Nine had always found the house on Joshua Tree Court dystopian. The entire community, lined with imported saplings and prefabricated town-homes, felt like something shiny the leaders of a New World would build after decimating every person, place, or thing that came before them. That the shutters were painted a pretty shade of purple was little consolation.
While her parents were picking out cheap interior fixtures—railings that would become rickety within a year of wear; faucets that would soon lose water pressure; sinks that never seemed to drain right; and taupe-colored carpeting that would mottle within months–Nine wistfully imagined her family back in their two-bedroom apartment across town, where the high school she’d attended for the past three years was just two streets away and her semi-estranged grandmother lived in a building one block over.
After her family settled in, Nine’s stepfather, Paul, who she’d been inexplicably calling “Dad” since she was ten years old, planted star-gazing lilies in the tiny front yard, because they were her mother’s favorite flower. This also did little to hearten Nine, who felt a prickling heat crawl up her arms, like a warm-legged troupe of invisible tarantulas, for the entire first year that they lived there.
“Dis child so insolent she doan know a good ting when she see it,” Paul lamented, watching Nine drift sullenly from room to room of their new home, openly, if silently, pined for the days before he was a part of her family. “In time she come to realize what she have.”
But Nine’s uneasiness persisted, as did the idea that she was living in some alternate world, where dread numbed emotion better than Icy Hot.
Once, while she was staring through one of the panes of glass on either side of the front door, she’d found herself suddenly accosted by the bare brown areolas of Rosie, the homely Filipino housewife across the street. Aghast but unable to unglue her eyes from the train wreck, Nine stared as Rosie shook her floppy, nursing, C-cup breasts for Scott, their married neighbor, who made a point of walking his sheep dog by the panes of glass on either side of Rosie’s front door, while his own wife took their toddler, Adam, to Mommy and Me. Rosie’s pathetic little shimmy, with her own toddlers just feet away in the living room, preceded a very public showdown (A month later, Scott’s wife marched barefoot down the sidewalk and challenged Rosie to a bare-fisted boxing match at mid-morning.) and a perfunctory divorce (Rosie’s, not Scott’s.).
Though that was, by far, the most public marital bust-up on the block, it wasn’t the only one. During Nine’s time on Joshua Tree Court, she watched five couples move in blissfully and move out embittered.
Then there was the veteran married couple in the large corner home across the street, who’d managed an unperturbed twenty years of marriage, with two lovely teenage children and an adorable cocker spaniel bobbing his wavy-eared head through their curtains whenever he heard their car pull up. They were the only other Black couple on the block, but Nine had never spoken to them or their children. They were cloistered, so cloistered that they rarely hazarded so much as a wave in the general direction of Nine’s house. Perhaps their seclusion was the key to their longevity. Nine liked to think of them, huddled around a crackling fire, nursing cups of cocoa made from scratch, not from water and Swiss Miss powder, animatedly re-enacting the events of their day.
Then, one late October evening, she heard someone shrieking obscenities in the distance, followed by a glass shattering. Because Nine’s room faced the back of the house, she couldn’t peek out at all the commotion. But the next day, the block was abuzz with news of the Cocoa Family Matriarch and her clearly drunken ranting. Somehow, she’d locked herself out and spent twenty minutes, in a slightly see-through gown, cursing her loving husband for not letting her back in quickly enough.
The sham marriages weren’t the only things that made Nine feel like she was living in a post-apocalyptic enclave.
Woodland creatures often began mewling well after midnight from beyond the shallow patch of trees the community builders graciously left for them to graze. This might have added charm to the place, if the creatures in question didn’t sound so much like starving infants abandoned by their mothers.
Then there was the matter of the house’s interior. Though it was the biggest place Nine had ever called home, with its two full floors and finished basement, it was also the emptiest. The basic brown love-seat and convertible couch from their apartment were banished to the basement, where the 27-inch television also resided. This left nothing for the sunken living room on the first floor, which remained empty during their entire stay at the house. That was the most desolate of all their rooms. At night, the wide, sliding glass door into the backyard they shared with the other townhome residents, reflected the emptiness of their living room like a mirror.
Sometimes Nine descended the step from the dining room into the living room just to stare at herself in the glass. She always thought she looked bloated and glum, but she had no way of knowing about the premature grey that would begin to overrun her thick brown hair. She was not yet aware of how much that hair would thin or how deeply the crescent lines beneath her dark, wide-set eyes would sink before she was even finished with her twenties. She could not guess how unrecognizable she’d be to herself when no mirror was present.
The blackness beyond the glass was overwhelming unless all the lights on the first floor were off, in which case Nine sometimes spotted deer pacing listlessly on the edge of their property.
Her parents never bought curtains, though they’d fitted the bedroom and kitchen windows with venetian blinds. The bathrooms never seemed homey. The burgundy bath mat in the second-floor hallway seemed like an afterthought, since the shower had a translucent liner rather than a matching burgundy curtain. And neither of their bedrooms–hers nor her parents’–housed bed frames. Her parents had a large, new king-sized mattress and boxspring resting flat on the floor. Nine had inherited their old mattress, which they’d inherited from Nine’s grandma. It was full-sized, its surface bearing a genealogy of stains (here, a smattering of blood that the gauze from Nine’s wisdom tooth extraction didn’t absorb, there, several Rorschach-like blots of menstrual residue, but no semen. Semen would not appear on the canvases of any of her mattresses for another four years). Most of the cotton inside the mattress had disintegrated. When Nine slept on her stomach, the metal springs jutted into her pelvic bones so menacingly she worried over the health of her eggs.
Fortunately, after that first year, Nine got a few long breaks from Joshua Tree Court, between her freshman and senior years of college. But the doggedly unfurnished house was still her primary residence; she had no choice but to trek back there during winter and summer breaks. Each time she did, things seemed more amiss. Defeat began to dim her mother’s shimmering eyes. She gave up on cleaning the rooms. “What is there to clean?” she wondered aloud, to no one in particular.
Both Nine’s mother and her stepfather had taken to pacing different rooms and loudly praying in tongues. Paul’s favorite spot was just outside Nine’s closed bedroom door. Mom set up shop in the emptiness of the sunken living room.
Because she’d grown up in the Pentecostal churches of her mother’s choosing, Nine was used to the lilting sounds of incomprehensible utterings. In fact, there’d always been something vaguely soothing about her mother’s voice suddenly becoming unfamiliar as she waxed rapturous and private with her God. But these were no ordinary Pentecostal-tinged tongues. With her mother on the first floor and her stepfather on the second, both praying their throats raw, there was something discordant (if not outright schizophrenic) about the voices in the house now.
Nine often found herself stranded in her bedroom, for whenever she ventured out for a snack from the kitchen, her stepfather shot her dirty look for interrupting his prayerful hallway pacing and, if by some small chance she made it down the stairs, her mother’s gaze was equally as chastising.
These looks were new but not surprising. They confirmed something she’d suspected since the day they’d married–that she was imposing on their space, that they’d never wanted her there, that they would be glad to be rid of her.
So it didn’t bother Nine when, after five years in the cold, bare bunker of a home, just two months after her college graduation, her stepfather revealed that he hadn’t paid the mortgage in months and the bank was in the process of foreclosing.