Sometimes I look at houses for sale in my home town. For fun, or torture, because owning a home where I live is such an impossibility.
I sign into the Trulia app and select them like I’m choosing a baker’s dozen of doughnuts to bring to a dinner party. Ooh, I’ll take that one because of all the pretty stained glass. And that one because of all the fireplaces and claw foot tubs, and that one because of the pool–who doesn’t like a pool? And that one because of the big back yard for my many nonexistent kids to play and dogs to run.
I imagine a series of all the different possible lives I could live, the lives I didn’t choose. Then I close the app and open Craigslist to search for decent one-bedroom rentals under $3k a month in San Francisco.
This is not as easy as choosing doughnuts. This is kneeling on the floor of a dimly lit bar bathroom searching for a dropped contact lens: it’s frustrating, you start questioning what your life has come to, and you don’t actually want what you’re looking for.
This last bout of Trulia searching, I came across my childhood home: a half-double, 3-bedroom house where I had all my baby firsts and can still walk through in my mind.
Yet I almost passed the photo when I saw it. This was not the house from my memory. The peeling paint and dilapidated roof were unfamiliar. It seemed so small now, and someone had torn down the tree in the front yard.
I lived there until I was 14, when we moved across town to a big single home. The last time I stepped foot in it, my Dad had taken me and my best friend to say goodbye to it one last time, after it was all cleared out and before he turned over the keys to the realtor.
The carpet was dark in places, almost like a train track connecting the most trafficked spots in the house. The walls were faded in some areas, and darker in others, with faint outlines where pictures and clocks had hung. It was almost unrecognizable with emptiness.
On the way back, my friend and I laid down in the flattened third seat of our mini van. We didn’t talk or look at each other. And a few blocks from her house, she burst into tears. I was stone silent, unable to truly comprehend the loss that was happening.
It wasn’t just the house. It was the neighbor’s grassy hill we used to roll down. The screen door I hid behind when a boy I liked rang my doorbell. The stairway going down the cellar where my siblings and my height are probably still marked. The bedroom window that I sometimes watched the neighbor’s TV through. The attic steps my brother and I jumped from the top of, into a pit of stuffed animals at the bottom.
It was the living room stairs we would slide down in footsie pajamas, seeing who could do it the fastest. The treehouse with the rope swing that a girl from around the corner fell from and scraped up her face on the sidewalk below. And the neighborhood girl who told me, “She can sue. My dad’s a lawyer, so I know.”
It was a departure from the kids I’d spent all my summers with, painting rocks, collecting things like grass seeds and acorns, and whittling sticks on our front porch steps. We’d knock on each other’s doors at 7 a.m. every summer morning, and would be barefoot and bike-riding until fireflies sent us home for babyfood jars to catch them.
We lit sparklers together on the front lawn every fourth of July. We played board games and card games and video games, and made up games to play, our favorite of which simulated a break-in (don’t ask). We had Miss America pageants, pool parties, and birthday parties. And in the winter we’d build snow forts, and in fall we’d rake leaves and jump in them.
We grew up together. And we were in each other’s lives since before we could remember. Until just like that, we weren’t.
The following year I would be going to high school in my new neighborhood, across town. A public school where I knew nobody. While all my grade school friends would continue on together, I would start over, alone.
All these years later, I’m struck with the same feeling I had in the back of that mini van. And it’s clear to me now: That was my first lesson in letting go and moving on.
And I’m still learning.