It was one of those pale February Sundays that make winter feel like a terminal condition. I was staring out the window of a crowded evening Amtrak, watching the Long Island Sound fly soundlessly by and mingle, on occasion, with stretches of leafless trees. This was not a brisk Acela, but one of the old, rough beasts, content to slouch toward New Haven in slothful fits and starts; when Mystic’s clapboard houses arose from the woods, we slowed, and the blips between us and the setting sun homed into focus. Cars glistened in driveways. Fresh paint shimmered on wooden shutters. Kids fooled in the smoke haze of a backyard barbecue. These are homes—beloved homes, I thought. And I began to cry. At that moment, as we sailed slow through Mystic, it hit me that my home, the one home I had ever loved, was gone.
That was in 2011. I was 18, and I had had two experiences that most people don’t in their first 18 years: I had lived alone, and I had owned a house.
That train was taking me back to school from Boston; I had been helping my parents move our things out of what had been our family’s home. 20 Prospect Ave., in Newton: the address rang with promise, and yet, like the decade during which it was ours, it always seemed scarred by the potential it so immediately lost. My early memories of the house include returning from school on Sept. 11, unawares, to find my brother gazing in silence at the godforsaken smokestacks on the sunroom TV. About a year later, we all sat down in that same room for a first-ever “family meeting,” and my parents explained that they were “not going to be married anymore.” The house sits, as if stranded, halfway up a steep hill, and that meeting began a gradual sliding away of all its residents, like so many passengers on an upturned sinking ship.
My father went first, to a new house nearby, and a new wife; then my brother, to college; then my mother, to a job in Manhattan, though she kept the house to spare me the travel. A couple days a week, she would return, but otherwise, I was left alone with our cats. (Even they darted out the front door any chance they got, but I could sprinkle catnip on the mat and they’d soon be back. With my father and brother, alas, it wasn’t that easy.)
So 20 Prospect became “the kitty house,” as my dad’s new daughter came to call it. The cats established the odor (musty with a hint of pee) and dictated the decor (furniture clawed or covered, rugs mussed up, fur everywhere). It became my afternoon ritual to come over and feed them. When necessary, I would also water the plants, and run the dishwasher, and perch the trash just so on the sidewalk incline. In this way I came to stake my own proprietary claim; it may have been the kitty house, but it was fast becoming my house too.
And glad I was of it. I found in the house’s emptiness a welcome refuge from the drudgery of school, the failures of my social life, and the emergence, over at my dad’s, of a nucleus I could orbit but never quite enter. I made 20 Prospect the kind of private kingdom most adolescents can only build in their imaginations. I learned to play the piano on the grand in the living room, and sang as loud as I liked. I taught myself to play the house, too: to flush the toilets with a flick of the wrist so the water wouldn’t run; to close each anomalous old door completely, and without any insensitive slamming; to tell time by the angle of the light that streamed through the huge, west-facing windows over the main stairs. My chores done, I would revel in my autonomy and linger, enjoying the views onto neighbors’ Edenic gardens while filling little Ikea bowls with Special K Red Berries and chocolate chips. Come winter, I would sit on the sunroom sofa with the fatter kitty behind me, plopped atop her favorite radiator. With my head leaned back against the purring pillow of her stomach, I would let my cares dissolve in a cat nap.
Eventually, my social life came to include non-failures, and my friends started to see the potential in a parent-less house. The kitty house, on the occasional weekend, swelled with actual people. To me, though, my friends always seemed to be in a different place. On my 18th birthday, I found myself retreating from my own party to a serene, second-story bedroom. Someone’s rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” wafted in from the piano below. “I strode all alone through a fallout zone,” the kid sang, and as my childhood floated away on the wings of that line, I realized 20 Prospect Avenue was still the best friend I had.
By Old Saybrook or so I had stopped crying. The Connecticut coast’s domestic cheer had faded with the sun, and my mind had turned back to the chaos and immediacy of college life. As I stepped onto the New Haven platform, though, I recalled standing earlier that day, one last time, alone in the light of the stairwell windows. It struck me that the house was gone precisely because it had served out its only remaining purpose: to see me off to my next stop. Its departure from my life was more accurately my departure from its.
Things fall apart, I thought. The cats were doing fine at their new home, my dad’s; surely sometime, somewhere, I would find another true home of my own. I took off down the platform, singing “Ooh, growin’ up” at the prospect.