The House They Used To Live In

A sweet nostalgic chrimsassy story about a father reminiscing about his life and daughter ending on a climax you never saw it coming.

While on a business trip to Chicago, Jack decided to drive by the old house. They lived there twenty-two years. How time had vanished with the slight of a magician’s hand — now you see it, now you don’t.

Jack crossed the threshold with his wife on their June wedding day in that house. They had welcomed their only daughter, Navya, into it. He had built his career as a software designer right there, in that house.

Twenty-two magnificent years.

Now, Navya was grown, off to medical school and, at present, a resident at Mayo.

The memories were good and precious and fleeting. People had always told Jack to enjoy it; be in the moment. “Kids grow up so fast,” they cautioned.

There was, of course, Jack’s long cage match with booze in that house. Those memories weren’t so hot. They screwed up his marriage for a while. There were fights, but he and Aisha eventually worked it out. He got a handle on his disease, with her support. But soon after the cancer diagnosis came, the rounds of radiation and chemo ensued. He beat one disease only to trade it in for another. But Jack beat cancer too. He was now seven years cancer free.

As he drove to the house on Hamilton Street, it all came back. He realized, as his rental car headed north on Lake Shore Drive, that a house is like a memory vault. Everything is stored there. All of it.

It was snowing in Chicago. Big, light flakes falling down in constellations. The snow was pelting the windshield, the wipers thumping back and forth. It was snowing out over the dark expanse of Lake Michigan too, and all across the city.

Jack drove through the old neighborhood. The multicolored holiday lights were still aglow on the lamp-posts and in storefront windows and on the houses. It was the week after Christmas.

He drove by the park he used to take his daughter to when she was young, the swings and the teeter-totter sat still and cold in the night. He drove by the library he took Navya too when she was child.

So, gently, and using the greatest of care, the
elephant stretched his great trunk through the
air, and he lifted the dust speck and carried it
over and placed it down, safe, on a very soft
clover…

Jack smiled as he drove down the quiet street, passed the library in darkness, the lights off for the night.

“Do you think the library mouse is there?” he heard his baby girl asking, tugging on his shirt, a long-ago memory.

Jack turned down Hamilton. It was dark and the snow continued to cascade down. The trees that lined the streets had grown since they had moved away, just as his daughter had grown. Jack wondered if any of the old neighbors were still around.

And then he reached the house, the humble red brick Georgian with the white shutters. It hadn’t changed much, not much at all. He parked the car across the street, under an amber street lamp. The lights were on in the large living room window. He thought of Thanksgiving dinners and teeth under pillows with notes for the Tooth Fairy. He recalled coming back from school musicals and science fairs. Throwing the football out in the street with his little girl and taking the training wheels off her bike as she pedaled for the first time, right where he was now parked.

“I’m doing it, Daddy! I’m riding a bike!”

He thought of the Christmas tree in the living room all lit up, and the year he gave Navya the orange Tabby, which she named “Boots” and immediately held the cat close under her chin and closed her eyes and smiled and sighed deep as the universe.

He thought about fourteen years later, digging with a spade in the hard, frozen backyard on a November Day and burying Boots, Nadya 17, by his side, her dark eyes filled with clear pools of tears.

That house was so filled with memories.

As Jack sat in the car, a light flipped on in an upstairs window. Navya’s old bedroom. How many nights had he rocked his baby girl in that very spot? She always had so much trouble falling asleep. He often spent an hour or more, cradling his dark haired little baby in his arms as she sucked on her thumb, eyes closed. Jack recalled the frustrations of his little girl crying and not being able to drift off. “Sleep onset disorder,” the doctor had called it. He would sing to her, and sway her back and forth, and rub his nose against hers and kiss her soft forehead. And only after he was convinced that she had finally surrendered to slumber, would he place her in her crib, and even then, she often woke the minute he set her down. For a young dad, just getting used to the routine of patience and little babies — it was all such an adjustment. Jack would get frustrated and resentful. Parenting was hard.

He sat in his car and looked at the window. What he would do to have one of those frustrating moments with his little girl again. Just one. He wouldn’t be frustrated, he thought. He wouldn’t be resentful. No. He would relish it. All of it.

As he looked at the house, and at the bedroom window aglow, a man appeared. Young. Dark hair. Unshaven. He moved about the room, and, then, disappeared for a moment. After a minute, he returned. He was holding a baby. He started to sway back and forth, back and forth looking down at the delicate child in his arms.

Jack sat out on the street in his rental car and watched. He felt guilty at first, watching the father and child this way. Then he felt envy. What he would do for just one more moment in that room again with his own child.

Why was I always in such a hurry? Why was I so impatient?

The man continued to rock the baby, doing his best to help the little child drift off. The dance between father and baby went on for ten minutes, Jack watching outside from his car, the snow still falling.

The father rubbed his nose against his infant’s face. He kissed the baby’s forehead. Jack couldn’t believe the similarities to his own memories.

The cycle of life. That was me twenty-two years ago.

And upstairs, in the bedroom, the young father was tired. His baby wouldn’t drift off. It was this way often. People said she needed to be “sleep trained.” To just set her down in the crib and let her cry it out. But he had brought that baby into this world and he took a solemn pledge to protect that little cherub. He couldn’t stand listening to her wail, wondering where her daddy had gone and why he wasn’t coming to her aid.

So night after night he rocked her to sleep and sometimes it felt like it took forever. And that night, while he was rocking that little child, he moved towards the window and looked out. Snow was coming down, sleepy and silver, each flake infinite in its intricacy. Holding his daughter in his arms, he pressed closer to the window-pane.

A car was parked outside, under the sulphur streetlamp. The engine was idling, exhaust expelling blue-gray clouds from the tailpipe.

The father squinted. It was odd. Through the dark and the falling snow, he swore, the man sitting behind the wheel of that car. He was looking up, right at him. He looked like himself, slightly older, but exactly the same.

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