The Wisdom of Winning

“Can you be ready to leave in 20 minutes?”

This was usually the question my husband asked me, but we had to hurry if we wanted to see the house that would be ours on May 30th.

“All depends.”

“How does five-bedrooms, five bathrooms, and 5300 square feet in Palos Verdes sound?”

“You’re putting it on a credit card or paying cash?”

“Very funny. I’m going to win it in a raffle to raise money for the Palos Verdes Art Center, but not if you keep wasting time.  We can grab lunch on the way if you hurry. The house is only open until 4:00.”

He didn’t exactly bound up the stairs and I saw I would have to justify buying such an expensive raffle ticket. My husband seemed to have forgotten that he married a winner, but I couldn’t blame him. Most of the time, I forget, too.

I don’t remember the name of the horse I bet on at the Hippodrome de la côte d’azur in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, when I lived there during the ’80s. But the winnings were enough to cover dinner for the ten friends assembled at the track. It was my first bet ever, based on a mere hunch. I ordered another bottle of wine for the table, and basked in the attention of other diners. Almost thirty years passed before the evening took on any particular significance.

The Madison Hotel in Morristown, New Jersey marketed heavily to wedding parties, so I hesitated to bring up my only imperative with the reservation clerk. What I craved more than anything else was the peace and quiet not generally associated with a national holiday in Manhattan. She seemed to understand my concern that there not be any brides afoot during our stay. I stopped short of telling her my preference for no guests at all.

“Not to worry. The Fourth’s not a big date for brides,” she said.

The hotel on Convent Road was an immediate hit. The stately architecture suggested decorum. With its wide, well-manicured lawn and a college down the road founded by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, the getaway was bound to be blissful. Add to that a bride-free walking path on the campus, an empty hotel pool just right for a solitary swimmer in a Speedo that had seen better days, and you had the perfect Fourth of July.

I didn’t want to leave, but my legalistic husband insisted we check out at 12:30 on the button. I dawdled before a big white sign near the front desk that I hadn’t bothered to read before.

Madison Hotel

I dug around at the bottom of my purse, unzipped the side pockets of my suitcase, and told myself the lost ticket was no big deal. The prize was probably a garter belt.

“Check your back pocket,” my husband suggested.

Bingo. I slid the red ticket toward the receptionist without much enthusiasm, not seeing what a big win in the South of France might have to do with a forced exodus from New Jersey.

“Congratulations!” the reception clerk said, smiling broadly.

I still didn’t connect the dots, even though the prizes were portentous. Unable to choose between the possibilities, a glass that felt wonderfully substantial in my hand, or a raffish-looking creature that resembled a horse, I took the cheery young woman up on her offer and accepted them both.

Madison Hotel Glass & Madison the Horse

“I think the universe is sending me a message,” I said to my husband at The Black Bear Diner in Torrance, on the way to Palos Verdes.

“A message about greed? We already have a house. There’s mayo on your chin.”

I wiped it away.

“Have you forgotten that your bonus child is moving to Los Angeles at the end of March?” The friendly term supplanting stepchild by one of his pals suggested that I wasn’t the only winner.

“Are you sure she’ll want to live in a ‘prestigious enclave of Palos Verdes Estates?’”

He stopped reading aloud from the Palos Verdes Art Center website and handed his cell to me in disbelief. Of course I knew how much one ticket cost.

“Are you kidding? You don’t even have to take the house if you want cash instead. Plus they throw in an extra mil to pay the taxes.” I checked my watch. “Let’s get going.”

The thing about winning is that you never get jaded. I’d had my fill of a fantastic risotto and was lingering over a plate of shared biscotti at crowded, convivial Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills with friends. All at once somebody with a gorgeous Italian accent grabbed the mic and started thanking loyal patrons and the hardworking staff. I was still munching my biscotti when he called out my name. I had won again and this time the top of my head felt like it was coming off. I made my way past the other tables, wishing I had on a cuter outfit. I shared the contents of the enormous gift basket with our friends, embarrassed by booty that should have gone to restaurant patrons far more loyal than I.

Il Fornaio Festa Regionale 2011

A Maserati passed us on the steep climb to the Peninsula. My husband floored our Prius C, the car we had just purchased so we could give the 1993 Jeep to the Bonus Child, but we might as well have been standing still.

“Roll down your window,” I told him at the next stoplight, eager to see who was behind the wheel of all that gleaming chrome and steel.

The window next to us descended silently. An angelic teenage child smiled at me. Her pale skin was straight out of a Renaissance painting. The girlfriend driving peeked around the mountain of curly dark hair that filled the entire passenger side and waved coyly.

“How fast were you all going?” I asked.

They consulted for a minute and said 80 in unison.

“You know what I’m going to say, right?”

They nodded, still smiling.

“Promise me, never, ever to do that again. I’m a mother. I get to say things like this.”

They roared off when the light changed and I was left with the first doubt I’d had about the wisdom of winning. How would the Bonus Child react to a prestigious enclave after 14 years in the wilds of Brooklyn? Would she feel at home? Would my ‘93 Jeep?

But my misgivings faded as we turned up the street nestled inside a hillside development overlooking the ocean.

“Nice sidewalks,” my husband said. There are none where we live and their absence sometimes makes him nostalgic for Manhattan, his stomping ground before moving to Los Angeles two years ago.

“Who the heck is that,” I said, opening the car door before we’d come to a full stop. There was an interloper at the entrance the 2014 California Dream House.

2014 California Dream House Guest

“What are you doing in my house?” I asked her.

She was a good sport about posing for a photo, but it came as a shock to see so many other hopefuls traipsing over the travertine flooring and sizing up the remodeled kitchen. My husband and I flew through the grand master bedroom, where I stopped so abruptly that he stepped on my heel.

“Alright, this is beginning to scare me.”

“What now?”

“You know what would be perfect in this house, don’t you?”

“I’m about to find out.”

Syrian artist and activist Fadia

Months earlier, I hadn’t known what to make of the artist crouched in a corner of the reception for AROHO, A Room of Her Own, a foundation for women artists and writers. Guests chatted and balanced drinks, as the mysterious painter worked away. The friend who had invited me and I reunited to hear poetry readings that would end the evening. Or so I thought, until the time came to announce the winner of the raffle. I’d forgotten there was one. My impulse when nobody claimed the number called was to run away. It couldn’t, it wouldn’t happen again. And yet, when I drew the ticket out of my coat pocket and had my friend make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, it turned out I was wrong. The urban landscape by the Syrian artist and activist Fadia, the woman who had painted her way through the evening and through a revolution, was mine. I could only think of the line from Wayne’s World as I stepped up to claim something I hadn’t earned: We’re not worthy. Where would I, with my limited wall space, show the work by an impassioned émigré painter? I hadn’t known until arriving in Palos Verdes.

I checked the size of walk-in closets, and all the features one took for granted in an enclave. I blinked at the entrance to the bathroom, momentarily blinded by the glittering marble. The light was fading and I wanted to see the canyon views before buying my ticket.

“Gorgeous.” It was easy to imagine wildlife at dawn and the shadow of the sun moving down the hillside at the end of the day.

“Get a load of that.” My husband frowned at a narrow alley to one side of the house. “It’s going to be a real pain getting the trashcans to the curb every week.”

“So no deal?”

“I’m just saying.” His gaze trailed off to the edge of the terrace. “Check this out.”

Dream House maintenance

“Look what happens when you live too close to the ocean. Who’s going to be in charge of maintenance on a house this size?”

“That will be your Bonus Son’s concern. This place is big enough for the two of them if we decide we don’t want it.”

The organizers were closing up their cash box and counting the lucre by the time we got upstairs. I hoped my husband wouldn’t try to talk them into lowering the price of entry as I wrote out my check, and wondered whether our sofa would wind up in the living room or my daughter’s futon.

“How about buying two tickets while you’re at it?” One of the volunteers asked.

“We won’t be needing it,” my husband said. “My wife wins every raffle she enters.”

“Can I stand next to you?” asked a dark-haired woman as she buttoned her jacket.

The cars in the driveway were also possible prizes, but I blew past them. We would just have time to visit the whale museum at the Point Vicente Interpretative Center, a stone’s throw from our new life.

“Nice Cooper,” said my husband.

“Now who’s getting greedy? We’ve already got a new car.”

The museum was closed. We walked along the wilderness preserve on the coast instead and were wrapped in fog the instant the sun slipped under the horizon. Black shapes near the shore bobbed up and down. As we got closer, we saw they were real whales. Rabbits stared us down on the path, fearless now that they had come out to feed.

“This would be a great place to get old,” I say to my husband.

“We are old. Don’t try to pet it. That thing could have rabies.”

He reads me endless deadlines and rules from the contest website on the drive home, trying to let me down easy. Not for me, that trip to Cuba, and I already have my masterful work by a California painter, now that Fadia has relocated to LA. I’ve got my eyes on the grand prize, and I don’t care who’s taking out the trash. How long does a freakish winning streak last? I’ll find out on May 30th, a date circled in red on my calendar.