– Non-Fiction by Rebecca Wickens – March 7, 2019
Runner-up in the Dreamers Creative Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home
Early December 2018
Tucked into the soft cushions of the couch, I look out through the branches of the Christmas tree at the front lawn. Flakes of snow twirl idly down from the soft grey sky and cling to the frost-blue blades of grass.
My hands emerge from the sleeves of my robe and encircle my coffee mug. I relish the slight sting from the hot sides as I bring the mug to my lips. Pausing a moment to blow on the coffee, I watch the steam curl up from the rippling surface, softening my view of the world outside.
How different this Christmas feels! It was a bit of a struggle to gather the will to decorate, and I am not yet done the shopping, wrapping or baking, but this year still feels easier. This year, I don’t have to wonder where to place the Christmas tree or decorations. This year, I don’t have to dig through cupboard after cupboard to find the cookie cutters and rolling pin. This year, I know where our splintered family will be and what to expect on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
Late August 2017
Wedged between the screen and exterior doors, I slide the tarnished key into the deadbolt. Using no small amount of force, I turn the key in the lock, finally hearing a rasp and a click as the lock gives way. I push down on the brass door handle, which is also a bit stiff. In a moment of rebellion, I swing the door open wide. All at once, the stale smell of someone else’s life envelopes me. In the pallid light, bits of them in the form of dust, swirl around me.
Still propping the screen door open, I turn for the grocery bags on the porch. With two armloads of cleaning supplies, I start to squeeze my way into the hall. The screen door delivers a swift rebuke for my boldness, snapping closed on my ankle and tearing off my shoe. Hissing at the sudden sting, I drop the bags, push the screen door off my injured ankle and turn on my good foot to grab my shoe.
My ankle reflects an angry colour palette – purpled with rapid bruising, and weeping deep red blood. In all of these bags of cleaning supplies, there is not one bandage. I was not expecting to be attacked on the first afternoon in my new house…by my new house! With a sigh, I dab at and then apply strips of paper towel to the wound. It has a macabre paper mâché effect, but it stops the bleeding.
I lug the bags into the kitchen and take stock as I unpack. Paper towel, spray cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, toilet bowl brush, broom, mop, dusters – the tools necessary to wipe, sweep and scrub the previous occupants from the premises. Moving around the rooms corner by corner and through the rooms one by one, the scent of my usual cleaning supplies does battle with stale, unfamiliar odors.
All of a sudden, it is evening. The houses and trees outside the picture window in the dining room darken as the sky turns pink and gold. I lock up the empty, silent box that is my new house, and walk one block east and one block north to the old house. From under the big maple tree in the front yard, I can see my soon-to-be-ex at the sink and the kids at the table. The fixture over the table casts a warm glow. Smiles light their faces and I imagine the happy chatter as the kids clear the dishes to the counter.
I pause at the front door, suddenly unsure whether to knock or use my key. My son swings the door open wide and jumps into my arms, “Mommy!”
I pick at a plate of food that was left warming in the oven, listening to my spouse and kids giggling and crashing around in the family room below. Orange cat in tow, I head upstairs and, with each step, the happy sounds recede. Cat and I sit in the arm chair in the master bedroom. We close our eyes as I scratch his bony forehead.
I stay at the old house that night. My son and I lie upside down in the big master bed; only one of us is able to sleep. Staring blankly out the window, I cannot banish the gnawing anxiety that I don’t belong here or anywhere. I listen to the rhythm of my son’s whistling breath, hoping the sound will lull me into dreaming. The gentle light of the moon stretches across and touches our faces. His is pale and full, as if he is a child of the moon herself. I am sure mine is lined with worry and wears a grimace from the acrid odors of new carpet and fresh paint – a necessary evil when trying to entice another family to buy your home.
The next morning after an awkward coffee, I head to the new house. The air in the new house smells fresher after yesterday’s cleaning, and this makes me a bit more confident about taking that first step over the threshold. I quickly fall into walking softly, however, half-expecting someone to spring out and demand to know what I am doing there.
The mattresses are delivered on schedule by a middle-aged man and his younger partner. The older man’s cheerful monologue crashes into the impassive, beige walls, as he and his partner stomp up and down the stairs to the empty rooms that will become bedrooms. His voice seems to get louder with each step, as if he feels the need to push through the heavy curtain of silence.
I take a deep breath after they leave, and then head upstairs to air out the new mattresses. I make a mental note to bring scissors on my next trip between houses as I tear at the thick plastic with tired fingers. My son will be arriving for our sleep-over soon, so I keep ripping and tugging until the mattress is free of its dusty cover. The mental list of everything I need for the sleep-over starts to roll – pajamas, change of clothes, pillows, blankets, sheets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, stuffed animal, books, night time snack, breakfast food. A tiny, bright pain starts behind my left eye.
That night, we crowd together on the double mattress in my son’s new room. All I can hear is the cars whooshing past on the road behind the house. I watch the headlights race around the walls until I fall asleep. In my dreams, specters of previous owners emerge from the shadows, glowing eyes and white claws first.
“Why are you here? Who are you?” They demand.
“I don’t know,” I reply in a trembling voice. “I think I am lost.”
“You don’t belong here!” They growl.
Weeping, I nod and retreat down the dark halls and out the front door. I stand on the narrow front step, not sure where to go.
Early September 2017
The sky is an endless blue and the weather is warm enough for t-shirts and jeans. My brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews arrive armed with tools. We assemble the basics necessary to fill a family room and two bedrooms. We shimmy beds into the corners of empty rooms, and cover them in fresh sheets, blankets and pillows to soften their sharp edges. Down in the family room, we caucus over the placement of the couch and coffee tables. In the end, we defer to my older brother, the architect.
Covered in the fine dust of laminated particle board, hands cramped from cranking allen keys, we order pizzas and someone makes a beer run. My son and daughter arrive from the old house; my soon-to-be-ex leaves after saying hello and good-bye to people she once counted as brothers and sisters. We exchange guilty glances, still unsure how to navigate this separation of families.
There is a happy picnic on the dark, laminated floor of the dining room among the cardboard boxes. Later that evening, I thumb through pictures of the day on my phone, feeling grateful not only for the help I received but also to have had people who love me within these walls. I imagine the echoes of that love still bouncing around filling each hallway and room. That night, the ghosts in the shadows retreat a bit further, ceding territory to me and my reinforcements.
Mid-September to early October 2017
Over the next few weeks, others come by to assist with securing shelves to the walls, unpacking my boxes from the storage bin and helping me sort out household issues I had never handled on my own. Slowly, I fill in the blank spaces with memories, history and identity – books and crystal figurines I have been collecting since childhood, photo albums, framed school pictures of my children, a tea pot given to me by friends from university.
There are still empty spaces, though. Some of my furniture is needed at the old house for staging, and none of the artwork from my old house appeals to me. I wonder whether the problem is the lighting or the colour of the walls. Then I start to think that maybe it isn’t my taste anymore; maybe it never was. I realize that I don’t know how to decorate a house for myself, having never really lived alone before.
At first, the kids find it fun to camp out on cheap chairs in the living room to watch TV or perch on stools in the kitchen to eat dinner. Eventually the novelty wears off and it is harder and harder to coax them across the street and down the block to my makeshift home. I am not sure if it is because it is uncomfortable or that they are trying to hold onto those last days in their first real home. All I know is that it leaves an ache behind my ribs.
Some nights after they leave, I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling wondering what I have done. Other times, I wander around adjusting things, moving them from one place to another. I can’t find the right spot for some things, little things, like the can opener or corkscrew. I am forever reaching for them and they aren’t where I thought I put them. I also bump and bruise myself on the furniture, doors and counters all the time. Navigating life in this house is a conscious exercise rather than a series of habits, and I find it draining.
One weekend, I buy a hamster at my daughter’s request. On nights that the children aren’t here, I find myself carrying his cage into the basement where I watch movies and drink red wine on the very new, stiff couch. He doesn’t seem too interested in the movies, but he is an avid explorer.
The old house sells; moving men execute the transfer of my remaining furniture in short order. Besides the soft couch and chair and a half, where I have read so many books, nursed my newborn son and opened many Christmas and birthday gifts, there is the piano I grew up playing and the dining room table at which we have eaten many family dinners. These memories are carried into the new home where they evict the shadowy strangers with one powerful blow.
That night, I finish filling the china cabinet and buffet. With the last box broken down and tossed into the garage, I open the china cabinet and reach for a bottle of red wine. The wine rack is back in the bottom cupboard of the cabinet, and restocked with a few of my favourites. Tonight, I decide on a peppery Argentinian red. Reaching into the drawer of the china cabinet, I find the corkscrew and a bottle stopper. I admire the deep, warm colour of the wine before taking a sip and heading to the living room. Taking another sip, I settle into the couch with a favourite book and begin to read.
A week earlier, I acceded to my daughter’s request for two kittens. I have been reading for no more than a minute, when I am pounced on by a puffy, black kitten and a velvety, black and white kitten. Lacey and Moo, as they were named by the shelter, promptly fall asleep on top of each other in my lap. Moo’s rusty purr is the only sound in the otherwise peaceful house.
November to December 2017
The old house closes; my ex has not yet taken possession of her apartment. For a time, I have one ex, one hamster, two children, and four cats living with me. I started a new job at the end of October; even with its newness, it is still a bit of respite in the chaos. I feel like I am watching my life whip by through the smeared window of a high-speed train.
The week before Christmas, the apartment becomes available and my ex moves in. We scramble to sort out the schedule for the holiday, and, in the end, decide it is easiest to spend the holidays together at my place.
Early December 2018
My gaze falls on the two prints hanging over the piano. I bought them on a whim one day after an ad popped up in my Facebook feed. Simple depictions of mountain landscapes in varying shades of blue and green, they complement the oil painting over the couch. It was painted by my grandmother’s best friend and shows boathouses on a river. I like to imagine myself in a boat on that river, travelling down the water of where I have been, where I am and where I want to go. The house, with its mix of old and new, its memories and dreams, feels a bit like that river. I wonder how long it would have taken me to settle in if I hadn’t moved to a neighbouring street, if the kids had had to change schools, or if I hadn’t been able to transfer so much of my past – in the form of furniture, books and possessions – to the new house. I am certain that the ability to carry so much with me into this new place has allowed me to feel at home more quickly. I know there are many others who are not afforded this luxury when they choose to or are forced to make a life-altering change. I feel lucky despite everything, and I am contented, even a bit excited, to see where the river might take me.
About the Author – Rebecca Wickens
Rebecca Wickens is a corporate governance professional and mother of two young children, based in Waterloo, Ontario. After a series of major professional and personal life changes over the past two years, Rebecca is seeking to (re)discover who she is and where she wants to go in life. Writing fiction and creative non-fiction is one of the tools in this journey.
Read all the winning stories and poems from the 2019 Dreamers Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home.
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