Between the train and the car, it has been hours of watching the scenery shift from cities to trees and several times back again in transient blurs of gray and green. And here, it is mostly green, interrupted only by the occasional glimpses of civilization showing through the trees.
I have never visited the house before, but I know it even before the car slows on approach and the road shifts to gravel. The house straddles a junction where the road forks. As the car pulls in closer, I see other houses share the lane too. In the wide spaces between them, tall and full summer trees make their stand, wild and curving inward they swallow up rooftops.
I get out of the car. Stretch but feel stiff, heavy and halfway dead; the summer heat only expedites the feeling. Hovering between the passenger side door I catch the last bit of AC as it wafts out of the car. But I face what’s in front of me.
The house is multi-storied but narrow. A strange marriage of rustic wood paneling and wrap around windows. There is no front door facing the road, the door is on the side, like the entire house was just uprooted and dropped in from somewhere else entirely. Like it didn’t belong in this lonely backwater place but here it is. Here I find myself too.
Farther up the face of the house I notice the large oval window that stands on the uppermost floor. It sits on the right of the house, asymmetrical and kind of cyclops like. I wonder if the entire house was built with this final vision in mind or were these details just misguided additions. Behind the glass of the hideous window I see a few houseplants are perched, basking in window sun.
It’s uncanny—seeing it all live and in person. After all, I knew it only through pictures. A Christmas tree usually sat framed in the window. It was always Christmas. Since every year following the divorce, Frank would send a card with his new family posed out in front of the house. The card would always arrive after the holidays though, postmarked around New Year's like the afterthought it was. And inside the card, the scrawl was always short and simple variations of:
Come visit soon.
I’m not sentimental, but then I also didn’t throw them away either. There are about six of them tucked away in a desk drawer back in New York City.
It wasn’t just the cards either. For years, an invitation hung there between us, re-opened during every one of the cursory phone calls Frank and I shared.
Major holidays, life events and birthdays I would get a call. It was rarely about anything at all, though, except for that one time. Uninvited the memory surfaces. It had been last October, too early before my birthday and the holidays.
‘Your father is on the phone’ my mom had said before she dropped the receiver in my lap, before I could make up an excuse to just not. And so, I listened as my dad complained about the Boston Red Sox’s win over the Yankees in the AL Division series. This was just an excuse to open with, and I knew it.
I had asked, ‘Is everything ok?’ because often times a call out of the blue usually meant things weren’t. Was he in the hospital? Jail? Had he driven drunk into a reservoir again?
But he had caught me off guard, when after a few moments his voice a little serious said through the receiver: ‘I know you’re busy at college and stuff, but it might be good for you to take a break sometime too. How about this Christmas?’
I remember how loud the static of the phone connection seemed. Like the entire conversation existed in an echo chamber. ‘Maybe?’ I had said, because I had to say something.
That was still early in the fall when everything was fine. It was fine. Or at least, I thought everything was. I suppose it hadn’t been, if even my father who was barely in my life could see the crack before the fault line, somehow, despite being miles away.
Right here, I estimate, kicking the driveway gravel at the spot. I would have stood right here and have posed for their stupid Christmas card if I had taken up the offer.
I pull my bag out of the minivan and throw the duffel over my shoulder. I forget sometimes, until the pain reminds me. I switch it to the other side, the weight of the overstuffed duffel more manageable there. I brought the essentials to stay for about a week or two. I’m still not sure if I packed too little or too much.
“We’re so glad you came.” Grace says to me, coming out and around from the driver’s side.
I force a smile. “I’m happy to be here.” I say, but if I’m being honest—I’m not really sure if I want to be.
But being here meant I didn’t have to be there.
“Well, let me show you the inside.” She says and I follow her.
Small and sharp black stones line the driveway and they crunch under our feet as we walk across to the side of the house.I look up at the trees again and the looming green canopy and it’s perpetual shade.
Grace opens the door and motions me to go in first. I step into the dark entrance way. I stumble in, a little farther into the dark, and then stop short when something touches me at my ankle. The something snorts and darts around beneath me, its energetic movements scraping at the carpet. I stand still and wait for Grace to turn on the light.
“Sorry, don’t mind Wrinkles, he’s a nut. Here’s the light” she says, and the light comes on.
A small dog circles around my feet, ecstatic, as if I’m the most interesting thing in the world. After a few revolutions, the dog plops down on his haunches and peers up at me. His face is flat and he’s a stout thing all brown with a black muzzle. A pug. Wrinkles. The name fits.
But then, I can’t help but to fixate on the oddity there. A single large brown eye looks up at me, wide and shining. The other is shut and hallowed. Gone, I realize.
I bend and give the dog a scratch on his forehead. He leans into this—unselfconscious of affection, as animals so often are—and his little corkscrew tail wags behind him on the carpet.
“Wrinkles, meet Evan.” Grace says. To the dog.
I’m still kneeling on the carpet. The dog, seemingly all-knowing, looks up unblinkingly at the address and then level face back to me. He gives a gruff snort as if in affirmation and proceeds to dart a tongue out to lick the back of my hand. As if to say, ‘yeah, you’ll do’.
I get back up. Grace is fiddling with the door again and I use the moment to look around. The first thing I notice is the dry bar to my right beside the door. An unlit neon sign decorates the interior wall and it’s some type of obscure craft beer brand I don’t recognize.
Probably one of Frank’s many favorites. He claims to be sober for years now but claiming your something and actually being something are two entirely different things. I should know. And Frank being Frank, he probably didn’t even count beer as any conflict against sobriety.
I look away and try to focus on the other details of the room. A stacked washing machine and dryer unit sit to the left of the front door underneath the room’s only natural light source. It’s a small narrow window that reminds me of a basement window despite being on level ground. Those huge windows I saw from the front must sit upstairs then I guess.
Another door sits to the right and I determine by the outside layout that it could only be the closed garage behind the drive. The rest of the room is simple and small. Two brown loveseats occupy the space in front of a shallow stone walled fireplace. Some of Frank’s ancient DJ equipment sit in one of the corners neatly.
“Come upstairs,” Grace says leading me up an enclosed staircase tucked away next to the loveseats. I follow her up, but I stop in my tracks at the first landing. The family photo wall greets me.
There is the photo from last Christmas: Frank, Grace and her own son Bryan are pictured out in front of the house. They did the same kind of photo each year, and so I’m honestly surprised they don’t have all of them displayed in sequence.
The rest are ones I don’t recognize: A family vacation on a beach somewhere. Photos of Bryan, in one of those multi frames displaying a awkward morph from this round little kid to jaded looking teenager. Frank and Grace pictured with people I don’t know. Events and parties I was never invited to.
And then there is a larger photo of Frank and Grace at their wedding. I know it. It’s the one where Grace’s wedding dress is stained in front. That was my doing. I didn’t throw a drink on her, though I’m sure a lot of the guests thought I had. I was barely fourteen then and one of the caterers lowered a tray to me with champagne in long thin glasses. I had been carrying it back to the corner table I had claimed for myself, when Grace, mid trapeze across the dance floor, swept me off my feet. It had been an accident. I was mortified. The dress was ruined, and I remember the crowd around the scene had fallen silent. But her response was this effervescent laughter as clear and sparkling as the champagne had been. She continued to pull me in for a dance. The music cued and I was spinning. After, Frank and her danced. Her dress was ruined but she didn’t care. Before the wedding I had hated her. I was angry at the very notion of her. But I couldn’t after that. The photographer caught the moment—her smile caught in candid, Frank at her side looking the happiest I have ever seen him. That though, I still resented that.
The next photo on the wall was a single frame of me. It was of my high school graduation three years ago now I guess. Frank couldn’t make it that day, so it was just me and mom. As it always was. As it is. I reach out and adjust the standalone panel. Straighten it. But it’s not quite…
The dog whines besides me and he’s waiting for me to follow, so I do. But still I glance back, and my gaze lands on my photo again, and it looks off among the rest. I wonder if I go back and check behind the frame would I find a lighter shadow on the wall. I go up the last few stairs.
I emerge at the top where Grace waits. The entrance way den was dark and uninviting, but the living is a different story altogether. It’s bright and airy despite the solid dark brown wood that continues upwards in wraparound railings lining the upstairs hallway to the other rooms. A sky light is set above the tall vaulted ceiling and opens the space of the living room dramatically. Sunlight falls in soft curtains to land on the dark hardwood floor below. The walls are beige and a large brown leather sofa makes up the sitting area. On the wall in front of the couch there is another fireplace with a tv mounted above it. I can smell the remnant scent of burning wood and notice the streaks of ashy soot on the fireplace stones behind the metal grate.
I look back to the staircase and up to the next landing. On that landing a little mini jungle of assorted plants in pottery thrive in front of that large oval window seen from the street.
But we don’t go up to the next floor. Instead we go straight through the living and around the corner near the open kitchen. There is a small narrow hallway tucked away beside it.
“Your room is through here,” Grace says, and I follow. “This is the bathroom,” Grace indicates the first door. “And this is your room.” She opens the next.
Myroom. Like I’m part of the family. This room, like the rest of the house, has dark wood floors and looking up I notice a dark wood paneled ceiling too. The panels seem heavy and should have a claustrophobic effect but despite that the guest room is as airy and sunlit as the living room. Probably because it is mostly windows.
The walls of the room are painted blue and the decor theme alludes to beaches and seascapes painted in watercolor. Sea stars and sea fans pattern the bedspread and on one wall there’s a picture showing a single seabird in flight above a boat less bay.
The windows don’t have actual blinds, just sheer lace curtains. They move slightly and I feel a breeze coming through, one of the windows is ajar. It’s more a sunroom then a bedroom. The room faces the street, lined up straight overlooking down the winding road that we drove up. From this vantage, I notice how the road seems to cut through the hills and the forest. Its curves, dip and dissolve into the greenery in places only to come back out in another spot with grey. Hidden bends among wild tufts of green. The roofs of the other houses are all so small and seem so far apart from here.
I can’t appreciate it. My head feels a little like a snow globe all shaken up. And I know it isn’t just the ride.
“I’m a little tired, honestly… can I just…” I pause and fail to compose the right words. There’s never a polite way to say it. That you really just want to be left alone. Especially in someone else’s home and as their guest. I set my jaw, not quite trusting myself in keeping that from just spilling out.
“I understand,” Grace says. “No worries, sweetheart. Your dad comes home late, you have plenty of time. Take a nap if you’d like. I’ll wake you up later.”
“Thanks,” I say and then she leaves. I give a sigh of relief and I’m alone. Feeling awkward and standing in this room that I can’t ever picture as my own. If even for the summer.
I slip my duffel bag off from over my shoulder and place it on one of the dresser hooks. I can’t bother to unpack. I just drop down on the bed like a dead thing. It’s soft, and I curl up, burying myself under the covers. They smell new and feel cool to the touch. I close my eyes and fantasize about sleep devouring me.