by Jennifer Manalili
Issue Two: May 23, 2019
The house that sits on 4344 Marcia Court in San Diego is a fake.
A phantom house.
I know this because I used to live there.
I witnessed its metamorphosis.
I watched it shed paint like a caterpillar, transforming from a tacky, yellow and brown checkerboard wallpaper, to an even more flamboyant too-bright-like-the-skin-of-Homer-Simpson-yellow.
It sat in the middle of a small cul-de-sac filled with eight households.
In the late eighties and early nineties, we held a prestigious honor.
The mustard home.
We were the eyesore of the curved street.
I used to tell people that you would need sunglasses to look at us. I miss that eyesore. I miss that street.
People say you can never really go back home. I know people who have crossed state lines and moved out of cities they grew up in. They fill the distance between them with miles and miles and miles, never to see the spaces they took up ever again.
But I can go home – physically, at least.
I’m telling you this because I think there is a phantom haunting the house on Marcia Court.
It’s my father.
Before we moved, the real estate lady gave tours of our home while mom and I were still living there.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, watching as bright red, blue, pink, yellow and black uniforms flashing across the screen, the commotion of an afternoon with the Power Rangers flickering across the TV screen. In the middle of this, a man and his wife walked in, waving hello, their voices high and ecstatic. His wife’s swollen belly made its introduction first, and I could see their plans and possibilities for my house materializing right in front of them.
I could already feel us fading away.
Dad had peeled away the yellow and brown checkerboard wallpaper on his own, until his hands were thick with callouses. We’d stood side by side, brandishing paint rollers like swords, erasing the checkerboard of our kitchen with white.
I’d gone with him to Home Depot every day, watched him pick out bright blues and reds for the trim on our doorways and windows, colors he thought would match the dark chocolate brown of our bedroom doors, but somehow also matched The Simpsons’ yellow outside.
The kitchen counters where I spend many Saturday mornings lined up precisely beside him, my eyes peering up over the counter to stare up at him watching him create miracles over the stove.
The bathroom where he taught me how to wash my face, hands on a pink towel, pressing prayers into the skin of my cheeks to grow up well.
The cupboard and closets where we played hide and seek.
The living room where our laughter floated up to the ceiling like a duet and he carried me on his back, and where we ate chocolate cereal after coming home from school recitals, my backpack nervously slouching against the couch, with homework waiting to be done.
The hall where we put up lights on the Christmas tree, and I watched the flickering rainbows dance off his glasses.
This is where I’d been the most happy.
This is where he had been real.
A year before dad died, he had a triple bypass heart surgery.
I know how he looks in the pictures afterwards, even without seeing them. The weeks and months after he came home, I have memorized that face.
His face is always solemn, his mouth pressed into an unsteady line even in the photos where I’m with him. My eyes focused on the camera, my mouth pressed into a permanent grin. Like it always was when I was with him, I smiled so hard, so wide, you’d think I was trying to show you all the teeth I had in my mouth.
In the end, Dad refuses the pacemaker that would have saved him.
“I’m tired,” he tells my mom, from his place on the couch. The frown lines on his forehead deepening. He slouches further into the seat, his shoulders hanging low. “Jesus! Wasn’t one bypass enough?”
He wears scars from his first open heart surgery across his chest. They don’t peek up from above his shirt as much as they splatter. Like spilled paint across the skin below his collarbones, the scarring like a sign that sits on his chest…he cannot hide.
But in the photos, Dad will always be there. Looming behind me. His eyes downcast, his face far, far away, even when his arms are around me, or when he’s lifting me up to his face.
There and not there. Always here but always somewhere far away.
Maybe always stuck somewhere in between.
We would eventually lose the house to bankruptcy shortly after Dad died in the Philippines, on a trip he would never get to come home from.
The first time I visited my house again was only weeks after we moved out.
It was November, and I was turning 9. My first birthday not spent in that house blowing out candles on a cake from Baskin Robbins, surrounded by kids from the neighborhood. I remember there was no party that year.
My first birthday without my dad.
The sun was going down way too early, days were running away from me, and as my best friend and I approached the house it seemed more menacing, unreal.
My house had been stripped of its vibrancy. Dad’s brown picket fence had been torn down. And the house was no longer a Simpsons yellow, or chocolate brown, no: It was white. Stripped of all the ways dad made it different and uniquely ours.
You could look at it without having to turn away.
Mom’s rose garden, too, her trees, and her bushes of bright yellow daisies had been unearthed, ripped out of the front yard. I found myself feeling a certain kinship with them.
With the setting sun casting shadows into the house we clamored over the top of the portion of my dad’s fence that was still standing in the backyard.
She tried to shake me. I was vaguely aware of her arms trying to pull me back, but I could not stop myself from going forward.
I had to see it with my own eyes.
I stared into the giant windows, choking on the lump of panic in my throat as I looked.
Paint cans and sheets of plastic littered our kitchen.
A wall had been torn down to make the space bigger.
Brown carpet lay in a corner of the living room like discarded animal fur.
I cupped my hands over my eyes and pressed my face closer to the glass so I could get a clearer look. I felt like I was walking through a graveyard.
I picked up rocks and began hurling them one after another at the dining room windows that used to be in my family’s name.
My best friend dragged me backwards, her arms around my waist – as I kicked and screamed – angry, hot tears blurring my vision- from the house that was no longer mine.
I started visiting every week – to torture myself – watching what this family saw as the remodel of their new dream home. The demolition of my childhood.
I got mom involved too.
It was equal parts weird curiosity, and also I’m sure, kind of like the desperate relief you can only get from drinking too much – which is to say that it was no relief at all.
The bags under my mom’s eyes seemed to deepen, especially in those first few weeks when we repeated this routine, this self-inflicted wounding rather than therapy or coping. Each time we drove by our house it was like ripping a fresh bandage off a wound that would not scab over and could not heal.
The apartment we moved into was a few blocks away from our old house. We still shared the same zip code, the same school zone. We drove past our cul-de-sac on the way to get groceries and haircuts, to go to the bank and Wal-Mart.
The memory of what we had there, what we had lost, clung to our backs. How could we move on, when it stuck out like a thorn in our side any time we tried to pull forward?
We started going to the house in the middle of the night … on the way home from movies … on the way to Home Depot.
I wanted to see if the kids on the block replaced me in their afternoon games, to look at the cars parked in our driveway, to hear the laughter of new voices billowing up … from the place where my dad had been the most real.
What did I expect to see? Hope for? New tenants who are just as haunted by this piece of property as I am? My dad waving in the window? Maybe his booming voice scaring the new owners? His crooning waking them up at night?
See, Dad was a huge Elvis fan.
We’d turn into the cul-de-sac and I could see it, the new homeowners running down the driveway, scurrying away in horror as dad’s laughter or a rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” echoed through the living room where he taught me how to dance on his feet, where he played his guitar. The sound stretching down the street I grew up on like a long crescendo.
Or maybe … a glimpse of him passing by … as our battered red Mazda slowed to a crawl.
Or the thick smell of the musky cologne and aftershave he used to wear, the pomade gel he used to slather on his hair that made him look like Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy?
The same thick gel, the color of gasoline, would cling to the collars of his shirts like tire tracks. When he was alive, my mother would dedicate herself to washing them until the palms of her hands were raw, and an angry red.
They fought about this often.
I wonder sometimes though, if we both obsessed over pressing our noses to the inside of those collars after Dad was gone. Thankful for once that laundry detergent could not rinse out his memory.
Instead, each time we visited our house, we were met only by darkness and the sound of crickets, the slow crawl of our tires against the black pavement, the silence that followed as me and Mom’s voices evaporated into an eerie final note as we stared up at the house that was no longer ours.
Grief will do that to you – you know. Shut you up.
I wonder sometimes if any of the neighbors watched us from their windows during one of these visits. I wonder what they thought, watching a widow and her young daughter visiting these memories – this house like a museum or a grave.
People used to tell me (as if there’s some kind of balm you can slather over the wound of losing a parent to smother the ache and make it feel less like you’re drowning but floating) that no one ever really dies as long as the person you lose lives on in your memories.
But if I’m being honest, I can’t breathe sometimes realizing how I don’t even remember what Dad’s voice was like anymore.
And there are days where I forget to think about him.
Is he less real then? Is the endless gaping hole of my grieving not true if I have the capability to forget?
One thing I am sure of though.
I only know what it’s like to live in a world where I can no longer hear his voice, my favorite song.
Growing up, imagining Dad haunting our old house brought me comfort, even joy – I think.
I convinced myself if I could just catch a glimpse of him it would prove that he was stuck somewhere he didn’t want to be, just like me.
Maybe then, I hoped, it would be easier to sleep, knowing there was someone like me who remained just as haunted.
Mom and I eventually moved- again. And again. And it became harder to check up on our old house, but I found … grief follows you everywhere. Even across zip codes. No matter how much space you put between you.
I still drive by that cul-de-sac on the way to the movies sometimes. And looking up home is just a click away.
And a ghost is then something more than just a memory preserved within the framework of a house, and grief is just like music.
Captured in time and playing on and on. Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight? Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again? Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?
Filipina. Aspiring writer. Foodie. Horror/sci-fi/Marvel fanatic. Pop culture enthusiast. Body positive. Fat feminist. Crazy-not rich Asian.