What is home? It’s four letters–3 consonants 1 vowel. That’s nine points minimum in Scrabble. I love the sound of the word, the way the soft “H” rises at the back of your mouth, protrudes when you push a breeze of air from your bellowed out chest, and then, finally closes down on the “mmmm” at the end, a smooth and vibrating sound that rounds itself out. Resolved.
Bowerbirds spend years building the perfect nest to attract a mate. They decorate their houses but each one seems to have its own stylistic taste. In Ecology class, I watched as these blue beady eyed birds with their slicked black feathers went on long term decorating excursions. One bird brought in purple and blue speckled flowers. Another chose poop.
A lot of my drawings during free time in Lower School were of slanted houses with large windows, flowers pots on the sills, and family member’s heads popping out of each of the four purple windows: one each for mom, dad, my sister and me. Humphrey (my cat) was always in every drawing, sitting in the spiky grass lawn.
I was obsessed with all my friends’ houses too. They were all so magically different, so every playdate was a peek into another kid’s secret enclave. The most alluring sat on Carroll Street—a sterile multi-level play castle, with a tiny girl hiding somewhere inside its manicured folds. Caroline’s house. We didn’t get along most of the time (she cheated mercilessly at chess and wouldn’t let me have any of the Barbie’s with hair), but we had at least two playdates a week for most of my childhood because our moms always planned them. Caroline is extremely small and always has been. In a desperate attempt to make up for her smallness, this tiny girl would lash out poking me with her pointy words. When she came over to my house, she liked to point out how small everything was, or how my sister and I had to share a room.
Tiny girl lived in a big house. I imagined what it would be like to have all that space to play in. It had 5 floors, which included a library filled with untouched books, their spines perfectly snug (assembled artistically by color and style—not by genre or alphabetical order). But what was most fascinating was that all these crisp, shining rooms with perfectly perfumed pillows and rugs and walls of smiling photographs all went to waste. No one could lie on the couch or sit at the gleaming dining room table.
I live in an apartment. My family is on the top floor. The neighbors below are silent. I imagine them sitting in a perpetual trance, their faces like raisins crumpled up and pursed. Carefully, they lift a single silent finger up and turn the page of their latest book and oh so carefully the whoosh of air particles are pushed down by the thin paper. One floor above, are me and my sister. We are loud. I play my violin for hours and listen to music while staying up late conjugating Spanish verbs and reading about Gandhi’s obsession with his own bowel movements. We run down (and up) the hallway, we laugh over Friends episodes and who can come up with the dorkiest dance move of all time. We fight over who gets the remote, who shoved the other one first, who gets to have the last bit of Cherry Garcia ice cream and who should have to get up to turn off the light (we once both refused to get up to turn off the light in a deadlocked stalemate for 30 minutes).
Our landlady, Mrs. Murray, with the raspy voice and the heavy Long Island accent hates us. She calls and tells us to stop walking so loudly in the hallways, and to lower our voices. Last week, I saw her outside the building as I was leaving, so I opened the door and ran my way past her not stopping to say hello. She’s a bizarre, idiotic old woman who thinks that very occasionally doing routine building maintenance like changing the hallway lights or painting the walls is a major capital improvement and a reason to raise the rent. She doesn’t let us have washing machines or dishwashers, so I feel stupid when I can’t easily figure out these appliances out at my friends’ houses. The rooms are small, and we are all crammed in and jumbled up to fit together–a clashing and loud combination of individual voices. Recently my dad moved out of his apartment one block away and back into the spare bedroom because my mom’s job became part time and we can’t afford two different apartments. I hate having to explain that to people, so I don’t tell anyone. It’s much easier to leave in the morning and forget about the apartment with the creaky floorboards and the silent neighbors.
On the way to school, I pass the mansions on Prospect Park West. Some are flat, some are graceful limestone, some have curved stoops and others have a sprawling set of steps going straight down. I watch as people hurry out of their little units–forced out and away from their alcoves. Later in the day, people scurry back into their homes and shut themselves in their own little worlds, hidden. I walk the twelve blocks home, hike up the creaky steps, smelling the various dinners being prepared on each floor, and on some days step a tad harder on the 2nd floor to piss off the creepy wrinkled Chihuahuas in Beverly’s apartment.
Away from neighbors and the landlord, I make even more noise. I play music as loud as I want at my music school on 129 West 67th Street. I search for an available practice room—snaking my way through the hallway—all are varying sizes, with huge fluffy rugs on the walls. I searched for my music there, wiggling my fingers around on the strings sometimes finding the right note, sometimes not at all. I searched and discovered Bach and Prokofiev and Mozart. I learned to be tough and hard working (stern and steely, and sometimes nasty Russian teachers will do that to you). Sometimes, on boring rainy days, my friends and I would sneak off to the music library, where the papers in the stacks are mismatched and yellowed with the unfamiliar curves and bumps of the Russian alphabet and smell of spilled coffee. We would run through the stacks, playing high-stakes tag, peeking through the spaces in the shelves above the frilled tops of Bach or Mendelssohn. Shrieking, we ran through a forest of dead people’s music.
My home is also my grandparents’ house in Rockaway, Queens. I love its colors, the paintings. Instead of raisin-faced neighbors below, there are seashells and waves waiting on the beach. I love the smell of coffee in the morning and the aroma of wine in the evenings, Frank Sinatra enveloping me as I take a nap on one of their many couches. I love how Grandma sets aside New York Times articles she thinks I will like, and how she and Papa love football (they are hardcore Giants fans), even though I know nothing about it. When my family and I are at Grandma and Papa’s house, we are loud and laughing, and no one can tell us not to be. I play Scrabble, putting together the once clashing letters together in such a way to make one unified, beautifully loud and high-score-winning word.
Haley Gillia, Age 17, Grade 12, Berkeley Carroll School, Silver Key