Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New York Times in 2006.
I haven’t had much success with home, as a child or an adult. I’ve lived in strange places without feeling their strangeness. I suppose I never learned to want anything better.
For a while I lived in a place my friends called the shoe box, a tiny room in Seattle with a sink and a toilet and a hot plate for cooking. I didn’t have a telephone, so I used the pay phone in the parking lot next door.
This was O.K. for making calls, but receiving them was an athletic event. I lived all year with my window open, and my friends understood that when they called they had to let the phone ring long enough for me to run out the door, crawl through a hole in the laurel hedge, jump down the rockery, race across the lot and pick up the receiver. They also knew that half the time random weirdos would answer.
Before the shoe box I lived in a furniture warehouse in a derelict section of Chicago, a cavernous place with no shower or stove or refrigerator, none of the stuff that makes up the vital, innermost heart of a home. I slept on sofas that were wrapped in plastic, ate off tables marked for discount sales the next day.
I didn’t have to pay rent, but I was expected to set out glue traps after the store closed and check and dispose of them in the morning before we opened.
The worst part of the deal was when a rat stepped into a trap late at night. It wasn’t easy to locate a crying rat in the dark of that vast warehouse, but I always got up, making my rounds by flashlight. Otherwise it would drive me batty, listening all night, because a trapped rat, believe it or not, makes a horrible high-pitched cry like a very faraway, very tiny lost baby.
During these years, no matter where I lived, I spent a lot of time walking through good neighborhoods, wondering how people managed. I peeped in so many windows that I came to believe that inside was an end to suffering. I knew otherwise, of course, but such is the nature of longing that one will go right on believing the most ridiculous things just because one’s heart says to.
None of my strange living was done for the artsy romance of it, although, not surprisingly, the characters in my fiction share a similarly complex, troubled idea of home. Taking a quick census of the people who populate my recent stories, I count a kid in an orphanage, two men in mental hospitals, a father on the verge of shipping his schizophrenic son to a halfway house, a Salvadoran exile sleeping on a beach, a couple of dodgy drifters who manage to insinuate themselves into the idyllic life of an elderly farmer in Iowa and the scion of a wealthy family who finds his journey coming to an end on an Indian reservation in the remote northwest corner of Washington State. Hardly anyone in my fictional world has a real house, and even those who do discover soon enough that home too is a fiercely disputed territory.
As I was writing the last of these stories, my wife announced that we were going to buy a house, our first. My immediate reaction was to lose my mind and accuse her of being crazy. I said, Are you nuts? I said, Impossible! I said, What about the money!
In truth, I was worried about finishing my book and rather patronizingly promised her that we could look for a house just as soon as the last word was written. I wanted peace and quiet in the meantime. So naturally my wife immediately drew up a list of the documents I would need, and made an appointment with a mortgage broker.
Next my wife told me that we had to find and buy a house within two months, because her brother would be moving in with us. She also informed me that the house had to have a good-size garage so that their band, Eux Autres, would have a practice space. Ever since high school I’ve wanted a girlfriend who sang, and my wife does, in fact, sing, but I guess I imagined that this girl would be a mellow and sensitive songstress like Emmylou Harris, strumming a guitar quietly. My wife plays the drums.
As it turned out, my wife and I bought a house right on schedule—a house with pink vinyl siding in a neighborhood so lacking in distinction that I’m not sure it has a name. When people ask where in Portland I live—ask that way, when they’re trying to figure out who you are—I tell them I don’t know.
Now I drive up to the house some nights and think to myself, with relief: how square, how sensible, how very believable. The loss or fear or woundedness I’ve carried around for years fueled in me not a wish for grandeur or riches but a desire for the reasonable and the sensible, for things that I can trust because I know their limits. Things that are common, that aim for sameness and easily strike the wide mark of community. At this point I understand our pink house and its pleasures the same way I, as a writer, understand suffering, which is through the eyes of others: I can see that my wife loves the house, and so, through her, do I.
In setting up the garage, my wife bought rugs to cover the concrete floor, and she hung red paper swag lanterns from the rafters. We’ve got all that equipment, her sparkling blue drum kit, her brother’s guitars and his Silvertone amp, microphones, black cables snaking around and squares of eggshell foam over the windows that darken the place and dampen the sound, lest we disturb our neighbors.
The band is just my wife and her brother, so there’s a sibling intensity out in the garage. When they fight it’s awful, inarticulate, aggrieved, and when they’re in high spirits they’re in their own world, like children again, with their own language and a lifetime of history and lore to draw on.
I’m excluded, but I don’t mind. When they practice I often go outside, just to listen. Kids on bikes skid to a stop in the drive and tell me how much they like our band, as if the house itself had its own sound.
And now the house has two bands. My wife and three other women recently started an all-girl Bee Gees cover band, the Shee Bee Gees. Music is taking over: our house is crazy with chanteuses, more than I ever dreamed of. With the girls, the energy is hard to characterize. It’s unleashed, it’s high and loopy and loose; it’s like boys, with no boys around.
I try to stay out of the way, try not to listen too intently, as if I might break the spell by leaking creepy male vibes. Instead, I cook for them. I cook up spaghetti Bolognese and leave the kitchen door open a crack, listening. These girls can spend hours tweaking the four-part harmonies, writing new melodic lines, finding the music, just to make the most beautiful thing—this lovely, consonant sound in our house.
And so we’ve begun to live in our pink house—we’re inside—and even though it’s not a story I would naturally think to tell, it feels as if it all happened once upon a time.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out this week.