by Silvia Bonilla
I go back and check the tub after showering. I think: the Nivea wash soap. I think: greasy. I think: a film on the tub. I think: risky. There is nothing to hold on to sometimes.
My friend’s father had a heart attack while showering. When they found him, still alive, he had third-degree burns on the left side of his body. I go back and wipe the shower floor with Clorox wipes, knowing no one else will shower after me, knowing I’m late for work.
Sometimes I find myself ironing on top of the bed rather than taking out the ironing board. Wasn’t that the kind of oversight that burnt down my aunt’s apartment? Today I dare myself to walk out of the house without checking again for plugged-in irons or lit candles.
At the corner of 48th Avenue, I make a right instead of a left, circle the block, open the door, and run back upstairs to confirm the iron in the coat closet is still unplugged. The coats brushing the top of the warm iron concern me.
I know how terrible it would be to lose everything to a fire.
I often take inventory of the things I’d try to grab before it all ended in rubble. I imagine walking in again and using the memorized coordinates to mentally place objects back where they belong. I imagine the bedroom floor cracking under us.
The realtor told us that the master bedroom faces southeast when she showed us the house for the first time. It’s auspicious for a couple, she said, standing at the center of the staged bedroom. The house was for sale, the previous owner having passed away six months before.
A ninety-year-old Italian woman who raised three beautiful daughters, the agent said. She told the story as we walked around the house. She pointed to possible bedrooms for the kids. A boy here, she said, then, a girl here. I couldn’t listen anymore because the house felt too familiar, as if I’d been there before.
I stood in a hallway on the second floor and placed my hand on the wall beside the coat closet, the same closet where my iron now rests cooling. I spread my hand, waiting for the plaster wall to read my fingerprints for the lines of my past, to recognize me, to welcome me home.
The owner was dead and her family wanted to move on. They were taking things from the house little by little. There were no photos left.
My sister looks for pictures of us to bring to the funeral home after my mother passes. She opens album after album. I can’t make a choice, so she decides on one where the two boys are standing next to my mother and the three girls are standing to the side. I am wearing Maryjanes and a blue dress with a white collar and embroidered cherry on it. I look sad. I want to jump inside the picture and shake the half-mocking smile from my face, straighten my shoulders. My sisters and I are posing without the weight of knowing our mother will leave us for America in a few months.
When I think about my mother’s funeral six years ago, I wonder about my friend’s scalded father. The pink, altered skin on the sides of his face and how his mouth seemed about to permanently slide. My mother would have preferred to die. She took charge of her death. Her head back, not all the way, but just enough, as if she had nodded in agreement with death.
The woman who previously owned our house had died in a hospital. The day we closed on the house, one of her daughters cried as they signed the papers.
Later, when we opened the door to what was now our house, the house revealed itself completely. Sunlight coming in through the stained glass windows, greeting us with a mossy odor.
In the kitchen, oak cabinets from the early 1900s were lined with stick-on paper in different patterns. We walked around as if we were looking at the house for the first time. Wait, I thought, is this the house I chose?
I rested my hands on the fireplace mantel. They’d taken the violet plant that was there before, whose leaves were so dark and supple, rising out of its white flowerpot. The twin beds in one of the bedrooms were also gone.
What else was there to do at this moment but walk around the space and feel that I’d missed something, something I hadn’t lived but was still terribly sad to let go.
My parents were proud we had become homeowners. My father talked about the floors and how they didn’t crack. Solid, he said, tapping the living room floor with his cane.
We had tiled floors in South America. We tried to go barefoot to cool our bodies from the heat but my mother would not let us. Shoes on all the time, she’d yell. My mother complained about my hair and how it always looked undone. I see what she saw in photos now when I see the girl I was.
I never talk in terms of dates. I keep forgetting which photos correspond to which years. When people come to my mother’s funeral, they stand in front of the easel with our family photos and ask questions like What year was this? What grade? They note how beautiful my mother looked as a bride.
My mother in the white coffin my husband picked for her because I couldn’t do it, choosing to stay in the office while he went downstairs to the selection. It was my first funeral.
On the day she died I visited my parents to bring her medicine. It was a day like today, the kind where I doubt myself and can’t leave the house without checking—always checking—to make sure there are no dangers the house can’t tell me about because it has gone mute.
I was running late for work the day I drove to Long Island to drop off the medicine. I touched the doorknob of my parents’ bedroom for a quick kiss. Don’t wake them up, said my sister.
I can see my mother in her white coffin from every seat at the funeral parlor. I move around as friends and family arrive. I watch her as if she is supposed to get up. I repeat myself when people ask. I don’t say I almost opened the door.
I wanted white walls. White walls are easy.
During the Sunday open houses, there was always something unexpected, despite the houses cloning themselves, all ranches and splits. I saw houses with all kinds of narratives. Unhappy and happy, split narratives, untrue narratives, narratives of abandonment, narratives of sickness. They stayed with me long after I walked inside their bodies, hearing their limbs crack and laugh. Young houses, old houses. Narrative is always there, the walls full of skin dust.
The lives I saw in the houses. Their young children and the soccer trophies in their bedrooms. The family photos in the living room. The women I met through those open houses. Especially the ones that were selling because we’re splitting. What happens to a house with a divorce narrative?
When my best friend got divorced, she said to me, I tried. You wouldn’t sense anything by walking into her apartment. A place full of sun, a skylight in the kitchen, the music on and all her flowers blooming. Some divorces root in movable spaces, shoes worn to meet somebody other than your own.
When we drove away, my best friend’s nine-month-old daughter in the car seat, I tried to understand. I didn’t know what to say to her other than I’m sorry. She never answered. We moved her into her new apartment, the building itself red-bricked and tall, maybe not ready to settle.
I didn’t sleep for the first month in our new house. The old radiators were noisy, signaling every time heat was coming up. The house was not talking to me the same way as before when I had my hand on its wall. I felt tricked, like I had taken the wrong turn. I lived in constant fights with the house. I was forcing it little by little to be something it was not.
My mother’s first place in New York was an apartment in the Bronx, a very old building. At the funeral, there is one photo of her, her sister, and her brother in this new American home. They are hugging and smiling. It’s spring and my mother wears a light blue blouse and a navy blue skirt. I know what you’re thinking and no, it wasn’t a uniform.
This is the nicest photo of those years before the fires forced tenants out of all the buildings. In this photo you can’t tell she was a mother of five or that her children were in South America waiting for a chance, for papers. You can not divine in the perfect alignment of her smile how she was missing us.
My mother waited for us at Kennedy Airport three hours before our arrival time. My father repeated the story often. After so many years, we fell again like petals around our parents.
My younger brother volunteered to confirm that the body at the morgue was my mother’s. My younger sister was buying luto clothes for the younger ones, ties for the boys, skirts for the girls. We all had a mission.
I’m at the funeral parlor before anything. Before the body arrives, before we help our father understand, before we call and repeat the story to everyone.
They’re preparing her, we explain to the younger ones. My sister who found my mother not breathing, my sister whose voice on the phone was loud and erratic. I heard hospital, I heard they’re taking care of her. I heard it’s going to be ok. We mishear reality sometimes. It has always been this way, starting when our parents left for New York to work. A year, tops, they said.
When the money came to us in South America every two weeks, we miscounted, thought we could buy more food and clothes than we could.
We’d fill a supermarket cart and walk around feeling in charge of our destiny for that hour until we didn’t, until, let’s leave extras. Then the cart rolling to the cash register with just the essentials. Sometimes not even that.
Sometimes my husband and I were shown houses where people continued their lives as normally as possible even as we walked into their spaces, interrupting the invisible boundaries of the personal.
A family from Bangalore let us in one Sunday morning to walk around their house. An old man sat in one of the bedrooms at the edge of a bed caring for a woman, a wife perhaps, whose mouth lay opened, eyes grey clouds.
His face held shame for the public exposure. We said sorry and walked out immediately but not before her eyes turned our way. Perhaps she died after we left. Perhaps we prevented death from inhabiting her when we walked in.
To think we made death pause somehow, made death hide behind that cone of light reaching toward the foot of the bed.
If I had opened my parents’ door before I left that day.
We wanted warm colors in the house we bought. My husband and I chose a red wall. We had seen this color in many houses as was the trend then, a red accent wall. All those selling their houses painted their doors red.
Once on Little Neck Parkway, a man in his late eighties opened the door to the real estate agent and us. The house was full of boxes that almost reached the ceiling and filled all corners of the living room and dining room. In the master bedroom, boxes containing unopened gifts from grandchildren, sons and daughters. I’m packing, he said to me. The only place that held order was the kitchen.
It was a feminine kitchen. A white lace curtain waved a little after the agent opened the kitchen window to let in air or let out mold-smell or else…I wasn’t sure because I was looking at the small appliances covered precariously by fabric. I was looking at the yellow phone that hung on the wall, next to a short list of phone numbers for emergencies. Exposed electrical wires dangled low in a threatening way.
He said to me I don’t know what to do with these, pulling out sealed cards from a box that read Birthday Cards. I rushed out thinking of his loneliness, how demanding it was, how it filled the cracks in the walls.
In Spanish there is no such word as passing. We speak in the margins of death, in the process of dying, but passing is a better word. Passing makes me think of walking by, walking until you reach your desired place.
Before they closed the coffin, we were told to say our last goodbyes. Her hair smelled like it always had. Like it did when she was a young mother and we climbed into her lap in the mornings when she wore her rollers. This is goodbye for real, this time she won’t reappear. The way she did after so many years apart, when we finally passed through customs.
Years later, years after unscrewing my head, trying to figure out the whys and hows of what hurt me. Years of talking to the house about its bad manners, about its deceptions. We’re not there yet. I’m still talking to mirrors.
Published August 11th, 2019
Silvia Bonilla holds an MFA from The New School. Her work has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Cream City Review, The Puritan, Cimarron Review, Jet Fuel review, The Acentos Review, Reed Magazine, Rhino, Pen & Brush, among others. She has received scholarships from The Vermont College of Fine Arts Writers Conference. Colgate Writers Conference and The Frost Place. She has been a contributor poet at Bread Loaf Writers Conference and Tin House Writers Conference. She is a Saltonstall Foundation Poetry Fellow. www.bonillasilvia.com
Werner Drewes was born in Canig, Germany, and began studying art in 1920 at the Stuttgart School of Architecture. After visiting the United States in 1924 and 1925, Drewes returned to work at the Bauhaus. In 1930 he came back to the United States, where he was introduced by Wassily Kandinsky to Katherine C. Dreier, a founder of the Societe Anonyme, and exhibited his work in Buffalo, New York. From 1934 to 1936, Drewes taught at the Brooklyn Museum under the auspices of the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1936, the year he became an American citizen, Drewes joined the American Artists Congress, exhibited at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and helped found the American Abstract Artists group. A member of the faculty at Columbia University in New York from 1937 to 1940, Drewes also served as director of graphic art for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York in 1940. In 1946 he joined the faculty of the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, where he remained until 1965.