When The Boy left home for college his bed tagged along with him, so this time I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. His old room is the only one on the top floor of the three-story house, and virtually the entire southeast wall is windows. Lying on the mattress in a dark and nearly empty room, I stared out of those windows for the second to last time as The Boy wheezed softly in his sleep beside me. What with the room being so high up, and me being so low to the ground, all I could see were the tops of the trees, branches bare and black against midnight blue, like I was in a treehouse or a small boat floating through the sky. It was one of those cold and clear winter nights, and I could see a handful of crystal bright stars winking at me from behind the branches. I hadn’t expected to be back there again, looking up through those windows across the tops of the trees.
We weren’t supposed to go home for Christmas. Earlier in the fall, when we’d discussed how we’d spend our first holidays as a married couple, we tip-toed around the real reason. We’d done so much traveling that year, we said. With The Boy’s graduation and subsequent move, and then the wedding… it was all too much. We needed a break. Some quiet.
But staring up through those windows, so far away from the relaxed and balmy LA Christmas I’d imagined, I knew something I had always known, but hadn’t said or even thought before. I hadn’t wanted to come home, because I hadn’t wanted to say goodbye.
The wedding had been the perfect ending to my relationship with that house, because it hadn’t really felt like an ending at all. The house and yard were still full of furniture, full of people, full of shouts and laughter, full of life, full of that magic green and gold. Weeks later, when I learned the house had been sold, it seemed fitting that the last memory I would have of the place was one of being loved, of loving, of running around in old shorts in 105 degree weather making flower arrangements, of wildflowers and the same old trees that I’d known since I was fifteen watching over me. I was sad that it was over, but I wrote this, and felt a little better. We had sent the old girl off in style, and it really didn’t get any better than that.
But things change, and somehow I ended up standing in that driveway again, walking through that door again. Only this time it was bitterly cold, half the house was in boxes, and the green and gold had been replaced with bruised purple and grey. This time, it felt like an ending: sad, and leaden, and with the kind of finality that you know won’t feel fully real until weeks later, when it’s over and gone, but you can still sense waiting in the wings.
That night, lying underneath those windows, I remembered.
I remembered the summer before The Boy and I started dating, when we’d get too tired and too drunk to drive me home, and I’d end up crashing in his bed, sleeping right beneath those windows. This happened almost every night. We were still just friends, but every once in awhile I’d wake in the middle of the night and find that our bodies had unconsciously wrapped themselves around each other. We’d pretend like it hadn’t happened when we woke the next day at 4 am to drive me home before my parents woke up and noticed I hadn’t come home. Who was I kidding? Like they hadn’t noticed…
I remembered waking up on hot summer mornings in a haze of blinding sunshine baking me alive through those shadeless windows. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, we’d pull all our blankets and pillows out onto his balcony and sleep off the rest of the morning in that cool early morning summer breeze carrying the smell of fresh cut grass. The railings were tall and solid wood, so lying on the floor all I could see were the swaying green treetops, outlined against a cloudless blue sky.
I remembered standing on that balcony in the middle of the night in my underwear and old leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. It was a warm summer night, and we’d only been dating a couple of weeks. I could see my best friend’s house from that balcony. Her lights were off. She’d left us hours ago to go to bed.
I remembered standing on that balcony on a hot summer afternoon, the day The Boy and I fell in love. He was waiting for me in the yard while I ran upstairs to grab something. His room, with its air conditioning and slate blue walls, felt so cool and refreshing after the scorching heat, and the heady smell of the trees, and the irresistible momentum of falling in love. I grabbed what I needed, whatever it was, but for some reason I felt compelled to go out on the balcony before I went back downstairs. I could see my best friend’s house from that balcony. Her car was gone. I could see a red garden hose, curled up neatly on the black asphalt of The Boy’s driveway. I could see him, waiting for me on the front stoop. He didn’t look up, but I smiled at him anyway. I didn’t tell him I loved him that day, but I would.
I remembered standing in that driveway a few weeks later, talking to The Boy over my shoulder as I rummaged for something in my friend’s car. It was late August, and he was home visiting from college. He’d only left for school two weeks earlier, and he hadn’t been planning on coming home yet, but we missed each other so much that he did. We still weren’t dating. When I went over to his house that night I actually ran across the kitchen to hug him and he breathed into my hair, “Hey, kid.” Later, he walked out into the driveway with me so I could get my cigarettes out of my friend’s car. For some reason I’d decided to take all of the cigarettes out of the pack, and we were trying to put them back in, talking about something unimportant the whole time, when finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I dropped all of the smokes we had so painstakingly been trying to fit back into their cardboard box on the ground, reached my hands around his neck, and kissed him for the first time in years, with the moonlight filtering down on us through those same old trees that I’d known since I was fifteen.
I took an oral history class in college, and in it we spent a lot of time talking about the powers and limitations of memory. One image that’s always stuck with me is the notion of memory as a hydraulic wheel. The more it spins the faster it goes. You start remembering a single image, or perhaps a smell, and that leads to another and another, and the more you remember the more you remember, coming faster and faster until you’re left swimming in the deluge. I laid beneath those windows on a cold winter night with the hydraulic wheel of memory spinning faster and faster in my mind, remembering, and remembering, and remembering with the cold brightness of the stars piercing through my heart and the warm skin of my husband’s back pressing against my side.
This was the goodbye that I never wanted to say, the real reason we hadn’t wanted to go home, and it was bittersweet and heavy. But on Christmas Eve I sat on the floor with The Boy, and his brother, and his mother, and his grandmother, wrapping presents. This song was playing softly in the background, and The Boy and his brother were joking around about something or another, while his mother sorted through old photos, running back and forth to show us when she found one of The Boy sporting a baby mohawk in his bath, or his sister in her wedding dress, and I hummed along to the song and thought, “I never would have wanted to miss this.”
Photo by Decade Diary.