all thought of her as 'the woman with the dead husband'. She lived
upstairs above us, yet I would never meet her. It happened before she’d
moved here – she found him hanging from the ceiling, a rope around his
neck. He’d served in Afghanistan, I heard. Bits and pieces of her story
I gathered from various figures, the landlord, my husband’s family.
Yes, she had struggled, the poor woman, everyone thought; what a tragic
story, very sad. So long as she paid the rent.
the silence when I was home alone, I could hear them upstairs. The
staircase leading to the basement of my room had the most ideal
acoustics for traveling sound from the uppermost floor all the way
below. Within this hollow space where musty silence reigned amidst the
oil tank and that feeling all basement cellars have as if a body had
been buried somewhere behind the walls – I listened to the voices that
carried between the domains above and below. Shouts, cursing from her
son, heavy thudding, her voice shouting back on the verge of tears.
shouting was erratic, violent, and it was as if I had not left my own
home just three months ago after all. There I was again, the home I’d
known for twenty-seven years, eternally quaking, eternally on the edge
of an explosion. And here I was again, standing here in purgatory
between the floors, miles away from it – or so I thought.
first day I had moved in and had a moment to myself, the silence was
deafening. I did not know what to do with it. The silence after nearly
three decades’ worth of a mortar-shelled warzone – you never knew where
the next explosion was going to come from; and now it echoed a little
too loudly in my ears.
listened to the voices upstairs and wondered if I should call the
police. I had never done so before in my own childhood home.
soon, the noises subsided, and I was relieved that I did not have to go
through the hassle and the awkwardness of police reports and
statements. I returned to my desk to work.
had a dog, an older mutt named Ollie. In the massive backyard that
could fit several houses, she walked the dog sometimes. I’d see him
roaming happily, joyous to be let out. But sometimes, when he was left
alone for long periods of time, I’d hear Ollie whining in the empty
darkness. His cries echoed overhead us all night long.
as she walked Ollie outside and I worked in the kitchen, she looked
through the window. There she stood, a leash in her hand, Ollie chewing
on something in the ground, and she looked straight through the window
at me. Anguish contorted her features, pain so deep in her eyes that
they pleaded to be seen, pleaded for me to see them; for me to say
something. For anyone to say something, for anyone to see.
wanted to wave at her through the window, smile. But I couldn’t do it.
My body was frozen, my face could not move, only my eyes held hers.
Perhaps it was for the same reason that I’d always been afraid to move
in my own home my entire life, the possibility of shattering a moment
of fragile calm; but here in this house it was for a different reason:
as others judged, weighed, evaluated my every move, my every breath. I
was to uphold manners, docile and obedient, smiling at all times,
laughing, working alongside in the kitchen, the perfect daughter-in-law.
woman’s eyes held mine, and I could not look away. The others moved
around me in the house as I stared through the kitchen window back at
her, someone ordering me to put the dishes on the table, the sink
filling with water slowly, the swishing of the dishwasher running,
running. It would all rise until it spilled over, I felt, filling the
entire room with water, rising up to our necks, and my eyes would still
be held by the woman outside, as we all drowned inside.
don’t remember when I turned away from her, but I hated myself for
doing it. When I looked again, she was gone.
tried to bake cookies, knock on her door to deliver them. Perhaps it
was to compensate for not waving at her that day; for looking away. But
each time, only Ollie barked at the door, and she never arrived. She
was lying in bed, I knew, staring at the wall, her limbs unable to move.
I stopped trying.
the fall we went up to Vermont for a week. When we returned, the glass
door was shattered, a window forced open, footprints all over the
house. We checked the cameras. Two young boys flickered across the
screen in black and white, stumbling through the rooms. It was her son,
with a friend. He was drunk and locked outside of his house. He’d
thought he could get inside through our door. It was all a great
misunderstanding, she cried.
husband’s family didn’t press charges. My father-in-law was kind, he
wanted to give people second chances. He just wanted an apology from
the boy, was all.
evening she came down herself, speaking in hushed tearful voices with
my mother-in-law, that she was sorry for what her son had done.
swear he is not himself,” she cried. “It is as if…when he is like this,
when he gets angry…I don’t know who he is.”
below through the basement door, I listened. I wanted to go up, to say
hello, but I realized I could not disrupt this moment now. There would
be something wrong about it.
don’t know who he is,” she whispered again, and I saw my brother’s
face, floating above me. The rage in his eyes, the contorted anger, the
violence in his words. When he would become someone else, someone we
both feared, someone we both hated and never wanted to be like; someone
against whom we would have to be ready at all times to rush against, to
protect from. Protect. And yet what had it turned us into? I did not
know – because the rage behind my brother’s eyes, I did not know who it
was. It had taken my kind, gentle brother, and I did not know where to
find him beneath the rage.
swear he’s not a bad kid,” the woman whispered to my mother-in-law. “I
swear he’s good underneath.”
the summer a year later, they could no longer pay the rent. It took a
month for them to move out.
husband and I would be moving in. I celebrated to myself: No more musty
basement for us. And the thought of my own kitchen, my own dishes, my
own space and time – I could have been dreaming it.
ceilings rose high, higher than anything I had ever lived in, than
anything I ever thought I could live in. Vast windows flooded light
into the rooms, so much light that I thought I could cry from
happiness. I’d faced a brick wall my entire life.
high above on the upper floor, we could look below to the streets, the
other houses, the balcony looking out onto the backyard that now
appeared to me a sprawling English garden, the trees swaying in the
breeze. In the night, when we had not yet put up the curtains, I lay in
bed and watched the tree branches against the sky; I listened to the
whispering of the wind. I wanted never to put up the curtains at all.
I cleaned through the pantries, the cabinets, the closets, I found bits
and pieces of her life. Old toys her son must have played with as a
child, an outdated version of R2-D2 robot. Chess boxes, cards. And in
the master bedroom closet, I found a stash of photographs. A small boy,
smiling straight at the camera, in a shirt with a cartoon Mickey Mouse,
a smile as wide as his own.
another shot, a woman with blond hair faced the camera, her eyes
sparkling, happy. The breadth of time loomed up over me and began to
choke me – the breadth of time between these eyes and those of the
haunted gaze of the woman through the kitchen window. The walls of the
closet closed in upon me and I could not breath.
had never met her, never spoken with her. But I could feel her inside
the walls, in the four-by-five closet as I stood there. Did she ever
look back at the photo again, I wondered, unable to recognize herself?
she refused to believe that the man whose voice boomed across the rooms
at her was the smiling boy in the photo. Perhaps her son lived inside
the photograph now, forever entombed within it.
I could not believe such a thing. I had to believe that, somehow,
somewhere, the boy still lived outside of the cold, hard edges of the
fraying, yellowing photograph: that the boy still lived inside the man,
and someday, he would find him again.
blossoms grew along near the backyard fence in late summer, visible
from our bedroom window. They bloomed up as if reaching for
something, for the skies perhaps. Bluejays, waxwings, orioles
fluttered over the branches, singing a chorus to each other. I imagined
they sang to me.
husband would berate me for working all the time, for not sitting down,
unwinding, for being unable to stop moving. I did not know how
to. I had never known the secret.
now, as I watched the birds and listened to their song, I tried. For
the first time, I thought there was a chance that I could
discover their secret.