After her mother chased her father around the kitchen with a butcher knife, I wasn’t allowed to go to Cristina’s house.
He saved himself by shimmying under the chipped Formica table pushed right next to the white-enameled iron sink, also chipped and always towering with weeks’ worth of dishes. I wasn’t worried about him so much as Cristina – my mother agreed and swept Cristina over, with some clothes, to our place to stay for a few weeks – as even his ability to rear fluffy yellow chicks in the basement couldn’t overpower the whiff of creepy surrounding him. I wasn’t much surprised about her mother, either, because surely no one could have such a glassy stare for so long without something happening.
But I kept thinking about, and still keep thinking about, the house. It was a big white plastered and columned Greek Revival. Unseen from the street, on top of a thickly wooded hill that interrupted our tidy lines of ranches and split-levels, it seemed to me magically unreal as I’d wind up the weedy rambling drive catching peeks of what seemed like a giant’s wedding cake or a place where Lincoln or maybe Washington had lived once. Then again, Cristina’s great-grandfather, who designed and built the house, moved here from Virginia and quite naturally carried with him all sorts of neoclassicisms. When the house became too much for his grandson to keep up, the next generation from Virginia moved to Tennessee to take over the place, in time for Cristina to join me in fourth grade.
I didn’t know how the plaster could look so bright when nothing in it or around it was clean. Perhaps the assortment of broken-down cars rusting at intervals among the white oaks was not unusual for our neighborhood (apart from its abundance), but the rest of the house required an unusual amount of care when you wanted a place to sit on or lean on. When you jumped up the stack of concrete blocks in place of the porch that had rotted away long ago, you came into the front room, which I couldn’t call a living room because it didn’t have any furniture for living in.
But that was okay, because we would ascend the gorgeous set of stairs straight out of Gone with the Wind–somehow in perfect shape and always gleaming, leading to a gracefully curving balustrade with ornately carved spindles–and shut the door behind Cristina’s tiresome, wistful sister and marauding brothers. And in her room, which had been her mother’s childhood bedroom, was another of the few miraculously preserved parts of the house: a solid-cherry bookcase, like the spindles also graceful with whimsical carvings. The shelves were filled with her mother’s books, paperbacks from the 70s, and her mother’s mother’s books, hardback, which I didn’t usually see outside of libraries. Some were even leather-bound with gold lettering, maybe from her mother’s mother’s mother, and these I wouldn’t dare touch.
But the paperbacks I touched. Cristina and I examined each cover in turn, noticing how many were named for women: Anna Karenina, The Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the Durbervilles, Jane Eyre, Mothers and Daughters. This was 1995 and we were twelve years old, so “I think this one’s the book Clueless was based on!” I said, reading the back copy of a Penguin Emma. The cover boasted a lady in muslin and lace more mysterious to me than the Mona Lisa. I carefully reshelved the book. You never knew when Cristina’s dad would come upstairs to find out what we were doing, what we were breaking, what possibly I would take.
So visit after visit, the bookshelf remained the same. The books we handled so that the spines never fully opened, though this meant we couldn’t read the part of each line closest to the inside margin. The staircase was timeless, looking as shiny as the day the great-grandfamily first moved in, but the bookcase was an anachronism, the only thing that was exactly the same as it had been just before Cristina’s mother left her childhood home to earn a doctorate in mathematics, before she married, before the schizophrenia began to swallow everything, even the house she moved back to in hopes it would heal and be healing.
Because it didn’t and wasn’t, Cristina’s grandparents returned to Tennessee, keeping watch in a little Colonial at the foot of the hill. Cristina returned home too and the house kept decaying, her father leaving again and again, all but the one time coming back eventually, shabbier to a shabbier home, except for the staircase and the bookshelf.
It was not like the bookshelf in my living room, with its rows of Danielle Steel and Louis L’Amour, its copy of Webster’s and some of the Britannica, and its abandoned children’s books. It wasn’t like the particle-board Walmart bookshelf in my bedroom, laden with pastel-colored $3.95 paperbacks, mostly the Babysitters’ Club books and L. M. Montgomery novels. My bookshelf was in a different way static: at twelve, I was tired of Kristy and Claudia and carrot-haired Anne but didn’t know where to turn to next. In desperation, I had read all the Danielle Steel and was contemplating the Louis L’Amour. But now that I had memorized Cristina’s mom’s shelves yet could no longer visit them, I found at the used bookstore a copy of Emma – a Penguin I could fully open. Once I finished that, I bought Pride and Prejudice, then Mansfield Park, and then on to all of the books listed, at the back of whatever book I just finished, as available by mail order with the enclosed card.
It took ten years for me to open up Anna Karenina, but by that time I’d read everything I could by the authors of The Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the Durbervilles, Jane Eyre, Mothers and Daughters, and anything that had a USED TEXTBOOK sticker on it, because then it must be a Classic. Sometimes I saw Cristina’s mom in her day-long rambles around the neighborhood, her hair as long as my mom’s was in the 70s, tan and free of makeup, again like my mom in the 70s, dreaming or suffering as neighbors’ cars swerved around her.
Now, ten years after Anna Karenina, Cristina has inherited the house and moved in with her husband and children. They are trying to save the house. It is a losing battle, but at least their daughter is allowed to read her grandmother’s books, so strangely saved for her.