Jon knows but doesn’t ask. I keep the key to our old house in the cup holder of my car and stop there after my nursing shift. The kids are already in bed and if I stay at the house late enough, Jon is sleeping when I get to the apartment. The apartment has a front door like it’s a cheap motel. I go in quietly. The smoke from the last tenant is worse now that it’s winter and our boots track in snow. When I crawl into bed, Jon scoots near me, throws an arm over my waist, kisses my shoulder. Sometimes he whispers, Poor man’s theater, and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.
The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.
It’s an old house. The family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby.
The first time I went by after my shift, I was surprised the key turned. I thought the bank would’ve changed the locks. We brought our sons home to that house. I painted its walls. Jon tiled the bathroom. I opened the door and went in. When we’d moved out, I hadn’t gone in a last time, after the boxes were out. We moved nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker. Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.
Wanna go take a last look?
Mom heard and said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. He turned off the ignition and got out, pulled me into a sweaty hug. That house was good to us, he said. I nodded against his chest. He kissed the top of my head. I started to cry and had to pull it together because the boys would notice and I didn’t want them to think that anything is wrong.
Bluebird Acres has a playground we can see from the living room. Elliot thought it was awesome he could slide the patio door open and race across the grass to play. He and Sam are usually the only two kids out. I thought maybe it was because of tv. Another mom two doors down said the complex had eleven registered sex offenders. Everyone can see the playground, she said. I followed the boys out one afternoon and sat in a swing facing the U of apartments, watching for blinds and curtains to move aside. I didn’t see anything. It might be a terrible idea to let them out by themselves.
Jon is with the boys all the time now. He made friends with the manager and gets a few jobs thrown his way, mostly painting when tenants move out. This winter he’s shoveling and salting the walks. He’d take a job at a gas station or flipping burgers but the hours aren’t fixed. I keep adding extra shifts each week. I’m never home a full day.
I want to move to Towering Pines in the spring. It’s next to the highway, cutting ten minutes from my commute. It’s two hundred more a month. We moved to Bluebird Acres to save for another down payment. I don’t think we’ll ever be allowed to buy another house again, but Jon believes in discipline. We don’t touch the savings unless one of us is dying, he says. I think of Elliot, if we’d had savings then, we’d still have our house. That isn’t true at all, but I think it anyway.
I go online and look up how many registered sex offenders are at Towering Pines. Two. And it’s a huge complex. Jon thinks the boys are okay because he’s around. He’s probably right.
At night when I visit our house, I do math in my head. I buy a cheaper car. We don’t fix the truck. We don’t have pizza night. We eat more rice. None of it adds up to cover the hospital bill and Jon’s missing income.
I walk from room to room. Elliot took his first steps in the kitchen. Sam in the living room. We had our Christmas tree in this corner. We pulled up carpet in the boys’ room and found a girl’s diary from twenty years ago. Sam played hide and seek in our closet. The boys built a Lego city in the hall upstairs. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. I sit in my bedroom, where our bed was. The light from the street and moon falls in slants on the painted wood. When I was in nursing school, one of my roommates did sitting meditation. I think of her when I am in my bedroom, the slants of light moving incrementally closer. I think of my friend breathing the quietest deepest breaths, facing a wall. I breathe deeply. I try to let it out slowly. I get caught on a jagged cry every time. I can’t stop anything.
When I go home and roll over to kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Our savings covers the deposit, first and last months’ rent.
Jon pulls me into a hug so tight I can’t breathe. He puts his lips close to my ear. His whole body trembles. I don’t know what he will say. When his body relaxes, I touch his face. I tell him I’m sorry, I know we’re okay here.
In the morning, Jon lets me sleep while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. He lays down with his winter coat on, his giant boots hanging off the edge. He nudges me, says, Let’s go take a last look.
I roll over. His cheeks are chapped red. Come on, he says. He gets up and pulls the blankets from the bed, tosses a pair of jeans at me.
We take my car over. The heat kicks in as I pull up to the curb and park. I take the key from the cup holder and we go up the walk, let ourselves in. It looks different in the day. Empty, but not as sad. The rooms echo with our footsteps. Jon rubs a thumb on the door frame marking our boys’ heights. I open the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the liner paper with tiny orange flowers. We stand in the doorway of the boys’ room, looking in like we did most nights before going downstairs to our own bedroom, playing poor man’s theater.
Now Jon and I hold each other in our room, standing where I’ve spent the last six months sitting. Anyone walking by could see us, statues keeping balance. I pull a deep breath in, let it out slowly. I don’t cry. I look up at Jon. We look at each other. We must want to say something. Little puddles of melted snow show where we’ve been.