From Issue 14: "Like Home" by Mary Birnbaum (Nonfiction)

Like Home

Mary Birnbaum

Reading Time: 14.5 minutes

"Like Home" originally appeared in Issue 14 of Tahoma Literary Review. I love this essay for the figurative left turns it takes at Albuquerque, enough lefts that it circles to where it began, and yet we readers and the author are not the same as when we ventured forth. While it touches on alien invasions, gophers, neighbors, mercy, and foreclosure, the piece is at heart about marriage. I enjoy every turn the author takes, every quirky revelation, and I marvel at her agility in weaving the disparate elements together.

What are your takeaways from this essay? Let us know by posting over at our Facebook page, or reaching out to us on Twitter. Thanks so much for reading.

Ann Beman
Nonfiction editor


In bed one night I said to the ceiling and my husband, “I really think we need to get an emergency plan together, in case there’s an alien takeover.” It was not a joke, but my husband laughed. His laughter stirred mixed emotions. First, I was sort of relieved. He was laughing because the possibility of alien invasion was so remote. But I was also irritated because I thought the laugh was edged with derision. And it came out of him, and I had a mild distaste for nearly everything about him. I turned over in bed to face the open window. A dry huff of Santa Ana wind blew in and chapped my eyes, so I shut them. The problem with my husband was that while he might be infuriating, I had decided I was going to need him during the invasion.

I’d had a dream that the world was on fire. Maybe alien fire, maybe wildfire; the origin was not explicit (and my fears are broad-ranging). In the dream, I loaded my two young daughters into the cab of my husband’s Ford F-250 and trawled the smoldering hills of Earth looking for him. We encountered no humans until we found him in a deserted trailer park, alive among hollow shells of cars and homes. We rescued him, but the world was still so burnt I didn’t know where to go next. Finding him on that barren Earth had been my only plan. When I woke I wondered why my subconscious mind had thought to go after him at all.

It was brought to our attention that our next-door neighbor, Roger, hated us because of our inadvertent hospitality to a lot of gophers. The gophers had perforated the expanse of dirt surrounding our yellow house. The house was so run-down, so diminutive relative to the size of the lot, that we were essentially renting a quarter acre of sand. Our lean-to was like an afterthought. The land was dehydrated, uncombed, pocked with holes. A weed could scarcely thrive. We accepted the gophers as fixtures of an unkempt landscape. There was, after all, also a band of skunks roving the neighborhood, possibly raising a brood under our house. By “possibly” I mean that we regularly heard them skittering around below us in the crawlspace, and that they sprayed my dogs twice in a month. The second time they sprayed, the hit had been so acute that for a week just pulling up to the house was enough to make us gag. In Encinitas—for that was our city, and theirs—the skunks were notorious for appropriating space. Also, sometimes a brazen forty-pound raccoon tormented our dogs, holding ground, hissing loudly and stealing their food. Cone-faced opossums were standard fauna. Their sharp feet moved swiftly over a grid of fences like something from the circus. When you startled them, they’d swivel their heads toward you, black eyes beady and blank.

But it turns out that gophers are considered a blight, especially by neighbor Roger, who, the previous year, spent “one thousand dollars” hiring a squad of landscapers to rototill, fertilize, seed, and water the sand on his side of the fence. The lawn he cultivated was probably thirty-by-thirty feet, green, and rooted in what had become legitimate soil. It was shorn with the precision of a military barber.

Predictably, the rodents didn’t honor the sanctity of a chain-link barrier. To our gophers, a rangy, resourceful population of tunnelers, Roger’s side of the fence must have looked Edenic. Even I thought about chewing on that grass sometimes. Everything else in the Southern California was dry enough to snap, but that lawn was lush. Roger made sure of this, even though farmers in the Central Valley were watching their livelihood wilt in the heat and scarcity of the worst drought anyone in the state had ever seen, a symptom of warming on the global scale, brought on by irresponsible, shortsighted industrial water usage, but also by the type of Californian that Roger is. On furiously bright desert days, his sprinklers arced to and fro in steamy waves that cast prisms into the air.

Roger’s stark green patch, his important investment, was being compromised by our negligence. He was moved to have a huge pile of fertilizer delivered to his home on the day of our daughter’s fourth birthday party. I cannot accept that it was a coincidence. He must have seen the bounce house and dialed the manure depot in the same breath. On the morning of the party, I walked outside my home and my eyes welled up from the stench. I pulled my T-shirt over my nose and mouth. I went to the hardware store and bought bags of cedar mulch, in the hope that scattering it over my yard would make everything smell woodsy. But the shit always wins. Thirty children jumped all afternoon under a low-hanging dung haze. Roger was nowhere to be seen, though I imagined him just on the other side of his curtains, tittering in delight. On his lawn, the sprinklers said tick, tick, tick.

My husband was supposed to be a one-night stand, thirteen years ago, like all the other men I slept with during the period after a bad heartbreak. I’d been staggering around sad for a while when I recognized his car parked across the street from my mother’s house. He was the nephew of the people across the street, in town from Kansas City. I saw his Buick station wagon and I knew I would find him inside his uncle’s house, and that if memory served he would be above-average tall, sort of strapping and maybe game for a drink. My heart ached so bad that I was drunk when I was sober, but I was getting drunk a lot anyway. I didn’t really know him, or hadn’t known him since we were children and he came out to Encinitas for the summers. When I knocked on his uncle’s door he was inside playing a video game. In those days, he wore striped polo shirts and low-slung cargo shorts and baseball caps with the names of Midwestern farm teams on them. He pulled the bill low over his blue eyes, so that he was always cocking his head up a little to see who he was talking to. He smelled like Dial soap.

He came out with me and we drank for hours and then we went back to the childhood home, where I was again living after college. He was in and out of my bed for a summer. Mostly in it. When he moved to Northern California to finish college, I decided to stuff my glove box full of books on CD and drive 900 miles alone to surprise him. The drive started in the Southern California desert but thirteen hours later, the top of the same state could have been another planet. After ten hours on the I-5, I crossed to the coast on the 299, a two-hour course of switchbacks where oversized, hissing logging trucks careened like Formula 1 drivers. A dense stand of redwoods lurched up at the sky on one side, the opposite edge dropped into a thousand-foot ravine. I had made the long, lonely drive and I was still a person frayed at the edges by heartbreak, so maybe it makes sense that when I finally arrived at my boyfriend’s dorm it felt like some kind of home. I stayed for a year. When he graduated we moved back to Encinitas and I thought about careers. None of them appealed very much. I thought about flying away from home, finally, alone, tapping some dream from childhood, heading for something exotic and unknown. But I didn’t fly to any place. I let him get me pregnant. Then I agreed to marry him.

A little after my daughter was born, while the bank forced the sale of my childhood home (where my mother still lived), Mom’s old black Lab began to die. Signs of Pony’s decrepitude came in a cascade, leading up to the end. Like how every day he peed uncontrollably, prodigiously on the waxy hardwood floors before she could get him outside. The urine was acrid and even after Mom disinfected, the stench remained. Pony lost his appetite for McDonald’s cheeseburgers. He couldn’t muster strength to climb into the front seat of Mom’s car. His eyes got milky and unseeing. Our rented house was close by, and I could daily find the two of them in the backyard, she on the phone with the bank, weeding vegetable plants (she made neat piles of the weeds on the pavers which sometimes did not get taken to a barrel, but decomposed over days where they lay scattered like ideas for punctuation) and Pony laying in the sun, black back gleaming, always as close as he could get to her feet.

One night I went to that house to check on my mom. I lugged my chubby baby, strapped down in her car seat like a dirigible barely tethered. Not finding my mother inside, I went around to the side yard. I passed through the gap in a hedge of night-blooming jasmine and found her lying on the bricks of the patio with Pony. The dog was alive yet, but barely. He was unable to move, so Mom lay alongside him on the ground because she wasn’t strong enough to carry him anywhere.

As a child I’d always had the suspicion that I had the prettiest mother, a feeling which could have been linked to her general lightheartedness, her light-footedness, her smiling. There on the patio she was still the prettiest mother, but she’d gotten thinner with the stress of loss. She let grays rove all over her dyed brown hair and she had on an outfit I knew she’d worn for a couple days. A cigarette was burning itself out in an ashtray. Pony smelled of his own noxious excrement, of the decay emanating outward from his organs going stale, and of that unmistakable near-death smell for which I can’t think of a better word. My mom was sniffling intermittently, not from the cold. It was an Olympics of suffering between the two of them on the frigid stone.

“I tried to make sure he knows I’m here by talking to him and petting him, but I think he’s in pain. I don’t know if he knows it’s me.” Mom’s face was pressed against the patio bricks, her red nose six inches from the dog’s black one.

“I think he might need to go to the vet,” she said.

“Do you think they can help?” I asked.

“So he can die. But I don’t think I can go.”

I felt strongly that I also could not go. I was terrified. I started to try to figure out a compassionate way to extricate myself from the situation. I called my husband.

He arrived soon and offered to take Pony to be euthanized. I left the baby with my mother. I would drive the car so my husband could hold the sixty-pound dog on his lap on the passenger side. On the way, he gentled into Pony’s ear about how we loved him and how he would be okay. The vet’s office was deserted and clean and my husband lay Pony on an operating table while in low tones a kind young doctor described the procedure and its associated costs. Everything would be relatively quick and somewhat expensive.

“That’s fine. I can pay.”

I was surprised by my husband’s offer. He could pay. Barely. Why would he pay? Likely because he knew my mom could not. So, maybe for her and how everything had really gone to shit for her. But probably for me.

The vet retrieved a set of syringes. Pony was inert and so was I, but my husband seemed comfortable in that room. It occurred to me then that he would have made a good vet. Any kind of doctor really, considering how collected he was under the exacting light, how he never shrank from the table but stood against it like he could belong there. I imagined his steady hand in a surgery, calm and useful over some vulnerable body. He hovered near Pony while the vet plunged the shots into that motionless black back. He said “good boy” to Pony softly over and over. Good boy. Good boy. I could think of nothing coherent to tell the dog, so I pressed my hand to one of his back legs, so he could feel I was there, and cried a little. When the injections were done the vet took the empty syringes and left us alone. I don’t know how long it took for Pony’s heart to stop. Minutes probably, but the room felt very still for a long time. Eventually he was gone, and the room was stiller. The vet said the body would be taken care of. That was included in the fee. We could stay as long as we needed, go home when we liked. On the ride home without Pony, I thought: remember this moment. How good he was and how you needed him. Think about this, the next time you think marriage is too hard.

After he helped Pony die, after strangers took possession of my childhood home and my mother moved to a condo the size of a dorm room, my husband started to take over most all the domestic minutiae at our house. The new baby required a lot of my time, and I let her have all of it. My spouse found joy in quotidian things, in automatic bill pay, regular oil changes and the copious, innovative use of bleach. He bought Ajax, not Comet, a brand preference I allowed myself to be bothered by, even though I could not be bothered to bleach any surface, brand notwithstanding. He went to work every day. He flew in and out of town on business. I noted arrivals and departures with only cursory interest, and gradually his routine included going to his buddy’s house between work and home. He said he was working hard and he deserved to relax. His interest in fantasy sports and drinking with his friends seemed infantile to me, though it’s true that I spent most of my twenties in a drunken stupor. It’s even true that the night in 2004 when the Red Sox won the pennant I took the opportunity to shed my pants and panties and I ran hollering, bottomless in the streets, like a loose animal. I did similar versions of that activity for the whole long, blurry decade. But as I drank less (pregnancy, breastfeeding) and mothered more, I allowed myself to feel very virtuous and I addressed my husband’s happy hour excursions with blazing reprobation. I became a world-class threat inventor, an artist of the empty ultimatum. (I will set all your clothes on fire, I will call your mother, I will leave you.) He fell into heavy drinking and stopped doing the dishes. Sometimes he didn’t come home for several days on end.

And sometimes, particularly after we had a second daughter and he and I were still at our worst, I would let myself remember that moment of grace; I would try to conjure the man who was so merciful to my mom and her dog. But all I could recall was my own helplessness watching Pony die, the slowness of the minutes before I could flee.

When the house next door to my childhood home went up for sale recently, I wandered in, overly casual, during an open house. I knew I was just trying to sidle up to my old home in the only legitimate way I could. When I entered, the young realtor (slick button-down shirt tucked into his slacks, loafers, huge metal watch saying tick tick tick) was talking with a prospective buyer. The house was so small, she said, for the price. (The house was the exact footprint of my house that was not mine, just over the fence.) The realtor smiled and told her that the contractors had redone all the duct work, and that these were hardwood floors, not laminate like you find in so many flipped houses. I nodded, though not really part of the conversation between the realtor and the prospective buyer, nodded like I knew what a duct was. He said they took it right down to the studs to renovate and update it. That’s what they call it when you reduce it to an empty frame: taking something down to the studs.

For months after the bank finally took Mom’s house I had avoided driving down her street, which ran perpendicular to my own. One day, on a masochistic impulse, I found myself on Arden Drive, and where our sweet cottage had been there now stood a maze of sticks, in a vague embarrassing pattern that remembered faintly the rooms where we’d lived. The living room, the kitchen, the halls and my childhood bedroom were hollow space where a breeze now freely blew.

I met the couple who eventually bought the house next door. It was my mother’s doing. Even though the bank had ousted her from the neighborhood and many of the neighbors regarded her now like someone fallen, she returned often, visiting people and searching like someone cheerful and lost. She was dyeing her hair regularly again. She was picking out cute outfits every day and accessorizing with flare. She told me she heard the next-door house had been bought by a nice young couple and that we should introduce ourselves. To her it did not seem odd to be the visiting strangers who used to live next door. I went because I wanted to know who it was who could afford to buy on our old street these days. The woman who answered the door was enormously pregnant and beautiful in a glowing way that made it difficult look right at her for too long. Her husband was absent, or more precisely he worked from a converted office in the back from which he rarely emerged. I asked where she had moved from and she said Las Vegas. She used to be a dancer in a circus there. Of course you were, I thought. I mused that I’d pay, too, to come and gawk. At our excited urging, she left the room to dig up a picture from an old circus program. She returned with a big glossy playbook and paged to the center to find herself. For her part in the show, she had been a bird. She wore a feathered mask. Her costume was full of floor-length plumes in brilliant hues. The feathers accentuated her body contours, shooting outward from a bodice in wild trajectories, in sprays of color. In the photo she was mid-leap. Her arms were flung out. Her powerful quadriceps muscles folded one over the other. Her head tilted back. Her eyes trained far above on something we couldn’t see. She was a peacock and a phoenix and a parrot and a dove—all those creatures exotic and capable of imminent flight.

When it came to the moonscape of our yard, that is, the yard of my husband and myself and the wily gophers who darted in and out, without discussion we united against Roger. His lawn was preposterous, especially since it sprouted in front of a dwelling that was—like so many of the original structures in the neighborhood—a shambles of termite-eaten boards in need of paint or demolition. He was not friendly toward the kids. We knew he spoke unkindly about us to the other neighbors. He was as close to an enemy as we could contrive, and we needed one badly.

At some point, early on in living at the house, we had made half-hearted attempts to irrigate our yard. We watered in the spirit of possibility. We denied the desert. But when knowledge of Roger’s acrimony became widespread, we brought all hydration to a halt. Whenever our dog, Wyatt, decided to chase gophers, sheets of dry dirt would billow up into the sky and descend slowly on our kids, our house, on Roger’s lawn. Wyatt never caught a gopher and I, for one, wouldn’t have liked to see that gore anyway. We had our bursting shack to attend to; our babies and dogs and arguments. Our nocturnal menagerie. Our drippy plumbing. Our unknowable ductwork.

The other night I lay with my five-year-old daughter while she fell asleep in my bed. The smell of night-blooming jasmine wafted in toward us through an open window. Even when covered in desert dust, jasmine is sweet and heady. The tiny blooms pop from the hedge like stars. My husband came in and stood close to the bed. He leaned down and reached for my face. We were not accustomed to touching one another anymore, so I receded away from him, down into the pillow. Still, he took my right earlobe in his fingers and loosed the earring there from its clasp. He set it on my daughter’s bedside table. Then he did the same thing to the other ear. The studs clattered briefly together on the nightstand.

He said, “Aren’t these hurting you?”

My husband is probably right that the hostile alien takeover is a long shot. Because the rational part of me (stick with me here) knows that, while the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is pretty high, chances are slim that aliens could ravage humans the way we wreck each other. We wreck each other and rebuild. We make each other over and over. And maybe under all that rubble, under the fertile ruin, there is a home.


Reprinted with permission of the author

Birnbaum had this to say about the piece:

I began writing "Like Home" when my children were toddlers and my marriage was only just revealing itself for what it is: a tangle of cruelty and mercy. The piece was abandoned soon thereafter and then finished in 2018. For scale, my children are now seven and nine. This writing is of special significance because it represents a sort of launch pad for what would become many (so very many) intervening essays about marriage.

A closed captioner by trade, Mary also works on nonfiction from her home in Vista, California.