Towered cities please us then,/ And the busy hum of men. — John Milton
The flags marked the transition from one kingdom to the next. I knew the meaning of all the colors and symbols in my own realm of Hillcrest: rainbows for gay pride, a red heart imposed over black and blue stripes for leather lovers, a big paw signifying the “bears” community. But these banners in San Marcos were foreign to me.
“What is a white lamb on a purple background supposed to mean?”
“Spring?” David guessed.
“Yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “What about that one?” David briefly studied the hieroglyphic shapes on a yellow flag and shrugged. “They seem mostly decorative here,” I said. “I mean, I can’t think of any statement you’d be trying to make with that one.”
I continued up a road lined with verdant, well-manicured front yards with kaleidoscopes of flowers. “Now, there’s a flag I recognize,” I said as I parked my Mini behind my sister’s minivan. An American flag billowed over her door.
I stood on the corner and scanned the street while David grabbed our stuff from the trunk. As it does whenever I’m in the ’burbs, everything seemed surreal. There are never any people outside, and it’s all clean and bright; it’s like being on an empty movie set. Disconcertingly normal.
About a mile away from the ten-block grid that is downtown San Diego, my home is technically suburban, though three supermarkets and countless stores and restaurants are within walking distance. More pseudo-suburb. I chose to live here so that I could reap the benefits typically reserved for city dwellers (continual human interaction and culture) and the perks of the ’burbs (relative quiet, marginally cheaper real estate), while avoiding the drawbacks of both (too much, and too little, respectively).
My father, who grew up in Brooklyn and raised a family throughout many different suburbs, now lives a few miles away from me in Mission Hills. I recently asked him why a city guy like him would choose to settle outside the fray. “I need to be within very, very close proximity to the city — close, but not in it,” Dad said. “When an opera’s over, I can go out that side door of the Civic Theatre, put my jacket in my saddlebag, get on my bike, and seven minutes after the curtain call, I’m in my house.” When I asked him why he didn’t want to be “in” it, Dad said, “I’m from New York, so I know the intensity of that, and it’s just too much. There’s a lot of stuff going on all the time, and you can’t get away from it. I like to hit it when I want. If you’re in it, you can’t get out of it. If you’re stuck downtown and there’s a ball game, you’re fucked.”
Dad arrived as David and I were walking up Heather’s driveway. We were greeted by my nieces and nephews, who’d rushed to see who was at the door. There was no specific reason for the gathering…there never has to be. Dad is often returning from abroad, and Heather enjoys hosting — plus, her backyard contains a miniature playground on which Jane’s two girls and Heather’s two boys can vent their kiddie energy while the rest of us enjoy Sean’s mad barbecuing skillz. It was a typical Saturday afternoon in suburbia — kids running around in the backyard while adults watch from the shade of an umbrella, sipping something adult-y, and then someone fires up the grill.
If the American Dream were laid out on a big circular board, the large shaded areas would be: grow up, get married, buy a house, have a kid, raise a kid (who grows up, gets married, buys a house, and has a kid), and retire. A narrow sliver just between “grow up” and “get married” would represent the “exploration” phase of the wheel. This could also be known as the “city” phase, when young adults move to a high-density area for their internship in the business of life.
Between high school and husbands, Heather and Jane shared an apartment in Hillcrest, one block away from where I now live. Bored with the slow pace of the suburbs (as any sensible young adult would be), they journeyed 20 miles from home to where things happen. After a few years of dancing and dating, they each became engaged. Then, like salmon returning to the freshwater streams of their birth, my sisters left the open ocean and moved back to the pools of suburbia, where it’s considered safest to spawn.
I’m not so black a sheep as I think. Sure, I’m the only member of my family to have tattoos (how my dad got through the Navy without getting one, I’ll never know). I’m the only one who smoked cigarettes. The only one to dye my hair a “crazy” color. Not the only one to experiment with drugs, but certainly the only one to become proficient with so many different kinds. But, like my sisters, I left the nest and moved to a heavily populated area (Hollywood). My sisters had boyfriends before they found “the one,” and though my path didn’t much resemble theirs (mine was lined with strippers, sybaritic parties, and one-night stands), I too eventually chose a lifetime companion with whom to settle down. I too bought a home with that person and ended up marrying him (albeit in an unconventional way).
The divergence between our mostly parallel paths was my decision not to have children. I may live in a different world than the rest of my family, but our planets frequently align. I am child-free in my pseudo-suburban lair, but I enjoy my role as eccentric aunt, a position with plenty of room for improvisation and barely any supervision.
When they speak of the politics of “play parties,” my sisters may as well be speaking Farsi. On the flip side, I imagine they have trouble putting themselves in my shoes when I recount an evening judging a drag show and after-partying with the winner and eight of “her” closest friends over the course of three gay bars and one liquor-stocked, laser-lit, Madonna-blasting stretch limo.
I surveyed the picture-perfect scene before me: boys with bright blue eyes playing baseball barefoot on the soft grass; the sun glinting off the girls’ curly blond locks as they hung from the swing set. I conjured images of recent scenes from my life, of dimly lit cocktail parties and glitzy galas. As the pictures played against one another in my mind, I realized my sisters and I are not as different as we may appear. Sure, our play parties have different themes, but when it comes to our clan, we are all united under the same flag.