The Old House

Prairie Fire - - NICOLE BOYCE -

MY SIS­TER AND I VIS­ITED the old house on a cold De­cem­ber even­ing. We were both in Cal­gary for Christ­mas—me from grad school in Van­cou­ver, and my sis­ter from White­horse, where she’d moved on a whim a cou­ple of weeks ear­lier. When I’d been de­scrib­ing my sis­ter to peo­ple lately, I’d be­gun us­ing this move as an ex­am­ple of the dif­fer­ences be­tween us. Becca can look at a map and turn in­trigu­ing co­or­di­nates into a new ex­is­tence in a mat­ter of days. It takes my brain months just to ac­cept the idea of an idea.

Thomas Wolfe fa­mously stated, “you can’t go home again,” but that’s fig­u­ra­tive. Your child­hood house, you can re­turn to, as­sum­ing it’s still stand­ing, and that you’re able to travel back to the place you were raised. I’d been think­ing about mem­ory lately—the sly way it hides while await­ing a sen­sory trig­ger. And I thought that if I went back to the house my fam­ily left when I was eleven, I’d find pieces of my­self still lodged there, per­form­ing slim haunt­ings be­tween the bath­room tiles.

Becca was com­ing with me so the new res­i­dents wouldn’t mur­der me and hide my bones in the rhubarb bush out back. She was also com­ing out of in­ter­est. When I’d men­tioned the tour, she’d lit up. “Ask them if I can come!”

“Okay,” I’d told her, though I’d qui­etly wor­ried about her re­quest. Just as Becca and I have dif­fer­ent takes on risk and spon­tane­ity, we have dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to meet­ing new peo­ple. In new si­t­u­a­tions, I tend to be mild, to the point of seem­ing wispy at times. My in­ter­ac­tion strat­egy is built on re­duc­ing im­pact, laugh­ing too much, piss­ing off no one. Becca, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She went away to univer­sity young and learned how to stop apol­o­giz­ing for her­self. When we briefly shared an apart­ment af­ter I grad­u­ated from high school, she used to eat ly­chees and leave their husks in ev­ery room, crusty lit­tle peels on

the coffee ta­ble and bath­tub rim. Though she can be sen­si­tive at times— wear­ing a thin layer of our fam­ily’s trade­mark meek­ness be­neath her Gor-Tex coat—she can also be as­sertive in a no-bull­shit way. I was wor­ried she might ask the new own­ers too many ques­tions, or peek in­side their cup­boards. I was wor­ried she’d eat a ba­nana in their bath­room or some­thing.

We’d ar­rived in our old neigh­bour­hood early, so Becca pulled the car back onto the icy streets, and we started a slow tour of our old haunts. She was stay­ing nearby—in the win­dow­less room in my par­ents’ base­ment that our mom jok­ingly calls “the bat cave.” I was stay­ing with my boyfriend, twenty min­utes away from our par­ents’ house. There was—as al­ways dur­ing the hol­i­days—the vague ten­sion that crops up be­tween Becca and me when she wants to vent about our fam­ily’s dys­func­tions and I want to pre­tend they don’t ex­ist. As we drove past ex-neigh­bours’ homes and old bus stops, we made small talk. We drove past my old best friend’s house, and then past the house of the other best friend I’d later re­placed her with. We con­tin­ued down the hill, pass­ing a large park. Becca pointed.

“I al­ways hated that park. See that hill? I was con­vinced it was a vol­cano. Con­vinced. And I was sure that if I stood on top of it, it would blow up and I’d die. Mom won­dered why I never wanted to go there.”

“You didn’t tell her? Weren’t you wor­ried that our house would blow up with it?”

“I don’t think so, no. I think this was a very con­cen­trated type of vol­cano. I don’t know why I kept it to my­self.”

I looked at the hill. It didn’t look vol­canic to me. But I’m not an ex­pert in what my sis­ter per­ceives as ex­plo­sive.

At ex­actly two min­utes to six, we pulled back onto our old cul-de-sac and parked in front of the house, a four-level split with a li­lac bush out front and a nar­row drive­way on one side. I col­lected my note­book, my pen, my nerves. Becca shoved a Kleenex into her jeans pocket.

The cou­ple who opened the door—Su­san and Ge­orge—smiled widely and in­vited us in. I ner­vously in­tro­duced my­self. Im­me­di­ately, I was struck by the size of the room be­hind them. I’d known to ex­pect this, had been told by friends who’d re­vis­ited their ele­men­tary schools: “You wouldn’t be­lieve how small ev­ery­thing is.”

And the old house was—small. It was also warmly lit, well-heated, a com­pact ver­sion of the place I re­mem­bered. My men­tal map of the first floor was, at a glance, ac­cu­rate, but tweaked to co­zier pro­por­tions. This was the toy pony of child­hood homes.

“I’m Becca,” my sis­ter said, shak­ing Su­san and Ge­orge’s hands. We all stood stiffly in the front hall and made brief chitchat about wind chill. Af­ter we took off our boots, Su­san guided us into the liv­ing room, past the spot where we used to put our Christ­mas tree, and the cor­ner where I once coaxed our cat into a Glinda the Good Witch cos­tume.

“This looks dif­fer­ent,” Becca said. She was in­spect­ing a wall off the liv­ing room. A space had been hol­lowed so you could now see from the dining room into the kitchen.

“It’s one of the few changes we’ve made,” Su­san said. “Most of the house is the same.”

Becca ran her hand along the wall. “Looks like the same hard­wood too. Our dad put that in be­fore we sold it. And that win­dow.”

She ges­tured to the liv­ing room’s bay win­dow, which I re­mem­bered find­ing so fancy when my par­ents first un­veiled it, think­ing that even the words felt ex­otic: bay win­dow. I felt my­self blush as Su­san smiled at me; I was sure that my weird win­dow ex­cite­ment was still pal­pa­ble in the room.

Becca con­tin­ued to make small talk about cup­board ren­o­va­tions and gar­den­ing while I in­spected the kitchen, which looked the same ex­cept for up­dated paint and ap­pli­ances. We walked into other rooms, now dec­o­rated with new fur­ni­ture, and one by one, scenes of my life re­oc­curred to me. These were not new mem­o­ries un­earthed by our visit, but in­stead, a slideshow of the usual sus­pects, those smooth mar­bles of the past that I’ve hoarded and pol­ished. In the bath­room, what sprang to mind was not thou­sands of morn­ings get­ting ready, but the one day my friend and I de­cided to “dust” the light­bulbs with a wet paper towel. In Becca’s old bedroom, I re­called not a sin­gle in­ter­ac­tion with her, but hear­ing the Mered­ith Brooks song “Bitch” on the ra­dio shortly be­fore we moved. “Great song,” I re­mem­ber think­ing. “But it should be called ‘An­gel Un­der Cover.’”

The last stop on our tour was the base­ment. “This is the only place where we’ve done some real work,” Su­san said. The stair­case was shorter than I re­mem­bered, the ceil­ings low. What used to be a ce­ment-walled, shag­car­peted nest of jump rope and dance prac­tice was now a white-walled guest room where Su­san’s fam­ily stays when they visit.

“I broke my arm over there, re­mem­ber?” Becca said, point­ing to one wall. And I do re­mem­ber, the story if not the in­ci­dent. Fur­ther along the same wall, there was a new door­way, lead­ing into the laun­dry room. And as I stood in that door­way, lis­ten­ing to Su­san talk about the hous­ing mar­ket, I no­ticed a shelv­ing unit by the wash­ing ma­chine that ap­peared un­changed. It hooked onto the wall: just a bunch of wooden boards. Un­ex­cep­tional stor­age.

Ex­cept, there’s a mem­ory for that room too. It’s me, nine years old, and it starts up­stairs, with my dad say­ing good­bye to me one morn­ing on his way out. I smelled some­thing strange on his breath and I knew, some­how, that this smell was not Scope or cig­a­rettes, not even liquor, that this was noth­ing I’d ever smelled di­rectly, only dozens of times sec­ond­hand. Then sud­denly, as if my nose had now learned the word for it, the con­cept came into fo­cus: drugs. I fol­lowed the idea of that word down­stairs, seem­ing to know the source point by in­stinct. Walk­ing into

the laun­dry room, I ap­proached the shelves, peer­ing be­tween base­ball gloves and tool­boxes and fi­nally lo­cat­ing a small card­board box. In­side was a pipe, a pack of matches, and a bag of dry green leaves. I picked up the pipe and touched it, held the matches like a live grenade. Then I dropped them both and ran back up three flights of stairs, slam­ming my bedroom door shut and sit­ting down hard, my back against the wall.

Al­ways, af­ter that, matches had a cryptic res­o­nance for me, an un­der­tone of fear and taboo that makes me feel strange when­ever I see a restau­rant match­book. Al­ways, af­ter that, there was the aware­ness of some­thing else in our house­hold, these spec­tres my par­ents were when they weren’t braid­ing our hair or pack­ing our lunches. There was a new oth­er­ness to them: not just the di­vid­ing fact of their au­thor­ity, but their sud­den po­ten­tial for se­crecy. They’d been telling us only half the story, throw­ing shad­ows on the other parts of them­selves.

As Su­san spoke about square footage and build­ing codes, I looked away from the shelv­ing unit and over at Becca, who was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the new guest bath­room. Did she ever put her hands on those same laun­dry room shelves? Did she—five years older—make the same dis­cov­ery that I had, in her own way? Or was she too busy wor­ry­ing about vol­ca­noes, about the crappy ti­tles of pop songs?

Af­ter just a cou­ple of min­utes in the base­ment, Becca and I were back up­stairs, thank­ing Su­san and Ge­orge and head­ing out into the cold, our bod­ies re­mem­ber­ing the spe­cific bite of the Cal­gary cli­mate. We were walk­ing to­wards the car, and I was still think­ing about the base­ment.

I went to a talk once about ori­gin sto­ries: the myths we use to nav­i­gate our lives. We walk these sto­ries like dot­ted lines, link­ing fu­ture sce­nar­ios and re­la­tion­ships back to them.

The scene in the base­ment was a mono­logue. That is the es­sen­tial part of the story: it was pri­vate. I wore it as a bur­den, this spe­cial knowl­edge of what I’d found. For years, I was con­vinced that I had to keep my fa­ther’s se­cret, that my sis­ter and mother were some­how walk­ing around obliv­i­ous, like they shared some twisted ver­sion of the cilantro gene that made weed smell like cho­co­late chip cookies. This was my pri­vate knowl­edge. A mag­net that made my in­sides twist. And that bur­den, that se­cret, made me feel dis­tinct—as if be­stowed with spe­cial in­sight. This is a feel­ing I still get some­times, when I’ve had too much coffee and I’m walk­ing home at a manic pace and the weather is a cer­tain kind of cloudy that makes ev­ery shadow look mean­ing­ful. “I know ev­ery­thing,” I think, feel­ing like I’ve un­cov­ered the golden bones of the uni­verse. “I am wise and sad and unique.”

Frank Davis has writ­ten about nos­tal­gia’s “pen­chant for priz­ing ‘strange’ and pri­vate facets of a past self,” say­ing this is a way of telling ourselves that “‘be­neath it all’ we are some­thing more in­trigu­ing, more sen­si­tive, more com­plex, more dar­ing. In short, that we are not like ‘all the oth­ers.’” There is some­thing in­tox­i­cat­ing about the iso­lat­ing

st­ing of yearn­ing, about insisting on our un­knowa­bil­ity, at any cost. We look back on our lives with blin­ders on. When I think about Becca, it’s so easy to fo­cus on our dif­fer­ences, but I know that these dif­fer­ences are— to some ex­tent—a false con­struc­tion. We have nearly the same face and man­ner­isms, a body type within one de­gree of each other. We both love Buffy and eat Baby­bel cheese in bed. I find it weird to talk to Becca on the phone be­cause it makes me too aware of my own ver­bal pe­cu­liar­i­ties— the way I fill si­lences with “Oh dear,” and put gig­gly pad­ding on all my para­graphs.

Now, as adults, we ex­er­cise our sim­i­lar­i­ties in dif­fer­ent cities. We have dif­fer­ent ca­reers, dif­fer­ent opinions, dif­fer­ent cir­cles of friends. And I won­der if maybe my ex­pe­ri­ence of mem­ory as so pri­vate, so sep­a­rate from my sis­ter, is a form of rec­on­cil­ing the loss of an era, a skewed means of mourn­ing that time when our shared ex­pe­ri­ence was so much larger, our daily lives so intertwined.

On the drive back from the old house, Becca and I talked about the time some­one tried to break in through the back win­dow. We talked about the new own­ers’ cats, and about the trees our dad had planted in the back­yard. But we didn’t talk about the base­ment. And we didn’t talk about what­ever pri­vate mem­o­ries Becca had hung in the other rooms, what­ever dis­cov­er­ies she’d made in the kitchen or the hall­way, any sense of tragic in­di­vid­u­al­ity she’d un­earthed in the stor­age shed. That’s the thing, I guess, about ghosts: you can stand right in them, and you still don’t have to speak to them di­rectly.

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