I punch the code into the digital front door lock; Dad always did things his own slightly-odd way like that. Everybody else who uses code entry uses it to get into their garage, but not my dad — Dad put it on the front door. I don’t remember the significance of the four chosen digits. His and Mom’s first-date anniversary? Einstein’s birthday? It could be either, or both. Or was it Galileo’s?
The house admits me so long as I remember the code, and somehow my fingers do, even though my brain forgets the significance and the digits themselves. The dog starts freaking out even before I’ve swung open the door.
“NIKKI!!!!!” I crouch down to let her electric wiggling body fall all over my knees. I almost start to cry because for some reason I thought she might not remember me, but she’s manically licking my hand.
I smooth down her silky off-black ears in repetitive motions. Kneeling in the foyer, I glimpse the transformed family room beyond. It’s been repainted and furnished with several new chairs, area rugs — shades of tan and blue everywhere, a muted, faintly aquamarine blue, beige, and a little gray here and there.
I’m home, but it doesn’t feel like it.
My mom walks into the front hall and towards me. She wears an old blue sweater softened by years of delicate cycles. The sight floods me with a feeling of grace.
“Hi Mom!” I cry into the echoing hall. I tuck my face in at her shoulder and press her back with both hands, hard, but the other half of this hug feels limp and very casual. We release one another and stand awkwardly in the hall a moment.
I promptly begin to gush over the redecoration. “It’s like out of a catalog! Really modern, and tasteful,” I say.
“Thanks,” she says.
“Did you have fun picking all the new stuff out?”
“Yeah,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “How was the train?”
“Long. I haven’t really slept in days. I am so tired.” She moves into the kitchen as I linger in the family room. A big fawn couch that hadn’t been there before bears the imprint of my father’s body. Mom removes some papers from the kitchen table and sits down with them in a new armchair; begins sifting through them, treating each article to lengthy attention.
She can spend hours going through a single stack of mail. I’m halfway to the kitchen and my little brother Alexander rushes forward.
“Hi, Rachy!” He catches me in a great big hug. His broad body engulfs my slight one in a reversal of our childhood. We were about even by my sophomore or junior year of high school; thereafter he took over. Now I’m 21.
“What have you been up to?” I ask, parking myself at the kitchen counter. He opens the fridge to scan it.
“Close that fridge!” my mother pipes from the family room. He holds it slightly less ajar while pouring Kool-Aid into a green plastic cup and closes the fridge.
Takes a big cold gulp. “Not much. Got finals in a couple weeks, and then I start working full-time at this financial office.”
“Hey! That’s pretty great — finance — I mean that’s what you’re into!” I say with weird brightness, my genuine excitement filtering through so much, layers of exhaustion and emotion.
“Yeah, but I don’t really do too much with financial stuff. It’s just getting paperwork ready, basically, right now. I did it over Spring Break.”
I slowly drink a glass of water, licking my dry lips between sips.
“You look tired,” he says.
“Yeah, it’s pretty tough to sleep for very long on that train.” I’m hungry, that tired-hungry feeling of just wanting to eat something and go to sleep. I open cupboards, searching around, checking expiration dates.
“I got lots of yogurt,” Mom calls from her armchair in the ocean of papers.
“Thanks, but I’m pretty sure I’m lactose-intolerant.” I don’t like to say things for effect among my family anymore because the effect is typically bad, but I’m too tired and hungry to explain further just then, so effects follow.
“What? That’s crazy!”
I find a box of oatmeal. Expired six months.
“Ugh. Okay…” I check the Raisin Bran. June 2010. Got a good year left. I pour a bowl, take a bite, and address the effects.
“I couldn’t do dairy the whole time I was out there. My stomach would always get cramped up like crazy so I just stopped.”
“You drank milk your whole life. How are you all of a sudden lactose-intolerant?” my mother calls from the sunroom, where she’s getting another stack of papers.
“I don’t know. It develops in some people when they get older.”
“So what did you put in your cereal?” Alexander asks.
“That’s weird,” he says. He gulps from his cup and sighs audibly after swallowing. I love him for not caring too much.
“It makes it like oatmeal.”
“And we know how much you love oatmeal,” Mom calls.
“Ugh.” Alexander scrunches his face into a caricature of mock-disgust, complete with a shudder. I take a big bite. It’s delicious. Hot mush sweetened by juicy raisins that plump with the hot water. I’m starting to feel fed and sleepy. I relish the feeling of hungry exhaustion that brings me to this singular, sleepy satiation; I relish feeling one slip into the other. These have always followed closely in my well-cared-for life.
My brother takes my silent contemplation of my Raisin Bran bowl as an opportunity to launch into an encomium lauding some new development at Apple Computers, which is for him a joy to deliver and so I thankfully don’t have to manufacture attention for it. “Uh-huh,” I say.
“I know I’m rambling,” he says. “Are you pretty tired?” His blue eyes peek out of small, impish windows in his ruddy face.
“Yeah,” I drawl through my last mouthful of mush. “I think I’m gonna go up to bed. Where’s Dad? I want to say hi to him before I crash out.”
“He’s up in bed,” Mom answers. “Tell him to come down and take his pills.”
I leave my bowl in the sink and head from the kitchen to begin up the stairs.
“Oh, Rachy –” Alexander says, hurrying behind me, empty hands outspread. “Um, I’m in your old room now. You’re in my old room. We switched it after the fire. I know I probably should have asked you, but…”
“It’s fine, I don’t care,” I say. “That room gets so cold in the winter, enjoy it.” I pat him on the back and ascend the staircase, turning the wrong way at the top and shattering memory as I open the door to my little brother’s old room.
The sight of its sky-blue walls I had only just transferred into my memory bank. Its now-pale-yellow walls lend the room a hazy, weakly sunny, bright cast, at least in my stupor.
Ridges and short surfaces constituted this room when Alexander inhabited it. On ledges of his nightstand and dresser Star Wars action figures had paraded and lightsaber-battled. The Millennium Falcon rested safely from Imperial enemies in the cavern under his bed abutting its built-in drawers containing folded sweaters and corduroy pants. A racecar bedspread had covered his sheets with three stuffed animals atop it at the pillow. I gave him all three of his favorite stuffed animals: a black cat named Coal (my birthday present to him years ago, when we both briefly worshiped witches in the wake of the first Harry Potter book’s debut), a prairie dog named Donut, which I had bought for Alexander on a school outing at the Field Museum — I told him to name it. “Why Donut?” we asked. He didn’t know, but I invented the rationale. The last was a bright red cardinal, probably the last stuffed animal he ever received as a child.
I couldn’t at first remember the cardinal’s name. Something like ‘Jambit’, I thought. But it was Nougat. We didn’t understand his rationale for naming the cardinal ‘Nougat’, but didn’t question it.
It is strange to come to this room for my rest. I missed my old room, which was larger, usually cool, and boasted beautiful, wide windows raised from a seat and overlooking the front yard, the neighborhood street, and the blossoming tree directly underneath in which birds often nested.
I unload my big pack and undo its bungee cords that hold the colorful blanket I had crocheted while in Oregon. I spread it over the bed. It’s the only color in an otherwise soporifically-pastel room. A small purse containing my notepads and cigarettes I shove deep under the bed.
Raisin Bran and recollection leaden my feet so I cross the long hall to the master bedroom before I pass out. The closed wooden double doors form a portal. I turn the right knob and gently open the door. The room is filled with whitish light.
I don’t know how Dad can be sleeping, and indeed he isn’t, really. His eyes readily open at my entrance, staring oddly straight upwards as though he’d neither been alarmed nor awakened.
“Hey, Dad,” I say.
“Hey Rachel! How are you?” He knew I had been gone for some time but he didn’t really know where.
“Mom wants you to go downstairs and take your pills.”
“Oh, okay,” he says softly, acquiescently. “I will in a minute.”
“You go down there now or you’ll never get up for the day. They help you to be more alert.”
“I will. Gimme about fifteen more minutes.”
Already exasperated, I turn without another word and leave his door open behind me. Beauteous white light reaches in bars from the master bedroom’s skylights into the hall.
Back in my new room, my mother is sitting on my bed.
“I’m gonna get some sleep, Mom.”
“Okay, I just wanna read you something. When I read it the first time, I started crying.”
It’s Goldie Hawn’s autobiography: a chapter on mothers and daughters. I listen, but don’t remember any of the matter. I just remember that it was touching to both of us. We both probably hoped it made the other feel guilty. My mother wanted me to feel guilty for failing to understand how difficult it is for a parent to let go. She wanted me to understand how much the mother-daughter bond means to a mother.
I wanted her to feel guilty for not letting go. And for being unswerving in her vision of my future rather than accepting the path I was seeking. And for wishing so many things for me, my happiness accessory.
I choose a deep, hopefully dreamless sleep. (But doubt I’ll get away that easy. I’ll likely dream my mother a Gorgon, discovering my cigarettes.) I turn my phone off, make it totally silent, inactivate all alarms. I lower the windowshade, creating a dim world ready for my repose, and lock the door.
Alexander’s and my ages no longer mattered. I no longer felt like his big sister. There was nothing bigger about me now. His voice was much deeper than mine. I didn’t feel I had any authority, either. I felt like the only kid in our family to have successfully run away and been stupid enough to come back home. I felt younger than my little brother… more lost… and yet, happier and more hopeful.
The huge two-story windows in our house are stupid, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep. That grand hall. That cavernous high ceiling over the family room. All those open spaces. Those tall, south-facing windows. They make the house blinding with solar brilliance in summer, and a frigid, blue-paned, depressive den in winter.