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Take Three | SHAWN HUBLER

My Sweet, Embraceable Home

June 20, 1997|SHAWN HUBLER

There is a small, private college in the modest suburb where we live, so small and private that you might miss it if you didn't know it was there. The students seem never to leave the campus; the buildings and bungalows of the school merge seamlessly with the buildings and bungalows of the community.

Not long ago, they had commencement, and in honor of the guest speaker, the college held a small soiree. Because we knew the speaker, we were invited to the historic home where such campus gatherings are held, to dine among the local benefactors and the deans.

You live in a community for a certain number of years and you think you know it pretty well. You know the points of interest and the shortcuts, which market has the good produce, which garage has the honest mechanics, which teachers at the grade school genuinely like kids.

From long seasons of school pageants and Little League casino nights, you get so you can predict the choreography of local gatherings. You learn to appreciate known quantities. And then, one night, something unexpected opens your eyes, and you realize: You don't know the half about this place.

*

The historic house was situated behind a tall hedge of oleander that was green and woody and dusty and impenetrable. We parked on a verdant street of a sort that is common throughout Southern California, and strolled past the split-levels and ranch houses in the evening air.

All we could see of our destination was the oleander, blooming hot pink and white, and a bit of the cobbled drive. Then we took a turn to one side of a cul-de-sac, and suddenly, astonishingly, we were in the courtyard of a tile-roofed, turreted, Spanish-style mansion and the sounds of a pianist playing Gershwin filled the air.

There are probably some lucky people in this endless metropolis who get to hear Gershwin nonstop. Maybe, in another life, I'll reach a point where someone will play "Embraceable You" and I won't yearn to close my eyes and sway.

Oh, but not yet, and on that warm, amber evening you could stand in that adobe courtyard and smell the jasmine and imagine yourself in a California you'd thought was long gone--a California before the orange groves were paved underfoot, before split-level houses climbed the golden hills.

Or you could gaze with new eyes on neighbors you never noticed before, ordinary in, say, the supermarket, but tweedy and well-spoken here, drifting toward their linen-draped tables as the dinner bell was rung--the Irish American pol, the African American author, the business professor, the oil executive.

And at one table, the playwright, visiting from New York, tall and thin and middle-aged. She was a surprise all by herself, with a dashing pageboy haircut and a fringy shawl and dangly earrings and cowboy boots.

Periodically, someone would say something that she found utterly delightful. "Marvelous!" she would hoot, and "Wonnnnderful!" Midway through the dinner, a woman in flowing garments stood to toast her. The playwright stood to raise her glass in return.

She had a confession, she said: Earlier that afternoon, she had had some time on her hands and had wandered into this very courtyard where we all now sat. The tables were not yet set up, and in the open space, oddly enough, some students had erected an enormous trampoline.

She had thought of those giddy students all through dinner, she said, and as she was being toasted she had imagined this gift: She had imagined the esteemed guests here this evening being magically transported, all at once, onto that trampoline--glasses tinkling, jewelry clanking, laughing like children, bouncing back on their bottoms, re-

bounding in rapture under the starry sky.

*

There are moments that can subtly shift your view of a place. Since that night, I keep wanting to do double-takes. The familiar has turned mysterious. I look at the thick ivy ground cover that carpets my front yard and wonder what would happen if I were to lift a corner and peek underneath.

Maybe I'd find a landlocked Atlantis under there, or a convention of lizards or the booty from the Lost Dutchman mine. Or a tiny desert metropolis shot through with freeways and miniature stucco homes, with a beach at one end and a little mountain decked with a little Hollywood sign.

And who knows? Perhaps even a benevolent dreamer hovering overhead, imagining tiny multitudes leaping and bouncing up and down and into the clouds again. Closing her eyes and seeing the hair flying, hearing the jewelry clanking. Laughing in utter delight at this astonishment, this Southern California, this wonderful, marvelous, embraceable home.

Shawn Hubler can be reached on the Internet at shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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