Monday, August 10, 2009

This Old House

The House

2635 Bella Vista Ave.

Lexington, Ohio 44904

Dear House,

Do you remember the fit that my siblings and I threw when we were told that we were going to move out of you?  You would have thought that my parents were torturing us by daring to build a newer, bigger house about five miles away.  I remember sitting in my brother’s room for a miniature protest meeting and resolving together that we simply wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t leave.

But we did, of course, just as I’ve moved away from a whole string of places since—the beige carpets and cozy basement of junior high and high school, my claustrophobic college dorm rooms, that first strange attic apartment that I shared with three other girls, the honey-colored floorboards of the little Chicago studio on the lake, the exposed brick and low ceilings in Jersey City.  Leaving a place behind always fills me with the sad slippery feeling of time getting away from me, but each move, truth be told, has been easier than the last, and when I move out of my current Cambodian abode, it may be the easiest one yet.

I do not mean to imply that it is not a nice house.  It is large (enormous to my eyes that had become calibrated to New York apartment sizes) and far more comfortable than what I had envisioned before I left the U.S.  And yet, there is something weirdly forbidding about the place, something elusively Cambodian.  Maybe it is the small windows or swollen intractable doors or the way the stuffy rooms hold heat.  Maybe it is the glue-sniffing teenagers who occasionally jump our fences and pilfer things out of our windows.  Maybe it is the memories of the time that all the cheap plastic plumbing fixtures broke at once and flooded the place in the middle of the night.  Whatever it is, the house has always seemed to give us more of a polite handshake instead of a warm embrace.

Occasionally, expat friends in Siem Reap will ask us to housesit, and we usually jump at the chance, not because they are nicer, more luxurious houses (though that is certainly the case) but because they feel so much more lived-in than our own house.  During housesitting stints, I go around absentmindedly touching things—children’s toys, expired medications, family snapshots, the worn corners of books.  These are families who have decided to stay in Siem Reap for much longer than I will, and the spaces where they live have a warmth and permanence that I sometimes forget can exist.

Now, our lease almost up, we are looking for a new place of our own, though it is still uncertain if we will be able to find anything better than our current rental.  Cambodian houses, at least the ones that Khmer build to rent out to Westerners, are weird.  They are candy-colored concrete monstrosities with cavernous tiled rooms and no closets and kitchens without stoves.  It is as though one person made a sketchy blueprint of what he thought a Westerner would want and hundreds of Khmer landlords have been blindly following suit ever since.  What’s strange is that most of them wouldn’t think of living in a place like that themselves.  Many of the houses that we looked at had tiny wooden shacks in the back or side yards where the landlord lived with his or her family.  Sometimes we would gaze wistfully out of a back window in some bubble-gum pink rental to these little houses with dogs and cooking fires and laundry drying on the line—they looked so real compared to the buildings we were standing in.

Maybe it is because they were built by and for the people who inhabit them.  There is a photo I think of sometimes (either real or somehow created in my mind from stories my parents told me) of my mother smiling in front of you, a half-finished house, holding Dawn’s hand and carrying Ryan around like a little bundled papoose.  My father, a junior high guidance counselor at the time, did the electrical work and put up drywall in the evenings to save money.  Though none of us could remember them, perhaps it was those evenings that made you feel so much like ours that, seventeen years later, my siblings and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.  It has been years since I have thought much about you, old house, or taken the time to miss you, but now, on an orange tiled porch thousands of miles away, I remember you and remember what it feels like to be home.



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