HALF OF ME
Every trip back to New Jersey from England, the turn at the exit for Cedar Hill Avenue off Route 208 might seem to come out of nowhere, but I always expect it. In the dark, it almost feels as if we’ll run over the strip of grass between the on and off ramps, but we always swerve just in time, and I always smile involuntarily.
Ridgewood Taxi cars give me a feeling—the same feeling that you get in the rental car that you’re about to drive cross country, which you just saw get returned to the dealership by a family of five with sticky-looking children, or the feeling that you get when you try on clothes in a thrift store—you’re wearing someone else’s pants! And that feeling gets all over me. But when we turn off of the highway into Wyckoff, contentment washes over me, as if the familiar is wrapping me in its arms and I know that I’m safe again.
It’s December; the house is dark. The auto-timed outdoor lights are on the fritz again, so they probably turned off around six, before the winter dark has really settled in. Our side door creaks open and the alarm sounds; I rush to turn it off, surprised that my fingers remember the code. I drop my bags and take in the sight of my childhood home, as the rest of the family files in noisily behind me. Everything is just as we had left it three months before: in the kitchen, papers still spread across the island, gourds from many elementary-school days Thanksgiving feasts are piled up in the swan-shaped banana hook my sister made in camp.
And the house, although it’s three months later, does still smell like summer, with the air from the vents still circulating. The cleaning ladies had come just before we left in early September; cleanser still fills all the toilets and a faint lemony smell tries to dominate. I close my eyes, remembering all the hot summer afternoons I had spent curled up on the cool tiles in the hall with my face pressed close to the vent, taking the biting, metallic air into my lungs as the vacuum roared upstairs. I could fling myself down and let the vents take me back, but things have changed—I have changed, and sixteen-year-olds don’t spend the afternoon breathing in stale air.
My first destination is my room. I bypass the den and living rooms; nothing is left in them, they were picked clean for the family move to London. But my own room is mostly unchanged, only my desk and dresser came with me, but the indents left by them in the carpet remind me where they once stood and I find myself skirting their would-be perimeters.
Everything in my room feels smaller. The doorknob is at my waist and I can wrap my entire hand around it; the light switch, still nestled in its antique plate, takes a little effort to flick up, after I search for it by my shoulder—as I always do in London; I forget that I have to stick my hand behind the bookshelf and I catch my hand on its lip. My bed is too low down and when I lay on it, it creaks and groans under my weight and I have to scoot my head all the way to the headboard to fit my feet on as well. The windowsills are below my waist, though I remember when I used to stand on tiptoe to run my toy cars at high speed along their widths. This can’t be the house I left behind.
I was selfish when we planned our move. I hadn’t wanted strangers tiptoeing barefoot over the creaky boards lining the hall or anyone making faces out of steam in the windowpanes while waiting for the school bus. I didn’t like thinking that one day another little girl would lip-sync into her hairbrush in the bathroom mirror or put new posters up over my lilac walls. Maybe it would have been better if we had sold the house or at least rented it; if it had filled with someone else’s life, I would never have been able to see how much I had left behind or how much I had grown since I’d left it. It is that realization, I’ve come to understand, of not needing that house as my safe-haven—I’m able to thrive anywhere—that rattles me every time I walk in the door.
These summers that we spend here, a collection of smatterings of days and weeks in between summer programs and camps and trips to the shore, become more and more painful with each laborious journey across the Atlantic. After the jet-lag wears off, we begin chipping away at the stores of childhood memories left in the basement and slowly clear away space for another family to live, eventually. Each time we unlock and dust down the house for our next brief stay, it feels more and more as if we’re checking on a sick and forgotten relative; before we can get resettled into a calming suburban routine, we always troop around the house, one after the other, checking and double-checking each nook and cranny. This house, stuck between home and a place I once lived, has become a burden to my family, a weight that we struggle to bear. Yet each time we begin to let it go and slip out of our hearts, it clamors back in and begs not to be forgotten. I can never bring myself to push it away completely. It needs me as much as I need it.
London never knew me as a child and now Wyckoff will never know me now that I’ve grown—only my memories are alive here, their hazy auras reenacting each moment of the first thirteen years of my life: I hear smaller fingers trailing over the keys of our piano, I see a littler me tripping in the foyer and giving myself a fat lip, I re-experience each one of my slumber parties being crowded into the den. I slink around this house now, worried that I’ll wake up its ghostlike inhabitants or break something that wasn’t meant to be touched. I’m a stranger in my own home.
There is a time of being lost that I remember, when I first moved away, when my heart was in New Jersey, but I was stuck in England and there was nothing grounding me. I didn’t care for London, yet I was so disconnected from my original home, I was floundering. I hold no fondness for that time, no memories made then here, none preserved there. I had half my life nestled and safe in one place, and the rest seemed to be scattered. I always think time stands still in my house. The class pictures on the wall of our study stop in fifth grade, the graded papers in the folders piled in my closets end suddenly at seventh. Each time I come home, I long to walk through the side door into our bright, yellow laundry room and suddenly be thirteen again, running my tongue over my braces or aching to be swept off to high school with my older sister.
Now, this house, which once was my haven and held every memory I owned, only knows just half of me.
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