Here’s Chapter 3.
The following weeks were a blur of hard work and heavy sleep. The house was in an awful state. The garage was only the beginning. After I got my things situated and put away, I noticed the windows of my room hadn’t been washed. Then I saw strands of cobweb stretching across the screens. Then I saw the layers of dirt that caked the windowsill.
My eyes went scanning like that, seeking out neglected corners and untouched moulding. Soon I was out in the hall, and then looking around the kitchen. It was bad. The light switches were grimy. I found spider webs under the stove and refrigerator, some of them still inhabited. The sink and dishpan were turning various hues of gray and orange. I saw dust collecting on the tables, and motley boot prints on the tile (Mom rarely changed clothes before she came home from the studio). I won’t even talk about the bathrooms.
So I prepared a checklist of all the tasks that needed doing, and arranged them by room. I set myself to work on one room at a time, starting with my bedroom. I took the sheets and blankets off the bed and loaded them into the washing machine. I lifted the mattress onto its side, edged it out the door, and pulled it down the hall. I moved it through the living room, and then out to the backyard to air it. I went back to my room and moved the box spring, the armoire, and the desk. I vacuumed the carpet, dusted the furniture, and washed the moulding. I wiped the light switches and cleaned any spots I found on the walls.
Then I considered the closet. I didn’t want to remove all the clothing that I’d just put in there, but I didn’t want to put off cleaning it either, so I dove in.
I never realized how much stuff I packed in there over the years. Old magazines, books, shoes, dolls, toys, board games. It all had to come out, and it did.
My energy held out for a lot longer than I expected. I kept finding new things to move, and new things to clean. What surprised me more than my endurance was my discipline: I wasn’t disheartened at the sight of these messes. I saw work that needed doing and I did it. When one room was done, I moved to the next one on my list and kept working. When tiredness did hit me, it did so suddenly, so I shuffled to the living room and slept on the couch. I woke up hours later, took a minute to remember where I was, and then got right back to work.
This was my life for a while. I don’t remember how long I kept at it. It might have been a week, it might have been more. For my meals I ate tidbits that were left in the fridge, or went and bought some cold cuts and bread from the nearest supermarket.
Mom never came home during this time, or at least, I don’t think that she did. She could have shown up when I was sleeping, but I doubt it. I never saw any sign of her having been there. She never left a note.
The phone rang now and again, usually when I was sleeping. I never answered it. Most of the messages were of the kind I told you about before, but then I got one from Allen. No, wait; it wasn’t Allen, it was Aaron. I don’t know what the problem is, but I can never get his name right the first time. He called when I was awake, and hanging up a new shower curtain in the bathroom. The last one was stippled with mildew. Anyway, when I heard his voice, I dropped the curtain and walked over to the answering machine.
“Babe, it’s me,” he said. “I heard that you came back. Just wanted to check in on you and see if you were all right.” He paused, waiting for me to answer him. I didn’t. “Well, okay, give me a call. I’m still here. You got my number. Bye.”
I stood by the machine for a while, considering the message, and my eventual response. I really didn’t want to respond. What I wanted was for Aaron and all those folks who were “hearing” about my return to keep at their own lives.
Aaron and I did reconnect, though. I knew that ignoring him would only cause him to investigate further, and rather than having to deal with a surprise visit at my house, I prepared my speech and invited him to Carl’s Jr. for lunch. The place was in a shopping center not far from our high school. His parents worked very long hours and didn’t come home until late in the evening, and so he and I would often have dinner there together after class. When I told him where to meet, he said, “Oh, you mean our Carl’s?”
Of course, he was late. I told him 12:30, and he didn’t show up until 1:15. I’d hoped that the circumstances would have lit a fire under him, but Aaron was Aaron, and I had to wait at a table, doodling on napkins.
I looked up when I heard a sudden scrunching of fallen leaves. Beyond the giant restaurant windows I saw his gawky, skinny body moving along on a little blue bicycle. He wore the same gray hoody that I first saw him in as a sophomore.
He came in and grinned the instant he saw me. “Hey,” he said. He put out his arms and I indulged him in a hug.
“Hey yourself,” I said.
He took a seat across from me and looked about nervously. He put his large, bony hands on top of the table and pattered his fingertips on it. I just smiled at him politely, awaiting his questions.
“So, you already order something?” he said. He kept his lips shut through the second syllable, so “something” always came out “some-mm.”
“No,” I answered. “I was waiting for you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry then,” he said, and scratched his head. He had short, stringy black hair that he never combed, so scratching it seemed only to mutate it rather than muss it. “Well, I’m ready when you are.” He stood up and gestured for me to lead the way.
We ordered our meals and came back to the table. He sent out his tentative probes. I decided he would make good practice for all the other curious people I’d inevitably have to fend off.
“So what happened, exactly? Did something bad happen? Did you have a breakdown or something?”
“It was a lot of things at once,” I said. “I guess I just wasn’t ready.”
“Oh. So are you going to go back?”
“I’m talking with admissions about re-applying, yes. I’m not sure when, though.”
“So, like, next semester then?”
He looked around for a couple of seconds while he planned another approach. “So were the classes just too hard or something?”
“I just don’t think the classes I was in were right for me.”
“Oh. Were the people nice? Like, the people you lived with?”
“Yes. My roommate and I barely saw each other, so that wasn’t a problem. I just didn’t feel comfortable in that setting, though.”
This went on until our food arrived. Then our conversation became more familiar. We talked about Aaron’s life, and his family, and what he’d been up to since graduation. He had no interest in college, and wanted to be an auto mechanic. He loved engines and spent hours upon hours in our high school’s auto shop, but he never bought a car of his own. Not even a little jalopy for tinkering. It didn’t make sense to me.
We joked. We brought up old stories about classmates we liked and hated. I told him about Mark, who was getting out of the hospital that week. He particularly enjoyed the gruesome details of that story.
As the time passed, I noticed something peculiar. Aaron’s hands were moving across the table. He was inching them towards mine like glaciers. While speaking, he’d lift his hands from the table in an emphatic point or wave, and then bring them down a little further out than they were before. I pretended not to notice, but when I was finished eating I placed my hands on my lap and kept them there. After a few minutes he retracted his hands in the same manner that he advanced them, gesture by unnecessary gesture, and I was quite amused.
I checked my watch when he left to use the restroom. Our lunch had lasted two hours. When he returned, I told him that I needed to get going. I was cleaning up the house, and wanted to get some more work done.
“You need any help or something?” he asked, capping with “some-mm” again. “I can come with you. I don’t have anything going on.”
“No, no, that’s all right,” I said. “I’ve got it all set up the way I want it. Thank you though.”
“Well, hey, just let me know if you need anything. We should hang out again sometime.”
He gave me another big, smiling hug. We went out to our bikes, unlocked them, and rode off to our homes. It was strange: getting on my bike, saying goodbye to Aaron, and heading out that afternoon filled me with a peace and a warmth I hadn’t known in years. Every sensation of that ride, from the chugging energy in my legs as I pedaled, to the brush of the late autumn air on my face, was a joy, and I felt a directionless, profound gratitude.
When I arrived at the house, though, all passed. I collapsed on the living room sofa and slept.