Jul 18, 2022

Where We Live

 Below is a recent personal essay.  It's a follow-up to "On Writing" posted previously. 

A tall, skinny, menacing man came to our house on Crestwood Drive in Houston and met with my parents. The man was offering a large sum for our unique house.  I later learned that he didn’t want to move into our house, which I didn’t understand at all, but rather to level it and develop the area around it.  My mom said a very firm “No” to the man.  She feared what he wanted to do with our house and the ravine behind it and how the sale would change the neighborhood.  Many people on our street were older and needed protecting; every house was unique and beautiful on an unusual, winding, special street. 

My parents argued after the meeting with the man.  My dad took one more meeting, this time on his own, with the man.  My dad said “Yes” to the deal with the man.  When he told my mom, she was stunned and furious.  My dad revealed to my mom the extent of our money problems.  My mom said to tell the man “Absolutely not” to the sale; she would find another buyer.  My father did, and the man was furious and galled at having a gentleman’s agreement broken.  My mom found a buyer she trusted and liked and at a sum that she understood we now needed. Simultaneously, and after almost 18 years of marriage, my mom decided to begin the process of divorcing my dad.

Vanessa and I went down to Texas for our dad’s 82nd birthday a few years ago.  It had been quite a long time since visiting and seeing him, and it felt a little strange, but really right.  He had come up to New York for arbitrations a few times; one of the most recent times, he was leaving New York just as Hurricane Sandy was blowing in, one of the last flights out.  We were excited to see our family — our brother James who I still call Jamie; his wife Jennifer; their teenager(!) kids, Alex and Izzy; our extraordinary niece Jessica, a teacher; her hubby Steven, a tattoo artist; their littles(!) Janeia and Leslie 🥰  We were excited to meet all together at Chuy’s for Tex-Mex.  In the parking lot, Vanessa said, “Sea roses!” and the two of us put our noses into the sweet bushes.

Vanessa and I started the drive from downtown Houston to my dad’s neighborhood; Houston is sprawling.  Vanessa routed us near Memorial Drive; like Central Park in Manhattan, getting to the park can help you understand where you are. We were using GPS, but I felt comfortable without Siri, tracing our location on the phone with my finger and telling us where to turn.  When we moved from Texas to Maine, when I was 8 and Vanessa was 9, we had a stack of AAA maps with orange highlighter to denote the recommended route. Vanessa and I would take turns tracing the orange highlighter with our fingers and telling our mom where to turn.  It was thrilling that she entrusted us with the navigation.  I love to read maps. 

We found ourselves at a roundabout, which I find generally confusing and somewhat counter-intuitive, and I gestured to the incorrect spoke of the wheel.  We were now setting out in precisely the wrong direction.  We kept driving, I was profusely apologizing, Vanessa was calming me down, and I started to notice how distinctive the trees and shrubs were.  Texas vegetation. Mexican vegetation.  Mexican tile terra cotta roofs.  Green, green lawns.  It was so beautiful.  It was familiar.  I hadn’t seen it in so long.  The streets seemed to have flower-related names.  Rose...Blossom. We were lost, but it was beautiful. 

We turned on a street that we both agreed felt really right, and when we got to the end of the block, we looked up at the green street sign. The sign said, impossibly: Crestwood Drive.  I began to cry. We had gotten lost in our old, enormous city and somehow found our way home.

Vanessa is a mischievous, knowing soul, but she insisted that her only intention had been to get us near the park, like old times and en route to my dad’s neighborhood.

We turned left onto Crestwood Drive and through the intersection that I remember my mom navigating when we were little; sometimes it took ages until it was safe to turn left onto the main road, Memorial Drive.  There was a traffic light there now.

We drove into our part of Crestwood Drive which now had mini-mansions on it and which was adjacent to a development behind it, packed with more mini-mansions.  The developer — or someone like the skinny, tall, menacing man with a similar deal — had gotten his way, made a sale, a series of sales, that had forced the project through.  The street, I noticed, still had its wild, untamable, winding shape. 

We arrived at number 32.  I sobbed seeing the front gate, a remnant of our old house and selves. Behind the gate was an unrecognizable monstrosity.  Our house was gone.  In its place was something I knew was beautiful but wasn’t to me.  I longed to walk to our kitchen door and go inside and to see the sunlight pour into the back of the house and look out at the ravine behind our peaceful home.  None of it was there.

Shortly before the trip to Houston, I’d seen the movie “A Wrinkle in Time.”  On the plane, there was an inflight magazine with a feature article about Ava DuVernay and Storm Reid and the making of this movie.  I’d remembered reading the book in 4th grade, but details were foggy.  When I saw the movie with friends, I wasn’t concerned with whether the movie was faithful to the book; I wanted to finally understand the detail about the wrinkle.  I was fascinated by the way that a man could find his way into another realm through the frequency of love.  During the movie, I had what I felt was a “heart-bloom” sensation in my chest. My heart was remembering and releasing something which I hadn’t felt in so long.  It was a warm feeling and like the opening of a rose.  A father had gone away and gotten lost.  His daughter went to go find him and bring him home.

The roundabout, counter-clockwise and dizzying, had offered my sister and me a time travel machine of our own. 

I remember being in the backseat of the car, my mom in the driver’s seat, Vanessa in the passenger seat, en route to see a movie.  “What is it called?” I asked my mom. “Back to the Future.” My mind ranged, trying to understand the words. Vanessa understood the premise quickly and was excited. “It’s with Michael J. Fox.  From Family Ties,” Vanessa said. “Alex P. Keaton,” I said slowly and quietly and to no one.  We finally turned left onto Memorial Drive, and we were off!

We loved the movie, and next time we brought Kevin, my big brother from my mom’s first marriage.  We were so excited, we whispered everything that was happening and about to happen.  Kevin was a patient 20-something, but he laughed and said, “Hey, I’m trying to watch the dang movie!” We laughed and loved him.

I live now in Brooklyn Heights which I’ve called home with my partner Marisa for 8 years.  My new friend Jean, who has lived on the block for 49 years, tells me that we’re on the “derelict” block of Brooklyn Heights.  I laughed when she said it, “So I’ve heard.  I bet you’ve seen it change a lot over the years — but has it…always had the same feeling to it?” Jean looked at me, curiously, “I like the way you worded that.  It has changed, yes, and it has always had the same feeling to it, yes. She added, “And it’s been on the up-and-up for 49 years!”  I laughed and hoped to learn more about the block from Jean next time we found ourselves together at the laundromat.

When my mom was pregnant with my brother Kevin, she lived briefly in Brooklyn Heights, over on Clark Street.  My mom tells me that she and her first husband Dick kept enough money for the cab ride to the hospital in a jar on the mantle. Sometimes, as I walk through the neighborhood streets, I think how beautiful and strange it would be to run into my mom.  Like Marty McFly and his mom Lorraine in “Back to the Future.”  And also kind of like this beautiful song called “Emerald” by a singer called Dar Williams, where a woman gets a glimpse of her younger self driving along the same road she’s traveled many times before.

I’ve thought about what I’d say to my 24-year-old mom as my 42-year-old self now; I’m the exact age my mom was when she gave birth to me, and it’s this: 

“One day you’re going to meet a man who is a troublemaker.  You get to decide if you want that energy in your life.  You’ll be his moral compass. He’ll rely on your guidance, because he gets very lost.  Maybe you & your little guy Kevin should just adventure together.  Maybe keep pursuing your own life and career. The troublemaker and you will have two girls — later on, a happy surprise for both of you.  You and the girls will go on a great adventure together to a place called Maine, but you get to choose your road and you get to use your compass just for yourself.  You can be on the road with a career in the arts and as a writer and activist in Houston.  You really do get to decide.”

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