Issue 23 / Fall 2020
We’re only going to be in the house for a few months, your mother tells you as you pack up the apartment into boxes. You’re going to live in this temporary house while you look for another one, because the house your family was supposed to buy, a house with three stories and a huge backyard and five bedrooms—two full stories and three more bedrooms than you had in the apartment—fell through. But someone has already agreed to buy your apartment, so you have to move.
You move into what you all call, for some reason, the Rentahouse. Is this how your little brother Rufus says rental house? Or is it all of you, your brother and your parents, who slowly elide the words until they are one? Rufus will barely remember this house, but for decades, for the rest of your life when you read certain novels set in smallish houses, you will set them here in your mind. You won’t realize you’re doing this until you’re halfway through whatever novel you’re reading and realize the characters are kissing in this kitchen with its leaf-green cabinets or running up the stairs that lead to your bedroom.
Just before you moved out of the apartment and into the Rentahouse, your friend Maggie moved too, to Florida, your first friend to move away. Why Maggie? She’d been your closest friend, the only one who could see Shadow, too, or at least pretended she could. It must have been one of her parents’ jobs that took her to Florida, a state you’ll resent for years just because it took Maggie away from you. You write two letters to each other, exactly two letters each and then no more. When the letters come to the Rentahouse and your father tells you that you have mail—you never have mail—you stare at Maggie’s name on the envelope before you open it. She loops her Gs in one fluid motion, like two figure eights, like fractured infinity signs. You practice them until you can recreate them effortlessly. When you write her name at the top of a new letter, Dear Maggie, you’ve done it; you’ve stolen her Gs, those effortless loops. You tear up the letter, certain that she will notice her Gs in your handwriting and this will offend her. You tell yourself you’ll call her later, which you do not do. For the rest of your life, you will loop your Gs like Maggie’s figure eights.
Although the Rentahouse is in the same town where you’ve lived your entire life, it’s part of a neighborhood you’ve never seen before; still technically Oakview, but bordering North Genfield. Still, this is the move where you do keep your friends, minus Maggie. You visit your friends’ houses and wonder what your next house, your real house, will bring. Your friend Quinn’s house has two different staircases leading to the second story; there’s no way your new house will have two staircases, you think, but—maybe.
The Rentahouse isn’t much to look at, not really, with dull yellow walls inside and out. The fenced-in front porch has tears in the screens. But it’s still a house, not an apartment. It has a back patio and a grill and a backyard and stairs, real stairs. There’s a basement, too, a basement that’s cold even in April, where your father illustrates children’s books late into the night. There are spiders in the basement, and you’d say you don’t know how he stands it except there was a spider in the corner of the living room in your old apartment where his desk was and you’d named the spider Frank, your father and you. Frank the Ferocious Flycatcher. You hate spiders, you always will, but whenever Frank was gone from his web, you both noticed. Your father would wonder aloud where he’d gone. He even drew a picture of Frank; he encouraged you to draw one, too, and after you did, your father taped it next to Frank’s web.
Shadow comes with you to the new house. You weren’t sure he would, but sure enough, when you go into the garage for the first time, there’s a loft—a loft!—and before your mother tells you to come back down right now, forbids you to climb up again because she is sure, just positive, that the thin floor will cave in from all seventy-two pounds of you, you see Shadow in the corner of the loft. His tail wags, his grey fur ruffles even without a breeze. You are too old now for imaginary friends, but still, you wave back at him.
One month into the new house, your parents are fighting, yelling words you can’t make out but they have something to do with the house, you think, or the house they are trying to buy. Not enough… your mother is saying. But the money… How can we when we’ll never… You creep out of bed, careful not to wake your brother who you’re still sharing a room with, though this room is twice the size of the room you shared back in the apartment. Your parents’ room is barely big enough to hold their bed. No wonder they’re fighting.
You pull a piece of paper from the stack in your art corner. You have an art corner, here, on your side of the bedroom, with markers and crayons and every color of construction paper. You write, “I hope you feel better.” You draw a bunch of hearts. You leave it at their door and when, an hour later, they come upstairs and your mom finds it—“Oh,” she says, “Tom, look at this”—you pretend that you are asleep when she opens your door, the change in light visible even through your closed eyelids, your breaths long and slow, and then she closes the door again.
The old apartment had a pool. You and Kendra were the first ones in it every summer, as a rule, but here, there is only a backyard. When Kendra comes over for a—playdate? A hangout? Your parents still say playdate, but this sounds childish, so childish, now that you are nine—you take one of the green plastic storage containers that stores even more art supplies under your bed and you dump the supplies on the floor and fill it with water. Your mother said yes to this, unexpectedly—she, too, is newly giddy with the prospect of a backyard. If you all were going to be here longer than a few months, she says, she’d plant a garden.
So your Barbies, at least, have a pool again, though you know you’re probably too old now to be playing with Barbies. But Kendra doesn’t mind—she still plays with Barbies, too—and you make the dolls swim laps, then bring their naked bodies to touch because there is only so much to do with plastic dolls and there aren’t enough bathing suits for all them anyway. As water splashes over the plastic edges of their pool, you think, this is my driveway. This is my house. A month later, you’ll build a model of a bay for the science fair in this same container, the memory of water still in it as you glue cut-out Styrofoam to its edges, trim the Styrofoam carefully with your father’s X-Acto knife, color it with blue and brown and green markers to show how land erodes over time.
Back in the apartment, you were allowed to walk home from middle school with Kendra. On Fridays, your parents gave you money to stop for one slice of pizza and a Diet Peach Snapple at Giancarlo’s on the walk back to the apartment. But now that the Rentahouse is too far to walk to school and your father has to drive you, you’re allowed to walk to the store around the corner by yourself, though you have to take your brother along. The first time, Rufus, wide-eyed, asks if he can buy two Snickers bars and, giddy with the lack of parental oversight, you let him. He eats both on the walk back, skipping the whole way. You buy two pieces of candy for yourself, too; you eat one and hide the other in your art supply corner for later until one day the stash goes missing. Your mother found it, she must have. She denies it, says she doesn’t know where it could have gone, but she is bad at lying, your mother. The next time, you eat the two Milky Ways on the walk home.
You get your ears pierced at the Claire’s at the North Genfield Mall. Shadow comes with you, hops into your lap while you close your eyes and brace for pain. It doesn’t hurt too much, though, and you dream of wearing your own earrings made with the jewelry-making kit your aunt gave you for Christmas. You’ll use the beads from when your mother’s fake crystal necklace broke. You picked up each bead from the floor when they fell.
When you take out the posts that pierced your ears and start wearing others, cheap studs with tiny pink lizards that you bought at Claire’s, the holes close up around them. Your mother has to re-pierce them with the studs your ears were pierced with, sharp as knives. She makes you stand over the bathroom sink, her hands steady, yours shaking, while she pushes them through. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she keeps saying, droplets of blood on her fingers. You cry because it’s not like when they did them at the mall, quick, a prick of pain and then done. No, this stings, and once she’s done one, you consider not letting her do the other. But she talks you into it, and as you cry some more and she pushes the other stud through your ear she tells you it’s okay, it’s fine, you’ll be fine. She pours rubbing alcohol over them when she’s done and that stings worse than when she pushed the studs through.
In school, your friends notice your new earrings, but maybe that’s only because your earlobes are still red from the re-piercing. You don’t have many friends over to the Rentahouse. Maybe, you’ll think later, your parents were ashamed of the house, the ripped screens they didn’t bother to replace because they were only renting.
At the apartment, you had friends over all the time to go swimming. You’d shower together upstairs afterwards, take turns standing under the water, shampoo each other’s hair. With Maggie, you made up a game you only played in the shower, where you’d point at each other’s bodies, labeling every part by the wrong name. Your knees were toes, your palms were scalps; you both found this hilarious. You pointed to your palms over and over again, both of you: our scalps, our scalps.
But in the Rentahouse, it’s mostly just Kendra who comes over, maybe because her old apartment was still exactly as small as yours used to be. She’s moved too, though, to a much bigger house that has a third story and almost twice as many rooms as this one.
Shadow refuses to come in the Rentahouse. He stays in the backyard and the garage. He used to live inside your apartment bedroom, used to sit patiently next to the pink-and-white bicycle you kept in the bedroom you shared with Rufus because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it. Sometimes Shadow rode down the elevator with you, and you’d smile at him so he knew you saw him. You were careful not to talk to him out loud, though, in case your parents asked why you were talking to yourself again. But in the Rentahouse, you only catch glimpses of Shadow when you remember to look, out by the chain-link fence that separates each yard from the next.
On weekends, or sometimes on a weekday night, your family goes to look at houses. Sundays are for open houses, but you like being the only ones seeing a house, when your parents are distracted by something the realtor has told you and forget you in one of the rooms. Sometimes you sit on the floor until they remember to come get you. They’ve stopped looking in Oakview, so you look instead at houses twenty and thirty and forty minutes away. One has orange velvet wallpaper in the entire basement, something that looks like it’s out of the—sixties? seventies? You’re not sure, but you run your palms along it (your scalps, you think) until your mother realizes she’s forgotten you downstairs and the realtor calls down to summon you upstairs.
One Tuesday afternoon, after you’ve come home and had a snack and nearly finished working on your model town, your final project for Social Studies—construction-paper roads, square Styrofoam houses, and municipal buildings cut with your father’s X-Acto knife, splotches of paint for trees, all of them in even rows on a grass-green foam board—you drive with your parents and brother to a town you’ve never visited before. It’s early May now, and your car pulls up in front of a house with daffodils along the driveway.
It’s too small, this house. There are woods behind it—woods!—that stretch for two miles, the realtor tells your parents. But it’s only two bedrooms, and your parents look at the realtor with questions in their eyes.
“There’s one a couple houses down the street that’s not even on the market yet,” she tells your parents, unable to hide her grin. “I think you’ll like it.” And so, the five of you walk down the street, your family and the realtor. The sun is setting, but as your parents tour the inside of second house—this house with four bedrooms, this house with two miles of woods in the backyard—you stand by the French doors in the dining room watching the hazy late-afternoon light filter through leaves. You hear your parents upstairs, speaking above you: This could be Tom’s office, they’re saying. Good school system… A loan from your parents so we can afford it. Your brother Rufus drives a miniature car around the living room until he ends up next to you going vrrroom, vrrroom. When the three adults come back down, they don’t have to ask how you like the house; they stand behind you, watching you looking out at the woods, Rufus playing at your feet. You think, there is enough space here, finally. There are miles and miles of space, and who knows what in the woods.
While they talk to the realtor, you take Rufus out to the front lawn. He races the two Hot Wheels cars he’s brought with him down the sidewalk like it’s a superhighway, and you attempt a cartwheel. You’ve never been able to do one before, but this does not stop you from trying now.
“We’re going to make an offer,” your mother tells you as she walks up to you while you are upside down, one leg kicked up in the air. When you right yourself, she’s beaming, so you grin back at her.
You move into this house in late June, barely a week after the school year has ended. You take the model town you made for Social Studies and the Barbie pool-turned-eroding bay with you and put them in your closet. They’ll stay there in the closet for years, Styrofoam crumbling, until one day you return from marching band practice to find that your mother has thrown them out without asking. They’ve grown moldy, she’ll tell you, and you won’t care whether she’s telling the truth. You no longer need miniature houses, portable towns, your own private bay. You have a house now, woods, miles.
But that first night in the new house, for the first time in your life, you sleep in your own room with your miniature worlds safe in a closet that belongs to you. You wake up that first morning surrounded by boxes, blink three times before you remember where you are. You walk down the staircase quietly, the rest of your family still asleep. You stand by the dining room doors again and look out.
There are two deer there, one big and one smaller, and they’re in your yard, your yard, barely eight feet away from where you stand. They’re standing under the big tree in the yard and they look so soft that you think you could reach out and touch them, if they’d let you. You wonder if Shadow would like them, would run around their feet. But Shadow hasn’t followed you here. You’re going to ask your mother about getting a dog, something she always said the apartment was too small for. A real dog, this time.
You stay there for you don’t know how long watching the deer until your mother walks up behind you. “Look,” you whisper, although of course she can see them already, but as she places her hand on your shoulder you point anyway. Look. And the two deer stare at the two of you for a minute, a whole minute at least, before they bolt for the woods.
Dale Trumbore is a composer and writer based in Southern California. She has written extensively about working through creative blocks and establishing a career in music in her first book, Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life; in her quarterly column for Cantate Magazine; and in essays for 21CM, the Center for New Music, and NewMusicBox. Trumbore currently studies creative writing with Francesca Lia Block. She holds a dual undergraduate degree in English (B.A.) and Music Composition (B.M.) from the University of Maryland as well as a Master of Music degree in Composition from the University of Southern California. Her music and writing can be found on her website.