Borrowed House

The little house was stranded on a pale corner, a vacant lot on either side, a nearby apartment building throwing a shadow on the overgrown yard. Wood framed, faded blue/grey. One shutter had slipped from its hinges, hanging at an angle. The woman and the small boy lived there for a year.

After work, she’d pick up the small boy from day care. They’d drive home, pulling into the weedy driveway and hurry in the side door. The place was nearly empty. An old fabric couch and coffee table in the living room, sheets for curtains. kitchen table and two chairs. Their shared bed. The house was laid out in a circle. The small boy drove his big wheel over the wooden floors. Living room to kitchen to bedroom, back to living room. Vroom.

Every other Friday, the boy’s father would pick him up for the weekend. He’d pull into the driveway where the woman would transfer the car seat, the umbrella stroller from her car to his. This was done with a kind of detached efficiency. It reminded her of how they’d wordlessly passed the crying newborn to each other in the night, both of them so exhausted that they were incapable of conversation. How long ago that seemed. Sometimes the father’s new girlfriend would wait in the passenger seat. The woman tried not to catch her eye. She felt the girlfriend observing her shabby sweatshirt, old sneakers. Too late, she’d remind herself to clean up next time, pretend she was on her way out. But her heart wasn’t in it. After the flurry of activity, the stilted conversation, the woman would finally slide back in the side door. Shut it. Lock it. The emptiness of the house would swell like a sound, like absence could take up space. The woman would walk around the house and see the toys scattered across the floor, frozen in place.

She wondered about the house. Who’d lived there before them. Why it was still standing. The neighborhood was a hodgepodge of shops and apartment buildings. Most of the original homes had been torn down and rebuilt.  Not this house. It held on. It seemed like the kind of place students had lived, or maybe servicemen. She couldn’t picture a family ever living there.  Blank as a sleepwalker, the house seemed to have no memories. And now it was just her and the small boy, as if the house was making room for them. As if they were borrowing it for a while and would return it later, worse for wear.

They were six blocks from the park on Cherry. Mornings she’d walk there with the small boy. Looking down at him rumbling over the concrete on his big wheel she’d think they were in a nursey rhyme of sorts. Watch us go to the park, she’d say and he’d look up. They’d pass shop windows, groceries, bus stops and benches. Through fence slats, they’d see houses click by. Coming home, there was the house in the distance, square and flat, waiting patiently.

She’d look through old photos, sorting them into piles. Different years. Different backgrounds. There might be an answer here. She found one of her husband and herself, no baby yet. He had his arm around her shoulder carefully, Like he was following instructions. She saw things were over between them even then.

When the boy was with his father, it took a lot to keep busy. She’d tidy up, putting toys and books into the built-in shelving. She’d sweep the wooden floors, broom banging against the baseboards. The house seemed to absorb her actions without complaint. She didn’t have visitors. The friends she’d had, before her marriage, were gone, lost to the years of distance and distress. There was no contacting them now. She felt like she was hovering between the past and the future. Stuck in a series of empty days as flat and blank as the house.  

Years later, the woman and the boy would sometimes drive by the house when they were in that part of town. There’s the old place, she’d say to him but he didn’t remember living there, it was too long ago. He was a teenage now, almost ready for college. They’d lived in other places, happy ones. And then one day it was gone, torn down. The two vacant lots surrounding it seemed to have rolled right over it as if it had never been there. And she felt a pang for the house, like she’d lost a friend who’d kept a secret for her.