A man walks up and down my street in a red t-shirt, jeans, and flat sneakers. Every few steps, he stops and looks back for a moment, then turns around, keeps walking. Slowly. The first time I saw this, my ten-year-old daughter came into the kitchen to tell me there was a man outside, standing at the sidewalk, staring at our house. I went to the window thinking of Kenny, always worried that one of these days, one of these years, he’s just going to be there. It’s absurd, really, that I think this way. It’s been ten years.
When my daughter and I lived in Utah, the first place we moved after Kenny left us, I’d dream of him outside our house, standing out on the sidewalk. I also dreamed of a large building, a warehouse. He and I were always in the back behind a vast space and high walls. He’d ask if he could come back. Or he would be about to ask. In the dream, I wanted him to, and I didn’t. Such indecision. I never answered him. Sometimes I’d dream this for nights in a row, see us in the same position, crouched down and close, as if we were hiding. And the space we were in was different every time, but the dimensions remained. A large building, emptied, though it had once, I knew, been full of inventory. I’d wake up, frustrated at dreaming him again, say, “Go away,” to the dark.
On a morning not long after my daughter first showed me the man outside, the dogs barking wildly at the window, I got up from my writing desk and went to look, and there he was again, this time on the other side of the street, walking and pausing, looking back. I watched him do this until I couldn’t see him anymore. His movements a combination of expectation and escape, and it’s difficult to tell what it’s more like, because when he turns, it’s quick, a pivot, as if someone has called his name. But his stance is impatient, as if someone, or something, follows.
I’ve been moving this way, too, living in seven states in the past ten years. Escaping. Expecting. A few steps forward and something calls me back and I turn for a moment, and in a few more steps, I do it again. It’s like a recurring dream.
My parents have lived in the same house since I was nine. I remember when it was just a concrete slab and a brick fireplace. During the past few years, my mother has replaced the beige carpet with hardwood floors. Footsteps and words echo. It’s like walking through the house of a neighbor who shares a floor plan: the layout is familiar, but the details are all wrong. I wish the house was still the way it was in 1979, but the gold carpet in the dining room is now buff, the dark shutters on the front windows are gone, and the tiny roses of my bedroom wallpaper have been replaced by paint the color of buttermilk. Reds hold the house together: the chair and ottoman in the living room, the towels in the back bathroom, and the pillows on my parents’ bed.
Since my mother made the changes, I have dreams that I’m behind the house, either in the garage or at the back gate of the wooden fence, and I have no way of getting inside. The door has no knob or the gate’s latch is firm.
My father likes to drive by the other houses where we have lived in town. The first one is a small house on Caladium Street, where I lived as an infant. Of course, I have no memory of living there; it’s like a novel I never read. The other house, the one on Eastbrook Drive where I lived until I was five, I remember, but my father drives by to show me as if I don’t. Every time, I sit in the backseat and look out the window, see this as the house I ran away from when I was four, when I grabbed my Little Red Wagon and rolled it down the sidewalk. By the time my father caught up to me, I was on the median of a high-traffic street. He scolded me for going, for walking down a dangerous road.
I have a pattern of returning, of going back. I left and returned to Lubbock four times, spending a total of nine years there. I left Colorado and went back, and I left Stillwater, Oklahoma after a year and a half of graduate school in 1997 and returned ten years later.
The first time in Stillwater, I lived in a duplex on Washington Avenue. It had large windows that opened by cranking a lever, scratchy brown carpet, and a wrap-around kitchen. In 2008, my daughter started first grade three blocks from that duplex.
Coming back to Stillwater was like a remembered dream, and I had to set the scenes—the steps of Morrill Hall, the booth of a favorite restaurant, a second story apartment on Walnut Street—against what I remembered. It was like living a palimpsest.
But during the years of my absence, not all had remained. The university had purchased the land south of campus and razed all the duplexes and houses, including the ones on Washington. Yet nothing had been done to the area, so it was all gravel and dust. For years, I had kept a picture of the tree in the duplex’s yard on my refrigerator. Now there wasn’t even a stump, and when I’d drive my daughter to school, I’d slow down, search for any trace of the tree, the sidewalk. I was driving by an absence, but I could still see the front windows, the blue bookshelf in the corner, the candle on the counter’s edge, the heavy couch I left on the day I moved out.
At my going away party in that duplex, a friend brought a bottle of E’cole No. 41. It was a white wine. I knew nothing more. That night, I traded in my Bud Light bottles for a glass. In the nights that followed, I’d pack boxes in the living room floor listening to the Counting Crows, sipping wine. Chardonnay, then, was an unwinding, an easy glass or two while listening to “Long December.” Thinking of it now is like remembering that part in a memoir, an early chapter, before the woman falls down into the wine like a well and tosses the rope back up over the rim because she prefers the depth, the dark.
For years, I searched the racks of every liquor store I went into, looking for the label: a white background with a crayon drawing of a school, a hot air balloon, and the sun. A decade later that label no longer exists. The winery traded the crayon drawing of a school for a sepia photograph. How symbolic, this transition from innocence to the truth: things like wine labels and duplexes no longer remain except in the cellar of memory.
During the final semester of my Ph.D. program at Texas Tech, one of the professors in the English department made a phone call from Sante Fe to the chair to say she would not be coming back. When I left town that May after graduation, I had a similar assumption, that the years in and out of Lubbock had finally come to a close, and all the men I had complicated there were best left alone.
It was sudden, unheard of, really, the way Dr. Morgan abandoned her job to pursue her art, the way she phoned in her resignation. Some felt that my sojourn to wait tables in Colorado for a summer after earning my Ph..D was equally careless, so it was suggested I apply to replace her.
I did apply, but by the time I drove to Colorado and started working at the Dancing Bear, a Grateful Dead-themed restaurant specializing in Jewish fare, after I met Kenny and stayed up nights talking and drinking Shiner Bocks on the back porch that looked out over the Eagle River, I was as far from Professorland as I could be, and the closest I came to using my literary knowledge was when a busboy at the Bear who called me “Dr. Jill” had me write down book recommendations on napkins. It was a simple summer. The phone call I received from the department chair ended it, and I packed up my Jeep and drove back to Texas. My leaving Lubbock, as it turned out, had once again been temporary, and when I returned, I unlocked Dr. Morgan’s office door.
All of her things remained inside. Standing on her woven rug and facing the piles of papers on her desk, I understood what real leaving looked like. I understood that when she called to say she was not returning, she meant it. She had not packed up, had not sent for her things, had not turned in her keys. The first floor office looked like the last day she had walked out of the door and locked it behind her. It took several afternoons to remove her boxes of files, empty her drawers, and take down the framed poster (from a Sante Fe Art Festival) from her wall. Finally, I removed the cartoons and postcards from her door and replaced her name with mine.
I had no inclination this would be something I would do in my own life six years later, when I would write a last minute resignation letter during the final week of a semester and drive out of Utah.
Back then when I thought of Dr. Morgan, the idea in my mind was of her going, a forward act, a pursuit—of her art, of the man she had reportedly mentioned in her phone call. I never considered, until that May in Utah when I did my best impression of her, that she might have been leaving rather than going. I’m thinking of how the word “forgo” means to omit or decline to take, and how in her going, for the sake of going, she had forgone. But what if her departure, like mine, had been a declining so severe that we left everything behind?
I often dream of that first-floor office, that hallway, that building. It was torn down the year after I left Lubbock for the last time, but in my dream, I still roam from one room to the other—a classroom on the second floor, the main office (I go there often), my office, up and down the stairs. It always seems I’m looking for someone who has just left the building, just stepped out of the office. What if I’m dreaming the me who keeps leaving, keeps forgoing the rooms out of restlessness, or fear? Or what if I’m dreaming the woman I was before Kenny, searching through hallways trying to unlock the doors to before?
Recently, I looked up Dr. Morgan, found a website that features her mosaic art. I wonder if she ever takes a piece of tile in her hand and places it in the variegated pattern, considers it the piece she left behind in Lubbock. I wonder if she ever thinks of that building she never went back to, the building that was torn down, the building I can’t seem to leave.
I have a friend who has a recurring dream of her first apartment in New York City. In those dreams, every time she comes back to them, there are additional rooms. In the first of those dreams she found her dog that had died ten years earlier, old and bloated, but alive. He was on a narrow bed in a small, book-lined room that was closed off by a curtain she’d never noticed before. In some of those dreams, the apartment goes on and on, from room to room, sparsely filled with old furniture, carpets on the wooden floors, light streaming in from windows. Each time she dreams it, the rooms expand, go further and further back, and once they came around in a circle. She’s also dreamed of trying to get back to that apartment and not being able to find it, or when she does, it’s not the place she’d left behind only a little while before.
What we leave won’t leave us, it seems. Kenny won’t leave me, even though he did long ago. I can run from room to room for the rest of my life. It won’t stop him from coming back.
For years after I moved out of the house in Utah, I dreamed it. In one, there is no furniture in the living room, and I can see through the sheer curtains of the two windows, and the front door is open. In another, I am in the kitchen, surrounded by chairs, boxes, lamps, and appliances. All the cabinets are open. I’m at the end of packing for a move, trapped by what I must leave behind. There are more dreams of this house: the one when I open the front door to find the porch removed. There’s a gaping hole in the ground, and I stand on the edge of it, sure I’ll fall. The hole is jagged and dark. It looks as if an excavator clawed into the ground. Even in the dream, I understand that this really is how that porch was for me on the mornings after those Chardonnay nights: the emptied bottles, the left behind glass, an ashtray, the phone. No matter how much I tried to piece together the puzzle, I could not excavate the evening. All of those nights blacked out.
I haven’t dreamed about the house for a couple of years. Perhaps I have gone back enough in my writing to the emptiness I felt in that living room, the opening of that refrigerator door each evening, the black hole of memory.
Disarrangement seems to be common in our dream houses. A friend e-mails that the most memorable location in his house dreams is the apartment he lived in until he was eleven. In the dream he usually finds it updated or more or less the way it looked in 1988. He also remembers dreams about being at a friend’s house in Chicago’s Hyde Park. It was a very big house with “all these staircases” and smaller rooms that connected larger ones. It had multiple floors, and only three people lived there (along with some Rottweilers that stayed primarily in the kitchen), so there were many unused areas. In the dream, there’s “lots of dust and ancient memorabilia” everywhere, and in parts of those dreams, he’s going through passageways, finding old newspapers. That last sentence he ends with a question mark.
Not long ago, I saw the man who walks by my house sitting on a bench in front of the liquor store. The women who work there told me he sits out there often, smoking. Another afternoon, I drove by the coffee shop and saw him ambling toward the intersection. In both of these moments, I was confused, felt something close to betrayal. Seeing him in a different setting disrupted the one I knew, and I wondered why I hadn’t considered that he might exist anywhere else but in front of my house.
My grandmother died one week before her ninety-fifth birthday in October of 2009. During the last few years of her life, she’d asked what I wanted in the house. She’d suggest I make a list, tell me what my cousins had already claimed, said she didn’t like to think of all of her things sitting in the house after she was gone. Perhaps she feared an Estate Sale, her things auctioned off to strangers, the way my other grandmother’s belongings had gone, leaving me to wonder who now sits in her faded yellow chair with the cigarette burns, who rolls over into dreams on the feather bed I slept in as a child.
The large rooms of my grandmother’s house were unused in those final years except for her bedroom, the tv room, and the kitchen, and I’d walk through the house looking at the photographs of our family, reading titles of the books in my grandfather’s study. I’d pull one or two down, each time, find his underlines, the notes in the margins, the subjects of his sermons.
During the final months of her life, she was too weak, too dizzy to do much but rest on the couch, so I’d sit on the floor beside her and hold her hand. She’d tell me how my grandfather and his sisters had stood, just that morning, in the corner of the living room, or how the night before, two of her brothers (she had three, only one still living) came to the foot of her bed, asked “Sis” to come home. Doctors and other family members attributed these visions to the dips in her blood pressure, a certain medication.
But I believed her, understood she was in some ethereal place between the living and those who had already left. And then came the final dreams, her house dreams, when she’d fall asleep and wake up on the other side of the house or the sides of the house would be reversed. These were the dreams that unsettled her because they seemed real, as if she had gone to sleep in one room and woken up in another on the other side. I never told her this, but I think those houses were the two sides of her, the living and the dead. A dream of transition.
After she died, my father urged me to go back to the house one last time, to take what I wanted. All I could do was sit for a moment in my car outside the cream colored house, the lawn with no trees. My grandmother gone. I had no reason to go inside.
When I write about the places I’ve lived I stop dreaming about them. But Kenny comes back, especially if I write something about him. It’s as if rearranging the houses in my writing closes them once and for all, but writing about Kenny opens all the doors and windows, and he is there again.
Yesterday, I came home from the grocery store to find the man who walks by the house sitting on one of the large boulders that line our driveway. I drove down to the coffee shop and turned around, and when I passed the house again, he was leaning against the mailbox, smoking a cigarette. I made several more passes by the house before I saw that the garage door was open, before I worried he might go into the house, before I called the police, before I wondered if my writing about him had called him there.
I’m thinking of the missing parts, the gaps in our dreams, the way we are in one room one moment, and then we’re in a car driving off a mountain or standing in a river or having dinner with Robert Redford. What is missing from our dreams are as much a part of them as what we remember. And what I leave out of my writing is as much of the story as what I’ve written.
I’ve looked up all of the places I’ve lived on Google maps, and in every image, the season is not the one that stands out to me, is not the one I have written. The house in Minturn is half hidden by snow, though I never lived there during the winter. The trees on the corner house in Utah are all bare with no traces of leaves in the lawn, though that’s the way I always write that house: the leaves on the lawn, still. My childhood home in Lubbock is now brown, though when I lived there it was a yellowy-cream. There are three cars in the drive and one parked out front. When I think of the driveway, there’s a 1974 orange VW bug parked on the left side. Where, in the image, is the eight-year-old me walking up and down the sidewalk? My white Ford Escape is parked at the corner of North Duncan and Hall of Fame in Stillwater, and my bedroom window is open, something I did every morning so our cat could sit and look out. It’s as if my daughter and I are still living there. But we haven’t for two years. I traded in the Escape long before we moved, and I found the cat run over one morning in the middle of the street.
I cannot see the sidewalk to the side entrance of the basement apartment where Kenny and I lived in Fort Collins. The angle of the photo only shows the front porch of the house. No matter, I can still it all: the wind chime, the crack in the bedroom ceiling, the kitchen window.
The third story apartment in Boulder, the last place he and I lived together, is rich in sunlight, a version of that place I do not recognize. I’ve written that apartment in a storm, in the dark, in the middle of the night, but even in my memory, I do not remember the sun. All of these images, a photo taken from some satellite are like scenes in a dream.
It doesn’t look like the house I lived in, but I know that it is.
I’ve never owned a house. I’ve never had a dishwasher, never painted a bathroom wall blue. I’ve never bought a refrigerator. I borrow rooms and the keys to them. But if I had a dream house, it would be made up of all the favorite parts of houses I have known. It would be on a corner, and it would have the built-in glass cabinets from the house in Utah, the ones that framed the fireplace and held all of my books. It would have the tiny roses wallpaper in one of the bedrooms, the balcony from the 14th street apartment in Lubbock, the sunken living room from my childhood home on 63rd and Toledo, the kitchen counter from the duplex on Washington Street, the river that ran in front of the house in Minturn, and the windows would open by cranking a lever. And there, Kenny would never visit my dreams.
Last night, I dreamed I was leaning out the window where I watch the man walk the sidewalk. I was so far out I was almost upside down, propping myself up on my elbows, my feet dangling from the windowsill. And then I saw him, Kenny, standing in the driveway leaning against his truck. Not the truck he had, but another one that was packed full of furniture, and I knew he had come back. I even said it, “You’ve come back.”
I woke up, the way I always do when I dream him, but after all these years, instead of saying “Go away,” to the dark, I went back to sleep because now I understand I’m like the man who walks up and down the street, looking back.
I no longer wonder why.
After all, it’s something we all do, whether we want to or not.