The first home my husband, Aaron, and I shared, before we were married, was the top floor of a charming but tiny 1930s duplex in the Montrose. It was the kind of apartment that let you appreciate Craftsman style and the fact that back then no one cared too much about kitchens and bathrooms or closets or privacy. We lived there because it was cuter and nicer and in a more artsy part of town than my generic mass-produced mass-populated complex, and because the rent was a better value when it came right down to what we were getting, and because Aaron had already been living there a couple of years.
But he hadn’t lived there alone. He’d shared this place with his girlfriend before me, a woman named Debra who’d suddenly died of an undetected brain aneurysm when she was twenty-seven. I’d met Debra a couple of times. I’d gone to college with Aaron, and we’d been friends for years, always in intersecting social circles, but I hadn’t known him well enough to have been chummy with any of his girlfriends. The third time I saw Debra was at her wake.
Five months of extraordinary personal growth later, Aaron and I began dating. Five weeks after that, we became engaged. The next year, I moved in. We had a house blessing, and though the space was never big enough, we were happy. We looked forward to buying our own house — one day. After we were married and out of debt. And in the meantime, we had a cute, historical-feeling place in a fabulous part of town. We were cool kids.
The apartment we lived in wasn’t perfect, though. The galley kitchen was definitely meant for one person, so we didn’t get to cook together or even clean up together that often. And our cats didn’t get along so well when we merged the two households. One of his, a black and white long-hair crazy kitty, liked to run through the house at high speeds for no apparent reason, meowing her head off, a lot of the time. (This cat, named Bubastis — Bubu for short — had seen some trauma. Her first owner had killed himself when she was barely weaned, and then she’d been close to Debra, too.) None of my husband’s cats particularly liked my own kitten, and turf wars in our cramped home were de rigeur. The amount of closet space in the whole house wouldn’t fit my clothes, much less both of ours and storage. We could hear the lumbering footsteps of the large dog downstairs echoing from the wood floors every day and night. The windows, original to the house, rattled in the wind, and the neighborhood lay under a major flight path, so airplanes flew loud and low overhead day and night. In the humid quiet hours of the middle of the night, distant train whistles echoed from all around us, and the mercury vapor lamp perched above the next-door neighbor’s driveway lit our bedroom orange. Even in our intimate newlywed moments, I felt safe only with the bedroom doors closed.
One night I woke from a dream, my eyes opening to stare at the bathroom in front of me. Unusually, the light was on in there, and backlit in the doorway stood Debra’s silhouette, dark and unfeatured, though I knew it must have been her; I could see the red edges of her hair. She stood still and silent, watching me. Frozen in sleep paralysis, I drifted back down, my eyes closing on the dream as her image disappeared and my slumber deepened. I woke the next morning without a care in the world. It has never been unusual for me to dream of the dead; it’s just another way my subconscious mind finds closure, and it usually gives me peace.
Fast forward ten years. Aaron and I have children and are living elsewhere, having graduated from that tiny duplex less than two years into our marriage. We’ve come into town to have dinner with some married friends, Roger and Celeste. Roger had lived in the garage apartment of that duplex Aaron and I had shared, and Celeste and I had gone to college together. They’d known Debra, of course.
After dinner, we’re sitting at their house telling stories, calculating in the lulls how much time we have until the babysitter needs us back in the suburbs. Celeste tells us about the ghosts in the Heights, where they live, how their house is like Grand Central Station for this spirit or that one. We speak of how much we like our house now, of how much space we have, even if it’s far away, and how I seem to have lost my fear of the dark. “I think it’s because the house we’re in now is mine, it’s my own. I’ve bought it, there’s a mortgage.” I’m an adult now, with children to set an example for, and have no need to fear the dark.
Then I admit I’d never really felt comfortable in that old apartment in the Montrose, how it’d been six months before I could even really go into the kitchen. How even the cats like each other in the new house, too, how Bubu has calmed down considerably since the move.
“Did the kitchen still have all those little cows in it?” Celeste asks.
Yes, it had — Aaron had forgotten that, when he and Debra had moved in, she’d decorated that room with little cow heads for cabinet doorknobs, with Holstein-spotted contact paper on the shelves. I’d always thought it was odd but hadn’t ever said anything; it hadn’t been my place to criticize the design choices of someone else’s home.
And then I tell them about the dream I’d had, the strange one when I’d half-woken to see Debra standing in the doorway of the room where she’d first collapsed, looking at me asleep next to my husband in our bed.
Aaron looks hesitant for a moment, then says he remembers that dream.
“But I never mentioned it to you,” I say. “It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing,” he says slowly. “I had it, too — or rather, I didn’t. I wasn’t asleep. I didn’t tell you in the morning because I didn’t want to scare you.”
More talking, more triangulating, more uncovering the details to find it was the same middle of the same night.
It wasn’t a dream.
More putting the pieces together, more realizing I’d never felt at home in that apartment because I wasn’t the only woman there.