One Little Room, an Everywhere

A year after we lost the house, on a chilly summer day, my mother refused to get out of the car. That is the only sentence written in my journal. Mom refuses to get out of the car. We were in a dirt parking lot one block away from our old house. Neither of us had visited the house since it had been foreclosed upon one year earlier. I was 20. My mother was now living with my grandfather in a town forty miles away. I know now that I didn’t want to stay with her, but what I told myself then, in the car, was that I wanted to visit our next-door neighbors. I had it in my mind that I would not be seeing much of them in the future.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was a man carrying a baby at the top of my old house’s driveway. He was the new owner. My neighbor Valerie waved to me from her porch. She had painted every piece of patio furniture canary yellow. She sat on a chair with a sheaf of drawing paper in her lap. There was a line of clothes that billowed in the wind. This wasn’t the first time that I wanted to be a part of her family. This time, though, I felt something dangerous well up inside me. It wasn’t jealousy. In that moment I didn’t want what Valerie had; I wanted for her not to have it. It frightened me. The feeling came and went like an image of a pop can flashed onto a movie screen, too quickly for me to know where it came from or whether it was real. I knew only that the woman who sat painting on an ugly chair was a woman with whom I did not want to spend the next seven days. My breath rose and fell as I walked up to her. We smiled at one another in a way that was friendly, but not as friendly as I would have expected, coming back to the town after a long time.

One night the new owners threw a party. I watched it from the window of my room in Valerie’s house. Men in Hawaiian shirts looked at a spiral of smoke curling up in the air from a grill. Women stood in dresses swaying in the wind and children ran barefoot on the grass and the mulch around the catalpa trees. Someone played an old rock album from a boom box on a picnic table that my mother and I had left in the yard. When the sun set, a woman came out of the back door with a white cake with candles for the man I recognized as the father. A thrum of drunken voices sang “Happy Birthday.” I told myself I would remember what I saw. One day I would write about it.

In that moment I didn’t want what Valerie had; I wanted for her not to have it. It frightened me.

I was staying alone in the room of Valerie’s daughter. Valerie was an artist and years ago had painted a mural of the neighborhood children on the walls of her daughter’s bedroom. The one who was supposed to be me stood turned away from the other children with a dandelion in her hand. She held the flower to her face and watched the seeds flow away in the wind. The other girls played with one another and with boys in a garden that looked like Eden. As a child, I hated that painting.

I was staring at the wall wondering why I had come. I wasn’t thinking about the past. I was thinking about the party. I imagined small acts of terror I could do to that house—breaking a window, spray-painting the walls, slashing tires. But no—I didn’t want to do anything violent. I only wanted to look through the window and see what of ours the family had kept, if anything.

I shut the back door softly behind me and walked across the gravel to a patch of grass under the dining room window. Heat rose sharply in my cheeks. I felt the same way I did as a child before I stole something. The inside of the house was dark. I waited to feel something piercing in my chest—some prickly violent unfamiliar pain, some feeling that I otherwise did not allow myself to feel, anger or hatred or resentment, that for once I could feel without fear of judgment.

It’s hard for me to say whether we would have stayed in the house if my father were alive. I’m not sure if it’s useful to play that game, to rewind the tape and play it as if he were alive.

Somewhere in the darkness a baby cried. A window must have been open because the cry wasn’t muffled. Upstairs a light went on and a pair of shadows weaved around one another on the curtain. The noise startled me. There was nothing unique about it, but for some reason it reminded me of a voice I knew. The air smelled of the lilacs that my father had planted for my mother at the foot of the porch years ago.

It’s hard for me to say whether we would have stayed in the house if my father were alive. I’m not sure if it’s useful to play that game, to rewind the tape and play it as if he were alive. My mother would not have quit her job to take care of me. She would not have lost what little savings she had. People we knew would die. Others would get married. A plane would still hit the towers. Not long after that, a war would start. The housing market would crash. But somehow it wouldn’t matter. Everything would fall into place. We would be fine.

I started back the way I’d come, careful not to cut my bare feet on the gravel, as I often did as a child.

It got light early in the summer, early enough for me to explore the neighborhood without fear of running into anyone. Before breakfast, I’d made it a rule to run around town. I had never seen our house in the soft pale blue light of morning. I’d had no reason to. I learned from Valerie that the father had a job at a hospital. He left before sunrise. One day when I was sure no one was home I went through the yard to jump into the pool. But the new owners had covered it with a tarp, an old broken tarp with a hole in the middle. I was walking to the edge when I saw on the concrete a small pool of blood around a dead robin. I used a catalpa leaf to carry the bird into the forest behind the field in my old yard. When I was a child, my mother and I played games in the forest, stumbling out the other side pretending to be explorers or time travelers who’d happened on a new place. My elementary school was on the other side of the forest and I pretended Mom was my sister and the other kids and parents were our long lost family. I was thinking about the game as I dug a hole in the damp soil. My mother was happy then.

During the time when my mother and I were moving out of our house, I bought a journal in which I wrote down everything I wanted to remember.

During the time when my mother and I were moving out of our house, I bought a journal in which I wrote down everything I wanted to remember. I didn’t write about my mother or myself or anyone else. Most of my entries were inventories of the objects that filled every room in our house. They reminded me of the long rambling genealogies of the Bible. Living room: red velvet couch, paisley chair, green Victorian loveseat with mahogany cherubs, wooden jewelry box I painted red and blue, framed wolf painting (Dad’s?). I was happy to think that I was producing something that only I would want to read. Something that my mother would care very little about. The fact that I had finally found a way to remember without inserting my perilous, naked, vulnerable self into the matter was a relief. Even if my mother found my journal, I was safe.

But after we moved I kept using it, mostly to record the fights I had with my mother. They were not diary entries, not really. They were transcriptions. My handwriting was messy. I wrote most of the entries as fast as I could in the minutes after I had stormed into my room. But the words that I wrote had the same icy coolness of my lists. I wrote our arguments like lines of dialogue.

I didn’t take out my journal until the last day, when the new owners had a yard sale. I recognized many of the objects as things we had left behind. The red velvet couch was on the curb with the other objects they were giving away. The woman told me to take anything I’d like. I found in the garage a mirror that had been there ever since I was a child. My grandmother on my father’s side had brought it from a vacation in France not long before she died. It was too big for any room in the house. I had forgotten it.

I thought suddenly of my father, whom I remembered dimly but didn’t know. My memories of him come and go like long bright squares of light that pass over a dark wall. What I felt, I think, was love.

I thought suddenly of my father, whom I remembered dimly but didn’t know. My memories of him come and go like long bright squares of light that pass over a dark wall. What I felt, I think, was love. I had no words to prime the feeling. I hadn’t kept a journal before he died, but whatever the feeling was, it remained. It came to me that my only memories of him were in the house, and I wondered if that meant anything—if one day I would wake up in a different place and find that I had forgotten to remember him because nothing and no one around me was reminding me to do so. That the tape I ran in my head from time to time of him throwing me in the air before bed or holding a pink afghan tightly around his shoulders on a hot afternoon, hours before an ambulance drove to the top of our driveway—that one day this tape would run out, and I would lose whatever it was that made me keep rewinding it. I wanted to keep missing him and I feared the day this would stop being so.

There was a crack in the middle of the mirror. I was staring at my figure, in shadow with the sun behind me. I reached to feel the cold glass. I wondered what about this day I would forget later on. As I heard my mother’s car pull into Valerie’s driveway, I touched my collarbone, and even in the darkness, I wished suddenly there were more of me.