It had nagged at her for a long time, this curiosity. It was mostly forgotten, like you can forget an ulcer. If the conditions are right, it doesn’t bother you, but when it flares up there’s no denying it’s been there all along. And now this morning when she woke up she could think of nothing else.
It was a beautiful Sunday in August and, with just an impulse and not a plan, she found herself heading for some of the most desolate, dangerous streets in the city. She was afraid. Even the people who lived there were afraid. There is a right way to look, a right way to dress, a right way to make or avoid eye contact, a right way to speak or not speak. This was a language she didn’t know. But she had to go.
The sky was the bright blue color you see in photoshopped pictures, enhanced with a few wispy white cotton ball clouds thrown in for kicks. The usual gray film embracing the city had vanished making the downtown skyline so startlingly clear it too looked fake. The main drags were landscaped hard; all concrete and blacktop, grit and gravel. But here and there along side streets she was surprised to see some grass. She thought she spotted some bright color, but didn’t slow down to investigate. Flowers?
Exiting the highway, she turned off the car stereo. It was distracting and she needed to focus. She was in a different world, wishing she were invisible. The windows were rolled up tight, the doors locked. Was the tint on her windows dark enough to be a camouflage or was it calling attention to her foreignness?
Many years ago, on a day that could have been much like today, she had been born in a lovely two-flat in a little European town to two people who were younger then than she is now. It was some years after the war, and her young parents had an unshakable belief that there was a new life with peace and prosperity to be had in America, and she had been born while they were waiting to emigrate.
Finally this past spring she had the opportunity to visit the country of her birth. Armed with a map and all of the details her now elderly parents could recollect, she set out to find this place which was at once remote and familiar.
The house numbers weren’t clearly marked so she stopped a young man on the street to ask directions. He pointed the way and even offered to walk her there, just to make sure. His directions were enough, so she declined his offer, easily locating the old two-flat, still standing; sturdy, neat, freshly painted and occupied by two new families who tended the shrubs along the sidewalk, the flowers along the driveway, and a vegetable garden, obscured from the street by a low wall.
She was standing in the ground floor vestibule of this house where her life began, looking at the names on the mailboxes, peering upstairs, into the past, to the door of the apartment where her family had lived all those years ago when she was struck by the irony. Here she had traveled halfway around the world to get to this place and yet she had never made the relatively short drive from her comfortable suburban home to the place in the city where she grew up. And so it began.
Flying back home, they had to circle the city before landing and she sat there, nose pressed to the window, trying to spot that old neighborhood from her childhood.
Once home, she tried to dismiss the idea. She should just accept that the lovely, tree-shaded neighborhood of her youth, where multi-generational families from all different countries lived side-by-side, was only a memory. In its place was an unfamiliar, ruined, treacherous, lifeless place. She knew this and yet she longed to go.
How did it get that way? Was it economic? While she wouldn’t have called her family or her neighbors “poor”, they were definitely the have-nots. Today’s recyclers had nothing on her parents and grandparents. They never threw anything away. If it couldn’t be repaired it was reduced to its component parts and became something new. Like Scarlett, who made her gown from drapes, her grandmother had made her many a dress that had a previous life as something else.
Perhaps it was cultural, societal. When she was in college, there was a dorm on campus, twice as expensive as the rest, where rich kids lived. She had a friend there. The place was lushly carpeted and decorated and had color TVs in the lobby on every floor. The huge circular foyer on the main floor had scores of potted plants, leather couches and wood tables casually arranged around a magnificent copper fireplace sunken in the center of it all. It was a setting she could imagine in a ski chalet in Colorado. After her first few visits, though, she managed to find excuses to meet her friend somewhere else on campus.
The casual and constant vandalism, graffiti, filth and destruction were depressing. Lights were broken; elevators were engraved with profanity and smelled of weed and urine. It became obvious that the lobby plants were being regularly replaced. The students would sit there, often in a chemically-enhanced state, debating and pontificating, all the while absent-mindedly stripping leaves from the plants, throwing burning cigarette butts into the containers and spilling noxious liquids onto the dirt. Casually shitting in their own nest.
After a short jog to the north, she was cruising slowly, looking for a street sign. Not knowing if the dark brick behemoth would still be standing, or if it would be recognizable, she slowed even more. Her teeth were clenched so hard her ears hurt. She found the street. There was still a park on the corner where the swing sets stood, gap-toothed. No monkey bars, no sandbox, no water fountain. No kids.
A three-story apartment house used to adjoin the park, then an alley, then the six-flat her family had lived in a lifetime ago. The three-story was gone. But there, next to the alley stood the building that had inhabited her dreams and memories. A ghost.
Forlorn, flowerless, shrubless, dirty and weed-choked it stood in the stark, unforgiving sunlight: an evil twin. She stopped, forgetting that she, in her shiny white new model SUV, was the oddity and not this old broken-down house. Each apartment had French doors from the master bedroom opening onto balconies overlooking the front yard, facing the avenue. Some glass doors were boarded over. Windows yawned open, screenless, with ragged curtains fluttering dispiritedly, like tattered surrender flags.
Easing up off the brakes she slowly pulled away, glancing in the rearview mirror, picking up speed until the present became part of her past and she could finally let it go. A movement along the sidewalk caught her eye and she slowed to see a little girl, about 7 or 8, riding her bicycle along the sidewalk. Their eyes met and she was pierced to the heart. This wasn’t her home anymore, but it was someone’s home. And now she knew why she had come.