This is what dismantling a house looks like.
It is eyes watering at the amount of dust that comes up in clouds around you, sneezing while you’re walking into a demented heaven where all that’s there is stuff. Boxes and boxes of earthly goods are surrounding you, and bags of donations lay out in front of you like tombstones.
The dead live amongst here, the people you used to know.
It’s also the frenzy of the living who are still holding the items, lifting beautiful bowls and crystal, trying on clothing that you remember your mother once wore when it got cold. Going through and trying to claim everything in the tiniest little crevices, from wall hangings to See’s candy gift certificates.
It is pulling an antique yellowed veil from your mother’s closet and not knowing who it belongs to, and knowing probably the only person who can explain it is dead. Then it’s having people insist that you keep it for your own wedding, even though you’re not getting married yet; hopes for the future that you just can’t see at this given moment. You want to get married again, but are not sure if it will actually happen for you. Yet you are being given a veil to wear “just in case.”
It’s swimming through the piles of stuff, and when you say you like something, everyone insists you take it with you. And then you remember you have a tiny guesthouse, and wonder where you’re going to put all of the items you like when there’s barely room for you.
It’s starting a bonfire with the love letters and photos of your ex, laughing and dancing around it with your cousin and sister, bonding over how far you’ve come. It’s also pulling your wedding album, solo in the dark, and finding a container of stickers in your mother’s desk and pasting them all over your ex and his family’s faces (all except for his cousin. You liked her).
It’s the combinations of memories, from both the people who are here and those that are gone. Flimsy paper letters indicating truths about our mortal existences — Turkish immigration papers from my great-grandmother, the death of my great uncle in war, my grandfather longing for my grandmother, a letter from my father after he felt my sister kick in my mother’s stomach for the first time.
Then there are the papers you pull with your name on them, writing in clinical detail what a problem child you were. How you could not communicate, could barely speak, was left screaming and angry until language therapy saved you. Seeing your mother write about how, as a four-year-old child, you went from nothing to her high hopes of you going to some great university one day.
Every school assignment, every attempt at writing and telling stories had been saved, and many of them were thrown in the trash because there is no room to take every little scribble with you. And as others try to hold on to every little piece, you wonder how callous you have become in casting off.
And you think you’ve made progress as you indicate all the crystal bowls and various entertaining platters that are going to be sold off, watching as the stakes are raised again and again. More boxes — of books, kitchen wares, of all the things you thought you’d use again but never did. Tossing off what time has made meaningless; high school yearbooks where you don’t talk to these people anymore and can barely remember them, kitschy things that seemed funny when you were younger, even mementos from friends who you will always love, but ended up breaking your heart in the end.
Hopes for the future, of having the life that your parents did, cast away like shadows in the darkness. Things you wish you could keep but know that there is no space anymore in your current existence. Feeling like you’re falling behind as the people around you, who love you, hold cups of coffee, razzing on your ex because he’s the easiest target at this moment.
Then you realize that you’re suffocating underneath all the items. The weight of the past is being collected in the tangible things, and you desperately want them all to go away. You want to disappear with them, because in that moment you feel like in the things you are one of them, worth very little under the mountain of time passed, left to linger in the graveyard of donations and sellable items worth merely pennies.
And you’re left asking: What kind of life have I lived?
The tears start to flow. My wailing starts softly. It gets louder, and I try to muffle into a pillow. I fail.
My phone text blares. It’s him, my sweet him. He’s so far away from me right now. I tell him I’m having a hard day and that I don’t want to burden him while he’s working; the truth is I’m so used to being independent that I’m terrified to let him in when I’m like this. I prefer to smile and laugh with him, as the happiness he makes me feel is indescribably infinite.
I go back to crying again, thinking of lying in bed with him as he holds me just right, his fingers across my face as he wipes away every tear individually when I would cry about missing my mother, as if counting each of them. And then telling me quietly that he’s not running away.
I still miss her. And I’m crying for her now — two days after Mother’s Day, because I put so much under the surface that I didn’t allow myself to feel at that very moment. As I have been doing during most of this process of dismantling a house.
That’s when everyone surrounds you. To hold you, to touch you and to tell you, “It’s time to stop.”
This is when we stop doing and start talking.
My oldest childhood friend is in my passenger’s seat, telling me that if she gets motion sickness she’s taking the wheel. We’re going to the beach because it makes me happy. I’m behind the wheel because, finally, I have control.
And he calls. He asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. He tells me to pace myself; box it now, look at it later. He can’t stay on the phone as my friend and I bicker, but he says he’s looking forward to meeting her, and for going to brunch for my dad’s birthday.
I hang up the phone. My friend looks at me. “He called to check in on you,” she said softly. It was strange coming from her, because she is usually so cynical. It was full of wonder and potential.
His words, his voice, the phone call weren’t tangible items, but it was all the perfect gift. It wasn’t an empty glass vase where a dozen delivered roses once resided, a letter trying to convince me of something to win my affections, or a gift that came in tangent with a wedding dress. It wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands.
Rather, it was a metaphorical brick in the foundation; one house was dismantling, another potentially being built. And later, I laid down and whisper the words out loud that I was so afraid to say to him directly.
“This is my family,” I say. “But he is home.”
It’s the tearing down and building up, the yin and yang of my existence. I’m standing on the edge of a knife, so scared that I’m going to fall off, dismantling a house while possibly finding a new home at the edge of my universe.
This is exactly what it looks like.
There’s a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles called Thousand Oaks, California. It is one of those sleeper, outside-Los Angeles towns where baby boomers settled with their children in the early 1990s when they didn’t want the stink of the San Fernando Valley on their skins. It was where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap, where suburban sprawl reigns supreme and tract houses caress the hillsides.
It’s one of those towns where, 25 years ago, there wasn’t much out there; mainly people with horse ranches, a library, schools and grocery stores. Bigger chain stores and city comforts were out of reach. If you wanted something specific, it meant loading into a car and a half an hour drive in almost any direction.
Thousand Oaks was a place where people ride around in giant pick-up trucks or white BMWs, either cowboys or desperately pretending to be, all while painting the town a bright shade of Republican red. The leading town entertainment was the winning high school football team on a Friday night under those fluorescent spotlights, followed by church with the entire town on Sunday under a huge light-up cross on the lawn.
The children of the people who made their homes out here were tiny little reflections of themselves. If you were any way different you were judged, and your only hope was to cast off your race. religion or sexual orientation to fit the status quo. If you were white and evangelical, like most of the town, you emphasized your whiteness, right down to parental-bought flashy cars, designer clothes and screaming for fancy coffees.
There was a desperate call to win, to succeed. College was the end all and be all of this world, and your extra-cirriculars were everything. Parents slapped football helmets on boys in hopes of getting scholarships and girls fled the cheerleading squad when the dance team won a national championship. You wore show choir sequins and Vaseline on your teeth and let the Napoleonic choir teacher scream and throw his tantrums; bad behavior was excused if you brought home trophies.
This was not the town I was born in; I was actually born in Los Angeles. But from the age of 10, we lived in the house off of La Granada Drive in Thousand Oaks.
It was the town where I was raised in. And I hated it.
Many of the kids grew up together, played at each others’ houses. I was the awkward transplant with liberal, socially conscientious parents — an entertainment techie father and a Holocaust historian mother. We were Jewish and very proudly so, from a family made up of more various people than a cheerleader’s sweet sixteen. My parents worked in the city, came from city families who still lived there, had city attitudes, were city people. There wasn’t room for us in Thousand Oaks.
The teachers never understood me. From a young age I was loud and outspoken. I refused to back down from my beliefs, standing up to my teachers and wondering why their opinion meant more simply because they were older. Passion, smarts, conviction and drive: These were the things that made me.
They didn’t make friends, though. I was that very strange, very tall, loud girl who brought a giant presence to every room. I was teased and made fun of regularly, to the point of crying right in the middle of class when the teacher didn’t do anything to protect me. Don’t get me wrong — there were people who I liked and I know liked me too. But it wasn’t like we were hanging out at each others’ houses. We just were there, acknowledging each other but never really reaching over.
Thousand Oaks was the place of lonely days, where I walked home as a latchkey kid and was left unattended. It was where I felt ugly for being so different and stole makeup from the local drugstore to try to feel beautiful. It was where I cried to Alanis Morissette, watched Sailor Moon in hopes I had a greater purpose in life, and put on red lipstick and my mom’s vintage dresses hoping I would become Gwen Stefani one day.
It was the place of cold evenings where my teenage self packed backpacks and desperately tried to run away, where I hoped I would die to relieve the pain of being lonely. It was where the doctors would cram pills down my throat to control me and make sure I was quiet. I would watch as I lost control over my own body, and when I tried to object they would shrug. It was the place of rejections and no’s, the place where I felt invisible, told to fit in a box when I knew I was better than that.
As a result, all my life there was one goal: Get the hell out of Thousand Oaks.
Most of my family disagreed, particularly my mother. She loved her little castle on top of the hill, all the knick-knacks and designs she made for her house. And one of her biggest frustrations with me was always why I wanted to leave.
In that small town, she had everything she had always wanted. She had her perfect large house with all her comforts, from sewing machines to a large backyard. She had the dogs and the fruit trees in the backyard. The family was far enough away so that they weren’t banging on our doors, but close enough so they could come every other weekend. It was the place she lived. It was the place she died.
But it was quiet. Eerily quiet. And it was in that silence where my anger grew.
By 21, I was gone, headed off to Orange County with a packed Toyota Camry. I fell in love with the beaches and the laid-back college vibe of my new university, and my anger turned to happiness. There were so many friends and fun nights that graduation seemed like a nightmare. After finding a place where I was finally allowed to be myself, thrive and not be alone, I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I would never return to that place where my loneliness consumed me — even marry an abusive man.
One of the things that kept me married was Thousand Oaks; the idea of returning was unbearable. It felt like quicksand; I hated everything about that place. My focus was on the future. My focus was forward.
But even in Orange County, something was unsettling to me, like my feet were getting stuck. There was no rush of culture or whimsy for me, no joy in the pursuit of having a perfect life and family. It was my parents’ dream, my friends’ dream, everyone else’s dream. Not mine.
So I returned to Thousand Oaks.
It had changed in all those years. All the creature comforts of city life were now there, from Costco to Target. Although there were more housing developments, my parents’ house was still on wistful La Granada Drive, where they would complain about kids drinking near the cul-de-sac and street paving with the city council. It was still scrubbed clean, pristine and shiny. And I still hated it.
A year later, I moved into Los Angeles. It was my birthplace, and after a while I wondered if it was more of my hometown than Thousand Oaks. Walking along gum-encrusted sidewalks carrying grocery bags and sipping coffee along Abbott Kinney felt organic, more than than pick-up trucks and perfect lawns. Whenever I would see the downtown skyline, I would take a deep breath and feel my heart thud proudly through my chest, This was my heart. Thousand Oaks was my hometown, but Los Angeles was actually home.
The people who became my friends were also escapees to Los Angeles — from Dallas, Orlando, New Jersey, Arizona, Chicago or anywhere in between. We found home in each other. They were my friends and family, while the people I went to high school with were a mystery.
As the years went on, people added me on social media. Many were married with kids. Some were like me, single with drive. Some I like much, much better than others, and hope we will see each other and share a coffee or cocktail, and really get to know each other as adults.
I think about all of them — the jocks, the cheerleaders, the jazz hands and the stoners — as I drive back to Thousand Oaks. I think of reading my Facebook the other day, when I had to read about the death of a friend of mine from junior high.
His name was Tony. He sat next to me in junior high science class, and we were friendly with each other. He eventually became a football player, playing under those Friday night lights for the winning team. We were barely friends, but his kindness never stopped.
A friend of mine pulled a prank on him because his friends were so awful to me. She called him and asked him about me. He never said a bad word, although his friends would. I was on the other line, muted, listening intently. It made me feel less alone.
Even though I didn’t how how he died, I thought about articles I read about former football players and chronic brain injuries; how they commit suicide, kill people, lose their minds due to the knocks they took. Wondering if his life had been cut short in part because of our existence in this town.
I arrive at the house on La Granada Drive, with the yellow roses in full bloom. This town has changed in 25 years. The children who grew up on these streets had all moved away to create their own destinies elsewhere, and the housing prices grew so high that very few of them could return.
This house was where I grew to my 5’11 height and ate avocados and lemons from our trees. Where I learned to drive and wrote my short stories. Where I put on my first makeup looks and wore my high school cap and gown. Where the pool parties commenced and my father made his famous hickory smoked Thanksgiving turkey. Where my mother walked and our German shepherd Lucy followed.
And the place where, this summer, my father will leave. Thousand Oaks, the town that I grew up in, will transform from home base to simply a memory.
All my life I always wanted to leave, run away and never return. But sitting in the years of memories, dismantling a house, I don’t know how to feel about it. I had grown and changed. I didn’t live in the past, especially this past that I choose to forget. But the past wasn’t done with me yet.
As I drove into the city, knowing that one day soon I would drive away from Thousand Oaks forever, I really thought about this place: the trees growing wild on the hillsides and the lack of streetlights that allow you to see the stars every night. The coyotes howling at the sound of sirens and the roadrunners dashing alongside them. The rabbits run through the canyons and the hawks circle in the sky, and people still ride their horses up and down the street.
There will be a new child to call this place home. A new family trying to do the best they can. And I pray that this place won’t be as hard on them as it has been on me.
And as they put together their new home, I march forward in mine, scared yet determined, fearless despite the anxieties. Focus on the future, let go of the past, no matter how hard it tries to shake you.
This is the way my time in Thousand Oaks will end.