I jolt awake when I hear the stewardess’s too perky voice come over the plane’s intercom system. “We will be landing in New York in just about fifteen minutes. I hope you all have enjoyed your flight thus far…”
I zone out when she starts to ramble on about the weather conditions and time in New York. My dad realizes I’m awake and turns to me.
“Welcome home,” he says. I give him a lame smile in return and hope he accounts its lack of cheeriness for sleepiness.
But on the inside, all of me is frowning. New York is not my home. It never really was and it never will be.
Colorado is home. Colorado was where I could lie on the roof in a sleeping bag and stare at the stars for hours. Colorado was where I kept a collection of newspaper articles and random doodles in a loose floorboard in my room. Colorado was where I grew up, despite the fact that I was born here, and where anything that ever mattered happened to me.
* * *
The airport we touch down in is like any other. Filled with people, smelling like dry bagels and tasteless coffee, and crowded with suitcases rolling along always clean hallways. As we make our way through the airport, Dad proceeds to tell me of his childhood here, the things he did, and the neighborhood he grew up in.
I keep a few steps ahead of him so that he can’t see the grimace that contorts my face. Dad is just beginning a speech that I’m sure will go on for at least ten more minutes about where we’re moving in, and I can’t stand it anymore.
“Stop,” I say sternly, and it’s obvious my dad is taken aback by my tone. “I’m sorry…” I say, trying to soften my voice, “I’m just… tired.”
He nods and stops talking, but I’m sure he’s continuing the conversation in his head. For the past six months, since the unimaginable happened, he’s taken to filling up empty space with words; endless chatter and meaningless conversation. I think it’s his attempt to keep his thoughts away from what happened, but there’s no way he’s not thinking about it.
The sudden death of your wife—and the mother of yours truly—is hard to ignore.
So it’s not a huge surprise when he starts chatting again when we climb into the taxi.
“Oh, Sam! You and I, we’re going to have the chance to start over here.” There’s an emotion in his voice that I can’t pinpoint, but it makes me think of bitter, day-old coffee. “New York is where we belong. It’s where I grew up, and where you were born. This is good for us, I promise.” He reaches over to give my hand a reassuring squeeze, but I yank it away at his touch.
Dad sighs and keeps talking, but the thoughts that crowd my brain are louder than his words. I have the same lean frame as my dad, but my features match my mother’s. Creamy skin, dark hair, a small nose, and the same clear blue eyes that are the color of a cloudless summer day. But my mother and I have more in common than that. She and I both believe in living in the moment. Traveling, creating art, leaving a mark on the world—that was her kind of thing. And New York is the place she would love to be, but instead of being here with her, I’m here because of her. Or more precisely, because of her death.
When my head clears, and I’m confident the tears will stay put, I tune back into real life. Dad’s now pointing out specific locations and landmarks. The taxi driver keeps flicking his eyes up to the rearview mirror, eyeing Dad. He looks just as irritated with the never-ending chatter as I feel. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to deal with it as often.
Soon we are pulling up to the squat brick apartment building and I am relieved to escape the small taxi. The man who drove us stops the car with a slight lurch and walks around to the trunk. He hands us our suitcases and accepts the payment nicely enough, but says nothing and pulls away quickly.
The landlady who meets us at the door is a short old woman with hair that looks silver and brushes over her shoulders when she moves her head. Her eyes are wide and bright blue, like she’s still searching for something in her old age. When we enter the small lobby area and set our stuff down, she introduces herself.
“Hello! I’m Ms. Fink, but please, please call me Rose.”
“Thank you, Ms. Fink. I’m…” my dad starts.
“Mr. Michelson and his daughter, Samantha,” she smiles warmly at us, and I feel welcomed, not just into the apartment building, but into this new life. My heart readily welcomes the feelings but I shove them away, telling (reminding) myself I do not belong here. “Welcome to Willow Falls Apartments,” she continues. “You found your way here well enough, I hope?”
“Yes. I was wondering…”
“Great!” Rose interrupts Dad again and I can’t help but smirk. Looks like she might give him a taste of his own medicine. “ I’ll get your key,” she says, disappearing into an once on the left of a long hallway.
When she reappears, Rose is holding two dull-looking silver keys and hands them to my dad, telling him, “You’ll be in apartment 3B,” and pointing us towards the stairwell.
Calling the apartment building Willow Falls makes it sound luxurious, but it’s no more than a four-story row house stuck in the middle of a street full of average-looking homes. The kind of homes families would live in, I can’t help but think. I do my best to ignore the thought and focus on lugging my suitcase through the dimly lit stairwell. The suitcase jumps a little each time I pull it over one of the black metal steps, and dad is grunting with the effort.
When we finally reach the third floor, we find ourselves standing on a square of pale green carpet that looks like it’s been here for ages. Facing forward, I look straight at our apartment. On my right is 3C, and to my left, 3A. My curiosity can’t help but nag at my thoughts, and I wonder if it’d be polite to ask Rose who lives in those apartments.
“Well, here we are,” Dad says, after we’ve been standing there for what feels like a little too long.
* * *
The key clicks in the lock and the door swings open easily. The brightness comes as a shock to me. There is a large curtain-less window covering one wall and an infinite supply of sunlight streams in. It’s odd to see so much light in the room, because I somehow imagined the apartment to be as makeshift as the rest of the building feels, with thick curtains and a half-inch of dust covering everything. Instead, the counters and other surfaces are clean and the blank walls are just that—perfectly blank.
I leave my suitcase in the first room and dash into the first door I see. Like the room I just stepped out of, a window covers most of one wall, and light pours in. The room itself is not very large, but the view out the window makes me do a double take. Because we’re on the third floor, I can see across the rooftops, and each line of houses looks like it’s trying to stand taller than the other.
“Hey, you like this room?” a voice asks, and I whip around to find my dad standing in the doorway.
“Yeah,” I reply, unsure of what to say.
“Then it’s all yours.”
“Really!” I exclaim, truly looking forward to something for the first time in a while.
“Absolutely,” he says, and gives me a sad smile. For the first time since Mom died, I realize how hard this has been on my dad, and how selfish it was of me to ignore this.
“I know this is hard,” he continues, “and it’s hard for me too, but it’ll get better.”
I just nod along and choke down tears, and when I can’t keep them down anymore, I let the salty drops escape, one by one, until it’s a river that won’t stop flowing. I suddenly feel my dad’s strong arms around me, but I don’t force him off; I welcome his embrace.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, and I am.
* * *
After a week of being in New York and a week of moving in, the apartment is feeling cozier and more like home, but I still have trouble considering it to be home. Since we arrived, I’ve only spent time with my dad or Rose or taking walks through our little neighborhood alone. My time with Rose has been when I’m happiest, and she’s become a confidant of sorts. I feel comfortable telling her about my mother and where we moved from, and about my insecurities about being in a new place. She’s told me about how happy her grandchildren make her, and where she grew up, and her desire for adventure.
Just yesterday, I told her everything I missed about Colorado; seeing the stars at night at the top of my list. She took me up to the roof that night. We lay there for an hour, but the lights of the city drowned out any stars, and the sky remained an inky blue. I appreciated what Rose was trying to do for me, but the sky was nowhere near as beautiful as it was back home, and it only made me miss it more.
“Rose, thank you, but… the stars… I don’t see…”
“Sam, what you don’t see is what I’m trying to tell you,” Rose replied. “There would be no stars without the darkness of the night to let them shine, just as there would be no love in your heart without pain to make the feeling special.”