“The House” by Brian Smith
The text message is simple: Come home.
David knew what it meant. He’d be getting off work in a half hour, it is Saturday and the store closes at 6 p.m., and he will come straight here. It takes 15 minutes, maybe less.
Home is set behind the For Sale sign long since abandoned; wood swollen with two years of summer humidity, splintering after consecutive harsh winters of wind and cold. Home is in the Muirfield Subdivision, a 128-lot section of a suburb permanently delayed. It stands like a display of children’s popsicle stick houses, hastily glued together and then abandoned for more exciting and grander projects.
Paige stands on the second floor of the house on lot 57, a scrap of Tyvex house wrap curled around her leg. It is glued to her and the ends are overlapping around her shin, like the arms of a needy child. She clutches the cell phone in her hand while the rain, pouring in from the wood-framed hole where the window should be, soaks her to the bone.
She is here because this is where they always meet, because this is home.
No one will ever think to look for them here. It is absurd to anyone else to think they would spend any time here, but for them it makes perfect sense.
While she stands, she runs over the lists in her head. They are confusing, a painful blend of stuff imaginary and real. Taxol standing there in the bleachers for graduation. His plans injected with Neupogen.
She is angry at the doctors’ use of anagrams. She doesn’t understand BSO or SLS. She feels belittled. But she understands radiation and ultrasound. She is young, true, but there is no reason for such smoke screens, she thinks. Tomorrow, they will find a new doctor.
She adds that to one of her lists.
Lot 57, a two-story craftsman, is where they play house. It doesn’t matter that they are graduating in a week. They’ve always been different. Self-professed. Stubbornly defended. And it doesn’t bother them. The imaginary is always more interesting. They come here after school, turning off their cell phones, dropping their bags on the plywood floor that represents the grand foyer and pretend they are past high school, past college, living together – though not married. Marriage isn’t an option. It’s what their parents and stepparents did.
They just want to be. Together.
Normally, she takes his jacket, made of corduroy and leather elbow patches that he wears constantly and lifts it into the stud-framed hall closet and lets it drop. Upstairs, they lie on an old mattress and stolen blankets. They take pictures. For each other. Of each other. They take pictures to hang in the plywood hallway. They also take ones to keep private, a secret between two lovers, something the neighbors would be shocked to find out about. They discuss them constantly: Dom and Nancy on one side, Greg and Shannon on the other, Birk and Anne across the street. They plan Friday night dinner parties. The eight of them all sitting around the table, eating exotic food, discussing books, wine and music. Afterwards, Paige would wave them back into their homes before going upstairs to make drunken love to David. Then they would fall asleep in each other’s arms. He would wake up the next morning and sit on the porch smoking a cigarette while she sat and read the paper and drank coffee.
They wouldn’t have children right away; instead, they would spend time as social and environmental players and learn the delicate balance between frugalness and fullness. Even though the kids would wait, they have already decided on the sex and names. There would be two girls and a boy. Anne, Jackson, Quinn, in that order. He had decided on Jackson for the boy because of his grandfather in Ohio.
Now, Paige needs more than the thought of the children. She needs to have one of them, if only for a few weeks. She spent the morning after her appointment sitting against the bathroom swimming in their accomplishments and accolades that would now never come. Not with her anyway.
She sits down in a puddle of water on the plywood floor. Her pants grow damp and she can feel the moisture wetting the tops of her calves.
She allows herself the thought that David could go somewhere else, be with somebody else. She hates the thought and curses herself for thinking it but at the same time, she feels an incredible sense of guilt if she didn’t give him that chance.
They spent months crafting their own little utopia; David writing it down in his notebook, Paige carving the important parts into the sub-floor on the second level with a pocket knife from his stepdad’s desk.
But as Paige sits there in the rain, in their roughed-in Shangri-La, she realizes that it is all going to change. She knows the diagnosis and he needs to hear it.
It would only be fair.
Not to her, nothing about this is fair, but David deserves to know.
She bends down and removes the small piece of house wrap on her leg and walks over to the mattress and blankets. The wind rushes through the sticks of lumber. It is warm, a moist and swollen summer day. Their blankets have turned into a sponge, water running from the corners in small streams as she picks one to examine. The mattress squishes as she puts a shoe into the center.
Fortunately, she has planned for this. She picks up the blankets and pushes them out the window. They fall together and fast, heavy under all the water weight. They land in a puddle, displacing the muddy water for a moment before being covered over with mud, water, gravel and construction debris. Next goes the mattress, one end before the other, shoved ineffectively over the rough edge of the window. It slides down the outer wall of the house, like a pad of butter on a cast iron pan, before tilting forward and falling end over end to the ground below.
In front of the house is her car, the backseat crammed with furniture and décor. She carries up a stack of neatly folded tarps and a black duffle bag. She pulls out a hammer and nails from the bag and starts hammering them into the corners of the large picture window. She pulls out small lengths of rope, cuts them with a utility knife and ties them to the edges of the tarp. She ties one corner of the tarp to the nail and repeats the process in the other three corners. The tarp blows away from the wall, but only slightly. She then goes to work on the makeshift ceiling. She repeats the rope and tarp process in two of the corners of the room and as she is tying the other two she is careful to pitch the slope of the tarp slightly downward to funnel the leaks from above into a large, white bucket – a present left onsite – standing in front of the walk-in closet.
The two corners, on either side of the closet door, get an extra bit of rope each, creating a sag in the middle. She uses a small step stool borrowed from her stepdad’s house to push the ceiling height to more than six feet, plenty of room to stand up in. Large tie-dye sheets are tacked up to the bottom of the tarp and nailed into the floor. A large rug is laid out under the ceiling.
She reaches for her hair and rings out a small stream of water. Pain starts to seep into her stomach.
She brings up a pair of small lamps, some of their framed pictures, dinner—sandwiches from the grocery store—art work, and a large plastic crate.
Decorating their house is the first thing today that settles Paige. She smiles at creating this part of the reality.
She inflates the large queen size air mattress, dresses it with sheets and frets over the unevenness of the comforter. Finally, she gets it right and runs her hand over the wrinkles, smoothing them, making it perfect. She lays the pillows down and places the pictures around the room, making sure they are in a place where the rain won’t get to them. She places red lace cloths over the lamps.
By now her back is screaming at her; it has been for months. The dull ache growing more voluminous, its presence undeniable. Fortunately the bleeding has stopped for more than a week now. There were times when her periods were so abnormally heavy she wouldn’t be able to go to school. She was too weak. He would come over after school and sit with her and watch television.
Paige digs through her duffle bag. She takes off her wet clothes and dries herself with an extra t-shirt from the bag. She pulls out some underwear, white and lacy.
She finishes dressing herself, lights some candles, sits on the bed and waits for him to come home to her. It will be any minute now. It is nearly 6:15 p.m.
Paige hears the car door slam and the splats of David running through the torrent outside. The full thuds on the stairway are fast, pulling him closer up the steps. He rushes into the bedroom, a large smile on his face, his hair dripping wet. He is radiant and awash with boyish joy. His day has been fantastic. He rarely displays so much happiness.
Paige, sitting on the edge of the bed, sees his face and starts to cry.
He is silent. Paige is lying in his lap, still crying. He cradles one arm around her head. Somehow he knows. Knows to be silent. To just be there.
He hasn’t asked what it is yet and Paige is grateful. She has been holding it in all day, seeking a comfortable place to sort things out. The doctors offered hope, her mom and stepdad, encouragement. She could beat this. You’re stronger, tougher, they tell her.
But she thinks she isn’t.
And now he’s here and she’ll be able to tell him.
She looks up. He’s been crying too, his eyes red and moist.
He looks down at her.
“Cancer,” she whispers.
“My ovaries. It’s ovarian.”
The questions are hurried. It’s understandable, she thinks. Paige can feel the sweat forming against her face from the palm of his hand. His neck turns blotchy, a red and white checkerboard pattern. His voice catches on every sentence.
He doesn’t understand.
“You’re too young,” he declares. “Healthy.”
She answers him simply and truthfully. Hysterectomy. She can see that this hurts him. She will no longer be whole. She will be unfixable. She will not be whom he fell in love with, Paige worries.
He asks about the hysterectomy. She tells him soon. The week after next. Maybe earlier.
“I’m thinking about seeing another doctor,” she says.
“Would they say anything different,” he asks.
She doesn’t know. She does her best to explain the surgery, the odds, the complications and the possibilities. She recites Carboplatin and whole abdominal radiation and second-look surgery, not entirely understanding any of it. She tells him what the doctor said, what Mom said, what Dale told her in the car. The story was of her sister, she had ovarian cancer and she’s been in remission for years. Her Mom recounts the story of Grandma’s battle with it. A story Paige remembers well.
She catches herself trying to be optimistic. For him.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I can do this.”
He picks her head up off his lap and scoots down the bed. Soon he is behind her, an arm crossed over her chest, her body pulled tight against his. She hears him breathing. She wishes she could crawl inside of him and find out what he’s thinking. She can feel his silence filling a gap between them and pushing them apart. She thinks maybe she could have broken it to him easier; maybe spare him some of the disappointment.
For the first time in an hour, Paige is aware of the rain. She listens as it lashes against the side of the house, working its way into the plywood, separating and loosening one small piece of wood chip at a time in its long and successful attempt of tearing the house to the ground.
Neither of them says anything for a half an hour. By now it is dark and the candles are the only source of light. She wants to look at him, but he needs some time, she thinks. She puts her arm up under the pillow and drifts off into a short and unsettling sleep.
He is wide awake.
He wakes her a half an hour later. He runs his finger across her cheek and her eyes open. She rolls onto her back and looks up at him.
He asks, “Is it curable?”
Paige pauses. She has already told him about the operation. She forgives him.
“My chances of survival, you mean,” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says.
“I don’t know,” she says.
But it’s the worst answer possible, she thinks. No decision. No determination.
“Are you sure you have to have surgery?”
“Yes. The doctor said it’s the only safe option.”
He is the one to roll onto his back this time. She props herself on an elbow, her free hand resting on his stomach. It is rising and falling sharply, but in shallow and quick breaths.
“You’re young,” he repeats. This time it is said to the blue, plastic ceiling. “What are we going to do?”
She has an idea, it’s been her plan all day, but she’s scared to say it. She doesn’t know how he’ll react. She had only seen him like this one other time, at his granddad’s funeral. He had locked himself in his room, but even then he cracked jokes and told stories after a while. A perfect antidote to the melancholy. He has never been this quiet before though and she worries how she will look now that she is thinking of bringing it up.
So she doesn’t. There is no reason to, she thinks. She has already hurt him; she doesn’t want to tell him about carrying his child for a couple of weeks, especially if it was Jackson. It’s too real. Too much to handle. He’d leave if she told him, she thinks.
She runs a hand down his stomach, placing it on his groin.
He comes quietly, his head buried in her shoulder. She feels him go rigid for a moment and then relax.
They are finally together. Fusion. Synthesis.
The rain begins again, this time softer and barely audible. Just a passing shower. Nothing more. Paige looks at him sleeping under the thin blanket and wonders which one was conceived. Which one was it? Anne? Jackson? It is definitely Jackson. Their boy. The thought gnaws at her. It makes her sick, but she knows she has to feel it. Because it is real. As real as the word abortion. She is bonding with him, despite the fact. The sick feeling is Jackson, talking to her, leaving his brief but lasting mark on her. It tells her what he would be when he grows up, his prom date, his future wife and her grandchildren’s names.
She visualizes Jackson being cut from her body, without their consent. She is terrified. It is a botched procedure. There is blood and life dripping on her. She puts a protective hand over her stomach. Tears slide down her cheeks. She won’t tell the doctor or her mom and Dale. The termination of life is between Jackson and her.
She is exhausted and wants to sleep but the lists in her head, the planning, keeps her awake. She doesn’t have a plan for this.
He wakes up and sees her crying. He puts a hand around her arm.
“Sorry,” she whispers.
Paige is quiet for a long time. She looks past him, over his shoulder, and out into the night. The light is a dirty orange from the streetlamps on the street.
“Jackson,” she says.
He looks at her.
He is quiet for a moment. She sees him processing. She swears his eyes go from quizzical to cold. Unsure. Trying to understand.
“What about him?”
He pulls her head to his shoulder. She is crying harder now. Warm tears collect against his collarbone.
“What about Jackson?” David asks quietly.
“Nothing,” she whispers into his chest.
She wraps an arm around his neck, her fingernails pressing into his neck. She fights for control. She needs him to be there for her but she doesn’t know if that’s possible anymore. She imagines it so but fears the worst. She inhales the organic smell of the lumber and steels herself to absorb the pain. She isn’t very tolerant.
She stays silent. David’s phone beeps.
“Shit,” he mutters.
He reaches into his pants and flips it open.
She knows it is work. He got the job only a month ago and he still needs to impress, do whatever it takes.
“I have to work tomorrow,” David says.
“Do you want to come over after work,” she asks anyway. “I want to look for a new doctor.”
David is now the one who is silent. He takes her arm from around his neck. He kisses her. It is brief, distant. He pulls a quick smile onto his face that disappears almost instantly.
“Sure,” he says. “Maybe. It’s too early to tell. I might be there all day. I don’t know.”
Brian Smith works and lives in Portland, Oregon with his fantastic wife Aimee. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism.
Notes from April Galarza, Associate Editor
“The House” is the story of the first adult dreams of a pair of kids in love and how they are crushed by the reality they must face. It is told with simple language but a startling emotional impact.
Comments on this story by Eimile Denizer, author of “A Fan of the Team”
For me “The House” is about the unfinished, the thwarted plans of life, of society. Literally the house of the title—the physical structure in which the two characters, Paige and David lay out their plans and practice for their future life—is unfinished, full of “wood-framed hole[s] where the window[s] should be.” It is not so surprising that Paige and David, themselves only half-finished—not children, not yet adults—should choose this place to “play house.” Secreted in from the rest of the world, the house provides a frame for them to imagine their future, where they can imagine the future is already happening. At times they are in that future: “a scrap of Tyvex house wrap curled around [Paige’s] leg… the ends are overlapping around her shin, like the arms of a needy child,” but as the story continues, the reader, along with the characters, begins to realize that it might not all work out as envisioned.
What is not clear in the story is whether their future is jeopardized because Paige has ovarian cancer, and will not live to see the fulfillment of their dreams, or if this mere fact is too much reality for the dreams of the teenagers to bear. A good portion of the story is devoted to Paige’s resilience and resourcefulness; we see her go to great pains (literally) to make a cozy room in the decrepit house, despite the forces of wind and rain. What seems to worry her more than the cancer and the treatment is the loss of her dreams with David, the worry that sacrifices made to fulfill their dreams will result in none of it being fulfilled.
In the beginning she makes a seemingly innocent wish: “…Paige needs more than the thought of the children. She needs to have one of them, if only for a few weeks.” Later, we learn that she has had one for a few weeks, and ironically, it is the thought of her aborted child that comes to comfort Paige in the end: “the sick feeling is Jackson, talking to her, leaving his brief but lasting mark on her. It tells her what he would be when he grows up, his prom date, his future wife and her grandchildren’s names.” While she whishes “she could crawl inside of him and find out what he’s thinking,” it is with Jackson that she is able to form a synchronized bond.
In the end, nothing is finished. Jackson, like the house, was “abandoned for more exciting and grander projects,” splendid dreams that will never materialize. It’s easy to think of the house as a byproduct of the housing bubble, with the bubble burst, it is unlikely to ever find an owner. And the relationship between Paige and David begs to question: can teenage love, even one so strong as theirs, survive such startling reality? We are left with a worrying answer: “‘Maybe. It’s too early to tell.’”
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