The Second Story
by JOSIANE CURTIS
My mom doesn’t go upstairs anymore.
The entire second story looks disheveled and crowded and lonely, as if the contents of an unorganized attic have spilled out into it. I expect that my old bedroom would look unlived in but hers, too, what used to be hers, is like an overgrown garden. A junkyard. Things I can’t find in any of my memories litter the ground – literally, not like scattered but littered like trash, unwanted things thrown where they don’t belong. Two old mattresses, one propped up against a wall and one sheetless on the floor. Empty baskets and board games and stacks upon stacks of tired books. The blinds on one window hang crooked, a tapestry haphazardly draped across the other. In the bathroom, the showerhead drips and I wonder how long it’s been dripping. Days? Years? I haven’t been back in years, and so, maybe.
And outside. In the movie The Lion King, Simba runs away from home after his father is killed. Eventually, he returns to the pride lands, and where he remembers a lush, green kingdom, the landscape is black and barren. There is no food. The animals that remain exist among leafless trees and charred bones.
I drive up to the house about four p.m., and even though four p.m. this time of year is late enough to wash everything in the golden light of the setting sun, it just looks sad. Dry and dusty. Mostly sad.
This is partly a symptom of winter, I know. But it isn’t just that the trees are bare and the bushes of flowers that once lit up the sides of the driveway have all gone brown and dry. Everything is out of place. At the top of the driveway, in a ditch to the side of the gravel road, an empty fish tank greets you before the house comes into view. There is a crate on the front porch with what looks like car parts and a half dozen half-drunken Snapple bottles, the color drained from the labels. There are discarded pieces of furniture and appliances that I’ve never seen before. Four wicker chairs are barely balanced on top of each other, legs skewed outward at odd angles, and I’m sure they never fulfilled their duty as chairs, at least not at this house. A dresser that appears to have once been white, the wood now splintered and paint peeling and parched, is leaned up against the pump house, with another crate of trash and trinkets atop it.
Vultures circle overhead, and that’s not even a Lion King reference; that is the dirty fact.
I feel most sad for the stained glass windows. My mother built the house herself, for herself. She designed it according to the life she had planned or at least for the future she imagined. She gave the east wall to her bedroom so the sun would kiss her awake in the morning and she would dive into the day instead of pulling covers over her head. She placed the stained glass windows where they could create sunsets across the walls upstairs from dawn until dusk. The second story makes me wonder what else in life is like the question of the tree falling in an empty forest. I know that designs still dance across the white walls of the staircase, across the carpet of her old room, but for what? For who? If no one sees them, are they still beautiful? If no one lives in it, is it still a home? How do you define alive?
This has turned into a place where things and people are discarded and forgotten. Things and people fall and stay fallen. There are no kings here. Who will pick it all up?
My mother can recite the addresses of nearly everyone in her extended family at the drop of a hat, down to the zip code, but she can’t remember the conversation she had with me five minutes ago. She tells me the same three stories over and over for an hour; the one about the dog fight, how she lost her credit card, the reminder to pick up my brother on my way back from Berkeley. I know, mom. Every time there is a moment of silence between us, she jumps to fill it by restarting the story she finished a few moments before.
When I am gone, I carry around a guilt so heavy that knots grow like gnarled tree roots across my back and shoulders. Every time I make plans to return, I tell myself things will be different – that I will be different. I will be better. Kinder. Lighter. This is a story I tell myself over and over, forgetting all the times I have told it before, and it wasn’t true then either. Then I am here, and I try to talk to her and I feel like I am having a conversation with a goldfish. Then I am here, and I am overwhelmed and guilty and scared.
Is this why I write? Because I am afraid that one day I will stop making new memories? How will I even know when it’s happened? Will there be someone to smile and say, in a more gentle voice than my own, if I am lucky – I know, I know, you told me that already – ?
I wonder if it things are really as different as I think they are. Maybe it’s just that I’ve changed. The house is smaller because I am bigger. Or, maybe I notice things now that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child. I’ve wondered about this before, too. Did my mom actually start getting sick and sad when I was a teenager, or is that when I started being able to see it? Maybe there was always trash in the yard; maybe my memory already betrays me. How would I even know?
I watch the stained glass displays for as long as I can, let the light burn itself into my mind so that I can, if I am lucky, remember what 10 a.m. looks like inside that stairwell, and two p.m., and six. And I know there is something flawed in me for pitying the loneliness of these inanimate objects while speaking to my family from separate rooms, for wanting to comfort the house, running my hands over the rotting wood of a door frame while pulling away from my mother’s touch. For coming and going, and being always glad about the going.
I shower before leaving, after waiting for water to recall the climb upstairs through atrophied pipes. The water is rusty at first, but it is hot, and the showerhead is inches above my head so I don’t have to bend my legs or curl my back to wash my hair. I can look up into the falling water and let it pour over me, and forget for a moment, or remember, where I am. The showerhead is high because, like me, my mother is tall, and she built the house for us, and that, there, is something I miss.
I turn the faucet all the way off, wait for quiet to be sure, and leave.
Josiane Curtis is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Portland. You can find her twitter here. You can find her website here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the first sign of dawn. Her work recently appeared on The Rumpus here.