When I was seven we took our first California vacation since Mother and I moved to Las Vegas. My father had won some money gambling, and he had all the time in the world after Bugsy died, so he proposed a vacation by the ocean in Del Mar, near San Diego. Mother bought me a new bathing suit, and a beach ball. We got up in the middle of the night to beat the heat. Cars weren’t air-conditioned in those days. Some people attached their swamp air-conditioner to a car window. Others covered the windows with cool rags. We bought a big plastic bag with ice chips to throw under the hood if the car over heated. Del Mar was a ten hour drive, even going ninety when there were no speed limits. We hoped to be well past the California border by the time the sun came up.

During the first part of the trip, I slept, head on Mother’s lap. It was pitch black out.  When I woke up the sun was shining. We were in California, near Baker. We had just passed the road to Tehachapi Women’s Prison, Mother told me. It worried me to think that women could be imprisoned just like men. I hoped that would never happen to me. The towns in this part of California were so small they listed their populations on signs at the side of the road. “Why in the hell would anybody live here?” My mother asked in Baker. We stopped to have a coke and use the bathroom at a restaurant on Main Street. In the Ladies Room, the stalls were divided into pay and free. It cost a nickel to use the fancy toilet that smelled of pine disinfectant. Mother persuaded me to crawl under the door and let her in after I peed. The exotic toilet seat hummed, and gave off a purple glow, and felt warm on my bottom. Definitely worth the price! I unlocked the door for Mother. As we passed through the doorway, I saw a woman, staring at us disapprovingly. My face heated up with shame. What if she told the boss of the restaurant? Would we end up in Tehachapi? My parents ordered us cokes at the old fashioned soda fountain with the antique cash register. I wanted to use the bathroom again, but I refused to crawl under the door and Mother said the free toilets were full of germs. We stopped for gas at a town whose name I can’t remember. “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.” I hated when my father referred to his car as a woman.

The next part of the trip was my favorite. I sang every song I knew, and some I barely knew, at the top of my voice. My parents smiled. I think they were grateful that they didn’t have to talk to each other. I especially liked cowboy songs, and anything by Judy Garland whom I wanted to be like when I grew up. When I tired of singing, I would nap on my mom’s lap. Her cotton full skirt was moist from perspiration, warm, soft, safe. I could tell she loved having my head there. It was the closest we ever got. She didn’t feel the need to nag me. I didn’t feel guilty because I couldn’t live up to her expectations. We just bounced along in the car.

Del Mar was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Miles and miles of white sandy beach. Dazzling flowers with ripe green leaves. A motel only steps away from the glistening blue ocean and the wide blue sky. Mother unpacked my beach ball and blew it up red and blue and yellow. I wanted to go right to the beach but she said we had to go somewhere first.

Del Mar has a famous racetrack. My father had worked there as a young man. People still knew him there. They called him by his nickname, “Cy.” He disappeared with one of them before the race. I watched the horses with my mother, but they were moving so fast they were just a blur. When we got back to the motel, my parents weren’t speaking to each other. My mother deflated the beach ball. When I asked why we were packing, my father told me to shut up.  Until we reached Baker, they didn’t say a word. Then, it started. She said he was lower than a worm. He called her a goddam bitch. I was afraid they would kill each other and I’d be all alone in the middle of the desert. The bickering was affecting his driving, causing the car to lurch and weave. I was afraid we would have an accident. It was dark by then, and hard to see with all the dust. He went left instead of right. We were on the road to Tehachapi Prison. My mother yelled, “Now we’re lost! You can’t do anything right, you stupid jerk.” The wheels shrieked as he turned the car around. “Goddamn you, shut your mouth.” I thought we would all die out there in the desert, and the women prisoners would find us and tear our bodies to shreds like animals.

After we got home, my parents didn’t speak to each other for a month. The beach ball ended up in the garbage.  

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