In the House with the People
Our son told us he had a brother before he was born. I would take him clothes shopping and he’d point out a little t-shirt with green dinosaurs all over it that his brother would have liked. At dinner, he’d tell us his brother loved carrots but he didn’t, so he’d pass if that was ok with us. We knew imaginary friends were common; we’d had them ourselves at his age. But we agreed this was different, this insistence on a brother that once was, yet wasn’t.
He was a sensitive boy, prone to playing quietly in his room, cross-legged on the floor, orderly driving his toy trucks down street lanes he created with popsicle sticks. Tears would well up in his eyes when we found the occasional dead wasp on a windowsill. We thought how lucky we were, to have a son who cared so much about everything in the world. We worried he was so much more than we deserved.
We asked him if he’d like a little brother to play with. I had one already, he frowned.
We considered taking him to a therapist. We’d spent a year in counseling before having him, when we were figuring out if we could find ways to stop disappointing each other. We’d tried a temporary separation while in counseling, and I’d briefly dated an emotionless man who talked only in his sleep.
When our son was still an infant, we ran into the emotionless man on the street. You protectively wrapped your arm around me and our son snuggled against my chest. I didn’t know you even knew what he looked like, and after the emotionless man had walked by without acknowledging us, you confessed you used to stand outside the apartment I’d rented for that short time and watch us sitting in opposite chairs next to the window. I remembered how fragmented I’d felt, sitting with a man who would only talk to me when I dreamed, how I’d longed on those evenings apart to call you up, tell you I had redefined enough.
On the first warm spring day, we went to the zoo. One of the polar bears had had twins, and the cubs were curled together, asleep near the edge of their pool. Our son stared and stared, his little hands gripping the bars of the fence. He wouldn’t take his eyes off the polar bear cubs, wouldn’t stop staring as he told us he’d used to curl up with his brother like that, and they’d hold each other tight and fall asleep with intertwined fingers. How he grew bigger while his brother who loved little green dinosaurs and carrots grew smaller, how they’d agreed a decision had to be made, how it made the most sense he would be the one to live in the house with the people who had once been so unhappy they split in half and toppled to the floor.
Seven Truths, One Memory, and Four Lies
Lie: Real dad says he’ll be right back when you try to follow him out the kitchen door one day.
Truth: When she realizes real dad isn’t coming back, real mom cries harder than you do, until you both have snot running down your noses.
Truth: Real mom starts hiring a babysitter on Saturday nights, and after real mom leaves, not looking like real mom at all, the babysitter lets you eat all the pizza you want while she giggles into the phone.
Lie: Fake dad never shows up, and never stays and stays and stays and stinks up the house like a rotting fish.
Truth: One morning, real mom has a purple and black bruise on her cheek, and you ask her if she’s your real mom or an alien mom, because real mom is beautiful and perfect and never looks like damaged fruit.
Truth: Alien mom pokes her alien head out her bedroom door, tells you to keep it down, tells you We’re trying to sleep in here! Shuts the door again until the afternoon sun burns.
Truth: Alien mom sells your dog. You come home from school to find the back yard empty, and you scream But I loved him! until you fall to the ground. Alien mom tells you to grow up, that love doesn’t pay the bills.
Lie: You never tiptoe up to alien mom’s bedroom door. Never lie on your stomach and sniff under the door. Never breathe I hate you I hate you I hate you until you fill the room.
Truth: Fake dad carves the roasted chicken with his hunting knife, says Look what I can do with this bad boy. Alien mom claps her hands and squeals like he’s the best thing ever.
Truth: Fake dad tells alien mom to run out and get him another 12-pack. Alien mom winks at you like you’re pals, says Men. Whatcha gonna do? You want to slash the tires of his stupid truck. That’s whatcha gonna do.
Lie: One day, real dad walks into the kitchen and tells you he forgot something. You, silly, you! I forgot you! And he swings you around in his big arms, and you laugh and laugh and laugh.
Memory: Real dad and real mom once took you to Yellowstone, where they pointed out a bear at the far end of a meadow covered in yellow and blue wildflowers. You couldn’t really tell if it was a bear or not, but you had no reason not to believe them, because real dad and real mom never lied to you. Later, at the gift shop, they let you pick out a bag of smooth river rocks that cooled your skin as you rolled the little bag between your palms. Then you all stood around and waited for the geyser to blow.
We had lived in the house for several years before the first small crack appeared in the kitchen. Over the next several mornings when I came downstairs to start the coffee maker, I would trace my finger along the latest crack I found. They were all paper-thin, my finger barely feeling their ridges. I kept waiting for my husband to notice; wanted to point them out, tell him the sooner we stabilized the foundation, the better.
For weeks, the cracks only appeared in the kitchen, until one day I spotted them in the dining room, the hallway, and halfway up the stairs, as if the house was parched earth. I’d purposely stare over his head at the dinner table, hoping he’d grow curious and turn to see what had caught my attention, or at least ask me what I was up to. But he’d only say pass the rolls or this needs more salt, then he’d tell me he was going to go into the den to watch the game.
I found myself wandering from room to room every day, measuring the width of the cracks with my fingernails, an envelope, the blade of a hatchet I retrieved from the tool shed.
I hung pictures to hide the widest cracks, and when the flooring broke apart in a corner of the living room, I tossed the decorative Mr. and Mrs. pillows over the gap and turned the volume of the TV up louder.
When a hole the size of a basketball broke open in the ceiling as we were changing for bed one night, I held my breath, waited for him curse the day we moved into this house, that he knew even back then this was a bad idea but I’d just had to have it, that he’d tried to tell me a million times. But he didn’t. He tied the drawstring of his pajama bottoms, said it had been another long day and would I mind shutting off the bedside light.
Soon, his breathing evened and slowed. I stared at the hole above us, inhaled a hint of staleness that drifted down and slowly filled the room. At one point, he turned over, pulled my side of the covers around his body in his sleep. I eased out of bed and made my way across the room, waited to turn on the bathroom light until I’d softly shut the door behind me. I turned the faucet on cold, dipped my head to drink.
I felt a tremor vibrate through the soles of my feet, a new crack appearing above the bathroom mirror, slowly crawling up the wall, then along the ceiling. I watched it spread to the opposite wall, down to the doorframe. And then the bathroom door splintered and fell.
And yet still he slept. I watched his chest rise and fall. He moaned once or twice, batted a hand at his mouth as if to brush away a spider or a fly. Another tremor shook the house as I caught his scent. I spread my arms, hovered over his sleeping body. Bared my teeth. Patiently waited for him to wake up, for him to see.