There is a photograph of the day my mother broke her wrist. Most of my siblings and I are sitting at the worn picnic table, its finish peeling in big waxy strips. The photograph was taken just moments before it happened. In the photograph we're eating lunch and we all look terribly weary, tense, annoyed. There must've been a problem in the developing process, for the photograph has a superimposed image of a dead bird blurring the scene. It's as if the people sitting together in the picture were all characters in a dream.
At the time the photograph was taken my parents were separated, yet still sharing the same house. The house I was born and grew up in, the house that is the stage of my dreams, the house where my memories sleep, in its tall windows and ceilings, in its golden wood and in the stripy eyes of the birch trees outside.
We called it and still call it The House. After the separation my mother would be there during the weekdays and my father the weekends, neither of them wanting to wholly give it over to the other. They did this for six months, which at the time really felt like an eternity. When they weren't there, they would each sleep on the floor in their offices. Most of my siblings had moved out by that point. It was only me who was always there.
During that time, my father took up a girlfriend who made chocolate. The family called her the Chocolate Lady, in fact no one can even recall her real name. A few times my father had me ride up north with him on our weekends together to visit her. Then they would disappear for hours somewhere upstairs, leaving me alone on the couch to stare at the lone goldfish in a gurgling tank.
The day that my mother broke her wrist, the day the photograph was taken, she had overheard during lunch that there was a photograph of Dad's chocolate lady in his car, parked behind the house. After finishing her potato salad, she went snooping around. Sneaking her way towards the basement door, Mom slipped on the springtime mud and stuck her hands out in front of her. That was how she broke all the bones in her left wrist.
It was more than a broken wrist. It was seeing my mother caught guilty, at her weakest. It was seeing in her a jealousy and desperation so ugly that it broke my nine-year-old heart. At the same time I felt an immense pity for her, and beyond pity somewhere I shared her pain.
During the days of my parents' long, drawn-out separation, I would crawl into a secret crevice of the house. At the bottom of the linen closet there was a trap door, leading to a long perpendicular chute about ten feet deep. Certainly it must have been a defect in the architectural plans; an empty space that was simply built around, ignored and forgotten. To me it was where the soul of the house lived, like a deep extensive lung breathing soundlessly. When things got bad, I would, with some difficulty, climb down into this dark and slightly damp hole . I would lower books, crosswords, a flashlight, and some stuffed animals and sit cross-legged at the bottom for hours, my absence unnoticed.
When my parents finally divorced they agreed that the house was too much ours as a family to be lived in by any other division of such. It had been the product of their combined genius and creative forces, built from scratch by the two of them. They promised each other that neither would live in that home with a new family, or even a new partner. It was one of the only promises they ever kept to each other. So instead of only some of us keeping it, all of us lost it.
A few years ago I broke back into that house. It had been almost ten years since I had last seen it. Its golden arched roof, its abandoned greenhouse, its hardwood floors and stone walls. By this time, my parents had finally sold it and I longed to see it again. I wanted to walk through those hallways, lie down in a patch of sunlight in front of the tall windows by the record collection in my mother's old study, open the sliding glass door on the second floor that led to nothing, run up and down the long stairways, but mostly I needed closure.
On the last day of high school, I figured that if I was moving forward in life I should be free of all past attachments and sorrows, and the house was the biggest of those. It was the boulder on my back. I went alone, knowing that it would be empty. The new homeowners wouldn't be moving in for another week. After that it would be someone else's home, not mine.
It was early June, one of those vibrant days in upstate New York when the afternoon light makes everything glow. I parked my car at the top of the driveway. Gravel crunching under my sneakers, I walked down the driveway that I had walked down so many times in my youth. The garden was still there, overgrown as always. There was the swing my father made, with its thick rope moving slightly in the breeze. I walked right up to the front door. The tall, proud oak door that my father built with his own two hands. The knocker was still there, a tarnished, roaring lion's head with a ring hanging from its ominous teeth. For the first time I noticed that its brassy lips were turned up slightly, smiling. Lifting the ring I knocked on the door several times and imagined my mother coming to the door, broom in hand, asking me how my day was. I imagined opening the door and seeing mismatched boots lying on their sides on the floor in a shaft of dusty light.
But the door was locked. I went around to the back and found the bathroom window that was never locked and that I knew would be easy to slide open. Hoisting myself up with my arms I slipped through the window and jumped down to the tiled floor below.
I closed the window behind me. Inside the house the fans were whirring and the air rushed like a long exhale, the sound reminding me of a high fever I had sweated through when I was eight. The pine and river-stone walls encompassed me like arms, holding me in the humming air. I could hear my mom's voice reminding me of how she and my father had scavenged and hauled all the rocks which made up the fireplace mantle from the dirt and the frigid creek on the property.
The house still smelled the same, sounded the same, but it did not look the same. It was naked, gutted, bare of any kind of furniture, wall hanging, pencil, crumb, or stray hair. Still, it was magnificent just as I had remembered, and the character of the light that day lent itself perfectly to what I loved most in that house: the golden wood and the warmth of the sunlight through the high windows.
I walked the bald hallways, checking every closet, every shelf, and every corner of the four floors. It was like scanning over my own body. I knew every dip and angle. My fingers knew where the light switches were without my mind needing to tell them, my toes knew just how many steps up and how many down the stairs. The holes where furniture once lived were surprisingly beautiful and the emptiness showed the house in its true form, right in front of me.
I went to the kitchen to look at the tiles my grandparents had shipped to us all the way from Mexico when the house was being built. When we moved out my mother had cried over the tiles and how she couldn't take them with her. But when I looked, they were totally gone. The hand-painted cobalt birds were missing from the countertop, ripped out and replaced with plain beige. For a moment I thought I was in the wrong place. But then outside the kitchen window I saw the leaves of the pale birch trees suspended by the breeze as they always were, as if they were nodding to me in recognition.
From the outside deck on the last floor, I climbed onto the hot, scratchy shingles of the roof where I used to sit with star maps beside my father. Perched very still, I looked over the valley, the trees, the driveway. Everything had grown. The landscape sprawled untamed, abandoned, wild. I spotted the tree beneath which I had buried the family's dead parakeet. This is my original landscape, I thought. This was the only home I have ever known. When I die, I should be buried here too.
I spent a good two hours inside the house. I went slowly as if I were going over the soft body of a lover for the last time; washing it, caressing it, holding it. I patted the banisters and cupped the cool rocks of the wall in my moist palms, I even crawled to get closer.
I stared at the walls of the room I was birthed in, imagining what it was like to take my very first breath. When I entered my old bedroom, I began to look for traces that I had once inhabited this space. My heart leapt when I found some well-hidden sparkly stickers that I had stuck to the bottom of the windowsill as a kid, and the search began to find even the most miniscule of traces left behind by my family's existence here, together for the last time. I had to prove to myself that we really once lived here. In my brother's room I found his initials and ran my fingertips over the carved letters in the wooden wall: K.H.
And then, opening up the linen closet door, and lifting up the trap door, I looked down the dark chute where I once would spend hours alone. In the sparse light illuminating the bottom of the shaft, I saw a few faced-down stuffed animals, the spines of open picture books, some batteries and pieces of a mouse-chewed jigsaw puzzle. A fine skin of dust covered it all, like the sacred personal objects in a tomb. I almost climbed down to retrieve the very last remnants of the life that I had left behind so many years before, but I decided to leave them buried there. Maybe one day another child would find them.
Closing the linen closet door I remembered the best evidence of our presence. I hurried outside to the edge of the house, startling a few crows into the trees. With my hands I swept away a layer of dirt and dead leaves, revealing the deep prints of six hands in a floor of cement just at the foot of the basement door. Above them was the date "1982". It was true, then: this beautiful house, these floorboards, rocks, and mortar were once ours and we were theirs. Once upon a time we lived together under one roof, not frayed, or scattered like we are today. That house is standing proof that we once belonged.
These days I often find myself driving to work on a long winding road from which I can see the house in the distance. I always turn my head to the hill it sits on to check if it's still there. In the wintertime, when the trees are stark and leafless, I can see it, standing there like time has never passed. When I drive by at night I like to notice if the lights are on inside. When they're on, I try and imagine what the family is doing inside. I wonder if some lonely kid has found my buried objects in the chute, or if anyone has discovered the shrine I built for John Lennon a mile up into the woods. I see the father of the family sanding off my brother's carved initials on the wall. I picture the family going in and out of the basement door and walking right over our handprints in the cement floor without a thought. Maybe they don't even know they're there.
But I know.