The house marked Foreclosed across from mine was abandoned with the windows wide open. Twin squares like eyes peering deep into my house. Or rather, the house I’d come to call my own, simply because it was the only thing left. The basketball hoop on my parent’s garage down the street, that I swore I would take if I ever left, didn’t fit in the faded leather suitcase. Neither did the uncorked barrel of 1935 French Bordeaux my best man had given to me on my wedding day. Even my collection of Whitman, which I had lugged from dorm room to apartment to ranch house, pulled too heavily on the worn handle.
I’d seen these same empty eyes in another life. The day before I’d left her, that life, those belongings, that mistake—rather that choice, for this cold place, even in the humid summer afternoon.
I’d eaten out every night since I moved into this unfamiliar town, unable to make anything more than breakfast foods. She had always done the cooking.
When the waiter took my order, I spoke too much. Did I think he’d take me around and introduce me to all his buddies like a fresh transfer student? I hoped for anyone in the booths around mine to say anything about home, or the ocean, or business. To say anything about any course I’d studied in college. A snippet of familiar conversation that I could weigh in on. No such luck. Me, with my hard city consonants and rushed sentences, like pushing my way into a subway, couldn’t understand their slow, gutteral noises that crawled from their lips. My native tongue was in The Lake, around “prairies” where Cub-inspired kids gathered nightly to play. They spoke in a language of trees, these mountain-dwellers, something I knew nothing about.
“Those damn American mountainash that keeps shedding its flowers on my driveway. Had to pay Tom 500 bucks to reseal it without the frickin’ flowers.”
She would’ve loved it. Flowers sealed forever atop tarmac. A little natural beauty never hurt anyone, she’d say.
A week later, a man in line behind me at the hardware store spoke in the same dialect.
“I can’t stand all the birds in the hawthorn growing in the front yard. The wife wakes up with them at 4 AM. Even on Sundays. Don’t the things know it’s the Lord’s Day? It’s unethical to get up before 10! ”
At least the birds and I shared something in common, awakening before dawn every morning from necessity of survival. It was impossible to imagine staying in the house for another sleepless, unspoken hour. The silence echoed from the bedroom to the kitchen, into the bathroom and back downstairs to the hungry pantry, bouncing off the bare walls. Piercing my ears. But to speak out of tongue to these local men felt like a death sentence. Even if I had the guts to talk to them, these men cared little about what time it was, nor about my inability to make a single friend. They weren’t Ed, my childhood neighbor, who had cut my hair for free since I was born even though he’d sold his barber shop years before. These men didn’t punch through adolescence with my parents, didn’t watch Tommy pull the trigger of his father’s pistol and fall from the Dearborn Street Bridge, they didn’t follow the Bears on their television sets balancing a Hopslam Ale on their growing bellies.
The yipping dog down the street gnaws at his oversized bone and glares at any passerby. His barking was a constant reminder of his loneliness. And mine. The lonely hung across my shoulders like the hand-woven sweaters she gave me every Christmas, even though I’d never wore them in public. It itched and no matter how raw I scraped my skin, these irritants remained. The dog screams to the world night after night, begging for one single listener. I’m the only one. I want to howl back, to throw a conversation in the air. Let it hang above just to know neither one of us is alone. I don’t. His reminders continue into the night, keep my eyes open and staring through the cracked ceiling of my bedroom. Listening, I always think of the next morning, what adventures I would attempt, what squinted stares I would shrug off. And then I realize: the dog is my only companion.
The empty dent in the bed where she used to lay pulls me towards the wall, something naked and new and entirely my own. This kept me awake longer than the needy dog ever could.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll step off the porch of my apartment for the first time in days, or has it been weeks? There’s been no reason to leave. No reason to remember the day before. No point in recalling the empty list of events in my unopened planner. I’d bought it 3 months ago at the Staples a few towns over. Back then I’d hoped to fill it with BBQ parties and informal summer meeting times. Maybe even a date with a local girl I’d meet at the bar. The local girl would be enamored with the foreign stench that everyone else shuffled away from, ready for a man who had never carried her mother home from the bar to the tiny apartment they shared. That was when I had thought there was no one here to fill what I had left behind, 3,000 miles away.
I never did meet that other girl.
The sharp smile of the moon gives me hope. I make a habit of riding my bike around town after the locals had gone to sleep. I wait until they are relieved from their guard of the stoops of their houses. Until their bedside lamps flicked out. Until their overstuffed wives curl around them. Only then do I sneak from my bed, down the stairs, out the front door, onto the porch and under the blanket of stars. Mounting the bike I reclaimed from the junkyard, now repainted and freshly tuned, I breathe in and it fills me up. The air bubbles into my toes and then pushes upward towards my hips, spilling across my chest down to my elbows and palms. The streetlights mapped my route. Only then do I feel comfortable enough to make this place mine. I take the sidewalks, the roads, the bridge, the pharmacy, the town hall, the grocery store. I take the rivers, the trees, the fields, the forest, the mountains, the valleys, the sky, the moon, the clouds. I am an adventurer of the night. A greedy pirate sailing the uncharted concrete seas, stealing everything in sight for my own.
How romantic, she would say, keeping the night as your only prisoner.