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December 2, 2013 | Fiction

Imperfect Homes

André Babyn

Imperfect Homes photo

There was once a time when my aunt and uncle had room enough to take us the odd weekends our parents were on vacation. Their house was smaller than ours and I felt haughty in it. The walls were dark and the air smelled musty. In the afternoons dust poured in the air like cigarette smoke in an old black and white movie. Going out into the sun was blinding. 

My aunt never allowed herself anything, not even what she could imagine. My uncle was a footnote. He sat hunched over at the dinner table or in the garage working on one of his projects, his measly hands tacky and smelling of wood glue. 

They had three slight children. The biggest acted as a spokesman for the others. There was a pile of mouldering wood along one of the house's exterior walls. It was a rallying point for us. "This is where we saw the black widow spider," the oldest told us. We never saw anything worse than a cobweb. But once, the littlest of our three cousins got bit by a red ant while we all stood there, hands in our pockets. 

Because I was the only girl I slept in my own room, though it was a miniature one converted from a closet. My brother and my cousins piled into another, all except the oldest cousin, who was relocated to the couch. In the mornings when he padded to breakfast without his shirt on I could see his thin bones crawling underneath his skin like worms. There was a translucence about him.  

My aunt liked Bill West more than any other comedian. She kept tapes of his shows in disarray around the VCR. What got her was his mean-spirited and ugly opinion of the world. He died when he was very young, and after I learned about it I could not help but imagine the white cancer boiling up inside his stomach every time I watched him on that television. There was a grossness to his routines then, an unpalatability: to me it was something like chewing rocks, a throat caked with gravel dust, a heavy nausea. My aunt laughed at him like always.

She was a short woman rattling with her own diseases. She bore their evidences indiscreetly: skin-coloured lumps on her jowls, fat black hairs above her lip, blisters and boils on the soles of her feet propped up on the coffee table (a source of fascination for me). Beyond plump, she had grown herself to tremendousness. She must have been something captaining that little house of theirs. As guests, even though we were family, we never really got to see the hurricane she could be. 

There were flashes. During dinner she could say something coldly to our oldest cousin that let everyone know the full force of her disappointment in him. This was done so casually that we knew it happened with some regularity. She was not kind to my uncle, though he did many things for her. When she found irritations, perhaps tripping up the hallway, she spoke sharply and reminded everyone of what wrong they had done her.

This isn't to say she was all bad. In sincerity her voice could be sweet and disarming. I liked to rest my head in her warm lap as she watched television. She ripened as I came to know her: she had an earthy, foreign smell, human-celled, musty, earnest.

My mother sometimes said of my aunt: "She is full of excuses for why she can't do anything for herself." My father said nothing of her at all. He didn't say much in general. It's true that my aunt had her talents, never acted on. She had painted, though never seriously. A few examples of her work hang in the odd corners of their household, or at least they did the last time I visited. A bridge in a field. A Mongolian torn out of National Geographic. A mill with its wheel churning the river. It was my mother who'd told me whose hand had made them. My aunt was reluctant to talk about her work. When asked she would look back at her paintings with amnesia. 

 

My aunt is not dead yet, though it has been a long time since I've seen her. Longer since I have been in that house of theirs. Their oldest boy has left them. None of us have seen him, though I've had word of him. He lives in smaller quarters, smokes cigarettes, is pale and still razor thin. He goes to parties up there frequented by people I have known. His car is broken and rusted.

Here it is raining and I can hear the rain rattle down the long gutter. The house we live in is a large one broken into segments. I live alone. Others live here, but I don't live with them. The concrete underneath my windows is grey and wet. My parents live on the other end of the city, a leafier neighbourhood, larger backyards. My brother keeps a room on College St., a cheap thing, almost nothing. When it's raining like it is now I'll sit near the window ledge and stroke my cat. From my windows I can see the back of an apartment complex, a row of dumpsters, dishwashers smoking outside the propped-open rear doors of restaurant kitchens. 

In a few minutes my boyfriend will meet me here. We are ghosts to each other, but we make an effort. Last night we looked through some of his old pictures.

"Me at my skinniest."

"I could have had that?"

He was fat, then really fat, then nice and lean. My finger pointed to one of his best photographs. "Skinny" didn't do him justice. It's not a word that wears well on a man. Now he's gained some weight again, though not nearly as much as he once had. 

I hear his wet steps coming down the alley. When he leaves I go to sleep and dream about him at his leanest. 

 

My brother will sometimes dress like a woman, though he isn't gay or anything like that. Some days I go to watch him. We will be talking together at the bar when Mick comes up and taps the counter in front of us. That is the signal that my brother should take his shoes off and get up on the counter. He sits like that for a while with his bare legs folded up underneath him. We continue talking. Then when it is time he gets up and slowly dances up and down the length of the bar. Most of the crowd doesn't pay him any attention. They've come to drink, not for the sideshow. But a few have come just for him.

I drink by myself and watch as his skirt billows out like a planet’s orbit. He has great rhythm. His hairy toes splay outwards and keep him perfectly balanced as he pivots. He shaves everything else, I don't know why he doesn't shave his toes too. 

In one of the leanest photographs of my boyfriend he's wearing an old t-shirt from his worst days. Two of him could have fit inside that shirt. The arms hang loose like deflated balloons. 

"Why would you ever wear something like that?"

"I don't know. I thought I was basically the same as before."

"But it looks so awful..."

"Everywhere where my fat used to be, stretching that shirt out, I thought still existed. I hadn't learned where the new boundaries were."

There is a lot of space between my brother's skirt and those legs of his. Where do his boundaries lie? I fear the worst for him. I don't know what that is.

 

In the early mornings some days I take the subway across town and walk the two kilometres up to my parents's house. There I wait on the porch for the day to heat up. 

When I was younger my parents were worried I was becoming feeble. They came in my room and made gentle inquiries every so often along those lines. "Is so-and-so ready to come down for dinner?" "Has so-and-so prepared herself adequately for all of her classes today?"

I looked past whatever I was walking to, and missed obvious dangers in my field of vision. I bumped into edges, corners, tripped over curbs, cut myself on knives that I'd forgotten I was holding. Watching me apply pressure to wherever I was bleeding, my family acted surprised I could press myself onto anything. In time without even looking at the wound I could predict the appropriate size of band-aid, what colour the bruise was going to turn, its approximate shape, its distribution. 

I didn't cry at any time, though I might have if I could have found a reason to. In my dreams my aunt kept getting fatter and fatter. Probing her with a knife I found a hollow I could burrow in. It wasn't as if I wore her like a skin. I built a high-vaulted home in her. 

My parents eventually put me on medication. The pills made it so that I could work myself up enough to attend classes. I can get through the day now. It is a relief to shrug off the pit of doubt that forms when I hear my boyfriend slipping up the alley. When I wake up in the morning or when I watch my brother do his dance on the bar table. 

 

The youngest of my aunt's three sons made it on his own somehow. He's an artist. I read about a big opening of his in the paper. I went alone. Lingering by the crackers I watched him do his rounds and tried to make eye contact. Something made me shy.

His paintings were all surfaces: architectural studies flattened so that you could see every edge of the building at once. He captured even the smallest details. There were no entrances. The buildings were all perimeter, no insides, and for that reason I didn't like them.

My cousin passed me several times. I can't say if he saw me or not. He looked in my direction. Our eyes came together, but he was looking beyond me. He strutted haughtily with a specific knowledge of himself. 

At the end of the night I cornered him in a back hallway. His older brothers were tall now but he didn't even come above my breasts. His suit was tailored so finely it looked like it had been suctioned onto his body. 

He saw me. 

"What are you doing here?"

"You're a big thing, these days."

I could tell that I ruined his night. All of the air went out of him. 

"Listen. We can leave here. I have a place."

We walked to his car. 

"How did you turn out so well?"

"Don't say that. Hatred."

"Don't say what?"

"'Well'. Listen. There isn't anything right about me. I want to slaughter everything. I want to fuck the world into oblivion."

"I didn't like your paintings."

He laughed. "You think I'd expect you to?"

 

I expected a smaller apartment. Something to match his stature. One room, a kitchen, a little shower he would have felt giant in. But his apartment was bigger than any I'd seen before. It had railings, dividers, raised platforms, a loft (where his bed was), but despite the differences in terrain the main effect was one of openness. It was like walking in a field. The high ceilings were painted in an airy colour and they felt light and invisible. The loft was in a far corner. In the mornings I imagined my cousin emerging from his blankets and peering out over his open room like a gopher waiting for a hawk to pass overhead, then scrambling down his ladder short-limbed and naked. 

From the way he perked up again and filled out his suit proudly in that place I guess he thought himself the hawk. Well, he might've been. I don't know anything about that. 

image: Andromeda Veach


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