Now, five years later, we are home. The kids say that this is our real house because "all of our good memories" are here. I think they're downplaying just how much of our old house still lives in us, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe they're keeping the good stuff from that house somewhere safe for now. Maybe five years isn't long enough to forget how difficult it is to be uprooted.
Since my physical in January, the one where I found out I'm remarkably healthy but also a little fat, I've been enjoying daily walks with the dog. Through snow and slush and now mud and sun, every day Walter and I head out. We go between 3 1/2 and 6 miles at a stretch, depending on how much time I have and how long the sun stays up.
Lately, we've been meandering down around our old neighborhood. Not through it, no...but skirting it. Walter strains at the leash when we get close. He pulls me towards our former street, like he has urgent business ahead. But something stops me, just shy of the sidewalk that would take us straight there, right up to the yard I used to tend. I can't even look, I avert my eyes as if the neighborhood is an old lover I left on bad terms.
"No, Walter" I say to him, as he plants his paws stubbornly into the path. "Not yet. I can't." He looks at me and I swear to God his eyes are judging. If he could talk he'd tell me what a psycho I am. He'd tell me to get over it, to grow a set for Christ's sake. But I can't. And so we turn left instead of right, and walk away.
William has claimed what was once my office as his bedroom. It's a funky little room, with 50's style wood paneling covering the walls and the ceiling. There's a built in dresser and cabinet, and a small closet. Back when we first moved in, the closet became a catch-all place for things I knew I had to keep, but didn't want to see. So there are old art projects from the kids, eBay inventory I never got around to selling, some old photography equipment of mine. And, there's a box.
The box was one of dozens given to me by a neighbor all those years ago, a neighbor who worked in a grocery store. She supplied me with large, cardboard produce boxes, which were perfectly suited for my "stuff 'em and run" moving method. Nice and roomy, but not too big, they had handles on the sides and were sturdy.
William is entering that magical adolescent period of time known as The Great Awakening, when teenage boys begin showering, applying product to their hair and caring about what they're wearing. He had some new clothes and since this was The Great Awakening, he decided the new clothes deserved to be hung up instead of piled haphazardly in eternally-open drawers or worse, piled on the floor. So, he was cleaning out the closet one night, and carried this particular box out into the living room. "Where should I put this?" he asked, holding it by the handles and using one knee to balance it.
The box was red. There was a cartoonish apple on the side, along with the brand name, Superfresh Growers. I eyed the box, and noting the binders and notebooks, decided it was probably full of old tax paperwork and other miscellaneous office flotsam I'd been unsure about throwing away five years ago. Although I dreaded the idea of poring through ancient financial history, the thought of my teenager giving enough of a shit about something that he was cleaning moved me to say, "Put it down here, on the coffee table. I'll take care of it." I moved the remotes and the laptop out of the way, and the red box was placed in front of me. The apple was shiny. Superfresh.
Our brains are funny things. They are basically gray, mushy blobs which enable us to see and think and breathe and move. But they are also museums. Only not the kind of museum you have to walk through slowly and quietly, being very careful to not touch anything or get caught with a look on your face which might reveal that you think some of what you're seeing could have been created by a toddler armed with a paintbrush and a sugar high.
The museum in my brain is crowded with sounds and sights and smells. There are dark hallways and trapdoors and rooms without windows. I try to avoid those places because I'm the kind of person who will get lost in them, who will sit down among the cobwebs and the dust and let the darkness swallow me whole. I wasn't even thinking about my brain or museums as I sat down in front of the box. And then, as I began sifting through the vinyl binders and the crinkled manila envelopes, it started. The door to the museum creaked open and I wandered in.
This wasn't just a box. It was a portal, my own personal TARDIS that took me back, five years and before that. There, in that envelope? The papers in there represented a home equity line of credit. Dated just a year before my husband left me, with our signatures nestled snugly next to each other, together at the bottom. Oh, the things we were going to do with that windfall! The new kitchen, the new patio! The potential for so much newness was practically jumping off the pages. I didn't know it back then, but that line of credit was going to finance my husband's new life. And also, a shopping spree at the Coach store for his girlfriend.
Oh, and in that binder there? The blue one? Our original mortgage. The OG of our debt. I thumbed through the stack inside and felt the bony hands of the past pulling at me. Claws digging into my arms, dragging me down into the cellar of my museum.
The box had more to show me. I found our second mortgage, and underneath that, two battered notebooks. I flipped open one of the notebooks and saw my handwriting, columns of scrawled numbers and words. Ahh. It came back to me, then. After he left, this was how I kept track of money and bills. Row after row of pluses and (mostly) minuses:
Charlie- lunch money -$40.00
Molly- lunch money -$40.00
Countrywide Mort. -$1,150.00
The words were scribbled and written in all sorts of shades of blue and red and even green. Some of it was written with colored pencils. I noticed then: even my handwriting looked terrified.
This box in front of me was a collection of milestones. Not sweet milestones, the kind you look back upon and smile fondly...no, these were awful milestones, shitty ones: past due notices, bills, a foreclosure notice. It was a box of sadness. A box chock full of betrayal and intentional fuckery.
I was deep in the bowels of the museum now, the living room around me had faded away and I was back in the old house. Hunched over the notebook, trying to figure out how I was going to stretch that $500 dollars out for another week. Trying to decide what I could cancel or cut or disconnect....
Apparently five years isn't long enough to erase the memories, to scrub the walls of the museum clean. I felt it that night, sitting there in front of the box. I touched the pages of the notebook and strands of worry wound up and encircled my fingers. My breath became shorter and goddammit, tears threatened. I started to get mad again, mad at that man and what he did and sad for me and so, so sorry for what the kids went through. And then, I turned the page and saw this:
"I love my mom" it says. There, amidst the wreckage of an old life, something beautiful. A child had picked up a pencil and then drew a picture. "I love my mom".
I smiled. Faint shafts of light appeared on the museum walls, and as I studied the drawing I found myself back in our living room. The bad feelings were scurrying away, back to the murky recesses they'd crawled out from. All of the other papers were tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, sheathed in their binders and folders and envelopes.
Back into the box.
Back into the box.