OCTOBER 2006 – NO. 9
The Place This Is
This is our house. Everything has a Post-It note attached to it.
This is the house where we grew up. This is our bright red front door. This is the step where I scraped my knee. This is the spot where the first crocus pokes up through the thawing ground.
This is the place to leave your shoes. This is the hat rack for special hats and this is the special hat that my dad bought out in Wyoming in 1983. This is my second grade school picture. I have all of my adult teeth now but besides that, it still looks like me.
This is where my dog, Sandy always went to the bathroom on the rug. My mom put some special cleaner on it because then it's supposed to be hard for the dog to sniff out her spot again. It didn't work. It made the house smell like Italian dressing.
This is the front hall closet where the scarves and mittens are kept. It's a good place for hiding and it used to lead to Narnia. There was a lot more furniture in here, but the realtors want us to have it look "lived in, but tastefully simple."
This is the lamp that fell down when we were horsing around. This is the window that Jon smashed with his hand when he and Betsy were in a fight and she locked him out and wouldn't stop laughing. This is the fireplace in front of which we got to wear our tutus and smile for the camera, or else roll up old newspapers into tight balls, stuff them under the logs and sit on the floor with cocoa and listen to "Woody's Children."
This is our house. We've been in this house for our whole lives. We've been in this house since 1969.
We've been in this house for an entire week. Cleaning, fighting, making piles, and then cleaning or fighting again. The ladies — Candy, Dixie, and Barb — are going to show the place tomorrow. Everything has a Post-It note attached to it. Bright lime Post-Its. You can't miss them. J is for my brother, Jon. B is for my sister, Betsy. A is for me, Abby. When two different Post-Its are on one item, that means we both want it. We still have to discuss it or flip a coin.
Hat rack — J.
Rug — B.
Lamp — A.
This is the piano where we each played "My First Sonatina." Where we banged on that piano and cried, "Look at me! Look at me!" Jon got caught under there playing doctor with Mary Jane from next door who loved to take off her shirt. These are the same drapes that have always been here; I used to think they were made out of clouds, but they're really 100% polyester. This is Dad's chair, it's just reupholstered. These are the Charles Dickens books that are too old for reading. They say "Lady Lucy Edmonton, 1874" on the first page, and they smell like wet dust.
This is the clock. It tells time and it ticks and moans and sometimes chimes on the hour. It was in Grandpa's farmhouse at the start of the century. Dad said he begged Grandpa to let him have it. He and Mom drove up to the farm on a rainy day in May, 1970. They put the clock on its back, on a towel, in their new Ford station wagon. They drove in the slowest lane. They held their breath every time they went over a pothole. They bent their knees and gritted their teeth and didn't say a word as they carried it into the house and placed it here on its shelf. It didn't chime for two full days after it came here and they feared that they had broken it. They thought they would never know how to keep track of time again.
Then it picked up where it had left off and Mom and Dad clapped and kissed and clinked glasses of scotch.
There is only one couch left. Jon is on it. He's in the TV room with the windows open and the door shut, even though it's 40 degrees outside. It's supposed to be the end of winter, or the beginning of spring, depending on how you look at it. Everything is drippy and soft. Inside, it's 83 degrees. Jon cranked up the thermostat so we could dry out the carpets. They were cleaned today and they were supposed to air dry but they still get matted down and make little puddles when we walk on them. Jon also bought orange-flavored air freshener tubs and put them at the bottoms of all of our closets so they wouldn't smell like mothballs. Instead, it smells like a giant creamsicle exploded.
I don't know if Jon meant to fall asleep. He's the oldest and he's supposed to be in charge. But right now he's lying on the couch with his clothes on and his head tipped back. His mouth is open like a dead fish. The TV is still on, but it's mostly snow, with Three's Company spilling out of the sides of the screen. There's an open container of Cashew Chicken and a wax paper bag of fried noodles laying on the edge of the coffee table.
My big sister, Betsy, is back at her apartment in Manhattan. She stormed out of the house because Jon refused to take his Post-It note off of the clock. She said she's wanted that clock since the day she was born. They flipped a nickel and she lost. She announced that she would never forgive Jon if he took it and then she told her husband they were leaving.
That was some time yesterday afternoon. Now, it's 2:30 in the morning, and I'm upstairs in front of the hall closet. There are prescription medications in there dating back to my birth in 1973.
ONE TEASPOONFUL AT NIGHT. TAKE ONLY WITH FOOD. SQUEEZE THREE DROPS INTO EACH EAR AND ALLOW TO DRAIN.
My mom saved them all. Coughs, colds, earaches, flues — she wanted to remember everything she'd been through. Or maybe she wanted to be armed for any future disaster. Of course there are no bottles or capsules to cure the big things. The things that crept into my dad's lungs or that swam into my mom's bloodstream. None of those medicines worked anyway.
Dad died when I was 11 years old. One spring morning he started running fevers and saying his back hurt. The doctors said it was the "same old thing." Dad drank a lot of cranberry juice and tried to take naps on the weekends. By July, he looked like he couldn't handle a sneeze. The doctors took another look and said actually it was cancer and they were sorry. Dad came to visit me at summer camp and he said not to worry, that we would have a good time at the pool when I came home. And then one night, after we talked on the phone about The Muppets Take Manhattan, he died.
I decided to cut my bangs that summer. I didn't want people to point at me when we went back to junior high and say, Did you hear about her dad? They put him in the ground and she never even cried. So I cut my bangs and got a white T-shirt with three green fish on it and matching green corduroy shorts. The first day of school, tons of people asked me what I did over the summer and I got to say, "I cut my hair," and that was that.
We put Dad's suits in the back of his closet and Mom put some of her dresses in front of them. Then she moved his watch and his keys off of the bureau. Sometimes I would climb into his side of the bed on Saturday nights and try to take up space. I stopped after someone called and asked for Mr. Roger Sher. I gave the phone to my mom and she said, "I'm sorry, he's no longer here."
A few months ago, I was growing out my hair. I'm 31 years old now. That's too old for bangs. So I decided to grow them out and act more like an adult. I told my mom I was going to take her out to dinner. But she said she didn't feel so hot and we should order in. She had a fever of 101. Then it was 102. And 104. She had bruises climbing up her arms and legs. The doctors knew right away. They said she had leukemia but that they had caught it in time.
On July 4th weekend, she went back into the hospital. "I thought I was going to beat this," she told me. We tried to watch the U.S. Open. She was rooting for Federer, the Swiss guy. Then she made me promise to keep my hair out of my face and not to fall apart, and she closed her eyes.
This is my room at the top of the stairs, on the right. It's naked, with the light blue carpeting stripped off. There's nothing here of mine except the dresser and the toy chest. I won that toy chest at the Murray Ave. School fair because I ate the shish kabob with the winning mark on the stick. Jon said that together the chest and the dresser are worth less than the lamp he bought at Costco. He also said I should paint over the spot next to my bed where I threw my alarm clock in seventh grade. You can see the bicycle wallpaper underneath where the paint chipped off. I told him I didn't have time and I stuck a pillow in front of it instead.
In my closet there's nothing except the ladder-in-a-box. It's always been there. Dad promised me when I was little that if our house ever caught on fire, he would run straight for the ladder-in-a-box, unfurl it outside my window, and carry us all to safety. I'm leaving it here.
This is the bathroom. The paper is peeling at the top, but the sink is shiny. We're trying not to flush the toilet too much while the house is on the market because the plumbing's not doing well.
This is Jon's room. It's a dull gray with white piping. It's so clean it looks fake. There are no more posters of Bo Derek, no piles of limp socks, no half moons of dirt on the ceiling from Jon bouncing his tennis ball.
There is my mom's obituary on the desk and a coffee cup half filled from two days before. And a pile of blank Post-It notes.
This is Betsy's room. Perfect for a little girl. The pink carpet, still soggy but demure, and the dressing table with an oval mirror. She and my mom decorated it just last year with an antique armoire and a handmade quilt. Betsy even put an old copy of Pride and Prejudice on her bedside table to lure a pretentious young teen.
There are heavy duty garbage bags lining the hall, full of letters, pictures, broken lampshades, outdated warranties. There are file folders and boxes filled with never-sent birthday cards. There are old matchbooks and cracked starlight mints and tissue from the pockets of every coat. There's a human tooth that the tooth fairy left in the tin can for collecting pennies. We can't save it all. Most of it has to go in the garbage before the realtors come tomorrow.
Last week we rented a Dumpster. We hired a kid from the high school to help us pull out insulation from the attic. Then we climbed in the Dumpster and jumped up and down on our stuffed Smurfs and abandoned finger paintings while it started to rain.
The hall closet is open, just as I left it. Its insides are spilling out into the hall. Birthday balloons and humidifier tablets. Mouthwash and sewing kits from a Marriott Express. I'm sweating behind my neck and under my armpits and my tongue tastes like swollen oranges and cleaner fluid. I'm mad at my parents for keeping so many photographs in shoeboxes. My dad's handwriting on the back of them is too faded to decipher.
I try to snap open a bottle that says ABIGAIL SHER AMOXYCILLAN, TAKE TWO AT BEDTIME. I just want to see if there are still pills inside. It's a child-proof bottle, and some sticky syrup has fastened the lid on even tighter. But I am determined to cut through the stubborn plastic ring. I gnaw at it with my teeth; try to dig up under the top with the nubs of my fingernails. I find a pair of scissors in a Tupperware with old toothbrushes and stab at the ring. The scissors slide past the cap and the longer blade moves into the web between my thumb and forefinger. I yelp, but nobody hears me.
I have to pull the scissors out and I stare at my hand like it's not attached to the rest of my body. I can feel the path that the scissors took, but I don't see any blood.
I want some proof that I'm hurting. I haven't been able to really cry since the day my mom sank into her pillow. Mostly I just ache from the middle of my stomach up through the back of my throat, but no sound comes out and my eyes stay dry. There is no release. And now I cannot find any blood under my skin. There is just this dark hole that reaches into my body — a line of dull pain. I run into my parents' room, squeezing my hand.
This is my parents' room. It belongs to them. There is a cloud in here of damp stillness. The wallpaper is white with small blue specks that look like they're lost minnows. The lamp is of the same speckled fabric. The orange carpet doesn't match anything. My mom let my dad pick out the color and he was a big fan of Syracuse's football team, so orange it was. It was the start of something that never got finished.
This is where my dad used to do his sit-ups in the morning with his blue stitched pillow tucked up under his lower back. This is where my mom stepped back from the mirror every time she put on her Cherries Jubilee lipstick and made that face halfway between a smile and a pucker. This is where I bent my head and tucked my chin before demonstrating my first somersault for them. And right here, where the streetlight makes an orange halo, is where I would stand and tug at their toes whenever I had a bad dream and couldn't fall back to sleep.
Maybe the people who live here next will face their bed in the opposite direction. Most likely they'll get rid of that orange carpet first thing. They might fill this house with babies and kittens. Or put a Christmas tree downstairs, or lay down rugs all facing Mecca. I'll never know. It's none of my business. If I were a dog I would sniff for my spot right now and pee all over this orange floor.
My hand is throbbing. I run down to the den.
"Jon!" I whisper. He snores quickly, squeezing a couch pillow and smacking his lips. "Jon, look!"
He opens his eyes and tries to focus. I push my hand in front of his face, just under his nose.
"I poked it with a scissors really deep and it hurts but I can't get it to bleed."
Jon sits up and burps. It smells like fried noodles. He takes hold of my hand very gently and studies it.
Then he squeezes it slowly.
"Does that hurt?" he asks.
I grab my hand away and squeeze harder. It spits out a drop of blood into the air. I squeeze it again, and another two drops fly out, landing on the beige couch, spreading into a small continent.
I think he is yelling because I'm bleeding, I'm alive.
But then he takes his sleeve and starts rubbing at the couch cushion with it. I've stained the couch with my blood. The couch is worth $2000. The realtors say it "opens up the whole room."
"Sorry," I say quietly.
"No, that's okay. Are you all right?"
"Nobody will know," he says as he stands up and flips the pillow over. The underside is a shade darker than the rest of the couch. We both pretend not to notice. He rubs me on the back and kisses my hand lightly, making nothing better at all.
"Good as new," says Jon. But nothing in here is really good or close to being new. It's just a room.
This is a room in somebody else's house now.
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