By Krista Varela
Even the address sounded exotic. One of many on a block made up of other streets named Caribe, Kingston, and Port Au Prince. The desert neighborhood filled with native saguaro cacti and mesquite trees tried so hard to be something that it was not. So unaware of its own irony. The palm trees in our neighbors’ yards could not fool us into thinking that we were in the Caribbean. But we went along with it.
The house at 510 North Bahamas Drive was in a safe neighborhood on the east side of Tucson. Close to good schools and equidistant to all of our friends and family scattered across the city. I suppose it’s where my parents expected to live happily ever after, with their young daughter and a son on the way.
But from the beginning we were a family divided. My mother was hospitalized early in her pregnancy, trying to get my brother Nic to wait a little longer. My father and I moved into the house and lived there for two months on our own. When Nic was born at seven months, just over four pounds, he spent the next month in the hospital on a ventilator. While his tiny organs continued to develop, the three of us watched the struggle of his chest rise and fall.
We lived on Bahamas Drive almost twelve years to the day, moving in a few weeks before my fourth birthday and leaving just before my sixteenth. My father only lived there for half as long.
In those twelve years, we had half a dozen pets while my parents argued who would have to clean up after the animals. In those twelve years, I went out on dates with five different boys, my mother helping me pick out the right shade of lip-gloss and my father trying to keep me a little girl for as long as he could. In those twelve years, I played three sports and three instruments while my parents sat separately at my volleyball games and jazz band recitals. In those twelve years, our family tried so hard to be something that it was not.
The front of the house didn’t match the houses around it: it didn’t have cacti growing in the yard, but there weren’t any palm trees, either. Instead, two large pine trees in our yard blocked the street view of the house. Pine needles fell year-round, scattering through the dirt and landscape rock.
I always wished we had grass, like my friends who lived in the country club had in their yards. But such a thing was an extravagance in the desert—the weather and the cost made it nearly impossible to maintain.
My mother sometimes spent hours raking pine needles and pulling weeds on Saturday mornings. She woke up early, even though she did so during the week to work as a school nurse on the south side of town. Putting on her work gloves, white sweatband, Walkman headphones, and an old Bruce Springsteen t-shirt, she prepared for her work in the hot sun. She would rap on my bedroom window to wake me up so that I could refill her water bottle. Dripping dirt and sweat, she met me at the front door. She wouldn’t stop for breaks or to eat. More than once, she worked until she nearly had a heatstroke. Afterward she would collapse into bed all afternoon for a nap. I often peeked into her bedroom to check on her, nervous that she might not wake up. My father wasn’t around by then, living in his own second-floor apartment without a single plant—what was I supposed to do if something happened?
On those days that my mother spent hours outside, she reveled in the final product: a spotless yard. But not even a day later, the pine needles began to fall again. And to me, clean dirt was still dirt.
Lining the walkway from the carport to the front door was a long, L-shaped flowerbed. One of my mother’s ongoing projects for the house was to keep this filled with flowers. Once in a while, she got inspired and bought flowers to plant. A splash of color in our otherwise dull yard. They never lasted for more than one season.
The front oak door had a small glass window with a decorative wrought iron inlay. The door had three different locks: one in the handle, a deadbolt, and an additional latch near the top. When my brother was six, he became obsessed with making sure the door was locked at night. No one had ever broken into the house before, but I never knew where his fear came from.
Each night, Nic quietly knocked on my door, peeking his head in and asking if I had checked the locks before I went to bed. Even if I said yes, he went to check them again himself. When our father moved out, Nic became even more vigilant. He checked the locks two or three times before settling down to sleep. Each time, I heard the opening of his door, then a pause, and finally the sound of his footsteps dashing down the hall.
Straight ahead through the front door was the kitchen with its sky-blue countertops and brown wooden cupboards. While my mother was the master of yard work, the kitchen was my father’s domain.
To say that my father was particular about food is an understatement. He always had to have a separate fork for his desserts, not wanting to contaminate his sweets with his savory. He put butter on Pop Tarts. He spread the icing on Toaster Strudels with a knife. Nic and I argued that we wanted to draw pictures with the icing like you were supposed to, but he didn’t want us making a mess. He wouldn’t buy Pizza Lunchables for me to take to school because he didn’t think pizza tasted good cold, no matter what I told him.
But he could cook well, and through him I learned how to appreciate good food. He knew how to pan-fry a nicely seasoned medium-rare steak, refusing to eat his meat well-done. Joking with the customers at the bar he owned, he’d say how about I just cut off a piece of my shoe leather for you to chew on? whenever they ordered their meat this way. He cooked his meat to have a tender pink center, the juices dripping on the plate when he cut into the middle. He made marinara sauce from scratch, spending all day in the kitchen while tomatoes simmered on the stovetop. He served his sauce on top of angel hair pasta, a more elegant noodle than spaghetti.
My favorite was my father’s breakfasts. He always made my eggs over easy. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized there was more than one way to cook an egg. What I loved most were his hash browns. He shredded the potatoes with a cheese grater and seasoned them with salt and pepper before frying them in oil. The result was a crunchy, golden outside with a bit of soft potatoes on the inside. They were so good, you didn’t even need ketchup. That’s the true compliment to a cook, he’d say, when the food can stand alone without condiments.
My father was just as particular about the way that he cooked as he was about the actual food. He was obsessive about not making messes. So much so, that my mother was too anxious to ever be in the kitchen at the same time. My father liked to clean up as he went, wiping down the counters to catch every splash of cooking oil, every dollop of sauce. By the time he was done with a meal, the dishes were done and the kitchen was cleaner than when he had started. My father was nervous and impatient when my brother started showing interest in cooking as a child. As children do, Nic tended to be messy. He accidentally knocked over measuring cups, left ingredients scattered everywhere, let dishes pile up in the sink. For my father, cooking was always an organized affair, one where the process was just as important as the product itself. Like my mother, Nic could not coexist with my father in the kitchen, so he did not continue to explore his culinary abilities until he was older, after my father moved out. But my father still let him help grate potatoes on Sunday mornings when he made breakfast.
To the right of the front door was a hall of fame that displayed our school pictures, all of the large eight by ten shots that are really only made for parents to show off in hallways like these.
Even though I passed by these pictures every day, sometimes I lingered in the hall, looking to see how much I had changed. I had gone from long hair that my mother curled every morning in elementary school, to short hair that I styled myself in middle school, and later bleached the tips in that strange transition from junior high when I was trying to express my individuality, then back to long hair in high school.
This hallway also had a closet where my mother kept all of our other photographs, all haphazardly stored in boxes. There were photos from every family vacation we ever took: trips to Disneyland and Sea World, a visit to the San Diego Zoo, a getaway to the beach, a family reunion. There were pictures from every birthday we ever had: parties at Peter Piper Pizza, Chuck E. Cheese and the local skating rink. Then there were more candid shots of my brother and me playing in mud in the backyard; banging on pots and pans in the kitchen, wearing the lids on our heads like hats; dressing up in costumes from a box that we kept at the top of my closet.
My mother and I said someday we would spend a summer organizing them into photo albums. We never did. Sometimes I pulled out those boxes and sat on the floor, trying to group the pictures by subject or event. For a twelve or thirteen year old, the project was too big an undertaking. After a couple of hours I got so caught up in just looking at the pictures: the ones of Nic and me asleep in the backseat on long road trips; the ones of us posed in front of the house on the first day of school; the ones of us on Christmas holding up our presents from Santa. Too daunted by the task of categorizing them, I always wound up shoving them back on the shelf in their boxes.
Our first year in that house, my brother barely two months old, we took our first and only family photograph sitting in front of the fireplace in our living room. My father smiles from underneath his stiff moustache. My mother grins with dark circles under her eyes. I hold my little brother in my lap, so excited to fulfill my role as big sister. My brother looks curiously at the camera, trying to decide whether it fascinates or upsets him.
To the left of the front door was the living room. Our love seat and three-seater sofa were a matching set—mostly gray, speckled with little bits of color throughout the fabric. My father sometimes slept on the couch if he came home from work too late or if my parents were having a fight. My father spent most nights drinking at the bar after closing time, sipping on a Budweiser while he took inventory and pushed a mop over the cold cement floor.
By the time we moved out of that house, our golden retrievers destroyed those couches. The dogs grew bored and desperate for attention since we were lazy and it was often too hot to take them out for long walks. So they chewed on the cushions while we were away at school and work. If my father were still living at home, the dogs would have had to sleep outside. My mother kept patching up the cushions, but each time they lost a little more stuffing and looked a little more deflated. We continued to let the dogs roam around inside because my mother was such a softie. Eventually the couches were missing all of the back cushions. In my middle school years when friends came over, I was ashamed. With my father gone, my mother slowly slipped toward bankruptcy and could barely manage her mortgage, let alone afford new furniture.
My parents left physical traces of their fighting on two occasions. When I was eight, I woke up one morning to find my father gone. I sat on the couch in the living room, whose cushions were still intact, wondering when my father was going to come home. I noticed something brown stuck to the couch and carpet. Looking at it more closely, I saw that it was peanut butter.
My mother was a habitual night-snacker. She would get up in the middle of the night, half-conscious, and stumble into the kitchen for something to eat. Some days we found an entire sleeve of Oreos had disappeared overnight. But her usual snack of choice was a spoonful of peanut butter. Sometimes the evidence was obvious: in the morning, my brother and I found the lid loosely screwed back on, or smudged fingerprints on the outside of the jar.
I looked down at the peanut butter on the carpet and tried to imagine the scene: my mother with the jar in her hand when my father stumbled through the front door shortly before dawn. Was she so fed up with his excuses, his promises to stop drinking, that she had to throw something, anything? I wondered if she had scooped handfuls from the jar and smeared it on his face as he tried to fight her off before walking out the door.
I took a wet rag and tried to clean it out of the carpet and the couch. But the more I scrubbed, the more it stuck, working its way deeper into the fabric.
The family room was in the back of the house, just past the kitchen. While my father was living at home, he and my mother had matching reclining chairs facing an entertainment center. My father’s recliner was his sacred space, the place where he read his newspaper until he fell asleep, the place where he watched M*A*S*H after the nightly news. Sometimes I sat at my father’s feet while he watched football right after I got out of the shower so he could comb my hair.
When my father moved out, he took his recliner with him. It was the only piece of furniture from our house that he took to his new apartment. I noticed its absence. The room looked off balance with just one chair in the room, clearly part of a set. My mother soon got rid of it, after our dogs destroyed its cushions, too.
The carpet throughout the house was so dingy, ruined by dirt and stains. My mother discovered that underneath the carpet in the family room was an even worse looking linoleum floor. A dirty yellow floor that hadn’t been replaced since the house was built in the seventies. She spent one weekend pulling the entire carpet out of that room by herself, hauling it away through the backyard to the trashcan in the alley. She scrubbed and scoured, but no matter how hard she tried, it could never fool us into thinking that this floor, with its warped corners and frayed edges, was brand new.
My mother eventually moved our table from the dining area into that room, something to fill the space. It couldn’t take the focus away from that god-awful floor.
From the family room, there was a sliding glass door to enter the backyard. Just outside the door, there was a concrete patio. Beyond the patio was a large field of dirt. How I wished it was full of grass so I could go running barefoot through the yard with the sprinklers on. My parents filled in the vast expanse of dirt with decorative rock.
A couple of flowerbeds in the backyard lined the house and one of the back walls. Whenever my mother replanted purple petunias and orange marigolds in the front yard, she also attempted the backyard, trying her damnedest to keep them blooming. The only thing that managed to stay alive throughout the years was a rosemary bush. Sometimes I plucked the leaves off, holding them up to my nose and thinking about my father’s spaghetti that I hadn’t eaten in years. The pungent smell from the needles stayed on my fingers for hours.
For one of the first Christmases we had in the house, my parents bought a metal play set for my brother and me. It had a swing, a slide, and a suspended love seat that rocked back and forth. Eventually the red paint began to rust, the metal warped, and the four legs propping up the equipment couldn’t rest evenly on the ground. We grew too big for it, but my mother kept it in the backyard for years after we could no longer use it. We also had an old wooden playhouse on the other side of the yard. It had been painted white at one point. The paint slowly chipped away, showing the wood rotting underneath. Long after my brother and I were too tall to stand up straight inside, the floor of the playhouse became covered with fallen leaves that had blown inside, the corners covered in spider webs.
It was relatively easy to hop up on the roof. I could climb on the concrete wall lining our property and get up onto the shed where I could hoist myself up from there.
The summer before I turned thirteen, two years after my father moved out, I had an obsession with climbing on the roof. All I wanted to do was sit up there and watch the sunrise. But, I usually missed it, staying up until three or four in the morning, talking on the phone or surfing the internet, before finally collapsing in bed. When my alarm went off at six in the morning, I turned it off or slept through it, too comfortable under my covers and lulled by the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling.
When I did manage to get myself up, trying my best to tread lightly on the roof so I wouldn’t wake up my mother, I had a great view of the sun making its way from behind the Rincon Mountains. The sky was clear, unobstructed by tall buildings or trees. Once the sun peeked out, the sky became a huge canvas, streaking pinks and oranges and yellows across the sandy desert.
It was from this same view on my roof that I watched the Aspen Fire scorch Mt. Lemmon for weeks at the end of the summer, destroying over 80,000 acres and 340 homes. That month, my eyes itched and my lungs hurt from the continuously hazy sky, from the smoke and ash billowing up into the air. At night, I saw bright orange patches blazing across the mountain, from over thirty miles away. We Tucsonans watched from the safety of our own homes, mouths wide open, completely helpless, as the fire continued to burn.
Next to the family room was a hallway that ran along the right side of the house, connecting three of our bedrooms. The only thing unique about this hallway was the other physical remnant of my parents’ fighting: the hole my mother made by shoving my father into the wall. He came home late again, and I awoke to them yelling at each other.
“No,” my mother screamed. “Get out!”
“Let me in,” my father roared. “It’s my goddamn bedroom too.”
I heard a loud thud. In the morning, I discovered my mother had pushed him from out of their bedroom doorway into the wall. The hole remained there for weeks, months even, and eventually I stopped noticing it every time I walked by. My father finally fixed it, but the patchwork was uneven and the paint he chose to cover it wasn’t the correct shade of white.
In the back corner of the house was my parents’ bedroom. Their large bed frame took up most of the space, only leaving room for a filing cabinet and a television on a small stand. I once got my pinky finger stuck in the VCR, trying to retrieve a video that would not eject. The scar—a small, hard nodule—is still visible on my finger.
I started sleeping in my parents’ room almost every night sometime in the third grade when I thought I heard voices in my bedroom: deep, low, unfamiliar voices grumbling in the darkness.
While my brother was trying to lock the monsters out of the house, I was trying to lock them out of my head. It wasn’t until much later when I realized that I was experiencing sleep paralysis: my brain was somewhere between a conscious and dreaming state. I felt as though I was awake, still able to hear, see, and feel things that seemed very real, yet my muscles would not allow me to move, trapping me in a nightmare.
When I was a child, my parents’ room was somewhere the voices couldn’t get me. My mother collected angel figurines that she arranged on her headboard. They protected me as I fell asleep while my mother rubbed my back and sang me lullabies. When my father came home from the bar after closing, he carried me to my bed. Once he moved out, my mother sometimes let me sleep the entire night in her room. Other times she shook me awake, telling me to go to my own bed because I was grinding my teeth.
Down the hallway, at the front right corner of the house, was my brother’s bedroom. Though he spent many nights staying up late playing Mario Kart on his Nintendo 64, Nic spent much more time in my bedroom than in his own. He loved my closet, My bedroom closet was the biggest in the house. On the highest shelves, we kept a box full of dress-up clothes. Nic enjoyed wearing my clothes and costumes. He liked putting on my swimsuits, feeling the soft fabric against his skin. And he loved my skirts and dresses, the way they would fly up if he twirled around fast enough.
Nic’s absolute favorite thing was a blue ball gown, a costume I’d worn one Halloween when I was Cinderella. The skirt had layers of tulle, the bodice had a big emerald gem in the middle. It excited him to feel the lace and frill between his fingers, on his legs, over his chest.
We played dress-up while my father wasn’t home. When we heard his car pulling in, we shoved all the clothes scattered around the room back into the box and heaved it up to the top of the closet, dashing back to my brother’s room to play video games.
Next to my brother’s bedroom was our bathroom where my mother sometimes got ready in the morning, as it was much larger than hers. When I was younger, I stood at the sink while she curled my bangs, waiting impatiently while glancing over at the clock, noticing I’d be late for school.
The bathroom had a combined bathtub and shower where our golden retrievers slept against the cool ceramic, trying to escape the heat.
This was the same shower in which I once dragged a razor blade across my wrist. I was eleven. My brother and I had been baptized. We had never been a churchgoing family, but my parents had just separated and my mother was trying to reconnect with her spiritual self. Even though my father was out of the house, they were still fighting all the time. My mother told me that after the service, she’d overheard my father bragging to her brothers about a woman he’d hooked up with the night before.
I stood in the shower while my mother screamed on the phone at my father. I didn’t want to hear it anymore. The water was scorching hot. I thought about how the pastor had cleaned me with holy water a few hours before. As he touched my head and I felt the water trickle down my hair, I had expected a huge wave of emotion to come over me, to make me feel clean. Instead I felt nothing, empty even, void of grace. I couldn’t fool myself into thinking there was a higher power who wanted to wash away my sins.
I cried, my eyes turning red and my lungs burning. I found my razor sitting on the shower ledge. I fingered the handle and wondered what it would feel like slicing the blade across my skin. I placed the razor on my wrist and pressed down, making three small cuts. I was scared to press too hard. My skin turned red, leaving tiny scrapes on my arm. No blood appeared. My wrist burned. I didn’t shave my legs again for months.
My bedroom was just across the hall from my brother’s room. It underwent many makeovers in the time we lived there. When I was in elementary school, my room was devoted to my favorite cartoon at the time: first The Lion King, then Rugrats, then Winnie the Pooh. In middle school, I covered my walls with posters of pop punk bands, whose eyes dripped with mascara as they stared at me while I slept beneath my Disney bed sheets.
When I started high school, my mother said I could redo my room any way I wanted. I chose to paint my room blue: I planned out a celestial theme, completing the look with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. I got matching bed sheets and curtains (which were actually shower curtains) decorated with gold nautical stars.
I had to paint the entire room myself. I did not properly use a drop cloth or painter’s tape, so tiny droplets of blue managed to drip onto the carpet. I was too impatient to do a second coat, so there were places on the wall where some white still showed through, or brush marks were clearly visible.
I rarely noticed those spots. It wasn’t until we moved out two years later that I remembered they were there. My mother could no longer afford the mortgage on her own, and the three of us were moving into a house that she rented instead. Even though our new home was only four streets away in the same neighborhood, it felt like they were continents apart. My new bedroom would have the same plain white walls that I’d never get to paint. It was only after I had taken everything down from my old walls and packed it all into boxes that I could really see the imperfections in the work I had done.
But for those couple of years, I had gotten what I wanted. Blue walls that gave me a space all my own, different from the rest of the house that continued to fall into decay. Blue walls that created a universe where I had total control, from the way the furniture was arranged, to the constellations of stars on my ceiling. Blue walls that shut out the voices and nightmares. Many nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d look at up at the stars, noting the passage of time as they faded from bright yellow to dull gray.
These days, the house looks much different. I haven’t driven down Bahamas Drive in more than seven years. I was able to pull up a picture of the front of it online. Now it looks a lot more like the other houses in the neighborhood.
The pine trees in front of the house are gone. The front yard has been completely filled in with tan decorative rock, and desert plants populate the yard. New baby mesquite trees and barrel cacti are sprinkled throughout the yard that was once just covered in dirt. The flowerbed my mother couldn’t keep filled is now flourishing, with plants spilling over the side. Someone else’s desert paradise.
I still have dreams about that house, its features distorted but still undeniably the home that defined my childhood. I can only imagine what it looks like inside now, this house with a facelift. Whoever moved in must have replaced the blue carpet that was so dirty it looked gray. Perhaps they gave the walls a fresh coat of paint. Maybe they chose to use tan, to match the rocks in the front yard. The blue paint in my old bedroom is probably gone too, the hole patched in the hallway sanded down and smoothed over, the yellow floor in the family room replaced. Maybe there is no sign we ever lived there, our presence completely erased.
Krista Varela now lives near palm trees on an exotic-sounding street in the Bay Area, where she teaches and is managing editor for The East Bay Review. Her work has appeared in Vagabond City, Blotterature, Toasted Cheese, and elsewhere. She still likes glow-in-the-dark stars and watching the sunrise.