17th Avenue

This week’s memoir prompt from Red Dress Club: think of a room from you past. Take us there.

Place is like a string unspooling; the further you roam, the more tangled it becomes. It has a way of ensnaring you, tripping you up on your way to someplace else, pinning you like an insect in a web to a dot on a map, a street, a single room.

When you stop to catch your breath, that’s when the knots form.

The first house Charlie and I ever bought was a 1920s bungalow on a single-lane, treelined street in a funky neighborhood of Spokane, Washington. It had stucco walls covered in ivy, a sloping roof and rounded front door; it was a mini fairy tale cottage amongst rambling ranch homes and two-story Tudors.

From the outside.

Inside, it was what you’d call a fixer-upper, and what we’d call ‘all we could afford’. The front door led straight into a 300 square foot living room with genuine wood floors, built-in bookcases, and a stone fireplace. Two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom crammed with a huge ceramic tub led off a small hallway, and the kitchen was narrow with warped glass in the windows, peeling vinyl flooring and ’70s-era tile counter-tops. The door down to the basement always stuck, leaving a crescent-shaped scar embedded in the vinyl.

The basement stairs were steep and borderline dangerous, the banister nothing but a metal pipe mounted into the concrete wall. At the bottom, four additional rooms–three unfinished and one finished–comprised the house’s footprint. We had plans for the unfinished ones, but during our tenure at the house, they remained unlivable. The main room’s cracked concrete floor sloped from years of settling into the soil (or so we hoped) and the stucco walls crumbled at the touch; small piles of fine powder accumulated amongst the additional rubble in the corners. We had a washing machine down there, a laundry sink and single light bulb on a string. It resembled a bunker you might see in a WWII photo depicting the London air blitz. Two bedrooms led off of it, one with more crumbling stucco walls and exposed ceiling beams (and not the kind you intentionally expose).

The single finished room sat at the far end of the main space. The entrance was wide, closed off from the rest of the basement by two wooden French doors inlaid top to bottom with small panes of thick glass. These doors scraped across the wooden flooring when opened as well, and inside was more wood paneling and built-in bookcases. Two squat rectangular windows were cut into the top of the far wall, opening outwardly on a hinge (if you’ve lived anywhere in the Midwest, or, inexplicably, Eastern Washington, you know the kind I mean).

I placed our only desk against the far wall of that room, laid our only area rug (a threadbare Oriental hand-me-down from my parents’ home) across the worn wooden floor, and installed our first shared computer (a mammoth PC from Gateway) using the two only outlets, several power strips, and a pretty bold wiring stategy.

I loved this room. I loved the way it cocooned me within the belly of our crumbling house, the way rare afternoon sunlight slanted through the high windows, the way the low ceiling crouched as though ready to enfold rather than spring (it might have been close). I spent a great deal of Nate and Calvin’s baby years in that room, writing, reading, connecting with my first friends online. Trying to uncover and restore just a little bit of self during a time I was quite nearly a stranger.

We moved away from that house in 2002, and once I’d boxed everything up and stripped that room bare, I never went back. I’ve not even driven down that street in all the years since. It’s the same way with everywhere I’ve lived: it’s one thing to allow myself to be tied to a place, but once I leave, I cut the line.

Give a place some slack, and just like that, it can pull you taut.


24 thoughts on “17th Avenue

  1. I love the image of you cocooned inside the belly of this first house, the same way you cocooned those babies inside your own belly. The house becomes a mother, a starting place, a room of one’s own in which the you we know first began to emerge. Beautiful, and haunting.

  2. Amy – I liked this. Very interesting, the idea of cutting the place cord. And I love the part about being cocooned inside the belly, and reaching out to find yourself again from such a safe place.

    One little thing: you have a typo in the last graph, it should be “stripped” bare.

  3. Funny, the last bit about cutting the cord disturbed me a little, but regardless, it was a great turn of phrase. I loved this piece, and love all that a couple’s first place represents, especially a teeny tiny much-loved one.

    My favorite line? “When you stop to catch your breath, that’s when the knots form.” Because that’s when you stop to think, too.

  4. Sense of place is so intimately connected to our sense of self, I think, and this piece underscores that idea for me. I can feel myself in that room. I can feel the same identity struggles I went through as a new mother (and continue to wrestle with). And I can feel the pull of my own places and the knots there that still need unraveling.

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