Secret Stream

by Héctor Tobar, Recommended by ZYZZYVA

AN INTRODUCTION BY OSCAR VILLALON

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The appealing qualities of Héctor Tobar’s “Secret Stream,” which we published in ZYZZYVA No. 103, are undeniable, I think, upon just reading the story’s first few pages. A youngish man bicycling through Los Angeles (by the way, there’s a lot of bicycling going on in L.A.), a youngish woman scaling a country club’s chain-link fence, a chance encounter between them, and she, a “river geek,” sharing with him that she’s on a mission, mapping the snaking route of “an ancient stream… born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills.” They’re both loners, and the man allows himself to be carried along in this woman’s pursuit, trailing this tributary (an actual one, too; not made up) as it travels above and below ground, through greenery and under asphalt.

There’s the possibility for romance in such a setup, but what manifests instead is a quiet camaraderie, a sweet calm tinged with the sad knowledge that maybe this can’t last, what Jonathan Richman so aptly describes as “That Summer Feeling”: Well, when your friends are in town and they got time for you/When you and them are hanging around and they don’t ignore you/When you say what you will/And they still adore you/If that’s not appealing? It’s that summer feeling. It is the kind of story whose observations and details, to say nothing of the writer’s love for his characters and setting, make you want to stay in its world for as long as you can. (Yes, I’m saying that it makes you want to stay in Los Angeles for as long as you can.) Editor Laura Cogan and I are proud to have “Secret Stream” in ZYZZYVA’s pages. It is emblematic of the excellent work that has defined ZYZZYVA as it continues into its 30th year of publishing.

Oscar Villalon
Managing Editor, ZYZZYVA

 

Secret Stream

by Héctor Tobar, Recommended by ZYZZYVA

Nathan was pedaling along on Third Street at a robust twenty-five miles per hour when he spotted her, a feminine mirage in black that forced him to stop. Even before his brakes had finished squealing he began to laugh and shout. “Hey, what are you doing up there?” The woman was stuck to the top of a chain-link fence, trying to reach the sidewalk on a stretch of Third Street where Nathan never saw anyone on foot. It’s a cliché about Los Angeles that no one walks, but on that shortcut to the Westside it’s actually true. There are no pedestrians on Third Street and thus no crosswalks. The resulting fast and free flow of traffic feels like a memory of the city’s unencumbered past, and Nathan biked that stretch like a guy driving a Porsche: he was in a hurry, he cut people off, and he didn’t stop to take in the sights, except in this special case when a lithe woman in need appeared before him, attached to the top of a fence.

The barrier in question sealed off the street and the public from the undulating, artificial pastures of a private golf course. A broken strand of the fence had hooked into the woman’s jeans: like a steel finger, it seemed to be pulling her down as she tried to free herself.

“You’re fleeing the golf course,” Nathan said.

She was about thirty years old, with lips glossed burnt umber, and the flat soles of her ankle-high black boots were caked in mud. On the other side of the fence two men in shorts were standing on the seventh green with clubs in hand, studying the geometry of their putts and squinting up at the noon sky. A thin layer of high clouds had drifted over the city,
weakening the sun into a yellow stain, and all the shadows had been erased from the world below, confusing the golfers as they tried to read the dips in the grass beneath their shoes. They were therefore oblivious to the fence climber nearby.

“It’s actually a country club,” she said.

“And you’re not a member.”

“I’m trapped.”

In the moment it took Nathan to get off his bike so that he could help her, she freed herself and leapt off. Her hair rose in a cloud of raven strands, and fell with a splash as she bounded onto the sidewalk. With a few quick swipes of her hands, she brushed some blades of grass and dried mud splashes from her jeans.

“Well, that was embarrassing,” she said.

She took a small nylon bag from her back and removed a notebook and pencil from it, and Nathan suddenly ceased to exist for her as she sat on the sidewalk, her back against the fence. Nathan watched her begin to draw and wondered which of the city’s arty tribes she belonged to.

“Hi,” Nathan said, insisting, because she was dark-skinned and pretty and he felt the need to know why she was trespassing on a golf course. “Excuse me, but… What are you doing?”

“I’m following the water.”

As soon as she said “water” Nathan heard it and felt it: the sound of liquid flowing, dripping, moving through the air, causing oxygen molecules to shift and cool. Looking behind her, on the other side of the fence, he saw a stream. About three feet wide and four inches deep, it curved around some bunkers near the seventh green, and then fell sharply, broadcasting a steady, metallic sound as it disappeared into a concrete orifice beneath Nathan’s feet.

“Fucking country club,” Nathan said. “They shouldn’t be wasting water like that.” It was the middle of August, after all. In the middle of drought-parched L.A.

“No,” the woman said. She stopped drawing and looked at the water again. “It’s not theirs. So they can’t be wasting it.”

“Well, who does it belong to then?”

The woman paused for a second and answered with an amused smile.“The underworld, I guess.”

Sofia was her name and she described herself as a “river geek.” She said she was mapping the creek that ran through the golf course. And also its “tributaries.” It was an ancient stream, she told him, born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills, “bubbling up from the underworld.” She showed Nathan her map, a series of blue pencil lines over a street grid she had pasted into her notebook. “It’s groundwater,” she said. Before reaching the golf course, the stream flowed into downtrodden Hollywood proper, around assorted industrial buildings and parking lots, and also through a junior-high campus and the television studios of KTLA. Sofia described all these things with a reverence that Nathan found disturbing: he sensed that she’d been doing this mapping expedition of hers alone, for weeks, and had never talked to anyone else about it until this moment.

Nathan returned the map to Sofia. He saw that the water in the culvert moved quickly, and was crystalline, as if it were some sylvan stream. This can’t be, Nathan wanted to say. This supposedly natural body of water was trickling under his feet on Third Street, in a wealthy neighborhood called Hancock Park that was surrounded by low-slung, less-wealthy Korean, Filipino, and Salvadoran neighborhoods that were themselves near the geographic center of approximately five hundred square miles of asphalt and concrete.

“The flow never stops. Not even in the summer,” Sofia said. “This creek was here before the country club. Before everything around you.”

Sofia spoke these words and turned quiet, as if to allow the sound of the stream to make the truth of its presence clear to him. She was shy and a loner, like him, he thought. Nathan considered himself a loner, though none of his friends did, especially his women friends, all of whom were fervent cyclists: they thought he was charismatic and often very funny (when he was riding a bike), though clueless when it came to women. Clueless Nathan now concluded that Sofia’s lonesomeness was deeper and more interesting than his own, more attuned to the mysterious and the sublime. She wore a silver scarab clip in her hair, a jeweled stud in her nose, and looking at her made Nathan feel unkempt and underdressed, which is a ridiculous thing for a man on a bicycle to feel.

Nathan told her he was mapping something, too. He was scouting routes for a club of his that met at night and cycled to the most obscure L.A. landmarks they could think of. If she was a river geek, he was a bicycle geek, a map geek, a history geek.

“Our last one was ‘The Tour de Smells.’ We went to a meat-packing plant in Vernon, a garbage dump in the Valley. Our group is called ‘The Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time.’ We meet every two weeks.” Sofia wrinkled her brow in confusion as he explained this, as if he were describing some exotic cult. He removed a piece of paper from the bag on his back and gave it to her: it was a hand-drawn map of the route he was currently working on, marked with labels such as “Abandoned Synagogue” and “SDS Hangout.”

“You have beautiful penmanship,” she said.

“Maybe I can help you,” Nathan said. He was a teacher, and classes were out for summer. His days were free and he could follow the stream with her and take notes, he said. Awkwardly, he asked for her number.

“I don’t have a phone,” she said, and Nathan knew instantly that this was true, because she paused and her dark eyes shifted nervously when she was forced to reveal this private thing about herself.

“Let’s meet again at this same place, tomorrow,” he said. “At this same time.”

“OK, but without your bike,” she said. “Because we need to go places a bike can’t reach.”

When they met at the culvert the next day, Sofia was dressed in black again. Her fingernails were also painted black. She led him south, down a gently curving street of assertive mansions, her black boots gliding over the sidewalk with steps that felt like flowing water to Nathan. Sofia was carrying a new map covered with topographical lines and she studied it as they turned west and passed a buffet of overdone tributes to assorted architectural styles: a mini Monticello here, a bloated Tudor cottage there. “This street follows the old stream bed,” Sofia said. “The city buried it like a hundred years ago. But the water’s still flowing down there. In a big drain pipe.”

A block later they reached another fence, and stood above another culvert from which the stream emerged, moving slower, wider and shallower, flowing into a tangle of branches and bushes.

Without a word Sofia climbed the fence and landed with a splash in about an inch of water. “Technically, I’m pretty sure this is trespassing,” Nathan said as he followed her. Sofia marched along the water, pulling back branches for him. Where is this woman taking me? he wondered, and after a few paces he got his answer, as they entered an open space where the suddenly dry air seemed to vibrate under a liberated, ferocious sun. The space was a kind of meadow, framed by two mansions, each so abundant with backyard paraphernalia Nathan felt as if he’d entered the prop closet of a studio dedicated to making movies about suburban American excess. He saw competing steel barbecue machines with gauges and propane-tank attachments; one stood before a tiled-roofed Spanish-style mansion, the other at the base of a turret-topped Moorish castle, as if ready to prepare steaks and burgers for a medieval army. Next to the Spanish mansion a pathway of flat stones led to a child’s climbing structure made of fiery redwood. The Moorish castle’s domain included a marble dining table and a tennis court of emerald cement.

Sofia’s stream snaked through this gaudy landscape, making two gentle turns inside a channel sunken in crabgrass. “I just want to look at it for a while, if you don’t mind,” Sofia said, and she sat down on the grass with her sleeved arms wrapped around her knees. The water flowed in a smooth, flat current, like a bonsai-shrunken version of the Mississippi.

Nathan looked up at the windows of the multistoried mansions around them and wondered if the people inside would call the cops.

“Really, you just want to sit here?” Nathan said.

Sofia nodded with a gentle, wordless insistence. He joined her for a second, sitting on the grass. The water was silent here, and the houses were silent, too, though the birds in the trees around them were engaged in a jazz improv of tweets and hoots and cackles.

After five minutes Nathan mumbled, “I’m going to keep on exploring. I’ll meet you, uh, downstream, I guess.”

Sofia didn’t look up to acknowledge Nathan as he walked away. He was disturbed by the aching weirdness of what he was doing, trespassing amid fake backyard ecologies, the creek leading him on a midday sleepwalk past olive trees, a rose bush, assorted cacti, grapevines, and four cypress trees that loomed over him like monstrous green sentinels. He stepped over a low wooden fence and heard high-pitched yelling. Peering through a patch of ferns, he saw a swimming pool and two boys in bathing suits. One of the boys stopped at the edge of a diving board and stared at Nathan when he stepped out into the full sunlight. Nathan waved. The boy waved back and jumped into the pool with a percussive splash.

Nathan followed the stream into more backyards until he reached another culvert and climbed over it to the safety of a public street. As he waited for Sofia to appear, he looked back at the stream, admiring the way it trickled and whistled in the wind. The city tried to tame the water, but it still followed some pre-historic course through the subdivided and built-up land. The stream had a lifespan measured in geological time, and, looking at it, Nathan felt at one with the centuries, the millennia, and the epochs. Maybe that was why Sofia followed it, why she was back there in someone’s yard staring at it. When she looked into the stream, she was looking at timelessness.

Nathan waited forty minutes until Sofia finally appeared, her feet splashing in the water. She caught his eyes and raised the corner of her lips in what might have been a smirk. Or maybe just a smile. He reached out to help her climb up to the street, and she allowed him to keep his hand clasped to hers a moment longer than necessary.

“Thank you for waiting for me,” she said.

On the bus ride back home that afternoon Nathan thought about how smart and beautiful Sofia was, and how their private obsessions with public spaces matched, and he wondered if he’d finally found the ideal loner with whom to share his solitude. He wondered what he might say or do the next time they met, now that he’d clasped her hand.

When they met the following day, Sofia led him toward the southwest. “I’m glad you came back,” she said. “I thought I’d scared you off yesterday.” She gave him a playful look that caused a warm electricity to pass through his spine.

“Yeah, trespassing isn’t usually my thing,” he said. “But following a secret stream is pretty wild, pretty audacious, I must say.”

Sofia led him away from Hancock Park and the houses began to shrink, and the streets widened and filled with more cars that were driving faster, and the people inside these vehicles had darker skin tones that more closely matched hers.

“I think I know where this stream hits daylight again,” she said.

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”

As they walked past a sixth, seventh, and eighth block, Sofia told him about the river and its history. She’d spent many hours in the Central Library, she said, immersed in the accounts of California amateur geologists and naturalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, looking for references to streams and groundwater. In Sofia’s universe, natural history was never erased, and water could still flow underneath the six lanes of Olympic Boulevard, and listening to her Nathan felt ashamed of the modern-day thoroughfare and the way he’d enjoyed its straightness, speeding toward the glass ghosts of downtown towers on the smoggy horizon. All these years in L.A., he’d been unaware that he was riding over a stream whose old Spanish name Sofia had just revealed to him.

“El Arroyo del Jardín de las Flores,” Nathan repeated.

“Correct.”

He wanted to walk alongside Sofia but she kept drifting one or two paces ahead. “What is it you do?” he asked finally, and the question caused her to slow down. “For a living?”

“Nothing, right now. I used to work in a museum no one ever visited,” she said. “A state park that got closed down. It was an old rancho with lots of beautiful and rusty old things inside.”

They reached a park surrounded by tall modernist office buildings whose painted cement skins were flaking in the sun. “I know this park,” Nathan said. “I always thought it felt like Manhattan in the desert.” A glass tower stood nearby, about eight stories tall, smothered in dust and slowly dying, its several hundred windows long unwashed. They climbed down a gentle, lawn-covered slope, to the spot where a large corrugated tube emerged from the grass. El Arroyo del Jardín de las Flores now resembled the flow from an oversized kitchen spigot, seeping into a crevice between the park’s lawns, trickling through foot-tall reeds.

“The stream used to flood every winter,” Sofia said. “That’s why there’s a park here. No one could build on this land.”

Sofia found a spot overlooking the creek and sat down. Nearby a
child of about seven was building a bridge over the creek with his father. They had fashioned a little roadway from pieces of eucalyptus bark, tree branches, and dried reeds. Nathan watched the boy and his father work with steady, playful purpose, bringing palmfuls of mud from the streambed and tufts of grass and more twigs, and using them to cover the surface of their roadway, until the bridge itself started to look like a specimen of jungle flora. The boy took three miniature cars from his pocket and put them on the roadway, and then he stepped back and watched the stream flow underneath.

The boy and his father and their bridge made Nathan feel content, nostalgic for his own boyhood, but they had no effect on Sofia. Sitting there, staring at the stream, she looked like a woman trying to imagine a world without civilization. Or like a woman straining to understand some ferocious and overwhelming idea contained in the water’s flow.

“You don’t have to stay here with me,” she said, suddenly. “I’m fine alone.”

“No, I don’t mind. It’s peaceful here,” Nathan said, though he was lying, because he knew he would never get used to the idea of sitting in one place, in the middle of summer, just to look at flowing water.

“My ex-wife got laid off, too,” he said, to make conversation. “She worked for the county. In social services.”

“How long were you married?”

“Sixteen months.”

“I was engaged,” Sofia said, keeping her eyes on the stream. Three sparrows fluttered over the water and landed nearby, and they began playing a game of hopscotch on the grass, bouncing into the stream and bouncing out. “He was a drummer,” she said. “He died four years ago this month. Of pneumonia, which is crazy.” For some reason the silence that followed was not filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy. The sparrows disappeared and the water flowed. Sofia had been a loner before, Nathan concluded, and she would still have been following this stream, alone, even if her drummer had lived to marry her. A very faint breeze drifted over the grass and Nathan felt the glass skins of the modernist office buildings dissolving into sand in the sun.

“I just like to spend time with the water,” Sofia said. “You understand. Right?”

“What do you see?” he asked. “When you look at the stream?

“It’s not what I see. It’s what I feel.”

“What do you feel?”

“That it’s been waiting here for me to find it.”

Nathan did not know what to say to this. He didn’t believe in fate. When he discovered cool things on his cycling explorations, he didn’t think it was his destiny to find them. But he couldn’t say any of that, and instead he felt defeated at his inability to take their conversation to a place that didn’t feel so anchorless. Her communion with the stream was making him feel anxious. He needed to keep moving, and he looked at her pleadingly, as if to say, Can’t we just keep on exploring? But she didn’t notice or care about his discomfort. Instead, she took out a book to read.

“If you want, I could read this to you,” she said. “It’s poetry. This one is called ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’”

The poem described a woman standing on the edge of the ocean, singing. Nathan listened for the argument of the poem, or the story it told, but there didn’t seem to be one. Eventually he began to focus on the sound of Sofia’s voice instead, the precise and slow whisper with which she read each line. The poem filled up her solitude with awe and wonder, especially when she read the line “The sky acutest at its vanishing.” But the poem itself made less sense to Nathan the longer it went on. When she finished he couldn’t think of anything to say other than the exceedingly lame comment, “It’s beautiful.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to wait here until the sun goes down,” she said finally. “I want to see the stream fade in the light.”

The summer sunset was at least five hours away. Nathan decided he couldn’t sit that long. He’d wished he’d brought his bicycle, instead of having to take the bus back home again.

“So,” he said. “At this same place, at the same time, tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

Before Nathan left for the bus stop, he walked over to examine the bridge the boy and his father had built an hour earlier. A line of ants was crawling over it. In their shuffle march, the ants were crossing the stream from north to south, as if they’d undertaken a mission of exploration to new, undiscovered lands.

On the bus ride back home, Nathan remembered the first line of the poem: She sang beyond the genius of the sea. He imagined a conversation in which Sofia talked about the poem and explained it to him. Nathan would then share his own introspective musings and talk about how he channeled his curiosity about the city into his riding, exploring on his bicycles (he owned three). He imagined sharing his passion for the city’s geography with Sofia, telling her about routes that led to destinations that the city’s haters called “nowhere,” though in Nathan’s mind each of those places was definitely somewhere. And finally, he imagined that Sofia would actually find all of this interesting and agree to go riding with him.

But when Nathan saw Sofia again at the park, he instantly understood the absurdity of his fantasy. Their eyes met and she said with a smile, “We’re almost done.”

Nathan followed her, silently. They left the park, and walked along Pico Boulevard for a mile until they reached a brick cube labeled “LIQUOR.” She led him around to the back, to a small parking lot of eroded asphalt, and a fence topped with barbed wire.

“Here it is,” she said. They walked up to the fence and looked ten feet down into a muddy slough littered with bottles, white plastic bags, and the desiccated corpse of a cat. At the bottom, a strip of tar-black water not more than four inches wide moved slowly westward.

“Bummer,” Nathan said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty ugly. Let’s keep going.”

The water advanced between rows of cinderblock buildings, and then it slipped under Venice Boulevard, a street so wide, flat, and long it swallowed up all the city around it, as if it were a corridor cut through time-space that would suck them up and spit them out in some other dimension. Venice Boulevard finally guided them to a concrete basin with vertical walls, the kind of domesticated “river” for which L.A. was infamous. El Arroyo del Jardín de las Flores fed into this channel from a rectangular hole in one of the sidewalls: like a slaughtered animal, it bled a black stain onto the concrete.

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

Nathan looked at his watch: it was late, and he thought they should continue their trek tomorrow. “So,” he said. “At this same place, at the same time?”

“No,” Sofia said abruptly. “This is where our stream ends. Our stream is a tributary of this thing you see here, which used to be a real river.”

“Ballona Creek,” he said.

“It flows into the ocean, over by the Marina,” she said. “I’ve been there a dozen times.”

“Me, too.”

“So you know: Ballona Creek is a straight, man-made ditch going into the ocean,” she said. “It just makes me feel empty, going there. I don’t know why.”

“Maybe if I go there with you, you’ll feel different.”

Sofia shot him a skeptical look, and then studied him, as if she were measuring him somehow, or assessing the value of their incipient friendship.

“OK, then,” she said.

As he rode the bus home Nathan thought a lot about Sofia’s tepid “OK, then.” He quickly came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t be there to meet him the next day.

When he woke up the next morning, he was certain Sofia wouldn’t be there. If he wanted to see Sofia again, Nathan thought, the best strategy would be to seek out more streams and hope that his path crossed with hers again. For a moment Nathan imagined a life in which he pursued a river obsession as madly as Sofia did, following streams under skyscrapers, past football stadiums, factories, and tenements, selling off his bicycles as he surrendered himself completely to this new quest. He’d buy all sorts of river-hunting paraphernalia: divining rods, maybe, or waterproof shoes, and one day he’d run into Sofia at some hidden urban wetland and they’d resume their riparian wandering together.

The hour of their meeting came and went and Nathan didn’t leave home. It was the way he’d handled relationships with women since his wife left him: he preempted disappointment.

Instead, that afternoon, in the hours before sunset, he rode his mountain bike up the dirt paths that led to the top of Mount Hollywood. From that perch he took in the sprawl of the city, and imagined the aquifers percolating inside the mountain below his feet, and the water that escaped to follow secret channels through the city. Nathan thought about Sofia’s thin fingers drawing a map of the stream with colored pencils, and he thought about the sound of her voice reading the poem. He’d found a copy online and now he read it on his smartphone. The sea was not a mask/No more was she. The poem continued to perplex him, as if it were written in a code understood only by women who stared at streams.

A few days later Nathan returned to Ballona Creek on a road bike. He did not expect to find Sofia, and he glided quickly past the point where they had last spoken. He was going to follow Ballona Creek to the ocean. There was a bike path the last few miles.

Fed by several more tributaries, Ballona became a creek worthy of the name in its final stretch. He reached the beach, and then pedaled past it, because the path continued on a breakwater that jutted into the sea. When the path ended, Nathan stopped and took out his phone. He read more lines from the poem — The heaving speech of air, a summer sound/ Repeated in a summer without end. The meaningless plungings of water and the wind. The words unsettled him and he decided not to read them again.

Nathan preferred the certainty of maps, and he imagined the place where he was standing as represented on a map: the fixed, black line of the bike path, and a dot for the path’s terminus. Below his feet the cold Pacific swallowed up the freshwater from Ballona Creek. He thought of the thin flow of El Arroyo del Jardín de las Flores swirling and dissolving in the estuary, transformed into foam and green droplets laden with algae. When he looked up at the horizon, the sea was as big and blue and welcoming as he remembered it. The ocean swayed, it rose and fell, and it played with the light and the moving air. Nathan realized, suddenly, that he was seeing Sofia’s poem and its “plunging waves” and “gasping wind” come to life, and this thought caused him to laugh out loud. He felt surrounded by a presence that was feminine and circular, as if he were standing inside the warm and soothing whirlpool of a woman’s thoughts. Nathan stared at the water and allowed his mind to drift. When he looked down at his watch again, he realized he had been standing there, looking at the ocean, for an hour.

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