LA Stories

To Live and Die in L.A.

In the mornings, I walk to the park with my dog. I’ve gotten too pregnant to run. Because I’m there at the same time every day, I see the same people: a woman who always gives me a thumbs up as we pass each other climbing stairs, the personal trainer who eggs on his clients as they do push-ups in the grass, and Sarkus, an eighty-year-old man who’s lived on our street for over thirty years. He goes to the top of the stairs to do squats as he holds onto the railing, an Armenian Jack LaLanne. One of the first times I saw him, he warned me not to climb the hills, because, he said,  the dried olives that fall from the trees and carpet the hillside are like ball bearings.

“I was climbing just like you, and I slip, break my collarbone. I was in the hospital three weeks.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded at my belly, “You don’t want to slip.”

I thanked him, and haven’t climbed the hills since. Instead we take the long way, following the winding road to the top where we can play frisbee in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright house now closed for renovations, with the Griffith Observatory and Hollywood sign looming over us like a postcard.

My husband and I are still relatively new to the neighborhood. Three months ago, we moved to the top floor of a four-unit apartment building in Hollywood. It was built in the ’20s, and it is the biggest, nicest apartment I have ever lived in. Every wall is lined with windows. There is so much light and air, so many birds always chirping in the trees. Our curtains billow. Even the pets seem happier since we moved here, lounging in sunbeams and click-clacking down the long hallway to our bedroom.

When we signed the lease, under “number of children,” I had to cross out the “0” I’d written and replace it with a “1.” I was just barely showing then, and alarmed myself with how easily I could forget, sometimes for hours at a time. But that “1” was the main reason we were moving. The other reason was that we were tired of the standard L.A. apartment complexes we’d been living in for years. Tired of lobbies, banks of mailboxes, four washing machines shared by forty apartments, at least one of which was always out of order. We were tired of avoiding eye contact with strangers in the elevator. Tired of feeling boxed in by layers of concrete and echoing stairwells, of trucks blocking the driveway every Saturday as somebody-or-other moved in or out.

The new place has its quirks. Since it was originally one giant house, the plumbing is all connected, so if you’re in the shower when a neighbor flushes their toilet, you have to be ready to jump out of the way to avoid getting scalded. And, if you leave the bathroom window open, you can hear the neighbors as clearly as though they were in the room with you. I was late for work one recent morning because I’d zoned out listening to the couple downstairs talk about a restaurant they hate while one of them was in the shower, lulled by how boring it was, how boring we all are, if you listen for very long.

After work a few weeks ago, I picked up a bouquet of white hyacinths that I hoped looked stately rather than festive. When I got home, I stood at the kitchen counter, struggling with what to write in the card. I didn’t know the old woman downstairs, next door to the couple who have their morning chats in the bathroom. I didn’t know her son, who lived with and cared for her. All I had to go on was the nod hello he would give us every time we ran into each other in the parking lot. But the previous morning they’d carried his body out of the apartment on a stretcher. I didn’t—don’t—know them, but we’re so close; we share pipes.

I settled on We are so sorry for your loss. Your son was always so kind when we ran into him. Please call us if we can help you with anything, followed by our phone numbers.

When my husband got home, he dropped his things in the hall and the two of us went downstairs to pay our respects. “I heard her crying this morning,” he whispered, as he shut the back door behind us.

I’d only actually seen the woman downstairs once. She was perched on a stool in the doorway of her cramped storage unit, presiding over piles of boxes as her son sorted through them, periodically lifting something up over his head for her assessment: an old kitchen appliance, a roll of fabric. We were still finishing up the move. Our dog ran up the back steps while we wrestled some straggling belongings out of the car: a bucket of rags, a broom, a plunger. We asked her name and she laughed. She said it was too foreign, too hard to remember, to just call her “B.” We shook her hand, nodded hello to her son, who was barricaded behind boxes, and carried the last awkward armfuls up the stairs to our sparsely furnished and bare-walled apartment.

B’s front door was open. We knocked lightly on the screen, and were let in by a man in a gray suit, who stood back and spread his arm for us to come in. The living room was filled with people, young and old, on every couch, recliner and dining room chair pulled out to make room, all circled around a coffee table crammed full with plates of pastries and cookies no one had touched. Everyone looked up at us. No one spoke. I scanned the room in a vague panic for someone, anyone to take the flowers we’d come to deliver. That was what we were doing, wasn’t it? The requisite condolences, the obligatory apology for the hand our neighbor had been dealt, though it had nothing to do with us?

B stood up and pulled my husband in for a hug, then me. She grasped both my arms and said, “My son was so happy you were having a baby, so happy. He comes to me one day and he says, ‘Mama, the new people upstairs, they are having a baby!’ I say, ‘How do you know?’ He says, ‘Because I saw her, mama.’ He was so happy.”

Someone carried the flowers off to the kitchen and B told us to “Sit, sit.” We found the only empty spot on a rose-colored velour couch opposite her recliner, under a wall tapestry commemorating the Armenian genocide.

B took her seat again and squinted out the window, then turned back to us. “So you didn’t hear anything either?”

My husband and I looked at each other, sharing a moment of confusion until her question became clear. We shook our heads. “No,” I said. “We were at work.”

When I’d left that morning, I’d noticed the ambulance and cop car on our street, but didn’t give them a moment’s thought. I pull over for ambulances practically every day. They’re just sounds, blending into the background of the city, always an emergency somewhere. I pulled out past them and headed for the freeway like always.

“It was early,” she pressed, “eight o’clock.”

I’d driven right between the emergency vehicles, so certain they signified nothing, forgetting that they almost always signify the worst day of someone’s life. “I saw the ambulance, but…” I said weakly.

“No one heard anything,” B said. “I asked everybody, but nobody…”

Another elderly woman interjected, patting B’s arm, “There was nothing to hear. Nobody was screaming and yelling.”

We’d only learned what happened when my husband was out walking the dog that night, and ran into the young British guy who lives in the apartment next to ours. He and his roommate had seen the body bag; they’d assumed it was the old woman herself.

The room was warm, packed with siblings, children, grandchildren, and, standing in the kitchen doorway, distant cousins, acquaintances, uncomfortable in starched shirts and pinchy dress shoes. My husband and I were interlopers in our jeans. I fretted over dinner in the oven upstairs, hoped the salmon wasn’t getting too dry. But B wanted to talk to us. I felt it across the coffee table, her need.

“Ten years ago, my husband died, same, just like that. I went to hang laundry outside and he told me to put something on my head. I came back, he said he feels dizzy, then he falls down, he’s gone.”

Everyone in the room was looking at the floor, nodding. The apartment was nothing like ours and everything like every grandmother’s house: little shaded lamps on every surface, a polished wood piano, lace doilies and knick knacks. The building manager told us she’d lived here thirty-five years. Her son would have lived here as a kid or teenager, depending on how old he was. I wondered about the transition, from a home with children to the potpourri-scented mausoleum it was now. I’ve lived in four apartments in ten years, never imagining I’d live anywhere long enough to feel my life changing, if anybody does.

“The pastor was here yesterday,” she went on. “I say to him, ‘Why does God test me…once, twice, three…I don’t know how many times?’ He says, ‘Just like there is rain and sun, like there are rich and poor, we take the good and the bad, it’s all the same, all a part.’” B clutched the soft arm of her chair and shook her head. “But it’s not the same. Rich and poor is not the same.” Her face screwed up in bafflement.

“You can’t take it so literally,” said the same woman who’d reminded her that her son hadn’t screamed.

I felt the baby move, what I guessed were her legs or feet brushing against the walls of my uterus. Someone handed B a glass of water. She set it down beside her without taking a sip.

“When I called the coroner, I said, ‘When can you come?’ He said three hours. I said, ‘I am supposed to leave my son on the floor for three hours?’” She motioned toward the carpet next to the coffee table, and I pictured him, face-down in his usual windbreaker and baseball cap, because I didn’t want to picture him face-up. I held my hand to my belly. She’d felt her son like this too. She’d pressed against his tiny hands and feet when she felt them, like I did, delighted in his pushing back. Three hours, the coroner said. The baby had stopped moving, or at least, I couldn’t feel her anymore. She’d retreated back to the center where I couldn’t reach her. Some days, if I haven’t felt her for a few hours, I drink ice water to wake her up. It’s too nerve-wracking to not feel her, to not know for certain that she’s alive and moving and here.

A teenaged relative squirmed in his chair. Someone coughed. The people next to us rose from the couch and said their goodnights, sending a ripple through the living room as people saw an opening to make their own exits, while those who were staying set about vague kitchen errands. We seized the moment, telling her to call us if she needed anything as she squeezed our hands amid the sudden flurry of activity. We hurried up the driveway toward our back staircase. I don’t know why we hurried. I knew we were both glad to leave, to get back to our own apartment and be greeted by our sweet, simple animals, to get away from the looks of strangers that seemed to say both what are you doing here and where do you think you’re going. We shut the door behind us just in time to hear the oven ding, panting like grateful escapees.

Of course, there is no escaping. Just as I see the next door neighbor’s shirts and jeans clipped to our shared clothesline, I see B’s son’s belongings piled by her back door, waiting to be taken to another relative’s car, or to the dumpster at the back of the parking lot. His bedside table and DVDs, in use just weeks ago, now useless, a spooky reminder that all our things become trash without us. It makes me look at the drugstore bag I’m carrying up the stairs and wonder why I even thought I needed or wanted this stuff.

Less than two blocks from our building is a mural: a knife cutting open a bleeding forearm, wih the caption “1915.” In the blood are written the words, “Our wounds are still open.” The mural is huge, a story high, jarringly graphic as you’re walking to get coffee or hit the ATM, a discomfiting reminder of a genocide not as long passed as it sounds.

Yeah, it makes me uncomfortable. But: I don’t look away.

It can be easy, in a big city, to feel isolated. In Los Angeles especially, we can slip from our homes, to our cars, to our offices without interacting with anybody, alone with our thoughts, our music, our lives carefully structured for our convenience. To disconnect is the easiest thing in the world. Having a dog helps. I have no choice but to cover the new neighborhood with my footsteps and hers, the bull’s eye of my pregnant belly drawing daily kindness—the stair-climbing woman at the park saying ‘good morning beautiful mama’—and occasional madness—the woman who, clearly using me as a stand-in for someone in her life, or parroting something that was once said to her, yelled ‘you should have an abortion, fucking bitch’ down the street after me. Like B’s pastor said, it’s all the same, all a part. You have to take the good and the bad.

But it’s not the same. Taking the bad and merely witnessing it aren’t the same either.

There’s another person I see in the park most days, a young homeless woman who’s set up camp under the trees. She has a lot to say about Jesus, but is always pleasant. As my pregnancy has progressed, so too has her interest in me. She always asks if it’s a boy or a girl, when I’m due, whether I’m going to read the Bible to my baby, those same questions day after day. Now she tells me that she’s pregnant too. I congratulated her and she beamed. On Mother’s Day, she wished me a happy one. “You too,” I said. I don’t know what else to say. I hope everything is okay for her, even though I know it isn’t. What purpose does my hope serve? What is there to do but keep saying hello, keep talking, keep looking her in the eye?

My husband and I were talking over breakfast about how weird the Rite Aid in our new neighborhood is, both of us confounded by the things kept behind locked glass doors—deodorant, moist towelettes—when he said, “Oh…” suddenly realizing why. The Rite Aid is next to the park, he said, where the woman and so many others like her camp under the trees. The Rite Aid has to lock up the things they steal in an effort to stay just a little bit clean. “Oh…” I said. Oh.

When I come home, I see B’s door open, people hanging in the doorway, family still converging around her weeks after the fact. I climb the stairs to our apartment, now in a state of flux with baby things, a crib we haven’t figured out how to put together, tiny socks and onesies jammed into our own dressers because we haven’t gotten one for her yet. Exhausted, as I often am these days, I lean back into the couch, in the warmth of a sunbeam—all those windows—and I hear the parrot that lives across the street hollering in its signature pattern, sounding strangely like a person calling out to get someone’s attention.

And I’m wondering why it feels so important to me, now more than ever, to live not just in my home, but in my building. And not just in my building, but in my neighborhood. Why do I feel compelled to guard against disconnection at all costs, as we did when we chose to move deeper into the city rather than retreat to the suburbs to start our family? When I think about what I want to give my daughter, the answer is this: Everything. All of it. The beautiful and the ugly. The delightful and the disturbing. The calm and the chaos that coexist everywhere you look. I want to teach her to keep her eyes open, every day, to the world around her. Because I want her to be here with us. Because it’s the whole point.

 

Anne-Marie Kinney is the author of the novel Radio Iris (2012, Two Dollar Radio). Her short fiction has appeared in Black Clock, Indiana Review, and Keyhole, and has been performed by Los Angeles's Word Theatre.