Fiction / Cecca Austin Ochoa
:: Transient ::
Celeste Cienfuegos and her so-called permanent social worker Maureen drove toward the temporary foster home, Fog Orchard, where Celeste would spend the summer. They sped across the San Rafael bridge, the last stretch sloping downwards as though heading into the water, as though the slightest rise in sea level would send the bay pouring across the lanes.
Maureen, Department of Social Services, Family Resources Division, smiled optimistically. “I know it’s far,” she said, “but you’ll be around people who get you. You might even enjoy yourself. What do ya think?” Maureen wore a pendant, a small pearl trapped in a silver tear that twirled between her big breasts.
Celeste shrugged and fiddled with the framing nail in her left ear beneath a cloud of curly brown hair. The nail had been a parting gift from Lizzie. “Stay tough,” she’d said, as she pushed it through Celeste’s burning lobe. Lizzie was the tough one, with her shaved head and her tattooed hands, tear ducts in a more permanent drought than California.
Maureen continued, “Whether or not you move back in with your Grandma after this, I want you to finish high school next year. What do you want?”
Celeste stared out the window with a dewy look. “World peace?”
“Shit!” Maureen slammed on the brakes as a car swerved into their lane. Celeste pressed her cheek to the window. What did she want? To be a shimmering mirage disappearing as soon as anyone got too close. If that girl hadn’t got so close, Celeste would still be at home. But, her not-yet-in-bloom, sapling figure caught the sparks of that girl—known to Celeste as a homosexual, lesbian, dyke, carpet muncher, etc. She and the girl snuck off in the late afternoon light and laid down behind the housing complex, Hope Gardens, and rubbed their bodies together like two snakes in the wet grass. A month later, when she felt herself in the fiery whirl she’d later call love, her Grandma found them twisted around each other like the knot of a noose. Perverts, she said, and smacked Celeste so hard, the flame snuffed out.
Celeste’s Grandma, who’d kept a long list of her granddaughter’s shortcomings, never expected much, but she had not expected a queer. She shuffled around the house in her day gown—like a night gown, but khaki, and with pockets full of menthol lozenges, keys, and kleenex—muttering, Bad Blood. She’d always known it, Bad Blood, that Celeste: seedling of her perfectly white daughter and a spic who abandoned their bastard child to an old lady, Too old, she told Celeste—her chin forward and her back hunched like a mound of pulp—but, not afraid to die alone.
Fog Orchard sat an acre back from the road, shielded by spidery redwood trees. Maureen pulled up beside a tractor and handed Celeste a smoke detector and a battery.
“Protocol,” she said.
Celeste slumped down in the seat, her heart suddenly pounding. She thought she’d, maybe, vomit.
“Don’t be shy,” Maureen wagged a finger, “I have to get back before traffic.” She swung the car door open, and Celeste stepped out onto the cracked dirt. A man with a pointed head and a wide waist waved from the porch. His name was Wallace Crow, semi-retired from the restaurant business, a baritone, cheeks pink with acne scars.
Maureen left after a quick tour of the house. The place smelled musty like the inside of a dried-up spice jar, with other funny smells lurking around the curtains and rugs. The room that Celeste would sleep in was up a wide staircase. It had a bed and a chest of drawers. In the top drawer she found three smoke detectors; sitting on the pilly bed cover, she plugged the battery into hers. A green light blinked on.
Celeste’s Grandma changed the locks on the doors. At least I’m free, Celeste thought as she braced against a bench for four windy nights in the park down the street from her high school. The first two nights she slept alone, but on the third she felt eyes on her, and after that she didn’t sleep at all. Since she was across the street, since she had nowhere else to go, she went to her classes until a teacher told her, You smell like A‑S-S. She left and never went back; the police picked her up for loitering, then came social services.
The first social worker dropped her at St. Bethany’s Home For Girls, a four story stucco compound that smelled like baby shit and cucumber hand lotion. “But I’m not really that kinda girl,” Celeste said, without raising her eyes. The social worker asked her if she’d prefer correctional. Celeste shook her head and crawled into the bunk, temporarily hers. The plastic mattress cover rumpled beneath her; the babies squealed all day, all night; and another new girl, Lizzie, crawled up beside her after the lights were out and whispered, Hey, chaparrita, into her neck. She didn’t know what it meant, but it felt like a warm purr. At least, she thought, staring at the glow of the smoke detector, she might get some sleep at Fog Orchard. Even if it were only temporary.
Crow knocked on the door a few hours later. The yellow hallway light reflected on his thick-framed glasses, and she couldn’t see his eyes. The other resident, Luca, stood behind him.
“We’re going to check out the gardens. Feel like getting your hands dirty?”
“Is it required?” Celeste asked.
“Might as well,” Crow said. “It’s nice outside.”
Celeste stepped into the hallway and pulled the door closed behind her. It must have been five p.m., but the sky was as baby blue as morning. Luca had fawn brown hair that hung over his shoulders; he twisted it back and forth between his fingers.
“When’s your birthday?” he asked, slow and quiet like he was afraid of his own voice.
“Oh. I’m a fire sign, too.”
Celeste scanned herself for some sign of fire, but felt only the haze of smoke. Crow took them through the rows of garden beds behind the house. Most of the crops had just been planted; they stood neatly in their soil mound: speckled corn, heirloom tomatoes, squash, deckle-edged mustard greens.
“What’s that?” Celeste asked, pointing to a row of green vines and happy leaves tied up to a stake.
“Legumes,” Crow said. “The roots put nitrogen into the soil. Which helps the other plants to grow.” He told her about how they managed with the drought, the grey water irrigation. “We’re lucky for the fog here. Some of these plants suck the water right out of the air.”
She nodded her head and looked up to see the towering redwood trees bounce their long arms in the breeze.
Luca had been living with Crow for three years; he’d just turned eighteen. “A lot of kids come and go,” he said. “Not me.” He wore all black and stitched the holes in his clothes with dental floss. He left home after his father broke his arm and threatened to kill him if he ever came back. One year he lived on the street, knew Anarchists, ate out of dumpsters. “Most of that trash is perfectly good,” he said. But he got an infection, wound up at SF General, and that’s when social services got involved.
Celeste followed Luca around most days, shoveling manure onto the beds, pulling weeds, watching the spindly tomatoes thicken and unfurl toward the sun. She stuck her fingers deep into the dirt and planted hexes: one for the teacher, one for the court judge, one for the eyes in the night. She pet the comfrey leaves, lambs’ ears, like the back of Grandma’s hand, sickeningly soft. Fog Orchard was not the outdoors she knew; not the strips of grass where the unemployed and the old folks sat waiting for nothing on park benches all day; not the abandoned lot, overgrown with weeds and piled with broken living room furniture. A wilder nature. Luca collected leaves and hung them on his wall: oak, redwood needles, magnolia, aspen, poppy, the long tails of garlic. They changed from supple into a hardened shell, then brittle, then crumble.
During the day while Crow and Luca were out in the gardens, Celeste would sometimes wander indoors and through the rooms of the house. There was a thrill to being alone in so much space, like she owned it. All of it. She’d touch the leaves on Luca’s wall, rub them between her fingers until they turned to dust. She’d rest her chin on the dresser where Crow kept photos of his deceased husband, lick her lips at him. She opened Crow’s drawers. Beneath a pile of socks, she found a disturbing image. At first, she thought the man in the picture was dead. He had a black plastic bag duct-taped over his head, and his arms were chained to wooden beams, almost like Jesus. It wasn’t until she saw the man’s erection that she realized what she was looking at. She felt empathy flutter in her chest. Pervert, she thought, and hurried out of the room.
Lizzie had been a child prostitute, so-called street-involved, and the closest thing Celeste had to a friend. They’d spent many an afternoon at St. Bethany’s locked in the double stall bathroom, huffing the cleaning products stored under the sink. Time would slow and wobble like jello, a chemical undulation. The fluorescent light above them fractured into beams of primary color, and they’d look at each other and laugh like they were slap happy at a slumber party.
Celeste rang Lizzie every week from Fog Orchard, or “Foster Farm,” as Lizzie called it. “I wish you’d come back to earth,” Lizzy said. Celeste heard babies shrieking in the background. “This girl keeps trying to fight me, saying she’s on a mission from God to kill faggots. I told her, ‘you wish God had given you bigger arms, then.’ I could snap her with my fingers.”
From where the phone was in the hall between the kitchen and the living room, Celeste could see out the window to the redwood forest. The sun and shadows twisted around the giant trunks. “I kinda like it here.”
“I wish they’d teach us something useful, though. Like what, you’re gunna grow up to be a farm boy?”
Richmond was a world away. Sometimes Celeste couldn’t tell which world was the real one. Just like she couldn’t understand a thing about herself, like why she found her eyes lingering on Luca’s back as he worked under the cold sun in a tight tank top, his strange spine exaggerated like chain links, even though the rest of him was soft. His arm muscles were round as puppy bodies. And if she found him looking at her, well, her stomach leapt like she’d been thrown in the air.
Crow had a meeting in San Francisco—his friend was opening a restaurant—so he invited Luca and Celeste along for the ride. Luca called Jesse; he braided his hair, tucked a sprig of lavender behind his ear.
“Pretty,” Celeste said, and climbed into the bucket seat. Jesse was a trans kid who had stayed at the farm for a year, until his sister in Berkeley adopted him. “A whole year? How’d he manage that?” Celeste wanted to know. When Luca and Crow said he, the pronoun became a rock in a stream; they paused before gliding over it. What was he up to these days? Oh, he studies herbal medicine. Will he come up to the farm? Yes, he will.
Crow parked the truck on the corner of Castro and 16th. Celeste crawled into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. The street was loud, and everybody walked like they were somebody. Across the street bare chested men smoked cigarettes on a bar patio, all muscle and scruff. One of the guys pulled another in for a tender kiss.
“Are you serious?” Celeste checked the rear-view mirror for the person who’d scream, Perverts! No one seemed to be watching but her. “Where do all these Ken dolls come from?”
Luca sat quietly, eyes in his lap.
“Do you think they’re hot?” Celeste asked. “Tell me who’s hot.”
“There’s Jesse.” Luca nodded and got out of the truck. Jesse had elfish cheeks, a round belly, and a golden fro. He wore big metal rings on his thin fingers and a long gauzy shift. He walked like he was somebody, too. Maybe he was.
Luca grabbed him with both arms. “You look really great,” he said. Celeste leaned against the building Crow had gone into. Jesse and Luca sat on the cement steps in front of the restaurant door, both with their legs spread open, elbows on knees.
Jesse smiled, his voice tinny, like he was holding his nose. “Like my beard?”
Celeste stroked her chin and imagined feeling coarse hair beneath her fingers.
“Off my steps.” The door opened and a small bald man stepped between Jesse and Luca.
“They’re with me,” Crow said, following behind him and rolling his eyes. He patted Jesse on the shoulder paternally.
“Oh!” The man’s voice turned suddenly cheerful. “I forgot you run that orphanage.” He swooped an arm at the facade, detailing his plans, “Toujours Gai, scrawling cursive.”
“All gays are not created equal,” Jesse said.
“Why don’t you darlings wait in the truck,” Crow said with a wink. They jumped into the truck bed, waved their arms to music that climbed out of an open apartment window. Crow, Jesse told Celeste, was from the bourgeois-zee, bless him. His husband died in the epidemic, and ever since he’d fostered queer youth. “He’s practically a saint, but he gets sick of us. He only keeps Luca around because he’s so damn good-looking.” Jesse and Luca giggled, and Celeste stared out at the street. She watched the men stroll by in their rolled up shorts and plaid shirts, their leather handbags and impenetrable sunglasses. Who were they?
The next morning at Fog Orchard, Jesse sat at the kitchen table with a book, The Secret Life of Plants, and stared meditatively into the pages. “Do you know what a ‘perfect flower’ is?” he asked Celeste, who was fixing herself breakfast. “It’s a flower with both male and female parts. If you were a flower, I think you’d be a thistle.”
Luca strolled into the kitchen and laughed, a warm sound, an octave too high. “I like thistle.” He ran his fingers through his mane of hair, pulling at the long strands, letting them tumble across his chest. Celeste examined the two bodies before her. She hadn’t suspected that Luca liked Jesse in that sort of way, but she could see now the over-wide smile on Jesse’s face and Luca’s erect nipples like burgundy button snaps.
“Is testosterone safe?” Celeste interrupted.
“Is living in a body that isn’t you safe?” Jesse replied.
Celeste looked down at her baggy jeans, mud splattered combat boots; she walked outside, let the screen door slam behind her. She wondered what she would look like as a boy; just the thought of testosterone made her walk a little different, as though the hormone were already flexing in her blood. In the weeks that she’d been there, the garden had transformed into bloom. The plump brassicas and tomatoes, the smell of green and tang and warm dirt. She walked through the rows, nodded to each of the plants. Do you hear me? Celeste asked, and the wind rushed by and the plants whispered. Celeste crawled between the corn with their rippling stalks standing tall as warriors. She lay in the dirt and looked up, the leaves arched above her like a vaulted ceiling. She felt the boy more clearly than she’d felt him before, softly rattling along her bones. “Faggot,” she whispered aloud; the word sent a trickle of pleasure down her throat.
Jesse left the next day. Celeste watched, slippery with jealous curiosity, as he and Luca came back from the forest, sticks on their clothes, redwood needles in their hair. Fuck you, Luca, she thought, but she wasn’t really mad. At sunset she climbed up a hill and watched the sky change. She imagined love as a gateway of fiery light that she’d walk through and arrive on the other side transformed: loved, a lover. So far, she’d passed through, but never arrived.
Maureen came in late July. Celeste had been looking forward to her visit, someone coming to see her and her alone, someone who knew she was somebody. “You look relaxed,” Maureen said. “Must be all the vegetables.” She sat on a towel on the couch on the porch. She pulled out her notebook and read a court notice aloud. Something about “dissolving guardianship,” or whatever. Celeste felt her gut clench and dread swarm her chest. “Crow is going to take you to court next week. I’ll be there too. It’s likely that you’ll be placed back at St. Bethany’s until you turn eighteen. It’s only a year.” She waved her hand as though a year were nothing at all. “Then you’ll phase out of the foster system.”
Celeste saw the golden spider threads that bound her to her Grandma disappear in a puff, saw the yellowed hallway of the court building, a business card tucked into a door jamb, Have You Been the Victim of A Crime? Celeste realized she was holding her breath. The image of the man in Crow’s photograph came to mind. Did he like suffocation? She took a deep breath, but didn’t feel relief. Out in the yard the grass waved, the plants swayed, lifted by the air. The concrete yard behind St. Bethany’s was surrounded by a tall fence and video cameras—installed after one of the girl’s boyfriends, high on PCP, broke in and tried to steal “his” baby. It had a lemon tree.
“That’s something to look forward to,” Celeste said.
Later she called Lizzie to tell her the news. A girl answered, “Lizzie? She’s gone.”
“Where?” Celeste asked. It had only been a week since they’d last spoken.
“Correctional,” the girl said, then hung up the phone.
On the night before court, rain clouds appeared in the sky. “It’s a miracle!” Crow shouted as slivers of rain began to fall. Celeste helped Crow roll out all the blue plastic collection barrels. The plants hunkered in the mud, their ghostly roots drawing a long drink so that tomorrow the leaves might stretch a little wider, grow the flowers into fruit. She wouldn’t be there to see if the rain made the plants happy, but it didn’t matter because she loved the plants. A plant lover. When all the barrels were out, they sloshed through the muddy yard into the house; Crow plodded behind her.
“Think the drought’s over?” Celeste asked, pulling off her soggy sneakers.
“I doubt it,” Crow said, standing in an expanding puddle.
“I wanted to ask if I could stay a little longer.” Celeste stared at the clumps of mud along Crow’s shoes, a tiny mountain range, a lake, a valley. “But I know you’d say I can’t.”
Crow sighed, “The foster system, it’s like musical chairs. And now, I’m going to start selling produce to this restaurant, so I’ll be busy.” He smiled. “It was only meant to be temporary.”
With her mind, she pulled his smile off his face and drowned it in the mud. “This place is for perverts anyway,” she said, and she walked up the stairs to her room. A spark of rage shot up her spine.
“I’ll make us breakfast in the morning before we go,” he called after her. “Pervert’s special.”
Celeste couldn’t sleep. The rain pattered on the roof, slid down the windows, and it felt like every drop plunked against her head; the bed made her itch—was it damp? —and the green glow of the smoke detector seemed to fill every dark crevice in the whole room. Celeste slipped down the hall toward Luca, knocked lightly on his door; the floor creaked and the handle whined open. He stood with his chest out, hair tied back in a pony tail, his face whiskery but fey.
“Hey, thistle,” he said.
“Can I sleep in here tonight?”
He paused and looked down the hall, as though someone might be watching. “Okay,” he said and opened the door. He flipped off the light and the room sank into total darkness. They talked for a while about little things. The squash flowers, the greens that were already bolting too early in the season. Then Luca rolled away from her and whispered goodnight.
She told herself, Don’t get too close. She lay on her right side at the edge of the mattress so that her left hand hung over. She took in the peppery smell of his sheets, waited for his breath to slow. When it did, she scooted towards him, just half an inch at a time, until her back was against his. She felt the hardness of his spine, the curve of his buttocks against her own. A heat drifted across her, a dangerous heat; kerosene dripped down her legs; she couldn’t help her hands from reaching for her own body; the friction ignited flame and the whole bed caught fire. For hours she lay paralyzed by the burn. But, when she woke up the bed was cold and empty.
From the writer
:: Account ::
My sweetie just celebrated ten years since he transitioned. On that anniversary, we talked about how eight of those ten years were under Obama. We can look back on those eight years and see the incredible growth of trans and queer visibility blossoming on the surface of mainstream culture. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with gay parents, or have friends who did, non-hetero, non-cis kids who are out and open about their gender and sexuality in grade school. Of course, we’re all worried about how the current administration will try to sabotage the gains that we have made on this and a number of other social fronts. I was thinking about this foreboding a lot as I worked through the final drafts of “Transient.” To be young and queer is precarious: it was ten years ago, it is now, it looks like it will be for years to come. I fear that the precious few resources that exist now to support queer and trans youth may suffer a blow we can’t afford. 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, despite only 7% of youth identifying as such. The top two killers of teenagers, after unintentional injury, are suicide followed by homicide. Queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth. These statistics hold a mirror up to how little has actually changed, despite how much has.
The first draft of “Transient,” I wrote in grad school as a reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In that story, two boy-crazy high school girls go to the circus in a rural town and see something so disturbing they are morally afflicted—and, these are two girls who find morals “silly.” From what’s revealed, the reader can assume an intersexed person is working one of the circus tents. I won’t bother to gander here at what O’Connor’s intentions were, something about the “mysteries of the eucharist.” But, what I picked up loud and clear from that story is the fear and moral revulsion the characters feel when they encounter a gender non-conforming body. There are many more relevant examples, but this one’s on my mind: I recently re-watched Mrs. Doubtfire, for no good reason. When the little girl catches Mrs. Doubtfire peeing standing up (reading her beloved nanny as transgender, not her dad in drag), she says, “I’m gonna call the cops!” These stories are told almost forty years apart, but the heteronormative gaze criminalizes, pathologizes, and mocks gender non-conforming bodies just the same.
In that first draft, I wanted to write the inverse of that gaze. I started building what would become Fog Orchard, a place for queer youth in a rural setting, youth who have to burn through the haze of homophobia, transphobia, and bear witness to the perversion of the heteronormative gaze. By the time I picked this story up again, I had no interest in writing a reaction to O’Connor. The most interesting part of my first draft, to me, was that a farm where queer and trans youth lived implicitly meant that these kids had broken from their origin families. And thus I arrive back at the idea of queer youth homelessness and the potential for sanctuary. The late queer theorist, José Esteban Muñoz, wrote extensively about the ephemeral nature of queer utopia in Cruising Utopia. Since queers are outsiders to the constructions of the hetero world, the places we occupy are themselves transient. And, consider the way white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy intersect with queer; where one fag finds utopia, another finds oppression. I wanted to show Celeste’s momentary glimpses of utopia: high in the bathroom with Lizzie, lying on her back beneath the corn at Fog Orchard, sharing a bed with Luca. She is a resilient character, and these small moments of sanctuary will feed her. But the seed of this story is the seed of many real-life queer stories: rejection, disownment, disgust. That’s the lingering smoke in the air. I hope we can move through that, replant, and continue toward a more permanent sanctuary.
Cecca Austin Ochoa is a fiction writer and essayist. She serves as Managing Editor for Apogee Journal. Her writing has appeared in Nat. Brut, Kweli Journal, and elsewhere; and she is anthologized in Pariahs (SFA Press, 2016) and IMANIMAN: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Press, 2016). She is a 2014 Alumnus of Voices of Our Nation’s Artists and a recipient of the Astraea Foundation’s Lesbian Writer’s Award for Fiction.