"We've had a lot of houses," says Moesha, breaking her customary shy five-year-old silence.
“Yes, we move around a little bit,” agrees Rayna, Moesha’s mother and a navigator turned drug-and-alcohol counselor for the Navy.
“How many houses do you remember having?” I ask.
“There was the house in Minnesota,” recounts Rayna. That was where she and her husband Steve, now a food-service officer with the Navy, worked as recruiters. “Then when we sold the house, we moved to an apartment.”
Adds Steve, “She stayed with me when I was in school in Georgia, and Mommy was over in the Gulf during her last deployment.”
After the Georgia layover, the Minnesota apartment gave way to another apartment in Chula Vista last year. Soon after that, Steve and Rayna started looking for a house. “We’ve kind of been told with a wink and a nod that we will more than likely be here for six years,” explains Steve. “Because we’re in the military together, and I’m an officer and she’s enlisted, we can’t serve in the same chain of command — it would be a conflict of interest.” (They were both enlisted when they met and married.) “The way they try to work it is that one of us will be on a ship and one on shore. You’ve got very few choices — you’ve got San Diego and you’ve got Norfolk.” It was easier (and cheaper) for the Navy to let them stay put a while.
At first, they looked in Scripps Ranch and Poway, but “the traffic headed up north of the base was just kind of too much,” says Rayna. So their realtor began showing them houses in Chula Vista. Steve takes up the story. “We made the mistake of going to look at model homes two or three miles south, Seabreeze Homes or something. We went in and fell in love. You walked in and it was 20-foot ceilings — just huge, just grand windows and stuff. And of course, with the model homes, they’ve got the beautiful furniture. That really got us thinking about new houses. So we had our budget, and then we started looking, and it was, like, ‘Okay, double that.’”
Still, they found nothing. The Seabreeze community was too isolated, the waiting list for new homes, in general, too daunting. They switched to a search for “newer” houses and went through 30 or 40 disappointments, including a failed bid. Houses would be perfect but lack a downstairs bedroom for guests and extended family. Or they would have no yard. “None at all. I didn’t even think that was legal,” marvels Rayna.
Success came in Otay Ranch, one of the many newish communities that branch off of the great suburban artery that is Telegraph Canyon Road. Right on Heritage, then left on East Palomar, up alongside the military-straight row of thick-trunked palm trees to the park. The park is vaguely circular, with streets radiating out in all directions. Someday, the space will be lined with trees; for now, the saplings look for lorn and frail as they ring the expanse of pale, spongy grass crossed by wide, white sidewalks. A carefully irregular pond holds down one “corner” of the circle. Submerged fountains send lumps of water bulging above the surface, as if for ever heralding the rising of some great aquatic beast. A sign at the pond’s edge proclaims a set of pictured prohibitions: no litter, no drinking the water, no fishing, no swimming, no wading.
Up from the pond is a green and tan powder-coated playground, and beyond that, a substantial picnic area beneath steel roofing. More steel clings to the sloping angularity of the park’s community center, where it is married to a base of fitted stones, an urban/suburban melding forming a venue for children’s ballet and art classes. Basketball courts occupy the park’s opposite side, and if you climb the knoll, you can see a school across the street.
Earth-toned apartments line the streets nearest the park; Steve and Rayna’s off-white house is situated out near the edge of the development, past one of the many manned security gates that regulate traffic in and out of the community’s residential areas. It looks to be one of four or five models on its street. Their model offers two driveways (leading to two garages, one two-car, one single); there are cars in both. Low walls create a small sort of outdoor atrium just in front of the door. A single goldfish swims in a blue rectangular pond on one side; two bronze dolphins rise from the pond, ready to spout water from their mouths if desired.
“When we saw this, it was, like, ‘This is perfect,’” recalls Rayna. “Actually, it was more than I was looking for.” Four bedrooms, three baths, with one bed and bath on the ground floor; 3000 square feet plus a swatch of yard and patio out back.
It is clearly a new house, though it takes a while to realize just what makes it so clear, to notice the shifts in design akin to those between hardwood and carpet, double-hung wood and aluminum slider windows, plaster and skim coated drywall. The stair case at the far end of the entryway gives some indication, the way it doubles back on itself at odd angles, a casual zigzag meander instead of an about-face march. Similarly angled meanders lead to the down stairs bedroom and bath and down a hall to the kitchen and family room. There is also the entryway itself, with its soaring 20-foot ceiling that continues into the well-windowed living room, double the already above-average 10-foot ceilings throughout the rest of the house. (The high ceilings put Rayna in mind of her childhood home, a two-story condo in Minneapolis.) On the walls, the builders left few hard corners; nearly every turn around every entryway is negotiated in soft plastery curves. Over the plaster, a uniform layer of palest green paint — pistachio by my lights, mint by Steve’s, and sea-foam green by the book. The color is uniform; the house has not endured the particular room-by room transformations wrought by multiple owners with multiple ideas about color. The floors are tan tile, swirled with green and set on the diagonal.
Dinner tonight is fish and spaghetti, with ice cream for dessert. “That’s standard; that’s what she told me,” says Steve. “I’ve never heard of it, but I guess if she says...” The sauce, “just regular sauce,” with a little black pepper and Italian seasoning, is already bubbling, and the pasta is already boiling. Rayna removes a jumbo bag of mixed frozen vegetables from the freezer and dumps several heaping spoonfuls into another saucepan of boiling water. The fish — cod — is baking in the oven, moistened only by “its own juice” and seasoned with Old Bay and Jamaican jerk. Yu Jin, a visiting exchange student from Korea, joins us, silently, at the table.
Steve and Rayna trade off on cooking duties. Steve worked at Applebee’s to put himself through college and spent eight years cooking in the Navy before becoming a food-service officer. “I failed out of the nuclear power school, which is one of the toughest in the Navy — it proved a little too tough for me. When I got out, they offered me either signalman or mess. They said, ‘Basically, you can be up on the front of a ship waving a flag at an incoming aircraft in zero degree weather, or you can be in the galley cooking and eating basically what ever you want.’ ” He is fond of barbecue, especially ribs, and makes frequent use of the grill out back. But tonight, it’s Rayna’s turn.
“Occasionally, I use recipes,” she says. “I love cookbooks, learning different stuff and trying to out-cook my husband.”
“She’s come a long way, actually. When we first got married, she rarely cooked. Now, she’s an excellent cook — not that she was bad to begin with.”
“What are you talking about, ‘She rarely cooked’?”
“When we first got married.”
“What were we eating in Spain?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Or ramen noodles.”
“Oh, my goodness. We probably ate out once a month in Spain.”
“A lot of canned soup, fondue pot...”
“Only when I was pregnant.” Rayna’s favorite cook book is Healthy Homestyle Cooking, the sort of cook book that specializes in fat free preparations of traditional fat-laden fare. “That’s probably his real complaint,” she confides. “I was already into low-fat, no oil, tofu, no-meat meatloaf, all that. His problem was that I was cooking, and he didn’t appreciate it. After I stopped cooking that way, then the weight came on. Ribs and desserts and all this red meat — I don’t think I ever bought red meat until I moved here to California. And when we were recruiting, that’s when I didn’t cook. That was fast food, and that’s where the weight came on.”
Now, the month’s meals are posted on a calendar, and red meat puts in appearances only on “Beef Saturdays.” Fat intake was shrunk and portions trimmed. Steve reports that he has dropped 20 pounds in the past six weeks.
The fondness for the cod’s peppery jerk seasoning dates back to their days in Cuba, where they first met during Operation Restore Hope. “We almost considered getting stationed back there just so we could eat [the cod],” admits Steve.
“They had a lot of different restaurants on base,” adds Rayna — a good thing, since getting off base meant going over barbed wire and through a minefield.
Today, when they talk about their next move, their thoughts drift back to Spain. “Low crime, very beautiful, very laid back,” attests Steve. “It always reminded me of somewhere you would see in the ’70s. We’d go to their carnivals — they were like a state fair — and they had this one ride. I couldn’t believe it. It was a platform with a bull on it, and the whole thing would spin around and try to throw them off. The bull’s head was something like solid metal or plastic with two huge horns coming off of it — no padding or any thing. Kids were bashing themselves on it, coming off bloody and bruised, and their parents were all laughing, the kids get up laughing, putting back in their front teeth, and the parents kind of wipe them off and on they go.
“I was, like, ‘If that happened in the United States, they’d be looking to sue.’ There, it was just, like, ‘Oh, that was a great time.’ I’m very anti-lawyer and anti-suing. If you’ve got a reason, then yes, but all this getting $20 million for spilling hot coffee in your lap is just ridiculous to me. Actually, speaking of it, we’ll probably wind up having to sue somebody. When we bought the house and did up the contract, they had this beautiful refrigerator” — a luxury model with the panel in the door so you can remove the milk jug without actually opening the fridge. “They didn’t want to leave it, but we wanted it, and it was a deal breaker. Finally, they agreed, but it ended up that they took it. It’s right in the con tract — ‘You will leave the refrigerator.’ So...”
The replacement fridge, like the original, is white, just like the rest of the kitchen. The milled-wood cabinets wear a coat of white paint; white tiles cover the countertops on the base cabinets and the substantial island. The wall oven is white, as is the wall mounted microwave above it. Even the broad-slat plantation shutters over the window are white. The only color comes from the few patches of wall visible around the cabinets, the tan floor tile, and the stuff that sits on the counters: green utensil canisters; brown Crock-Pot; wooden knife block; bright, multi colored labels on the liquor bottles in the tucked-away bar counter — Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Jose Cuervo, Bailey’s. For Rayna, whose recent memory was full of brightly colored kitchens in any number of houses, the room took some getting used to.
We eat in the dining room adjacent the kitchen, at a high-backed dining set purchased at the Navy Exchange in Spain. “This is a big Exchange house,” says Rayna. The set is complemented by a high, for malchina cabinet, the top shelf of which boasts an array of glass mugs from the various bases where Rayna has been stationed: Guantanamo Bay, Puerto Rico, Minneapolis. Some are frosted, some are gilt, some are etched. “Rayna’s really proud of our hutch,” says Steve.
The dining room leads into the living room, the sort of airy, formal space that so often gets neglected in an age where the TV serves as the locus of family gatherings. But Rayna says that they enjoy entertaining friends, and the room gets used then, as well as when relatives come to stay. Plus, Steve likes to go in and watch the fish swim in the family’s new 110-gallon tank — a present for Rayna last Christmas. They’re still gathering their specimens; now, their collection of angelfish, kissing fish, silver dollar fish, catfish, pseudo-sharks, and ghost fish looks smaller than it is amid the backlit, watery immensity. “At night, I’ll usually throw some food in there, go back, and lay on the couch and watch them feed. That’s kind of my relaxing time.”
Steve built the base cabinet for the tank him self, routing out the trim pieces, assembling the front cabinet doors and finish ing the whole. “It was my first big project. I want to build a top that will match it. Eventually, I’m going to build a bedroom set, or at least a bed-frame. We’ve always wanted a canopy bed. I’ve always enjoyed carpentry. I actually helped build the house I grew up in. I was 9 or 10. My step father was getting close to retirement when he got married; he was 20 or 21 years older than my mother.” When he did retire, the family moved from California to Oklahoma. “We knew we were going to build a house. First, we lived in a trailer — a double wide — until they found some property that they liked. It was on an old high way; they built the state highway about eight miles over from it, so nobody used it anymore. My older sister was 17, she got married — got pregnant, got married, man she’s still married to, what, 21 years later? He was a carpenter. My dad, me, and my step brother got out there and built a really nice, big house. Later we added a huge two car garage and put a great room above it.
“It was nice; it was home. I lived outside of the town with one stoplight. I grew up climbing trees, fishing, hunting, and riding my three-wheeler, having a good time.”
“Now you’re all civilized.”
“Pretty much. I’ve started wearing shoes.”
“That took some work,” adds Rayna.
No three-wheeler in the garage? “Not yet. I will, someday, have a four wheeler. I put so many hours in just riding through fields, making jumps, going out through the lake — they will float, especially with a little 12-year-old kid on them that doesn’t weigh but 70 pounds.”
For now, Steve’s two-car garage is mostly empty, or at least it feels that way due to its size and tidy whiteness. Moesha’s toy motorized Jeep is here, as are Steve and Rayna’s bikes. A freezer stands near the hot-water heater; metal shelves full of immaculate tools line part of each side wall. “I’ve got my table saw, my miter saw, my jigsaw, my router, my drill, my benches, my radio.” The garage shows the newness of the house; floor and walls exude a smooth and finished feel rarely present in even the most well-kept older model. (No bare studs here, nor faux wood paneling or unpainted drywall.) Nor has it stood open long enough, housed enough junk, or served as the locus of enough mess-generating projects to acquire the dinge and grime so com mon to its forbears. It is hard to imagine such a pristine space ever actually housing a car.
All that garage was a big selling point. “He likes stuff in the garage,” explains Rayna. “All that man stuff, all the toys. When we were in Minnesota, we had a two-car garage, but I couldn’t park in it because of all the stuff — and his car. This time, I said, ‘I’m having my own garage.’”
“You never park in it!”
“But if I want to, I can.”
“In fact, there’s nothing in her garage,” Steve tells me.
“She’s very clutter-free. That’s why I have to tell her to leave my garage alone and leave my computer room alone. If you don’t use it, it gets thrown away or given to the Salvation Army.”
“Or sold at a garage sale.”
The computer room is Steve’s sanctuary, though it is often invaded by his daughter. “He’s always at his computer,” claims Rayna. “Then Moesha will play on her computer.”
“Moesha and I will be upstairs, and Rayna will complain that we’re spending time together, but not with her.”
When Steve is “at the computer,” he is playing games in the computer room — one of the upstairs bedrooms. He plays standard fare like Diablo and Warcraft, but his joy is in Everquest, an online role playing game. “It’s kind of my thing, my way to relax after being on the ship all day. There are different rates on a ship; just like any city, you’ve got your workers and your thinkers. You’ve got your electronics technicians and your people that work with the computers and the radars, the real brainiacs upstairs. The majority of them play Everquest; your deckhands usually don’t.”
Everquest is similar in theme to Dungeons & Dragons — warriors, wizards, and thieves battling their way across an imaginary world populated by all manner of monsters and gaining gold, power, and experience as they go. But because it is online, there is an advantage to Everquest: people in different locations can interact within a common virtual world.
As delightful as taking out a chromatic dragon with a magically summoned bolt of lightning may be, it is not Steve’s sole motivation for playing. What also attracts him is the com pany he keeps. “The thing about the military is that it’s hard to keep up with friends. You’re never in one place long enough to really develop those long-term friendships and really get to know everybody. We don’t even know our next door neighbors; we’ve never met them.” But, says Steve, “I’ve got some friends that I’ve known for 11 or 12 years now, who I was stationed with in Bermuda. We’ve always kept in con tact playing games like Everquest. We’ll meet online and basically chat and play around.
“It’s kind of interesting to be able to keep in contact with three people you rarely get to see. My friend Dave in Tennessee is three hours ahead of me, so he should be getting on anytime now. He’s married to a woman in the Navy; he was prior Marine. Almost nightly, I’ll call him up and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get on here!’ Cliff, he’s still in the Navy; he’s in Maine. Chris went into the Marines and got on out; I don’t know where he’s playing at right now. It’s kind of my release to get on there and be able to chat with all my friends. You’re doing something while you’re chatting.”
Chatting is the stuff of social life, and the time do fly. “It’s addictive. They’ve talked about how there are divorces over Everquest; the wife gets tired of her husband playing it all the time. I’ve spent as much as six hours at a time playing without even noticing.”
A figurine of a buxom blonde in medieval warrior/vixen garb stands on Steve’s console, her presence magnified by the lack of other decoration in the room. “She came with the box set of the latest version of the game. The game is huge; you can buy more and more parts to it. If you didn’t use portals, to run from one edge of the world to the other would take a couple of hours. Right now, there are four or five continents, and you can go to the moon.”
Steve controls several characters, though his primary concern is Blyte, a dark sorceress modeled after his wife. “She’s 54th level; I’ve been playing her for about three years.” If he wanted to, Steve could send Blyte to the moon and stay on Everquest’s earth at the same time. He has two computers hooked to a router, and so he can play two characters at once. One computer became two when his original got shipped to San Diego while he was at Navy Supply School in Georgia. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got six months; I would like to play on the computer.’ So I bought a new computer.”
“Which he set up because he always wanted two computers anyway,” says Rayna with a smile.
“I don’t remember that,” counters Steve. “I’ve tried to get my wife caught on to this game, but she won’t do it.”
Two computers soon became the norm, and when Moesha would come in looking to use one of them, “I’d be, like, ‘A-a-a a-ah... I’m busy.’ It was a constant battle. So, I went out and they had a deal at Fry’s, and I bought her her own computer.” Moesha also owns a hand-me-down Nintendo 64 video-game system — her father has a Playstation 2 on ship — and while Steve shows me the online world of Everquest, she fires up Super Mario Brothers. Her usual silence and shyness melt away as she assumes command of her virtual avatar. “Want to see me play this one?” she asks. “Look, I need coins! Look! Look!”
Moesha’s room shares a bathroom with the computer room; in it are her bed, her toys, and her TV and VCR, child-size echoes of the TV/VCR setup down stairs. There, across a dividing half wall from the kitchen eating area — an area currently occupied by a blue card table and chairs, where Yu Jin sits for roughly five hours a night studying — is what might be listed on a real estate sheet as a family room but would more properly be called a media room. A broad alcove in the wall opposite the black leather sectional and matching recliner is capable of accommodating a 50-inch big-screen TV. “The people that moved out had one. Ours is a 36-inch. I’ve been wanting to get a 50-inch, but Rayna doesn’t like it. When you go to the sides, you can’t see it as well — but we’ll work around that. I’ll eventually get one.”
“Well, it’s built for it.”
“Basically, I tried that one, and it didn’t work.”
Steve does have a Bose surround-sound system — “There are two front speakers, the center speakers, and two surround speakers back there. Eventually, we’ll hook it up. I’ve got it hooked up to the TV, but for movies, I’ve got to hook it up to the VCR. I’m going to build a shelf up there in the little cabinet area and put the speakers up there — get them off the floor — it’s just a matter of getting time to actually do stuff. Half the time, you just want to sit down and relax. Yesterday, I stood watch for four hours with the rain coming down sideways. I was soaked — they didn’t issue us rain gear, and we had to find some.” Rayna did find time to layer green drapery panels over the sheer white ones that came with the house. Before that, says Steve, “It was hard to watch TV during the day with the glare on the TV.”
“I kind of sit around and watch Headline News all the time. If you want to know what the military’s doing, watch CNN. Half the time, they’ll tell you what we’re doing before we know,” he jokes. Besides news, Steve is fond of reality television. “I like the real, true-to-life stuff, where people catch stuff on home video. Rayna likes sitcoms. I love movies — anything with good special effects — The Matrix, Independence Day. Rayna likes Brown Sugar, Soul Food, those type of movies. To me, Austin Powers is hilarious; she doesn’t find the humor in it. She always messes with me; she says I like stupid comedies. I like to laugh — real sarcastic humor.”
Steve channel-surfs for a while, and Rayna putters about in the kitchen. After a few minutes, he calls out to her, “The new Survivor starts today!”
“Where are they at?”
“The Amazon or something.”
“That’s right. We have to watch that one.”
“We watched the first or second year of Survivor,” Steve tells me. “That was our big thing for a while. We haven’t watched that much since then.” To the right of the television is the gas fireplace — fitting it out for gas was Steve’s present to Rayna for her birth day last October. On the mantel stands a crystal vase — a gift from their realtor — and a framed photo of Moesha draping her hair over her father’s head. “That was her giving me hair, since Daddy doesn’t have any anymore. I just kind of gave up on it. I saw a little bit of the receding hairline,” says Steve. Rather than take up the bitter struggle, he shaved himself bald. “I figured, ‘You know, I’m married, I’ve got a child; vanity’s not really high on my list of worldly needs.’ ” Above the mantel hang photos of bride, groom, and bride and groom together. They are nearly the only things, photos or art or otherwise, hanging on the house’s walls.
Decor is provided by a smattering of potted plants: palms, some sort of oriental Lucky Plant, “what ever looks pretty. I want more plants,” says Steve.
“She’s happy with what we have. I wanted another Lucky Plant for up in our room.”
“I don’t mind another one up in the bedroom; I just don’t want any more down here!”
“I like it tropical in here.”
“You’ve got your own Amazon thing going on.”
“We’re easygoing,” observes Steve, turning to me in his recliner. “This is like an argument for us.”
They have another “argument” a bit later, as Rayna flips through a hairstyle magazine. Currently, her hair is a mass of micro-braids, styled in layers so that some hang down and frame her face, some sweep back, and others hang down about her shoulders. Steve points one style out; Rayna rejects it. They do it again. “You get to suggest hair?” I ask Steve.
“You see how this is going,” he replies. “No, no, no, and then eventually I hit one and she says, ‘Okay,’ and that’s the one I pick.”
“How often do you change hairstyles?” I ask Rayna.
“I’m not big into get ting my hair done — not professionally. I do it myself, because I’m cheap. But I do go maybe three times a year and get it profession ally done.” When she does, she changes the style.
So they have passed eight years together in easy going, military familial bliss — weekend outings, pleasant home life, world travel — but the soldierly life is not without its complications. “We thought about having another child,” says Steve, “but it just hasn’t worked out with scheduling and timing. Now, it’s starting to get too late. We wanted to have one about two or three years into it, but then I was in college. Now would almost be the perfect time, but unfortunately, I’m going to be going on deployment sometime soon, and I know I’ll be gone for quite a while. Eight months, nine months — something along that line. I don’t want to leave her here by herself,” with a baby on the way and a child needing care.
Steve grants that it’s not as if she would be left high and dry while he was away. “The military tries to work with the community; they understand the burden of your family being apart. Just last night, we had a pre-deployment brief. They basically bring all the spouses together and let them meet each other and kind of build a network — people that you can talk to that are in the same position.”
But even with that support network, he says, “I don’t think I could see being a female with no military background being married to a man in the military. When he goes off for eight months or however long, it’s got to be rough. When Rayna was on deployment, she would call whenever she got the chance, which was maybe once a month. E-mails were every couple of nights, depending on where they were at and if they could send e-mails or not. The ship has to screen all the e-mails, and some times they get on the satellite for just a few minutes. But at least my wife and I know what to expect. I just feel bad for them. That’s why the divorce rate is so high in the military, especially in the Navy — because we have one of the highest rates of separation. After just about every deployment, you’ll come back, and right when you come back, it will be divorce after divorce. Basically, the husband or wife has found somebody new; they got lonely after a few months and moved on.”
“It’s not the military,” counters Rayna. “It’s the people and whatever issues they have in their marriage. They may not feel like breaking up, but once one of them goes out to sea, it’s easier.”
“That is very true. I think she’s right to a large extent that being separated magnifies problems in the relationship. If you’re having problems and all of a sudden you’re apart, then yeah, it’s probably going to fall apart.”
This being the military, there is also the increased possibility that the deployed spouse will not return alive. But Steve says he is not anxious. “You gotta do what you gotta do. It’s pretty much every military member’s dreaded thing, going on deployment. Nobody wants to go; it’s just kind of a necessity” that comes from our “being the world’s police. People want to believe we could live in a Utopia where everyone would get along, but people are going to fight. If you didn’t have some body to basically take control and run things, some of these little countries would be doing all kinds of crazy things. I could sit here and stress about it until it happens, but I guess I would compare it to being a man on death row — I mean, the thing is inevitable...”
“What a comparison!” interjects Rayna.
“It’s not mine. Some one told me the other day, ‘It’s kind of like being on death row. We know we’re going; I’d rather just get it over with.’ I guess I feel the same way: let’s get it over with. I’m ready to go right now. I mean, some part of me is kind of excited. I’ve never been to Singapore; I’ve never been to Australia. There’s no guarantee we’ll stop there, but those are possibilities of places we’ll go. Honestly, it’s your state of mind. You could dread going to Disney World and just hate it, or you can think about all the positive aspects of going. I’ll be able to get in shape, and I’ll be able to save money. If you focus on the positive things in life and not on the negative, you’ll be a lot happier person.”
The season premiere of Survivor starts up. Steve calls Yu Jin out of her room to watch. The teams this season are men vs. women — apropos the leg end of the Amazon women — and Steve and Rayna trade observations about the members and the challenges the teams will likely be given. After a few minutes, I take my leave and wind my way out past the security gate, out of Otay Ranch, out onto Telegraph Canyon Road, and out to the 805.