The home I grew up in was almost 200 years old. A born-again farmhouse, it had chipped maroon shingles, gnarled gutters and a side porch shaded with lush oaks and maples. In the front yard, there was an odd rectangular pit that may have once been a reflecting pool but had since devolved into a mosquito breeding ground. In the backyard, nestled between wild raspberry bushes, there was a shed with a slanted roof, sheltering rusted backhoes and rakes from the rain. At the bottom of the gravel driveway sat a small stone stable that now housed Toyotas instead of horses. Flying squirrels lived in our attic, fond of nibbling on the wooden beams meant to hold up the ceilings. Families of deer would congregate on the steps, eating stale Cheerios we tossed out the kitchen door.
Inside the house were several rooms, and inside the rooms were several parts of a family. Sometimes the parts came together to eat London broil with potatoes and celebrate birthdays and watch CNN, but usually they were carefully sequestered, shut behind their respective doors. My mom revised syllabi on the king-sized bed in my parents’ room; my dad sketched lighting plots at a drafting table in his basement cave; my brother sat glued to League of Legends at the wide-screen computer in the living room; I sprawled on a rainbow duvet, IMing friends in my bedroom.
Oblivious would be a fair word to describe my family’s attitudes towards each other. Not just nutty professor-oblivious or absent-minded-artist-oblivious, but truly, unconscionably myopic as to what anyone else was up to—as long as we didn’t violate our territorial boundaries. But the house didn’t permit us to wander unnoticed. When the tiniest of tiptoes put pressure on any floorboard, the wooden slats would whine.
So the fact that my room (located upstairs at a dangerous proximity to my parents’ lightly sleeping bodies) was connected to the guest room (safely sequestered one floor below) was a happy accident—one I began to enthusiastically take advantage of once I hit puberty. I wanted to stargaze, to kiss. To be anywhere but where I was supposed to be.
I had shimmied out this window dozens of times, but that night the arch of my foot had barely grazed the frame when I heard the sound of measured footfalls on the stairs inside. I was late to meet my friends already, but I had taken no shortcuts in secrecy: clutching my shoes while I crawled through the closet; lowering myself onto a stack of pillows to cushion the drop into the room below; using the dim light of my cell phone to illuminate my trembling hand as it drew the curtain. Once I got from my bedroom into this one by way of connected closets, it was only a short, meter-high drop through a window down onto the muddy ground below.
* * *
I was surprised to hear anyone ascending the staircase that night because besides my nighttime ventures, nobody really came up here anymore. This tiny square room had once belonged to my grandmother, who, for as long as I could remember, came to live with us twice every year. Most years, she’d come and go with my mother’s work schedule: monthlong stretches in the fall and spring, enough time to make friends with every local shopkeeper but not enough to watch the seasons change. Then one year, she stayed. And then one day, she left.
Yia-Yia was strawberry shaped and biscuit-warm, born in Wilson, North Carolina to a family of second-generation Greek immigrants. She had entered her late 80s with a swiftly deepening Southern drawl and half-black, half-white hair she wore in a loose bun tied together by a fraying velvet string.
Her Cruella De Vil coiffure belied her sweetness: the doughy chest and wide lap I’d burrow into for comfort, the soft black sweaters that absorbed my tears, the delicate way she’d roll koularakia or coat meatballs in flour. Her love of large-print Nora Roberts romance novels. How she firmly believed it wasn’t ladylike to sweat—ladies perspired. How she’d ask my mother “Is everyone under the roof?” every hour on the hour, until everyone was.
Months earlier, Yia-Yia had vacated the room to spend her final years back in North Carolina. Yia-Yia was physically healthy, but by the time she left her mind had all but disintegrated. She was headed towards final stage dementia: couldn’t brush her teeth or lift her fork without encouragement and direction. My parents offered both to her, but when the snow came no amount of love could get her down the frost-covered stairs out our front door. After a year of quarantined life in the small square room, we drove her 12 hours to the flat-lying shotgun house in Raleigh.
Since then, the room had become a repository for stuff—stacks of yellowing Brecht plays; waterlogged “Learn Greek” books salvaged from a tornado; the dozen copies of “Le Petit Prince” my mother had collected from every country we’d been to, each spine uncreased. A patchwork quilt stitched by my great-grandmother lay under lumpy Harry Potter pillowcases. Old lightbulbs and boxes of Oreos swallowed up the indentation in the bed her body had carved.
After she left, we all exchanged hugs, and then went back to our respective rooms. Back to living our own parallel lives, perpendicularly.
* * *
Yia-Yia always used to insist that her hair just happened to grow that way, but my mother confided later that she had started dying it at 60. This was the only lie I ever heard her tell.
I, on the other hand, had been lying a lot lately. Where I was going, who I was going with, when I’d be home, what I’d be doing with whom and how much. It had become easier to say nowhere, with no one, and goodnight, before making my escape through Yia-Yia’s bedside window.
If Yia-Yia had been there that winter, I wouldn’t have been able to get away with any of it. For obvious reasons, like her proximity to the window and her mistrust of men and her belief that ladies shouldn’t spread their legs, even for climbing purposes. But also because in her eyes I wasn’t this person. I didn’t care about boys—didn’t sneak out of my house because they wanted me to; didn’t kiss them because they tried.
She had been there for my first steps, my first words. Proofread my essays. Scolded me for going outside without a coat; for not wearing socks in the house. “Say-rah!” she’d drawl from her roost at the dining room table. She was always afraid I’d catch a cold.
During the seemingly endless months of her final visit, our roles slowly reversed. I’d sit on her lap and watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and tuck her in at 10 p.m. I’d put a chicken pot pie in the microwave and watch nervously as she pressed her fork into the mush, willing her to eat. I’d hold her hands when she crouched above the toilet and tried not to cry when she forgot what came next. I’d will myself to be patient when she didn’t know which faucet to open; when she woke up in the middle of the night to cry out from a nightmare.
But my mother worried; my father worked. I left for school early and stayed out late, learned what being a teenage meant and stopped caring about other people much. Suddenly, we were all too busy for Yia-Yia. She probably could have handled the snow, but we couldn’t have handled another season of false teeth and doctor’s offices and the 3 a.m. wail that meant she’d woken up to the clammy smell of drenched sheets.
Yia-Yia went back to Raleigh and the house went back to normal. Without her to feed, we microwaved our own meals and retreated to our rooms for dinner. Without her to listen out for, we closed our doors. I walked around barefoot and nobody worried. Her bed became a pantry; the walls and windows that had housed her and held us together became the key to my escape.
* * *
That night, as I heard the footsteps reach the penultimate stair, I faced the wall and made my body as small as I could. But when my father reached the top, he didn’t see me huddled there. He headed straight to the bathroom, passing blindly within inches of my trembling shoulders. The toilet flushed. He left. I breathed.
One push and I could have landed in a pile of decomposing leaves, leapt into the car idling in the driveway and stargazed. But that night I just lay there, in the indent made by Yia-Yia’s absence, remembering what it was like to be someone’s little girl.