The Perfect Stranger
Character, Emmy called it, the quirks that came with the house: the nonexistent water pressure in the shower; the illogical layout. From the front porch, our house had large sliding glass doors that led directly to the living room and kitchen, a hallway beyond with two bedrooms and a bathroom to share. The main door was at the other end of the hall and faced the woods, like the house had been laid down with the right dimensions but the wrong orientation.
Probably the nicest thing I can say about the house was that it’s mine. But even that’s not exactly true. It’s my name on the lease, my food in the refrigerator, my glass cleanser that wipes the pollen residue from the sliding glass doors.
The house still belongs to someone else, though. The furniture, too. I didn’t bring much with me when I left my last place. Wasn’t much, once I got down to it, that was mine to take from the one-bedroom in the Prudential Center of Boston. Bar stools that
wouldn’t fit under a standard table. Two dressers, a couch, and a bed, which would cost more to move than to replace.
Sometimes I wondered if it was just my mother’s words in my head, making me see this place, and my choice to be here, as something less than.
Before leaving Boston, I’d tried to spin the story for my mother, slanting this major life change as an active decision, opting to appeal to her sense of charity and decency—both for my benefit and for hers. I once heard her introduce me and my sister to her friends: “Rebecca helps the ones who can be saved, and Leah gives a voice to those who cannot.” So I imagined how she might frame this for her friends: My daughter is taking a sabbatical. To help children in need. If anyone could sell it, she could.
I made it seem like my idea to begin with, not that I had latched myself on to someone else’s plan because I had nowhere else to go. Not because the longer I stood still, the more I felt the net closing in.
Emmy and I had already sent in our deposit, and I’d been floating through the weeks, imagining this new version of the world waiting for me. But even then, I’d steeled myself for the call. Timed it so I knew my mother would be on her way to her standing coffee date with The Girls. Practiced my narrative, preemptively preparing counterpoints: I quit my job, and I’m leaving Boston. I’m going to teach high school, already have a position lined up. Western Pennsylvania. You know there are whole areas of the country right here in America that are in need, right? No, I won’t be alone. Remember Emmy? My roommate while I was interning after college? She’s coming with me.
The first thing my mother said was: “I don’t remember any Emmy.” As if this were the most important fact. But that was how she worked, picking at the details until the foundation finally gave, from nowhere. And yet her method of inquiry was also how we knew we had a secure base, that we weren’t basing our plans on a dream that would inevitably crumble under pressure.
I moved the phone to my other shoulder. “I lived with her after college.”
A pause, but I could hear her thoughts in the silence: You mean after you didn’t get the job you thought you’d have after graduation, took an unpaid internship instead, and had no place to live?
“I thought you were staying with . . . what was her name again? The girl with the red hair? Your roommate from college?”
“Paige,” I said, picturing not only her but Aaron, as I always did. “And that was just for a little while.”
“I see,” she said slowly.
“I’m not asking for your permission, Ma.”
Except I kind of was. She knew it. I knew it.
“Come home, Leah. Come home and let’s talk about it.”
Her guidance had kept my sister and me on a high-achieving track since middle school. She had used her own missteps in life to protect us. She had raised two independently successful daughters. A status I now seemed to be putting in jeopardy.
“So, what,” she said, changing the angle of approach, “you just walked in one day and quit?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And you’re doing this why?”
I closed my eyes and imagined for a moment that we were different people who could say things like Because I’m in trouble, so much trouble, before straightening my spine and giving her my speech. “Because I want to make a difference. Not just take facts and report them. I’m not doing anything at the paper but stroking my own ego. There’s a shortage of teachers, Mom. I could really make an impact.”
“Yes, but in western Pennsylvania?”
The way she said it told me everything I needed to know. When Emmy suggested it, western Pennsylvania seemed like a different version of the world I knew, with a different version of
myself—which, at the time, was exactly what I needed. But my mother’s world was in the shape of a horseshoe. It stretched from New York City to Boston, swooping up all of Massachusetts inside the arch (but bypassing Connecticut entirely). She was the epicenter in western Massachusetts, and she’d successfully sent a daughter to the edge of each arch, and the world was right and complete. Any place else, in contrast, would be seen as a varying degree of failure.
My family was really only one generation out from a life that looked like this: a rental house with shitty plumbing, a roommate out of necessity, a town with a forgettable name, a job but no career. When my father left us, I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate the impact. But I knew there existed a time when we were unprepared and at the whim of the generosity of those around us. Those were the limbo years—the ones she never talked about, a time she now pretends never existed.
To her, this probably sounded a lot like sliding backward.
“Great teachers are needed everywhere,” I said.
She paused, then seemed to concede with a slow and drawn-out “Yes.”
I hung up, vindicated, then felt the twinge. She was not conceding. Great teachers are needed everywhere, yes, but you are not that.
She didn’t mean it as an insult, exactly. My sister and I were both valedictorians, both National Merit Scholars, both early admissions to the college of our respective choice. It wasn’t unreasonable that she would question this decision—especially coming out of thin air.
I quit, I had told her. This was not a lie, but a technicality—the truth being that it was the safest option, for both the paper and me. The truth was, I had no job in the only thing I’d trained in, no foreseeable one, and no chance of one. The truth was I was glad she had given me the blandest name, the type of name I’d hated
growing up. A girl who could blend in and never stand out. A name in a roster anywhere.
EMMY’S CAR STILL WASN’T back when I was ready to leave for school. This was not too unusual. She worked the night shift, and she’d been seeing some guy named Jim—who sounded, on the phone, like he had smoke perpetually coating his lungs. I thought he wasn’t nearly good enough for Emmy; that she was sliding backward in some intangible way, like me. But I cut her some slack because I understood how it could be out here, how the calm could instead feel like an absence—and that sometimes you just wanted someone to see you.
Other than weekends, we could miss each other for days at a time. But it was Thursday, and I needed to pay the rent. She usually left me money on the table, underneath the painted stone garden gnome that she’d found and used as a centerpiece. I lifted the gnome by his red hat just to double-check, revealing nothing but a few stray crumbs.
Her lateness on the rent was also not too unusual.
I left her a sticky note beside the corded phone, our designated spot. I wrote RENT DUE in large print, stuck it on the wood-paneled wall. She’d taken all the other notes from earlier in the week—the SEE ELECTRIC BILL, the MICROWAVE BROKEN, the MICROWAVE FIXED.
I opened the sliding doors, hit the lights at the entrance, rummaged in my bag for my car keys—and realized I’d forgotten my cell. A gust of wind came in through the door as I turned around, and I watched the yellow slip of paper—RENT DUE—flutter down and slip behind the wood stand where we stacked the mail.
I crouched down and saw the accumulated mess underneath. A pile of sticky notes. CALL JIM right side up but half covered by
another square. A few others, facedown. Not taken by Emmy after all but lost between the wall and the furniture during the passing weeks.
Emmy didn’t have a cell because her old one was still with her ex, on his phone plan, and she didn’t want an easy way for him to trace her. The idea of not owning a cell phone left me feeling almost naked, but she said it was nice not to be at anyone’s beck and call. It had seemed so Emmy at the time—quirky and endearing—but now seemed both irrational and selfish.
I left the notes on the kitchen table instead. Propped them up against the garden gnome. Tried to think of how many days it had been since I’d last seen her.
I added another note: CALL ME.
Decided to throw out the rest, so it wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.