The house was too big even when Lucas was alive, and he was a man who took up a lot of space. Unless there were guests, we never went into the three extra bedrooms. The living room bore the name ironically. The furniture sat like third cousins at a wake, never warmed by a body. Mary Bridget, my sister, urged me to sell and move to a smaller place near the center of town and live on the proceeds. She said I could walk to stores. It was something I would have done, that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t lift a finger. Grief is a soggy sack that hangs on your back. You stagger along, more or less vertical, and it is an accomplishment.
It was Lucas’s idea, his compulsion really, to buy this house, and not something I ever understood, what having a large house meant to him. He wasn’t raised in a shack so he wasn’t overcompensating. He grew up in Tulsa on a street with tall elms where the houses were modest and sturdy. There was once a neighborhood called Greenwood nearby, a black enclave that in its prosperity and self-containment aroused the envy and hatred of their white neighbors who burned the place down. Thirty-five blocks, wiped out. They dropped gasoline bombs from planes.
Maybe Lucas wanting this fortress of a house had something to do with that history stinking up the air of his childhood.
Let me be clear, this house is not one of those monstrosities you see in affluent suburbs like Cherry Creek. It was built not to accommodate an inflated ego but instead a big family. I did research. The family was Lithuanian. He was a builder. She was sickly. They had six children; the firstborn, coincidentally named Lucas, died of the flu at the age of three.
My Lucas and I have no children. I don’t know what to say, have or had. No children, though we went along as though we expected they would come. They did not, it was that simple. Neither of us felt, if I can speak for Lucas too, deep regret.
After Lucas died I went into a phase where I would go into the unused bedrooms and sit on the bed and imagine the lives of the surviving children. The brothers in two bedrooms, the sisters Eugenia and Martina in the other. I had seen photos of the girls in their high-necked dresses so it was easy to conjure them, see their dark curls and hear their bird-like screeches.
I entered a subsequent phase. “Renovation” sounds planned. I painted the kitchen cream with green trim. It was something I’d been wanting to do a long time but when someone is ill in your house everything else falls away. One afternoon I came home and the pressure condensed into insistence: those brown cabinets and beige walls were not to be endured one second more. I drove to the paint store and without much deliberation chose the paint. I worked all afternoon and through the night, worked until the sun came up and I collapsed on the couch in living room. That is where Mary Bridget found me at noon, in my housedress blotched with cream and green paint. She thought I had had a stroke.
You always hope you have the right color and when it gets on the walls often you see you have made an awful mistake which, unless you start over from scratch you will regret for years. This was not that way. I was gratified in a way I had forgotten I had the capacity to be.
This surge of whatever, joy perhaps, propelled me to take on the funereal living room. I washed the windows, hung new curtains. I rented a machine and cleaned the couch and the carpet. I could have had it done by professionals but I had time. What else but time?
The effluvia of Lucas’s boyish enthusiasms cluttered shelves: geodes, feathers, skulls, hummingbird nests. I arranged as many of his artifacts as I could on the credenza, constructing a shrine I dramatized with a dozen candles. I put the rest of the stuff, two boxes full, in the trash, withstanding the fierce self-criticism the act aroused.
Seeing the shrine Mary Bridget shook her head. “Get a roommate,” she said, “before you burn the place down.”
So I did. Even before she said it, I had been finding out that having a beautiful house with a cream and green kitchen and sheer curtains billowing from crystal-clear windows created a collateral vacancy in me. I wanted another pair of eyes to see what I saw with the same pleasure.
Because of my former job, City College was the first place I put up an ad, the old-fashioned method of pinning a card to a board in the union. Instantly I had ten messages from students. Vita was the first person I called back and the only. I picked her for her name. Vita. Life. Bring life into the house. Magical thinking. She described herself as Asian, though she had no trace of an accent. She said she was studying engineering but thinking about being a writer.
I tried not to appear surprised when I met her at my door. I expected a bright, polite thin Chinese girl but here was this force. The word pugilistic came to mind. Coiled, on the edge of vaulting. If I had thought ahead, I would have claimed there were other candidates, etc. But this was not an interview, not in Vita’s eyes. She had brought her three suitcases and she moved in.
Vita, I think, got a kick out of being mysterious. One of the minor mysteries was how from those three suitcases so much spilled out. Her room was like the drop-off at a thriftstore. Sometimes I resented the disarray but why, as long as she kept her door closed here and there were no malodorous smells.
In truth, there were only sweet smells. Lavender. Coconut. I found a bottle of her shampoo in my shower. I don’t know how it got there. I used the shampoo before I returned it to her bathroom. I bought some similar. Lemon verbena. I spend my days with that smell like a shawl around me.
I wanted her to talk more, so I talked too much. Her face remained immobile, unthawed by the small fluctuations that indicate empathy. She blinked with metronomic regularity, infrequently. Once she mentioned she liked the natural history collection on the credenza. She didn’t have any inkling of its meaning. Her blankness liberated me to talk about Lucas directly, to show her how raw, how scoured I felt inside. She listened. She blinked. That was all.
She kept irregular hours, not the kind of schedule that creates expectation but still I found myself anticipating her being home, and being disappointed when she wasn’t. I presumed she had dropped out of school but I didn’t ask. Nor did I ask what she did when she went out.
Mary Bridget was suspicious of Vita from the start. She said I should find out what Vita was up to, make sure she wasn’t doing something illegal. I reminded her that me getting a roommate was her suggestion. She asserted she would not have chosen one by her name.
One day Vita approached me with her hand upturned, rubbing the tips of her fingers together. “See this? It’s sawdust. You got a badass termite infestation.”
This terrified me, but Vita said, “I can handle it. Non-toxic method. We’ll rout those buggers.”
By the following week my house smelled like overripe peaches. I didn’t inquire about the treatment nor its chances of efficacy, merely thanked her for her good work, costly though it was. If the house fell down around me I would remain ignorant and unruffled in my denial. I asked if her field entailed construction, or house repair. “My calling is reflexology,” she said. “Foot massage. You ever have one?”
“At the nail salon, And once in Hawaii from a Seventh Day Adventist nurse named Una. It was torture.”
“This is different,” Vita said. “This will bring your husband back.”
I assumed she was joking, but with my foot in her lap, her fingers investigating its intricate machinery, Lucas spoke to me, loud and clear. He said, “I am only here.” Through my right foot. I remain convinced of it, though I continue to ponder what “only” means.
Vita has moved out of the house. She has gone to London. Now she wants to be a dancer.