You hugged me when you dropped me off, and I didn’t know if I would ever see you again, if I had made the most of this paltry shot at redemption.
In my dream, I am building the house from the ground up all on my own, carving the shape of the bottom floor out of the earth. None of the other people who will one day live here with me have been born yet. The dirt is soft and damp, sticking together like clay. I work with only my hands, the earth embedding itself under my fingernails. After I scoop up the loamy clumps, they simply disappear. When I have formed the foundation into the correct shape, I begin putting in the wooden frame, laying down the base for the linoleum and shoring up walls. I make sure the floor is even and smooth, and when I erect the walls there are no gaps. The wind and the cold will not be able to steal their way in, and the heating will function as it is supposed to. In the house of my dreams, there’s no space for the rats to come and make my home their own.
* * *
When the sound designer from the show I was working on invited me to come home with him after rehearsal, I had no expectation of longevity from the liaison. My conquests thus far in college had been brief flings, ranging in the satisfaction they provided me. Still, a hookup in a house as opposed to a dorm room was appealing, even with the reputation his house had for grunginess. When, after being pleasantly warmed by whiskey and sex, I asked if I could spend the night, the sound designer looked at me like he didn’t understand why I even needed to ask. When he told me the next morning as he bade me goodbye that I could stop by whenever I felt like it, that it wasn’t even necessary to text him ahead of time, I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until the first time I was sitting in the living room and one of the house affiliates stumbled in to see what we were up to, coming right in because the front door was never locked, and everyone welcomed him as though the house was his own, that I understood that the offer was genuine.
To be accepted as one of the boys I made myself into the best of the girls. I baked cookies and brownies and didn’t mind when there were none left for me to have a second. I took on a night of the week to make dinner, and another for the dishes. I cleaned the surfaces and floors more thoroughly than I did of those in the apartment I paid rent for. I burned to prove myself to a group whose expectations could not have been lower, not just for me but for everyone in their orbit. I needed to be first in a race established only in my head.
When I ascended to official house residency a year later, I firmly believed it was on my own merit. I was down for shenanigans, I didn’t complain, I washed up and made everyone foods rich with meat and cheese. No longer just a girlfriend like the other women who moved in and out of the house, I was one of the inner circle. One of the guys.
The psychology major who’d thought that the spot in the house was his made the snide and subtle suggestion that I was only chosen because the boys all wanted to take me to bed. Without a backup housing plan in place, he took up residence on a mattress in the basement for the next three months. I knew he felt validated in his assumption when I walked past him all of the mornings after I spent the night in my new housemate’s bed; here I was, sleeping my way through the house. Blearily blinking at me from the floor, the psychology student was the sole witness as I crept up the stairs to my own room to get dressed in peace.
* * *
You came home one night so deeply drunk that, even for a group that partied as hard as we did, it was extreme. We all should have been more concerned about how you found your way home, how you navigated the dark streets on the way back from the Chinese restaurant with so much liquor in your system. But when we questioned you, you just displayed to us the house number you’d ripped out of its moorings on your way home, nails still sticking out of the back. We dissolved into laughs and exclamations of “Oh my god,” and none of us worried that this show of random force indicated that you weren’t okay. I slipped the loop of the metal five around my wrist like a bracelet. It only stayed when I held my arm exactly the right way.
You and I are both sober now. The last time we drank together, half a decade ago, we were getting rowdy together as a house. We were all putting off acknowledging that things were fractured and on their way to being broken. Your girlfriend, red curls wild, came up to me and slipped into my lap, arms winding around my neck. She pressed her lips against my hair and I couldn’t even look at you. I didn’t know if she wanted you to see, or if she was so far gone she didn’t know you were there. I should have made the scene openly ugly instead of staying frozen in polite compliance even as we all knew what was happening wasn’t right. I should have pushed her from my thighs onto the floor, “What the fuck are you doing” falling from my lips as she gazed up me with those impossibly big blue eyes. I should have made it clear where my allegiance lay, that the mistake I made with her didn’t interfere with my regard for you. But I choked on my own shame. When she pulled me up to slow dance with her, I let myself be taken.
* * *
The second summer I spent in the house, we popped the inflatable toucan we were floating down the river on, and I became inconsolable, my mental illness not yet diagnosed. I was near tears as we tried to fix it. Armed with nothing but a bic lighter, we fused the plastic together until it melted in waxy layers, holding together when limp but popping open when we pumped air into the ring. The failure I felt was disproportionate and bone deep, born from childhood and carried with me from therapist to therapist. “I’m sorry for wasting your time,” I said, miring myself in the loathing I knew you must have felt for me.
“I just want you to be okay,” you said, and although I’m sure others had said that phrase to me before, none of them struck me as having the same conviction that you possessed.
A year later, after I’d moved out of the house, I stood in the crowd at a music festival, high off of a cocktail of chemicals I’d willingly introduced into my system. When I closed my eyes, I realized I was on a boat drifting away from the shore of a lake. You were standing on the stationary rocks by the edge, watching me float towards the center of the water. The waves were calm but persistent, taking me further and further away from you with each passing second. I had no oars, no control, and could only look as you receded into the distance, your form growing smaller and smaller. There was no opposite shore I was headed to, no place for me to go. Only the endless lapping of the water against the hull as the land disappeared from my vision and I was forced to live in the gentle rocking. Getting back to you was an impossibility, living without you a reality I would have to come to terms with.
* * *
There are things I couldn’t possibly have known at twenty. I’m not going to marry the sound designer, who brought me into the house before leaving me to claim it as my own. The art that I poured my soul into will turn bitter when I make it into a living. My family will become uprooted and shrink until we turn into pairs of discrete dots. The world will become worse than I could have imagined, cruel and callous and harsh.
But I also couldn’t have known the importance you would come to bear in my existence, the roots you’d put down in my conception of what happiness looks like. The thousand pages of my favorite book that you’d read. The theater ticket you’d buy me because you knew I couldn’t afford it. The way my body would come to gravitate toward yours, the tilt of my head as I looked up to study your cheekbones, unable to disguise the smile that arose when I heard you laugh.
In the moments we envisioned our future lives and you remarked upon the differences between yours and mine, I wanted to say, “But that wouldn’t be true if it were with you. With you, I would want all of that.”
* * *
I made my way through the front door into the living room with trepidation, unsure if anyone was home; most importantly, I didn’t know if you were home. I had yet to face you since what happened last night. You slept in this morning, and I didn’t know if it was to avoid me or because you were emotionally drained. Your girlfriend had made her way upstairs while you were still slumbering, and all of us eating breakfast had to act like we weren’t witnessing the most uncomfortable walk of shame in the world when she entered my bedroom to search for her graduation crown, the plastic ring lost somewhere in my bed during our activities last night.
My own crown was why, despite my anxiety over encountering you, I found myself back at the house. Everyone who was successfully finishing their senior year had received a golden set of laurels, harkening back to the Greeks, in anticipation of this weekend’s festivities. The laurels were a signal that you were smart and capable and about to get the fuck out of here. I, too, had lost my crown, mislaid between the couch and my bedroom in my drunken haze.
I was searching the living room when you came upstairs. I froze in anticipation of your potential reaction to my presence. Cruelty didn’t come easily to you, but if anything could draw it out, it would be last night’s transgression.
“I can’t find my laurels,” I said lamely. I knew that you were aware that they had been lost as your girlfriend and I pressed up against each other, tangling limbs and hands together as we let the rest of the world drop away.
“You can borrow mine for the weekend,” you said. At your words I felt something within me break and bloom at the same time. For a wild second I thought you might not know what had happened, but then I remembered how your girlfriend had made her way down to your bedroom after we’d finished, too drunk to not let the truth spill out. You knew how I had wronged you, but you were so damn good that you were still offering up all you had to help me out.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said. Even though you’d already graduated and didn’t need to wear them around campus, even though the crowns were mass produced and cheap and identical, you were still letting me take a mark of your achievements and pretend it was my own.
“It’s no problem,” you said. “Let me go get them.” You headed back to your room and I fidgeted, uncomfortable in the house for the first time in years.
When you returned you handed over your crown to me and I held the plastic with more reverence than I’d treated my own. “Thanks a lot,” I said. “I really appreciate it.” I wanted to convey in those words how sorry I was, how the wrongness of my actions had swept over me this morning and left me gasping for air. How I knew how deeply I’d fucked up and how I couldn’t believe you were being kind to me after what I’d done.
“You need them, I don’t,” you said.
I couldn’t find anything else to say that didn’t address my mistake, and I knew now wasn’t the time to delve into it. “I should get back to campus,” I said. “Thanks again. I’ll take care of them.”
“Have fun,” you said, turning to go to the kitchen. I watched you with an ache in my chest and a stone in my stomach, completely unsure if things would be okay between us ever again.
* * *
The rats were beginning to encroach just as I left the house for the last time; I don’t think any of us anticipated how bad it would get. The brewer’s guild had left several bags of grain underneath our basement stairs before forgetting about it completely. It sat there until a particularly cold winter drove the rodents through the cracks in the baseboards. Once inside, they found a food supply and a hideaway all in one, nestling in and multiplying.
I heard them skittering around before my departure, little paws scratching at the walls. I saw a furry body caught in a trap one morning, lying limp and dead in the gray light of the dawn. I was up early, heading to rehearsal, and I left it for you to deal with, justifying my choice with the need to be on time for work rather than owning up to my squeamishness.
But I heard that it got so much worse after I left. Rats in the couch and the kitchen, food stored high up to keep them out. Rats seizing every small, dark, forgotten space as their own. Rats that bred and rats that somehow withstood the poison pumped in by the exterminators that the landlady halfheartedly sent in. Rats that would consume the corpses of other rats brought down by spring loaded snaps of metal bars. Rats who would outlast us all.
I don’t know how the rats were eradicated. Sometimes I think they were impossible to oust without obliterating the whole structure, and if I were ever to return to the house, I would find only a hole in the ground, a bombed out testament to the futility of trying to keep the ugliness of nature out of a home.
* * *
On the first day my childhood best friend and I began driving away from Oregon, we made it all the way to Montana. She had flown out specifically so I wouldn’t have to make the journey alone. We left the house at 8 a.m.; ludicrously early for the both of us at that point in our lives. I started crying while still on the familiar road leading to the highway. I hadn’t wanted to take the time to pull over as I sobbed, brushing her fears off that I wouldn’t be able to see clearly through my tears.
We were on the highway when I asked out of the blue, “Am I in love with [you]?” She looked at me with a gaze that had understood my inner workings for almost ten years, and I knew the answer before she opened her mouth because of how sad she looked.
When we reached Minnesota, the state you were raised in, I left her in the motel room and walked myself and my packed bowl to the middle of a field. I got high and looked at the stars and wondered if the sky was just as clear in the town you were from. I thought about you gazing up too, our eyes making contact through the distance of a million miles.
“Isn’t it crazy that, even though we’re far apart, when I look up at the moon it’s the same moon you’re looking at?” one of my college friends once texted his girlfriend during the year they were separated by three thousand miles.
“That’s fucking stupid,” she responded. “Everyone is always looking at the same moon.”
* * *
When we heard the hammer thud against the porch, the three of us ran outside to see exactly what had caused the noise, although we suspected the source. All of the other people who lived in and circulated through the house were out, leaving us a rare night to watch TV together. I was glad there was no one else to witness the attack on our home. I knew this had been brewing ever since my boyfriend, who I’d fallen into a relationship with after I’d officially moved in, told his deeply damaged ex that he wouldn’t come over every time she threatened to kill herself anymore.
The ex in question had already retreated to the sidewalk in front of the house by the time the three of us assembled on the porch, her small frame enveloped in a coat that was too heavy for the fall weather. She was too far away for me to see if she was crying.
I glanced at the hole in our front door left by the hammer that she had hurled. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I said.
“I’ll pay for the damage,” she said, turning back towards us. “I’m sorry.”
“You can’t throw money at this,” you said, standing closest to the door. “You can’t fuck up our house just because your parents are rich.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again, the hitch in her voice making her tears clear. “You wouldn’t answer. I didn’t know what to do.” Her Chinese accent, usually soft, thickened her words even further.
“You weren’t supposed to come here,” I said. “Don’t you fucking dare come back.” My boyfriend stood silently next to me, and hate for his cowardice and his weakness swept through me. He had allowed this person to burrow her way into our home and our lives, and he’d been too craven to take a stand against her when she’d proven to be rotten. Now we had a hole in our door, one that he could’ve stopped, had he ever just told her he didn’t want her here. I wish that I understood then that his silence wasn’t because he couldn’t utter the truth, but because her sick type of love was something he craved, would keep on craving even as it threatened to destroy us all.
“You can’t treat people like this,” you said, and for the first time I thought that I might love you more than the boy standing next to me.
“I’ll pay for it,” she said again.
“Just go,” you said, and she turned to leave for the last time. Her ex, my partner, never uttered a single word.
* * *
The second time I drove from Oregon to New York, three years after I first left, I was headed not away from you but towards you. Oregon was no longer either of our homes; we had both done our best to make space for ourselves in the less lush parts of the country, where the nature wasn’t as beautiful but the fires didn’t rage so hot. I wished you weren’t so far from me as we worked on mending the frayed parts of our friendship. But I would return to the Midwest as many times as it took for you to want me back in your life.
I reached Minneapolis ahead of schedule, having consistently kept above the speed limit on the way due to my fear of being late and letting you down yet again. I showed up to the restaurant early and got high in the parking lot, standing far enough away that no one who worked there could see me. When I finished my joint I sucked down a cigarette, so nervous I almost couldn’t see. Despite my time killing there were still five minutes left before the reservation. I went inside the building anyway, giving your name and then being led to a table for three.
You’d asked me if it was alright if your new girlfriend joined—well, new to me. You and her had been seeing each other for over half a year. As greedy as I was for your time I said yes, both wanting and not wanting to like her more than your last girlfriend.
When you both showed up, I felt strangely disappointed that she wasn’t as pretty as your ex. The woman you were with during our time living together, the one who’d caused such destruction, was a dancer, her body stunningly proportioned. Your new girlfriend didn’t have the same curves, her hair brown instead of the lustrous red of your ex. But I had to hope that her personality made up for her plainness, that she wasn’t commiting the casual manipulations that were the hallmark of your relationship with the dancer.
Over dinner I said far too many revealing things in front of her, about me, about you and me, about your ex and my ex. To her credit, when she came back from the bathroom and you and I were engaged intensely over the nature of both of our friendships with the second boy in the house I’d fallen into bed with, she asked if we wanted her to go wait in the parking lot. A true Midwestern politeness based relationship that my brashness and loudness could never measure up to.
I wanted a cigarette after dinner but I wanted the ride you offered even more. I tried not to dwell on my issues in front of this stranger, but they were so numerous I couldn’t stop them from spilling out. You hugged me when you dropped me off, and I didn’t know if I would ever see you again, if I had made the most of this paltry shot at redemption.
* * *
Here are the things that I’m sorry for:
I’m sorry it took me so long to get to know you.
I’m sorry that I favored your girlfriend over you for so long, and that I mistook her warmth and candor for true care and depth.
I’m sorry that I kept the house up so many nights with screaming matches with my second boyfriend because I didn’t know how to be alone.
I’m sorry that I always monopolized the red velvet loveseat.
I’m sorry that I never vacuumed the dining room.
I’m sorry that I fucked your girlfriend while you were asleep downstairs.
I’m sorry that I was bad at roleplaying in Dungeons and Dragons.
I’m sorry I wasn’t more grateful for the bread you baked.
Please let me make it up to you.
* * *
“I want to do a biological study on the size of rodents in relation to the wealth of the neighborhood you find them in,” I say as we walk from the park to the subway. “Like, the mice on the upper west side? Tiny. But the rats in Brooklyn? Enormous.”
“Not all parts of Brooklyn,” you say.
“Okay, maybe not the wealthy ones,” I concede. “But most of them, for sure.”
As we head towards the subway to leave Manhattan and journey back to my place, we keep our eyes peeled for rats but don’t spot any. We don’t see one while waiting for the train either, no matter how eagerly I scour the tracks. But when we’re walking back to my apartment, there’s a furry streak that dashes across the sidewalk into a pile of trash sitting on the side of the road. I point and shout “There! There!”
“My first New York rat,” you say, pleased as anything.
I proceed to tell you about the book on rats I read when I first came to the city, how I borrowed it from my best friend’s boyfriend at the time and how I wished they’d broken up while I was still reading it so I could have held onto it. You add it to the list of books you’re on the lookout for on this trip, the ones you’ll search for in the various bookstores we go to together. I want to show you the best of this city, knowing you will never live here, that you’re a small town boy at heart, hoping I can entice you with more than just me to bring you back, because how can I ever possibly be enough?
But when we sit on my couch and read the books we recommended to each other, I catch myself slipping into the belief that I might be enough, despite all my sins and my flaws and my cracks. I cannot build a house on my own but I can make a structure into a home.