Sarah Hewson has this habit whenever she moves into a new place. She’ll sweep and dust and mop, and then arrange the boxes in descending alphabetical order down the hall or in rows in the living room. She will then unpack them, starting with “bathroom” and ending with “vestibule”.
The exception is the kitchen. She’ll unpack the kitchen boxes last, and then, to warm the new house she will bake her way into the hearts of her neighbours by bringing them treats.
There is always work to be done before baking, of course.
This new room is smaller than what she’s used to, but it will have to do. She’s standing in her comfy clothes in the middle of the floor. The room is clean, clinical somehow, and she is not fond of the flooring — a cold, unapologetic kind of linoleum that Sarah has met before. She didn’t like it then, and she doesn’t like it now.
And the lighting is downright rude.
Happily, the afternoon sun is bursting to get inside her latest place, and she smiles at the orange light against the murky, grey drapes that frame the window. She is not fond of drapes, and usually chooses to remove them and pack them away in a closet or stash them in a cubbyhole. Drapes contain the sights and smells that others have tried to hide or have left behind. Previous tenants’ nakedness and bacon fat and smoke.
The grey swaths feel like plastic.
“Away with you,” she chirps as she shakes the drapes before stashing them under her new bed. “You won’t do.”
The drapes are thick, and swish synthetically as she pushes them deep under the bed. Anxious now, she looks for the boxes marked “kitchen”.
But she can’t find the boxes, any of them, marked “kitchen” or “living room” or “den”.
“Time to bake!” she says, to cheer herself, but feeling a small nausea in her belly. To counter this feeling she reminds herself of how much she loves to bake for new neighbours. Neighbours to the north or east get crisps. Neighbours to the south or west get loaves — banana or zucchini bread or pound cake plain or fat with poppyseed. Neighbours living above or below get nothing because people should not live above or below each other. Says Sarah.
It is frantic. She is twenty-four. One day she tried to count the number of apartments she had lived in since leaving home. She stopped counting at fifteen.
Before baking she will prepare the oven and the air by heating small pools of vanilla to produce the scent of home-making magazines as she sets out and measures the ingredients. She learned this device from her mother, a real estate agent with over twenty-two years experience in turning houses into homes. Her mother insisted the device be used only when you are trying to sell a house, not when you are moving in. Her mother, who would sometimes help Sarah unpack, would frown at the smell of leaving.
“You’re not moving out, pooky. You’re moving in.”
“Yeah yeah,” Sarah would say. “In, out — what is that?”
Her mother would sigh inside her heart.
Oh Sarah, you never did know if you were coming or going.
Sarah scans all along the baseboards. She is beginning to think that all of the boxes have been left behind.
The baseboards look as if they are made of the same grey plastic as the drapes. Sarah knows that baseboards hoard dust, and that dust is 80% human skin. The terrible math of dust can make Sarah run to the bathroom and vomit as she tries to wipe away even the thought that other snakes have lived where she now lives.
Where she now lives. Sarah lolls her head around the room. A small table and chair are caught in the sunset. The nightstand next to the bed pleases her; she has never before owned anything that could be called a “nightstand” — it seems very adult. The bed is much higher than what she is used to but that does not worry her; her old futon is not fit to be donated it is so compacted and stiff it’s irretrievable. The new bed has new sheets. They will be fine, though she suspects the cloth is not wholly cotton. She pats the new mattress. It is bouncy to the touch.
The bathroom is down the hall. A “shared” bathroom. She is not crazy about that. One is unhappily at the hygienic whims of strangers.
But new neighbours are all strangers at first.
Her mother has left azaleas on the table that is just large enough for one to write letters or little calls for help or cards inviting guests to tea.
Earl Grey. Her after-school drink.
And school itself? This is what she remembers:
Canada is the world’s second largest country. It has glaciers, plains and forests. Lacrosse is the national sport, given to the first white settlers by the aboriginal inhabitants of the land in exchange for new kinds of hot drinks and old slightly used blankets. The country’s population is diverse but unified in the twin goals of deficit reduction and constitutional change. According to the United Nations, Vancouver has the best coffee.
It is tiny, she thinks, this living space I now have. Tiny as a blink!
Patrick is her neighbour to the north. For him, strawberry rhubarb crisp. She is too tired to make a crust for pie. A good heavy pound cake for Arnold, her new neighbour to the south. She will have to make a quick trip to the grocery store to get some of the ingredients. She will have to find the kitchen. She will have to wash her hands.
It is slow getting out of bed. She can barely shuffle into the hall, where the bright bald light makes her squint.
“No no, Sarah,” says the nurse, a man’s voice, slow and steady and false. “Back to bed now, Ms Hewson.”
The door to the room of her neighbour to the north is open. Sarah watches Patrick. He is lying on his back in bed with his hands upstretched and index fingers pointed inwards at each other. He is chanting electric.
It compels her, this little scene.
The nurse guides Ms Hewson back towards her room.
“I need to know where is the kitchen,” she says in what she thinks is a clear yet urgent tone, but had been in fact medicated slurring.
The nurse does not answer her.
He smells of hospital.
The car had run out of gas. Sarah had fallen asleep, but was not yet in harm’s way when her father discovered her. A scarf tied around his nose and mouth, he lifted his daughter out of the car, out of the garage, and carried her to the living room chesterfield as Sarah’s mother called the ambulance.
Sarah could vaguely recall the feeling of being lifted out of the car and carried inside the house like a child.
She is twenty-four, her father hissed at his wife as they awaited the ambulance. She has a BA and a teaching certificate. She has had opportunity we never had. Mrs Hewson was silent and watched out the window for signs of the ambulance. When she turned to face her bitterly complaining husband, she saw that he had started to cry, his hand gripping the chesterfield so hard the left side of his body was trembling.
Mrs Hewson was thinking of the day the three of them bought that couch at Eaton’s, when her husband would not pay the extra $25 for the store to deliver it. They had tied it to the roof of their station wagon with yellow rope he kept in coils in the back for just such occasions. All the way home, Sarah held one end of the rope that was flapping outside her window, her face beaming with pride because, her father told her, she was doing a very important job.
This was the chesterfield that the family would sit on together for the next fifteen years to watch television. Pay-TV had just been introduced and Mr Hewson wanted the family to spend more time together.
They watched a lot of television.
Mrs Hewson had grown to hate that “chesterfield”, and she hated it even more now, watching her daughter groan and convulse in oddly slow spasms. When the thin white gruel leaked from Sarah’s blue lips onto the brown fabric, she knew she finally had invincible cause to be rid of it.
“Paul,” she whispered, “Paul, sweetheart.”
Paul shook his head.
“I consider myself the kind of person who is generally prepared to handle anything, Carol. But there has been nothing to prepare me for this.”
Carol nodded, and stroked her daughter’s hair, wondering whether Paul would admit that he was trying to lie to himself if he said he believed he hadn’t seen this coming.
“Nothing,” Paul said again, getting angry now, “nothing has prepared me for the possibility that Sarah would do this to us.”
Later, Paul Hewson would insist that the garage door remain open for a week.
To give the garage a good airing out, he explained to his neighbour to the north while he swept the thin carbon dust from the garage floor. The neighbour from over the hedge looked at Mr Hewson involuntarily slyly, an instinctive regard as if to say that naturally there was more to this than ever meets the eye. Or the ear.
“Spring cleaning,” nodded the neighbour to the north.
Sarah had taken the phone call at 4:35 pm, and was told that while she was not a “match” for the school at the moment, her resume would be kept on file in case a position became available.
By 5:13 pm she had sealed herself in the car and had ignited the engine. You gave a very good interview. She lay down in the back seat and breathed slowly, remembering a family trip when she was a teenager driving through Saskatchewan stunned by the ample gift of sky. It was a difficult decision. Her parents were as awe-struck as she, and it seemed to her to be the last time she could remember the family all feeling the same thing, at the same time, in the same place. You should get more volunteer experience for your resume. All of them were thinking there was nowhere else they would rather be.
She dreamt it often afterwards, the car moving along the freeway, seeing it as if through a camera hovering over and circling away from the car. This slow brown wagon through the wheat beneath the great blue sky, humming her along into slumber as if snug within a sleeping car on her own private train.
And then the last thing she remembers before she falls into the deepest of sleeps: the freeway between Saskatoon and Alberta. It was the straightest thing she had ever seen, the horizon that dissected it like a thin mouth endlessly sipping the future, without stopping for breath.