You’re driving in the neighborhood of the yellow house and you ask your mother, what’s this neighborhood called? Nothing, she says. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake but it doesn’t have a name.
It was a two-story house on a tree-lined street near the university, the kind of house you passed a hundred times, envying whoever lived inside. The couple who lived in the yellow house knew your professor. The couple was going to Hawaii for three weeks one summer and needed a house sitter, someone to feed the cat, someone to water the plants, someone to turn on the lights at night so it didn’t look like no one was at home.
You never met the couple but talked beforehand on the phone. Their instructions were familiar: bring in the mail, feed the cat half a can of wet in the morning, dry food at night; change the litter box every other day. Someone would come once a week to mow the lawn.
When you arrived, you reached under the mat to pick up the keys in an envelope. Inside, a note on the kitchen counter said help yourself to anything in the pantry or fridge.
You see pictures of them. Smiling from silver frames on the living room mantel. Sun kissed in t-shirts and tans on a sandy beach. Holding ski poles on a snowy mountainside, faces covered in goggles, hair covered up by brightly colored hats. In one picture, they’re in a restaurant with glasses of beer and a basket of chips in front of them and he’s smiling, looking straight at the camera and she’s looking away.
The living room has fireplace and French doors leading to a small brick patio with a grill and large red pots of sage and chives and basil. The kitchen is large and clean and in the refrigerator there’s skim milk and low-fat yogurt and a half-full bag of ground coffee. Upstairs: two bedrooms, the large one, which gets the afternoon sun, the small one, which has a single bed next to a desk, combination guest room and office.
The first night, you put a sheet you’d brought from home over the bedspread in the small room and sleep fitfully.
The professor is tall and thin and dark-haired and smart, a political scientist from Santa Barbara who always has slices of apples on her desk. In the third class you took from her, you dropped off a paper to her office in the afternoon and she asked you to come in and sit down, then asked why, when you were her best student, you never talked in class. The classes at this school are large, held in small auditoriums. You always sit in the back. In her class. In every class. It never occurred to you to raise your hand. You blushed and looked away and said, you’ll work on that.
You are twenty-two years old, living in your parents’ house. Your siblings all hightailed it out at eighteen, moving into apartments or houses of their own, places with brown sofas and stretched fabric for art on the walls. Here at home, you have the basement to yourself. You sleep on the same pink bedspread in the same pink bedroom with the same pink bedside lamp shaped like a daisy that you’ve had for most of your life. You went on Study Abroad (to London for six months) and worked in Washington, DC (for a year and a half) and briefly (for four weeks) stayed in your sister’s apartment (after she moved from Salt Lake City to Portland), a rickety second-floor apartment near Sugarhouse Park.
Your sister makes her move to Portland permanent and gives up her apartment near the park and then moves to Phoenix, then Los Angeles, then back to Salt Lake, she tells you it really wasn’t safe there, anyway, that there’d been a peeping Tom lurking in the neighborhood for months, and why on earth had she let you stay?
The yellow house is strange and wonderful. You and the cat develop a routine. She purrs while you read. She sleeps while you water the ivy, the spider, the pencil plants. But it’s quiet, so very quiet. So you turn on the stereo in the living room sometimes, dance with the cat who is wide-eyed and afraid. It’s 1984, the year of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Madonna as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna as a blonde, Madonna in a shiny pink dress, Madonna on those stairs singing it’s a material world. You drop the cat and lie down in the small bedroom upstairs, blinds closed, sheet from home on top of the bedspread, touching yourself.
When you lived in Washington, DC, you turned twenty-one and went to art galleries every week. Or took weekend trips to Lancaster to stare at the Amish in their white bonnets and black cotton clothes. You bought a poster of Matisse’s “Blue Nude” and a 2 X 5 soft cotton-dyed rag rug and in a shop behind the Capitol, a set of six dinner plates splattered with all colors of paint—this to add to your growing trousseau: a set of red melamine dishes from when you worked downtown at Pamela’s, and a set of six white dinner plates tea cups that came with opening a checking account at Zions Bank. You dream of an apartment of your own. You dream of this as often as you do the soft-spoken bearded man in a nighttime writing class.
When you visit your friend Betsy in the Avenues, you note the apartment’s hardwood floors, its big windows that frame the city lights at night, the blue-and-white striped bath towels hanging on hook next to a white terrycloth bathrobe hanging on a hook from the back of the bathroom door.
She’s had an abortion, Betsy says one night, opening a bottle of red wine, which she offers kindly, knowing you will, because you always do, decline. “And you know what I hate most?” she says. “I hate that now, the word ‘abortion’ will never be neutral now.”
You feel badly. You want to say the right thing. But mostly you envy your friend. Not the abortion, but all the rest—the wine, the windows, the pretty towels on the hook. In your mind you move in, you wear the white bathrobe late at night, you slide your bare feet along the hardwood floors.
In the Dark
Betsy persists. She wants you to go out to meet up with the others at night at bars. She loves you. You’re wonderful, she says. Just shy. That’s all. You want to go. Sometimes you do, slowly drinking a Diet Coke. But mostly you beg off, making up excuse after excuse. I have to babysit my niece. Study for a test in Constitutional Law. I’m not feeling so great tonight. Then you go to your classes, your job downtown, your parents’ house where at night you touch touch yourself in the dark of the basement in your small pink room, hoping, praying, no one can hear.
One Way to Put This Is
You were once a Mormon girl and now you are not.
Another Way Is
You were a virgin much longer than you were a virgin.
Another Way Is
It’s still early. The party’s barely started!
You’re not good at parties. Not then. Not now.
You were and are very good at being alone.
You think of this now as the year you were hatless, having given up the hats of your youth (the straw hats you wore to Sunday School), having not yet discovered the hats to come (like a dark green beret, which you will wear the year Monica Lewinsky is in the news, the year you turn thirty-eight, the year you have an affair with a married man).
It might be easier to say what you were not.
You Were Not Someone Who Liked Polish
You liked the feel of old books. The look of faded Levis. Old craftsman houses. Clothes made of natural fibers. Soon you will begin shopping at Goodwill and you will say offhandedly, almost as a joke, these tweed jackets are great because they cost only a dollar or two. A friend will start leaving dollars on your desk at work with notes: Get yourself a new wardrobe. He thinks it’s funny and you laugh because it is, but you also know what it means: that you are not pulling this off, that you are not bohemian.
You are a reader, a slow one. Is this the year you read Women in Love? Sons and Lovers? Mrs. Dallaway? You read and underline and you go back and think about what it means. Like what Virginia Woolf writes about Septimus: that he was a border case, neither one thing nor the other.
At the Yellow House
It doesn’t matter what you are or aren’t. The cat winds through your legs, purring when you give her wet food in the morning. She sits on your lap when you watch Charlie Rose late at night. Here you imagine what it would be like to live alone. You eat Chinese takeout, wrapping the contents in a plastic bag when you’re done, taking it to your car, throwing it away only when you get to your parents’ house.
When you go home—home, as in your parent’s house; home as in the pink bedroom in the quiet basement—you play “Bridge Over Troubled Water” late and night and cry and wake up to the blue spruce in the backyard. Every day, you are astonished at what a mess the house is, after spending time in the pristine yellow house, at your mother’s makeup and a dozen half-squeezed toothpastes on the bathroom counter upstairs, at the crowding of plants in the entrance way, at the kitchen so cluttered you can only glimpse a sliver of the counters.
You go home. You must miss your rag rug, which, twenty years from now, your mother will say she always hated since it reminded her of the Depression when all you had were rags. And you must miss your mother with her stories about the ward that spill out like a waterfall, how Ann Grant says be sure to tell your cats before they die to come looking for you in the afterlife because sometimes a lot of years will have passed and you’ll think you’ll remember your cats’ faces forever but you won’t. So be sure to tell them to look for you.
You must miss your father whose says very little and who stays in his study at night, reading and smoking a pipe.
In the borrowed yellow house, sometimes you pretend the house is yours—the fireplace is yours, the cat is yours, the patio outside, where you stand late at night, staring up at the mist and the moon—it’s all yours. But this does not make you feel any better. Because it’s too big for one and who would live in this house with you? A few boys have kissed you but that’s it and now you are a girl who isn’t even a girl anymore, someone in between, too smart for the earnest boys, too earnest for the rest, fit for neither the Mormons nor any other scene.
Once at a party in Dupont Circle when you worked in Washington, DC, a boy in a red and white striped shirt kissed you drunkenly. “I’ll remember this the rest of my life,” he said, and you laughed, knowing that in a few hours’ time, when you got your jacket to leave, he’d stare at you glassy-eyed, not remembering a thing. But you remember. Because you are that kind of girl.
In Salt Lake City, there are inescapable divisions. The Wasatch Mountains on the east and the Oquirrh on the west. The Mormons and non-Mormons. Or within the church, active and apostate. There are many ways to put this—Virtuous versus Worldly; Us versus Them. Your take on the categories will change, depending on which category you’re in, how far away you are. There are dozens of little ways of knowing who is “us” and who is “them.” A cap sleeve spotted underneath a blouse, for example. Ordering a cup of coffee, for example. Going to the Blue Mouse, for example. Watching in that basement theatre, for example, foreign films, art films, independent films, Pauline in Pauline at the Beach, for example, who says she’s not had any serious love affairs. Or the woman in Choose Me who applies the garish lipstick generously before positioning herself alone in bed. For example.
You grew up on a hill known as Pill Hill, there were so many doctors in the neighborhood. Your father was a doctor. Also a drinker. Also an atheist. Your mother was Mormon. Also a Democrat. Also she never ever mentioned God except to say Lord Almighty when she was surprised or mad. Your mother’s religion centered on cats and stories. Your father’s religion was the electrical currents of the heart. One saved, the other threw away. Later you learned about common divisions: heart versus head; body versus soul; left-brained versus right-brained; rigid versus relaxed; minimalist versus maximalist; east versus west; Diet Coke versus Diet Pepsi; coffee black versus coffee with cream. Later you will realize that everything in your past can be traced to some version of oranges versus apples: mother versus father; religion versus science; talker versus stone silent; keeper versus Jesus-Christ-Mac-this-house-is-a-mess. Or maybe, you will think later, you are getting ahead of yourself. Maybe it goes back to Halloween: those full-sized candy bars, which the Cutlers up the street gave, versus those misshapen dusky persimmon, which the Japanese house across the street dropped into your white pillowcase candy bag every year on Halloween.
There were divisions, yes, and then reality. You loved your parents. You lived in a house on the east bench at the base of the Wasatch Mountains with a perfect view from the front yard of the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. You wanted to stay and you wanted to leave. Staying meant you would not leave your parents alone. Leaving meant you might find a boyfriend. Staying meant you were loyal to the past. Leaving meant you envisioned a future for yourself. You did not want to choose. You wanted both. Who wouldn’t want both?
You are 52 years old now. You tell people when you meet them where you live and where you grew up. California. Utah. When you say it—Salt Lake City—you brace yourself. Because it nearly always comes. “I bet you couldn’t wait to leave,” the woman from Wisconsin says. She’s more of a Californian at heart, she says. She has a son in San Diego. She’s planning to move there with her husband when they retire. They can’t stand the winters in Wisconsin. She loves how liberal California is. You live in a perfect place, she says. You nod. You say, yes, California is very nice. You do not say that you go home to Utah every month, that your father says you commute by plane, that you cannot bear to be away for too long from Utah, from your parents, old now and shuffling through a very messy house. You do not say that home is Utah, that you even miss the ridiculous winters, that California weather, yes, it is nice but that living in a place for its good weather is like marrying a monster for the money in his bank account.
The Same Year You Stayed in the Yellow House
You took a writing class at night. During breaks, a bunch of you stood out on the steps of your building, smoking or drinking Cokes. Once, a quiet young man with dark hair invited you to a party the following night. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and wrote down the address of where he lived. He asked you casually where you lived. You stalled: If you said Canterbury Drive, he would know it was a house, not an apartment, that you lived in a neighborhood no college student on her own could afford, that you still lived with your parents, an embarrassing fact. You are Mormon. Virginal. Mortified. Nearby, you said instead, I live nearby. You turned bright red, grateful for the can of soda in your hand because at least, by taking a sip, it gave you something to do. Okay, he said, gently, as if he hadn’t known that what he asked would strike such a tender spot. Stop by if you can. The party will be fun. He smiled through his straggly beard.
Your partner, who grew up in California, says shit like that happens to everyone.
In a year, you’ll go to other kinds of parties, the house parties that your co-workers from the student newspaper will throw. You will have your place now, a desk at the newspaper, a way to introduce yourself. You are a reporter. You carry a slim spiral notebook, a pen; these constitute a passport into other people’s lives, a way of asking questions, a way of deflecting all attention away from your still unformed and unsteady self. You will still be shy and you will still be sober at these parties, but you will try.
Dancing With Yourself
Once you will go to a party and watch as everyone dances to Billy Idol, then collapses on a dirty couch. Someone passes a pipe. Everyone opens another beer. You will think: here you are. You will think: you aren’t missing much. You will think: you want to go home. But the question, then and now, remains: home as in where?
Are these the years when you forget to turn off the lights in your car? When you park in front of the Union Building in the morning and at dusk you come out and the battery is dead? You call your father from a pay phone next to the cafeteria and he comes and parks his car nose to nose with yours, uncoiling the jumper cables from the trunk, telling you to pop the hood. You rev the engine and wait for him to remove the jumper cables carefully, then he leans in the window to say, see you at home. There is something dear in all this. You follow his red taillight home, dusk descending.
Your mother says, it happens to all of us, forgetting to turn the car lights off. Then she makes salmon patties for dinner with tater tots and green iceberg lettuce with oil and vinegar dressing from the bottle and the three of you eat together, scattering afterward to your little corners of the house, your mother to the bedroom, your father to his study, you to the basement to watch St. Elsewhere.
Someone comes to mow the lawn at the yellow house. You can hear them on Saturday mornings but you never look out.
After a test in constitutional law and before that, an all-nighter, you go to the grocery store and buy pita bread and tuna fish. You eat standing up at the counter of the borrowed house. You will remember this meal as fondly as any before or since, as exotic as the falafel you ate on a street corner in Tel Aviv, as soothing as a bowl of ramen you will eat after a drunken night in Japan ten years from now. Maybe you’re just exhausted, eating tuna fish in a pocket of bread, or maybe it’s something else.
A small opening. A glimpse.
You and the cat climb the stairs and fall into a deep sleep in the small bed.
A Year Later
You will move out of your parents’ house. Your mother will help you bring boxes up to the second floor apartment, the one with beautiful scuffed hardwood floors. You will put the rag rug down in the kitchen, the red dishes in glass-covered cupboards, the “Blue Nude” poster up in the living room where three arches remain from what used to be a Catholic boarding room. Your mother will hug you, dry-eyed, then tell you on the phone she cried the whole drive home. You will hug your mother back, dry-eyed, thank her for helping you, then cry yourself to sleep on a mattress on the floor, your new-old bed.
When the couple returns, your professor tells you they appreciated how responsible you were. The cat was happy, the house so neat. But did she really stay there? they asked. It was so strange. She didn’t leave a trace.
Rumpus original art by Justin Limoges.