When you move back home for good, your basement is gone. More specifically, Your Basement, the one where you and your sister played Barbies and Legos before Mom called you up for dinner, the one with the mini fridge where you kept sodas and, later, secretly, vodka nips. Your Basement, which for your entire life had been only half-finished, half-carpeted, half-furnished, has been made whole. When you pull into the driveway, your car loaded with wine-stained bedding, a hand-me-down bedside table, and a dinky desk lamp, your cap and gown lying in a pile on the passenger seat, there is an unfamiliar car parked in front of the garage. It is a gray Honda Civic with out-of-state plates and in any other setting, a grocery store parking lot, a neighbor’s house, the bottom of a lake, it would be completely unassuming. But here, in the driveway of your childhood home, it does not belong.
And so naturally, it is the first thing you query your parents about upon entering the home awkwardly with several belongings stuffed under your arms. Your fourteen-year-old dog, Spot, struggles to her feet with a wet smile and eyeballs thick and glowing with cataracts. You drop your things and pet her absently.
“Who’s car? Who is that? Who’s here?” You neglect to notice how paranoid you sound, but then again, this had always been Your Place.
As is turns out, Your Basement is no longer Your Basement. It has been converted into His Basement, he being Marc, the graduate student renting the newly renovated studio apartment that was once Your Glorious Basement. You think it’s kind of funny that the basement dweller’s name is Marc, because your old roommate, Leah, had had a guy who used to pursue her, whom she referred to as Mark My Stalker, only because he sometimes showed up at the local bar when she was there and coincidentally ordered the same drink as her (Dirty Shirleys).
Your parents insist they mentioned this project and the new tenant several times to you over the last few months, and you have to admit that of course they had. However, during your weekly phone chats, the implicitly mandatory ones, while you had been painting your nails, rolling and smoking a joint, clicking through PowerPoints, your parents had been detailing their ongoing plans to capitalize on their evidently useless basement and finally turn it into income property.
There isn’t much to know about Marc except that he has lived in the basement for three months now and has not killed your parents, so he seems harmless enough. You quickly shrug off this new development in your recently regained home life, and begin unpacking your college life into your childhood bedroom. For sixteen years (not including holiday breaks) you shared it with your sister, Meg, who has been working at the same firm since the day she graduated three years ago. You have always suspected that your parents, both professors at the state school down the road, made a bit of a study out of their two daughters. One they raised strictly with an emphasis on discipline in every facet of her life, academics, piano lessons, social decorum, volleyball. The result was a gainfully employed, happily engaged young woman living in New York City with her handsome, wealthy, and equally employed fiancée. You, on the other hand, were raised much more loosely. Meg always resented you for that. Not only did your parents let you start drinking when Meg turned 21, they also let you join and quit activities at your whim, which led to marginal skills in guitar, a single sweatshirt from the high school lacrosse team, and the decision to study art history in college. Meg had scoffed that you’d be living in your parents’ basement for the rest of your life. Boy was she wrong.
The bedroom has an odd ambience since there are two twin beds yet only one occupant. Meg’s is just how she left it with her periwinkle comforter and polite stack of Jane Austen books on the shelf across from the window. You could spread all your belongings across the room, but somehow it feels uncomfortable to invade Meg’s space. When she moved away to college you did the same thing, always wary that at any moment Meg may burst in and find your rainboots on her half of the room.
You quickly find that your college belongings don’t really have a place in your new-old bedroom. Everything seems to be a duplicate. A second bedding set, a second lamp, a second rug. And everything from college is much more worn, despite being only four years old. Even your college decorations seem intrusive. Your tapestry clashes with the sage walls, or maybe it’s the distant memory of tripping on shrooms and smiling dizzily at the mandalas that seems improper now. The poster of Bob Marley is so beaten from being retaped yearly that it can barely hang in one piece on the wall. And the collage of your friends, well, you can pin that up later.
After all the unpacking is done, and everything is either tucked into your bureau, the attic, or the trash, your childhood room still very much resembles your childhood room. Frankly, it hardly bares any evidence at all that you went away for four years and maybe grew into the person you’re supposed to be. Or at least closer to that person.
You go back to the restaurant you worked at before college and ask for your job back. And by ask, you mean beg. No one has apparently forgotten the way you left at the end of the summer when you were eighteen, when you smugly told the owner you were going to college and you wouldn’t be coming back, not even for summer shifts. That had been true as you’d managed to find really anywhere else to be besides home every summer between school years. There had been that summer with Leah on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer spent volunteering in Costa Rica, and the summer at school in the art department’s archives.
The staff has known you since you were fifteen. So have the regulars, including the guy you lost your virginity to when you were seventeen. He was twenty-six at the time, and although you romanticized the whole affair, particularly because he was a struggling artist, it wasn’t until you went to college and met people your own age that you understood maybe the whole situation had been a little sick.
The owner takes you back because he doesn’t really know what else to do, and that’s fine with you. You had always been one of the better waitresses, probably just based on being decades younger than the other servers. Plus you know the ways of the restaurant, and so hiring you back is fairly low stakes. You try to remember to be grateful.
Within days of falling into your new-old routine, you also fall into isolation. All of your college and hometown friends knew better than to return to their parents’ houses like you did. This awareness is only exacerbated as you wait tables and your customers ask how long you have been working there and you have to explain how you are a graduate, like that means something. One time you can’t help it and a couple’s pleasant smiles get the best of you and you quickly explain that your senior thesis was on the degradation of white masculinity in modern art and they just blink, nod, ask for more bread, please.
The resulting loneliness manifests itself in a horrific tendency to start hanging out at the bar after your shift is over. The regulars, excited that you are back and evidently stuck in a time warp, buy you drinks. The struggling artist, now thirty-one years old, and still a struggling artist, believes that your Homeric return means you will again fall prey to his misunderstood brooding. He asks what you studied in college, and when you tell him art history, his hazy eyes glow hungrily and your stomach cramps up as you realize he, the egoist of your younger years, inevitably suspects that he somehow played god in the construction of your future.
He sees it as a perfect segue into one of his endless diatribes about the futility of higher education and reminds you that he dropped out of six different schools, and you pointedly remind him that he lives in his father’s basement. Your mind immediately turns to Marc. Then you think of Meg and how she never had to work in a restaurant like this because your parents raised her to know who she is and what she wants. Not like you.
The artist starts to caress your thigh, and you know he is about to say something brutally pretentious about taking your virginity five years ago, so you leave without paying your tab and sit in your car and think about all the people you could call and panic to, but you don’t touch your phone.
How you accidentally encountered Marc was well-intended. You had originally gone to the basement to flip your mom’s laundry as a mediocre way of saying “hey, thanks for letting me move back in and thanks for never asking me about my LinkedIn profile”. But halfway through the flip you start hearing the dull ra-ta-ta-ta of some ultraviolent videogame coming from Marc’s apartment. You think about your ex-boyfriend, Dominic, who used to invite your over to sit and watch him and his friends shoot each other (virtually, not actually) for hours on end (or maybe they were actually defending each other? All the characters looked the same) and you think about how you used to get pissed off and binge drink tequila just because he couldn’t stand how “needy” you got when you were drunk, and thinking about tequila immediately makes you nauseous. You think about that time you threw up under a stop sign and got tossed in the drunk tank and when your parents found out two Thanksgivings later your dad just laughed and reminisced about his fraternity days and Meg complained that you get away with everything. When you tell that story, you don’t mention how Dom bailed you out of jail and on the drive home he said “I don’t think this is for me” and then he dropped out of school and moved out and never called again.
The first time you fuck Marc (basement Marc, not stalker Mark) your parents are at the mall buying vitamins for your geriatric dog. You start ruminating on the fact that Spot’s entire life has essentially elapsed in the span of fourteen years and you begin to feel pretty depressed about the idea of your wonderful parents, who started kayaking when you went to college, probably recognizing their own mortality in the stumbling and wheezing of a once jet black dog. The first time she visited your house, Leah asked why she was named Spot if she didn’t have any spots and you try to explain that as a kid it had been your dream to have a dog with a classic canine name like Fido, Lucky, or Spot, and when you finally got a dog the technicalities of her solid black coat effectively became a non-issue.
You remember how much you genuinely like your parents and have to sit down and lean against the dryer. The rumbling of the wrinkle-free cycle massages your back, gently at first, then aggressively, and just when you feel like you could burst into tears because you’re right back to where you started when you left for college, and you still work at that restaurant, and you feel like you’re in a timewarp, Marc’s door opens and he’s carrying a basket of laundry and he looks decidedly disturbed.
You introduce yourself, but because you’re caught so off guard, your eyes go kinda crazy and Marc gets the wrong idea and then you decide that apparently nothing matters in the grand scheme of things, so you go into Marc’s apartment.
The sex is brief and sweaty because Marc doesn’t have his AC on, although there is a fan in the back of the room that you are pretty sure used to be in your grandma’s house. Once it’s over, Marc wants to ask questions about you, and you have a very unsavory vision of shacking up with Marc forever and living with him in your parents’ basement for the rest of your existence, or maybe just until your parents retire and sell the house, and then where do you go? Do you and Marc stay in the basement while a new couple moves in upstairs? The whole idea is unsettling, especially when you fathom the prospect of having basement-dwelling kids with Marc. You make some excuse about needing to let your dog out and run upstairs with Marc saying something about “doing this again”.
When your parents come home, you pretend to be asleep- you even drape a book across your chest for full effect. After they go to bed, you find that they bought you a slice of chocolate cake from your favorite bakery and upon seeing it you resolve to never, ever let anything happen with Marc again, because it suddenly seems madly disrespectful that you fooled around with their tenant. The solution is simple: you must avoid Marc entirely, so can never do laundry again. Even the driveway is a potential danger zone.
Life becomes a monotonous series of well choreographed evasions. During the day, you sit at home with Spot, who is too frail to be taken on walks, and apply to jobs at museums, schools, foundations, anywhere that could be remotely interested in you. Then in the evening you slip off to work just before your parents and Marc return from work. At the restaurant you mill around purposefully, but your new resolve to never hang out at the bar after work also results in a good deal of heckling from the regulars who offer lots of free drinks to entice you to stay. The struggling artist seems to salivate more than ever at the sight of you. You want to stand up on the sticky bar and proclaim that you aren’t that girl anymore, but you fear that you can’t prove it.
The next day, you call out of work for the first time in your life. It’s the first Friday of the month, and your parents’ gang of couples has a tradition of going to the local vineyard every first Friday. They invite you as a courtesy, but you jump on the invitation and the chance to escape your routine. Your mom is headed there straight from work, so you and your dad drive together. The vineyard is only a few miles away, but with each passing minute you have to consciously remind yourself not to bring up Marc. You’re too accustomed to living in a dorm, surrounded by a gaggle of girls eager to gossip and give inept advice. There had been an indelible separation between who you were in college and who you are with your parents. Sometimes at school you would go so long without calling mom and dad on the phone that you could momentarily forget that you even had parents and for a millisecond you were an alien that belonged to nobody.
Your dad would probably relate this lapse in identity to one of his preferred psychological theories, likely the perceived self, real self, and ideal self. As you drive along, you want to hear him talk about these things because he gets so quietly excited and you can tell that there is pure elation in every fiber of his being in those brief, transient moments when he is explaining his beloved subject to an attentive audience.
You can’t say anything though. You can’t even open your mouth. It’s like in your nightmares- the ones where your teeth fall out. If you so much as part your lips, an ungodly confession will tumble out like marbles:
“I’m sorry, I fucked your tenant. I didn’t know what else to do.”
You start running your hand through the ends of your hair, slowly at first, but then a hair or two gently comes loose between your fingers, and it feels nice, that little tug on your scalp, so you keep using your hand as a brush, but a bit more deliberately now, and several hairs come out and you start a pile on your lap and it looks like a haystack and you comb harder and harder.
“Didn’t know you were a trichotillomaniac,” your dad remarks.
The word is familiar. You took intro psych as a freshman as a half-sincere tribute to your parents. If you were Meg, your father would be in full psychotherapy mode. But it’s just you, and it’s the start of the weekend, and you’re on the way to the vineyard. So he just follows up with, “How is the beginning of the rest of your life going so far?”
Meg would have told the full-bellied truth. You just give a one word answer paired with a shrug.
Your parents’ friends are, of course, the parents of your childhood friends, some of whom you haven’t seen since middle school. They remark at how grown-up you look, a couple of the fathers touch the small of your back a smidge too eagerly, and they regale you with the triumphs of their children, also postgraduates, except Becky/Thomas/Riley/Amber/Jenny/Danny/Kevin/Morgan/Anna lives in The City and loves their high-paying job and has the nicest boyfriend/girlfriend. What have you been up to?
There had probably been a time when you would have spun your story so that your present circumstances still look hopeful, a time when what your parents’ friends thought of you mattered. But those days are over.
On a quiet, dull, do-nothing day, Marc resurfaces with a knock on the basement door. You are in the kitchen making ramen and you didn’t expect Marc to be home but it must be a bank holiday or something. The knock from within your house is so abrupt that you splash boiling water on your wrist. You open the door because there doesn’t seem to be another option, and Marc is standing there on the stairs in a t-shirt and basketball shorts and he wants to know if you want to come downstairs to hang out.
You have a rush of fear that you are trapped in a house with a guy who could very easily jimmy a lock and appear at any time- while you’re sleeping, showering, peeing- or worse, he could tell your parents he fucked you.
You politely reject Marc’s proposal, but he persists, and- is he trying to finagle his way into the kitchen? You make sure to block him, and continue to peer down at him from his stance on the stairs. Then he does the unthinkable. He gets frustrated and suggests that he doesn’t remember “fucking the landlord’s daughter being written into the lease anyways” and you get so mad you want to push him backwards but you don’t. You just slam the door in his face and you wish you could articulate how very wrong he is. But you can’t. And you think about how something like this could never happen to Meg because she had only ever slept with one guy and now she’s engaged to him and this sort of insult could only be directed at you.
You crouch in front of the door, pull your legs to your chest, and let your heaving breaths rock you back and forth and you wait for the sobs, the big gushing tears, the ones that pooled on your pillowcase after Dom left. You wait for your body to secrete sorrow, but it gives up nothing. Your hands, the nails chewed down to the nub, uneven from stacking dishes at the restaurant, find your scalp and immediately start dragging through strands of coppery hair. They pull until they rip, and don’t stop tearing until it is time to leave for work.
The artist stakes his claim. He gets drunk, like really hammered. You watch him out of the corner of your eye the whole shift, and when you slip out the side door at the end of the night, he follows you to your car and slurs out “why’ve you been avoiding me?”. You try to tell him you are not avoiding him, you simply are not interested in ever being near him, but the sudden proximity to him catapults you back in time, and immediately you are your former self, seventeen years old, eyes wide and dewy with purity and bliss, pure fucking joy that the tattooed potter from the bar is close to you and looking at you and caressing you and at that moment you’re not the kind of girl who fucks the guy in your basement. You’re not the girl who time travelled back to her childhood home and became a teenager all over again and you’re not drowning in futility. You are seventeen and everything is ahead of you.
But when the artist leans in and kisses you and his breath reeks of American Spirits and whiskey and his tongue is too wet and too wormy, you remember being that seventeen-year-old and suddenly being flooded with undesire and kissing back anyways.
So you, the twenty-two-year-old, pull back and grimace- and it is really important to you that he sees you grimace. You get in your car and drive away, but your face is hot and now the tears come gushing at last and your hands aren’t on the wheel, they’re scraping your scalp and you’re home, aren’t you? You made it, you have arrived, and right as you pull into your driveway there is a thud and you slam on the brakes. You’re still sobbing and you panic- you must have hit Marc’s Honda Civic.
You back up instinctively, and blink and blink, your hands are gripping the wheel, threaded with golden strands, but Marc’s car is on the other side of the driveway. The headlights bathe Spot’s body in a pool of light. You are struck by how silvery her once midnight coat has become.
When you were seven, your family adopted Spot from a shelter that smelled like kibble and Tide. On the drive home, you hugged your spritely new friend too much and let her lick your knees. Back then she would barrel down the basement stairs with you and jump on the couch next to you and circle you while you played with dolls and sometimes she’d try and chew Legos. When you went to college she was too old to take the stairs anymore. You remember when you came home for Thanksgiving; you heard the scraping and skittering of Spot’s paws the first time she lost her balance and fell down the stairs and your dad just scooped her up and carried her back up and your mom shut the door.
You sit in idle, your foot on the brake, the car still in reverse.
Jen Susca is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where she studied psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. Her work has been published and is forthcoming within New England and Australia. She currently lives and works in Boston. Her work can be found at jensusca.blogspot.com.