My neighbor Abby called me one morning in late summer to tell me she had crushed her lower vertebrae and would no longer be able to climb stairs. “If you’re still willing,” she said, “the time has come for us to trade apartments.”
Her third-floor apartment, where she had lived for twenty-five years, was the prize residence in our rent-controlled building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had windows in all four directions, making it feel like a treehouse in summer and flooding the rooms with light in winter. I lived on the ground floor. When I’d moved in five years earlier, Abby and I had joked that if she ever got too old to climb the stairs, we could trade. She was a vibrant eighty-two-year-old woman who spent her summers on an island off the coast of Maine and walked for miles every day. I had assumed I would move out before the stairs became unmanageable for her.
Abby was all business about the swap, but I knew the loss of her beloved home was a huge blow. I also felt guilty because my first-floor apartment was dark and narrow, perhaps the least desirable unit in the building. She offered to pay the movers if I oversaw the process while she was in Maine. I called two beefy brothers who charged fifty dollars an hour. It would take ten hours to accomplish the task.
Simultaneously dismantling and reconfiguring twelve rooms felt like a circus act. I paid close attention to how each of Abby’s rooms was arranged before we dismantled it so I could make it look the same — or as close as possible — after the move. I spent two days hanging pictures, filling cupboards and closets, and trying to make the place feel like home to Abby when she returned. Of course I couldn’t duplicate her arrangements exactly, because the apartments were so different. But the results, I thought, were miraculous. I felt like a magician who yanks the tablecloth off and leaves all the dishes in place.
On the day of Abby’s return I invited her two best friends over for a lunchtime homecoming party. I was proud of what I had accomplished and assumed she would be pleased. When we greeted Abby as she walked in the door, she began to cry. Her tears, however, were not of joy or relief, but of loss. Her two friends joined in, and the three of them sat at the kitchen table, sobbing for all that would never be the same again.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
At some point my mother gave up trying to stop me from moving in with Rick. I was fifteen and he was twenty-two when I went to live with him in his house on the edge of a bad neighborhood. The rent was cheap, but the place had no heat and a big hole in the kitchen floor that we covered with plywood. Bugs came up from underneath anyway.
A few months later Rick decided we should buy a house. We stopped paying rent and managed to save enough for a down payment before we got evicted. When we went house hunting, Rick had me drive his car to the realtor’s office so that I would seem older, even though I had only a learner’s permit. I talked him into buying a little wood-sided house that was about an hour from my school on the city bus. (I was afraid that if I rode the school bus, someone would find out I wasn’t living with my mother.)
Rick went to work the first day after we’d moved in, leaving me to sort out the house. It was summertime, so I was out of school. I wandered around, frightened and uncertain. A fly buzzed against the large picture window, and I spent a long time trying to kill it with a paper-towel roll. Then I realized I had to go to the bathroom, but the water wasn’t turned on yet. I walked around the neighborhood looking for somewhere to go, feeling I should be more effective than I was, that I should be a proper housewife. When Rick got home, he was angry with me for having wasted time all day.
Nothing ever changed. The house was always filthy, the sink was always full of dishes, and we never entirely unpacked. When I was home alone, I would lie on our sweat-soaked mattress and wonder whether I could still go home to my mother.
My family and I were sitting on wooden crates in our tiny apartment, reading a paper that my older sister had brought home from the cafe where she waited tables. My father and I were reading the front page, my younger sister the funnies, and my mother the classified section. “Look here,” my mother said. “There’s going to be a furniture auction Saturday, and it will be within walking distance.”
Our apartment was empty except for the crates. We slept on the floor, just as we had slept on the deck of the boat that had brought us from Holland to the United States in 1939. We’d been homeless for six years, so to us this small, unfurnished apartment seemed palatial.
The auction was held on a brisk New England fall day. We arrived early to look over the furniture. My parents wanted to buy a bed for themselves, and there was a blond bedroom suite with a double dresser and vanity. It was infested with wood worms, but that didn’t discourage my mother. When we’d lived in Europe, my father had once brought home an old wooden icon marred by worm tracks. My mother had bathed the icon in vinegar over and over until she’d gotten rid of the worms. She was confident that she could eliminate the worms from the bedroom set the same way.
We counted our money. Between the five of us we had a total of twenty dollars. We elected my older sister to be the bidder, because her English was the best.
Once the proceedings started, we were dumbfounded by the rapid-fire chatter of the auctioneer. We could not understand a word. Luckily the bedroom set was last; by then we had learned how to bid. The first bid was for ten dollars. My sister raised it to twelve. Someone said fourteen. We were getting nervous. My sister bid fifteen dollars.
At that moment a middle-aged woman sitting in front of us turned around and said in a loud voice, audible to all in the yard: “Damn Jews. I wish Hitler would come over here and help us build a few concentration camps. We need them.”
We were stunned. We got up to walk out. My father, who had been in a concentration camp, had tears in his eyes.
As we neared the exit, we heard the bang of the auctioneer’s hammer and his loud voice: “Sold!” We turned around. The bedroom set was ours for fifteen dollars.
We carried that set piece by piece back to our small home, where we polished it and treated it with vinegar. None of us ever forgot the afternoon we acquired it.
Renate G. Justin
Guidelines for your new, fully furnished Japanese apartment:
That stuff on the floor of your bedroom is tatami. It’s made of straw. Do not spill wine on it.
On the air conditioner, the “dry” setting is the dehumidifier — not to be confused with the setting marked “dry the machine,” which does . . . something else.
Yes, you have to sleep on the floor.
No, you can’t wear your shoes inside.
You’re new here, and you’re foreign, so the neighbors will be interested in every sound from your apartment. The paper-thin walls might as well be hi-fi speakers. Be conscious of this when you talk to yourself or entertain gentlemen callers.
Stop looking: there is no oven.
Make sure to clean your floor often. You will spend most of your time sitting or lying on it.
Your coffee table, called a kotatsu, doubles as a heater. Try not to burn your legs.
You won’t be able to figure out the washing machine, so buy extra underwear.
You will miss your spatula and will never quite get the hang of cooking with chopsticks.
You will remember that you didn’t move to Japan to live the way you did in the U.S.
You will learn to embrace change and discover your independence.
On the kitchen table of our new shared condo, Philip and I arrange our herbs and spices in alphabetical order so we can combine them. The aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, and curry fill our kitchen as we pour the contents of one half-full jar into another.
The spices are silent reminders of our separate histories: The anise Philip’s late wife, Louise, added to a wine sauce for chicken. The oregano my late husband, Ed, used in his famous spaghetti sauce.
“We bring a lot of baggage to a relationship at our age,” a friend once said. Yet it doesn’t feel like baggage to me — more like a treasure chest. In our bedroom Philip keeps a framed photo of Louise on one side of his bureau and a picture of me on the other; I have portraits of him and Ed similarly arranged. “There are four of us in this relationship,” Philip observed when we began dating.
Building a life together won’t be as easy as pouring one jar of nutmeg into another. We must open our arms wide enough to embrace not just each other but also our former spouses, our children, and our younger selves — all the while knowing that our time together will someday become a memory, too.
When I first came to Vermont to go to college in the early seventies, my friends and I drove the back roads looking for abandoned houses. Whenever we found one, we’d jump out of the car, peer through the windows, and boldly enter any barns or outbuildings that were unlocked. We were looking for a place to live, and we disdained anything modern or mass-produced. No aluminum storm doors or American-eagle motifs for us. We wanted to live the way we imagined people had a hundred years before: on old farmsteads, simply and authentically.
Finally we found the perfect empty house only a fifteen-minute drive from campus. We went to the town clerk’s office to look up who owned it, then wrote the owner a letter, asking if he would let us move into the house and make it habitable again in lieu of rent.
Les and Leah, who had recently gotten married, signed the letter and let the owner know that they were newlyweds. To our surprise he invited them down to Connecticut to meet him and, if all went well, sign a rental agreement. I worried that the owner wouldn’t take to Les’s shoulder-length hair and Leah’s floor-length skirts. (Their vehicle at the time was a World War II ambulance painted primer red.) But the owner liked them well enough, and they signed the agreement. They learned that he had bought the property with his new bride for a vacation retreat thirty-five years earlier, but she’d died suddenly, and he could no longer bear to go there.
We moved in, replaced the broken windows, put new locks on the doors, and cleaned the place out. We trapped and released entire families of field mice, some of them probably several times. We used one wood stove for heat, another for cooking, and Aladdin oil lamps for reading. We painted the woodwork gold, put up India-print curtains, and thumbtacked burlap to the dining-room walls. At auctions we purchased antiques in such disrepair that no one else wanted them. Our best find was an old velvet stage curtain, dusky blue with Victorian fringe, that we used to divide the living room in half. Leah bought a pump organ, which she played at parties while we all sang. We got stoned a lot and ate yogurt and thick slices of whole-wheat bread slathered with preserves we’d made from someone’s grandmother’s recipe. I have never been happier in my life, before or since.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess how this story ends. One day the owner drove up in his big Buick to see how the “work” was coming along. I have no idea what he thought he’d find, but evidently it wasn’t burlap thumbtacked to the dining-room walls. He threw us out. I was done with college. It was time for me to move on, find a job in another town, and make new friends. I think this might also be called “growing up.”
In the middle of my senior year of high school, my dad’s mother had a stroke that left her completely paralyzed on her right side, unable to walk, talk, or eat. She needed full-time care, so my dad moved in with her. He said it would only be for a short while, because she was not expected to live long.
She lived three years. During that time my mother’s father died, and my dad did not come to the funeral. He did not see me in my prom dress. He missed my high-school graduation. And he didn’t see me off to college. He had also quit work, putting a huge financial strain on my mom.
When my grandma finally did die, many people told me how great it was that my dad had moved in with her so she could spend her last years at home. I smiled and nodded, but I knew the truth: when he’d moved in with her, he’d moved out on us.
I can’t be too angry with him, though. I know if my mom ever needed me, I wouldn’t hesitate to move in with her.
When my panic attacks returned after college, I knew the time had come for me to try therapy. A friend recommended Madeline, a licensed clinical social worker.
At my first appointment Madeline greeted me in her front yard dressed in bluejeans and a flannel shirt and directed me to her “office” — a camper shell under a redwood tree. I immediately felt at ease. I could never have told my innermost secrets to someone with fancy clothes and expensive furniture.
At the end of our first session Madeline invited me to come over unannounced whenever I wanted. I thought it was wonderful that she was willing to see me anytime. She really cared — not like those therapists who had sterile offices and ended sessions at exactly fifty minutes.
Over the months we became close. We stopped timing my sessions, taking as long as we needed, sometimes up to three hours. It was a good thing, because Madeline constantly interrupted me to talk about her children, her health problems, and her sexual relationship with her husband. She even discussed her other clients’ problems and her impatience with them. I left our sessions feeling worse and worse, but the worse I felt, the more I thought I needed her services. She increased the frequency of our sessions.
When I had to move out of my apartment, Madeline offered the perfect solution: I could live in the camper shell. I’d have to clear out when other clients came over, but otherwise it would be mine. I was thrilled. What could be safer than living in my therapist’s front yard?
Madeline had several other renters on her three acres, and she decided to make me her property manager. This meant I was responsible for collecting utility and rent checks from the other tenants and fielding their complaints. When I’d report requests for repairs to Madeline, she would say, “Tell them I’m working on it.” I became increasingly angry at Madeline, but I feared she’d kick me out if I expressed my feelings.
After a couple of years I got a job at the local university and could afford to move off Madeline’s land. Soon after, her husband died, and I helped with the funeral arrangements. For weeks she called me saying she felt suicidal. Her children asked me to stay with her so she wouldn’t be alone. She stopped working, and, mercifully, our therapy sessions came to an end.
After that, I found a therapist with a posh office who wore blazers and Italian leather shoes. Our sessions lasted exactly fifty minutes. When I asked how she was, she replied, “Fine.” I saw her for years.
Santa Cruz, California
I’m from India, and when I was a young man there in the seventies, men and women rarely lived together outside of marriage. When my girlfriend, Jane, an obvious foreigner with her long blond hair, moved into my two-story bungalow in an exclusive Calcutta community, it created a scandal.
What made matters worse was that I refused to treat it as anything out of the ordinary. Whenever there was a community event, Jane joined in. If a neighbor invited me for dinner, she came with me.
The elegant but firm president of the homeowners’ association put it delicately to me over tea one day: “Is it really wise?” The elderly accountant told me, “Some of our neighbors are a little upset.” The advertising executive took a different tack: “Do you think it is a good thing for her?”
My response was simple: Given our busy routines, this living arrangement was the only one that made sense. And besides, I wanted her to stay with me.
Banamali, my old domestic, on whom I depended and whose opinion mattered greatly to me, adored Jane. Not being used to having a domestic, she always spoke to him gently, and he went out of his way to do things for her.
My office colleagues took a cynical view. They had seen me with other girlfriends before, and they refused to treat this as anything more than a passing affair. They felt duly vindicated when, eighteen months later, Jane had to return to the U.S. Her visa had expired, and the deadline was approaching to submit her final report on the project that had brought her to India.
What my co-workers couldn’t have predicted was that within six months I would resign from the job I loved, sell the house that had given me so much joy, and immigrate to the U.S. to move in with the woman I could not live without.
An MRI finally showed that my husband’s back pain, which had kept him bedridden for four months, was the result of spinal collapse. He had multiple myeloma, a bone-and-blood cancer.
Only a few years earlier we’d moved from Massachusetts to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and I was still not completely reconciled to my new country of residence. We were also designing and building my husband’s dream house and had poured our savings into the project. I hadn’t been sure I was ready to put down such irrevocable roots, but in the context of the medical crisis my reservations fell away. The house offered my husband something to live for, and that was all that mattered.
Work on the house had come to a standstill because he was bedridden and I couldn’t speak Greek and didn’t know the first thing about construction. But if my husband was to live in this house he’d dreamed of for twenty-five years, it was up to me to make it happen. So I went to the building site and made decisions, all the while fighting back the fear that he would not survive long enough to enjoy the home, and our children and I would be left alone in it.
We moved in three weeks after my husband’s third spinal surgery. He was following an intensive dietary regimen called the “Gerson protocol,” which requires thirteen freshly squeezed vegetable juices a day. Between taping up boxes and handing them over to the movers, I was constantly running to the kitchen to juice carrots and lettuce. The juicer was the last thing to leave our old house and the first thing we set up in our new one.
That night I wanted to cry as I lay in bed in our new home. The ceilings were too high, the walls too blank, everything too empty and echoing. For months, as I walked through our beautiful house, I wondered if we were tempting fate by so blatantly flaunting our belief in the future. Sometimes I wished we had never built the place.
Today my husband is holding his own: not in remission, but doing better than most people with his condition. The walls of our kitchen are stained orange and green from the times our overworked juicer has exploded. I still lie awake at night and wonder how I will pay the mortgage if something happens; how I will survive the emptiness. But in the morning the sun streams through the large windows of our kitchen, our children squabble over a pomegranate from the tree we planted less than a year ago, and my husband sits quietly at the table, looking out at our rosebushes, his particular pride. Though worries about the future surface often enough, we try to ignore them in favor of the sunlit present. And as I watch my son and daughter playing happily, secure in the home their father built for them, I vow to do anything I must to stay in this house.
In 1942, several months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to move inland to government detention camps. My family was sent from Los Angeles to the Turlock Assembly Center, on a former county fairgrounds in central California.
The move was easy, for we were allowed to bring only what we could carry. In our barracks room were four metal cots arranged on an asphalt floor. The interior walls stopped short of the sloping roof, so we could hear our neighbors on both sides — no privacy or quiet anywhere. There was also no escaping the odors from the outhouses, the mess halls, and the three thousand people living in close proximity. Being stripped of our material possessions was not nearly as traumatic as the loss of our dignity.
A few months later, in midsummer, we were moved to a more permanent “relocation center” in the Arizona desert. The Gila River camp was dusty, hot, and isolated, but it was better than Turlock. The communal toilets were flushable; the barracks were new and did not harbor smells. Once again entire families occupied a single room, but we were able to eat fresh produce grown on the camp’s farm. (I did not miss the slimy beans of Turlock.) Sixty-six years later I still remember our Gila address: Block 6, Barracks 4, Unit C.
While I was taking my first shower in the block bathroom, the water shut off before I could rinse my hair. Through the window, which was open a crack, I heard a worker outside. I shouted to him, “Please turn the water on! I have to rinse my hair.” To my surprise he did. I thanked him, and my faith in humanity went up a notch.
Had I been older and wiser than my adolescent years, I may have welcomed this experience as a lesson in the impermanence of all things.
My dingy, mushroom-colored cell is the size of a large closet. Just inside the heavy steel door is a porcelain toilet, and six inches to the left of it, a sink. A sadistically uncomfortable metal bunk bed is bolted to the concrete floor. At the foot of the bed are two metal wall lockers, one of which contains nearly everything I own in the world. That’s the whole sad tour.
I am in prison for an armed-robbery conviction. I have been confined for eighteen years. This is the last penitentiary I will be transferred to, and my current cell is the last cell I will ever have to move into, though someone new might move in with me.
I read in Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi that a lion tamer must always enter the ring first; this establishes the ring as his territory, not the lion’s — a notion he reinforces by shouting, stomping about, and cracking his whip. A similar rule applies when a new “cellie” moves in: whoever was in the cell first is the alpha dog and dictates which bunk the new inmate sleeps on (the top), where he hangs his towel and washcloth (over there!), and how much of the cell’s coveted shelf space he gets for his books and belongings (little, if any). The exceptions to the rule are if the new cellmate has a heavy reputation or more “time down” (has been incarcerated longer). Inmates with particularly heinous offenses also warrant more respect. But neither old age nor poor health will qualify you for an exemption to the new-cellmate treatment.
Most convicts are humble, mature individuals dedicated to bettering themselves and hoping to return to their families. The full-time assholes are rare. If you want to know what they are like, just watch the news or read the paper’s crime section. Now think about all those thieves, murderers, dope fiends, dealers, swindlers, and sexual predators, and realize that each one of them will soon become someone’s cellie.
I hope I won’t have to deal with new cellmates for much longer. I have a parole interview coming up. Of course, the current release rate on parole is 3 percent, which means that of the eight thousand inmates eligible for parole, only 240 will make it. But I’ve been up against slimmer odds.
I dream of being released, moving in with my now-retired parents, and working for more than thirty-five cents an hour. In the evenings I’ll come home, wash the dishes, vacuum the carpet, cut the grass, and watch TV. I will gladly let my loving, sixty-four-year-old father be the alpha dog.
As a child I was teased and judged and ostracized because I was overweight. When I finally got thin at the age of twenty, I was determined never to go back to being heavy. And I didn’t. I became bulimic instead.
After I graduated from college, I lived at home with my mother, who made me miserable. I went to see a psychologist for help in dealing with her, but the psychologist was far more interested in my eating and exercise habits. On his recommendation, five days later I admitted myself into an inpatient eating-disorder unit.
My parents, who had listened to the psychologist and nodded their heads in agreement, had been angry with me after we’d returned home from his office: I finally looked like someone they could be proud of, and now a doctor was telling them I was sick.
My mother drove me to the hospital. I felt nauseated as I filled out the thick stack of paperwork in the empty waiting room. I was shaking so much that the orange plastic chair I sat in creaked. I wanted badly for my mother to comfort me and tell me I was going to be OK, but she hadn’t said a word to me all morning. We were silent for half an hour until the nurse came to get us.
The sound of the ward door locking behind me was terrifying. I had been willing to admit I was sick, but I hadn’t realized I would be on a locked ward. The nurse led us to a narrow room containing a twin bed, a desk, and a small chair. She told me I should unpack my things and say goodbye to my mother. After the nurse left, my mother walked over to the window, which looked out over a cemetery. “This is the worst day of my life,” she said.
This was the way it had always been: no matter what was going on in my life, it was always about her. When I heard the ward door lock behind her, I felt relief.
Four weeks, many meals, and many hours of therapy later, it was time for me to go home. People had paid genuine attention to me at the hospital. When I thought about returning to my family — my father’s rage, my mother’s silence and self-absorption — I wanted to stay on the ward. I felt safer there than with my family.
After ten years of teaching freshman English in the same classroom, I requested a transfer to a new school. On the last day in my old room I tidied up, packed boxes, and had one last look around.
The school sat on a hill, and the classroom had a view of the surrounding valley and the mountains beyond. I was standing there, lost in memories, when the teacher who would have my room the following year knocked and asked if she could start moving in. She piled her boxes in the corner and remarked on how clean and bright the room was. It was the best room in the school, she said.
A wave of nausea rose in my gut. I had wanted to switch schools, and I was glad this teacher would be getting my room, and yet I felt sick. I hurried out, carrying the last of my belongings, and found my husband, also a transferring teacher. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. Our plan was to stop by the high school where we would both be working the following year, drop off our boxes, get the lay of the land, and head home.
As I walked into the classroom I had been assigned, I was greeted by the outgoing teacher, a young woman who’d become disillusioned with her job after only two years. I was stunned to see a sheet of plywood covering one of the room’s two windows. The students’ desks were mismatched and scarred, and some were broken. A dented metal drafting table in one corner was so crammed with faded posters, ragged construction paper, and ripped-up magazines that the drawers didn’t close all the way. The carpeted floor was dirty, and the walls had torn student work hanging from them.
The teacher looked up from her computer and gave me the rundown: The Internet outlet was loose, and the cord often fell out. The printer sometimes didn’t work. The window had been broken for several months; the administration kept saying it would fix it, but who knew? The room got really hot, except in the winter, when it got really cold. The desks would break once in a while, so the students had to be careful. (“It’s kind of dangerous, really.”) There weren’t enough desks, either, so sometimes kids had to sit on the floor — and over the summer other teachers would come in and steal desks for their classrooms. The janitors didn’t clean very often, so I might want to get a vacuum and do it myself.
As she talked, I grew increasingly tense and angry. I would leave teaching myself at the end of the following year, brokenhearted and defeated. Moving into that classroom was the beginning of the end.
My husband chose to end ten years of suffering with a single bullet. Illness and despair had finally won. My friends decided that I couldn’t stay in my house, where his body had been found, and they convinced me to move in with my mother. They assured me it would just be for a little while. “You’re going to be all right,” my friend Kimmie said. “I promise.”
I did not see how I could ever be all right again, but I didn’t have the words to protest, so I simply nodded and let them move me.
I had not lived with my mother in thirty-nine years, not since I was sixteen. We were trying to mend our relationship in the time we had left, but we were still cautious with each other. When I got to her house, Mother stepped aside and let my friends move me into her spare room. She asked whether it was OK for her to bring me tea and flowers. In my fog I appreciated her acknowledgment that we were practically strangers.
My mother, too, had been widowed. She’d lost my father in a car accident when she was thirty-five. Then, at sixty-three, she’d been about to marry a man she loved when he’d collapsed in the hallway of a hospital, his heart having given out.
“How did you do it?” I asked my mother, standing in the pale morning light of her kitchen the next day.
She was at the sink, her back toward me. She reached for a dish towel, and when she turned, her eyes were wet and red. She came over and placed her hands on my shoulders.
We go on, she told me, because we must. We go on because our life is bigger than the grief. We cry when we need to cry, and get angry when we need to get angry. God will forgive us when we curse him. We go on, she said, until we finally have a day when the pain is not so great. But we should never forget, because we are meant to remember the ones we love.
For the first time since I was a child, I let her hold me.
I moved into my freshman college dorm room in September 1969. I was a naive white girl leaving home for the first time. My roommate, Debra, was a tough, inner-city black girl who’d been in Watts during the 1965 riots. It was partly in response to that explosive, racially charged uprising that the college had decided to give scholarships to African American students. That year, for the first time, 10 percent of the student body was black.
I was awestruck when I first saw Debra lounging on the bed with her beautiful, frizzy Afro and dazzling clothes. We talked for hours, discovering that we both hated war and racism and loved Bob Dylan and chocolate. We both had tie-dyed peace-sign T-shirts and had demonstrated against the Vietnam War. And we were both Tauruses.
In November I started dating James, a classmate of mine who was black. The morning after our second date, Debra was furious. I’d brought her a chocolate sweet roll for breakfast, as I often did because she never got up in time to go to the cafeteria. She grabbed the roll and flung it at me but missed, hitting the wall behind my head. She called me a “traitor” for getting into a relationship with a “good black man” when there were so few of them available for black women to date.
The resident assistant heard the ruckus and nervously declared that conflicts involving racial issues had to be referred to the president. News of the incident spread, starting a controversy on campus. The president of the Black Student Union criticized black men who dated white women, and the college considered drawing up a policy about interracial dating. Meanwhile I skipped classes and slept secretly in James’s room.
I was eventually allowed to move out of the room I’d shared with Debra, though the reasons were never officially stated. James, ostracized and bullied by some black students, dropped out. I transferred to a university in my hometown, where I moved into a house with two other white girls.
My mom married Chris not long after my third birthday. My new stepfather was silly, raucous, and fun — vastly different from my own introverted, reserved father, whom I visited on Wednesdays. Chris came to every one of my soccer games and cheered the loudest of all the parents. We did homework, drew pictures, and read together. I was his “little penguin,” and he was my full-time dad.
As time passed, however, Chris’s moods began to fluctuate wildly. Some days he was childlike, playing tag outside or running to the store for junk food on a whim. Other days he yelled at, criticized, and punished me. This new Chris had a fanatical need for cleanliness and order, and he assigned me the task of sweeping the hardwood floors in our home. Even before I was taught to ride my bike without training wheels or to write in cursive, I learned how to maneuver a tall broom and expertly guide dirt and debris into small, tidy piles. When I’d finished, I presented Chris with my full dustpan for his inspection. Then he’d run a damp white cloth along the floorboards — even in closets and under furniture — to check my work. If the cloth displayed any dirt or dust, I swept again.
Chris had no tolerance for clutter and no use for decoration. Our home felt sterile without all our family photos, throw pillows, and flower vases. If I happened to leave my toys out, he made me donate them to Goodwill, driving me to the donation site and watching me place the toys in the attendant’s hands.
Each day after school I feared going home, because I never knew what to expect. Would the playful, fun Chris be waiting for me with cartoons and board games? Or would I encounter the stern dictator whose expectations I continually failed to meet? I fantasized about my mother and me moving far away. When I shared my feelings with my mom, she scolded me and defended Chris.
Then one day Mom announced to me, “I have decided that I am leaving Chris.” I held my breath. “And I thought we could go and look for an apartment together.” I hugged her tight. In secret we found a two-bedroom apartment in a gated community with three pools and a pond. The apartment was sunny and bright and had wall-to-wall carpeting. I couldn’t wait to move into it.
One night at dinner Chris cleared his throat and announced, “Your mom and I have decided to move. We’ve found an apartment that we think you’ll love. There are three pools and a pond.”
Speechless, I looked to Mom, and I saw in her face the secret I knew I had to keep.
When I moved to Philadelphia, I wanted to live in a queer-friendly space. I found an ad online for a small two-bedroom mill house with a hundred-year-old cherry tree in the backyard. My potential housemate was a writer, teacher, leftist, bread baker, and queer-identified man. I identified as a lesbian. I e-mailed him, and we arranged to meet, to see if we could get along.
He picked me up at the train station the evening I arrived. When he learned that my plans to stay with colleagues had fallen through, he offered me the spare bedroom, even though I hadn’t decided whether to live there yet. As a woman traveling by myself, I was cautious about staying at the house of a man I hardly knew, but I sensed from the way he treated his dog — speaking calmly to her even when she begged at the table — that he was trustworthy. I stayed the night and ended up moving in.
We’d found each other because we’d both wanted a roommate who would accept our same-sex relationships. And we accepted each other so much that, after living together for three months, we became lovers. When we told our gay and lesbian friends the news, they thought it was funny: we’d wanted a queer-friendly living arrangement, and now we were in a straight relationship. But we continue to see ourselves as a queer couple. After all, had we not identified ourselves as queer to begin with, we never would have met.
The plan was to take our house down to the studs; redo the wiring, plumbing, and insulation; and nearly double the size of the home. Our contractor said we needed to move out during the renovation. We’d be paying our current mortgage, the remodeling bills, and rent on another place. Could we afford it? We considered buying a large camper and parking it on our lawn. Then some friends agreed to let us move into their basement and pay a modest rent.
As far as basements go, it was well lit and homey. The house was built on a hill, so the basement had windows looking onto a brick patio. Our three kids shared a queen-size futon in one room. Our bedroom was also the kitchen and living room. One bathroom accommodated us all.
Over the next nine months our two families became one. We celebrated the birth of our friends’ daughter a month after we moved in — bringing the total number of people in the house to ten. We baby-sat their kids and took care of their poodle when they went on vacation. Our kids had playmates who never went home. We cooked meals together and talked about problems with finances, church, business, bosses, and relatives. Occasionally we’d have our differences, but they were surprisingly small and easily set aside.
Our large clan did try the patience of the neighbors, like when our two-year-olds decided to whip their soiled diapers over the fence. We doubled the number of cars at their house, on an already crowded street. And we helped fill their trash cans to the top every week.
After nine months our new house was finished, and it was time for us to move back. We’d celebrated eight birthdays during that time. The wives were unhappy to have to prepare meals by themselves again. The kids were upset that they wouldn’t have friends around all the time. But of course we had to go.
When our friends came to dinner in our new and improved house, the place felt full of life for the first time since the remodel. My seven-year-old son asked me, “Can they move in with us now?”
The summer I was three years old, Daddy got fired from the coal mines and missed two rent payments on our little white cottage by the railroad tracks. But he found a big two-story farmhouse for half the rent we’d been paying, and we prepared to move.
Daddy hired a man with two horses and a wagon to haul our belongings. Everything we owned was piled high on the wagon, the kitchen stove on top, loaded last because Momma had to cook our final meal on it before we left. The wagon bounced over the ruts and mud holes, axles and springs groaning beneath the load. I rode in Mother’s lap on the wooden seat at the front of the wagon. The kitchen stove shifted with every bump until finally the rope holding it on top of the pile snapped, and the stove came crashing down onto the road. One leg broke in the fall. The men lifted it back on and tied it down good with double rope.
At the farmhouse we unloaded the stove first. Two bricks replaced the broken leg, and Mother started supper: pinto beans and wild greens with corn bread.
That night Juanita and Elizabeth slept in one double bed; I was sandwiched between Howard and Wayne in another. A strip of water-stained wallpaper hung loose from the bedroom ceiling, bits of dried paste at the edges like loose skin. I remember the quiet most of all: no more coal trains shaking the house to bits, only silent, cool breezes flowing through the open window and the songs of the whippoorwill and the katydid. It was magic.