Home is where one starts. And for a long time, Riley-ville was home. In honor of that, today, Henry and I walked by where our old house used to be on 20th Street in Santa Monica. Henry never lived there, but my son spent some of his childhood there and a good deal of his adolescence. And it seemed like it really was the roach motel. We checked in when we came from New York, but we could never check out no matter how I tried. I’m sure if that developer hadn’t paid us thirty large to move and torn the place down, we’d still be there freezing our asses off. If you think Los Angeles is warm in the winter, try living through one without heat – where there is so little juice from the ancient wiring system that space heaters blow up and the fuses conk out daily, sometimes hourly.
Riley-ville was a small Spanish two-story built sometime in the twenties. My husband insisted on it. After all, it was a good solution to our problems. It was cheap, in the right school district, the walls were white, it didn’t have cottage cheese on the ceiling, and the floors were hardwood. You can’t imagine how hard such a place is to find in Southern California. It was meant to be a temporary asylum on our way to becoming homeowners. But that didn’t happen either. I took pencil and paper the other day and tried to figure out how much money we have lost by paying rent all these years, missing out on the various dream times to buy real estate on the Westside of Los Angeles, and the resulting figure, even if I drastically understate things is staggering. Never mind having a real home.
My son named it Riley-Ville. And the name just stuck.
Bud Riley owned the place. He was a giant, bald headed man who was probably somewhere on the spectrum. He had a slow, halting, somewhat menacing way of speaking and really nasty b.o. My husband defended him calling him “the salt of the earth.” Bud’s father had built the house, and he had grown up in it. Consequently, the house was sacred ground. No dogs were allowed, though we had promised our son when we moved from New York he could have a dog. Even when my mother-in-law went over there, with her checkbook and her Seven Sisters drawl to pay him off, Bud said we couldn’t have one.
“Impossible man!” she proclaimed afterward. And she was right.
Eventually Bud consented to us having a cat. But though we loved her, Elgar was not a nice cat; she never sat on one’s lap, she never purred except if she was eating, and she brought in more rats than you can possibly imagine. Dead rats, freezing cold. Yes Riley-ville was like the gulag, a punishing place, a place where one was living out a sentence, rather than living a life. Some mornings it was so cold, we had to eat breakfast out. To this day, I am reviling myself about my son and the dog he never got to have growing up.
A dog would have meant so much. When I walked by with Henry, the memories didn’t seem so harsh. I hadn’t made so many mistakes, it didn’t seem we were so lonely and helpless. A dog would have been warm and cuddly when we desperately needed warm and cuddly. Why didn’t I simply get us a dog and tell that old bald man on the spectrum to “throw us out?” Why didn’t I stand up to my husband? We wouldn’t have been on the street. In fact, we had the money to change our circumstances anytime. What was the mental block that was embodied in that house that’s now the site of an anodyne garden condo made of fake brick and with ye olde lanterns on the front?
Me, I suppose.
I was scared. I was living in the past (the past of my childhood) where I genuinely could not ask for anything without being tortured with the punishment of shame. “You know I would give anything in the world to give you that, don’t you?” my accomplished actress of a mother would say, conditioning me early to spare her. In fact, I lived in horror of being anything other than completely self-sufficient. I wanted things for our son and got things for our son, but I couldn’t get the big one we both needed: to get out of Riley-ville to someplace warm with a dog.
When old Bud Riley finally bit the radish and his heirs sold the place, we got out. But by then, my son was in college. We moved up the street to a “luxury” condo just below Wilshire. The thirty large helped with that. The place had closets, high-end bathrooms, even a powder room with a lurid gold lame wallpaper that nobody entered except the cat. I rented it because of the eat-in kitchen with stainless steel appliances and cabinets up the wazoo. It’s the best kitchen I’ve ever had. And, in many ways, I wish we still lived there.
On my son’s first visit to the new place, fresh from customs at LAX, (he’d been studying in one of the former Soviet Bloc countries, something I believe Riley-ville prepared him for) he looked me squarely in the face and said, “If you can get my father to move in here you can do anything.”
And in fact, the night we moved in, my husband was practically foaming at the mouth. “This is the worst night of my life,” he lamented. “I can’t believe we’re going to live here! It’s so tacky!”
And it was tacky. Wonderfully, joyfully tacky and warm.
We should have bought that place, too. We had to move out because the owners sold it. One recently sold for 400 large more than what they were asking just a few years ago. Yes I keep a masochistic record of our losses in real estate.
That’s the trouble with the past. You can’t change it, though it changes you in ways you never could imagine. Someone else, Hartley I think, said, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.”
When I stop wishing that I had done things differently, then maybe like the teachers tell us at yoga, I’ll start living in the present and be free.
But maybe not.
Still, miraculously as soon as we got out of that meat locker, things did start to change and get better. Maybe it was the energy of the place; maybe I found my voice and started asking for stuff I want.
Though I still want my son to have had that dog. I can’t imagine ever letting that go. To this day, to this very minute, I can taste it, I want it so badly. I want a time machine. I want my three wishes that I never got as a child. I want to see his little face all lit up with the joy of his very first puppy. I want it when he had his crooked little grin without front teeth; I want it when he had braces and then his first little trace of mustache.
Of course that little puppy would be dead by now, unless he was one of those miracle dogs you see on the cover of the National Enquirer. One hundred seventy-five year old dog still alive in California! Right alongside old Bill, still cheating on his wife….