The Vacant House
There is an old cigar shop on the edge of Cedar Hill Park with boarded windows and doors on the side near the crest. The passersby complain about the eyesore, though the house is unsure of how they or it know about the old cigar shop without signage. Inside the house, the people’s furniture and the yappy fluffy dog that rules the yard reside. Yet, the house senses an echoing emptiness. Though not old, it does not remember being built. Its tall, rectangular windows imitate glass walls to reveal the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Most days, a woman with ash-blond hair stands in the kitchen, hunching over the breakfast bar as she pores over magazines and catalogs. Her pale honey complexion watches from those windows while two young boys and a man play in Cedar Hill Park. This is a story about her and the house at the edge of Cedar Hill Park.
The walls contain the house’s jealousy. The house admires each knowing action the woman takes each day. It watches as she strikes a red line through a box on a calendar on the wall. To understand the passage of time beyond additional creaks in floorboards. Creaks in floorboards can mean so many things. Recently, the house watches the woman with concern. The woman pauses mid activity while adjusting, planning the house’s tasteful trimmings, or organizing a daily “to do” list. Her eyes grow big, and her face expressionless. The house dislikes when this happens. She freezes in place until she finally snaps out of her catatonic trance and distracts her idle hands. The house sighs with relief, kicking on the central air.
The house remembers when she and the man moved in. In the house’s memory, it stands empty and cold. Its first moments of cognizance came before the builders installed the kitchen or bathrooms. How strange it was to emerge into existence as a large gray metal box with a panel of switches, wires, copper piping, wood, windows, and vinyl builder’s wrap! As additional features pile on, anticipation grows in the house at the prospect of humans moving in to fill the echoing hollow space inside. In quiet moments the house fantasizes of fulfilling the purpose instilled deep into the joists, studs, and foundation of its being. Then one day, a man unlocks the house’s front door for the first time. The walls quiver against the stiff wind outside, anticipating every new moment. Next, he flatters the house, commenting into its echoing new space, “this house is perfect.” The house warms in the morning sun, basking in this memory, the tinted windows glowing.
But the memory sours; the house cuts off the central air. On moving day, uniformed men carry the few expensive, impersonal belongings into its rooms and hang only art on its walls. This new person, the woman, wears delicate fitted dresses and arranges each object picture-perfectly. The familiar man wears a silk suit and carries a leather briefcase in and out of the front door. Her laughter tosses sweet, invisible clouds of joy into the corners of the rooms. The house yearns for more personalization to enter its walls and prays in the creaks of the doors and flexing of the floorboards each day of each year that follows. The house falls silent.
Today, the woman pulls down a leather-bound album on the bookshelf next to the fireplace. She smiles as she unzips the cover to reveal the matte photo-filled pages. The house pauses its unsettled shifting and focuses on what the woman is doing. Could it be? The first contains a picture of younger versions of herself and the man. In this photograph, she is a young, svelte American high schooler ornately decorated like a fairytale princess. The man is a tailored suit with a champagne glass and a young boy’s face sitting next to an older, more chiseled, gray-haired version of himself. She wears the sash and crown awarded to a beauty pageant finalist. Intriguing. In this picture and the following pictures, the man sits in the front row on her left side as she stands on the catwalk in a glinting formal gown with an illusion neckline. The sheer fabric over her shoulders cascades into sleeves down to her wrists, sparkling with the sewn-in crystals. Her bleached white smile and modest makeup emphasize her large doe eyes and ornate up-do. The costume jewelry around her neck and dangling from her ears glints with every color light pointed at the stage. His face is out of focus, yet he and the older man smile and applaud in the frame. The walls moan against a stiff breeze as the house mourns that it never experienced the warmth of these moments. It never saw the glittering dress shine in its window’s light.
The next page turns, revealing to the walls the man and woman in focus as their eyes lock gaze, and their faces glow with radiant smiles of adoration. In the final picture, the man speaks to her at the reception as he hands her a large, perfect piece of decadent cake. As she opens a different album, the house observes the woman pause as she breathes in the scent of the newspaper clippings’ ink. In a yellowing black and white cut out, her younger self stands in a cheerleading uniform next to a tall trophy. The placard on the wooden base says “1st Place Flyer”. The woman caresses her fingers across these moments captured in snapshots blocked across the page. She pauses on the image where she holds a framed certificate of accomplishment. Her teenage self bows her head to receive a gold medal hanging from a blue ribbon in her well-fitted skirt-suit. Next, in a white graduation gown with honor society tassels, she shakes her principal’s hand while holding a high school diploma. Lastly, the woman and the man stand together. She holds a bouquet of roses, with her degree in her other hand – the final picture, what the house guesses, is her high school graduation.
She forces a smile at these moments preserved for her comfort and happiness. The house gently warms as it delays kicking on the central air even though the thermostat’s sensors nag. She chides herself at the following pictures from a few pages labeled “modeling portfolio” with printed screen captures from cat food, toothpaste, and household kitchen cleaning solution commercials. Those awful bubblegum pink rubber gloves! The house muses with her.
She opens the next album and starts with a photograph of the man on one knee at a ballroom reception. A gray-haired man with a similar nose and chin to the woman nods his head forward behind them. The younger version of the woman cries with joy with her right hand to her face trying to hide that she is blushing. He holds the ring halfway up her finger – poised at that moment for eternity. He is handsome, and she is beautiful. The intoxicating echoes of the pages’ movements fill the space between the house’s walls. Each distilled moment more potent than the last, a stiff wind blows the house. It creaks, unsteady, and overwhelmed by the satisfaction and warmth of personalization.
The woman closes the photo albums with a womp and sits in silence. The house attempts to hold onto the intoxicating buzz. It recalls other events that filled its walls and softened the echoes, if only for an hour or two – her friends’ voices over the phone from their women’s colleges, secretarial jobs, and sets of photo-shoots and commercials. You are so lucky, they say. Swimming through the memory of that dark rainy night, almost nine months and twelve days after moving into the house, she arrives home thinner with dark circles under her eyes and twin boys in her arms. Often, she wails into her hands or a pillow over her face. She moves into the room where those two boys slept. The house does nothing as two new voices empty their lungs in screams that beat against its walls. The man sleeps in their room alone.
One day the man finds her collapsed on the couch with two screaming infants, her with trauma under her eyes. He rushes to her. He calms and soothes the crying, thrashing tiny images of himself. Cradling one child in each of his arms, he rocks them to sleep. The house tries to dampen these echoes; to provide some semblance of peace as she weeps. And weeps.
The doorbell rings and the house pulls back to the present. The woman welcomes a group of other women with the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee reaching across the kitchen to pull them inside. The house recognizes these women. It remembers that these are the friendships of permanent markers and catalogs. These women smell like coffee and the other men they accompanied when they first visited the house. Now, the women sit together and drink their coffee in predictable turns. They change clothes and jog as they gossip. When they return, each with their mug refilled, they watch a soap opera episode together. Some depart, while others remain to talk to each other about fashion, health fads, parenting, and other TV shows they enjoy together. Eventually, in pairs or on their own, those women leave the woman alone.
The house observes the remnants of their scene as solitude, again, fills the space. According to the cards left behind, today is the woman’s twenty-eighth birthday. The phone rings and echoes throughout the house, stabbing the silence. The woman answers with a momentarily lifted expression, but her jaw slackens, and her face lengthens. She responds to the receiver, “Okay.”
The woman glances at the delicate diamond tennis bracelet hanging around her wrist. Moving back to the couch, she again opens the photo album where she and the man stand together. There are eighteen roses in a vase next to a card; six roses are woven into a braided crown of hair. The house recognizes another photo from before its time before the interrupting disappointment of the doorbell ringing. The woman closes the photo album with a soft thud. An FTD delivery man extends an extravagant floral arrangement with a note: For my beautiful wife on her birthday. She thanks the delivery man, carries the flowers inside, and places them on the kitchen breakfast bar before returning to the couch. She collapses onto her back, staring at the empty ceiling. The house stares back.
She sits up alone. She stares past the pages of her catalogs as tears fall from her eyes. If only I could tell her not to be afraid. What if she sees me the way I feel? The woman speaks out aloud, thinking she is alone, “I ought to be grateful. I have so many reasons to be happy.”
She rolls onto her side and curls into a ball, sobbing. The mantras reverberate as echoes of her crying have before. What if she sees herself the same way I see myself? The woman tries to mollify and soothe herself with soft whispers while looking at her life in the photo albums, catalogs, and the flowers. She stares at the traces of this life around her. Does she see a vacant house that will never be the home it wants to be? The house kicks on the central air.