This house had sheets in the closet, dishes in the cabinets. Out back, a cord of wood.
There were bicycles in the garage. Children in the bedrooms. Tall, messy, attractive children who put on confused looks at the sight of her, no matter how often they saw her.
Because she wasn’t theirs.
And they weren’t hers.
She came with a car, which she parked in an open space in the garage, and she brought clothes for a few weeks, a box with soap and toothpaste, a hair dryer. She had her briefcase. A laptop. A box with jewelry. She brought photos stuffed in a folder she found in the basement of her old home. The folder—a portfolio, really—had belonged to one of her own children, though which one she couldn’t say. She remembered buying it a decade before. A decade. She remembered how someone had wanted it so very much.
Its fabric was frayed at the corners. The zipper stopped short of closing, leaving a hole like a wound.
She’d hired movers to bring the heavy wardrobe boxes, and the boxes of books, and keepsakes, like the stuffed animals she still kept, though she was a woman in her fifties, wide in the hips and thick across her stomach. There seemed some confusion about when these things would arrive, but she wasn’t worried. Why worry? This week, or the next, or the next.
For now it was hard enough finding room for herself, figuring out where on the sofa she belonged, or where at the dinner table, and how she should flatten herself against the wall when the kids pushed through. She didn’t know if she had a right to the remote. She didn’t know if she should move a magazine from the table so she could set down her coffee. She didn’t know where she would drop her purse on coming home, or if she could call it home, at all. It was, to be sure a house (noun), the usual residence of a person, family, or household. It was not, however, the place in which one’s domestic affections were centered.
Except in the bedroom, where the man had more than cleared a dresser and closet—had, instead, started fresh, down to the new rails run under the box spring, which was new, like the mattress, and the sheets, and the comforter, the headboard and dressers and dressing table and chair in the corner. The armoire. A bedroom suite, he said, wanting to say something more—she could see—but he didn’t, just smiled. She pushed off her shoes and sat on the bed, then lowered, slowly, back. Closed her eyes. Said it was nice. Very nice. And thank you.
Only he was still there, standing at the foot of the bed, and then sitting, when she thought he had turned to go out. He had the sense to stay quiet, though she knew he was watching her, which made it hard to feel the new quilt under her back or the warmth of the room, or to hear the way the walls muted sounds from the rest of the house. She couldn’t concentrate on the breath fluting through her nose. It was all just him, waiting, his weight making the mattress shift. She held out her hand, hoping it would be enough, and let the knot in her stomach loosen, and wondered how many beds a person knows in her life.
For her, for her childhood, just one bed, with a headboard painted in thick, grainy strokes by her father, and a mattress that went soft as an old apple by the time she moved on. Changed. To the dorm pallets stuffed with batting, over wire-mesh springs. Then the futon in her apartment, and the one in her boyfriend’s. And the next boyfriend’s. And the next. They all ended up flattened to nothing and pitted where people slept, the futons did. How excited the last boyfriend was when the money from their marriage—the gifts—made enough for a mattress, a real one, which they moved, after a while, into a house of their own. She had been excited, too—but more when they bought another, and then another, for the children. How many nights had she ended up asleep on those, after reading her boys one book, then two, then three?
Those boys off on their own, now, and her here, hearing the air hum from a vent. She said to the man that she needed a few minutes, then she’d be out. She said maybe they should take the kids for some food. He should decide where to go. Anywhere was fine. She just needed a minute. Then she’d be out. Just a minute.
Though, to be true, twenty or thirty more years of her life would not be time enough, no matter how thoughtful the man, or how funny his smile. The silver in his eyebrows. The dimple in his ear where a stud once went. His loud, harmless kids would not be enough. Their messes. This neighborhood canopied by old oaks dropping their seeds into grass tended by young men on mowers. It would not be enough. Nor would the neighbors in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and sandals. The dogs in yards. The quiet air after evening. None of it. Not the restaurant the man would choose, or a glass of wine, or weekends with his kids at soccer games in fields lined by fall leaves. Not walks. Not the fire in the fireplace, or a movie, the two of them, or the car ride there and back, in the already dark evening. Not the way the man settled between her legs, his cheek on her neck. Not bicycle rides. Not a week of vacation, at the beach, with its hot sand. Not the shaded deck off the cottage they would rent, or the warm wind. Not the pleasure of others around her, or their love, or anger, sadness. Not even those things.
Because it was years since she felt afraid of her father’s cracked voice. Or the wholeness of her mother’s lap. Since she wanted a sister whose hair she could comb, or a brother to pull in a cart. Since crying was something she couldn’t control.
Because it was years since she grew apart from her first friends. Years since the small sadness of that. Years since she thrilled at the gift of a nail kit. Since she wanted a dog small enough to carry. Since she had to have a blue dress like her mother’s. Years since she found satisfaction shaving her legs. Since she passed someone a note. A note on lined paper folded into eighths. Years since one boy took her to the movies and held her hand until it sweated slick. Since she could remember his name. Years since she imagined she could flee her family. Since she could imagine places that would be new. The small city of her college, with shops and bars, people always wandering on the downtown streets. Years from nights she dressed to go for drinks.
It was years since she took a job because it allowed her to move south. Since she felt thrilled on an airplane’s leaving the ground. Or holding the metal rod on a subway car as it leaned through a turn. Years since the gym-shiny wood floors of her own first house, when she and her husband paid men to wrap their furniture in padded blankets and help them move in. How she and her husband had tilled the dirt backyard before spreading fertilizer and seed and straw, then watered. Since she remembered that. How hot it was. How anxious they’d been to do it right. How they’d left one corner for a vegetable garden. How they’d planted flowers in lines along the fence. She remembered every inch of that day. And then the way her breasts stretched full with pregnancy, and hours of labor in the room made dark by painkillers and—still—such pain.
She felt so afraid those babies would die. She couldn’t even make a tomato ripen in the compost-black soil and fat heat of their summers.
Years since so little sleep she could drift off sitting. Since once she woke to the boys feeding her a limp spider husk.
Since memories were memorable.
Even every day for years washing clothes and walking a dog and shopping and cooking macaroni and cheese and cheese macaroni and noodles with cheese sauce. Driving from home to daycare to work to daycare to home.
And it had been so hard to say that one son couldn’t bounce a basketball on the living-room floor, and she gathered him up as he cried at the injustice of it, and everyone in the house had to know what was wrong.
Since the piles of dirty clothes.
The sick duck sound of trumpets.
Sweat-stinking hockey bags.
Fighting over homework.
Since one more too-loud TV show would strip open her nerves, making her scream until her throat folded.
Since they spent hours and hours in the car on vacation. That tight, airless little space.
Since those boys hugged into the fold of her body, and how much they loved her.
She knows they still do, but some part of it is lost.
How present they were in their life all happening every minute.
When her boys were the age of the boys in this house, she laughed seeing them off to a dance, in white tuxes, with cummerbunds colored to match their dates’ dresses. The boys knew it was odd, but insisted.
Her husband said, We’ve raised pimps.
How she had laughed and gone to bed that night feeling her life couldn’t be more full, and that it would soon be done.
Done but not over.
She sat up, opened her eyes. She called to the man that she was coming. Said she was sorry for being so slow. Said it to the room. She stood. Tugged the bottom of her blouse. Found her shoes. Called again, imagining her voice lost in arguments about what, restaurants? Who would sit in the back of the car?
What she heard in return was the pulse in her throat. The soft burr of carpet underfoot.
She heard herself call again. Waited.
She imagined her voice drowned under the clatter of kids getting shoes.
But she heard none of that.
She heard nothing, not the man’s voice or the sound of his kids. The house was hushed, as if asleep, or in shock, blanketed by the winter’s worst snow. Only it was summer, and she was sweating, suddenly, under her arms and down her back. She felt surprised. And surprised to feel afraid, of all things.
She took too long. They’d grown tired of waiting for a silly, slow woman. Or they’d forgotten she’d come, at all, and had gone about their business, like they’d done the day before and the one before that.
But there was no doing that. How could anyone do that? The man couldn’t. The children wouldn’t.
They wouldn’t have left. Not without her.
They were there, she knew.
They were there, in the foyer, in a half circle, frozen, senses trained on the hall she would have to enter and pass through. Waiting. Wondering, just like her, on this side of the door.