I wake up. The mattress below me feels too soft in a familiar way. I hear the noise of a passing car, muted through a closed window. Opening my eyes, I find myself in a small room. It’s night. The faint light casting through the window reveals enough for me to recognize my surroundings. This is odd.
Slowly I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the overly soft mattress. My small feet, free of socks, touch the memorably soft carpet. It’s the softness of a fluffy carpet after being used to a home of cold, hard tiles.
Something is profoundly wrong. I should not notice the size of my feet. Your feet are always whatever size they are. They are yours. Not big, not small. Just appendages on which you walk, whatever size they are and have always been. Except the feet that touch the ground for me now, they are small.
I recognize the carpet, the sounds of the car and the mattress that’s too soft. I’ve been here before. But this instance of “here” should not exist anymore.
I take small steps to the door. It should really just be a single step; the room isn’t very big. A bed, a wardrobe, that’s it. A child’s room that isn’t very childlike. It lacks innocence, imperfection and personality. It’s just a room occupied by a child.
My right hand grabs the door handle. It’s one of those heavy metal door handles that can date a building. A rushed paint job blurs the border between door handle and wooden door. It doesn’t occur to me to look through the keyhole that’s set directly into the wood of the door.
Stepping into the hallway, I think of toffees. It was the last gift of my grandfather. I found them 26 years ago in this very house. Grandfather was in the hospital. There was a sense of finality to it. Not an occasion for a ‘swift recovery’ greeting card. Asking him for toffees probably shouldn’t have been on my mind. Mom said I should ask him, if I wanted to eat them. I did want to eat them.
I’m not back in a place or a time. I’m in a place and time as it exists only inside my own head. I’m wandering through something akin to an abandoned movie set. Devoid of cameras, actors, directors, it has lost its magic and conveys the eery feeling of a life-size diorama. But the place doesn’t feel abandoned or artificial. It just feels wrong.
Further down the hall, I see the open door leading to my grandparents’ bedroom. I should get out of here, but I’m faced with a very unique kind of temptation. It’s like being in a lucid dream, a perfect virtual reality. A maybe one-time chance to experience with my own senses something that reality would otherwise deny me.
Softly, unaware of what I’m walking on, I tread towards the door opening into the room where my mother’s parents used to sleep. As I draw closer, I see a figure standing behind the open door frame. “You should not be here,” she says. She looks like my grandmother. I’m enraptured with the clarity of her voice and fascinated by my understanding of it.
Having been raised in Germany, I only had a rudimentary grasp of English as a child. I always struggled with understanding my English grandparents. For years, I kept wondering what kind of people they were, having nothing else to draw on but the rudimentary impressions collected over the life of a nine year old. Enough to retain memories, not enough to reconstruct understanding. Them not speaking any German meant I had to struggle to make sense of things with the little English I spoke.
Not this time though. I hear her voice with adult comprehension. My mind races through all the possible conversations I could be having with her. It’s only after the initial spike of fascination dies down, that the visual differences reach me.
Her pale skin, stern posture, and resolute voice are not characteristics of a grandmother talking to her grandchild. She’s not talking to my eight year old self. She’s talking to me. And it’s not her talking to me; it’s whoever used to be her 26 years ago. On the inside or elsewhere, she has aged just as much as I have. Her opposing presence is uncomfortable. I turn, dazed, and continue down the hallway. The lighting that allows me to find my way doesn’t permit comfort.
I reach the stairs. The stairs lead down to the kitchen, the dining room, the living room and our front door. I used to slide down those stairs. This time, I walk. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I look back. My grandmother stands on the stairs, halfway down, unmoving. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. She knows with the omniscience of a dreamed, dead person.
Passing the living room on my way out, the temptation is too great. Looking inside, I spot my little blue suitcase. It’s the suitcase I used to bring along my toys when I went to visit my grandparents. There’s a little brown toy car next to it. I remember pretending it was a fancy car. It might have been a Jaguar. It might have been a Ferrari. The specifics are lost on me. The car I hold in my hands now looks unremarkable. I don’t recognize the make. Identifying details are blurred by the lack of attention from an eight year old.
Hands fall on my shoulders. “You should not be here!” I stumble, turn around. It’s my grandfather. His eyes are an angry red. Fanning the flames of anger are my memories of his temper and his shouting. Shouting at me for failing to answer my grandmother at breakfast. She wanted to know what I would like to have on my toast. I deliberated. How is it that someone doesn’t recognize deliberation in the face of a four year old?
I run towards the front door. Storm out. There’s no one on the street. In the front of the next house, a lady with tightly-bound bun of gray hair is tending her garden in a faint light that could have been cast by the moon. She was nice. She died some twenty years ago. I don’t remember her name.
Across the street is another house I remember. A young boy only a year or two older than me used to live there with his parents. He had hemophilia. In their driveway, someone looking about eighteen years old is now washing a car. It must be him. Oh no. Poor boy.
I head to our front gate. The gate separates our wall from our hedge. It’s locked. I can’t get out. I should not be here.
My eyes open. I’m on a mattress. This one has the hardness of something you use to outfit a rental. It feels familiar. My right hand is numb; I must have slept on it. My left slides under the pillow as I roll over. An unexpected sensation at my finger tips stops my motion. There’s an empty candy wrapper. Taking a closer look at it, I sense the faint smell of caramelized sugar. It smells like the toffees my grandfather used to buy.