I don’t pay attention to the roads but I still know the way. It is my own map I follow: leave Thursday evening, as the sun sets. Pack the car quickly, bring no snacks, no coffee. Sit in the front seat and watch the whole world slide beneath me, listen for the click-click, click-click as the tires find the bridge with metal stripes. Repeat the names of the towns I pass through, say them with love and wonder, each one is a gift, bringing me closer to where I’m heading. Perth Amboy. South Amboy. Red Bank, Little Silver, Long Branch. Asbury Park. Belmar. Say them like a poem, as if their proximity and placement has meaning, has design. Say their names over and over, each one a bead to pass through my fingers. When you see the budweiser warehouse, make a right and sit up in my seat because we’re close. Let the orange lights pass over my face, a fiery bird reflected in the water. Take a left after the bridge, and another left at how loud my heart is. And there it is, and there it is. What do you say to me? Every single time, what do you say to me?
You’re safe now. This is where you’ll be safe.
I’m talking about the house and the house is you. You are where I return to in my mind. I picture myself at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, overhearing the neighbors discussing the parties they will go to. Their voices float in and mean nothing. Their voices, the faucet running, the flag hitting the pole: these are your silence. After I finish the dishes, I lay down on the couch. There are two couches mirroring each other, pistachio and sinking. I picture myself lying down on the couch against the wall, watching the street through the screen door. People are walking to the beach, the soft siren of their voices are part of the silence too, the metal beach chairs scraping the concrete, the rub of a float against skin. Lying here on this couch, in the sounds of silence, I could be here forever. Every time I return to you in memory I lose you: something on the wall fades away, the feeling of the wood floor under my feet is disappearing.
Your smells are small noises and you are music with them. The wet wood of the outdoor shower, the heat of the garden, the lavender, the hose, the wicker, the carpet. The stale smell of linen in the lofts and the smell of the ocean breeze through the open window. I walk through you and each room’s smell tells a story. Here we sleep late: the mustiness, the only room with air-conditioning, the painted wood, the glued plastic fruit to the dresser. Here we tell secrets: storage behind a tropical print curtain, an open window to the roof, and when I’m older, the smell of sex with strange friends under blankets. Here we dream: the moon, the sun, the stars falling all over the walls, the tin tea set, the warm sterile smell of the stereo. Even now, when I catch those same smells in different places—a Tennessee creek, a thick honeysuckle rain—the whole song plays and the song is you.
All I have of your body now is what I’ve collected of you in pieces, in every shell and sea glass, in every corner of sand. I’ve salvaged you, in photographs, in paintings that once hung on your walls, bedsheets that once covered you, in all of the blue I’ve found, I’ve salvaged you. I gather and gather them closer because the thinking is this: if I press them to my life, to my skin hard enough I will become you. I will lose shape and become you: salt, wood, water, memory. Because without you, I am unknowable.
I am not one for loving walls. I am not one for loving fences. But this is how you were born. And this is how the story goes: there was once a tree that spit and now it is the porch. There was once a spitting tree here, next to the outdoor shower, you see: this stump here, a stump to hang the hose on, to shave our young legs on. You were born as walls and fences and doors and windows, to run my fingers along, to climb out of, to lift up and push through. And how do I build you now? Words are not walls. Memories bleed and disappear.
This is how I come home to you: I step into the bright light at the back of my mind. Every time I return to the kitchen window and I become your silence. No, I think it’s too short this way. I go back further. To the train, the smell of the leather seats. The train is surrendering me to you. Here I recite the names until I get to yours, I walk down Main Street, past the canal we named Lagoon. At Second Ave, I make a left. The ocean wraps itself inside of me, I carry the whole of it. Cross Riddle Way, along the sidewalk I am convinced is stained brown from a rumor I once heard. Then I reach you. Here you are: a small grey house, with puzzle-piece shutters, blue trim (the same color I will paint my room, much later, to crawl inside of you again). I go around back and find the key on top of the windchime. I remove the glass of porch screens because the ocean is large and we must invite all of it in. Open the back door: my mother is not here but she is in every inch of you. Since she was twenty, she has been building you, painting you in every color and design, no part of you has gone untouched. Love is painting everything you have. Painting the bathroom to look like a jungle, painting the cabinet to look like the world, the brick walls painted white. The moon is painted outside the wall of my parents room. The wall falls away, it is a lake, the moon over a lake and looking at the moon and the lake through ferns, a fake palm tree that she has place in front of the lake and the moon and the ferns. There is a lizard painted on the floor, running from the kitchen, and a spider creeping toward the back door. A painted bear and a tiger playing a horn, the tiger forever playing a horn, the bear reaching up its tongue to taste the music. On the driftwood wall of the outdoor shower, two turquoise seagulls flying over forever with R + D above their wings. I have given a home to those seagulls on the knuckle of my thumb. Because eventually the paint peeled away. I remember peeling the paint away. My parents divorced and I made a home for the seagulls in ink on my thumb. It is my favorite tattoo because it is a call to you.
Twenty-eight years of me have been opening your doors. The train door the car door the front door the porch door the shower door the cabinet door the bedroom door the shutter door the shed door the screen door the front door. My memory of you is a door, that’s all it is.