Roman room, n.: A memory technique in which a person attaches new memories to familiar objects placed around a mental picture of their home.
Step inside the townhouse, with it’s little portico and squeaky screen door. Step around the pile of shoes. Among others, the ballet slippers you wore through as a child, soft pink leather formed perfectly around your tiny feet. The white snakeskin pumps you wore to graduate school interviews, the heel grooves still bloodstained from overuse. The roller skates you couldn’t get rid of when you retired from roller derby.
As you move past the kitchen, you smell food. Raspberries, from the bush in the backyard where you’d pick them every summer with a stepbrother and sister, before the ravages of expectations and picking sides cleaved those sometimes-siblings from your life. Ramen that’s gone cold after hours on your desk, forgotten amidst the flurry of paper and typing. Buttered toast and cheese omelets and a hint of apple butter from a late-night Waffle House run, where you met a beautiful blonde boy after practice one night.
Make your way upstairs with your hand on the iron banister and catch a peek of the bedroom. The half-empty closet. The lilac headboard you sanded and painted yourself, then mounted on the wall the night you rearranged all the furniture to make the room look less empty. You reach the office. The curtains never hung, still in their plastic case on the floor in the corner. The antique roll-top desk, the one you are so proud of and moved into and out of three apartments and one storage unit, with the sticky drawer on the left side. Sit down in the uncomfortable oak chair you’ve been meaning to replace.
On the desk, the following:
-a copy of The Magician’s Nephew, edges soft and waterlogged, whereabouts unknown since at least 1999.
-two half-completed LSAT workbooks, purchased two years apart
-A color-coded spreadsheet comparing the pros and cons of apartments in the Toledo metro area circa 2014, with parameters including: rental price, distance from his work, distance from your work, cat-friendliness, etc.
And then, assembled around the room, there you are. All of you. There’s you at six, in baggy jeans and grungy white sneakers — there’s probably at least two books in her backpack, along with the $20 bill Mom tucked in there for groceries. She’s a little sunburned, and one pantleg betrays a skinned knee underneath. There’s the version of you in graduate school the first time, bags under her eyes, weeks before she called it quits by the looks of it. Then there’s the you that almost moved in with David, or at least loved him enough to want to. The one that was talking about vacations and apartments the week before your life crashed around you. Each has things you want, each miserable in her own way.
Invite them to the kitchen. Fill the red steel teakettle with water. Pour the water into three mugs. Drop a packet of hot chocolate mix into one, a spoonful of instant coffee in the second, a bag of tea in the third. Take a deep breath, and begin:
I’ve missed you. I know you probably have questions about how things are going, well, how things went.
Orderly as always, everyone nods in stereo. You don’t need to speak to decide that the littlest one, most freckled and least patient, should go first.
Do they ever get, um, nicer?
(Your face falls.)
No, darlin’, they don’t. But you’ll learn to stand up for yourself. And eventually, you’ll learn to walk away.
Is our name “Doctor”?
We’re. . . uh, we’re still working on that. More of a “not yet” than a “no”.
(Her face falls. You look to the last one, blowing on her tea.)
Does he still love us?
(A wry chuckle.)
Girl, probably, but not in the way you need.
He still likes all your Instagram photos, though.
And he’s got some truly stupid tattoos. That is revenge enough, trust me.
And then, the impatience overtakes everyone at once, and what was a well-organized exchange becomes a steady pitter-patter of curiosity from all sides at once.
Um, do we still dance?
Not nearly often enough.
Are we happy?
Mostly. Maybe. On balance, probably. Yes?
Are we enough?
That’s what we keep telling ourselves. We’re still learning.
Is there still time?
God, I hope so.
Where do we go from here?
I was hoping you could tell me.
Look, I need your help. You three are in the middle of my — our — deepest struggles. The biggest betrayals, broken dreams, heartbreaks, you’re it. Someday, I’m gonna sit at this reclaimed diner table while a less pretty version of us tells us about her latest crisis. But today, it’s my turn to lay it all on this table. Y’all have survived so far, and I need you to tell me how. How do you do it? How do you keep swallowing all the rejection and bitterness and emptiness and boredom and self-doubt, and keep moving?
Everyone looks into their mugs for a moment. Unsurprisingly, the little one pipes up first. She’s sure of herself, confident in a way you haven’t been since. You thought she might back down from a big question like that and let the adults talk — ha. As if.
Well, when I’m bored, or scared, or lonely, I sneak off with a book. You know that spot, the one behind the garage, where no one can see you from the house? Do you have a spot like that?
You imagine the deck chair in the new apartment, positioned so that no one can see whether or not it’s occupied.
I sure do.
Well, go there. And just stay by yourself until the bad feelings go away. You can’t let other people know when you feel bad. If you do, then they can use that.
Got it. Anything else?
Well, do you dance?
(Another small laugh).
Not well, baby. Not well.
You don’t have to be good at it. I’m only okay at it. But I like to do it. Except when Jennifer comes to class. She’s awful.
You know, she was awful, now that we think about it. I wonder what she’s up to now. Probably accounting. Or insurance sales. She probably married well.
Great, thank you. Who’s up next — what’ve you got?
Honestly, I mostly have panic attacks and a maybe-problematic relationship with food.
Oh yeah. I remember that.
Ummmmm, push through it? If you keep grinding, everyone will notice how awesome you are. It’ll be worth it eventually.
How’s that working out for you?
Well, I worked eighty hours last week and couldn’t afford to put gas in my car. The AAA guy floated me a $20.
Jesus, yeah, that was rough. If it makes you feel better, things haven’t been that bad in a long time.
You look to the girl to your right, holding her mug of tea to her chest as if it would protect her.
You don’t have to ask.
I don’t have anything to add.
I’m glad to know someday it’ll feel okay to breathe again.
No single week can be worse than the one I just went through, between the breakup and the car breaking down and my friend just fucking dying out of nowhere. If I made it out of this one alive, whatever’s going on for you can’t be so bad.
(A long pause.)
You fumble around for an answer.
You’re probably right. He’s still around, you know. Dan. Just because he died doesn’t mean you lost him. There’s a guy on SNL right now who looks just like him, the teeth and everything.
You realize it isn’t helping, that your despair wasn’t the kind that could be touched by this kind of small talk. That you hate it when people try to talk their way through your feelings instead of just leaving you alone to have them. Is this why you keep getting mad when your friends ask how you’re doing?
She’s right, you realize. No matter how bad this week is, this month, this entire year, it can’t be worse than World’s Worst Week 2014. You might as well have given her a trophy. You half-smile at her.
You all sit in silent assent for awhile. Sitting next to someone who’s hurting is an art form, one you’re gifted at. You wait until she shoves her hands in the pocket of her apron, pulls out a napkin from the joint where she works, the one you drive past on your commute. You used to dream about an office job, the kind where you didn’t come home and scrape guacamole off your shoes. She wipes her eyes, then blows her nose into the napkin. This means she’s ready for you to move on.
No offense girls, but what if we did none of that this time? No hiding, no pretending to be fine, no shutting down? What would that even look like?
No one says anything. They don’t have to.
Each one thinks a different iteration of:
I don’t know. And I’m too afraid to find out.
You decide to pivot.
(A look to the youngest one.)
How’d you get that scraped knee?
Riding my bike down the big sledding hill.
Oh yeah! You ran the bike wheel into the big rock, right?
Yeah! It was awesome!
You’re so brave. There’s so little about the outside world that scares you.
You turn now to the middle you, sipping the dregs of the instant coffee.
And you, you’re so determined. You’ve set your heart to something, and you know how to put in the work to get there. That’s a damned skill. You’re gonna need it out here. The sense of humor, too. Just do me a favor, eh? Make sure you’re pouring your time and brain cells and heart into something that matters. Also, get some fucking sleep. Delilah’s worried about you.
As if on cue, the cat, older and rounder now than the squawking baby your overworked university self brought home, sidles up against her leg.
Do you remember driving her to Florida?
Do I remember the 22 hours of straight, flat highway with her on my lap? Sure do.
You had so much faith in yourself. So much palpable belief that your dreams weren’t just possible — they were staring you in the face. You’ll have that feeling again. You’ll learn to cultivate it, call it on demand. Right now, you can’t see the forest for the trees, but I know you feel the dream you had burning up. It’s burning you up, too.
I just can’t see a way to make it work.
That’s because it isn’t working.
Doesn’t that mean I’ve failed? Couldn’t hack it? Gave up on the only thing I’m really, really good at.
Would you believe me if I said no?
That’s for the best, maybe, because I need you to help me envision a future and then hang on for dear life when it doesn’t go according to plan.
She pulls the cat into her lap and snuggles her. She shifts her body to face the last one, who, having been given a moment to compose herself, straightens her apron and gives the old girl a good scratch between the ears.
I need you too, you know.
You mean this isn’t a chapter we’re going to tuck away and pretend never happened? Shit.
Yeah. The thing is, if I’m standing here, in my house, across the street from the Mexican joint where you’re slinging tacos, it’s because you figured out how to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. One foot in front of the other until there’s room in-between the grief to let the rest of your life back in.
The little one interjects. She looks terrified, like at any moment she might burst into tears.
Is it all going to be so . . . bad? Do I — we — do we ever get to be happy?
From her perspective, our conversation does make our life look a little horrorshow.
Oh my God, girl, yes!
And then, another pitter-patter-cacaphony:
-You’ll fall in love! More than once!
-You’ll live in big cities all over the world!
-You’ll write your own stories!
-Your sister will become your best friend, and you’ll travel and live together!
At this last one, she looked incredulous, unsure if we were lying, but seemed to calm down.
Slower now, I look around the kitchen table:
It’s supposed to be fun, guys.
I have so much left to do.
There’s still a lot of joy.
I have everything I need.