How Time Works
Sunday Short Reads // June 14, 2020
How Time Works
After my father toured what would become our neighborhood in Fairfax, California, he knocked on the nearest door and asked the man who answered if it was nice living there.
That man told me this story years later as he walked me across the street to the house my father bought after their meeting.
I used to live here, I said to the stranger who answered. Can I look around?
Even though I was born in Los Angeles, where my parents lived in the only non-development house they’d ever buy, I always felt held by the brown hills of the Fairfax valley, dotted with green treetops like a model train landscape. Fog rolled in from Stinson Beach each morning, curling up around the oak tree in my backyard, the earth so damp it was almost black. And then, by afternoon, sun—less hyperbolic than in Southern California. Once, I convinced my little brother that fairies lived in the gutter next to our mailbox. Crushed by the lie, he offered to pull me around in the wagon—and conveniently dropped the handle while at the top of a steep driveway. Then there was the summer I crawled into our crab apple tree with my library copy of Anne of Green Gables. I read for hours before noticing my brother had taken the ladder inside. The neighbor boys saw me up there but of course didn’t offer to help, instead shouting from their bedroom window, Still stuck? when it grew dark. Swallows nested in the eaves of our garage each spring; my father power-washed their tiny mud homes into oblivion. Can’t teach them to come back, he said when I protested.
Then, my father was offered a job in Seattle—and we left.
He had to take it. I know that now.
I remember lying on the unfinished floor of our new Washington house and dialing my California number. I listened to the automated message—The number you have dialed is no longer in service; please hang up and try again—as silent tears ran down my face. Those first two months were a blur of sleeping all day and watching Dawson’s Creek reruns in my parents’ bed. When school started, my Advanced Humanities teacher called to suggest I might be better suited to regular classes. No one asked if perhaps the reason behind my slipping grades was depression. Kids move all the time; I was too young to be clinically sad.
I don’t have children, but I would like to think that if I did, and the occasional weepy afternoon dried up and turned into months of unblinking despondency, I would call a therapist before moving them into remedial English.
Now, when I ask my mother why this is the way things went, she says, exasperated, Will you ever forgive us?
The woman who answered the door led me inside. A small boy with mussed blond hair hid behind her leg. I waved to him.
You used to live here? he asked.
I did, I said, leaning down to smile at him.
They’d replaced the pantry doors with white paneling; tick marks relayed the ages and heights of their children. I looked into the connected living room and saw a teenager—probably about the age I was when I moved, I thought—watching football.
She used to live here, the little boy said, pointing to me. The teen raised a limp hand, eyes staying on the TV.
The kid and I went upstairs together.
This is mine, the boy declared, bursting into my little brother’s room. I told the new little brother this and he smiled, leaping up on his bed and jumping a few times.
And then we were in my room—where I hid in the closet on my last night, trying to catch my breath through the panic, my whole body alive with it.
Do you like it here? I asked the little boy now.
He nodded. It’s my home, he said.
How strange it was to be in that place as the person I am now—someone who can’t remember trusting circumstances not to change.
When I talk this way—about the convergence of new selves with old places—my boyfriend laughs and says that’s just how time works. In a way he’s right, but he was also born in the same New York apartment where his parents still live. He can tell me how his childhood room looked at five, fifteen, and twenty-one. His self might as well be a long, uncut piece of string.
Of course I grew to love our house in Washington: practicing my volleyball footwork in the upstairs hallway; my sixteenth birthday, when I’d finally made enough friends to throw a party; the first time I saw snow; the garden my father planted, ripped out, planted, ripped out, never satisfied; the wax stain outside my bedroom door from the time he asked me not to carry around the candles during a power outage and I did anyway.
And then—my parents sold it, only to move down the street. I didn’t go with them. Instead, I reduced my childhood belongings to five plastic bins, donated the rest, and moved to New York.
Recently they told me they’re leaving again, this time for Arizona.
If I ever have my own garage, and swallows come to nest there, I’ll bring them toast crusts and discarded broccoli stalks. I’ll sing to them at night, say good morning on my way to work. You can always come home, I’ll tell them.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Haley Swanson (@haleyaswanson) is a writer and editor based in New York. Her essays have appeared in the Rumpus, Electric Literature,... read more
An interview with Hattie Fletcher
Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. With Lee Gutkind, founding editor of CNF, she co-edited... read more