I’ve always loved nighttime journeys through neighborhoods that aren’t my own. As a child, before I knew the pleasure of evenings spent walking alone, I remember looking out the backseat of my mother’s car as we drove home, mesmerized by the windows of each house we passed in the night.
This was my version of playing house, as I imagined myself into the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, and the life of some perfect family that I’d willed into being through the force of my imagination.
Of course, I didn’t want inside every house we passed. Using the few details I could gather, I made decisions about whether or not the lives led inside those houses were happy ones.
Were the curtains in the windows open or closed? Did the windows hold the soft, yellow glow of lamplight, or was the interior of the house shuddering, laid bare by television light? I didn’t ache to enter those dark houses illuminated by their televisions. They looked lonely. They looked familiar.
* * *
Ever stark, ever blue, I grew up in a single parent household, painfully aware of the the holes in my life. Long before I began writing, I knew it was up to me to fill in the gaps, so I told tales, dizzied by my own spinning as I made up story after story to compensate for what I lacked.
The ugly, grey 1977 Plymouth Baracuda that’s half-primered by someone who never finished the job? The one with the passenger door that doesn’t open? The thing that rumbles and spits as my mom pulls in front of my school? It’s actually a race car. No, really. We bought it from a retired race car driver.
Why is there a bed in our living room? That’s just a fold out couch that we never put back up because we like it that way. It’s not really my mother’s bed, the place she sleeps because we can only afford this shitty, two bedroom duplex, and she knows my brother and I are too old to be sharing a room.
Why do my brother and I have different dads? Where is my dad? Where, for that matter, is my brother’s dad? I can’t remember the stories I told about our fathers, but I’m sure they were as complicated as our relationships with them came to be.
I’ve always felt like an outsider, and so, imagine my surprise when I found myself living in the Middlewest, married to a wonderful man, inhabiting a beautiful home, the mother of two girls. Suddenly, I was inside the kind of house, the kind of life, that before, I’d only been able to imagine. Even more unexpected is the fact that, after a while, there would be moments I wanted out.
After the birth of my second child, my husband was out of town for work quite a bit. On a particularly difficult evening, I remember dragging our huge trash can up the hill (cursing my husband and my house every step of the way), and when I got to the top of the hill and set down the garbage can, I had a terrible thought: “What if I just keep walking?”
* * *
When my four year-old brings me a piece of her clothing that is inside out, she asks me, “Will you inside out this?” Her choice of words reminds me of the moments I’ve been lucky enough to experience my life inside out, viewing it from an outsider’s perspective.
Once, while walking the dog, I saw my husband turn up the road and drive towards me. I was deep in thought, and, for a nanosecond, I didn’t recognize him. In that brief moment, what flashed through my mind was, “Who’s that handsome guy?” And then I realized it was my husband, and when he pulled alongside me, I saw two little girls beaming from the backseat. And hey, they belonged to me too.
This momentary sense of bliss at seeing what I have, it won’t last. On any given day I’ll catch myself looking out of my own window, longing. For what? I couldn’t even tell you. Am I cursed with this longing because I am an American living in the 21st century? A woman who, with the click of a mouse, the push of a computer or television button, can see all the possible places and lives she might’ve lived ? Or is it because I am a writer? Even when I am sitting still on my couch, I’m off visiting other places, living other lives. Perhaps this propensity for looking outward has to do with being a mother with one foot in the domestic realm, the other in the larger world, wondering if she should be venturing further out, or pulling back and moving deeper into her home to tend to the people who matter most.
Some native american cultures believe that if one travels too quickly, she risks leaving her spirit behind. My life has changed quicker than I ever expected it to, and perhaps the child in me, the one that built a life out of what she imagined and willed to be true while looking at the windows of houses she passed, hasn’t caught up with the 35 year- old woman who pretty much has everything.
The Other Side of the Story
after Dunn’s “One Side of the Story”
My husband’s started a to-do list titled, “House
Projects.” We make lists when there’s so much
to be done that we forget what we need
to do. My husband likes lists because it’s satisfying
to draw a line through something, call it finished.
We have two small daughters. We can’t
draw lines through them. But we like to pretend there’s some end
in sight, nights we slide into bed, turn towards each other,
and speak of all the things we’ll do when they’re older—
sleep in, take a trip somewhere far
but not too, Kansas City, maybe.
Just talking about filling our suitcases
with only what we need—a change
of clothes, a toothbrush—makes us feel lighter.
I just read a poem where the poet said,
I was thinking
so many people walk up to me
and tell me they’re dead,
though they’re just describing their afternoons,
and I think of us, in the dark, trying to find
ways to stay alive in our house. Maybe
we need a new list. There are days I want to sail
into a new area code in a baby-blue Chevy,
windows rolled down, the wind and Lucinda Williams
blowing through my hair. When that dream stales,
I cross theAtlantic, find myself lounging naked, smoking
on a balcony inPrague. Trouble is
I’m getting old enough to know
that the balcony and the Chevy
don’t exist. And even if they did, it’d only be a matter of time
before I dreamed myself back
into this house, only a matter of time
before I started a new list titled A Way Out of Here or
A Way Back In, “In” and “Here” being relative
to where I am, which is beautiful
house, wonderful children, marvelous husband, and it’s terrible,
getting what you want,
because that’s when you know you’ll always want
something different. And this afternoon,
I went to the library, read that poet’s book, came
home, put the baby down for her nap,
and got on the treadmill. So am I dead, or
not? Whatever the answer, I’m pretty sure
there are days when you, whoever you are, are dead
too. And if we walked around alive all the time,
we wouldn’t have our small resurrections.
Like my two girls. Like the cherry tomatoes I planted last summer.
The ones on my list. They actually grew.
* * *
In the arms of a new city or an old flame, sitting in a house on the hill or a downtown apartment, each of us is a still life –a Cassat, a Picasso, a Kahlo, a Van Goegh– framed by our windows. There are days we stand there, imagining a way out of our lives, even while others are passing by our windows, imagining a way in.