by Gillian Esquivia Cohen
Ava dreamt of the house three times before she knew she was pregnant. In the first, she and a man she understood was her husband — an ivory knit sweater above polished loafers, aspiration embodied — were prospective homeowners at an open house. While the man sat on his heels inspecting the plumbing in the kitchen, Ava wandered about, opening doors. Behind one she found a bathroom, dated to the point of quaintness. Unlike the rest of the house, the bath had not been sterilized of its people: bottles huddled in a corner of the counter, a damp towel lay limp and defeated where it had fallen from its hook. The closet conserved shelves of neatly folded terry cloth and beneath them, a small door. “Honey, there’s a laundry chute!” she shouted into the empty hall. She lifted the hatch and looked down the metal throat into the basement. Below, an empty hamper gaped expectantly at her. She took a hand towel from the shelf and tossed it down. The hamper gave a start; then, regaining its equilibrium, bobbed gently, sending small, rippling waves off in every direction. The lily pads around it rose and fell, like the respiration of a sleeping child, and the stand of reeds just beyond swayed gently in the breeze. On the dark mirror of the water’s glass, she watched the reflection of a crane take flight.
The second was a refracted memory of when she scuttled through the crawlspace that led from the end of her friend’s bedroom closet back behind the wall of the master bedroom. In real life, she had made the expedition with Sara one rainy day when they couldn’t play outside. In her dream, she crawled alone. Beyond thin planks of wood that seemed so impenetrable from the other side, she sat and listened to the sigh of sheets pulled taut on a bed, the groan of floorboards beneath stocking feet.
Some vestige of a child’s fear at hearing what she should not pricked at her — of tumbling down the rabbit hole, an Alice who cannot make her way back out — yet this time she knew she could sit there all day and never miss dinner, never be caught.
In the third dream, the sky was the greenish violet of a new bruise and the house inside was dark. She walked through the abandoned rooms, opening drawers and rifling through artifacts. The art magazine with the scandalous photo of gloved hands censoring naked breasts on the parlor hassock. The heavy chemistry textbook with its honeycombs of chemical compounds, the yellow legal pad adorned with the filigree of her friend’s father’s script beside it. The peach-pink compact and its neat ring of pills in the mother’s bedside table. She wandered the house, squinting in the dim hurricane light, snooping in the taxidermied corpse of the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Arlington, two people who were not her parents. Just before she awoke, she stood at the kitchen window and looked out at the woods, watching the trees sway in the heavy wind, waiting for something to emerge from their darkness.
“I haven’t seen these people in over a decade,” she told Elisa. They sat across from one another at a tiny table in an overpriced cafe, sipping bitter coffee and trying not to wince. “I haven’t thought about them or Sara since high school.”
“Maybe it’s not so much about the people but the house itself. Freud would say —”
“Oh yes, please. What would the good doctor say.”
“Freud would say that the house represents your body.”
“So I’m snooping around my own body.”
“Or maybe it’s your unconscious telling you you need to settle down and nest. How many apartments have you lived in since we met? That has to be wearing on you.”
“But why Sara’s house then? Why not have dreams about my parents’ house, if all my unconscious wants to tell me is nest?”
Elisa waved the question away with her hand. “I don’t know, I don’t know shit about dreams.
You know what you could do? Talk to a psychic.”
“Or a therapist.”
“Or you could buy tchotchkes.”
Ava trolled thrift stores for ceramics and colored glass and asked her artist friends for studies to hang in her fifth-floor walk-up. Michael frowned at the explosion of red and yellow signifying her friend Emma’s orgasm. “You should frame the first chapter of my thesis instead,” he said. She had been sitting on the bed reading and pretended to continue even as he called for her through the brusk opening and shutting of cabinets in the kitchen. There was a hollow thump followed by an explosion of cursing and she knew he had hit his head again. The apartment was too small for him, or he was too big for it. He had the feel of a high rise under construction with just the ground floor complete and an artist’s rendering of what it will look like in five years shouting in faded enthusiasm at passersby. She wondered if the problem was not the things in the apartment but the people.
“The lease is in my name though and it isn’t up till September,” she told Elisa.
“So kick him out!”
“Right, because that would be so simple.”
“You could stay with me. Give him a week to get himself organized and get out. You’d have to move your stuff over to my place first though. Books and DVDs, your nice towels. Your kitchen stuff!” Elisa gasped. “Don’t let that fucker walk off with your wok!”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“Excuse me? Are we not talking about the same guy who went crying poor-mouth to you — what, a month after you met? All poor, misunderstood philosopher who could change the way people thought about ethics and ‘the nature of mercy’ if only he had a quiet place to finish his thesis? And is he done with said thesis, by the way? How many years later?”
She thought about it and discovered it was indeed easy to imagine finally returning home only to find things her hands had adopted mysteriously spirited away from the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom. Her calls would go unanswered, only to be returned when he knew she would be at work or in class. She would take her phone off of silence and find messages about how he was sorry he had missed her call but he was just so busy writing the final chapter. He would definitely walk off with her copy of The Genealogy of Morality and if she called him on it, he would say that she never really understood it anyway so he had a right to take it. If she called his attention to the irony of his stealing a book on the subject of morality, he would say, “You see? You didn’t understand it at all.”
Once she had her answer, she sat down on the dingy bathmat and though a corner of her mind pointed out that she had never before let anything but her feet touch the grey terrycloth, she promptly told it to fuck off. She checked the Accuracy Window again, compared its two pink lines against the diagram in the instructional insert and another voice floated by, one that told her that the test could be wrong, yet she knew it wasn’t. She leaned her head back to rest on the edge of the tub and looked up into the skylight. The plastic bubble was scummy with mildew and pollen and dead leaves crowded the casing. She squinted at the shard of scuffed blue and decided that what she needed right at that moment was more sky.
When they asked, Ava told her parents she wanted a break from the city. She slept in her childhood bed, read the best sellers her mother picked up at the market and when her father invited her out, ordered dessert from the restaurant’s rotating display case, its glass bleary with nose and finger prints.
On her fourth morning she started walking. At first she kept to country roads, winding along the paved cowpaths where cars rarely passed, looking at houses and imagining different lives. She idled before clean lines and ample lawns, picturing herself lying on porch swings or reading in the embrace of bay windows, and hurried past the split-levels and single story ranches with their contents vomited onto the yard, the trailers with their flags of laundry waving unabashedly at passersby, the barefoot children, faces smeared with Red #40, heirs to the long legacy of the shuttered mill.
Ava had grown up in the shadow of the mill, as they all had. It stood dead-eyed and mute just beyond the square, pressing itself onto the consciousness of the town, refusing to be forgotten. As a child Ava had been convinced it was haunted; as a teenager she had trespassed with a boyfriend, slipping under a lolling tongue of plywood to explore its caverns littered with condoms and needles, the blackened hardwood floors still slick with a hundred years of oil. In school they first learned about economic decline in third grade, when they were taught that the town had once rivaled Boston. They learned then that they were the heirs to collapse, children born of rubble. The teachers tried to dress them up in feathers, calling them phoenix, but for most their efforts were washed away in the first rain. Without wings, many classmates had wrapped themselves in polyester blankets with singed edges and snuggled close to space heaters. Others had umbrellas and galoshes and parents who would drive them to homes where fires were lit for ambiance. Ava’s slicker was too small, exposing her plumage to the wind and rain, but she ducked from doorway to doorway and learned to dash through the open spaces between houses with her wings folded up inside her sleeves. She left a few crimson feathers in puddles along the way but still managed to gain acceptance to a respected liberal arts college and move out.
Turning onto Main Street, she spotted the crown of red brick peeking above the trees. She walked down the hill past the oldest colonials, known to her by name, the market where she worked in high school, her elementary school, the meeting house, each building as familiar as family. When she came to the mill, the dissonance disoriented her. The iron gate, glistening with new paint, stood open; a little boy in a sun helmet ran across a manicured lawn; a woman carrying burlap bags branded with the name of the organic grocery store in the city walked up to the entrance and waited for a uniformed man to open the door. When Ava raised a hand to shield her eyes from the glare coming off the windows, she noticed the vinyl banner announcing that just three units remained unsold. The little boy ran up to the doorman. He held a long stick as if it were a rifle and showed the man how he could aim and shoot at imaginary tigers. Ava summoned her memories of the interior of the mill and tried to picture luxury condominiums. The little boy darted behind a tree, aiming his rifle. “Bang! Bang!” Ava watched the boy run to another tree, closer, then train his gaze on her. Watching her, he walked up to the fence, the rifle held by his side. “A native!” he whispered. He pushed the oversized sun helmet back to fully expose cold blue eyes. Ava wrapped her fingers around the bars of the fence and smiled at him. The boy bared two rows of sharp little teeth then barked at her like a dog.
In the grey light of early morning, she remembered the cemetery. Something that hadn’t existed for her since she had graduated from primary school, it came knocking at her memory as she lay in bed, slowly waking into her body.
The stream didn’t run like she remembered it, the distances recorded in the muscles of her legs when she was short clashing with her adult height, but finally she came to that sudden clearing in the woods that had seemed so surreal when she and Sara first found it all those years ago. In the middle of the woods, after battling brush and dodging branches for an hour, she arrived at the vacuum: a mile of old carriage road that seemed to appear suddenly in deep woods and disappear just as abruptly, as if dropped there from on high. Sense memory led her to the cemetery, so overgrown it was nearly impossible to spot from the road. It was a family plot, probably begun by some of the first settlers in the colony, with few more than a dozen visible headstones. Most of them were unmarked and many of them were small. They stuck up out of the weeds at angles, the land flashing its crooked smile. A lot of children lost to small pox, to winter. The tiniest ones, the size of drug store paperbacks, marked the graves of stillborns.
As children, she and Sara had mourned the youngest lives lost. They pulled the weeds from around the headstones and lay tiny bouquets of wildflowers at their base. They imagined the lives of the unnamed buried there, drawing on what they learned about colonial life in school. Only two of the headstones in the very back looked finished the way the ones in the old church cemetery did. Esther Hopkins, mother, and Ezekiel Hopkins, son. 1786 – 1819, 1805–1814. Theirs were carved granite, the mother’s adorned with a cross over a bible, the son’s with just his name. He had been only nine. Nine years old herself, she had imagined different ways Ezekiel could have died but falling through the ice, skating on a winter afternoon, was the one that had stuck with her. She remembered being disappointed that Esther had died five years after he had. It would have been so much more poetic had she died that same year or the following one, of a broken heart. As children, it seemed so plausible that someone would die of a broken heart. It seemed to happen all the time.
She had stopped thinking about the tiny graves around the same time her classmate became an aunt. When she arrived home from school that day, she had related the news to her mother and instead of sharing her enthusiasm, her mother’s face clouded. “How old is this girl’s sister?”
“What did you say the girl’s name was? The one in your class?”
“Do you play with her often?”
“No, not really. Sometimes at recess.”
“It’s better that you don’t play with her too often.”
Her mother was quiet for a moment. “Theresa and her family aren’t our kind.”
She lay down on the grass and gazed up at the blur of green and blue. She had never been afraid of cemeteries; they had always been peaceful places for her. Growing up, she had sometimes taken naps there in the summer, the shade so cool, the ground so soft, as if hands were holding her aloft, cradling her to sleep. She tried to now, but sleep didn’t come. She sat up and brushed the weeds away from the tiny graves. Were you to dig there now, it’s likely you wouldn’t find anything at all. Just dirt. You could dig for hours, for days and find only dirt and rocks. She wondered how long it took for bones to decompose. A baby’s bones weren’t as well formed, as permanent. They probably decomposed faster. The ones who didn’t make it to nine months disappeared, reabsorbed back into the soil, into the earth’s womb, she was sure. No trace would be left, unless the mother
decided to find a small, flat rock to stand as a reminder of its absence.
At first, the woman’s face, shut tight like a box, was a second door raised against her. Then Ava gave her name and Mrs. Arlington opened, hugs and smiles and exclamations of happy surprise. She swept her inside the house on a wave of linen and pearls that left her in the room where she had tried out so many adulthoods. It looked different but felt the same. Pipe smoke and cut flowers and something else she couldn’t place translated into warmth, safety, and ideas of how things ought to be that were absent from her own home of cigarettes and tv dinners. The feel of that room curled inside her body and tugged at the deepest, oldest parts of her. She was six years old, playing Chutes and Ladders, breaking windows and saving kittens stuck in trees. Sara moved her token up, up, up, climbing one ladder then the next, while Ava got stuck in a cycle of sin and redemption, ascending one ladder only to fall back down the next chute. Gluttony, sloth; tummy aches and dunce caps. Lust, a hand in a cookie jar, was the longest chute. It tossed her back to the bottom of the game board, while Sara counted her squares and won the blue ribbon.
Draped across the love seat, Mrs. Arlington asked her about her life: school, work, relationships; then she itemized Sara’s many blue ribbons and related her plans as if they were things in a store that just needed to be picked up. She asked what Ava’s plans were and Ava spoke in the subjunctive, sitting stiffly on the edge of the sofa, smiling between sips of iced tea and wondering why she had come. She finished her tea and asked to use the bathroom.
After washing her hands she stood in front of the mirror, pressing cold fingers to her cheeks, the corners of her eyes, her lips. She remembered the time Sara had gone into her mother’s make-up to paint her like a Russian nesting doll. From the far corner of the glass peeked the closet, its door ajar in invitation. She slipped her finger into the crack and eased it open. Beneath the rows of neatly folded hand towels was the tiny door. She lifted the hatch of the laundry chute and looked inside. Directly below her sat a little girl, murmuring to the stuffed rabbit cradled in her arms.
“Hi,” Ava said.
The girl looked up at her. “Hi.”
They observed each other in silence as the house breathed.
“My mom used to braid my hair and tie it off with ribbons just like that,” Ava said.
The girl fingered one of her braids then said: “Sometimes it hurts when she does it. She has to pull really hard to make it stay. Says my hair’s too slippery.”
“Mine too. That’s why I cut it short. See?”
The girl touched her hair, considering Ava’s bob. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Ava. What’s yours?”
“What are you doing down there, Violet?”
“I’m waiting for my mom.”
“Where is she?”
“Upstairs, visiting Mrs. Arlington.”
“Don’t you want to come upstairs and be with her?”
“Not yet. It’s not time yet.”
“Oh no? When will it be time?”
“And what will happen when it’s time?”
Violet looked at her with a violent seriousness. When she spoke, she spoke slowly, molding each word with her mouth. “When it’s time I’ll get real loud. I’ll scream so everyone can hear me, even with the door closed. I’ll scream so loud the door will break and everyone will see me. They’ll see me and they’ll see my mom.”
Ava straightened, putting some distance between herself and the chute, but knew not to break eye contact with the little girl. “But you won’t do that now. You won’t get loud yet, will you?”
Violet looked down at her stuffed rabbit. She drew her fingers gently down its head and back and Ava thought she saw it move. “No, not yet. But soon.”
The sun was dangling from an evergreen bough when she left the house. A breeze swept the day’s heat up out of the ground and untangled it from rose bushes, making room for the evening cool to settle in its place. Threads of oldies music, the pop songs of a youth long grown old, unraveled from distant radios and names were called to dinner through the evening calm. Children’s laughter, light and bird-like, pulled her along the road, up to the playground. A dozen children ran between metal bars and along wooden beams, trailing wild hair behind them. Swings creaked as legs pumped them higher and higher till they launched into the air.
Off to one side, bordering the woods, towered the slide. A string of children ran up its ladder and shot down the metal chute then rushed to overtake each other on the dash back around to the steps and up again. They followed their frenetic circuit up the ladder, down the slide, up the ladder, down the slide, up, down, up, down, as if it were a game.
Then there was a commotion, confusion, and the circuit halted. The children on the ground and waiting on the ladder looked up at the boy at the top of the slide. Gripping the handles, the boy slowly stood up. At first his face was a tight screw of concentration and nerves; as his eyes panned the wide expanse of terrain laid out below him, wonder, then joy radiated from him like a lesser sun.
Impatience sawed at the voices of the other children behind him as they whined at him to hurry up but the boy ignored them. They tried to knock him down with insults and when that didn’t work, the two children highest up on the ladder began hitting at his legs and back and tried to pry his fingers from the handles. The others descended the ladder and joined a growing crowd of children watching the boy make his beatific stand at the top. He stood there, smiling at everything, at nothing, even as his spry body shook from the blows.
Ava watched him in awe, silently rooting him on, even as she wondered who would arrive first: the boy’s mother or an ambulance.
Gillian Esquivia Cohen is a teacher with a B.A. in English from Boston University and an M.A. in Bilingual/Bicultural Education from Columbia University who lives in Bogotá, Colombia.