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“We’re going to sleep in the new house tonight,” my dad announced one summer evening. There were no beds in the new digs yet, just sleeping bags on the living room floor, yet none of us demurred. Our current house, a stucco ranch set back in a lot with another brown stuccoed rental in front, had seen us through a year. I’d finished eighth grade in this place: studied the anatomy of bird wings, made mnemonics for plant terms, recorded myself reading off grammar terms and definitions, and drove my older brother to my door saying “Would you shut that off?!” when I played back the tape. I’d stayed up until the wee hours reading my book report selections the night before they were due to avoid the fat, gaping zero we’d been promised for failing to finish. (I made it through Gulliver’s Travelers, but had to give up on a tome called Bangkok.)
Brown. The old three-bedroom house was dark brown, from the rugs to the drapes to the trim. There was the perimeter outdoors where us kids had played a game of hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids, racing to spy each other through parallel windows and laugh. We got in trouble for that–we had trampled the landscaping. I remember fine black dirt, pepper or eucalyptus providing shade. A chain-link fence bordered a parched back yard where I’d felt mild interest in a tent one of us had put up.
In the living room, under the white ceiling, we scooched up close to our TV while the investigators and detectives of ’80s programming paraded by: handsome Magnum, the Simon brothers from San Diego, the Steele man with piercing blue eyes and vivid female sidekick, the Hart couple whose opening theme narration prompted me to ask my mom what “self-made millionaire” meant. At Christmas, a tree stood in a corner, a tinselly bright Disneyland ad poured out of our TV set, and my mom made presents of new clothes, replacing thrift store items my sister and I had been wearing to school. She had more than an inkling of the social pressures we faced because our wardrobe was different.
Getting to school was a problem, as we needed to ask local friends for rides. My mom, the first-grade teacher, would leave earlier. Then my siblings and I would cram into a red Hyundai–it was a red Hyundai no matter which of our friends we rode with–and I would sit tensely in the back and hope that we’d beat the trolley at the bottom of the hill before the dreaded clanging started and the barrier came down, putting us at risk of being late.
When eighth grade finally wrapped up, after a day of pizza and yearbook signing (“Stay sweet!”), we found out we’d be moving again. Moving, even though we were well past the stage of eating off a makeshift sawhorse table; of hearing Neil Diamond adjuring us to turn on our “heartlight” while my dad worked on improvement projects; of getting used to skirting our front neighbors’ latest motorcycle enhancement endeavors on the oil-stained driveway. Now we gathered around a solid wood table decorated, eighties style, with small black splashes, a fifty dollar purchase from a garage sale across the street. I still cringed at “Tonight, I celebrate my love for you,” intimately crooned across the kitchen, but our busy school days meant those songs were no longer the backdrop for life. And we didn’t exactly roam the neighborhood with joyful abandon, but we had made a few connections with some of the kids.
Yet when my dad announced that we were going to sleep at the new place, we didn’t hesitate. Oh, it wasn’t really new–just new to us. It would be new to have a blue carpet faded nearly to grey by the sunlight that flooded through the windows in the bright, high-ceilinged living room; to be one of a row of multi-story planned homes with neat front lawns and back yards cooled by ocean breezes; to simply walk up from the cul-de-sac and cross the highway to get to school; to have friendly acquaintances living around us. The music director’s wife, visiting from down the street, saw me and said, “Oh, wonderful–a babysitter!”
That home, with its spacious living room, hosted our Sunday evening family TV parties, where my mom brought out trays of crackers and cheese for our dinner. I did my science fair experiments in the back yard, which was always just a tad chilly; fell asleep doing algebra homework in the middle bedroom of the three that were lofted over the living room; readied for summer volleyball practice and fall games; shared numerous family dinners at that flecked dining room table. And I babysat for neighbors’ children, turning quite a profit by tenth grade, rich enough now to buy all my own clothes. I talked for hours on the phone with my friend from school, or waited near our green lawn with its little ornamental tree for her to come pick me up for a day out together. This time, our family stuck around for three years, and that’s all we needed for the faded blue carpet to do its work.Published in