Discover more from Peachfuzz
"the size of a place"
on want & the spaces we recognize ourselves.
I love how unforgiving January is, how naked. There is little to do but wait. When I walk around the park, I watch what’s left of the leaves turn to mulch under my heels. I think how I could live somewhere this cold and bare and be happy forever. Two mothers point out the geese flying in a v to their baby in a stroller and whisper they’re flying. The sun turns the overlap of tree limbs into spiderwebs of wood. Far in the distance, the dogs and people are dark blue against bright grass.
I walked into the park behind a stranger and after a few hours, exited behind the same stranger. The synchronicity made him feel near to me though I never saw his full face. Any congruence feels meaningful in winter, when the cold empties you onto the bare grass. What are the contents of your chest? When did you first know heat? Everything I understood about myself I understood the day I cleaned houses I didn’t belong in.
My friend’s family had a house-cleaning business and I went along with them one afternoon as a teen, clambered into their suburban van with the door that jammed as you pulled it shut, and we drove into the nice neighborhoods in Minneapolis to mop and dust and take out the trash in the homes of people who no longer had to be concerned with lint. It was spring, all of Minnesota still bright and clear from winter ice, bare tree limbs line breaks in the harsh light, slush and snow rivulets down the dark streets, the brisk air coinciding with sun that was more sting than heat.
My friend was a year older than me with a large laughing mouth like all her sisters and she teased me about how I worried the sandwich I was eating had turned. We sat in the back of their trunk with mops in buckets behind us. Dangled our legs, shivered in our spring coats. Minnesotans are little more than perfunctory with the first thaw, yet any temperature above freezing makes even the most cynical sort a believer in spring. We had parked by a river broken with ice in front of a row of houses so white and black you could mistake them for a cloister of nuns. Haven’t you ever had baloney, she asked. I wanted to wipe the mayonnaise off of my mouth.
All the homes we cleaned overwhelmed me. Old hardwood floors already glossy and lacquered; kitchens painted white and strung with copper pans on the wall; clocks with scrambled numbers; large prints in bright colors; open shelves that revealed trays of white dishes; study rooms with rows of books perched perfectly on black shelves; grand pianos. There were children’s bedrooms with handmade bunkbeds in the shape of tree branches and books in bolted shelves organized by color; china cabinets full of porcelain plates thin as sheets of paper; sleek red chairs, fat couches, so many pillows you’d never want for a soft place to rest; perfect contusions of plants. I hadn’t known you could live somewhere beautiful.
The house I remember most had a bedroom with a dark slate headboard and identical nightstands topped by copper lamps on each side. The upstairs hallway was long and flecked with afternoon sun from what I remember was a child’s bedroom at the end, the light like treacle sap against the shadows—and the walls were full of paintings and prints tall as myself framed on the walls. Beautiful images under thick sheets of glass. I did not sweep the floors but instead took in the gallery. Near the master bedroom was an enormous print in red and black tall as me and larger than my arm span. I remember only that it was a naked woman or an act of love (and how often those two blur) in fluid lines and sudden shapes. My friend’s mother apologized when she saw me looking. Some of the art is a bit much, she offered.
What to say but that I remember my shock and then my thrill. I was amazed at how I wanted the painting though something in that desire felt illicit, a strangeness I saw and immediately understood. I loved the fright, wanted what that fright overlaid. It was the thrill of recognition. The sudden heat that seemed to suggest some feral want and its satiation that I was sure the people who owned the painting understood. I determined to have an equivalent in my own home one day which was itself a way of promising myself to a path where desire elicited questions of disrobing.
More than beauty, I wanted nakedness. Buoyed by what had awakened and the secret I became in its drift, I oriented myself towards that same strangeness and told no one.
As a child, I lived in eleven different houses and remember each by fragments that compromise the integrity of the whole. When my sisters and I talk about them, we talk in fractures: the one with the checkerboard tile in the kitchen, the upstairs attic with the sloped roof, the house with the blue siding, the bedroom with mirrored doors. If you share enough intimations of happiness will they come true? I remember one home at the top of a hill under trees so thick you could not see the sky and in the memory the way down is infinite.
When I moved to Seattle I left the last family home I knew; I had shared the basement bedroom with both of my sisters. There were three beds and a few mismatched bookshelves stuffed into a space lit by one egress window overgrown with weeds. By the time I left, the room was emptied of almost everything. My grandpa had found black mold and so stripped the carpet floors to concrete underneath, gutted the closet like an overgrown fish. Only frames of furniture leaned against the walls. I recognized nothing when I said goodbye. I always wanted to give you a beautiful room, my mother said to me.
I understood intuitively as a child that to want this beauty was counterproductive, would only lead to grief. Wanting more than necessity, even wanting security, felt risky and more painful than good. You learn to need less, to want even littler. The window fogs up and you forget what you were looking at. One Christmas we received new pillows after years of the same squashed cushions and I was so happy I felt rich. The acuteness of my mother’s grief about my childhood bedroom is an offshoot of this larger grief that homed us all those years: lack and elision with her empty bowls and our unconscious agreement to pretend the table was full (for whose sake—his?)
While my mother made meals from empty drawers, my father did little but promise; I learned too late to disbelieve language as proof of actuality. We trusted his intimation of the home he’d build someday as if it assured a future not soluble to ruin. When I came out to him as a teenager, he put his hand on my head and said it could be prayed away and I understood what he knew of love lived only in the house he would never build and my family would never inhabit. The last time I saw him was after I had introduced him to an ex-girlfriend of mine, hoping he would see my happiness and it would be enough. There is nothing to say except that he was remarkably cruel in all the horrifically routine ways one can be. Everything good I had came from my mother—from my father, I learned only to how flee.
I think of the painting in the strangers’ house often, as it represents a moment of recognition that oriented me towards a future where I was not afraid. For so long, I thought desire only meant dissolution, that you could die by its heat. In the red of the painting, I recognized my own implication in alterity as desire for somewhere beautiful to belong, where I could want—nakedly, brightly, dangerously.
I always wanted to give you a beautiful room.
The sequence of events—my friends and their house cleaning business, the wood floors and winter light, the painting on the wall, my mother’s tears, all the rooms I lived—runs in one thread in my memory, a dark cord, the same weight the shadows of branches cast on Minnesota streets wet from spring snow.
These images bind me. I find my way through the drifts by the feel of my hands. It is almost a shame to leave anything behind.
title phrase from nikaela marie: “his smell is the size of a place”
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