Behind the Wall

Yesterday afternoon I came home and, despite the aches in my knee, I couldn't stop myself from heading back out to take a very slow stroll around the neighborhood with my sons. However, almost immediately my walk was cut short, not because of knee pain but because I was absolutely shocked by what was going on across the street.

For as long as I've lived in my neighborhood, one of the houses diagonally across from me has been completely obscured. The house being set far back from the sidewalk and being built into a down slope, strategically placed trees and an extremely high cinder block wall have all ensured that for the nine years I've lived here I've never actually seen the entire property. I've only seen part of one corner.

The cinder block wall was painted a gentle shade of light green and was, almost year-round, covered with a flowering vine. It blended in beautifully with the rest of the neighborhood's scenery, so much so that it was easy to forget that a wall was even there and that something might exist beyond it.

Sometimes though I've wondered what was behind the wall. The secluded nature has caused me to imagine the property as the neighborhood version of "The Secret Garden". I've pictured two worn and weary lovers escaping the cares of the day, quaintly holding hands while sitting on a shaded bench. There's a peaceful silence in their secret garden, the noise of the city magically unable to cross the green-painted concrete barrier and the aroma of honeysuckle wafting through the breeze.

But when I stepped outside yesterday and looked across the street, I saw that this magical wall was completely gone. The entire thing had been knocked down, a yawning space left in its wake. Four workers with sledgehammers were quickly breaking up the few remaining pieces of green rubble and loading it onto a junkyard truck.

My eyes immediately moved past the workers to the house behind them. Revealed at last was the mythical place that has been obscured all these years, a rather quaint one-story craftsman cottage. And the romantic yard of my imagination? It has a neglected air to it with some ill-kept grass. The honeysuckle bush and shaded bench from my imagination were both absent.

But my jaw dropped when I saw a small sliver of blue rippling in the sunlight. Unbelievably, a small, oval shaped sunken swimming pool is in the front yard.

It was too much for me to process all at once, so I stood and gaped at the spectacle in front of me. My sons began to excitedly chatter with each other about how they were going to go and swim in the pool.

I immediately thought that somebody better have plans to put up a new wall or fence so that the neighborhood kids don't drown themselves. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of my neighbors who lives down the street walking my way. She's lived in this neighborhood for at least 25 years and has seen more changes then I have.

"Someone must've bought it," she said as she approached, her face wrinkled with disdain. "It must be house flippers. Who else would tear down that wall?"

I nodded my head in agreement, disappointed that indeed, some thoughtless newbies would tear down such a neighborhood fixture. Then I figured that perhaps the new owners don't want as much privacy. So many of the newer residents of my neighborhood seem to voyeuristically forgo curtains over their front windows, as if they enjoy being seen and admired from the street.

And then a wave of guilt washed over me. I hadn't even noticed the property was for sale, and moreso I'd never even seen the previous owners. "Who used to live there?" I asked. "I never saw anybody coming in or out."

"No, you wouldn't have," she replied. "It was a much older gay couple and both of them were very ill for the past few years. AIDS, you know. One of them died a few years ago. The other must've either finally died or had to move."

I wasn't expecting her to share such an unhappy and tragic story. Sometimes it seems like we never hear anymore about people in the States dying from AIDS related complications. It's like we're all lulled into believing folks can live a normal life with the right medication. We no longer really talk as a society about the pain and suffering of AIDS. And so I could only murmur inadequately about how horrible it was.

My seven year-old son chimed in with an innocent, "What's AIDS, mommy?"

Our neighbor leaned down to pinch his cheek. "It's a disease that you'll never get if you take care of yourself."

"But do you get it from swimming pools?" he asked. I told him no and gave him the "eye" to shush his curiosity.

My neighbor continued. "They used to throw wonderful parties when I first moved here..." Her voice trailed off and I could see she was being taken back in time, perhaps remembering sitting around that pool, chatting with them. "But then one of them cheated, got HIV, gave it to the other. You know how it goes."

"They stayed together?" I asked. Such an incredulous thought seems against human nature. I couldn't imagine doing such a thing. I'd be too angry, too bitter to wake up and be civilized around someone who is the cause of my mortality, all the while knowing that sooner or later the medication wouldn't be enough for either of us.

She nodded sadly. "Yeah, but they pretty much cut themselves off from everybody after that."

We watched the workers for a few more minutes, chatted a bit more and then parted. I didn't feel like going for a walk anymore after that. I had too many visions in my head of two 40 or 50 something year-old men dying in that house. I pictured them sitting inside, holding onto the last precious moments of life, looking out on that swimming pool and remembering the days of their youth, the days of their innocence.

By dusk, a hideous wooden fence was in place, hurriedly erected by the four workers. It's not as tall as the wall it replaced so more of the house is visible. These new owners, however long they stay, will certainly make the house their own, erasing the memories, erasing the pain those walls have surely seen.

I can only hope they don't meet the same tragic fate.


the joy said…
I think that houses do hold things... Memories and unresolved issues. I believe you have to pray about it. It sucks that they decided to put their "white picket fence" up and take down a little piece of the street's personality, but maybe that means they'll be sweet and inviting?
Anonymous said…
Liz, it's very sad that they felt they had to hide themselves away behind that huge wall and never be seen by anybody. As you say, it's remarkable (remarkably forgiving?) that they stayed together and looked after each other. I don't think I would be so forgiving in that situation. And yes, we don't talk enough about AIDS now, other issues like global warming have become more fashionable.

I thought you were going to say all the trees had been chopped down. Someone's just moved into the house opposite us and the first thing they did was hack down all the lovely mature trees in the front garden. Sheer vandalism.
Jameil said…
wow. you are so thoughtful. i'm glad you at least got to finally see what was behind that wall.
What an interesting metaphor for the American moment we are living in. We all have a wall or two we either conceal our true selves behind or build around those we don't want to have to deal with for one reason or another. Funny thing about walls, they keep other people out but they keep you in as well.
Anonymous said…
This is a beautiful piece. I know exactly what you mean about the walled off houses in LA. I always imagine that they are movie stars or, as you said, secret gardens. And some truly are.

Amazing how much we all learn from your old neighbor.
Liz Dwyer said…
The Joy,
I think they houses hold energy too. The guy who had my apartment before me died in here. He was such a nice old guy though, totally cool. I still have one of his rugs and I never have gotten a negative vibe in here. My previous apartment though, that's a whole other story. I hope the new folks will be sweet and inviting, even if they do have bad taste in fences. I can see three guys in the front yard right now. It looks like they might be swimming.

I'm really sort of fascinated by the fact that they stayed together. Maybe they'd just been together for so long and really loved each other and so were able to forgive. I don't know. Who knows, it could have been for financial reasons too since the cost of staying healthy once you have HIV isn't cheap.

I really dislike when folks cut down trees. Unless it's a dead tree that might blow down in a storm, just leave it! It IS vandalism!

I wish I knew the whole story of it. I keep thinking about the whole situation. I'm glad I got to see it all too. It was weird though because it was all just so unexpected. I usually come in through the back entrance to our building so whatever's going on in the front sometimes isn't on my radar as quickly.

It is quite a metaphor, isn't it? We all do have our walls for sure. And we each never really know what goes on behind closed doors. The things I imagined were so far from the truth.

I love talking to my neighbor. She's a great woman and I love to get perspective from her on what this neighborhood has been because all of it, including me, is so relatively new. I'm one of the "old" residents now after less than 10 years.

I really love many of the walled houses here in LA. I suppose I wouldn't mind having one of my own so I can create the walled garden of my imagination.
1969 said…
It's amazing that AIDS has faded from the forefront of our disease list only to be replaced by more cosmetic practices like botox and plastic surgery. Now it's all about looking good.

I would love to see photos of that house...AHEM.
Unknown said…
The power of forgiveness and the power of love ~

Something good from out of the bad...

Your storytelling is getting even better...thanks Liz, you know what kind of day we had!
"Good fences make good neighbors."

What a sad story, worthy of a novel at least. I am most concerned that the new people keep their swimming pool inaccessible to children as such things are called "attractive nuisances" in the law.

I loved the images you wove in this story and could even smell the honeysuckle.
Lydia said…
Hey Liz!

It's scary how we let fences/walls and mendacity keep us from the reality of life. It would be nice if all of the walls could be down and we would want to know what was happening with each other in a way that could be appropriate and not too scary for our children.

Thanks for checking in with me. I and the kids are good. We are taking it one day at a time. I hope to be posting again soon. Lord knows I have enough to talk about! Starting over at 44, with 4 kids is just the beginning! lol

Take care,
Ian Lidster said…
What a sad tale, Liz, at so many levels. Beautifully and sympathetically told, however.
Liz Dwyer said…
SO, I took some photos of the whole scene from across the street, but I don't have a good one without the street sign on it and so I didn't post it. You never know who's going to mapquest that address and then be hanging out in front of my place. I suppose I could've Photoshopped it off but I felt too lazy to do it. And why IS HIV so off the radar? It shouldn't be.,
I have been writing a LOT lately. It's why I'm so slow responding to comments these days. You're right that forgiveness and love go hand in hand. I feel a little jaded thinking they stayed together for financial reasons.

I have been thinking about how I can incorporate the whole thing into something I write in the future. It's really sticking with me. And the fence totally covers up the pool. Such a hideous fence though.

I also wish all the walls could come down and people could connect more from their hearts.

Starting over is never easy, no matter when you do it. I'm glad you're holding it together. Taking it one day at a time is all you can do. If you need any help, let me know.

It is sad, but these are the things that make life what it is. It's the reality that makes the good things shine that much brighter.
Jen said…
Have you thought of putting these observations about your neighborhood into a collection of personal essays about L.A.? I think you'd have a hit on your hands.

I feel sad for the couple who lived such a tragic history. There are way too many similar stories out there, and not only from cheating - sometimes the disease just sitting there, ticking away, without a partner knowing.
Liz Dwyer said…
To true that this sort of thing gets repeated too often. And I have thought about making a book of my observations of LA, and my dear friend, Leili, has suggested to me a couple of times. But I need an expert photographer to help me illustrate it all.
Anonymous said…
I am a female living with HIV and what your neighbour said about them cutting themselves from everyone holds true. Gay or straight everyone l know that is living with this hides themselves away.

One more thing l know a lot of couples who are still together after the other passed on the virus..It's hard to forgive but easier than being on your own with it.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for sharing that. It adds a lot of perspective, and my heart goes out to you. I wish folks who are HIV positive would not hide themselves away because it makes it so much easier for our society to act like HIV doesn't exist or doesn't truly affect lives in the way it so clearly does. Then again, I'm not walking in those shoes so who am I to suggest that. I feel guilty because for as long as HIV has been around, I didn't even know that that's common for that to happen. My prayers are with you, anonymous. Stay healthy.

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