And then something happened that changed everything.
I wish I could start the story that way, because that’s how it felt when it happened: startling, vivid, breathtakingly transformative. Even now it makes my heart race, the moment when I looked down and saw what I saw on our front porch, and the follow-up moment when I pulled the car out of the garage and saw what was there. But you can’t be jolted out of a world without there being a world to be jolted out of. That’s an awkward way of saying it, but I’m a storyteller, not an expert in metaphysics. Bear with me.
And then something happened that changed everything.
We’ll get to the something. But first, you have to know what the everything was.
We were renting a house on a cul-de-sac in northern Virginia. The purplest part of a purple state, in the section of territory that, viewed on a map, looks like it was carved out of D.C. Someone probably fought a war over this patch of land, once upon a time. Historic battlefields were everywhere, replaced now by highway interchanges and big-box stores. Progress marched along. Even decent old brick houses like ours were being torn down in favor of ersatz palaces with fake-stone facades, their walls rising up from the very edges of the small-sized lots.
One nice thing about living in a purple state was that my vote mattered. What was less nice was that my next-door neighbors put up an Obama sign and the kids who lived across the street shot it up with their BB guns.
We had left New York City so that our toddlers could play in a backyard. And now this? Young political activists? With guns?
I had not moved to the suburbs so my kids could be caught in the crossfire.
But we had signed a twelve-month lease, so what could we do? We settled in and kept the blinds pulled. Our kids could play in the backyard. Away from stray bullets.
Since we were renting, there were a few things we had to do to convert the house to something suitable for our family. We took down a hammock after it caused too many problems. (Hammocks are lovely for grownups. They can propel small children halfway across a backyard.) We drained the hot tub on the back deck out of similar safety concerns.
Inside, there was a pull-down ladder to the attic. I loved the attic: it was huge and roomy, and we could stash plenty of clutter up there. The one downside was that the owners had left a few things of their own: a metal rack holding some coats, a letter jacket, and a wedding dress in plastic, and four or five boxes of trophies and other knickknacks. I knew I should have been grateful that they had not left those things in the house itself. Instead I was irritated and tempted to throw it all out.
What were we paying for? Dammit, we were renting a house. We were not renting a storage unit.
It was an unreasonable position, but there it was. Those items were a reminder that we did not own this house, and I did not like how that made me feel.
It was frustrating, for example, that the owners had not trusted us with the remote control to the automatic garage door opener. Every time we entered or exited the garage, we had to park the car, get out, punch buttons on a key pad, and get back in the car. In rain. In snow. In wind. With the kids asleep. With the kids screaming. Every single time it was a pain, and every single time I thought about how temporary and transient our lives were.
Twenty addresses in twelve years. It’s one thing to live like that when you’re poor and living in dirty old apartments. The life of the struggling writer. Paycheck to paycheck, meal to meal, crummy surroundings, cold nights spent under the covers on a hand-me-down futon. It’s living! It’s living free! Hello, Bohemia! But this? Rent at this place was a sizable expenditure, and it was for a house, with a finished basement and a backyard. This was a place for grownups to live in.
And we were grownups, whether we liked it or not, because parents have to be. Granted, I was a baffled, confused parent, a father with no idea what fatherhood meant or how to handle it, with zero strategy other than the single tactic that as a 35-year-old man, I could present what seemed to small children like wisdom and authority. Eventually they would figure me out. For now, I faked being an adult. And it worked: faced with a three-year-old and a one-year-old who believed in me just as they believed in Santa, their optimism and expectations overcoming what was in front of their very eyes, I pulled off a great con, day after day after day. I bluffed them.
So then: a grownup I was, or appeared to be, most of the time. But this house did not make me feel like a grownup. It felt as if the real grownups – the ones with the stuff in the attic, and the ones in possession of the automatic garage door opener – had gone somewhere and left us in charge.
On a morning that spring I went to retrieve the kids, who were playing next door at the neighbors—the Obama-sign neighbors, not the camouflage-wearing junior soldiers of fortune. I left via our back door, walked across the deck, and headed for the gate that separated our two yards. Even from here I could admire their house, built to appear in Architectural Digest, which was literally the wife’s dream, or perhaps I should say vision. She had acquired two dogs, not because she wanted dogs particularly, but because their butterscotch coats matched the house and would look fantastic in the photo spread.
Her husband had told me this one day with a heavy sigh. I nodded as if I understood, but I felt like I was from another planet. Our house had two rooms that had no furniture at all, and a third that only had two beanbag chairs. Maybe Architectural Digest would have a Minimalist issue we could get in on.
I hopped down the steps and walked around the waterfall that no longer worked, hopefully through nothing my kids had done. And then, as I passed the back of the hot tub, I heard something strange. It sounded like growling.
I stopped in place, afraid to move until I heard what it was.
More growling. Like someone’s loud stomach, except more feral. It was an animal sound, there under our deck, behind the lattice woodwork.