Things That Happened Before the Earthquake
IN THIS EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM CHIARA BARZINI'S UPCOMING NOVEL, OUT IN AUGUST, CULTURES CLASH WHEN A ROMAN TEENAGER MOVES TO THE SUBURBS OF LOS ANGELES IN THE WEEKS FOLLOWING THE 1992 RIOTS.
It felt like the city was still burning when we stepped off the airplane. Was it the riots, or was I just not yet used to the incendiary quality of the warm Santa Ana, the “devil winds” that blew in from the desert. The sunset behind the freeway? As we drove toward our house, we saw police choppers in the sky, metallic dragonflies emitting shafts of white beams moving probingly over the concrete below. Our cat, Mao, who had traveled from Rome with us, miaowed inconsolably. Nothing felt welcoming, and my father knew it.
It took us a long time to get to the house. My grandmother clutched her purse through the whole cab ride.
“It’s not like you’re going to get mugged in a taxi!” my mother reproached her, but she would not let go.
“Señora is right. We’re in Van Nuys, barrio Nuys as the local gangs say,” the cabdriver said with a smirk. “Better safe than sorry.”
“Marida was right,” my grandmother sniffed. “Whenever you told her you wanted to move out here, she always said it was the worst place to raise a family.”
Marida was my father’s mother who had died earlier that year at the age of 90. She had grown up drinking champagne and twirling pearls in her fingers, but a few years before her death, she’d been conned by a Vatican priest who took advantage of her Alzheimer’s and asked her daily to withdraw large sums of money from her bank account to give to the church. She was convinced she could pay her way into heaven. By the time she died, there was very little left of the great inheritance my family was counting on. This, according to my father, was the reason why instead of living in Beverly Hills, like all decent filmmaking families, we had to live in barrio Nuys.
We had smuggled her ashes with us. They’d been divided among her four sons and even though my father was angry at her for leaving him with no patrimony, he was also superstitious and felt that something bad might happen if he left his share of his dead mother in Rome. On the flight over she had come to him in a dream, explicitly telling him to go back to Rome and forget about Los Angeles and filmmaking altogether. In her lifetime she had refused to see most of my father’s films. He invited her to premieres and even asked her to be his date the one time he had been accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, with a Pasolini-inspired story about a homosexual couple, but she bluntly declined. “I don’t like stories about pederasts.”
My father was disturbed by his dream and said his mother had ruined his life while she was alive and now she was trying to ruin it in death. He would make films. He didn’t care what she had to say.
The first thing he did when we entered our home on Sunny Slope Drive — an all-American haven in the middle of what felt and looked like the ghetto — was to move her ashes into the backyard. He placed the urn under a lemon tree in hopes she would not come back to taunt him in his sleep again.
Barzini as a teenager, left, on the beach in California with a friend
My father’s first important entry point into American life involved the purchase of a huge, white 1962 Cadillac convertible he bought at the Pasadena antique car mall — a suburban warehouse filled with classic American cars from the fifties and sixties. He loaded us into the car and drove triumphantly along Van Nuys Boulevard with the top down.
“Stars lived here, right here! They strolled down Van Nuys Boulevard like it was Rodeo Drive. Our neighborhood was hipper than Hollywood. Did you know even Marilyn Monroe went to Van Nuys High in 1941?”
“Exactly. In 1941. Now it’s just homeless people, prostitutes, and 99 cent stores!” I complained to him while he parked in front of a head shop where he wanted to buy a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt he’d seen a few days earlier.
I took the presence of all those head shops and tiendas baratas by our house as a bad omen. How could my father become rich and famous if he surrounded himself with cheapness? It wasn’t just our neighborhood; the whole Valley was disconsolate — a pale, discount imitation of the grandeur that existed on the other side of the hills. The actors who lived here were B-rated stars or grown child actors who got in trouble with the law. Corey Feldman, my favorite Goonie, got caught with heroin and Todd Bridges, the elder brother from Diff’rent Strokes, whom every Italian child from the eighties adored, had been arrested for trying to kill his drug dealer when he was high. Down the street from our house lived Desmond. He was on TV and had a comedy show called Desmond. His wife was a former Miss Virginia. His mother had been a department-store cashier but now lived with him and took care of the house. His sister worked as his personal assistant. We were told he was not as friendly in person as he was on TV and that he carried loaded guns. From the street you could see parts of his house: a cement garden, a pool surrounded by mildewed deck chairs, a collapsed faux-antique lamppost. Two guard dogs rushed forward barking when you approached the iron fence. One had a transparent eye. Those were the kinds of celebrities who lived in the Valley. Even their dogs were defective.
I started adding these facts to my list of bad omens. The signs that we were in the wrong city at the wrong time were unignorable. We were surrounded by them. My father’s dream on the airplane, the echoes of the riots, the smell of ash and dirt and anger in the air, the failed celebrities. Within the first two weeks of living in Van Nuys we received an array of bad news: our trunks from Italy had gotten lost and our cat, Mao, died under a car in front of the driveway. My brother had fallen off his bicycle on a winding road during a day trip to the Mojave Desert and split open his knee. We had to give the hospital fake names and Social Security numbers because we didn’t have insurance. One day we received a phone call from a company in Palm Springs. The guy on the phone knew my father’s name and kept congratulating him on having won a brand-new car. We got dizzy with excitement. What a country. People just got on the phone with you and gave you things. We drove out to Palm Springs convinced we’d be heading home with a brand-new car but ended up spending the day in a lecture hall with a bunch of gullible families like ours, eating stale muffins, and listening to real estate agents on microphones who tried to sell us vacation condos. If we did our part, they promised they’d do theirs and we’d be eligible to win a car.
“Eligible!” my grandmother screamed
at my father. “That’s the key word you failed to understand! You didn’t win a car, you were eligible to win one. You and the four hundred idiots in this room.” We all drove home and never talked about it again. The oracles were speaking clearly to us: Go back to your country now. Do not try to figure out how to conquer the golden sun of California, for it is ungraspable. But my father would not budge, blinded as he was by the promise of something better. “And cheaper!” he screamed. “LA. is much, much cheaper than Rome. There are department stores where clothes, real clothes, important, brand-name clothes cost a quarter of what they do in Italy.”
Suddenly we belonged to those canyons with mountain lions yowling in the night; we belonged to Pick ’n Save, the discount store where all our new plates and cutlery came from; we belonged to the 405 freeway that roared incessantly in our ears like a huge hair dryer. We belonged. It was decided.
On the shark-infested Malibu beach, my naked parents and topless grandmother now read out loud from the LA Weekly classified ads.
“No, not the Valley section. Go to the other side,” my father instructed Serena.
“West Hollywood?” my grandmother proposed.
“Mmm, what about Bel Air?” Serena replied.
The neighborhoods were not, as I hoped, options for new places where we could live but addresses of yard sales that might be in good-enough areas to guarantee high-quality secondhand household appliances. My parents’ friend Max, a Cuban producer who was friends with Phil Collins and lived next door to him in Beverly Hills, had instructed them on the art of accumulating goods without spending much. All they needed was a full tank of gas, a map of the city, and an LA Weekly with yard-sale addresses. He was our go-to man for any questions regarding heat, pain, and glory.
When he took us garage sale-ing, he drove us around Bel Air and pointed out which celebrity each mansion belonged to. We never saw the actual houses from the car. They were protected by brick walls and gates, but I could tell things smelled different in those neighborhoods. The grass was greener — something zesty and hygienic in the air. I imagined kitchen counters filled with fresh limes and oranges. Chlorine-free sprinkler water. “The magic of this city,” Max explained, “is not in the mansions but in the smell of the cedar trees that are planted in front of them. It’s not in the beautifully tiled pools but in the way the sunlight reflects on the water in them. It’s what keeps people here,” he added with an air of mystery. “The luminous unseen.” I stared intently at tree trunks and tried to peek at the swimming pools through the fences, hoping to catch a glimpse of that invisible California life-form Max spoke of, but I couldn’t. The city appeared to me always in the same way, a fatuous leaden expanse.
“Remember, Eugenia,” Max warned me when he saw me squint, “if you look too hard it disappears.”
So I stopped looking for the magic and focused on the stuff instead: blenders, canoes, rocking chairs, broken phones, and microwaves. We were furnishing our house with other people’s rejects.
From a solitary rock, I looked at the Malibu waves creaming on the sand. I swung my legs into the air and hopped off. On the other side of the beach there were no nudists. I climbed over the cliff and walked along the freeway back to a skate park we had passed earlier. I leaned against a wall of arid earth, looking at the skaters rolling up and down the ramps in hypnotic loops. There were girls on bleachers in skintight T-shirts. They had pigtails and sucked on lollipops. I felt the cold wind against my skin. Nature in California was hostile and unforgiving, but the skaters — so vigorous, their hair so blond it was almost white—didn’t seem fazed by it. The girls’ legs were strong, legs that surfed and pushed boards against thrusting water. Legs that could keep a violent nature at bay. I looked at my own skinny, pale limbs, bruised and covered with goose bumps, and I closed my eyes.
Dear Mary, I need your help. Speak to this ocean, these waves, the wind, and the sun. Tell this city to smooth its edges, to show me some kindness, to give me something to hang on to. Dear Mary, appear to me in all your beauty. Make it good or at least better. Amen.
Since we’d moved, the Virgin Mary had become my role model. Being away from the motherland called for motherly reassurance. I wasn’t getting it from my creator, so who could be better than the mother of all mothers? I asked her daily to perform miracles for me as auspicious signs that would cancel out the bad omens. Sometimes I felt like she listened.
The wind blew hard. I put my hoodie on and suddenly the heavens opened with a roaring sound. Mary had heard me, I knew it. The sound became stronger. The skaters stopped skating and looked up to the sky.
She was coming for me.
She was going to take me away.
It was the sound of a helicopter, floating above the beach where my parents were reading out yard-sale listings. From the loudspeakers came the voice of God. It said, “Put your bathing suits back on. I repeat, put your bathing suits back on! You are committing a felony. Ma’am, put your top back on.”
“Dear Mary,” I closed my eyes and kept praying. “Tell me this isn’t happening. Tell me a policeman is not telling my grandmother to put her top back on.”
The skaters started laughing. One of them rolled his pants down, extracted his big cock, and waved it around toward the helicopter.
“Want me to put my bathing suit back on too, officer?” His friends rode their boards down along the coast to see the nudist outlaws from the top of the cliff. I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t. So I stayed there staring as the helicopter picked up dust and sand and landed on an opening by the beach.
I imagined my parents getting handcuffed and deported, and me condemned to stay alone on that beach forever. Maybe I would fall in love with a skater and we could hitch a ride to San Francisco. I heard that it was more of a European city. But did I want that? To betray my family so soon after our arrival?
I ran back to the beach. From the street above, the skaters laughed and screamed at my grandmother.
“Sexy granny, take it off! Take it off!”
A police officer was writing out a ticket as my family stood half dressed and bewildered before him.
“What happened?” I asked when I finally reached them.
“The officer was explaining to us that we cannot be naked here,” my mother whispered in a sultry voice, trying to give herself a distinguished British accent. She thought that by proving her — in her mind superior — European heritage, the cops would be more lenient, but the policeman stared her down and nodded his head.
The British affectation had failed her.
“You guys like your topless tans. Well, you’re in Los Angeles now, and if you are going to lay naked on a beach, you have to take responsibility for things that might happen.”
“But what’s the worst thing that can happen, sir? Nudity is only natural,” my father replied with a Gandhian smile.
It was so like him to try and get a muscle-bound authority figure to level with him in his down-to-earth way. The cop slid his sunglasses down his nose.
“The worst thing that might happen, sir, is that a maniac could be standing right on top of that cliff looking at you naked people, masturbating, and traumatizing children and civilians.”
I tried to imagine a pervert jacking off to my grandmother’s formless bosom.
“I’ve seen it happen,” he confirmed, noticing my doubtful expression.
My brother looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“This is a warning. Now don’t let me find you without bathing suits on here again . . . And ma’am?” he said, turning to my grandmother who, speaking not a word of English, sat on a rock with furrowed brows. “Don’t you know sun is carcinogenic? At your age you should be guarding certain . . . delicate . . . private parts.”
“I don’t understand you and I think you are an ugly asshole,” my grandmother replied in Italian.
He tilted his head and climbed back up the cliff to the helicopter landing. The pilot revamped the engine. The blades spun and the heavens roared. The officers flew above my now fully clothed parents toward the ocean.
“If this isn’t another bad omen I don’t know what is!” I screamed at my parents.
“Ma’am. . . . Put your top back on, ma’am,” my father replied doing a nasal policeman impersonation.
“It’s not funny, Dad!”
“Oh come on, get a sense of humor — ”
“I hate you. I hate this beach and I hate this city. I want to go back to Rome!”
“I want to go back to Rome as well,” my brother interjected. My father put his arms around us and started walking.
“Let’s get out of here, kids. These people are fascists.”
We pulled away from the windy coast into a cool, shaded canyon and climbed inside curve by curve, entering a great protective womb — the car like an old steady boat. The ocean wind ceased and the goose bumps on my thighs disappeared. I leaned back on the leather seat, calm. We all stopped speaking. My grandmother took my hand and looked at me with pity. Where the hell are we? her eyes asked. Minutes earlier on the coast I would have been comforted by that droopy, empathic look, but now it was me who had to reassure her. With each curve the forest precipices softened, and what seemed wild and dramatic from one position, transformed into something intimate and natural as we moved farther in. We were inside Topanga Canyon. In the twenties the place had been a weekend getaway for Hollywood stars. The rolling hills and vegetation created hidden alcoves everywhere. The indigenous Tongva people gave that land its name. The word meant “the place above” and I could see why. We were suspended in the air. I leaned back and closed my eyes. We were up high, where nobody could see us.