I’ve lived in a garage, a dormitory, a screened-in porch, and more than one basement. I’ve owned three houses. After my divorce and the divestiture of common property, I moved into a small second-floor apartment in a large complex of handsome brick buildings originally used as military family housing. Here, we have hardwood floors, tiny kitchens, big trees, lousy wiring.
Hardly anyone in the complex draws their curtains. I walk my dog in the evening, and behind the disguise of his slow rooting in the shrubbery, I get brief, cropped shots of other lives. A deer head with an impressive rack mounted on a wall painted navy blue. Two women at a dining table, heads close. A father drilling his kids in calisthenics, barking like a sergeant. A man practicing piano, the faint, rapid scales barely audible through the glass. A young couple, so unformed they seem to be made of putty, pushing a pair of Chihuahuas in a baby stroller down the walk. A dour woman sitting on the steps of the building where I get my mail, smoking. She refuses to move so I can enter; her profound distaste for the world seems immutable, genetic.
Below me, in #2, a couple approaches punk’s middle age: she has ropy dreadlocks, and he has a ropy beard, and both have a lot of ink. Through the windows, I can see the Tibetan prayer flags, the bicycles, the aquarium. Sometimes I hear hammering below, and their bulldog yaps every time I pass the door. In six years as neighbors, we have learned each other’s names and exchange occasional comments about the weather. Once I helped them jump their car battery, but I have never been in their apartment. When our basement storage units are broken into, I wake them up early in the morning with the news. It is a voyeur’s dream come true, the storage units open, spilling out contents: A dishwasher. Bicycles. An artificial Christmas tree. Dog crate. Old skis. An antique mirror. We pad around the mess in our pajamas, in our sudden, brief intimacy, sorting out what is theirs and what is mine. And what is mine to know.
My parents live in the same house for thirty years. It is built for them by his father, next door to the house where my father grew up. Eventually they buy that house, too, and then two more on the block. She teaches at the elementary school we attend, and my father teaches at the high school. My mother knows more about everyone in the neighborhood than she would like to know. And everyone in town knows who we are, knows our lives. Thinks they know.
I babysit for the couple next door until my grandfather dies and the family is evicted so my grandmother can move in. She spends every afternoon in our living room. Her sisters live up the hill with my ancient cousins, and my mother hosts every family dinner; our relatives fill two tables and use every dish in the house. Twice a year, we drive several hours south to visit my mother’s family. She sits with her mother and her sister at the dining table; they bend their heads together, relaxed and girlish, laughing for hours. My mother, giggling. Then we drive back.
My life is irregular, with an abundance of solitude. I work odd hours. I leave for a few days, or a few weeks. I sometimes wonder what the neighbors in #2 make of me, what the young couple with the baby stroller or the man shouting cadence to his sons assumes about me, the woman in #4: older, alone, lives with a dog, ducks out in her pajamas every morning for the newspaper. I doubt they notice the lopsided, oblique state of my life. And I always close the curtains at night. There’s a good chance they don’t notice me at all. Their passing glances are nothing more than that, which is all I give to them.
My peeking in, this urge to see what’s hidden through knotholes and between unused curtains—like a lot of things we prefer to think are obscure, this one’s fairly obvious. All those crowded family dinners. Decades later, I keep a lot of secrets and try to ferret out everyone else’s. I strive not to be entirely known, even when I am aching for it. Sister, cousin, neighbor: our lives are filled with people to whom we are nothing else. To whom we are set in stone and time from the moment we meet. And I don’t really want to know their lives; I want to imagine them, to pretend I know, to fill in gaps and guess at meaning. To write their stories, however wrong the details.
Her life: She is never alone. She is up at six in the morning. Every morning. She lets the dog out into the yard, wakes three children, makes them breakfast, then carries a Bloody Mary into the master bedroom for my father, who has a hangover. She goes to work. She comes home from work. She parks her car in the garage every day. She makes dinner every evening and washes the dishes after and then drops into her chair. My father is asleep in a beer cloud on the couch, and the three children are lined up in front of the television. She lights a cigarette, sighs, and picks up her book.
She shops at Safeway every Saturday and puts away the groceries and then prepares lessons for the coming week. She gets her hair done every Thursday after work, lying back under the bulbous hair dryer for an hour, the machine’s roar her only silence. She pays the bills on Sunday afternoons, papers strewn across the white table, chewing Ayds candies because she is always dieting. The evening roast thaws on the counter.
In the summer, we go to the mountain cabin for two weeks. She makes dinner every evening on a wood stove in the light of a kerosene lantern and washes the dishes after with water drawn by the bucket from a spring. My father is drinking beer on the deck, and the three children are up in the sleeping porch, reading comics by flashlight. She drops into her lawn chair on the deck and picks up her book with a sigh.
When my son is sixteen, a miserable, handsome mess of a boy, he is desperate to own a black leather jacket. He is sure the jacket is all he needs; it will complete the Doc Martens and the shoe-black pompadour; it will complete the cool that seems to elude him. I try to explain that coolness is internal, born of confidence, that he is already cool. He doesn’t seem to hear a word I say.
I see my children. But they don’t see me. They don’t really think about me at all—not about me, the person, the intricate bundle of needs, desires, and gifts wound together into a self unlike any other. They don’t think about my life, my successes, my worries. Children aren’t supposed to see their parents. If all goes well, a parent’s life is under wraps, and all the child sees is what they can depend upon; they see safety and pay it no mind.
My father goes into the navy out of high school and is sent into the Pacific theater for the last harrowing year of war. He comes home, enrolls in the local college, flunks out the first semester, and transfers to the state school, where he meets my mother. Where his attention knocks her over like a sledgehammer.
In an old photograph, she wears a tense smile, her feet neatly tucked beneath the circle skirt. She is sitting on the lawn near a group of handsome, laughing men and women. My father is in the middle of the group. She is there because he invited her, because she would never go where she was not invited. She is cheerful because being cheerful is part of being a good girl. She does not allow the stomach-cramping anxiety to show. She is clean and well-groomed and appropriate and almost invisible in this lush garden of blond hair and young muscle. My father is relaxed, charming—quick with a joke, a great whistler, smart and good with his hands. He slicks back his dark hair and mugs for the camera.
She finishes school, the first person in her family to graduate from college, and begins to teach. Her sister and cousins and friends are already having babies, but she wants to teach, she holds out. He finishes a year later, and they are married the year after that. They move to the small town where he was born, where I will be born, where they will settle into place like a fallen anchor. Where he will trade most of the rakish grins for a frown, the lean silhouette for a big belly hard as lead. Where he will hold a newborn in one hand and a beer in the other, gazing at the camera with a puzzled look. One, two, three babies in four years, and then a fourth one who never takes a breath, and a trip to the doctor so it can’t happen again. She will teach, she will go back to work. She will not stay home with children any longer than this.
I make dinner almost every evening, wash dishes afterward, fall with a sigh onto the couch, and reach for a book. Or the New York Times or a magazine or the remote. Or the car keys. I head out into the rain with quick steps, sketching a wave at the couple with the new pit bull. I know they know nothing about me.
When I am fourteen, my father is hospitalized with what seems to be appendicitis and then abruptly put in intensive care with pancreatitis, an alcoholic’s disaster long in the making. He lies unconscious for days in the whirring hush. In the middle of the timeless, uncertain hours, my mother sits at the white Formica table with its neat piles of bills and taxes, the filing and homework, and tells me that she’d made my father get more life insurance the year before. She talks quietly, steadily, without tears. I am so struck that she is talking to me like this at all, talking to me for the first time in my life as though I am an adult, telling me a secret for the first time, that I barely register what she says. That she expected this. That all the compromise, the accommodation, the hiccups from postwar youth to everything else, led to this, and she saw it coming. Her fortuitous planning is an irony we never discuss again; she dies of cancer long before he does.
I stand outside, looking through her half-drawn curtains, trying to read her story. Which is part of my story. I wonder if I am like my mother. But I don’t know. What was my mother like?
Sallie Tisdale is the author of nine books, most recently Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them), which was released in paperback last month. Other books include Talk Dirty to Me, Stepping Westward, Women of the Way, and the collection of essays Violation, published in 2015. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, Antioch Review, Conjunctions, Threepenny Review, The New Yorker, and Tricycle, among other journals.
Excerpted from “Curtains,” an essay in Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2019 by Sallie Tisdale.