“What’s up with Christine?” My husband, Ron, not known for his subtlety, asks. He squints and angles his chin with the precision of a laser pointer towards our in-town neighbor who ducks around her peeling porch post across the street from where we are walking. Christine opens her door just wide enough to slide through, not allowing an inch of interior to be visible from the street.
“Really, what’s her problem?” Ron drags his feet and I yearn for a leash I could clip on his collar to urge him onward.
“She’s very private.” I sigh. “Could you be a bit more circumspect when you are talking about someone? You don’t need to be so obvious!”
“Sorry.” Ron strolls on, oblivious of my desire to move quickly away from Christine’s shuttered windows. “She acted so strange when we took that box of cat food over to her. Like she was afraid of us or something.”
Christine had ordered a very large amount of cat food, maybe an entire year’s worth, that was delivered to us by mistake. Like good neighbors, we’d wrestled the box up the street to her house. When we knocked, we waited a long time before Christine cracked the door and told us to leave the box on her doorstep.
“No, no!” Ron had insisted. “This box is too heavy. Just let me help you get it in the door.”
A tug of war had ensued that would have been comical had I not immediately sized up the situation. Ron lifted and pushed as Christine pulled and tried to keep the door shut at the same time. In the split second before she used her body to completely block our view, I noted the evidence. Mountains of newspapers and magazines cluttered the floor, falling over in unkempt piles. Dozens of boxes and bags of various sizes, shapes, and condition lined the hallway. Books teetered on a plethora of side tables. Full garbage bags crowded a corner. A stale, moldy smell made me pull back as Christine smiled too brightly but didn’t meet our eyes. She thanked us and quickly shut the door in our faces.
“You seem miles away.” Ron brought me back to the present. “What’s wrong?”
“I think Christine is a hoarder.” I glance away, unable or unwilling to say more.
I was ten years old in the suburbs or our small Maryland city. Greenberry Hills , a subdivision built for the post WWII generation who were raising families, had sprung up overnight and offered couples a choice of three modest house plans. Hundreds of ranch style homes, similar but slightly different, now marched up and down the rolling hills of what had been a thriving dairy farm. Even the old barn had been renovated and carved into apartments. My parents reported that when the school bus stopped at each corner, a site they’d witnessed when house hunting without me or my toddler sister in tow, hundreds of kids spilled forth and headed for home looking like ants scurrying for food and shelter.
In that summer between my fourth and fifth grade, we’d just recently moved to Greenberry Hills from a tiny Pennsylvania town where my family had lived for generations. I missed my grandparents, my small school, and had not yet made any friends or become used to the increased discord between my parents. This was supposed to be a good move for our family with better opportunities for my father. Yet, voices were raised and a sharp tension filled our new home. As the oldest child, the job of keeping the peace sat uncomfortably on my small shoulders and I quickly became adept at steering conversations in a new direction whenever conflict threatened. If that failed, I made sure my sister and I were out of the way.
Living in one of the same model of house as mine but with a different veneer, Bonnie, a year behind me in school but only two months younger was taller, more athletic and seemed a good choice for a friend. We raced our bikes together around the neighborhood in endless games of Pony Express and made trips to Mary’s, a penny candy store located on the edge of our permitted ride. We played hours of board games like Clue, Monopoly or Sorry on our carport or in our basement on rainy afternoons when my father was still at work.
Bonnie’s father, a stern and distant presence, raised beautiful, prize-winning roses in fuchsia, peach and crimson varieties and their grass was a smooth, green carpet neatly trimmed around the blacktopped driveway. However, as you got closer to their house, the perfectly landscaped facade frayed at the edges. Their carport housed a number of pieces of cast-off furniture and Rinky-Dink their mangy Pomeranian, in desperate need of a bath and grooming, sneezed, wheezed, and strained at the dirty leash that tied him in place. I loved dogs but his odor kept me from giving him the attention he craved.
Bonnie made large pitchers full of icy, grape Kool-Aid and brought them to her carport along with endless bundles of old magazines and we would sip our tongues purple while we crafted collages out of pictures we’d clipped from issues of “Look” or “Life”. The magazines, many more than a decade old, smelled musty and felt slightly damp but offered a rich, treasure-trove of images. My collages were meticulous. Not a smudge of stray glue dared to stray out of the carefully cut edges. I was never invited inside Bonnie’s house but, since it was summer, it didn’t feel strange to be outside and, if it rained, we’d relocate to my basement even though we had to put up with my sister getting into everything we did.
As the lush emerald of summer gave way to the dull, dry olive green of late August, we became inseparable and pedaled our bicycles on a packed, dirt path that stretched across the field and over railroad tracks to Mr. Poole’s General Store. We giggled about how we had avoided scary hobos that we were convinced lived in the woods by the tracks. There at Mr. Poole’s, after we drank Cokes in small, slippery glass bottles, we bought school supplies: crisp, spiral-bound notebooks, long, yellow pencils, and fat erasers that smelled like new possibilities. With my mother, I shopped for plaid skirts, cardigans, and leather shoes and my excitement over the new purchases tamped down my anxiety about beginning a new school. Even though Bonnie was a year behind me, we would ride the same school bus and she assured me that she would see me at lunch. The knowledge that there would be one friendly face soothed my worries.
A few days before school began, Bonnie invited me to her room to see the new desk her parents had given her for her birthday. Curious and happy to be invited inside at last, I followed my friend in the side door and stopped in a kitchen that was laid out in a reverse mirror image of our own. Any similarity stopped there. Dirty, crusty dishes covered every available surface. Boxes of opened cereal and Pop Tarts snaked around the burners on the stove. A mountain of newspapers, nearly as tall as I was, slouched against a wall and a fence constructed with dented suitcases separated the kitchen from the living room.
“Climb over the suitcases,” Bonnie said, as she headed down the hall. “they keep Rinky-Dink out of the rest of the house.”
Passing through the living room, I noticed that the sofa and every chair was piled high with pillows, blankets, and laundry except for the chair where Bonnie’s mother sat leafing through a magazine with a look of concern on her face.
“I know there was a coupon in one of these for Miracle Whip.” Mrs. Wayne mumbled as I inched through a room cluttered with boxes of winter clothing, boots, sewing supplies, and canning jars. My eyes darted into each corner. Even though it was summer, the closed piano was piled high with Christmas decorations. Garland drooped over the sides of the instrument like fat spaghetti. The closed Venetian blinds rendered the room hot, stuffy and dim with shadows.
“Bonnie, you didn’t take that magazine for your projects, did you?” Mrs. Wayne fretted and twisted her hands.
Bonnie ignored her mother and wove her way through the hall crowded with more boxes, shopping bag, and laundry baskets heaped with still more clothing. I dodged debris to keep up with her but knocked over a pile of at least a dozen books stacked in the corner.
“Just leave them.” Bonnie opened her bedroom door and I blinked in the sudden light. “Here’s my desk. Eat your heart out!”
Bonnie knew I dearly wanted my own desk, something that I thought would help edge me one step closer to the writer that I yearned to be. Bonnie’s gift could have been the desk of my dreams but I couldn’t hide my dismay at the state of her house or the rest of her room. The sour odor may have emanated from the dirty laundry spilled everywhere or it could have arisen from her unmade bed with white sheets soiled to a dingy gray. My nose wrinkled and my eyes widened. My mother kept a neat house and I was a prissy thing who didn’t like to wear my clothing twice without it being washed and ironed. I once stood in a car for two hours before getting to a birthday party because I didn’t want my dress to be creased. I had no experience with this type of disorder and filth and no skill in hiding my reaction.
As she watched and waited for me to praise her gift, a look passed over Bonnie’s face. My shock and distaste must have been clear because Bonnie turned away and snapped. “Well, that’s the desk. Let’s go to Mary’s and get some candy.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon together but our camaraderie was gone. I felt awkward and embarrassed but didn’t understand why I should be upset when it was Bonnie’s house that was such a mess. Bonnie picked an argument over which was best, Sugar Babies or Sugar Daddies. She flounced home. I kicked gravel around and then asked my sister if she wanted to play with our Barbies but I was touchy and irritable all evening. I felt like I’d done something wrong but the waves of tension rolling off of my parents kept me from talking to them about my uneasiness.
When I met Bonnie at the bus stop for the opening day of school, she stood beside Stacy, another girl in her class, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Bonnie but she turned away. Bonnie and Stacy whispered together and then they cut their eyes at me. When they snickered, I flushed a deep red. Riding the bus became an exercise in misery because Bonnie made it her mission to show me she had better friends and that I was nothing but a loser.
After months of slights, I cried to my mother about Bonnie’s insults. With no time or patience for trivial problems and unaccustomed to me being troublesome, my mother brusquely told me to find other friends. I never talked to my mother again about my sadness or fears and tried in vain to be perfect enough to make up for her own unhappiness. Eventually, I found my friends but the ache of that first betrayal stuck to me like a sticky candy wrapper. Maybe it still does.
Even though we continued in the same school until we left for college, Bonnie and I were never friendly again. She averted her eyes in the hall and I stopped trying to make sense of what happened. It would not be until years later that I understood the role that shame had played in the failure of our friendship: Her shame at the secret that lurked inside of her house and my own shame that I had noticed it and could not hide my revulsion.
It would also be years before I understood that most of those houses in Greenberry held their own secrets. Bonnie’s home hid hoarding, but Jimmy’s parents were both alcoholics. Caroline’s father was addicted to pornography. Sandy’s mother spent the days locked in her bedroom in a Valium haze. And in my house, my father wakened many nights screaming from a nightmare that returned him to a foxhole in the Ardennes where he fought for his life as an 18-year-old. During the day, he worked and provided well. In the evenings, he slapped his wife around and terrified his children with his rage until he fell into another exhausted and restless sleep.
Ron and I circle around the corner and walk past Christine’s house again. The door remains shut and the blinds are pulled but a curtain twitches in an upstairs window. I keep my face neutral and open, a skill I honed first as a nurse and then as a therapist.
Ahead, I see our home. Built in 1913 and used as a fire station until the late 1980’s, then used as an office building, it now houses two beautiful condominiums. As we walk inside, I’m pleased that while the firemen who worked here surely saw their share of misery during their service, we are among the first inhabitants of the building and it feels fresh and clean from memories of pain and strife.
As I close the door behind me, I’m aware that whatever secrets are here in my home—and I own that there are a few—are mine and my husband’s alone. Because we both come from families with considerable pain and shame, we work hard to keep our personal doors open to each other and try to fill the empty spaces in each other’s hearts. Often, we succeed, but sometimes, like I did with Bonnie and she then did with me, we fail. Today, I decide, will be a success and I take Ron’s hand. “Let me tell you about Bonnie…” I murmur, “and about a sad fifth grade girl who wanted to be perfect but never was.”
Victoria Duncan, a former registered nurse and licensed professional counselor, lives by the Chesapeake bay. She publishes an advice column and lifestyle articles in a regional magazine and hopes it is never too late to be what you might have been.