Our First Home

 

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.

 

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Hallowe’en Routines

My son awakened me the other day, his beautiful blonde dumpling noggin very close to mine at the side of my bed, saying, “Mommy, I didn’t have an accident.  I need fruit snacks.”

It was still dark outside.  It was so dark, in fact, that the sun wouldn’t be rising for a couple more hours.  Groggily I registered this fact, and then reflected on the relative merits of pushing the kids’ bedtime back a little bit so they wouldn’t wake up so early.

“Mommy, fruit snacks,” he continued, reminding me of the bribe we’ve offered him for not wetting the bed.  (And yes, that method is the current expert opinion.)  “Mommy, please.  I didn’t have an accident.”

“Okay, sweetie, just a minute,” I said.  “I’m proud of you for staying dry.”

“Me too.  Can I have my fruit snacks now?  I even got myself dressed.”

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them, thought I bet I’m going to need glasses soon, and then finally saw that he was in fact dressed for school.  Even his little leather belt was around his waist.  It was over his untucked shirt instead of through his belt loops, but we’ll take that.

By now Daddy was awake, too, and lauding our little man on his morning’s accomplishments.  Our son is four years old, and these little milestones are a big and welcome deal, one that, in the not-too-distant past, we felt like we wouldn’t ever see.

I rolled out of bed and paddled down to the kitchen to get the fruit snacks, rewarded him, and then decided it was in fact late enough for me to be up and in the shower.  The morning routine commenced, and I was grateful it didn’t start with whiny, sleep-deprived children resisting the sullen call of the Wake-Up-For-School Fairy (also known as a cranky parent who really could have had another three or four hours of sleep, too, thanks very much).

They say that, when training one’s very young children, three days of a consistent pattern establishes a routine.  So sleep training and potty training and brush-your-teeth training and stories and songs at bedtime, as well as a host of other things, need only three days or nights in a row to become habit.  This is delightful rhetoric, an optimistic forecast that many parents will probably laugh at in hindsight.

As much as I enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity in my life, I have to admit I am a creature of habit, one who appreciates routine and order, even if I’m not great at maintaining them myself.  Routine and order are predictable, stable, familiar.  They are a safeguard against anxiety.  They make enormous tasks conquerable.  They give us something to hold onto when our lives go spiraling out of control.

* * *

Hallowe’en is one of my favorite holidays — second, in fact, only to Christmas.  I consider it the official kick-off to the holiday season, the very best time of year.  In the autumn, the weather is better, everything feels festive, the semester is winding down to its glorious end, and people in general are more generous and kind and happy.

Yes, of course I’m generalizing.  I’m sweeping broad strokes across my palette of existence.  This leaves me able to appreciate the specific details of every holiday season in a fresh way, since those details tend to shift around in surprising little moments.  Most of the time they are happy or pleasant at least.  And yes, “real life” still intrudes sometimes.  But if I pan out from the scene and look from a wide angle, I will see that life is very good, and I will count my blessings and be grateful.  I don’t want to forget to do that, though it can be easy to do so in the crazy-hectic routine of every day.

* * *

When I was in eighth grade, my social circle consisted of very few people.  There were a couple of other kids in my class at school whom I was sometimes friends with, but mostly I was dramatically unpopular.  I had been at that awful school since kindergarten, and although I’d had friends in the elementary grades, over the years they’d moved away, been held back a year, decided I was just too weird for them — whatever.  By eighth grade, all I could think about was graduating and moving on to high school.  Sure, most of the kids I had gone to junior high with would be there with me — the girls at least:  this was Catholic school, after all — but all the other Catholic grade schools in Houston and some of the public ones, too, would be feeding in as well, and so the potential for friendship would yawn wide like the Grand Canyon.

I did have two very good friends, however, though neither was my age and neither attended my school.  They were two of my first cousins, Meredith and Chuck.  Chuck was in sixth grade, Meredith in fourth, and because our large extended family tended to get together a lot on the weekends, I could reliably depend on something like a social life, and so the trauma of having to go to school every day where I was, for all intents and purposes, treated like a bug, was lessened a little bit.

On Hallowe’en, that year I was in eighth grade, my twelve-year-old cousin Chuck died.  It was unexpected.  He’d been in the hospital three days.  He’d been diagnosed earlier that week with what my mother referred to as “acute adult leukemia,” and then in the hospital he’d contracted strep throat.  That afternoon — it was a Saturday — they’d turned off his life support, and the shell of a precious boy who had once been my cousin was no more.

* * *

I would spend the next six weeks crying myself to sleep, unable to articulate to anyone what I was going through, but the days following the death were undoubtedly horrendous for everyone.  I remember the tortured face of my Great-Aunt Mary, leading the San Antonio contingent, climbing the steps to my cousins’ front porch with arms flung open to embrace my grieving uncle.  I remember Sister Jane, the principal of the high school I would be attending next year, coming over because Chuck’s older sister was already in ninth grade there, and Sister Jane knew it was her duty to come.

The monsignor at my school, Father James Dinkins, did not come to my house, or to my cousin’s house.  At the All Saints’ Day Mass Monday morning, his homily in front of the entire school was about an experience he’d had as an adolescent, when his twelve-year-old cousin had died of leukemia.  I remember nothing else about his sermon except that it seemed strange he would have had any experience like mine, and I assumed he was making it all up, straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, directing his homily at me without making eye contact, without offering me or my family a word of direct support, even though we’d been in the parish for years longer than he had.  He appreciated my family’s tithes, that much I knew, but that was where the social contract ended.

That afternoon, he paid a visit to my eighth grade class, and after a few words of pleasant greeting with everyone in general and a little discussion about what everyone had done for Hallowe’en, he walked right up to my desk and said jovially, “I understand you had a very interesting weekend,” as if I’d gone white-water rafting or deer hunting for the first time.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” he asked.  I glanced at my teacher.  She looked taut, ready to spring into action, assuming her help would be needed or welcome, or permitted.  The priest was between her and me.  I shifted in my desk.

“My cousin died,” I said.

“What was that?” he asked, leaning his ear over.  I could detect whispers in the room around me.

I cleared my throat.  “My cousin died.  He was twelve.  He had leukemia.”

“Oh, that’s very interesting,” Father Dinkins said, standing straight again.  I excused myself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for a while.  When I returned, he was still chatting pleasantly with the class, no doubt about something dogmatic and theological.  He and I did not make eye contact again.  I heard from my parents later that when the news of our family’s tragedy broke, our pastor said, “The Jamails are a big family.  They will console themselves.”

* * *

I didn’t know how to mourn something so profound as the death of one of my best friends.  I quit playing the piano and even stopped, for a while, writing stories.  I began wearing black on the weekends.  I tried to find as many pictures of my cousin as possible to make a collage for my room until my mother scolded me not to build a shrine.  Everyone was sad, my grandmother explained, enfolding me in a hug and telling me I needed to stop crying.

At school a couple of boys who sat next to me in science class asked me, “Are you mourning?”

I nodded my head.  “Yes, I am.”

“Are you nighttime?”  Their punchline, hilarious to them, stung me just the way it was supposed to, and I swallowed my grief down, understanding that it was not a safe thing to show.

Eventually, what saved me from a crippling sadness was stoic routine.  I had things to do.  Tests to study for.  A school newspaper column to write.  Essay contests and spelling bees to win.  That grade school to put behind me as I embarked on a hopeful time, high school.  Eventually, life continued on at its genial pace, and all the grief I and my entire family was feeling got tucked away into the corners of our traditions, one more new wrinkle to incorporate.

* * *

I got back to celebrating Hallowe’en slowly at first.  Even though I still dressed up and participated in parties and trick-or-treating, it was a long time before I could look at my candy bucket and not remember the handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that had been dropped into my cousin’s casket with him by his classmates.  I spent about a decade letting my grief for him be the go-to sadness I defaulted to when I was feeling depressed, the thing I most remembered when someone else died, the gravitas that I, as a young adolescent, could not shake and which fed my Otherness.

I’ve never been much of a drinker.  The only time I’ve ever drunk alone was on what would have been Chuck’s twenty-first birthday.  I had just broken up with a boyfriend whom I should have kicked to the curb six months before.  He wasn’t dealing well with the break-up and wanted really badly to be friends.  I went to a pub and ordered myself dinner and an imposing pint of Ace Pear in honor of my cousin.  The boy I’d just dumped showed up at the tail end of it, invading my solitude, and I let him listen to stories about my cousin.  He looked eager and supportive and hopeful.  I told him good-bye and left him at the table without even a glance over my shoulder.

Later, at home, I launched myself into my routine, locking my grief back into the recesses of my heart for what I hoped would be the last painful time.

* * *

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my cousin died, and here I am writing about it — which I hadn’t really intended to do when I sat down to write today.  Hallowe’en is a big holiday at my house now.  And in my immediate family.  Again.  My parents picked the holiday back up once I had children of my own.  Traditions, you know.  Comfortable, familiar habits.  Costumes, candy, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of treats that will bring the little ones joy.

We put out decorations every year:  witches, spiders, pumpkins with knowing grins.  And always ghosts, the representation of our collective fears and hopes about the afterlife.  We traipse around on what the old religions tell us is the night when the veil between the worlds — those of the living and the dead — is the thinnest.  We light candles.  We don’t tell the kids they can’t eat candy before bedtime and with breakfast the next morning.  We watch Tim Burton movies.  We dress ourselves in costumes, costumes, costumes.  My girlfriends are I wear pointy hats to tea.

And then we put it all away until next year. We focus on Thanksgiving.  The guest list, the order at the butcher’s market.  The sculpted turkey with a double-fan scrollwork tail I put on the mantel for decoration.  The ceramic pumpkin tureen and little pumpkin bowls which will hold my famous creamy pumpkin soup in just a few short weeks.  And the discussions with my husband over what we’re going to get the kids for Christmas this year.  The ghosts recede, and this too is their habit.

Ah, routine.