The ruca and I used to live in a studio on York Street. The ruca lived there first but I went with her to see the open house one Saturday afternoon. We weren’t living together yet, we were still “dating;” still getting used to trying pet-names with each other like ‘baby’ and ‘mi amor;’ still getting used to the awkward primitive questions like, “how do you like your steak cooked?” (Me: medium-rare, ruca: well done.)
York Street was lined with trees, an older, quieter part of the Mission where cats blinked out at you from windows and hopscotch covered sidewalks in rainbow-colored chalk. After the ruca scored the spot, we painted the kitchen a magnificent pink and green watermelon theme, and the bathroom a bright yellow marigold against a cobalt blue. The Frida Kahlo house, we called it. She was just settling in when my winds changed.
My younger sister had gotten sick with pneumonia. For weeks she’d struggled in ICU, weak as a baby bird with a 50/50 chance of surviving. I moved back to San Diego to nurse her back to health until slowly, gradually, she bloomed back to life. After six months I returned to the city and into the studio with the ruca, where I learned how to live with someone else other than family for the first time. I’d been living with my older sister in the city before that, who didn’t seem to mind that I left clothes trailed from one room to another like Hansel and Gretel’s path of pebbles. Cohabitation was challenging, especially since our bedroom/living room was supposed to fit all of our clothes in a closet the size of a pantry, and we both had enough tacones to open our own shoe shop. Then there was the getting to know each other phase all over again. We were in the honeymoon stage when I’d left, and for six months had talked on the phone every night about our separate lives. Now I was in bed next to her, hogging the bed-sheets. She asked me once, appalled: “Do you always sleep in till 11?” To which I answered, “When I work till one in the morning, yes…and I guess the days I don’t, too.”
Our landlords were “witches” who practiced some kind of magic and lived in the two units upstairs from us. They were nice enough but I knew not to touch the strange ornaments I found in the back yard, should I begin to grow an extra toe or something. And I suspected that the cryptic mosaic on the bathroom floor was not just some whacky art piece in bad taste. I made sure rent was always paid on time. The house was also cold—very cold. Shivering in the morning, I would bundle in ridiculous layers like I was hitting the ski slopes in Tahoe, then walk outside to a seventy-degree day. I wanted the house to be warm and flooded with smells of food, so I began to practice my cooking more than ever. The ruca turned me onto Los Tigres del Norte and I blasted the album incessantly while I cooked and “experimented” in the kitchen (although to this day, I don’t think I will ever attempt to make bell-pepper soup again, yuck).
There was a taco van a few blocks away that sold cheap and tasty tacos, dripping in chile. Sometimes I’d walk around the neighborhood, letting my mind write the way it does when I let it run free. At the time, I was still deciding if I should be a writer or go to nursing school. What kind of life was a struggling writer anyway? I listened closely to my thoughts on these walks. They said I was happy even though I didn’t fully feel settled. My life was on the cusp of so many transitions; all I wanted was for the waves to crash so I could finally feel some peace. I knew we wouldn’t stay at the York Street studio forever but being there made me realize that for the very first time, I wanted a place for us to call home, and I wanted it with the ruca.
The other day I was driving in the neighborhood with my cousin who was visiting from out of town. I took a detour, driving down good ol’ York Street for no apparent reason at all. For all the monumental transformations that took place inside the tiny studio, it just looked like any other ordinary house from the outside. The tree out front had grown, its branches shaggy and full, and the building had been painted in fresh bright coats. An entire world I once lived in rushed back to me: the cold Frida Kahlo House filled with warm smells of food, a struggling writer struggling with being a writer, too many shoes and snoring till noon. I pointed out the house to my cousin. “The ruca and I used to live there,” I said, the fact sounding as plain as saying the sky is blue.
My cousin joined my gaze. Her fingertips tapped on the window, as if trying to touch another era of time that had long past. “Oh,” she said, a curious smile on her lips. “How nice.”