It’s a very strange sensation, walking into my mom’s new house, seeing everything I associate with home (the dog, the bookshelves, the large dining room table, Mom) in a place I’ve never seen before in my life. It’s exactly like when you dream that you’re in your house but it’s not your house but it is your house. Dan’s standing there, in my house, next to my mom, which is very dream-like indeed, since I think they hadn’t seen each other in four years. Dan’s petting the dog, who is in a backyard I’ve never seen before, and Mom’s wearing an ankle bracelet I’ve never seen before. She lives in Connecticut now and I had nothing to do with this move. Her house is still in boxes. She shows me the bracelet — it’s from high school, when she went on a date with a boy. The boy is now a man and he is back in her life. She smiles as she holds it, her eyes getting a little dreamy.
This house is in a neighborhood that’s very different from anywhere we’ve ever lived before. Duplexes and triplexes line the block. Big, angry dogs bark from where they’re tied to trees in backyards. Clotheslines appear to tie all of the homes together in a complicated web of t-shirts and sheets. Mom has the fancy front yard, the one with a partial driveway. She’s the only house on the block that has just one front door. I’m immediately defensive, worried that in losing the privacy of a Texas suburb, she’s lost her safety. I know our big dog is a big softy. I know how friendly Mom is.
My mom is in the shower when the doorbell rings. The only time the doorbell rings when I’m home visiting is when a package has arrived. I open the door. A man about my age stands on the stoop. We look at each other. He takes a step back. So do I. Then we lean forward, staring, rearranging each other’s faces in our heads until we realize: “That’s my cousin.” We hadn’t seen each other in about ten years.
At night I’m on the phone outside because it doesn’t work too well in the house. I’m watching the little girls across the street as they practice the elaborate dance number they’ve choreographed for themselves. There’s no music, but the girls know exactly how to move in silence. It’s a bouncy, Britney-inspired number that the girl in front clearly has created, but the other two girls are holding their own. Someone walks by the house and says hello to me as he passes.
In the morning I decide to go for a run, even though Mom was worried at first because she’s never seen anybody run through her neighborhood. It’s immediately clear as I run through the drizzle that I’m the first person to ever jog this block. People on their stoops stare, looking behind me momentarily before they give me an amused wave. I’m happy to run through the drizzle, because I never get to run in the rain. Running in the rain makes me feel like an athlete.
One block up and the houses are quieter. Mom’s busy street curves to the left, and I’ve taken the right. I’m passing large, quiet homes nestled in the woods as the rain comes down harder. I run until I find another busy street, turn around and run home. I must have felt nervous; it’s the best time I’ve ever logged running those miles.
We visit homes I’ve never seen and homes I haven’t seen since I was little. People are friendly. They offer beer. I make friends with a boy who I’m pretty sure is my fourth cousin. People make us lunch.
We drive to Gramma’s old house. It’s gone. Mom had to sell the land and they knocked down her house. Two new houses sit in its place, up to the street. It looks completely different. I wouldn’t even know I was standing where the house was. It’s sad. It’s a casualty of timing. If Dad died before Gramma instead of the other way around, the difference of less than two years, that house would still be standing, or at least that would be the land where Mom would be building her home.
I run two days later, no rain this time. I pass a little girl and her mom as they work on a garden in their front yard. “Hi,” she waves as I pass. I give a breathless, “Hey.” On my way back, she’s waving as I near. I take off my headphones. “You’re running to exercise!” she shouts, passing on her newest knowledge. “Hi!” she shouts again.
Mom has met most of her neighbors. They’re very glad she’s moved into the house. She’s made the street better than it was, they tell her. We walk to the corner store down the street to buy butter. “I know you,” the guy behind the counter says to me. “Your mom just moved here, up the street. I met you before.”
“That’s my sister,” I say. She had helped Mom move up the week before. That happened three times while I was there. “We met last week.” “No, that’s my sister.”
We get Carvel ice cream. Mom points out all of the places she used to go as a little girl. I know she’s still unpacking and trying to see herself in this new house. I know she wishes she could have afforded to live in the same neighborhood she grew up in, and not one nearby. But I see how Mom has come home, and how that has given her a peace she hasn’t had in a while.
We walk the dog that night. The street is quiet. The stars are out. We fall asleep in the living room watching a movie, just like we would have in Houston.
This time when it’s time to leave, I don’t drive away in my car. I don’t need a ride to the airport. I only have to go back to New York. The train station is a mile from mom’s house. Mom’s vision of New York is from thirty years ago. She’s terrified of subways, Harlem, and cabbies. When she finds out I’ve ridden a subway by myself, her impulse is to ground me. I show her how easily she can get into Manhattan, and that she shouldn’t waste that opportunity. I make her promise to go into the city with me next time.
My train comes, and I hop on. I wave from my window as it pulls away. Mom waves back, and bursts into tears. I wave harder, my own tears falling now. We’ve never said goodbye on a train before. It is much more heartbreaking.
I get to Brooklyn on my own, by train and subway. I get lost one street from Dan’s apartment. We work in a coffee shop and I wish that’s what happened all the time, sitting side by side on a couch with a cup of hot chocolate and espresso between us. Couch Baron comes out to meet us, having recently crossed the Atlantic. When I complain about having to haul my suitcase from LA to Manhattan to Brooklyn, he is understandably unsympathetic. We meet friends and more friends and even more friends and I really don’t want to go back to Los Angeles the next morning.
There’s an endless walk in search of pizza. It ends with bagel bites and my second episode of The Amazing Race. Once again it causes me to fall deep asleep, the words “Non-elimination round” again the explanation for watching groups of people buy airplane tickets.
For the next week, after I get home, I have this feeling I can’t get rid of. It’s like I’ve forgotten something. At first I assume it’s due to all the packing, stirring up old feelings associated with the smell of cardboard boxes. But I soon realize what has happened. Even though I had never been there before, that trip was the first time it ever felt like I was really going home. It wasn’t just me visiting my mom and the two of us renting movies. This time Mom had friends and family and stories to share. I had friends and family and things to do. There was food and pets and fun. I was homesick for a place I had never been before. Instead of being worried about Mom, hoping she was okay, I was sad I wasn’t with her because I knew she was having a great time. It’s a wonderful, bittersweet feeling.
Yesterday we booked our next flight back. Someone’s getting married. Mom’s planning a picnic. She’s going to try to get my sister to come up and visit at the same time so we can all be together. I will have lunches and meetings with my editor and agent. stee is going to meet my family.
Home may have shifted, but it only got better.