How to Build a Home
He said they would return.
“Soon,” he’d promised.
She had heard this often before, but it never meant the same thing twice. The parameters shifted each time, lengthening and extending like waves on the beach.
In Her youth She’d been a sight to see. Brought into the world by a man named Rex, Her purpose in life was to fulfill a dream. She wouldn’t be as grand as some, but She would be his. She would be the solution to his problems; She would be the last lines of a chapter; as his ally, She would persuade his wife, Susan, to join him on the express train to what he believed would be life’s greatest chapter: Middle Age.
Counting the days, She learned that this time, “soon” meant twenty-eight days. She yearned for his touch and sighed when he ran his hands up the front porch rail as he climbed the stairs to the front door.
“It shouldn’t creak like this.” Susan glared at Her. She had long ago fallen rank with Susan—a name that sat beside, but no longer with, Rex. Each had grown jealous of the other’s place in his life.
“Think of it as character,” Rex smiled at his two loves.
“Well let’s just hope the children don’t fall through the floor,” Susan muttered as she retreated to the front yard to gather the boys.
During Her early construction, things were different. Susan brought him sandwiches for lunch and slathered sunscreen on his nose. She applauded his work and promised she’d love Her even if the roof was crooked and the stairs unsteady. In nine months, She flowered into four strong walls with dark wooden floors, a sturdy roof, and more than a dozen windows. The excitement over Rex’s progress was immediately swept under the rug by two words from Susan: “I’m pregnant.” Though both were shocked, as a baby hadn’t been planned (and was believed to be impossible), Rex promised She would be complete before the baby was born.
In order to finish Her before the arrival of the baby, Rex had to cut corners. The oversized soaking tub on backorder would be cancelled. The elaborate kitchen plans would be simplified. But even without Her marble counters and luxurious bathtub, She stood proud and tall when Rex revealed his almost-finished results to Susan.
“Can you give me a tour another time? My back is killing me,” Susan complained. Seventh months into the pregnancy and she was ready for Nelson’s arrival.
“I don’t see why not. There will be plenty of other opportunities to come back.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Rex. Once Nelson is here...well, there might still be time for another,” she reminded him.
“We’ll talk about that later. This baby still isn’t finished.” He pointed at Her.
As if she hadn’t heard what he’d said, Susan returned to the car, refusing to look in Her direction until they were miles away.
They only stayed the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, Susan quickly packed up the car and wrangled the boys, Nelson and Milo. Rex rubbed his hand along the porch banister. The salty air and dizzying winds hadn’t been kind to Her. The paint was wrinkled and yellowed but Susan hadn’t allowed him the time to sand and repaint. Breathing in the salty air and giving Her a long look, he made Susan wait a few more minutes before joining his family in the car.
She returned his look longingly and when he left she was lonely again.
Even Susan couldn’t shake his feeling of accomplishment when She was complete. He had transformed an empty lot by the ocean into a home. By then, Nelson was more than a year old and Susan was four months pregnant with Milo. Construction had taken him much longer than anticipated, but She had been the one constant in his life; She would always be there, no matter how many days or weeks it took him to return.
She was cozy with just two bedrooms and one bathroom. When Rex had initially drafted the floor plans, the house was only intended for two. He’d planned on retiring early in his seaside cottage. He would write that novel he always imagined and Susan would teach yoga at a studio in town. But by the time She was complete, his family had doubled in size. Despite Her open floor plan, long stretch of windows, and wrap-around porch, two rambunctious tots required more than 1,000 square feet.
In Susan’s eyes, She was a burdensome leftover from their B.C. (Before Children) years. His inability to let go of Her and focus solely on his family frustrated Susan. But life worked in her favor and their weekends quickly filled with activities, from Nelson’s soccer games to Milo’s swim lessons. On the rare occasion when they didn’t have plans, the weekend was spent with Her. Though she knew she couldn’t keep Rex away from Her forever, she could limit his visits to a minimum. Eventually, Susan hoped, She would age past quick repairs and he would lose interest, realizing what a mid-life crisis She had clearly been.
He didn’t return for one hundred and ninety days. She’d counted. Certain he was a mirage, She remained slumped over until he wrapped his hand around her porch railing. His touch brought Her back to life. She straightened and hoped he didn’t notice how much She had let Herself go.
He came alone this time. The sight of his small backpack disappointed Her. It meant he wasn’t staying long. He walked through each room, turning the lights on and then back off. The bathroom light flickered and burst. He walked back to the living room and pulled out a notepad, jotting down a quick note.
Evening arrived quickly and the house was dim with just the living room light turned on. Rex sat silently on the couch and stared at the wall for hours. Only the chime of his digital wristwatch signifying the start of a new day—a succession of four quick beeps repeated three times—broke his trance. He turned the light off and blindly stumbled his way back to the couch. Pillows, blankets, and a mattress awaited him just a dozen feet away, but the barren couch was the only destination point on his map to sleep.
The unrelenting chime of his ringing cell phone nudged him awake.
“Yeah?” he yawned as he answered.
“Am I bothering you? It’s only your wife calling.”
“No, sorry. I just woke up.”
“So you’re still there. I take it you’ve completely forgotten it’s your birthday today.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“That’s even worse. Rex, we’re parents. We can’t just do whatever we please. The kids made you a cake. They actually counted out forty seven candles.”
“I’ll be home this afternoon. I promise. I just have a few things to take care of around here. I don’t come here enough.”
“What?” Rex asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Nelson and Milo are growing up fast, but not that fast. We’ve got at least another thirteen years to go.”
“If I kept up on a few simple repairs...if I came down once a month-”
“You need to be here.”
“Why does it bother you so much?”
“Because," she sighed again, "you can't have both. You can be here or there, but not both. It's the choice we made years ago.”
“That isn’t fair for you to make me choose.”
“Life isn’t fair. You need to choose. Now.”
For what seemed like five minutes, neither said a word.
“Do you ever wish things had gone the other way?” he asked.
“Jesus Christ. Absolutely not! Do you? Do you?”
None of them returned for a long time and eventually She lost count of the days.
Her beams rattled in winter and Her paint cracked in summer. After a particularly heavy storm, She stood slightly tilted. One night, a thrown rock shattered a window. Another night, three snickering teenage boys spray-painted “KYLE IS GAY” on the front door. The wind swept sand into Her through the broken window and dust crawled onto every surface. Shingles were missing from the roof and a porch step caved in after an overly plump seagull landed on it to rest. While She had long given up on vanity, She was certain termites were eating away at Her bite by bite.
The only thing that kept Her standing was the promise of Rex’s return and the dream of the other life that almost was. If She gave into the distant but aching thought that Rex was not coming back and that what was to be would never become, She would cease to exist. If She gave into the thought that she was not a Home, and instead just four walls and a roof, She would collapse and the ocean would swallow her whole.
But he said they would return.
"Soon," he'd promised.
About the author:
Melissa Darcey is a writer based in San Diego, CA. She has a soft spot for Jane Eyre, coffee, and her orange cat, Milo. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Litro, Black Heart, Cease, Cows, and elsewhere.