Charlotte’s clothes (8) are mismatched the way they might be for the homeless, for function only, stained, holes, slanted — and I’m collecting plastic bags in my pockets for function too, to tie around my shoes as makeshift rubbers or to confine the odour of clothes caked with puke from the carsick, from twisty routes and missed barf bags driving through Scotland.
Monday morning in Belfast, my birthday, determined to make it a special day despite the grey, the cold reality we’re in Belfast at the end of November, on the road five or six weeks now, add three months to that in Germany, another month between houses in the Seattle suburbs, four or five more to go — the kids unraveling and we just got nicked five grand from one of our bank accounts because our debit card got hacked when we weren’t looking, and the navigator said there was an Indian restaurant with take-out highly rated by TripAdvisor three minutes away but there wasn’t, and daddy wound up having to cook again. And it ate into my time to write and have an afternoon beer, to sit on the edge of the sofa instead talking to the fraud department at our bank, to have our call dropped and try to get back in the phone tree and wait for our case number, our claim.
In the morning at the store it’s backed up with people queueing at a window where they’re doling out cash and lottery tickets and though it doesn’t feel unsafe here I realise it’s a poor neighbourhood, everything comes in bundled deals and they’ve only got like two choices of toothpaste — and the houses are all brick and run together, slightly staggered, look sad, neglected — and later, when the sun comes out I walk for inspiration to try to get lost, and it’s For Sale signs and kids’ toys left out in the rain with leaves along the fenced-in corners, the overgrown yards — I look for murals about the history of this place and what happened here but only find images in gas masks, figures from World War I, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and all its bad memories, a whole record’s worth, a double record in fact, and when I get home to find my family’s returned Dawn’s still wearing her coat, on her laptop, and says the bank card’s been breached.
But the houses remind me of northeast Pennsylvania where my family grew up, places Billy Joel romanticised in his song “Allentown,” and it feels like someone’s grandmother’s house with the plaintive murals and pictures, the wallpaper and pillows, paint tones caught just before grandma’s tastes went sour, to pink — and yet for a time, still feels like home.
I’m on the sidewalk outside someone’s house taking down notes and realise there’s a large dog, probably a Chow, watching me from the doorstep, sunning itself, panting, and as I walk away a hand wrenches the curtain back and a figure looks out to regard me, and I move in a direction that seems north looking for a Tesco but find a store called Iceland instead with signs reading “The Power of Frozen” I write off as marketing slang, meaning nothing, and realise it’s actually a store that specialises in just frozen stuff and still thinks it’s OK to proudly display Maxwell House, appears to have no beer — and head south to a Co-Op like the ones they had in Scotland in search of good coffee, and something to write about.
The sameness in the houses is like the developments in the States, pictures taken from space: bad turning radiuses in the doorways, card tables in the kitchen for meals, little boxes made out of ticky-tacky that all look the same.
It reminds me of the apartments where I grew up in Pennsylvania, where I took my kids so they could see where I came from and realise how lucky they are to have all we have now — and even though they don’t really get it, I wish they would.
And when I think about all we have, when I’d pause in the driveway of our house backing out each morning on the way to work and look upon it proudly, it felt like I didn’t really live there and wasn’t sure why, we had to give it up to realise what it’s worth, had to empty myself out to see what’s inside.