House is Spelled H-o-g-a-r
When I was in eighth grade, my parents were desperate to leave our rental apartment in South Norwalk, Connecticut. Every month, sometimes every few weeks, my parents and I—along with my brother—would hide behind the blinds to watch as the neighborhood men got arrested in the parking lot of the train station across our street. I could hardly see anything, just the red and blue lights that would light up our small dining room table with a neon glow. Or the red and old grey Metro North trains that headed to Grand Central Terminal. I made out bodies but not faces. I didn’t think much of it then and imagined that this was what most of the neighborhoods in the United States were like. I’d walk a block to catechism class every Tuesday for months with kids who spoke Spanish and English, with kids whose names I didn’t know but whose faces I had seen at the bus stop.
During the summer, I signed up for the local camp and played in the playground behind the condominiums we lived in. Then I’d go back to the apartment, where all of us squeezed into the same room until I got my period when I was nine years old. Until then, there was always someone in the other bedroom. A couple who came from Ecuador to make money for a few months by doing manual labor because they owed someone some cash. A cousin who needed a place to stay before he pooled what he needed for rent. Undocumented friends of my parents that crashed for weeks or months. But when I became “a señorita,” even though I was still a child that resented the responsibility of controlling blood, they decided I needed my own room. And as the years passed, my brother, who trails me by six years, began to need his own space too. It took nine years after my father moved to the United States, eight years after my mother and I joined him, and seven years after my brother was born, to reach what is often recognized as the American Dream. They became indebted hundreds of thousands of dollars with a new home, but back then I didn’t see it that way. All I knew is that we wouldn’t have marked parking spots anymore.
In late 2001, my parents told me to search online for houses. Like most children of immigrant parents, I was their translator and searcher, so I turned on the computer, started the dial-up process, and did as I was told. One eventually stuck out. It was about fifteen minutes from our apartment but in a different zip code. What I loved about it, even though there were no photos of the inside, was that it had a fireplace. Only the houses my mother cleaned or babysat in had fireplaces. A yard? We had a yard that I shared with all the kids in the condominiums. A TV? Check. A computer? My parents made sure I had one. A pool? I could go to the YMCA. But I couldn’t borrow a fireplace. None of my aunts, cousins, or parents’ friends had one. I imagined my brother and I placing in wooden logs, watching as my father started a fire with a match and my mom timed us to make sure the marshmallows wouldn’t scald our tongues. I wouldn’t have to wait for a summer bonfire. I saw myself in front of the fireplace, a thick blanket on top of me, as I read a book. This is the house I wanted, but I hoped in silence, not wanting to believe that it could actually be the place where I would go to sleep at night.
We went to see the house on Girard Street, and the vinyl siding was made up of a powder blue and it stood right at a corner, with no garage but a spacious driveway, the back door and porch facing a different street than the front door. “Mija, our very own yard,” my mom said. It felt odd to me—calling it ours while we hadn’t even walked inside. But that was my mom. Imagining where she could learn to garden, wondering what she would decorate the walls with. She pointed with her skinny fingers to the trees. Street, front yard, porch, house, side yard, and a driveway that led to another street. If we moved to Girard Street, we would leave the sound of the daily trains and the white metal fence that surrounded the condominium.
We could light the fireplace.
When my father opened the door, the first thing I saw was a staircase to my right covered in a carpet the color of seaweed. It continued to the left into the empty living room, until it was out of sight in the darkness. In the middle of the room: the brick fireplace. I walked towards it, felt the thick carpet underneath my sneakers, stared at the soot and withstood the urge to look up the chimney. On each side near the chimney stood a doorway with no frame. The left one would take you to the kitchen. The right one took you to the dining room. I could walk around in a full circle: living room, dining room, kitchen, and back to the living room. The fireplace was the center of the house. There was a section beyond the kitchen, but before I could peek, the real estate agent walked in and asked us to follow her upstairs.
My mom hardly said anything, but she let the ooohs and aaahs speak for themselves. Papi, on the other hand, was quiet, feeling the walls as if he had built them himself. The second floor had a full bathroom and three bedrooms. It would be the first time my parents wouldn’t have to share their room with me or my brother. The master bedroom was the last room down the hallway to the right. And in front of it, I assumed that would be my room—big enough for a queen bed painted white with two windows, one facing the street and the other overlooking the side entrance with a clear view of the driveway. My mind, though, kept wandering back to the fireplace.
It wasn’t until many years later that my dad would recall his initial reservations about the house on Girard Street. The walls were caked in a thick paint, the egg-yellow of the kitchen cabinets needed to be replaced to catch up to the new century, and the dark green carpet would have to be removed and swapped for a less dreary color. While the upstairs shower could be used, his keen eye noticed water was filtering between the tub and the adjacent wall. What wooed both him and my mom, nonetheless, was the size. Each of us would have our own bedrooms, we could pick from two living rooms to put up a Christmas tree, a large yard for their two children to kick around a ball, and no need for visitors to fight for parking spaces with other neighbors.
I didn’t go to another open house. Maybe my parents went by themselves or maybe this particular house overrode any memory of another house we went to visit. Just a month or so after our visit, my parents told me that we were moving to Girard Street. The day we moved in, my only task was to organize and decorate my room. But I walked around to each of the rooms, wondering how long it would take for the empty smell to be replaced by our family’s scent. Would it take just a day for my mother’s cooking to infuse the house? I brought towels, parts of our beds, and portraits up the stairs. I looked out my window to observe my mom and dad carrying whatever they could, smiles plastered on their faces. Accomplishment a twinkle in their eyes. It took me a few hours to go to sleep that night, as I lay in my old bed surrounded by new walls, and I became acquainted with the creaks and groans of the new house. When we moved to the house in early 2002, I was convinced that this would be the house my parents would age in.
* * *
In the time that Girard Street was home, my papi taught me why we placed chalk on the tip of a pool cue and sometimes I’d fall asleep in my room with the crack of faraway billiard balls lulling me. I accompanied my mother while she cooked camarón apanado and finished frying with fingers sticky with egg yolk and bread crumbs, friends stayed for a sleepover where we had a fake séance to see if a ghost reached out to us, I hummed and danced to Ja Rule and Ashanti videos before my mother drove me to school. We added a black Labrador retriever to our family who mauled sofas when he got too excited, I waited for the chimney to be fixed so we could warm the house with a fire, the basement flooded in a far corner with each rain. I frightened my brother with tales of eyes hidden in the back of my head like the book in Hocus Pocus; got my cellphone taken away when my father found me in our family room almost-kissing with the next-door neighbor; watched the leaves turn the color of cider, honey, carrot, apricot, clay, and rust all while our house reverberated with Spanglish words and sentences.
* * *
On December 23, 2003, my father got the call that would alter our lives and pull us away from the place I thought I would say goodbye to when I went off to college. His half-brother, Pedro, called to tell him the truth about his father, my grandfather, my abuelito. We knew that his health was failing, but it was in a way elderly people get frail, more old age rather than a specific sickness. At least, that was the impression my family had been under for months, when all we could do was hear my grandfather’s voice over the phone. Tío Pedro was at a hospital and passed the phone to a doctor, and he informed my father that his father’s kidneys were failing and he’d need dialysis for the rest of his life.
My father hung up the phone, and his decision was already made.
As the only biological son, he knew he needed to be there for his father. He didn’t sleep on it. He didn’t think about the house under his name. He didn’t waver in his decision. My mother, when approached by my dad, told him that she understood. She had grown up with many guardians but never a parent, and my paternal grandfather had been the closest to a father that she’d ever had. My father had paid for a daily visit from a nurse, but that could never replace the embrace of a child. Nearly a decade had passed since he stopped living in Ecuador, and he couldn’t bear to be far away and abscond what he felt like was his duty.
My parents told us that very same night. But I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember that it was right before Christmas. I don’t remember where my father and mother told me. The kitchen? The living room with the fireplace? The living room with the television? I don’t have a single memory of the moment. My parents are convinced they told us sitting at our dining room table. When I was told, the world I had been living in, that bubble popped. My parents held a knife with the finest edge and popped it with such force it took my memories. I have only created scenes in my mind based on what they’ve told me.
My mom and dad said there was silence. I did not bicker or cry, just said a whisper of an okay. They could see that I was thinking. Taking it all in. But I failed to share with them any of my thoughts. I left them sitting at the dining room table, with the ambiguous okay hanging in the air and went up to my room. That was it. I don’t remember crying that night, although I’m sure I did. The life I knew was over. What I remember is a call I made to my boyfriend. It was the type of high school relationship in which we stole kisses and hugs in between classrooms in the hallway of our school. We had only gone out in public—to go bowling or watch a movie—a few times. But he was, in my teenage understanding at that time, my boyfriend. I called expecting words of comfort. That everything would be fine in the end.
“So when are you leaving?” he asked.
“I have no idea. I mean . . . doubt it will be before the school year ends. Pretty sure I’ll have to finish the rest of the year here.”
“So in the summer then?” he said.
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Damn. Then maybe it’s best if we stopped talking,” he said.
“Vicky, you’re not moving to another town. Or even another state. You’re moving thousands of miles away. Why would you want our feelings for each other to . . . you know . . . get bigger? Stronger. You know what I mean,” he said.
I knew what he meant. I told him it was okay, just like I had told my parents. I said that I understood, and maybe I’d see him around before I left. Just by announcing my departure, without knowing which day I would be gone, people already imagined me in another place. Flying away like a balloon until I was sure I would be out of sight, out of mind. I was still in my house, but drifting into numbness, far from being fine.
It hit me more once I went back to school from Christmas and New Year’s break. I stood in front of my locker, moved the numbers on the lock and realized that I would not have a locker once we moved. My parents had told me it was a gringo thing, and when they were teenagers in Ecuador they wondered if the school lockers in the movies were true. Moving the lock’s combination dial represented how everything would change. From the smallest thing to the biggest one. I began pulling out the books I needed while tears hit the covers. The bell rang over the loudspeaker, and I wiped my tears with the back of my hand, ready to start the first day of my last semester of high school in the United States.
* * *
It was hard to talk to my parents about what was on my mind because I felt like they were the root of my pain. I went through the stages of grief in solitude. Denial in certain moments, feeling like it was all a dream and my parents would come to their senses as the days passed. Anger. It was easier to be angry at the world rather than my grandfather; it was easier to be angry with myself rather than my parents. So I woke up every day hating the cold of January and February, hating the way my hair puffed out instead of falling daintily beyond my shoulders. I hated my grandfather’s kidneys, all kidneys. My locker. School. Then I bargained, with myself and with my mother.
One day, my mom told me that we would be leaving once school let out in the summer. This was the first time I didn’t wallow in silence, when I refused to say okay.
“My birthday is the last day of June,” I said.
“Mija, by then we’ll be in Ecuador.”
“There is no way I’m spending my birthday there.”
My mom looked at me, her long hair in a ponytail, her eyes moving in alertness at my refusal to abide by this decision. When I saw her mouth ready to announce something, I interjected.
“It’ll be the last birthday I spend with my friends. Please.”
I had to hold my breath when I pleaded or else the tears would have begun. She relented and promised me we would leave after I turned fifteen.
The depression arrived in waves, but I thought it was just sadness. Some days, I’d feel hope. On others, I’d struggle to get out of bed. Acceptance didn’t come for years, not until I was living in the town I was born in. But by then it was more ceding than it was accepting. More of a giving up.
* * *
My friends. I told them once we were back after the Christmas break in the cafeteria.
They were surprised. And they hugged me tight, assuring me we would always be friends, but even then, I knew that they would probably not write letters that would take months to arrive.
“How could they do this to you, Victoria?” one asked.
I told her that I didn’t know, but I was happy that someone else understood how crazy it was. Others at the table and throughout the day asked me the same questions.
But why would you leave?
Because your grandpa is sick? Can’t they send him to a home?
Maybe your parents will let you stay with some family members here.
So they’re just going to leave everything behind?
What about your house?
It sounded as ludicrous to them as it did to me. I could only answer one of their questions. “We don’t send our grandparents and parents away when they get sick,” I told them. That’s only a gringo thing, and even if my parents did want to do this, there weren’t old folk homes where my grandfather lived. Another person asked me why my grandfather couldn’t come and live with us. “He doesn’t want to,” I said. That was the simplest answer, and I didn’t want to go into detail about the complexities of acquiring a visa for a man in his 60s who had never left his home country. Even more serious, and something I didn’t understand then, was that there was no way my parents could afford to pay for the medical care of a man with failing kidneys in the United States.
What all my friends remember from the announcement in the cafeteria is that I told them I would be back. I couldn’t tell them when or how. But I would be back.
* * *
I often think about what it means to start over, and the way my ancestors and parents began again. My grandfather ran away when he was a teen from Quito to Guayaquil. He didn’t go back to Quito until he had created his own business. My father, on the other hand, moved to a house in Connecticut with twelve other men, doing odd jobs and working at McDonald’s until he could afford to live alone, until he could afford to bring us to him. My mother’s parents had immigrated from Ecuador to Connecticut in the 1970s, but when her mother died, her father continued living in the U.S. and sent his daughters to where he hailed from. My mom’s first language would have been English, but her father’s inability to care for her made sure it was not. So she began a new life in Ecuador, where she met my father in her teens, and then she would move back to the state her mother passed away in to raise me and my brother.
My history is one of uprooting by hands that dig and pull. My history is defined by movements and place. My history is of decisions made before I was even born. My history is outlined by blood ties. My history is one of beginnings disguised as endings.
* * *
Every year I had waited for the freedom of summer. Once the heat of June 2004 swept across the northeast, I wanted each day to extend itself as much as possible. For the days to linger the way that the aroma of cookies sticks to the air hours after they’re baked. I wanted the minutes to expand and for school to remain in session forever, but I couldn’t stop time, and freshman year ended. A few days before my birthday, convinced that it was partly out of pity for forcing me into a country I hardly knew and because I was about to be fifteen, my parents took me to New York City. We took the train to Grand Central Terminal and then walked to Times Square, where they let me go on a shopping spree. T-shirt with a crocodile on it. Washed-out jeans. Blouses that would let my body breathe in the heat of Ecuador. Six pairs of sandals.
As I went to the fitting rooms, I kept thinking about how I never wanted a quinceañera or a sweet sixteen. Years before, I had told my parents I would gladly skip out on a fluffy pink dress on my 15th birthday and accept a used dinged up car for my 16th birthday. And even if that wasn’t a possibility, I didn’t want a party. Just a permit. But there, as I lifted shirts over my head and stared at the mirror, I realized that I wouldn’t get either. No fluffy dress with a waltz and definitely no car nor driver’s permit. I had to wait even more years for the privilege of driving in Ecuador. As much as my parents tried, they couldn’t buy my sadness away. I wasn’t just grieving a place, a life I knew, the dynamic of my day to day. I was grieving who I was on the brink of becoming.
By then, the date for the return to our homeland was set for August. I could not ask for any other delay. My grandfather was back home, and it had been months since we knew we would be leaving Connecticut.
* * *
One of the last clear memories I have of living in the United States was attending the 4th of July fireworks at a local beach. I felt disconnected from the hordes of people, barbecuing on the pits, sipping colas, and kids screaming. My life had steeped into a state of limbo. I wanted to grab each moment like trapping a firefly in a see-through glass—seeing it glow and then waiting for it to wither without oxygen. But I had to confront that I couldn’t stop the passage of time, even though I wanted to. I looked around at the strangers, convinced in my naiveté they had unruptured lives and the freedom to do what they wanted. That’s what it meant to be an adult, to be in control, and I was too young to wield that power. As the boom of the fireworks lit the sky, and the smell of burning engulfed my surroundings, I envied and hated everyone around me. And I promised myself that as soon as I was an adult, whenever and whatever that meant, I would come back home.
A week before we left, there was a funeral at our house for the life we had known for a decade. Cars streamed in and out of our driveway. Trucks parked in front of our house. Neighbors made their way over to hug us. The person that cried the most was Tía Diana, my mother’s sister. They had never looked much alike, my mom with her tall and lanky frame and my aunt petite, shorter than five feet, darker than her younger sister. They embraced, and it looked like a mother cradling a daughter. They were sent, without their brother, to live in Ecuador with strangers. Then they returned to Connecticut as young adults, where they’d see each other every week, or at least every month. And now my mother was leaving. It was like they instinctively knew it would be years before they could see each other again.
My father’s friends, including high school mates from Ecuador, my brother’s godfather, cousins, and siblings on each of my parents’ sides walked into our home with exasperated sighs. The type that replaces words too hard to utter. All of them understood the duty of a son comforting his father, and somehow I understood it was my duty not to undermine his decision—even though I felt like I could retch at any moment. Tight hugs abounded. Pórtate bien. Be good, they all told me, and I wanted to shout out at them that this would be the best I would ever be. The calm before the change. That they were lucky I hadn’t run away. Listen to your parents, they said. You have to be there for them, they said. I had, I have, I will, because I have no choice, I wanted to say.
I watched each of them go back into their cars, most of them immigrants just like my parents, and wondered what they really thought about my parents ditching their lives to move back to Ecuador. The bets they had probably placed in secret to see how long we would be able to endure that country as a family. But if they had any doubts, if they thought my parents’ decision was ridiculous, I never knew. All they repeated in front of us was their well wishes. And so I stood at the porch at my house, waved, wondering how much I’d age before I saw them again, wondering how long I’d go without seeing snow, watching as the cars sped away while night blanketed the sky, unprepared for a new life. I closed the front door, walked into the living room, my toes mushing the same seaweed carpet I first stepped on, and looked at the center of the house. We never lit the fireplace.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator whose work delves into the intersections of identity and place, family history, and the moments her hippocampus refuses to forget. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong en Español, JMWW, the 2021 Connecticut Literary Anthology, and other literary magazines. A Body Across Two Hemispheres, which narrates her search for home between Ecuador and Connecticut, is her debut memoir-in-essays and winner of the 2021 Fairfield Book Prize.