By Irene Sherlock
I have lived in this house thirteen years, the longest I've ever lived anywhere. When I was a child, my parents were building superintendents and we moved a lot, always following the better job. I didn't like it much but I got used to changing neighborhoods and being the new kid at school. As a young adult I traveled light, bailing easily when roommate situations soured. Once, I impulsively followed a boyfriend to Florida, then just as impulsively left both him and my belongings in the middle of the night. In my twenty-eighth year I moved five times. Moving that often in one year demands that you reconsider the value of any one possession. Is this worth packing up, you ask yourself.
This is the question I am asking myself again as I go through closets and drawers, the attic and garage, assembling my life's furnishings like a refugee heading out. Years ago when my husband and I split up, I promised that I would sell the house or buy him out. Secretly I factored in that I might win the lottery. Or that maybe, in a act of generosity, he would turn his half of the house over to me--a parting memento of his once-professed undying love.
But three years have come and gone and there has been no manna from the heavens or the lottery office or, for that matter, from my ex-husband. I have to do the right thing. I have to sell and move on.
Penny, my fledgling adult daughter, didn't even want to talk about it.
"It's like getting another divorce," she said, plaintively. She had been eight when we moved here. This was the place she waited for the school bus and hosted countless teen sleepovers. This was home.
I spent weeks getting the place ready to show--cleaning windows and spackling walls and packing up boxes for Good Will. Then the first a caravan of realtors began traipsing through the rooms, asking questions about the septic system, heating bills and the neighborhood. I said there wasn't much traffic so kids bike and sled in the streets. I told them Rob and Sarah across the way are the kind of neighbors you can call in the middle of the night when a pipe bursts. I showed off the cedar closet and the built-in bookcase. They won't need the air conditioner, I said, because the attic fan pretty much cools the whole house all summer long.
I didn't tell them the furnace was probably on its last legs, and although the roof didn't leak now, it likely would soon. Even with these pending expenses, I didn't want to move. This may not have been the house of my dreams, but this is where I did the most dreaming. Here I patched myself up, post-divorce, and sobbed over a loose washer until I made the dripping stop. Here I made stubborn lilacs bloom. I trained dogs, and personally painted every wall. I know where the floorboards creak and how to maneuver in darkened halls to get a glass of water. This is home.
Soon after the realtors started bringing people around, my daughter managed to find a place of her own. Well, it wasn't exactly her "place" although she called it that. It was "Debbie and Margo's place"; a small wooden plaque on the front door announced their names exactly like that in painted red letters. Penny had run into these two old high school friends at the mall. They were looking for a third roommate and talked up the place to her.
"It's adorable," she said. A third floor walk-up, not too expensive. "I have the smallest room, but I have my own deck."
Not so fast, I wanted to say. We had talked about the possibility of her moving into an apartment or of finding a roommate situation when the house was sold, but that hadn't happened yet. "What happened to the other girl who had the room before you?"
"Oh, she got a job transfer, or something."
I didn't like this. Who were these women? I didn't remember them.
"Debbie Montapesso," she said. "Remember? She threw up in our family room."
Debbie. There had been a hundred Debbies over the years. "You mean that wispy blonde?"
She nodded. "She got a nose job."
"But can you afford this? How much is the rent?" I was starting to feel uneasy about the whole thing.
"I have a job."
"A minimum wage job."
"I make eight dollars an hour!"
"Exactly," I said.
"I'm saving money!"
This was news to me. "Well, you know best." I gave her a minute. "After all, you're almost twenty-one." I tossed back the words she so often flung at me.
"That's right." She marched off to her room and slammed the door. It was one of those cheap plywood doors that was featured in all the neighborhood raised ranches, the kind that never contained the sounds inside. It made a satisfyingly dramatic sound when she slammed it and she did it often during her adolescence. But when she turned eighteen, an unexpected truce rose up between us and the slamming ceased. Now we seemed to be drifting back into battle: arguments, followed by icy silence, followed by strained conversation, culminating in the house quaking around the impact of her banging door.
I found myself wondering when in our thirteen years in this house had we stopped liking each other. Was I impossible to get along with, as my ex-husband used to say? Or was it her? Or maybe we were just two women trying to reach out for something more than what was here, under this shared roof.
Later, I knocked on her door and apologized for not being more enthusiastic about her news. I didn't remind her that she had recently almost burned down the house when she put a wet towel over the electric space heater, or that the bank had closed her checking account after three months of service. She also kept changing retail jobs and was undecided about whether or not she was ready to start college.
"I know you don't think I can do this, but I can," she said emphatically, as if she could see right through to my thoughts.
"You need to ask questions." I sat down beside her and picked up her Pooh bear, touching his ragged bow tie. "Like, 'Who cleans the bathroom?'"
She made a face. "Come on. I know that." She had already discussed things with her prospective roommates. The electricity was included, and the three of them would split food staples. What about the other stuff, I wanted to say. Noise and boyfriend issues. But I knew she'd have to figure them out herself.
"You know you don't have to move out." I held my breath.
"Yes," she said. "It's time."
I looked at her sitting on her bed, not Indian-fashion with her Pooh bear in her lap, but demurely, her legs crossed on the edge of the bed like a grownup. She had a new hairdo, a blunt cut that was quite chic.
"Just think," she said. "You'll have your own space."
Oh, child of mine, I thought. No one stealing my socks. No overturned shampoo bottle left to empty itself thickly on the bathroom floor. No worrying about where she is at one am.
Next thing I knew, I was helping her load boxes into her car. Her father was going to meet her at the apartment and help her unload.
"Don't cry," she said, hugging me.
"I'm not." But I was. She was moving out and I was miserable and happy.
"What are you making Sunday?"
She would come for dinner. '"What do you want?" I wiped my face with my sleeve.
"Chicken, mashed potatoes and corn." This had been her favorite menu when she was eight.
Then she was pulling out of the driveway, and I called out to her but her car rounded the driveway and she was gone. I went inside and walked around the house, stopping in the doorway of her room that was empty except for her bed and dresser. Her new place was furnished and I'd told her that if I could, I would store these things in my new place--wherever that would be. I looked around at her bare walls. There were lighter patches where posters and frames had hung. Over the years, the walls had been painted white, then pink then black, then white again. When she was eight, after a visit to the Hayden Planetarium, we glued a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. I was still trying to pry them off. At fifteen, she packed up her Pooh bear and stored him in the attic, then fished him out of the box when she turned eighteen. Now, he was back on the bed in this place--family left behind, like me.
The Saturday after Penny moved out, I played with the dog on the lawn while a realtor and another couple perused the rooms inside. When they came out, I held the dog by his collar and explained that it takes only an hour to mow both front and back yard, and how the trees fill in around the house, providing absolute privacy. I told them I didn't want to sell, but that I was divorced. I must. I tried not to sound too pathetic.
The wife, who was expecting her first child, smiled, then looked away.
Three weeks into our new lives, Penny was settled comfortably into her new place. "I can walk downtown," she said. "And I love sitting on my deck at night, especially now that it's hot.
As for me, I was more than comfortable. I was walking around the house naked. Hogging the television. Letting the answering machine pick up calls all weekend. "Everything okay?" I asked her when we talked on the phone a few days later.
"Great," she yelled over the music. "Hey, turn that down!"
Someone did. "I was thinking about you," I said.
"Did you sell the house?"
"No, I was just...you know."
"We're having a cookout. Ohmigod! Margo! The chicken! I got to go. Call you tomorrow. Love you!"
"Love you." I hung up.
The following month, Penny and I were sitting on her tiny deck. It was Indian summer and too warm to sit in her room. My house still hadn't moved yet--a term the realtor kept using. "We're not going to have a problem moving this house," she'd say, but it was taking longer than I had expected.
"I'm having trouble with Margo," Penny said. She went on to explain that Margo hogged the hot water and never bothered to clean the bathroom sink. "I hate cleaning up her hair," Penny said.
"She probably has no idea she's doing it," I said. "Just talk to her."
Days later, she reported that she and Margo had a good talk. "It's all straightened out," she said.
Then Debbie gave up the evening walks with her. It was too hot and she needed more time to study now that she was back in school. Penny realized that Debbie and Margo stopped their conversation whenever she entered the room. We discussed tactics.
"Tell them you want a pow-wow." It was a term I used with her when she was young. "Don't get hysterical or sarcastic, just ask, 'What's wrong?,' and then listen." I had moved from the prosecution and was now a member of my daughter's defense. I kept my fingers crossed. It didn't help. A week later, she was on the phone again, crying this time. The pow-wow had gone badly. "They told me I'm a great person but it's not working out."
"Why?" My heart sank.
It seems that Margo had accused her of stealing her jogging shorts and that Debbie insisted she was "after" her boyfriend. "Such a joke," Penny sniffed. "Rob is, like, such a loser."
It was hard to believe these women were in their twenties.
"There are just too many people here," Margo had said, finally.
"Then why did you ask me to move in?!"
'We'll give you a really good reference."
"We really don't..." Debbie started.
"...need another roommate." Margo explained.
"Plus my dad increased my allowance..."
"So we think it would be better..."
I could imagine the conversation. And Penny's face crumbling when they finished with, "The sooner, the better."
After only three months, now in chilly November, those two bitchy roommates were evicting my baby.
"We should've paid more attention to that sign," I sighed over the phone.
"'Debbie and Margo's Place.'" I wanted to threaten to sue them for cruel and inhuman treatment of my only child. "Come home," I heard myself say.
So my ex helped her pack everything up and load it back into her car. As they trailed past me, carrying boxes, I felt the peace of the last few months quickly escaping like heat through an open door.
In the midst of it all, the phone rang. It was the realtor, asking if she could come by with yet another couple. "Sure," I sighed.
I went to my room and lay down. Maybe I'd fall asleep and discover this part had been a dream--that Penny was still safely gone. But through the thin walls of my tired raised ranch, I could hear her and my ex-husband arguing about the right way to hook up her stereo.
It's been three weeks since Penny's return, and last week a young Russian couple made an offer on the house. After much debate, my ex-husband and I accepted. The house has finally moved and I'm considering an apartment with a friend.
Penny found another place already, and it's within walking distance of the college she's planning to attend in the spring.
Tonight, we are lying on her bed, side by side, watching the stars come out on her ceiling. "The realtor called today," she says now through a yawn. "The inspection is Friday."
"So soon?" The closing was scheduled for January--two months off.
"That's what she said."
My arm is falling asleep but I don't want to move her head. Her blonde hair is splayed across my arm. "I hope they don't find anything," I say.
"I don't know--something."
"You worry too much."
When she was younger, we used to lie here and I'd tell her about Cassiopeia and the Milky Way. Not that I knew what I was talking about. "The Milky Way has over a billion stars and is pure chocolate at its center."
"You're making that up," she'd say.
But she was never quite sure when I was lying, or when I was telling the truth. "Look," she says after a minute, her sleepy eyes on the ceiling. "The Big Dipper's dipping."
In minutes she is out, the same light breaths she took in as a child. I will wait until she drops into a deeper sleep before I rise to pack another box. Moving feels harder, lately, or maybe it's the "leaving" that has finally caught up with me. The woman I've become is a more cautious person who can now only downsize so far. I've become attached to the idea of "fixity," of my need to simply stay put. In this house I learned to let the strange become familiar while the kettle whistled at six am on every week day of my life. Here the same key fits always in the lock, the same tumblers click and keep me safe. And while I am once again, reconsidering the value of any one possession, I do know that the only irreplaceable one lies here in my arms.
Now it's me who's yawning.
Orion. Ursa Minor. I pick them out. Soon, we will be asleep under stars fixed together in an imaginary outline--autonomous, yet somehow attached, as we are.