Every now and again I give in to an urge to revisit my past in the most visceral way I know how: I drive by everywhere I’ve lived. Given that I’ve resided in a lot of places, and most not in this state, I can spend only an hour or so haunting the exteriors of those once-known houses, and the ones I can’t, I Google Earth. One of my more life-changing drive-bys, when I was in my 20s, put me at a crossroads that changed my life. See, I’m the kind of person where life takes a while to sink in, and sometimes I need to see it all in a way I can process: get it out of my head and put it on the map of where I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s how I decide my next move when I’m at a fork in the road.
I’d just dropped my friend at O’Hare. She’d been visiting from San Diego and we had a mellow good time, full of movies in the afternoon and the kinds of conversation you have only with those who know your every cell. Melancholy overcame me as I drove home to my studio apartment just as snow started to spit on the windshield. I knew this feeling, and I heeded it. I started down Lake Shore Drive and by feel, navigated the way to the first Lakeview apartment I’d shared with my friend when I first moved to town. Actually “lived” is not the right word because in truth, she just let me crash at her place for two months until we found a Lincoln Park walk-up with another college pal. I spent nights on her futon in the living room, and days tromping the pavement, visiting temp agencies, looking for a job. I’d found one at a bank as an advertising coordinator, just as we moved to the new place, and good thing too, because I had $82 in my checking account.
That’s where I found myself next, at that Lincoln Park apartment. A beautiful old place, with wrought iron and cobblestones and city views to the south, our bachelorette pad on Belden was the single life personified. All manner of dates passed through, parties, and heartbreak, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in all my 20s. I see us three gals on the town sauntering down to Lincoln Ave. and to the bars up and down that way. I see breakfasts at noon, I see White Hen and the cigarettes bought inside, I see snow drifting on the balcony with footprints that would stay until April, I see home alone on Christmas eating two pieces of buttered toast, I see someone I haven’t known for awhile.
I stayed in the car looking at that apartment for long moments. That was my moving-on place, the transition spot. I worked hard to find a job, and found one, I worked on Michigan Avenue like the people in John Hughes movies did, I broke up with someone who wasn’t good for me. I became.
I returned home on that day to my apartment on LaSalle and North. This is where I now lived alone, and I somehow knew that it was time to go. I’d only been in the place for four months, but it was not for me anymore. I just could tell, which is why when the call came from Los Angeles, offering my old writing job back, I took it. I gathered my few things, left the skin behind, and went on.
I think of that now. Did I really know that move would be my turning point? Into marriage, children, the skin-shedding? I didn’t, I did, I don’t know, but I dimly realized that moment was a revelation.
It’s been a couple of years since I did this again in any real sense. I was pregnant with Toots and feeling nostalgic. I started at the first house I lived with The Rock, where we stayed just a year, but stood for the first time I’ve ever lived with a boyfriend, and was what brought me from Los Angeles to San Diego. It’s a simple gray affair with white trim, a well-kept yard, and as I remember, a play structure in the backyard — something I thought was so superfluous to our life and unnecessary and things they do change.
The owners notified us they’d be back much sooner than planned (or that they told us when we signed the rental agreement), so we moved out before we wanted to, ending up in a cinder block type place in a much saltier part of town than I felt comfortable. I did my best to feel myself there, but truth is, I couldn’t wait to move out. Which I did, after five years, a wedding and a birth. It was there that I did my second drive-by of the day, and noted that the original owner installed green awnings over each window, like one might find at a bank from the 1920s, and painted the driveway an odd terra cotta color, punctuated at points along the path with plaster Roman goddess statues. An unusual man to begin with, he often fascinated me with his head-scratching conversational style and wispy hair he dyed a Bozo color. I’d have to see the inside of this house.
I knocked. Like I said, I was pregnant with my second born and feeling the need to place my life into some kind of outline, give it a trajectory I guess, like I was THIS person then, and I am this person NOW. I didn’t quite expect him to, but indeed he answered the door and didn’t wonder too much at my asking to see inside. Many of the rooms with the memories — Toots’ nursery where The Rock spent hours arranging her baby bookcase and where we’d drag the imposing HP air purifier because she couldn’t sleep to the sound of anything but, were transformed into something out of Boogie Nights. Rooms were black, there was laquer, and prodigious gold fleck. Every room had been changed, but it’s all the same, isn’t it? What happened in those rooms are what we keep forever, and no amount of porn redecorating could take that away.
I pointed to the window that never shut properly (and now covered with metal latice) and told him that once I crawled through it, eight months pregnant and desperate after losing my house keys. There was also the living room that housed my mom’s dining room table and hutch, both sold when we moved and that I still miss seeing every day. Each room held a piece of me, and put my life’s journey square in my face, which is right where I wanted it – in front of me.
I came home to our place by the beach, and opened every window just how I liked to do. Such a far cry from cinder block, designed by an architect, and built by a friend, this was one of my favorite places — on the inside. New stainless appliances, black granite counters, miles of dark wood cabinets and plenty of other modern touches made me want to entertain there all the time, but our house sat behind another and between apartments, so after years of the girls playing in the alley under close watch, I decided we should move to the suburbs, which is where we are today.
Here, where I am this very minute, is the closest thing to how and where I grew up, although Chicago is a far cry from San Diego. It’s the trees I guess, and the friends, and maybe the crickets singing in the grass. Or the kids running through the house and playing Ghosts in the Graveyard in the cul de sac. Neighbors come by, the garage stays open, and I like to think the girls will remember this house the way I remember my childhood home with the speckled swingset in the backyard, the garden where my mom grew rhubarb, and the chimney I climbed for dreaming. The years between 27, when my driving moved me back to Southern California, and 43, three years after my last road trip through my life, passed so fast, so fast. It makes me wonder how old I’ll be when I drive by where I live now.