Five designs comprise the architectural variance of my Home Owners Association. We all have red tiled roofs. Our palette of exterior paint is confined to a spectrum of cream.
The streets dead-end against sage canyons. Coyotes yammer in tandem with sirens. The landscape channels the eerie reverberations into the cul-de-sacs.
Our HOA fees maintain three pools and a man-made pond local natives think is a lake. Legislation prevents against its dredging. It serves as a convenient toilet for migratory water fowl.
Blooms line footpaths. Manicured trees contest relentless sunshine. Military and tourist aircraft rend and rumble in the otherwise featureless sky.
I recently adopted a weekend habit of wandering the streets of this suburb at night. Though I lead a lonely life, these walks comprise the brief intervals in which I can relish being alone.
I glide into the dark, giddy with the wrongness of my presence. It feels like stealing out of my parents’ house to convene with friends among the pines that loomed where I grew up.
But everything I do between streetlights now is legal and discreet. I no longer scan yards for homey totems to vandalize. Instead I contemplate the meaning of home. And wonder if I have one.
The difference between houses and homes is most pronounced at night. Some structures beckon, proffering strength. Others are chilly tombs for drowned consumers. The key distinction lies in the degree to which a dwelling exudes unboastful light.
This kind of light remains elusive unless you traverse a neighborhood on foot. It shrinks from revving engines and barking dogs. A thin layer of windshield grime filters it completely. It does not spring, but oozes over curbs.
Many other features complement the glow of a home. Savory charcoal. Sighing dryer vents. Trembling AC units. It’s a recipe that headlights spoil with paranoia.
Wary of this, I steer my haunts into the most remote arteries of my HOA. That’s where I get the most disoriented and revived.
One night I saw a cluster of cars huddled in a sequestered cul-de-sac. I almost backtracked, reluctant to be known to partygoers. But I caught the muffled acoustics of a drum kit, and there was no resisting.
I crept past four or five houses, using yard foliage for cover. The last thicket of groomed cacti and ficus gave way to the brighter plane of a well-swept driveway.
Bass and guitar leaked from the garage in front of me. I tuned my head to the music, but my energies of perception were usurped when the façade over the garage melted from HOA beige to rowdy pink.
Bewilderment. Was something wrong with me? I clenched the lighter in my pocket and stepped off the curb to appraise the property in relation to its neighbors. The stucco of the house in front of me cooled to undulating blue. The place next door stayed beige.
The material explanation I hoped for appeared in the form of canisters mounted in the yard and the eave gutters. I began to digest the spectacle for what it was: The way someone had escaped the HOA covenant and painted their house whatever color they wanted. As long as it was night.
My attention shifted back to the music. An off-key voice rose up between the instruments. The melody carried a twinge of sadness. Some cautious hope. I gave up on confining it with genre.
I tried to fix on the words themselves but failed to align what I heard with either of the languages I speak and which are printed on bank doors here.
But I felt incorporated. Among illegally but considerately parked cars. In front of a shape-shifting house that hinted at what my own could become. Part of an emergent world I have a hand in naming.
My friend Rob grew up watching my HOA replace the canyon trails where he used to crash his bike. He preserves the lore of many vanished landmarks. One night, he suggested we try a brewery a mile from my house. The walk gave our broken bone stories time to meander and Rob time to smoke a cigar.
We skirted the lake and ascended the tapered stretch of parkway that doubles as a freeway overpass. The nose of a shopping cart violated the bushes near the Target. More consumer detritus riddled the gutters.
Headlights haloed a fellow pedestrian further down the road. Distance and dark stripped the figure of a face until the hurried silhouette thrust itself into earshot. We paused our conversation and ceded half the sidewalk to let it pass.
I’m guessing she was pretty once, though probably never knew it. Now her smile seeped need. I noted her scant attire and felt my callous thoughts congeal as a question: What business does she have at my lake?
She was ten yards past, and I was already forgetting her, when her voice slid down the hill at us.
To our credit, I guess, we faced her. Rob cupped his hand at his ear to let her know we hadn’t understood.
“Do you know what time it is?” she said.
Unwilling to reveal the contents of my pocket, I did not reach for my phone. “About 10:30,” I guessed.
Rob and I tried to renew our momentum down the hill, but she called out again. Now she was narrowing the buffer of neutral sidewalk. Her posture spoke covert trust. “Do you have anything to sell?” she said.
I signaled for her to halt by splaying my palms to the ground. “No, thanks,” I said.
“I have cash,” she said, fumbling with her clutch.
“We’re good,” I said. “Take care.”
She expressed no disappointment. Just resumed her ascent toward the pond and blended with the dark.
“Now I’m looking for her associate,” Rob said.
I scanned the shadows across the street.
Rob looked over his shoulder in the direction we had come from. “I think people might hang out around the lake at night.”
Sometimes, eight cars or more bear affiliation with individual houses on my street. To whom do these little fleets belong? Struggling cousins? Grown children?
My daytime jog loop around the pond has acquainted me with a parked station wagon fitted with ludicrously unnecessary snow tires. A United States Air Force sticker peels on the back window.
On my weekend errands, I see the unmistakable car in shopping center lots. The driver’s door is open, serving as a wood-paneled curtain. Below its rusting hem, a pair of feet rest on the asphalt.
One afternoon, before the quarantine, I was at a communal lawn a few bends in the street from my address. I had taken my toddler there to coax him up the stairs and down the slide of a play structure built on transplanted beach sand.
My son’s clumsy efforts elevated my awareness of threats. Every step he took was precarious. Watching him confront risk and back away from most of it made me wonder if my hovering was quelling his courage.
I stepped out of the sand and back on the sidewalk. I pretended to not pay attention to him and turned my eyes up the street.
The familiar station wagon limped into view and see-sawed into a space against the lake loop curb.
It requires some discipline to be unobtrusively observant of two concurrent dramas.
In one periphery, mismatched sunshades went up in windows not already blocked by jetsam.
In the other periphery, my son was deliberating at the top of a slide.
The driver did not emerge from his ragged privacy.
My son joined the amalgam of natural laws.
Homes glow. Mere houses stand cold.
But there is a third kind of address I’ve met on my ambles in the suburban dark. I rue their harsh assertions.
On the night I first canvassed the neighborhood alone, my eyes were roving over porches and palms not far from my front door. I was easing into these details and drawing confidence from them. It was the most significant I had felt in months.
The pleasure was brief. Sensors read my presence and loosed a sudden flood in defense of the sidewalk. My calm crystalized into self-consciousness. I hastened from the spray of the motion light that had marked me as a threat.
Who had the right to infect the street with such intensity? What were they so afraid of? What were they protecting?
Bleak realization bubbled from under my assumptions. A sad and humbling fact:
A motion light defends my house too.
Its righteousness guides me back inside when I roll out the garbage on Monday nights.
I did not install the light. Previous owners did. An elderly couple.
Three years ago, when my wife and I put in our buyer’s bid, our offer was not the strongest on the table. But I bolstered our stakes with a letter. I promised to maintain the home to the best of my ability. I offered assurance the address would remain a place where children feel love.
I try to make good on it all.
But I am ashamed of the blinding apparatus the kind old couple left above the garage. I mean to replace it with something gentle and steady. The distinctions I’ve collected on my walks have made me more conscious of what I spill into the darkened world.
So I make a point each night to light the window lamp in our sitting room—a seldom-used space filled with inherited furniture. The lamp glow hardly breaches the blinds.
Sometimes on garbage night, I defy my unscrupulous security light and remain in the street until its glare fades. I hear splashing and singing. Bath time upstairs.
This is where I live.
My dwelling is not as mature or self-assured as some of the other properties I evaluate on my walks. But it’s not a tomb either. If not a home, then at least a place where healing happens.
A work in progress. Where maybe something redemptive and restorative will be born.