Nikki Barnhart is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, The Rumpus, Barnstorm, Phoebe, Quarter After Eight, Post Road, and elsewhere.
The city in which your parents meet is barely a city at all—parking lots outnumber the mostly vacant buildings. The expressway rips the center apart. It’s a place people pass through trying to reach somewhere else. After 5 PM, the downtown becomes barren, and when your parents work late, the last two to leave the office, it’s easy for them to feel like they are the last people alive, as if they are on a desert island instead of a capital city. When they look out the windows of their offices, in a building that wraps around itself, the only lights they see in the city that’s otherwise gone dark are one another’s—overhead fluorescents quivering and blinking intermittently, like a weakening pulse.
Your mother’s maiden name is the most common surname in the country you live in. She tells you, later, that one reason she wanted to get married was the chance to finally shirk it, trade it for an identity that would feel more personal, more individual. I’ve always felt anonymous, she tells you later, like I was a living pseudonym, like my name was a name redacted—until I married your father.
You’re born in a hospital in the same city in which your parents met. Your parents choose your name from a baby book the nurses give them to look through, and your father searches for ones that mean ‘prosperity.’ He and your mother settle on one that means ‘rich in war.’ Close enough, they think, or maybe better. There’s a war going on when you’re born, and you’ll live through others, ones both far away and ones close enough to see the bombs go off right in front of you: in the world, in your house, in your head.
The first street you live on is called Heaven Hill Road, in a white-shingled Cape on a half-acre lot abutting dozens of others that look exactly the same. Your neighborhood is full of roads with similar names: Castle Meadow, Paradise Glen, Bliss Street, even though there are no castles, meadows, or glens that you can see—no paradise or bliss either, just endless identical houses, just indistinguishable variations on a theme. Your parents say the place you live is called a ‘bedroom community’ of the empty city, the city that is not a city. You like the sound of this, how it makes the town sound like the room in Goodnight Moon, its residents all curled into a deep sleep, warm under a pile of blankets, tucked in by someone they love. That’s not the way it feels though; more often than not, it feels more like everyone you know is locked away behind closed doors, talking in low voices so you can’t hear.
Your first school is a fifteen-minute bus ride away from your house on Heaven Hill Road. It’s always too warm and smells like damp carpet and eraser dust. The air is littered with the remains of mistakes. In kindergarten, after one of your classmates smacks another on the playground, your teacher tells the whole class how to breathe. When you’re angry, or upset, she says, take three deep breaths—in through your nose, out through your mouth. The class lies together on the floor and practices. This is how you try to soothe yourself in bed when you hear your parents fighting down the hall. It doesn’t work as well as pretending—pretending that you are floating down a river, or tucked in a very small space, big enough for only you—or nowhere at all. Nowhere at all is usually best.
Your first pet is a senior dog from the shelter, a lab mix with one drooping eye you call Eloise. It’s good for your mother to have more things to take care of, says your father, since she does not work anymore and is not as happy as your father thinks she should be. When Eloise dies two years later, your father says it’s good for you to encounter death at a young age—that he was twenty the first time he knew someone who died. Alone, your mother tells you this is a stupid idea, that your father still doesn’t understand loss, especially the kind that comes on slowly. She thinks someone needs to teach him about that.
Your favorite food is mashed potatoes, which your mother starts making often for dinner. Comfort food, she calls them. You understand why after you feel them numb you when your parents start arguing at the table, your father saying this, really, again?, your mother’s face crinkling like how you crinkle your father’s napkin each time you set the table, your secret little resistance that you find yourself performing impulsively one day, and then repeating each night, because your father never notices. But after spooning the soft fluffy white clouds into your mouth, you feel sleepy, adrift, at sea, far away from them even when they’re just across from you.
Your favorite vacation spot is your best friend’s family cabin hours north. It’s in a town centered around a giant lake, and your friend invites you along one summer to join her family on their yearly pilgrimage to what her parents refer to as “camp.” The house is large and full of dark-stained wood and has the stuffy, stagnant air of a place that lies in wait most of the year. What a waste, your father says, who does not believe in vacations and especially not vacation homes occupied only a few weeks a year. Your father believes that accidents can happen at any time, that costs of living are only rising—it should be enough just to make one’s house a home. One resting place is as good as any other. But for you, home is usually where the trouble starts. Home is a place you need to get away from. The feelings of leaving home and coming home are all mixed up in your mind. And at your friend’s cabin, you can see the stars for the first time—really see them, nothing like the way you thought you saw them before.
Your first job is at an ice cream shop on a dairy farm north of your town. You start to associate the smell of ice cream with the smell of cow shit—all summer long, you scoop and sweat and swelter. Every other week, you deposit your wages to the credit union, where your parents created an account for you when you were born. Except for the five dollars that you always cash, to bring home and collect and hide behind pictures in your photo album. You spread it out across moments of life, all successive versions of you so there’s not too much in one place, so that one picture doesn’t give you away. Systems can always fail us, your father always says, don’t put your trust in one place. You like to have things close to you, where you can see them, grasp them whenever you need to. What can be safer than what you can feel next to you, what you can hide by yourself?
Your high school mascot is a Spartan, but you learn ‘spartan’ has other meanings that feel closer to you than the athletes of ancient Greece, like self-discipline, or self-denial. A person can be spartan, or a room or a locker or a mind can be too—neat, clean, contained. You try to keep your things that way, the way your father tells you to, demands you to, so you don’t end up like your mother, but you find that the truth is that the more cluttered a space is, the more hiding places it offers.
Your first car is a used sedan with a broken left rear door and 70,000 miles. You buy it the last summer before college, with money you’ve saved from the creamery. You’re tired of not being able to get anywhere. Your mother has become so afraid of car accidents to the point that she has stopped driving herself. She wakes you each morning by telling you about crashes she heard about on the morning news, usually young drunk kids around your age, colliding into each other, careening into their untimely and fiery deaths. A car isn’t made to keep you safe, she says to you. It’s made to get you from point A to point B. Safety is always secondary to that. But safety offers no transportation. It’s no kind of vehicle. You just want to see what Point B looks like.
You meet your spouse under harsh yellow lights in a white hum of churning machines, inside a laundry room of a state school in a state you’d never been before you moved there. He ends up dropping out after the first semester, but sticks around, finds a closet-sized apartment over the bar he works in on the main drag. You keep dating even though sometimes it feels like you live in two different worlds inside the same town. You spend your weekends in the gray nauseous light of his apartment, morning sun glinting through the empties on the night-stand. With him, the future feels like just the same day over and over again, piling up on his bedroom floor. You are not sure if you got to Point B or if this is some in-between place. Or if Point B is just another place to get stuck. But one night, coming back late together on a frozen night, you lose the key to his apartment, and he does not yell at you, even as you both shiver under only the cover of a busted overhead light. Instead, he tells you, slow and sure, that you will find it, together. He says to retrace your steps—he’s someone who speaks in tired truisms like that, wholly believes that things are usually in the last place you remember. He still always smells like clean laundry, of things folded and put away neatly, right where you left them.
The first time you felt safe was playing hide and seek as a child. You played for the first time at a birthday party for some girl in your class and you had been the winner, after you discovered a latent talent for curling your limbs around you in tight spaces and staying very quiet for a very long time. Back at your house, you practice often even when no one is seeking you. That’s not the point—it’s the opposite of the point. Being found is losing. You find places in dark corners that you fit into, that fit only you. From these hiding spots, you hear your parents’ voices echo through the empty corners of the house, pointed like daggers towards each other. You watch the day fade through the shape of the light on the floor, growing and then shrinking until it’s nothing at all. You get better and better at hiding. You play all the time, even when you’re out in the world, even as you grow up. You’re never not playing. You’ve learned that the best hiding spot is yourself. You can be in plain sight and still not be found.