crowds of people pawing and petting us, their pupils huge, their look inhuman and wild. It felt as though we had stumbled into a house of mirrors, our image of the world disturbed and distorted, cast under a harsh and ugly light.
At 2 AM, we were nauseous with fatigue and anxiety, and Britta was nowhere to be found. We located a cab – how, I have no idea; I’ve blocked that one out – and took it to her grandfather’s apartment, a creepy little place that smelled like old vegetable soup. My father forbade me from going to her house ever again, and not long after that, Thea’s mom moved away and gave her back to her dad in LA. As I got older and drifted—moving from one apartment, one job, one city to the next—I heard that Thea was drifting too, driving up the west coast, hitching country rides in the back of trucks, both of us still trapped in a world we hadn’t chosen.