The Leaving Houses
The last place I lived as though I wasn’t planning on leaving was almost two years ago. When I did leave, it was during a heat wave, the kind that made me cry it was so hot and everything was ending. When I did leave, I still had someone who loved me enough to come over and help sweep the cobwebs from the ceiling corners we had never looked at until now.
I gave the free furniture back to the curb. I sold the dim lamp back to the church thrift store. I put my things in boxes and bags and when there was no more room in the car I threw things in the trash.
The summer after the last place I moved my things into the apartment in the basement of my parents’ house, hoping it would make me feel unburdened enough to start fresh, whatever that could mean. The apartment was formally inhabited by my grandparents, dead now for two and three years, respectively.
In the basement air that never warmed even with the summer, I opened drawers and cabinets and a safe I found in a closet, unlocked. Maybe you’re supposed to treat the dead with some kind of sanctity or honor that would mean not going through their stuff but this is how I honor them.
My grandparents were private people. Dust Bowl survivors, Boeing engineers, gardeners. I don’t think I ever asked them the right questions.
I don’t know who the three rings with diamond chips belonged to, all of them too small to fit any of my fingers. I know the man in this picture is Paul, my grandmother’s first husband, but I don’t know why they got divorced or never had kids. I don’t know where the shotguns in the corner came from or why they always grew rhododendrons.
Over the next year I housesit four different houses. The second to last is small with peeling orange paint, overgrown dandelions and a plastic chair alone on the porch. The front door sticks, there is an unexplained hole in the corner about the stove, the kitchen floor looks perpetually streaked with dirt.
The man who owned the orange house died from a brain tumor a few years ago. I never knew him. I sit in his old leather armchair. I change the lightbulb in his old porchlight. I study the yellowing map of a waterway I cannot understand and wish I could ask someone what it means.
One evening, I tell a man I am trying to impress that I am inherently nosy. I love opening drawers and looking in closets and running my fingers over someone else’s life. I like to see how they put their pieces together, why they chose what they did. He seems confused.
I find overcoats in the front closet and cans of beans in the pantry.
I find yards and yards of coiled up extension cords.
I find a glass mason jar filled with rubber bands in the freezer.
Everything about my grandparents comes back to rhododendrons. I find the flowers printed on cups, plates, pins, jackets, tote bags, stained glass, socks, and pictures of the prize-winning blooms they grew stacked in boxes in hundreds and hundreds of slides I hold up to the fluorescent light.
In a red bag in the bedroom I find two black plastic boxes. These are their ashes, labeled with their full names and the date of the cremation. We were waiting until my sister could be here in order to scatter their ashes together in the apple orchard.
There have been many visits now but the boxes remain unopened, saved for some future.
The orange house feels like it is built for one. I call it my bachelor home. When I arrive, heart-in-pieces, I set to work scrubbing surfaces and pushing furniture around, admiring the clean empty ribs of the fridge shelves as I scrub soy sauce residue from their edges.
I keep the walls blank.
Sometimes I catch myself wondering about the previous owner of the house. I consider asking my dear friend who has given me the gift of this time and space but I do not want to seem macabre or ungrateful. But I want to thank him somehow, thank him for letting me erase myself into this house.
Why do I have anything, I start to ask myself, forgetting every thing around me is not mine for a moment because it is everything I could need. Someone else’s life I fit into so well. A bed frame, a row of coat hooks, a toothbrush cup. It helps that I don’t want to confront I will have to give my life a shape soon, if only to stop the panic attacks that have become more frequent this year. The leaving has become too easy. How things used to be dissolved into thin, frothy dreams.
Here, someone has already picked out the chair that will match the couch. What kind of dish soap to buy and how the shades stretch over the front window. In the orange house I am a solitary person, content with the scratched walls and gummy resin on the side of the oven. I am less attached, curled in upon myself.
In one of the last memories I have of my grandparents together in the basement apartment it is 5 am and I am leaving for an early ferry when he calls me. Downstairs, she has fallen out of her chair and he can’t lift her anymore. I help her hardly to standing before he takes over, continues their walk to the bathroom. There, he helps her shift her elastic waist pants down her hips and I watch a halo of dead skin chuff from her legs into the gray light. He stays with her. I go.
I have friends visit me in the orange house. I almost imagine the holidays here, a birthday, the space to bring people. I stop trying to use the sticky front door, I stop seeing the scratches along the hallway. I reread Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson writing, For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?
If I could skip all the steps, measuring and discussing and painting and buying furniture, it almost seems like I could be happy here. Skip all the steps of wondering if I made the right choice because Stan has made the choices for me. But I will leave this place, too.
This living is like washing up on the shore of someone else’s life. Or is it how the shoreline keeps receding, offering new islands that keeps me feeling so swept along, going nowhere but still moving.
In the houses of the dead you ask questions without expecting answers. You get to keep wondering without ever having to decide.
I fall asleep in the room with the ashes. I fall asleep here, close together, finally resting.