by Joceline Murga Galeana
“The foyer’s a bit old, as you can see, but very well kept… kitchen has been remodeled… the basement…” the agent looked around as if it were his first time seeing the house too. “And upstairs there’s a full…”
I knew the upstairs. In fact, I knew the whole house. My family once lived in this house. My aunts, uncles, my grandmother and grandfather, my cousins, my siblings, and my parents. And once in a while, a tenant renting the basement— my favorite was Don Juan; he’d brought a piano with him and woke us up every Sunday with the same song. I don’t know the name of the song. It was self-composed.
I nodded as Ernest continued his tour of the first floor. This was the fifth house of the day, the final listing. Ernest was a good real estate agent; he pronounced my name right and never spoke of money. He didn’t know he’d secured the sale two days ago when he sent me the listing, and he kept side-eyeing me, searching for a promising reaction. He led me to the upstairs. I followed, feeling the air thicken with each step.
My Tia Ava had lived upstairs with her then-husband, Isiah, and my cousin Saul. Saul and I fought often, snitched on each other, and never remembered when we’d made up. We hated each other, yet never wanted to be apart. I tell everyone he is my brother. Saul and I had very different childhoods in this house, however; his, I remember, was the roughest. I once set a fire in my parents’ bedroom (Kleenex, candle, trash bin, you get the picture). I remember the aftermath most vividly. The lace curtains, now crisp at the edges, only covered the top half of the window; they didn’t move, not even when a breeze swept in. The corner of the bed, too, was crisp and black, and rough to the touch. For this, though, I merely got a scolding. Saul often got grounded for less.
I was eavesdropping on a conversation (de adultos) between my mom and my aunts one afternoon, when I discovered Isiah called my aunt Ava during their lunch break to complain about Saul’s behavior. All three sisters worked at the same warehouse, lived in the same house, and nothing went past them. Not for long, at least.
“He just hates noise. And filth,” my tia had said when my mom and my tia Celine pressed about Isiah’s nagging calls. “That’s just the way he is,” she said, “Isiah’s a very particular man.”
Ernest let me explore the upstairs. He, too, explored with me. The small kitchen and the bathroom had also been remodeled, so that it all looked like every other house in Bentville, slick and sterile.
“The kitchen has lost all of its charm,” I pointed my chin at the dispassionate tiles on the wall. I was imagining the old tiles’ colorful patterns, when I realized what I said. I looked to see if Ernest had caught my comment. But the thin boy simply nodded, “Mhmm, you won’t believe how many houses I’ve sold with the same tiling.” He looked disappointed, as if he too missed those old lively patterns.
The carpet was gone, the bathroom was white, and I asked to see the basement. But like a fool, I walked down ahead of Ernest, and made my way to the basement door quite casually. I strategically passed up the basement door, though, and walked to my aunt’s room, feigning a mistake.
“It’s over here,” Ernest called out. “There is a full bathroom, tiled floors, and a bonus room.” He was reading off of the real estate app, and I pretended not to notice. I’d used the same app to find the house.
Comfortably, we walked down the stairs, illuminated by the ever-attentive lights. All of the houses we’d seen today, in fact, boasted the same kind of lights.
Hospital lights, I thought.
I let Ernest explore the basement before I asked to see the backyard.
Saul and I had been terrified of the basement. He was better at hiding it though. Anytime he had to go downstairs he’d ask me to come with him. “I need help carrying… something,” he’d say. “My mom said you have to come help me look for… this.” I always went because I was afraid of seeing him scared. There wasn’t enough room for the both of us to be scared; I was supposed to be the only one allowed.
When Saul broke the living room TV, though, there was no longer room for me. And I wished to live in the basement. This was after I set the room on fire, but a fire started by me was nothing compared to a TV broken by Saul. There was a period of silence in which we realized there were 40-something minutes left until my mom and his mom got home. It was 11:30 or so when we started counting our charges.
“We aren’t even supposed to be up, Saul,” I said, sitting in front of the TV, wishing we’d been watching it instead. “It’s a school night, and you haven’t showered.”
He shook his head, “I know, taruga—"
“And now you just cursed. You’re lucky your mom sucks, or I would tell her.”
“You better shut up. Don’t talk about my mom.”
“You better go get the air out of your soccer ball before your mommy finds it and throws it away.”
Saul punched my arm, and I got up so I could leave. I walked to my room slowly, squeezing my shoulder. “Ahh,” I winced. “Ouch.” I walked slower.
“Can you just help me?” HA!
I turned around, ready with a comeback. It was dark in the living room, but the curtains were parted, and the stove light could reach us from the kitchen. I saw Saul’s eyes were watering, and I hated him a little. Grown-ups in telenovelas are the ones that cry. We aren’t allowed to cry, I wanted to remind him. If you cry, then you’ll really be in trouble, I wanted to say.
“You know what mi tia Ava’s gonna say, Saul? I paused. ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’!” I laughed, smacking my knee. I thought he would laugh too, but he was being a telenovela grown-up.
I went over to shake him. Hard. “Get up. It’s 11:52.”
Saul nodded his head and sniffed. “Yeah I know. I’m just trying to find a solution for this.” He got up. “I probably won’t need your help, but you can if you want to.”
In the end, we covered the TV with the reboso were we put the angels and virgenes. We closed the curtains, and we got a chair so I could turn off the stove light. We left the chair by accident, but everyone was asleep when we got up for school the next day, so we were good. I dragged it back to the dining room because Saul couldn’t risk missing the bus again.
Saul was waiting for me at the apartments next door when I got off the bus later that day. He was scared to walk into the house by himself. “I’m gonna tell them it was me, OK?” I looked at him like a grown-up, but I swallowed the knot in my throat before we stepped into the foyer. We took off our shoes and opened the door together, tripping into the living room. The whole family sat in the living room, except for my tio Gaspar. My tias, my tio Abel, my mom and dad, my grandpa and my grandma-- all of them looked like grown-ups. Saul and I looked over at the wooden stand, then looked at each other because the reboso was back under the angels and the virgenes, and the TV was no longer there, and our unusually quiet family didn’t seem to care. We headed upstairs to do our homework and sighed with relief; happy we were not in trouble, because my uncle was getting deported.
I followed Ernest into the backyard. There were bright red tulips and bushes surrounding a catalog-worthy pavilion. The grass was lush, like carpet.
“Where are the pear trees for our hammocks!” I cackled.
Saul had called me taruga for wanting to buy this house and refused to make the trip with me. But I am glad. There would have been no room for the both of us scared-- scared of the basement light and the rest of this hilariously immaculate house.
I turned to my real estate agent. “Ernest I am so sorry for wasting your time. Lunch is on me. Do you like Chinese?” I asked cheerfully.
Still, I mourned the pear trees.