A plane flew by overhead and the trees rustled in the wind behind us. I looked up at the plane before turning my gaze to the wide open expanse of marshland in front of us.
“I wish I could be on that plane, going somewhere else.” I said, turning to Nina beside me.
“What if it’s going to Iowa?” Nina replied as she smirked.
“Shut up.” I said scuffing my hiking boots against the ground causing dirt to fly up around us.
“No but I see what you mean,” she paused. “And you will be soon. August will be here before you know it.”
It was midsummer in Wheaton and the heat was oppressive but the breeze was always slightly cooler at the marshes which is why me and Nina loved to come here. Plus those marshes had the added convenience of only being a five minute walk away from my old family home. My parents were selling the home because they were moving to California. In fact, they had already left Illinois. That summer break before our senior year of college, Nina and I had that whole five bedroom house to ourselves. We only had to share it with the two cats which my parents refused to bring with them.
“Have you ever thought that? Seen a plane go by and you’re like what if I was on it.” “Not really,” she said.
“I think it’s become a bit of a ritual for me over the years.” We got up from the bench and
continued along the dirt path skirting around the marsh. “I started thinking it when I was like 15 and now almost every time a plane flies overhead I think I wish I was on that plane. It’s like making a wish at 11:11…I just have to do it.”
We made our way down the path to a boardwalk area leading out to a dock hovering over wetlands filled with dark reeds. We stood at the edge of the dock listening to the croaks of the bullfrogs and calls of the red winged blackbird amidst the cattails.
“Should we make our way home?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m feeling a bit hungry.” The rickety wooden staircase took us up to the main road of the Illinois Prairie Path.
Shaded by trees, we walked towards the sound of cars driving down Jewell Road. We cut across the street and walked uphill to turn left on Herrick, three houses in and we arrived at my place. But not for much longer, I remembered, as we walked past the for sale sign on the front yard.
Right when we walked in the front door Lizzi, my light grey cat named after Elizabeth Bennet, ran outside. I held the door open a bit longer and looked at Pippin, Lizzi’s dark grey brother, to see if he wanted to go out as well. He just looked up at me solemnly so I closed the door behind me.
“Those cats,” Nina laughed. “Does he want us to pet him or something?”
“Not quite, he would be too frightened if we tried to pet him right away. Actually he wants us to sit down, keep our distance and wait for him to come to us.” And when I laughed Pippin jumped slightly and ran downstairs to the basement where he likely had a little fur- covered spot still warm on the big chair in front of the television.
After cooking dinner, we brought our plates out the backyard and settled down on the patio furniture which sat upon a small deck slightly higher than the lawn. We made open faced sandwiches: dark rye toast piled with yolky eggs and seasoned with oregano and thyme and chili. The sun was lower and shined directly in our eyes. We opened a bottle of Chianti and poured ourselves generous glasses.
“Jor, we are the sultans of sandwiches,” Nina declared with her mouth full.
“True that,” I took a large swig of wine and looked out at the large expanse of backyard that was temporarily ours. I saw Lizzi playfully pouncing in the grass next to the bonfire pit.
We ate steadily, not allowing conversation to interrupt the food while alt-J played on our bluetooth speakers in the background. Lizzi ran up the short wooden steps and paced back and forth rubbing her fur against my bare legs as I poured me and Nina a second glass of wine. I picked Lizzi up, placed her on my lap and scratched her whiskers as she began to purr. When it was dark we brought our plates and glasses inside but returned shortly with a few candles and a bottle of whiskey.
“We should watch another James Dean movie…” I said as I sipped at my glass of whiskey.
“Yeah, but, also, we could do another River Phoenix film. I mean we still haven’t watched My Own Private Idaho.”
“Oh, oh! Or Running On Empty. Ugh, goddamnitt. Why can’t I find a man like River Phoenix?” Nina sighed and pulled out her tin of loose leaf tobacco from her pocket.
“Oh, should I go get my pipe?” I asked. Nina and I, thinking it would make us more scholarly, bought hand carved tobacco pipes and spent the school year learning to smoke them properly.
“Ah, nah…” and she pulled out a pack of skins for cigarettes and held it up to show me. “I am determined to learn how to roll cigarettes.”
“Sick, okay, can I try?” She handed me a skin and a little strip of hard thick paper. I set out to roll one using the Capstan Navy Cut, which we only bought for our pipes since J.R.R Tolkien smoked it. When I finished it was lumpy and barely holding together. Unbothered I brought it to my lips and lit the tip. Nina groaned and threw her first one, which looked similar to mine, aside and got out a new skin. It seemed where I was unbothered by my failure, she was determined to produce a perfectly rolled cigarette.
“Damnit, I am gonna get this right,” she nearly yelled as her second skin ripped and she grabbed another. I watched her with amusement while I smoked my deformed cigarette.
“Are there other old Marlon Brando films that we need to see? Because when we watched that one where he wears that dirty white t-shirt the other night…mmhmm.” I said. She didn’t reply so I continued on, “I mean there are three empty bedrooms in this house…young Marlon Brando, James Dean, and River Phoenix could have them.”
Nina lifted her head and a wide smile stretched across her face. “I bet one of them could roll this fucking cigarette for me.” The one she was holding now was only slightly better than the last. She gave up and smoked it.
“How about we walk to the park?” I said after downing the whiskey left in my glass in one go. She downed hers in agreement. I poured us another finger and we drank that.
We blew out the candles and walked through the back door and out the front door, not bothering to put on shoes. There were no street lights on Herrick Drive as this was Unincorporated Wheaton. We got no street lights and no library card but the property taxes were lower. We walked towards the only lights on the block which came from the flood light at the playground.
I sat down on one of the swings and Nina followed. I used by legs to propel me and the metal creaked under my weight. I swung high and closed my eyes, enjoying the warm summer breeze blowing my hair about. Nina sat still on her swing and I slowed gradually then glanced over at her.
“What if we just got into your Jeep and drove straight to Memphis?” I said. “And we pay a call to Elvis at Graceland.”
“Well, I would have to say, I would need a guarantee that he’d invite us down to the jungle room. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be worth it…” she replied. I laughed loudly which sounded strange in the silence of the park.
I looked up at the night sky and using my hand to cover the glare of the flood light illuminating the park from my eyes, I could see the stars. I heard a rumbling above and saw the blinking red light of an airplane. I turned to look at Nina and said, “We should have a competition to see who can swing higher…I bet I can win.”
The sun leaked into my basement room from the small window in the upper corner. I peaked out of one eye to check the time. It was past 9am so Nina was likely already at work. As I slowly came to, I realized that the sunlight hadn’t woken me but the soft and desperate meowing which was coming from right outside my door.
“I’m coming Pippin,” I mumbled as I rolled out of bed which was just a mattress on the floor. I had sold my bed frame on Craigslist a week before. Pippin was sitting there waiting for me to wake up, he must have grown impatient. Sometimes he would cry like that at 4am and the only way I could get him to stop was to leave the bedroom door open. My mom would always say that he worried about us when he couldn’t see us.
“You need anything, bud? Or just talking?” I looked at him.
“MEOW,” he replied loudly.
“Mhmm, that’s what I thought,” I said. I made my way up to the kitchen and put the coffee on.
The house was big and nearly empty of possessions. A good amount of furniture was left behind since my parents had downsized to a one-bedroom. They had left together before any cleaning or arrangement had been done. Neither of my parents were the tidiest of people so the house had not been deep cleaned since we first moved in seven years previously. I remembered walking back in the front door after seeing them off in the driveway and realizing that this was how I would be spending my summer.
I poured coffee into my large Male Tears mug and added a little cream and sugar. Mid-sip my phone vibrated on the counter top.
iMessage MOM: Morning, babe! The realtor is planning to start showing the house next Monday. Thanks for agreeing to clean!
Irritated, I put my phone back down without answering and opened the fridge, just to stare into it. I wasn’t really hungry anymore. I grabbed a Chinese take out menu from under a magnet on the front of the fridge and began writing a to do list on the back of it.
Fuck My Life
- tub in parents bathroom
- floor in kitchen
- linoleum in basement
- vacuum carpet in living room
- dusting parents bedroom
- mopping the dining room
There was plenty more than that to do but I could tackle that another day. I decided I would start with this list and see how much of it I could get done. I changed into a pair of baggy ripped jeans and a t-shirt I got for free at a school event.
The cleaning products were scattered throughout the house; under bathroom sinks and kitchen cabinets and in random bedroom closets so it took a bit of hunting to gather them all together. I went to the master bathroom and filled the yellowed tub with some bleach and turned the tap at hot as it could go. Once the water was at the point of overflow I began scrubbing with a toilet brush, careful to not get my hands in the scalding water as I had no cleaning gloves. The bristles of the brush were soft and bent easily against the ceramic but I continued to scrub vigorously nonetheless. Leaning over the steaming tub plus the repetitive motion caused me to break out in a sweat. I wiped my forehead with my t-shirt.
My parents had talked about moving back to California for years. We moved to Wheaton when I was 15 and by the time I was 18 they were tired of the Midwest. I didn’t blame them. Since I had started college they would regularly talk about moving back after I graduated. At first, when my mom told me that they would be moving sooner I tried to negotiate with her.
“Couldn’t you just wait a bit longer to sell the house?” I said sitting on my bed over Christmas break while she stood in the doorway to my room. “I mean if you left now, I’d have no where to go for breaks…summer, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter…”
“You can always stay on the couch in our one bedroom…” she said as if it was the most obvious solution in the world.
“But that makes no sense, Jacob and Josh and your grandkids are here…holidays would be spent here but I’d have no place to stay.” My voice went up an octave as I started to feel panicked. In a desperate teenaged-sounding whine I added, “This is my home.” She crossed her newly-tattooed arms and leaned against the doorframe. The wrinkles on her face deepened as she frowned at me, a hint of guilt underneath the firmness.
“Well, we can’t just sacrifice what we want to do,” she said. “And we can’t afford to pay the mortgage on a house we aren’t living in.”
I drained the tub and moved back to kitchen. I picked out an organic pine-scented spray from Trader Joe’s out of the large pile of supplies on the counter. Using the toughest looking brush I could find, I got down on my hands and knees and began scrubbing the grout in between the tiles with as much strength as I could muster. These tiles used to be spotless when we first moved in back in 2009. I think they had just been put in before we bought the house. My parents and I came down with a horrible stomach flu on our second day in the house. I remember laying down on the kitchen floor without enough energy to return to my room where my bed was a sleeping bag on the floor as the moving truck had not yet arrived. The cold ceramic tiles felt amazing against my feverish cheek. Seven years later and you could not pay me enough money to lay down on those tiles.
Lizzi walked delicately past me, hunched over on the floor, and then sat down to just stare at me while I scrubbed. I sat back on my heels and stared back at her. I still had to clean the cat shit off the linoleum in the basement. When I carried my suitcases in from my dorm room at the end of the school year, I remember seeing it there, dried out like it had been there a while, and I wondered why they hadn’t cleaned it up. It stayed there even whilst they were packing their things. I set back to scrubbing the tiles on the other side of the kitchen but I could not get that cat shit out of my head. I gave up trying to put it off and I took the spray and an entire roll of paper towels down to the basement.
The little turd was there waiting for me in the corner of the room and as I bent down over it I switched to breathing through my mouth rather than nose. I sprayed the thing at least twenty- five times before layering ten paper towels and picking it up. I balled up it up into a big wad. I grabbed a few more paper towels and wiped at the leftover stain with more green spray.
Without much warning, I began laughing out loud. The thought entered into my brain that I was quite literally cleaning up someone else’s shit. My parents left me to clean up their mess, sure. But in this exact moment, I was literally cleaning up the shit that they left behind. I suddenly found it so funny that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. My ribs started to ache. Pippin, who was sleeping on the armchair in the middle of the room, jumped up, scared from my loud cackles, and ran into my bedroom to hide under my desk. I got up and walked over in order to try and coax poor Pippin out from where he was cowering. He wasn’t always this much of a scaredy cat. When we still lived in California he got lost and we couldn’t find him for a few weeks. Before we made the move cross country to Illinois, we made a smaller move into a tiny rented townhouse as my parents couldn’t afford the mortgage of my childhood home anymore. Pippin ran away from the construction men and he didn’t come back for a few days. We had to make the move across town without him but we’d go back to our old street everyday to call his name. We didn’t find him for five weeks and when we finally brought him home, he hid underneath the couch for a week, coming out only to eat. My mom started referring to him as traumatized because he was never quite the same after that. He never trusted men but he formed a close, weirdly human-like, bond with me and my mom. I knelt down by my desk, careful not to get too close to him, and spoke softly.
“Pippin…baby…it’s okay, I didn’t mean to scare you,” I crooned. “I was just laughing. I mean my situation is kind of ridiculous isn’t it?” His big green eyes looked directly into mine. I’d never experienced another animal who looked me right in the eyes. It was eerie but whenever he did it, it felt like my heart swelled a bit. He stayed where he was, body tensed.
His sister, Lizzi, on the other hand, couldn’t be more opposite. Only the vacuum cleaner scared her. But occasionally she’d even have the balls to try and fight, what we started calling, the ‘big yellow monster’. Both Lizzi and Pippin were born when I was in middle school and my parents were adamant that four cats were just too many so we’d have to give one of the kittens away. When she was a few months old, Lizzi went to go live with a sweet old widower on the other side of town. Disgruntled at being separated from her brother and mother, Lizzi proceeded
to regularly pee on her new owners bed. After a month of this she ran away and showed up at our doorstep the next day. My parents didn’t object to having four cats after that.
Now, with only Pippin and Lizzi left, my parents have decided to become pet-less empty- nesters. It broke my heart when they told me they wouldn’t be moving the cats back to California with them. They would be given to a family friend who lived on a farm downstate. It’s not like they could live in a dorm room with me. I would take them if I could. I looked at Pippin sadly huddled under the desk drawer before getting up and heading back up the stairs.
I went to the coat closet by the front door and took out the vacuum cleaner. It was probably better that Pippin was already in hiding. I dragged it to the living room which was bright and airy, thanks to the floor to ceiling windows. There was a large fireplace in the center of the room but the chimney had been broken for the last four years. I started up the vacuum and slowly traced a zig zag pattern across the stained beige carpet.
On my first day at my new high school, I sat on the couch and stared out the large windows. My nerves were barely containable and I just kept thinking about my old school in California, all my friends there. We moved in March, halfway through second semester of my sophomore year. I remember agonizing over why my parents simply couldn’t wait until the end of my school year to move. Isn’t it normal to move in the summer? I had to miss my end of year dance recital. I had already been measured for the costumes and everything. Through those tall windows, I glared at the snow which was still thick on the ground as I took another bite of dry toast and struggled to swallow. That first day did not end up going very well. I didn’t make any friends over the next two semesters at the new school. Eventually, I gave up and opted to go to community college for a homeschooling diploma instead.
I had to empty the vacuum’s filter halfway through because there was so much cat hair. After putting the vacuum back and yelling down the stairs to Pippin that the ‘yellow monster’ was gone, I reconsulted my to do list I wrote that morning.
After grabbing several tattered rags, I made my way to my parents’ bedroom. I walked in and the whole room smelled of my mom. When I was little and, sometimes even not-so-little, my mom would give me one of her unlaundered sleeping shirts to put on my stuffed animal — I loved the smell of her. The California King bed only had pillows on one side, my mother’s side. My parents hadn’t slept in the same room for a few years. My dad slept on the double bed in the guest room. So I suppose that was his room but I could never refer to one as mom’s room and one as dad’s. It was gradual at first, sometimes he would sleep in a different room because one of their snoring was too loud the previous night. Then around two years before they moved back to California, he moved his clothes to the guest room closet. They said they just slept more soundly in separate rooms. I climbed up on the huge bed to analyze the inch-high pile of dust resting on the unused ceiling fan. If I dusted the ceiling fan there and then, it would fall all over the bed and then I would need to wash the sheets. Perhaps I would save that for another day, I thought to myself. I stepped down off the bed and closed the door behind me. I didn’t want the scent to escape.
Making my way back to the pile of cleaning supplies in the kitchen. I took the pad from the bottom of the mop and put it in some warm water with soap. I placed the pad back on the velcro and carried the mop, still dripping, over to the dining room. I set to work in front of the sliding glass doors leading to the backyard, pressing down against the mud tracks there.
My parents and I didn’t have many shared dinners in this dining room during my teen years. My dad, a therapist, was usually at work until nine or ten at night. Most of the time we lived at this house we weren’t in the best financial shape. For the first few years, my parents were committed to a particular financial guru, Dave Ramsey, who preached that debt was the most unforgivable sin. A year after we moved, my dad was unemployed and my parents refused to use credit cards or equity from the house. It got pretty bad for a while. I remember asking my best friend for shampoo and whether she could spare any unused razors. I also remember going dumpster diving for food as we couldn’t afford to get groceries one month. The first time my parents went without me, to the back of Trader Joe’s after their nine o’ clock closing time, and grabbed the best things they could find. My mom placed a big cardboard box on the dining table and I looked inside. It was filled with bruised fruit, lightly wilted lettuce, and smooshed loaves of bread. The next day I bit into an apple and it turned out to be rotten. My mom told me to cut around the rotten parts and eat the rest.
I walked on my tip toes over the wet floor and laid the now very dirty mop over the kitchen sink. I sat down cross legged on the floor in between the kitchen and the dining room. I looked up at the vaulted ceilings on the dining room and noticed large amounts of cobwebs in all four corners as well as in the square nook of the sky light.
I got the ladder from the garage and the feather duster from the kitchen, a real proper one like something a girl wearing a sexy french maid costume would carry. Climbing nearly to the top step of the ladder, I swatted at the cobwebs in each corner until there were none left. As I climbed down off the ladder, my duster covered with the stuff, the front door opened, letting in a burst of humid summer air, and in walked Nina.
“Well, look at you!” she said, smiling at my slightly sweaty state. “You look like you worked hard today.”
“It’s been a day,” I replied.
“I think I ought to make you dinner.”
“What about you, though? You’ve been at work.” I said.
“Oh, I just sit around and answer stupid questions. I’ll just do my sandwich sultan thing.” Nina added some prosciutto to the sandwiches that night and we sat down at the dining table to share the meal properly. She told me a story about a ridiculous lady she dealt with at work that day and I laughed, nearly choking on my zucchini, at the impressions she did. After dinner, I poured us general helpings of whiskey with ginger ale and we settled in our respective chairs, which used to be mom and dad’s, and started On the Waterfront. When Marlon Brando first came on the screen in his leather jacket and in black and white, we both sighed and took a sip.