Every day the week before the furniture moving truck comes, I take three trips to the new house to unload boxes. The empty boxes came from a friend who moved out of our neighborhood following a divorce and is now settled in a house a mile away, a house with a large, peaceful backyard and no stairs to vacuum.
In firm, neat print, she’d labeled each box according to destination and purpose. KIDS’ BEDROOMS—LINENS. KITCHEN—POTS AND PANS, and so on. At first I scratched out her markings and wrote my own beneath. This led to moments of self-examination. Did I ever entertain enough to need a whole box for SERVING PIECES? Why would someone who doesn’t sew own two boxes of SEWING THINGS packed to bursting with fabric, embroidery thread, needlepoint canvases, buttons, yarn, and cotton stuffing? Should a box of LETTERS I’ll never re-read be given a shelf in our new house?
My confidence in the process is further undermined by my handwriting. Below my neighbor’s block lettering, mine looks thin and rattled, a problem since second grade when a teacher deemed my penmanship Unsatisfactory. So I give up labeling. I wonder if wobbly letters is a sign of deeper issues. Piece by piece I am taking apart our old life so it can be reassembled on the new street. It’s entirely possible that some of those pieces might not make the move intact. Or disappear altogether.
As I drive from one house to the other I sing, I should be happy, but all I do is cry! Burt Bacharach, my co-pilot on these short jaunts, my fallback guy for unearned melancholy. “One Less Bell to Answer” becomes “One Less Box to Pack,” and “What’s It All About, Alfie?” sounds appropriately wistful when I substitute my own name. There’s no reason for me to feel such sadness, so I don’t mention it to anyone.
The new house is only eleven houses away from the old, within the same neighborhood, in the same school district, with the same neighborhood association, same routes for walking and driving to the grocery store, same trash day, same postal worker who reads the magazines before he delivers them. The new house is much bigger than the old, with a back hallway and screened-in porch and a foyer large enough for groups of people to part from each other without being reminded of the childhood game Sardines in a Can.
My son is excited because the new house has a basketball hoop over the garage, but my three girls wander around the slowly emptying house like characters in an Ingmar Bergman film. They stare mournfully out windows, eyes at half-mast, expressions blank as the walls around them. Recently they’ve been cataloguing every event that has happened in the old house to make me feel guilty for moving them. “Remember when you chopped down our climbing tree and we had a kids’ protest?” “Remember when the playgroup got locked in the bathroom?” “Remember when a bird flew in the dining room on Joe’s birthday?” Anne Marie, my youngest, starts crying one day in the backyard. “I’ve lived here my entire life!” she sobs. She is seven.
Their grief grows louder day-to-day till even my husband, the one who has wanted to move ever since the fourth baby arrived, asks me one night, “Do you think we’re doing the right thing?”
It’s such a small move, I tell my girls, why get upset? But I’m upset too, even as I remind myself we’ve survived a harder move. Almost exactly thirteen years ago—the unlucky number doesn’t escape my notice—we moved to Michigan from Maryland. My oldest sister, who had moved from Maryland to Chicago, told me it would take ten years before the new state felt like home, and she was right.
It was painful to leave behind my parents and seven of my eleven brothers and sisters, painful to trade Maryland’s lush and rolling hills for flat, perpendicular roads laid out like graph paper, painful to lose early springs and cherry blossoms to Michigan’s wintery Aprils. Back then Midwestern friendliness—a real thing, by the way—annoyed me. The decrease in sarcasm annoyed me, too, and I attributed that lack to a lack of sophistication. I was a smug easterner with no reason to feel so superior. I was twenty-eight years old with two little girls and no friends, and I was not entirely normal.
Every Thursday for months I dragged my girls to estate sales, and nearly every week came home empty-handed. Of the hundred or so living rooms and basements I worked my way through, my only purchases were two sugar bowls and a plaster bust of a angelic devil with a dove in his hand that my husband insisted I keep in a closet because it gave him the willies. My house was undecorated and underfurnished, partly because we didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but more because keeping a house half-empty was one way to keep from calling it home.
I also spent a lot of time in those early years telling strangers they had placed their commas on the wrong side of quotation marks. “I know this might seem silly,” I would say, “but I just noticed that you placed your commas and periods OUTSIDE the quotation marks. They go INSIDE.” There’d be a pause on the other end of the phone. “It’s my pet peeve,” I explained, as if this excused harassment. Notes from preschool, notices from principals, newsletters from the library, neighborhood association flyers, articles in local newspapers—I marked them all with my red pen. Once I even xeroxed a page from a grammar book to give to the school secretary. “I never knew that,” she said with a sweetness I didn’t deserve.
Looking back on these twin obsessions, I feel a tenderness towards that aimless young woman. She roamed through houses perusing the possessions of dead people to feel less lonely. She wanted her old life back and thought if she could just hold everything neatly inside the curling embrace of quotation marks, she wouldn’t feel so uprooted.
Eventually she made friends, stopped going to estate sales, stopped worrying about commas and quotation marks. Eventually we filled the empty house with more kids and more stuff, as George Carlin would have described it, to the point that we needed to move again.
The week of the move is beastly hot, even by Maryland standards. I load the car sweating and blast the air conditioning as I head down my driveway and scoot around the corner to turn into the other driveway, much narrower. Hardly over the river and through the woods, I tell myself, but still—I spend each day the way I start out, crying my heart out!
I enter the house through the backyard; it’s easier to store boxes in the basement, a trip that involves careful stepping down railroad ties to a wobbly brick patio and into the walk-out basement sliding doors. It’s damp and dark in my new yard, the many trees hooding the house and preventing the swampy grass from drying out. Someone has put mothballs under the deck to no effect because every time I walk across down the railroad tie stairs and onto the patio, a black moth appears. Sometimes the moth passes by my shoulder, sometimes it flies into my face. Sometimes it flutters out between my legs as if I am giving birth.
We had more sun in the old house and I don’t remember ever seeing black moths there. I don’t like them. I start to dread their appearance. They’re a plague being visited upon me. To warn me of something. I need to ignore them. No, I need to pay attention. I don’t want to be like that dumb old Pharoah who never listened, no matter how many insects and weird storms came his way. Those plagues, I think, were sent on behalf of people who didn’t belong where they were sheltered. My husband’s question rings in my ears. Do you think we’re doing the right thing?
I remember a conversation from years ago with a woman who moved out of our neighborhood into a fancier house. She was giving a tour of her new home, and when we got to the enormous mud room, she said, “It’s every woman’s dream house.” Something about the way she said it sounded flat, not happy. At the time I thought she was being modest, but not long after she was divorced. These days another woman is living in Every Woman’s Dream House. Was my neighbor’s tone flat because she worried her life would be worse in the dream house?
There are other omens besides the moths. On the night of a goodbye party we hosted at our old house, three terrible things happened in our neighborhood: a cat was run over, a baby cut herself deeply on broken glass, and a vibrant and funny neighbor was killed in a car crash. Of course these events are independent of our move, but when omens are sought, omens will be found. The black moths and bloody accidents underscore a dreadful sense that we are packing up and leaving behind the brightest years of our lives.
My radar for portents quivers hourly. Inside a medicine cabinet in the new master bath I find a small crucifix. A good omen for a Catholic like me. I look closer. Jesus has only one and half arms. Not so good.
Rubbish. Foolishness. Omens, I tell myself, are merely circumstance in retrospect. The black moths and broken crucifix don’t mean anything. The little blue girl my daughter swears she’s seen in the walkout basement doesn’t exist. When the previous owner asked if I’ve seen any ghosts yet, he was only teasing, as he is wont to do.
A month later, settled in, that is, eating off our old dinnerware and collecting mail in our new cabin-shaped mailbox and wondering why so many unpacked boxes sit in our basement when we already have what we need, I wake up in a daze. For one moment I forget about everything. I am my same old self, stretching and curling up in my old bed in this new room, wondering how late I have slept this Monday morning in deep summer. My little daughter crawls into bed with me. Her legs and arms, exposed in summer pajamas, flush with heat. Her scalp smells of sweat, a sweet, voluptuous smell I love, and her clear billiard-ball eyes look up at mine.
But in an instant I feel another body from the empty side of the bed pressing against mine, a body as cold as my daughter’s is warm, a heavy, immovable body made of worry and anxiety. My breath shortens as the invisible presence wraps itself around me and tightens its grip, filling my head with its septic whispers.
I nuzzle in closer to my daughter. She has something to tell me. “Mom,” she says, “everywhere I look in your room, I see green crosses covered with blood.”
She doesn’t seem particularly alarmed or frightened.
I am both. But I’ve acquired a mother’s talent for under-reaction. “What do you mean?” I ask as gently as I can. “You think them or you see them?”
“I see them. All over the walls.”
I think, Who is this demon child? Who stole my girl and put this changeling in my bed?
I am furiously trying to process her words while pretending to listen to the new topic she has brought up. What is it she knows? Has she overheard something or does she sense my fear? I take her vision seriously. A few days ago she had a nightmare that lightening struck me and I turned into a chicken. She’s a child of uncanny intuition.
It also crosses my mind that at one time this house was jam-packed with religious art, so the bloodied crosses she sees seem strangely natural and not like an idiom she picked up from a horror movie, which she’s never seen. The previous owners, who built the house thirty years ago, covered the walls and tabletops with framed pictures and statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, various popes, saints, and angels. And there were lots of crucifixes, everywhere—above doorways and in each room, including the garage.
Another thought takes over. This house has a reputation for misfortune. The family who lived here before us was so struck with illness and accidents over the years that someone who knew them and heard we were moving in asked me, “Is the house built on an Indian burial ground or something?”
My daughter is still talking and I am looking around the room for the green crosses covered with blood. Is there any possible interpretation, I wonder, that would make this a good omen? On the one hand, crosses mean suffering. On the other, for Catholics, crosses also mean hope. So on balance, maybe this is good. After all, the crosses she sees are green, and green is the color of new life. I picture the looped crosses that bored people fashion from green palm branches during the homily at Palm Sunday mass. I wouldn’t mind having those on my bedroom walls. But the crosses Anne Marie sees are bloody—there’s no getting around that.
Later that day I take the kids to the pool to distract myself. I’m reading the latest translation of Anna Karenina and eating an apple. Occasionally I look up from my book to count heads or to listen to other women’s light-hearted conversations. I am just at the part in my book where Levin is accepted by Kitty, the woman who once rejected him. He’s utterly, deliriously happy, and stays up all night till he can go in the morning to ask her parents for permission to marry. He doesn’t feel tired or cold or hungry, even though he hasn’t eaten in a day. The sight of floured rolls set out in a window moves him to tears of joy.
Tolstoy writes, “All that night and morning Levin had lived completely unconsciously and had felt himself completely removed from the conditions of material life.” I live in that same world of unreality, I think, completely removed from the splashing and sunshine and shouting and wet towels around me. Except I’m not waiting for a gloriously happy new life to begin. Quite the opposite.
It’s been less than a week since my husband rolled off me, let his breath settle and said, seriously, tenderly, “Margaret, I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a lump in your breast.” If there’s a worse sentence to hear after sex, I can’t think of what it would be.
He found it again for my trembling fingers to feel. He was reassuring, but my thoughts had already run the track and leapt the fence. How could I have cancer, I thought, when school starts in a few weeks and we haven’t unpacked most of the boxes? Something told me that this horrible moment was only going to get worse. My first instinct was to put a shirt on, to hide it.
In the bathroom I felt the lump again in private. I pressed deep into my left breast, which isn’t very deep because it’s small, and felt under my fingertips what could have been a frozen pea. I took my hand away and found it a few more times, hoping that it would be gone each time I checked. It wasn’t.
All that week I was a zombie, completely removed from the conditions of material life, feeding the kids in a hollow daze, driving them, hardly hearing what they asked.
And now at the pool, the cellphone suddenly rings. One of the kids has changed my ringtone to an electronic cheer that begins with a chorus shouting, “Victory!” It startles me every time. On the other end is the radiologist. She speaks quickly and to the point, but not without sympathy or human feeling. The most momentous conversation in my life is over in less than two minutes. “Thank you for calling,” I say.
I am shaking, but not crying. I take more bites of my apple. I consider what to do. Not what to do about the diagnosis, but what to do right now, moment to moment. I bring the apple up to my mouth, set my teeth into it, and chew. I put my bookmark in Anna Karenina and close it. Uppermost in my mind is how to leave the pool alone without causing a scene. How banal to worry about appearances at such a moment, especially when appearances had been so deceptive, even to the doctor who failed to see the tumor in my mammogram last February, but appearances must be maintained until I’m ready to tell the kids.
Four of them and two of their friends are in the pool. Somehow they all need to get home. Somehow I need to tell them I’ll be right back while I go to see my husband. Somehow I have to think of how best to tell him about the phone call. Do I call? Show up at his office? I decide to ask my husband’s cousin to tell him the news and have John meet me in the parking lot of a nearby playground. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the only place I can think to be.
Around me I hear women bemoaning the start of school next week. I watch a boy jump off the diving board. I want to be that boy. I want to be descending into the cool, deep water, thinking, as I go down as far as I can, about how I will try a flip the next time. I am starting to cry.
I realize that if I don’t leave the pool right now, I will be crying loudly. I just want to be alone in my car. I feel like Cary Grant in the last scene of Hitchcock’s Notorious as he supports the poisoned Ingrid Bergman down the long staircase, trying to get to the front door and out of the house before her Nazi husband sees them. Only in my case, the poisoned body I am carrying is my own.
Nothing goes well. My oldest daughter complains that she wants to leave the pool with me and demands to know where I am going. What’s going on? she asks me. She knows something bad is happening to me. I can hardly get words out. I walk away while she is still calling after me. A woman I know stops to talk and I wave and move on.
I imagine my husband stoically hearing the news and getting into his car at the same time that I am getting into mine and driving towards him. We will see each other before we even get to the swings. I will fall into his arms, and weep, and have my heart broken when he wipes his tears on his forearm. He’ll hold me under the beating sun, and there we’ll have one moment alone together before we have to plan, and decide, and bear up. One moment to be still, or to think we are still, the earth moving underneath our feet as it always does and always has, our change of location in the universe undetected.