I used to live in that house.
Driving in Atlanta for me is kind of like falling into bed with a lover you had when you were young; it has been so long and you have both changed and yet, the terrain is familiar and you can still ride the curves the way you used to. Despite the pouring rain, I am keeping a steady pace en route to part two of my Christmas Day routine; more food and mostly drinks with my chosen family after dinner with my blood family.
I have travelled this stretch of 285 hundreds of times, in my tenure as a resident here, and during my current extended run as a guest. But this time feels different. As I near the exit to the life I used to know, I turn the music off. Despite the heat blasting on my face and feet, my hands go cold. I start nervously trying to shred the skin inside my bottom lip, unable to do so as I have long since had the tooth that used to be so offensive straightened. It’s strange, sitting inside my adult body, feeling myself deteriorate in physical habits I have long since shaken, I thought for good.
I exit without even thinking about it. For the last mile, I have been directing the car to the right, in preparation to get off here without even recognizing. I take the right turn at the top of the exit by rote, something deeper than my subconscious directing the car through streets that have grown no less familiar by physical and emotional distance.
I remember this. The steep decline of the hill that eventually rises again in front of the church that shares a similar name to my childhood church. The old brick houses, some turned into businesses now, which face the railroad tracks I was never allowed to cross alone. I drive forward, outside of myself, easily maneuvering these streets I know by heart.
When I reach Church Street, I am amazed by how much has and hasn’t changed. I remember when the new church was built, its steeple casting a long shadow over the older church that still sits nestled to its side. It’s hard to breathe as I pass, the changes over the years unremarkable enough to make me feel like I am once again eleven years old, sitting on the curb outside and crying my eyes out because an elder just told me that my mother and I are not welcome there.
But I don’t stop.
I continue past the churches, feeling that familiar prickle on the back of my neck that you get when you feel like someone is watching you. And maybe the part of me I left there is watching me run away, again.
The street less than a mile down the road still forks to the right a bit more dangerously than most entrances to a residential areas should be. There is the bike trail to the left still surrounded by trees standing attention on one side of it. I see the details for what they are, but remember them as they were; a gang symbol spray painted on the back of the bike sign; fresh tire grooves in the grass of the neighbor’s yard where a car took the turn too quickly; the steep drop off on either side of this little narrow road.
I don’t need directions. Though it has been years, I know where I’m going. I take the second right, my chest seizing up, the houses looking at once recognizable and indistinct through the rain coming through the window. I reach over to hit the button to roll the windows up, surprised to find it won’t go anywhere. The window is not down. This is not rain. I am sobbing.
The first left is my street, the sign no longer obstructed by a large tree. I take the turn slowly, like the lead car in a funeral procession.
It’s still there, still standing, the first house on the left. A small part of me, shocked, gasps aloud at the fact that it still exists. In my childish mind I imagined that once I left it, the earth underneath it opened up and swallowed this house and all the malevolence contained therein, righting as best it could the balance between good and evil. But it’s still there, plain and unordinary tucked among its twin houses and for a moment I doubt myself. Maybe all the things I thought happened inside of those walls never occurred. Maybe no one on this idyllic street noticed because that evil did not exist.
I stop the car on the other side of the street, crying far too hard to drive but afraid to put the car in park in case I need to drive away quickly. I am afraid, just as I was so many times behind the brown door of that house. I am just as fearful now as I was as a child, just as alone as I felt then.
From my vantage point across the street, I take in the door now red, the flowers heavy with rain out front where once were unruly bushes and weeds. The garage door is the same, the windows in the same place I left them. And there is a light on in my old room.
I am weeping so hard I have hiccups and I can’t get in nearly enough oxygen. I am gasping, bawling with my entire body, long, loud sounds that I have never heard come from my usually smiling mouth.
I can’t stay here.
I go around the corner, knowing that there is a cul-de-sac I can turn around in. I am trying desperately to maintain control of the wheel but my limbs are shaking violently, my skin burning where I remember injuries. I turn around, preparing myself for the fact that in order to leave, I have to pass the house one more time.
I slow as I drive past, staring at that single light from the room that used to be mine, overlooking the front yard. My mind plays the soundtrack of the days and nights in the house and my bones feel every major and minor chord. Bile rises in the back of my throat. I watch that window and cry for so long that I can’t be sure that I didn’t imagine seeing a small hand press against the sheer fabric shading the glass.
Pulling away slowly, I am careful not to hit the cars parked on either side of what used to be my street. I’ve cried so long that I am dehydrated and no more tears will come, yet I know I am still crying. I reverse the directions I just took, each turn relieving a pound of pressure from my chest, until I find my way back to the highway again, and I can breathe. I don’t bother to wipe the traces of salt off my cheeks. I point the car towards my original destination, the comfort of my aunt’s home, refusing to give my eyes to the review mirror.
* * * * * * * *
It is not until I am 26 years old, far removed from the child cowering in the bathroom of that house, that I realize that maybe I didn’t imagine any of it at all. While on the phone with my aunt, somehow we have wandered into this subject that no one in our family speaks of.
"You know, none of us liked the way he treated you. But we figured if your mama was happy..."
So someone noticed?
And in my mind, the voice that still resides there, childlike and confused as I haven't been in the years since, asked the one thing I've always wanted to know...
"Why didn't anyone say anything?"
There is a house on your street. It looks like the house two doors down and the house two doors down from it. You might not know that neighbor, but you wave when you pass them at their mailbox. Maybe they smile and lift a hand in greeting. You turn into your own drive, happy to live in such a friendly neighborhood.
I used to live in that house.