Starting small helps. This revision is of a piece I wrote a year ago about a woman who visits her old house at night, after work, before returning to her husband and kids in their apartment. I liked the story then, as it came together, because I liked the woman. I could feel her loss. I wanted you to get that. The challenge of this revision was my choice not to expand. I’m attached to its bare bones. Even so, after workshopping with friends (such willing readers!), I understood better how to reorder the scenes.
I’m calling this done. But I still have no title. Let me think on that.
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 family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby. The swing set is still in the yard, but no sleds or snow angels. 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 and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.
The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Then Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.
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. That house held us for eight years.
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.
When we moved, I didn’t walk through our house a last time, after the boxes were out. We put nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker when Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.
Wanna go take a last look?
Mom said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. Jon 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. My throat hurt to swallow but I didn’t cry. I didn’t want the boys to think anything was wrong.
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 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’s illness. 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. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. 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.
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 to me. 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 kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Jon holds me 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.
The next morning, Jon lets me sleep late while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. I can’t move. 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. His cheeks are chapped red. I close my eyes. 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 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 doorframe 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 bedroom.
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 embracing in an empty room. 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.