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Eden, Slipping

On the darkest nights, when the wind is howling through the tousled trees and leaves are rustling off their dripping branches—and the beams in the attic are groaning, popping from the barometric pressure and moisture—I feel as though this small cottage is a battered dinghy bobbing in a raging tempest. But somehow, its warped, wooden framing and patched, plastered seams always bolster it just enough—holding it firm, silently enduring the onslaught in the dark.

And then, hours later, as morning light diffuses through the seemingly impenetrable, gray cloud banks, I watch the once forceful rain drip lazily from scuffed eaves and rusted, leaking rain spouts.

Image description: a small cottage in the middle of a cleared terrace, with a stone path leading to it.

This, our home, has delivered us, its cargo, to another day.

***

As a kid, my overblown conception of a personal Eden featured a sprawling, multi-room Gothic mansion set in an open, browned field with trees lining its overgrown edges. Never did I imagine a small, dank cottage to supplant that fantasy.

When I think about the beauty of this place—what it has endured—I’m awestruck. Somehow, amid multiple housing booms and a changing skyline, it remained tucked away, sheltered behind behemoth rhododendrons and partially veiled with ivy. Coupled with pervasive rot, its decades-long neglect should’ve doomed it to become a mouldering, collapsed heap on the low, bramble-packed terrace.

And yet it remained upright long enough for a half-broken man and his faithful sidekick to move in and make it the best home they’ve ever had. But now, our time here is inching to an end.

I continue to water my plants, weed my flower beds—knowing that, as the tides swell and slowly pull this refuge from my grasp, I’ll be left unmoored in uncertain waters, reaching for a lifesaver. And honestly, I don’t know what it’ll look like.

My internal refrain has often been, As soon as you’re priced out of this home, that’s it. Back East you go. Mostly because the painful prospect of moving again is blunted by the comforting thought of returning to a place where I first made a home. But with no savings—and no ability to save—and no job prospects way over there, settling into a joyless, cookie-cutter studio miles away from the places I enjoy is my only recourse: debilitatingly sad, but pragmatic.

Seattle is lovely. It’s liberal. It’s scenic. There’s great thrifting. And it’s only a few hours away from Justin Trudeau. But I moved here coupled, with a fiscal buffer; together, it all worked—until we didn’t. Through a combination of begging my landlord and reducing every single expense I possibly could, I managed to pull this place—and myself—together over the past year. Always, though, the specter of another year loomed menacingly, with its associated cost-of-living spikes. But for a time, I was able to occupy my thoughts with surviving, rather than thinking about my imminent displacement as I’d done every moment since I’d taken over the lease. After all, I had another year, full of potential—something would come of my attempts to change my situation.

But here I am, slipping along the downward slope of my current leasing cycle, knowing that begging will do nothing now; even the slightest rental increase will make this place unreachable. The bubble continues to expand in Seattle, and there’s no cathartic burst in sight. With an entire paycheck consumed by rent, and the other pulled apart to satiate the utility, car loan, and credit card gods, I usually have between $5 and $15 left at the end of the month—and that’s if everything else stays consistent, which it never does. Unless you’re in corporate, being single in Seattle means you scrape by—you survive; you don’t live.

Seattle is no longer the grunge scene-inspiring, gritty city of the Cobain years. It’s now a polished playground for the rich—where upwardly mobile Millennials with six-figure salaries wave goodbye to longtime tenants and homeowners—most of whom are people of color who have to watch their neighborhoods be shattered by multi-million dollar box houses with Black Lives Matter signs posted out front, or re-zoned for massive micro-studio complexes.

I was silly to think I’d be an exception—that I, a relative newcomer, and of all the people displaced by Seattle’s boom, would somehow hold steadfast in my battered rental cottage against the raging tides of gentrification.

I fantasized about Gay Gardens being the place where I’d make it as a writer—no one famous, but earning just enough to stay put, save up, and buy this little place as ravenous Microsofties and Amazonians gobbled up everything around me. And then I’d slowly will my other dreams into reality.

I wouldn’t have to think about selling off most of my things just so I could afford to be displaced. I wouldn’t have to imagine the carefully crafted outdoor spaces I’ve built out of nothing being plucked apart by yard salers—bird houses and garden baubles and outdoor furniture snapped up like carrion for crows. I wouldn’t have to eventually hand over my keys and walk up the front stairs to a laden car, looking back over my shoulder at my Eden: the future site of million-dollar mansions. And I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that this place will soon be gone—face the imminence of a backhoe plowing headlong into the living room, its bucketed arm pivoting to level the tiny bedroom where I curled up my first night alone in five years and sank into the inky darkness of the forested hollow around me.

***

JoJo and I complete our around-the-house circuit, and as we reach the front patio, she stares up with her watery eyes, pleading for more time.

“Alright, we’ll go around again.”

Leaves cascade down from the gusting wind, their brittle edges reminding me that I won’t experience another fall here—staring out from the sun porch’s wavy-glassed windows while cradling a cup of hot coffee.

I’ll be somewhere else—probably in a large apartment complex in Tukwila with paper-thin walls listening to my neighbors squabble. But, with hope, in the depressing box that awaits me, I’ll be able to save enough money to pay off my credit card—racked with car repairs and heating bills rather than fanciful vacations and pedicures—and save enough money to move back to the East coast, or someplace I can actually live.

The wind nips my back as I run my hands along the weathered wood pallet garden wall. I clutch it hard, my knuckles turning white.

I wanted to build so much more here.

Back inside, as I warm her towels in the dryer, JoJo claws her way up into my lap. Her head, heavy with sleep, thuds quietly into my chest as she blows a snot-laden sigh into my orange cardigan.

I rest my chin on her tiny head, exhale deeply, and murmur through tear-clouded eyes, “Wherever you are is home.”

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Nostalgic Trek[kie]

I nudge the Klingon Bird of Prey an inch or so closer to the USS Enterprise to make room for the mint condition Star Trek puzzle—still in the plastic!—and wonder if my DragonBall Z VHS tapes and action figures will fit on the same table.

It’s then, as I step back to survey the tableau, that I realize why I hadn’t lost my virginity in high school.

Sighing, I cross out the puzzle’s ten dollar price and scribble in five.

Then take stock of my parents’ liquor cabinet.

***

It’s an oddly disconcerting feeling to pull out boxes from your parents’ attic and closets, haul them onto the front lawn, and know they’re not coming back inside. It’s not a holiday, and these aren’t temporary decorations. They’re “Everything must go!”

Especially that unfortunate Easter basket cornucopia overflowing near Laura’s New Kids on the Block beach towel.

Having been empty nesters for several years, our parents decided to downsize and retire to their hobbitesque, off-grid, semi-subterranean house in the Alabama woods. It’d always been a dream of theirs, as long as Laura and I could remember. But I’d always assumed it was a distant dream, never to be writ into the landscape, only in their minds.

But now, it was real. And it was time to clean out our childhood home, box up its interior décor and ship it out to The Shire or the front porch to sell.

Once I start packing a trunk with the essentials, I loiter among the remaining books, cars, and furniture stacked hoarder-style on the porch. I step over the rope tied between the columns, the sign Dad has taped to it reading, “If you can read this, you’re in range!”

Various stages of our childhoods and their associated recollections drip off table edges and pool in massive fifty-cent piles.

Trolls with homemade haircuts. Stacks of anime books. A crumpled My So Called Life poster. And then I trip over a pile of plastic marine mammals I’d begged my parents to order.

From a science magazine.

They’d been some of my favorites.

And had made cameos in the play session that ended my childhood. 

***

It’d been a hot day in the Serengeti, and plenty of creatures were hauling their dehydrated hides to the last watering hole for miles. Unbeknownst to them, though, G.I. Joes were camped along its banks. And they hadn’t eaten in days.

Tired, weak animals + famished G.I. Joes = massive carnage. Just as Ace and Chuckles attempt to ambush a dithering polar bear, the ground trembles.

An earthquake? How delightfully unintended! Especially since it’s not my doing.

But whose? Cobra looks pretty suspicious, eyeing a partially submerged seal from his dandelion perch. But it’s not Cobra.

It’s Le Sabre. My neighbor’s blue, airship-sized car.

I freeze, hoping that, like a T-Rex, Mr. Still won’t notice me as his car crawls down the gravel alley between our houses.

But he does.

And waves.

I stare. Mortified.

And that’s how my childhood ends: with a wave of a gregarious, geriatric neighbor.

He drives on, and I look back down at the mud hole and see a bunch of toys. Toys for which I’m now too old.

I’ve been spotted. Playing. Like a kid.

Sure, my parents have seen me splash around in the same mud hole on countless occasions, but they’re under parental obligation to let it go. Now, I’m exposed.

And that just won’t do.

I stoop, gather everything, and clean it off before walking back inside.

I quietly close my bedroom door and begin parsing my collections. Every last toy is packed into spare containers with little fanfare. In one box, Micro Machines and Matchbox Cars. Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys in another. All plastic animals in an old laundry basket. Pound Puppies, a Cabbage Patch kid, a generic Teddy Ruxpin, and a Care Bear stuffed into garbage bags.

With almost frightening speed and tact, I strip any semblance of a kid’s room from my walls, leaving an empty shell with former toys’ dusty outlines.

Mom passes by. Then walks back, looking perplexed.

“What’re you up to?”

“Just packing.”

I toss my Pog collection into a plastic bag, and shove it into a box.

She hesitates momentarily, then walks on.

***

Memories like these resurface as I run my hands along the mounds of stuff.

Laura’s creepy dolls remind me of the haunted houses we’d construct for one another, playing the lead character in our self-directed horror movies.

A broken Easter bunny candy dish summons the day Mom screeched, “You break everything I love!” after Dad propped his feet on the living room coffee table and broke off the bunny’s ears.

And then there’s the column Laura and I had given Mom for Mother’s Day, which we broke that morning while she and Dad prepped for a celebratory lunch at Golden Corral. The reddish wood glue we’d glopped onto the broken pieces seeped out of the cracks, and the column chunks thuded to the floor just as Mom came into the room to tell us it was time to go. She looked from us, to the column, then shook her head.

After that, even I couldn’t finish my imitation seafood salad.

I notice an object I’d previously dubbed “Santa Javelin” in the “maybe” pile. During the initial sort, Dad offered to chuck it out the back door like an Olympic disc-thrower.

“How far do you think I can launch this thing? To there?” he’d pointed, past the mud hole, toward our backyard pet cemetery.

Sensing her beloved decoration’s imminent demise, Mom ran from the living room, grabbed it, and reaffirmed, “It’s dual-purpose, though!”

Then proceeded to flip the pencil-shaped figure front-to-back, showing the Christmas Santa painted on one side, a Halloween witch on the other.

I failed to see the significance.

“But it’s fugly.”

“What’s ‘fugly‘?”

“Nevermind.”

***

Every little thing teems with memories, and we watch strangers cart each one off to new lives, to make new memories.

***

By the time I’ve filled the trunk with childhood relics, I’ve passed through multiple life stages–remembered the conflicts, the tears, the joys, the changes. And as I drive my trunk-o-childhood back to North Carolina, I reflect on how “home” destabilizes and reforms throughout life.

How it’s contorted by experience and embodied by the people we love.

So as I shift the trunk into the guest bedroom, I peruse its contents one more time, removing the Matchbox cars I’d so loved. The same ones I’d wheeled along my cheek as a tired toddler, my eyes growing heavier and heavier with every roll. The ones I’d returned to time and time again to escape into a world of fantasy.

Vrrroom!

I empty them onto the dining room table, carefully select the choicest ones, and pile them inside a massive vase, up to the rim.

But before I top the pile with one of my favorites, I thumb the green Mustang across the tabletop, listening to its metallic wheels squeak, filling the room with a nostalgic echo.

And I quietly hum.

Vrrrrooom!