This short story was published in The Ink Filled Page: Red Anthology in 2008. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize the same year.
The house was blue when I found it. When I drive by now, my windows rolled up, breath humid on the glass, I see that the new owner has paid to redo the driveway and paint the house a fashionable shade of mustard. The window sashes, which were once the color of Vegas swimming pools, are a muddy red.
In my dreams, I walk through this house, the blue house that is blue on the inside as well. It is like walking through levels of water, like walking out into the sea. I was at the ocean one summer, huddled in the stringy reeds that border the sidewalk by the beach. I was eating a picnic of lentils, and the wind blew sand into my food so it gritted between my teeth. My memory is like that now, little grains catching me by surprise. My dreams are often clearer than my memory of that summer, or any summer. After the proper amount of time, the events of my life run together. They become blurred, as if by tears or too many drinks.
Nights are clearer for me, if only because I know the blue house so well. I have crossed its tilting floor, dream after dream. Its interior is unexceptional, big rooms with built-in cabinets and molding around the walls. There is an abandoned chandelier, also blue, hanging in the front parlor. The chandelier absorbs light now instead of giving it away. If I look at it too long, my dream will change. In its undusted facets, I once saw the contorted face of my least favorite high school teacher. She was pushing an old-fashioned lawnmower, and she wanted to know if I had finished my final paper. She said my verb agreement was the worst of any student, and pushed the lawnmower over my foot, and the silver ribbons sliced me open, right down through my shoe. I woke up that time in a sweat, wishing I still talked to my old classmates. None of them had liked her either.
The house of my dreams has become an uncomfortable place. Before it was bought by somebody else, and painted its new yellowy colors, I was perfectly happy to watch from my car. But now, as the house changes one afternoon at a time, I begin to feel itchy. I can’t tear myself away, but what I see does not soothe me.
My car is not distinctive, so the neighbors haven’t noticed when I come to sit there. No one asks me what I want. The house is unoccupied by its new owners — the only person who sees me is the man they hired to redo the roof. He works slowly in the sun, carefully sticking one shingle on at a time. His radio blares the top salsa hits. As usual, I’ve brought some book to look at while I sit in the driver’s seat, listening to Mexican radio from the roof. Summer is coming, and my sweat sticks me to the cheap upholstery. The book is always the same — or else I can’t tell them apart. I read the same page over and over again. I like that when I look up, the house is there, the same on its lot as it is in my head. Sometimes I confuse it with myself, tip from side to side, as if my face has suddenly opened into a porch, my tongue a set of stairs. On days like this, when my head becomes the blue house, I try to stay away from people.
More confusing are the nights when I can’t sleep at all. As of today, it’s been two weeks, and the closest I’ve come to sleep is a quick fading out of consciousness. Then my head fills with the dead hush that I’ve only experienced in libraries. It’s as if all my thoughts are holding their breath at once, sliding books off the shelves with the dry rasp of dead leaves. But that’s what paper is, isn’t it? Dead leaves, pieces of trees. My thumbs leave their sweaty smears on the cheap paperback I’ve brought with me today. The words are printed too small in cheap ink, and I can’t concentrate on them. The radio on the roof squawks, “Que gigante! El Monster Truck!” My head keeps bobbing forward on my neck. I am so tired that my eyes are crossing. Every summer has been like this, since I was eleven. As though I was a statue set on soft ground, sinking a few inches each year into the earth.
It’s after eight o’clock, past quitting time if you work twelve-hour days. The man on the roof flicks off his stereo and lays down his nail gun.
I blink, and when I open my eyes I am out of my car and standing in the grass on the front lawn of the house-that-once-was-blue. Because nobody lives inside it yet, the grass is still uncut and peppered with dandelion clocks. The long stems tickle my calves. The very longest ones touch the hem of my dress. I look up, tilting my head back like a flower. I can feel my ears opening, flapping like loose solar panels.
The sky is turning half-grey, signaling evening in my town. It’s coming up on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and the shortest night. That’s some consolation, knowing that even if I can’t sleep, I won’t be alone in the dark for very long. Time will pull me toward sunrise. Then I can walk around and drink coffee like the people who spend their nights with their eyes racing back and forth behind their eyelids.
There is a very long ladder leaning against the house so that the man can come down from the roof at the end of the day. He climbs down slowly, with the dignity of the Man in the Moon. My naked toes are dug into the grass, and my head is sagging, back and forth, changing slowly into a house-shaped box. My hands wave at my side, limp as a pair of discarded shoes.
“Hey, girl, you okay?” he calls to me. If I wanted to I could say something that would make him climb right back up again. I feel old and terrifying. Has he ever seen a girl with a house for a head? Has he ever heard her speak? Bending down, I run my useless fingers through the grass by my bare feet.
“I lost my keys,” I mumble around my thickening tongue. The light is going now, creeping back behind the West Hills where the houses are stacked like so many expensive plates. On the other side of those hills are suburbs, miles and miles of boring little houses arranged around strip malls and supermarkets — a whole state full of suburbs, where people like the man on the roof live their undistinguished lives.
I curl my hands around a clot of grass and thick sod. The house’s new owners will probably import a new lawn from the turf farms. They will want a whole new start. “No, I found them.” I stand up again, and even though my hands are empty, the man nods and climbs all the way to the ground. His bandanna is stuck in his belt, and he takes his hat off to swipe at his face with his forearm. He looks away from me, leaning down to turn on the spigot on the side of the house. I get back in the car and drive to my favorite place to drink.
It’s a small bar, only five minutes from the blue house. I pass the single stoplight, careful to look for bicyclists. My head is lolling, too heavy for my neck. I am afraid of hitting someone and smashing my face like a pumpkin against the steering wheel. There is a parking spot right outside the bar. I pull the car up to the curb and smooth my hair behind my ears. I slip on my shoes and wiggle my toes inside them. I do not want to stumble on my way in because then they will not serve me liquor. It is the law in this state.
I had a dream once that I was lying in the blue house. The floor was strangely warm under my back, as if the boards were breathing. The house filled with water, higher and higher, past the depth of most swimming pools. I drifted up the stairs, in and out of the three bedrooms on the second floor. At the end of my dream, my face was pressed into the attic ceiling. I woke up gasping. A pipe had burst in the ceiling above my apartment and my sheets were soaked with someone else’s bathwater. Ordering my first drink, I have the same sensation.
The man on the barstool next to me is redheaded, and the hairs on his arm make a thick, golden carpet. I can smell his sweat. The redheaded man smiles at me and I smile back.
“What are you drinking, water?” He nods at my glass. Is he flirting? My stomach sprouts an extra chamber, a cellar-shaped room, and begins to fill with dusty jars of preserved summer fruit.
“Vodka,” I say. That’s what I like to drink the most. I like two fingers of very cold vodka in a glass, no ice. It looks like water but feels thick and unctuous against my throat, the way water on another planet might be. I sip from my glass. He’s drinking beer, probably the cheap two-dollar special.
“Wow,” he says. He has a little pattern above his wrist, a line of scallops across his skin. I stare at it, trying to decide if it’s a tattoo. The drinking has shrunk my head back down to normal size, but my eyes are still tracking back and forth. It’s hard for them to grip the world.
I touch his wrist, a little too hard, and rub the patterned line. It leaves a black mark under my finger.
“What is that?” I ask. He looks down at his arm, as if just remembering that it belongs to him.
“My bike broke today.”
I stare at him.
“It’s the edge of my rear-wheel cog. See?” He traces the scallops — swoop swoop — with his finger. “It’s a grease print.”
“I thought it was a tattoo,” I say. I drink a little bit more and then somebody puts a loud song on the jukebox. He leans close to me, and his breath smells like beer and dry leaves.
“I hate this song,” he says into my ear. My head tips towards him accidentally — is it the drink? I can feel my cheeks starting to color. The first time I saw the blue house, however many years ago I lived in its neighborhood, it was July. The lingering humidity gave a shimmer to the air. I remember walking by the blue house and it seemed to float above its patchy lawn, each piece of it painted a different, brilliant shade — blue like a stripper’s eyelids, or toothpaste, or the color of a vein pulsing in an arm. It took me by surprise. I stood there watching it. I couldn’t decide if it was real or not, so I threw a handful of change at the porch. I went home thinking about the way the coins clattered on the wood. That night I dreamed my first dream in the blue house, and I haven’t left it since. I finish my vodka and swish it between my teeth, the way mouthwash commercials tell you to do.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” I say to him, and although he is a stranger and we have hardly said a dozen words to each other, he hops off his barstool to come with me. He is much taller than I am, but much thinner, so I am not afraid of him. I put a twenty on the bar and we walk out into the hot June night.
“Walking?” he asks, and I nod. The liquor is making me loose and happy, and I have the feeling that I might actually sleep tonight. Not sleeping is hard on my bones. It makes me feel brittle and thin, as if my insides have become a tangle of driftwood. I forgot to pay all my bills this month, so my phone is turned off and my landlord has been leaving Where is the rent? notes on my door. It makes me sway on my ankles, this strange freedom. Without my bills I have nothing holding me. I could just stumble through life, sleeping on sofas in other people’s houses, going through the rooms of my blue house one night at a time.
He unlocks his bicycle from the rack next to my car. I pretend that my car isn’t my car so he won’t ask me for a ride. We walk back through the neighborhood toward the street where I’ve already spent my whole day. It’s very dark now, purple almost, and quiet. The roof is half done. The shingles look silver in the light of the rising moon. Moonlight obscures things that are obvious. Even a familiar face’s deep pits — the eyeholes, the shape of the skull — disappear in the moonlight. It turns things that are known into strangers. When the lifeguard led me into the dunes and shoved my popsicle-sticky mouth against the sand, he was a different person than the brisk, whistleblowing young man who sat in the high chair all day watching for riptides. He was not golden or beautiful then. He cracked me open like a shell. I floated on my own heartbeat, my body thrashing as though it belonged to an animal. What he did was like love, measurable only by the amount of pain it gave me. Later, when I watched the ocean take him, I felt the last thing in me break. In a moment I was in a house of soft edges and gilded windows. And everything was blue.
The redheaded man from the bar pushes his bike carefully beside him on the grass. The sidewalks in this neighborhood are very uneven, due to the trees pushing up the concrete. I know the way so well that I don’t lose my footing. He trips a few times, swears, laughs. My head has moved a few inches over my right shoulder. My neck is furred with new grass, and as I walk it tickles my skin. I shiver, though I’m not cold.
I think he assumes we’re going to my apartment. Men think like that. If he were to ask me for my phone number, I’d give it to him. It occurs to me that I don’t know his name, and in the barely-there light I think he could be anyone. I dreamed that I was in the parlor of the blue house, looking out the window. There was a sea of people pushing past me, all faceless, as if they’d put skin-colored nylons over their faces. In movies, bank robbers do this so they will be anonymous. The redheaded man could be a bank robber, if he didn’t look so trustworthy.
We stand on the lawn of the house in my dreams and he squints at it. It’s possible to see, even from the sidewalk, that the place is completely empty. The sugar maple in the yard is untrimmed, and its dropped leaves litter the sidewalk. I take the redheaded man by the elbow and pull him toward the porch.
“You need to help me with the door,” I say.
“Are you sure you live here?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m sure.” I take his bike from him and drop it on the grass. Nobody will steal it. This is a safe place.
He follows me up the four stairs, now painted that muddy red to match the window sashes. We can see inside the big front window: the bare floors and swept-out fireplace. It is obvious that nobody lives here, but that doesn’t make me nervous. In my dream, I am always the only real person in the house anyway. I would be afraid if, in my sleep, I met somebody else walking through my hallways, tapping on the walls, looking for me.
He knocks on the door, stupidly, and waits as if he expects an answer.
“Nobody home,” he says, and looks at me. “You don’t live here.”
“I live here sometimes,” I say. I don’t believe in lying.
“Do you have a key?” he asks, and I can tell he’s on the verge of leaving. He is getting that angry heat around him that people get when they think you’ve made fools of them.
“No,” I say. “The door is stuck.” I look at his backpack, the heavy thing he brought with him from the bar. “Don’t you have your bike tools with you? We could jimmy the lock.”
“I’m not going in there.” The redheaded man goes back down the stairs. The minute his shoes touch the lawn, my eyes start to go dim, as if I were in a car with the low beams on, driving through the darkness toward sleep. He says, “This is too freaky.”
He picks up his bike. He has a note of hesitation in his voice, and I know that if I called him to me, he’d come back, hopeful, willing to believe whatever I told him. But my tongue is thickening in my throat again, and I think of the rooms that wait for me, just on the other side of the door. I am so, so close. Two weeks without sleep is such a long time.
“Goodnight,” I call to the redheaded man. He pedals fast, one white ankle flashing back at me under his rolled-up pant leg. In a moment he is gone. He took his smudged wrist with him. I would have liked to kiss that smudge.
Then I put my hand on the doorknob and, as if I am already dreaming, it turns, soft as butter, against my palm. The porch seems to sag under my feet in a sigh. I kick my shoes off towards the lawn. I hear them land in soft pats in the high grass.
I cross over into the house that was once blue, and in the moon’s half light, it changes back to the way I remember it, the way it looked that first time in summer. The mustard paint and muddy trim fade to gray. My eyelids droop. I could be drowning. I could be walking into the sea. The lifeguard covered me with his shirt and led me to the water to rinse off the blood. Our footsteps whispered over the dunes like secrets.
His name was Owen. He was sixteen. Earlier that year I ate all the roses off my birthday cake, fluted frosting purple as a bruise.
Some nights I dream this boy back to life, and sometimes I find him floating facedown in the kitchen sink. I am careful as I shuffle barefoot across the floor of the blue house. I reach out and feel with my toes, so if I find him here, I will be able to step back.
The light sockets are stripped. Their twin wires, capped with black plugs, are twisted as fishing worms. I brush them with my fingers. I imagine them exploding with those tiny electric stars, setting the house alight, licking my hair to a flame. I find the stairs exactly where my dreams have told me they would be and I climb them. My body shifts, rolling like a ship.
Each room is empty. One bedroom has the traces of painter’s tape around the doorway. Otherwise there is nothing. I expected to find a bed here, the covers neatly turned down, sheets cool and inviting. Instead I am greeted by crickets, which I can hear even through the painted-shut windows. I put my hand on the wall. My knees buckle under me, my sleeplessness bearing down on my shoulders.
The toilet in the upstairs bathroom is gone. The new owners must be installing a new one. The mirror, even, is taken down. There is a pale brown square over the sink, and I stare into it out of habit. I push my hair behind my ears. I close my eyes and rest my forehead against the place where my reflection should be. The wall is disconcertingly cool on my face. My ears begin to ring, and for a moment I am sure that I will lose consciousness. My mind slips away from me, glinting like a dropped knife.
The bathtub — too small, a clawfoot built for tiny people from a long-gone century — holds me. I turn both knobs all the way on with my toes, but they only dribble rusty water. I had hoped to flood the house. Its walls are already blackened with sleep. I close my eyes and listen to my lungs. My breath makes the sound of waves, turning over and over on a rocky beach.
I sleep. For the first time, I do not dream. If there is a house in my head tonight, it is black and empty the way astronauts tell us space is empty.
“Girl. Girl. You okay?” It’s the man on the roof.
His hand is on my shoulder, and I resent it. I am curled deep in my black sleep, waiting for the dream that is not going to come. I open my eyes, just a slit. A huge brown face floats over me, a flesh balloon. My head feels heavy, still, but it is no longer a house. It has subsided, from walls and doors and windowpanes, to a simple hangover. The old taste of vodka cleaves to the inside of my nose.
He has his radio in his free hand as he shakes my shoulder. For only a moment, I think he has come down from the shingles to tell me that the blue house is mine. I think I have awakened at last holding the polished stone of that lost summer. My eyes begin to sting with tears.
“I am fine,” I slur. His hand is weighing me down. I can feel each of his five logical fingers pushing into my flesh, cool as coins. He bears down on me with his handful of words. It is as if he has rolled something back, some layer of skin or wood, and found me crouching in the splinters. If I were to close my eyes to him — plunge back toward my house of dreams — even then, the blackness would not hide me from the questions, the concern. I am being pulled up to the surface again, like a fish, taken from the deeps and pressures of the only place I know.