Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong
Personal Essay & Memoir
On the rare occasion when I think of my old home, the most distinctive feature that comes to mind is not the gray-blue plastic shingles that looked like my father's eyes or the cramped kitchen of scuffed linoleum and cheap oak cabinets where my mother would make me rice noodles with vegetables after a long day at the park, but the plastic green chair that sat on the smooth asphalt of what I considered the divide between my neighbor's home and mine. Really, this was my neighbor's driveway but an older, childless couple who enjoyed my antics, they let me have my fun riding on my Hello Kitty scooter and chasing their orange tabby Rudy down the black road all summer long so I consider it a part of my old home.
It's interesting that the chair was the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of Tioga Trail, especially considering that I'm a sucker for the finer things in life. Nothing is special about that chair. It's an ordinary, plastic army green chair you can buy at the Dollar store with pocket change or that you may see on the patio of a cheap, wooded motel scarred in peach juice and cigarette burns.
However, the positioning of it is what's intriguing, even characteristic of it. It sits right smack dab in the middle of the driveaway, thus hindering my neighbors' cars from ever abandoning their home, and faces the street. Now, in the place I used to live, the houses might not have been very large, but the driveways were very long in my young eyes, so sitting where the chair was, you would have to holler for the passerbyers to hear you. There was virtually no advantage to the location of this singular chair. I questioned its purpose and often voiced my queries to my neighbors who would laugh, glance at the chair as if they had forgotten its existence, and plop right down in the chair with a cold one in hand.
Rudy, the aforementioned tabby and their youngest cat, often sat under the chair as if the chair provided substantial shade for a hot summer day. Rudy is probably the closest I've ever gotten to owning a pet, besides the fish I won at a carnival that died within a day. Rudy was so playful and sweet, maybe not the brightest tool in the shed, but nonetheless, a perfect companion. And the best part of "my pet"? I didn't have to clean up after him or feed him or take him to the vet— I just leeched off the benefits!
Rudy was an outdoor cat, so I took him out on his frayed navy blue leash for long walks after dinner (by myself, mostly, or sometimes with Kathy and Rob, who both smelled of garlic and must) and fed him from an oversized bag of plastic cat treats that lay on the side of my house. On our walks alone, we would roam the lakeside and run around the neighborhood park barefooted and on lazy summer days, we would lurk in the rosebed to smell the beautiful flowers and sometimes get a rose thorn here and there. Occasionally the neighbor boys, a few years my senior, would join us on these evening walks. But they smelled like urine and grape soda and liked to torment Rudy with little tricks, so we didn't invite them all too often. But outside of my time with Rudy, I did spend a lot of time with these boys, Dom and Ryan. They treated me like royalty and I… I was quite dismissive of their gestures. In the small window of the inter summer fall period that lay on the verge of August and September, when the weather held the benefits of both seasons, we would sit on their porch and stuff our bellies with fudgesicles as we talked about trivial kid things and watched the sun disappear. During the day, they would drag me in a little wagon in their driveway and we would race each other down the street and do other fun, normal little kid things. I really liked their house. Pale yellow, two stories, complete with neat, ornate white trim… it seemed like they lived in a very fancy place. I had never actually gone inside though, so I wouldn't know.
Dom and Ryan lived two houses away from me. Between us lived my other neighbor, who was also quite old. She lived alone, a widower I believe, and her name was Ruth. Her whole house looked like it had come out of a Pinterest board of sea decor. I just remember that it was always nice and cool in there, so Dom and Rob and I would rest there when we were tired. Her kitchen had stairs go into them, and the fridge was always stocked with root beer, and she had a pseudo second floor and a nice dining table (often topped with freshly baked snickerdoodles) where I showed her a totem pole I had designed in the first grade, and that was about it. Ruth always smelled very heavily of perfume so whenever she would hug me, which was all the time, I would smell nice afterward too.
We also did a lot of things together. She, Kathy and I would take walks to the lakeside when I wasn't out with Rudy and I would tell them about the cool new Barbie books I saw at the bookfair at school that I really wanted (and they would give me a few bucks each). Then they would tell me about their glory days as they longingly eyed my lean, tanned legs dressed in bright orange flip flops and denim shorty shorts. And when I started playing soccer in Kindergarten, Ruth, my dad, and I would pass the ball around the yard after dinner or they would chase me around the uneven, dried grass as I weakly kicked the ball into the flimsy net.
Despite the fact that I have played soccer for ten years, I actually never liked playing soccer. Even on Tioga Trail, especially when it was just me and my dad. He would get mad at me a lot, calling me an idiot and scorning my distracted nature and telling me to stop picking the bark off of the two tall oaks that stood a few feet apart from each other in front of our house. In those moments, I would either cry and run to my mom inside, cooking in the kitchen, or frown at a squirrel running up the tree with an acorn, wishing I could be that squirrel rather than a soccer playing child.
I also felt this way when I first learned the violin inside the walls of my old house, but the only difference was that I would scream at my mom whereas I was too scared to ever talk back to my dad. My mom and I bickered over everything concerning violin, from how to actually hold it to what musical interpretation I should have of the piece and oftentimes, my teacher would end up correcting us both. It was these years that I experimented with where I should practice in the house and decided that the hallway that extended to from my parents' office, where I would sit on Saturday mornings listening to Itzhak Perlman on the old Windows computer, down to the open living room with the abstract rug my parents bought from Home Depot would be my permanent practice spot. I learned that hallways help with projection and from there on out, I never once stopped carrying my wiry red music stand to the middle of the hallway. Even if it meant annoying my dad trying to get in a few extra minutes of sleep in the bedroom next to where I practiced or my mom brushing her teeth in the bathroom on the other side of the hall.
But probably the heart of the home, consisting of dark, unlacquered wood and a mess of Fisher Price toys, was the living room. Here, I would jump on a pile of stuffed animals atop my mom or dad and I would sit on the couch reciting times tables or I would read under a blanket, eating sliced apples and reading my advanced chapter books under the yellow lamp light as I thought about how I was the perfect mix of a girl (energetic, sweet, and funny and intelligent, introspective and observant beyond norm). Christmastime, my family watched Frosty the Snowflake (the classic version, of course) and other specials for hours on end with hot cocoa in our hands and I would dance around the Christmas tree that dotted the ground with pine needles with my father, sporting my pink baby blanket I forced him to don as a skirt, and I would record my mom with my iPod touch as I pretended she was Santa and my Care Bears were children asking for gifts.
My last night on Tioga Trail stands out most, from all of these odds and ends I label as memories. The boxes of all our possessions, our every moment in this building, were closed up with packing tape. Everything we owned fit inside of the bare living room, which shocked me. I watched Alice in Wonderland (the 1940s version) and gloated that I had done a better job portraying the caterpillar in my summer theater program than the cartoon caterpillar as my dad prepared a new food, potato latkes, which was rather comforting for such a cold, biting December evening. When I ate dinner, I thought of all the other delicious foods I had tried in this kitchen before. Grilled cheese after visiting my grandma with the broken hip in her nursery home and tomato soup— though not together, that wouldn't be for another few years— after visiting my uncle on a dreary day when I had an ear infection and getting a quarter from my ear and a healed ear from that encounter, PB and J for the time my dad was making chili and it was taking too long and I was hungry, and during some lunch not too long ago, cream cheese and peanut butter on a log of celery (which isn't as bad as it sounds). Later that night, when it was time for my bedtime story, rather than rolling around on the foam letter carpet or doing handstands or scouring around my dollhouse for a toy to tinker with (partly because none of that was available, but mostly due to the fact that I actually wanted to listen tonight), I snuggled next to my dad in bed and listened to the story. It was Tangled. She had been taken from her home too and I started to cry because that was how I was feeling and then fell asleep. That was the last I saw of Tiago Trail.
The overgrown grass, jade, with its layer of mist did not fit an August morning. It reminded Loralie of the sweet, sticky sunsets in her old shingled home. The front lawn was the exact shade of the ivy leaves on her creme duvet on that gorgeous gold wire framed bed she shared with whoever the hell it was she wanted to sleep with that night. Looking out at the rolling front yard and the brick two story across the street and the proper black lamps dotting the sidewalks and just the boringness, the aristocracy, the unnatural silence her community held made her yearn for the old days even more. But as Ma always said, you gotta settle down once you hit 30 or you'll regret it. Loralie was sure Ma was right. Besides, Danny was a sweetheart.
Danny is a sweetheart. Danny is your true love, get it in your head, Loralie, you love Danny with that big heart of yours. He is just so kind and so, so smart and he's got that flirty little thing to him too! I mean, when he feels like it that is. Lor, be grateful.
Loralie always started off her mornings with affirmations like that.
You love Danny so don't be brash and leave him, ok? Don't wanna mess this up and break that poor guy's heart running back to that loser Tony.
It got a bit harder each year. 1 year after their marriage, with the birth of their daughter Cindy, less romantic chemistry. 3 years in, no flirting at all, maybe a kiss on the cheek twice a year. 5 years, Danny started to turn into his father with the whole "man of the house" mindset. And now 16 years in, Danny turned to self-victimization and developed a slight alcohol issue, and a sexist and workaholic mindset. What redeeming qualities did he have anymore? And why is it so cold? It's the middle of August!
Loralie slipped on her cashmere sweater duster Danny bought her for their thirteenth anniversary. It was beige, just like the one he bought his mother a few years before, and it was insulting but it was comfy and warm so Loralie dealt with it. Plus, it was cashmere. It made her feel sophisticated. Her bare feet slapped at the lacquered wood, making a peculiar sound much like an unpeeling Sticky Note, as she rushed toward the dining room. 67F. She turned the dial to 75F, not caring if Danny rambled on about how the man doing all the work in the house should get to control the goddamn temperature in the house he paid for. Loralie felt congestion settling, so she boiled herself a nice cup of Chamomile tea and sat at the breakfast nook. It had been a while since she had had tea. Loralie glanced at the skinny trees that lined their backyard, skinny and stink bug brown with leaves frail and olive. What a dream this was. She started to laugh, realizing how much she must look like a suburban, upper middle class soccer mom, no worries in the world as a nice leather chair cushioned her bony bottom. But that was what she was, minus the soccer mom part (Cindy would never do a sport, even if it killed her).
None of this was her dream. She did the same thing everyday. Wake up at 9:30 (although today she had been up 7:30, since she fell asleep at 8:45 watching a rerun of Big Bang Theory), scroll through Facebook for a bit, take a hot bath since the house was always cold, sit there at her computer for a while as she thought of what to write then get up and eat a banana or some healthy crap like that, take another bath since Loralie had grown to love baths, listen to Cindy's whining for probably an hour, and then cram in some lesson plan stuff while in front of the TV as Danny cooked dinner. And then she would conclude her day with a final bath and some more mindless TV watching and Facebook scrolling and finally, sweet sleep by 10:30. Boring and meaningless and quite honestly, depressing.
"Hey, you're up early," Danny noted, voice crackling. He yawned real loud and scanned the bright refrigerator with squinted eyes. How it was possible for such a caveman to transform into a distinguished businessman in a matter of an hour always mystified Loralie.
"What're you up to today?"
"Oh, nothing much. Got a couple of meetings, getting some coffee with a few customers and then probably some more research and analysis work. You?"
"Not quite as much as you've got on your plate," Loralie laughed, tersely. It angered her how much Danny piled his schedule, as if work was his life. Or maybe she was jealous, wished she had that motivation? Shouldn't she be happy? He's more successful than ever and aren't wives supposed to be happy when their husbands make this much money… sorry, more importantly, when their husband is happy?
"Just the usual for me."
"Ah, so just sitting around all day until the sun goes down." Danny quickly shot back.
Loralie gulped. It was wet. Danny didn't look up from the bowl of cereal he was making, acting as if he had just casually asked her what the weather was.
"Um, yeah, I guess." Loralie really didn't know how to respond to that. He was right, she did seem to be lazy, and even if she was, people do need that once in a while. But her routine wasn't because of that. She felt broken, trapped, empty inside, yada yada yada, but how could he possibly understand that?
"How many pages in the novel?"
"Eight? Goddamn. And you've been working on this all summer?"
"Yeah, writer's block."
Danny now sat beside Loralie, an overfilled bowl of cereal in hand.
"Got the water bill for this month. Do you really need three baths a day? Water isn't cheap out here like it was back at the old house."
Loralie did need three baths a day with the house at an unbearably cold temperature constantly.
"Well, maybe ease up on the thermostat control then."
"Wear more layers." Danny answered, cooly, through gritted teeth.
"I'm dressed like it's winter, do you see this?" Loralie burst, pointing at her ensemble. Danny's high school sweatpants, Danny's oversized college shirt, her cardigan, and her neon pink fuzzy socks to round it out.
Danny took a deep breath. Loralie knew bloodshed would occur. But then he just left to take a shower.
Loralie had felt down this whole morning. Just as she felt everyday, really, that summer. Why? She hadn't a clue and day in and day out, she spent most of her time analyzing the possible causes. Was it because she was living with a man she didn't quite love anymore? Or because her job as a middle school history teacher felt unfulfilling? Or was it because she was always cold and never hungry but craving the foods that had caused her to gain weight over the summer break?
Whatever it was, Loralie felt a new degree of rotten today. Not just sad but able to work through her day, but dead inside, numb. Loralie just wanted the days to go by. She simply didn't care anymore and it frightened her because there was so much to care about. Like her daughter's future, for one, yet she did nothing about it because the nothingness inside seemed to dictate her days of lounging around and it's not like she had enough strength to fight it because that's where all of her power was being distributed to.
Why would she want this for herself? Ma said with this sort of money, all pain is solved. Loralie should be happy.
Danny slammed the door and opened the garage door. Loralie ran back up to her room and turned on the water. She stepped into her warm bath. It felt nice on a cold August day. Cindy was banging on the door, yelling about how she hated Loralie so much for some reason or another. Loralie plunged into the water, letting the water eat at her body, wrinkling her old, ordinary skin. Her bath smelled of milk and persimmons and the water ran scalding hot across her wonderbread thighs but she still felt cold.