By the time Rachel reached her destination, the snow and ice had stopped their onslaught. Perhaps the Earth had given up; perhaps Rachel had outlasted her, difficult as it is to grasp such a thing – that the swell of angst in the soul of an ordinary, insignificant suburban housewife could rise to outlast such a powerful, natural force. Yet, here she was, snaking her mommy car through a tiny subdivision of Pueblo, hair wet and disheveled, stuck to her wind-chapped cheeks and forehead, grey cardigan moist and itchy and clinging to her body.
Her car found its way to a coul-de-sac and the driveway of a quaint two-story, color of canary and shutters in white. The house had seen a fresh coat of paint since she’d seen it last, but its shade hadn’t changed; someone was wise enough to know that yellow was its best color, and in spotting the home for the first time in many years, Rachel sensed her psychological glass box unlatching. She opened her car door, heard a familiar squeak from its hinges, and when she stepped outside, the front door of the house opened. Out stepped a handsome man, well dressed, smiling like a lottery winner.
Rachel attempted to act natural as she approached the front door of the canary house, but she judged by the handsome man’s expression that her unkempt appearance had caught him by surprise. He stared at her, mesmerized briefly, certainly wondering what she’d done to herself. Had she blown a tire on the freeway and walked through the storm to a service station? The longer he stood motionless with half a slack-jawed smile, obviously at a loss over how to react, the more confident Rachel grew. It would be easy to get what she wanted from him. He was off-guard and younger as well, younger than she by just a few years, but certainly young enough to allow her to take subtle lead in the situation.
“Hello Kyle,” she said as she approached. “sorry I’m a little late. Weather, you know?” She pointed her eyes toward the sky.
“Oh!” he broke his partial paralysis. “That’s no problem, Mrs. Long. We’re used to it around here!”
“I know you are.” She grinned, now looking past him to the front door. “Shall we?”
“Oh yes! After you.” He gestured her inside the house. “So…I take it Mr. Long won’t be joining us?” he asked as she passed.
“Nope. Just you and me, Kyle.” She stopped in the living room, removed her black loafers; her damp stocking feet touched carpet that appeared to be new. Her eyes began to roam the home’s interior.
“I gotta say, Mrs. Long, I was quite surprised to hear from you yesterday. We’d just gotten this house listed an hour or two before you called. I haven’t even put a sign in the yard yet!”
“Looks like I’m the lucky first shopper, Kyle.” she responded.
“Yes you are! Wait’ll you see what they’ve done with the kitchen! Should we start there? Mrs. Long?”
Rachel stood still, eyes nearly closed, smelling the air. Aroma of new carpet was the predominant scent, but somewhere in there, buried between olfactory layers, there remained a faint blend of fires burning on frigid nights and tulips in the springtime and a thousand home cooked meals; yes – the carpet was new, but just across the room was a stretch of old hardwood floors, and Rachel easily pictured that now pristine wood floor still littered with crumbs and juice splatters and the little Matchbox cars that her younger brother used to zoom across it like the Grand Prix. Her eyes formed tears at the corners.
“Hmm? I’m sorry…” She wiped her face with her damp sweater sleeve.
“Should we check out the kitchen?”
Curious as she was to see what had changed, what had remained the same, Rachel was still keenly aware of her time constraints. She needed to wrap up her business quickly and start heading back North.
“Kyle, let’s not worry about the kitchen right now. I’m interested in the closets.” she said.
“Mmhmm. Girl can never have enough closet space, you know.”
Recognition flashed on the realtor’s face. “Ah, right! Well, it is an older home, so I hope you’re not expecting huge walk-ins, but I think you’ll like what they did in the master…”
“How about the basement?” Rachel interrupted.
Too obvious! What woman looks at a house and wants to see the basement first?
“Yes, the basement closets. We’ll be having more kids soon, and I’ll need lots of storage for their toys and things.” she said, a little more quickly than she’d intended.
“Right! Of course!” he responded, gesturing toward the hall.
Rachel pretended not to know which door lead to the downstairs, allowing Kyle to lead her there. While descending, three steps down to be exact, the scent of familiarity coming from the basement was so distinct that she barely registered Kyle’s comments about the basement – how it was an open area and would make a great play area for children. At the bottom of the stairs, a part of her was transported back two decades, and the largely ordinary basement – nearly unchanged in all that time – it was a castle, it was a concert stage, it was the set of a game show, it was so many things more than the aged, cracked walls and dated carpeting could display without the heart and imagination of a little dreamer girl.
“You can see, Mrs. Long, one of the previous owners had all these large built-ins installed.” Kyle rattled on.
“…built them himself…” Rachel muttered, barely audible.
“Never mind…” she said, mesmerized by the utter lack of change in the room since she’d last seen it. She was struck by the warmth, the comfort of knowing herself again in that moment. For these days she’d come to feel that the person living her life – the one walking about in her body, wearing her clothes and minding a house and a baby and worrying about money and growing old – that this was some other person calling herself Rachel, and she was forced to watch this life that wasn’t hers from that confounded, impenetrable glass box while time circled the drain. Now, in the timeless basement, she felt herself again. “The laundry is down here?” she asked, but it was hardly a question.
“Ahhh, I think so.” Kyle responded, looking around the room. Before he could begin to locate the hookups, Rachel was crossing the room to a set of sliding doors, which she opened, revealing an empty closet with unfinished walls and a bare floor where washer and dryer would set.
“Kyle” she said without turning.
“Yes, Mrs. Long?”
“What school district is this home in?”
“Hmmm, I’d have to check on that.”
“Um, now?” he asked.
“Yes, please.” she responded, glancing back with a thin smile.
“Oh, ok.” He reached into his pocket, extracted his phone, glanced at the screen. “Excuse me a minute. No bars down here.” he said with a chuckle, then retreated upstairs.
Upon hearing his footsteps up the staircase, Rachel advanced into the back corner of the laundry closet, her eyes adjusting slowly to the dim light, but her eyesight was not necessary. Her hands and feet knew the path well. Tucked behind another set of homemade built ins, an empty, narrow space remained between the shelves and the wall – a space to hide in, if one was small enough. A space to pretend. She’d always felt that her father left that space on purpose, built the cabinet just far enough out from the wall to carve a couple square feet of real estate that was hers alone. For her and one other, actually.
Too grown up now to fit her entire body behind the cabinet, Rachel tucked herself as close to the wall as she could, relishing the mustiness of the tight corner as she reached inside and tugged on a loose piece of drywall. It came free with little effort. Rachel probed with her fingertips. She released a sigh, punctuated by a soft flow of tears when she brushed over something plush and clumped with dust.
“Jonesy!” she whimpered, and she pulled the object free from its chilly lair. “Jonesy, you’re still here!” She pulled the filthy thing to her body, hugged it and clutched it with an intensity that squeezed the blood from her hands. “I’m so sorry I left you.” she breathed, choking back a sob.
“Mrs. Long! Got an answer on your school question!” Kyle’s feet pounded down the stairs.
She wiped her eyes and tucked the neglected teddy bear inside her sweater.
The tires of Rachel’s Subaru clacked hypnotically against the seams of the freeway as the air of Pueblo melted away behind her. The fuzzy head of Jones the stuffed bear bounced in time with the car’s suspension. Like a child, he was strapped into the passenger seat. His eyes of glass stared indifferently at the glove box door. Rachel’s attention was fixed to a vision several hours in the future, when she would wait until husband was snoring and baby fed and lain in crib; she would sneak to the car, retrieve Jonesy, and use the solitude of night to locate a new hiding spot for her aged friend – a secret spot for only them, small enough to remain hidden and large enough for her to escape into.
She clicked on the radio, found another tune buried within the static, and sang a song for Jonesy.