I hope I can open up more. I hope I’m not as awkward as I was in high school. Day after day would pass in a painful, uncomfortable blur of peers and authority figures. I never had much hope in being the +A student. I never tried after proving to myself my best would only get me a B-, and I graduated high school with rows of c’s.
Mom didn’t like that. She always told me I had more potential, whatever that means. “You could become so much more, Cordial.”
But all I ever wanted was to play the violin. I could spend hours until my wrists ached, my fingers swollen, my neck hurting for days after. Music is in my blood. She could never understand that.
Dad did. Dad used to play the saxophone when he was younger. Got all the ladies. While I never aimed to use my music for romantic advantages, I find it highly ironic my most passionate experiences came because of my love for music.
It all started on my first day. It had been a few years since I had gone to school, but that feeling of nervous anticipation followed me the whole drive there. Mom drove her Lexus behind me, both our vehicles loaded down with what she liked to call ‘essentials’ for my room. While it wasn’t in my budget to live on campus, I managed to find an ad for a sublet close enough by to ride my bike back and forth.
I only hoped it looked as clean as the pictures.
I turned my Honda down the next avenue, sunlight shifting over the blue hood as Mom followed me down a narrow lane of trees. Apartment buildings lined either side. Some were cleaner than others, but all of them were brick.
“Turn right in 300 feet.”
I listened to the directions in my gps, my gut twisting with every new turn. The lane seemed to get narrower, until I was practically driving up a driveway crowded by trees. My car bumped over the potholes and I rocked up and down, sucking in a breath every time I missed one. If my tie rods snapped because of this, Dad’s present would go to waste. A shame I don’t see him more than twice a year.
Usually he buys me a plane ticket down to Florida and lets me stay for the summer. Mom would let us have the first month before barraging me with messages and voicemails. By the third, she would be passive aggressively reminding me it was time to head home. Only one summer did I press her patience on the fourth month, and she got silent.
I learned never to let her get quiet again.
We pull up to this small building, blue with white shutters. It looks a little rundown, vines growing up the lattice work on the side, and a few loose shingles were misplaced on the roof, but the candles flickering in the window put my mind at ease. It was quaint. Small, but cute from the outside. Secluded enough that I didn’t have to let anyone know this is where I lived, and there was even a small porch with whicker chairs to relax and study on my weekends.
Closing the driver’s side door, I stood before the house beaming. I turned to Mom, quite proud of myself. “Nice, right?”
Mom stalked up in her white pantsuit, gray jacket hooked over her shoulder. She gave me a wary grimace, much to my dismay. “It’s...small.”
“It’s big enough.”
“That just means it has character!”
I frowned. “It is not-” But when I looked up to the second floor, I noticed one of the windows had a crack in it, and the mottled gray glass I had mistaken for chic design was actually just grime that had yet to be cleaned. Taking a deep breath, I replied, “I can clean it.”
Mom raised an eyebrow at me.
“I will! For now, this is the best I can do with my part-time job. It’s cheap.”
“600 a month is not cheap,” Mom determined, looking around at the small, closed off yard and the large trees. “This is the suburb’s version of -back alleyway. I’m not comfortable with you living here-”
“Then you can find me an apartment or pay for a dorm room you can’t afford, either-”
“I don’t understand why you insist on going to campus in the first place.” Mom gave one shoulder a shrug and I realized my drive would’ve been better spent preparing for the argument ahead. “Why can’t you do online classes? You can do it at my place, or your father’s-”
She put in that last one to ice the cake a little, make it sound sweeter since she knew I wanted to go to campus. Shuffling my sandles in the soft dirt, I looked up again at the house with a sigh. “I just...I feel like I’m not going anywhere.”
“Of course you are! You’re in college, now-”
“I mean...socially.” Pinching my lips, I felt my cheeks grow hot after admitting, “I don’t like being alone, Mom.” I may have been a hermit in high school, but I never said I enjoyed it. I had hoped college would be the fresh start, the clean slate, the end of the old, beginning of the new me.
“Cordial.” Mom sighed. “If you’re only going for the parties and the friends-”
“No, I’m going for school!” I huffed, feeling exasperated as I tried to explain. “But I haven’t really met anyone the last couple of years. I haven’t made any friends aside from co-workers at the Coffee Shop, and I miss...people.” Glancing down at my blank phone in hand, I realized my expression was sadder than I thought. Social Media felt useless to me. Nothing online ever satisfied. Grandma Juniper used to say I was an ‘old soul’, but if being old meant I had to be lonely...I wasn’t sure I wanted to grow up.
The door to the house opened, interrupting our debate. An older woman with peppered auburn hair smiled warmly at us both. “You must be the Kleevers.”
My mom, the professional, immediately held out a hand and smiled. “Karen.”
“Ah! Karen. My name is Iris, Iris Gallman.” She looked to me. “You are Cordial?”
I smiled, shaking the older woman’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” Something about her reminded me of Grandma Juniper, and I felt myself ease.
Her grip was gentle but firm, and she tentatively placed an arm about my shoulders to guide me toward the house. “Well, let’s give you a tour of your new home.” She looked over my head to Mom, adding, “Temporary, of course.”
Mom smiled, relaxing as she followed us into the house.
“So you just turned 21?” Iris asked.
“Yeah,” I hurried, “Don’t worry, though. I’m not a party type. I won’t wake you up late at night coming back-”
“Oh, I’m not concerned with that. You have to have a little fun now and then.” She smiled to my mom. “Isn’t that right?”
My mom kept her smile placid, a sign she was growing nervous.
The exterior of the house may have been a little run down, but it did nothing to take away from the interior.
It was rather homey. Stairs led up to the second floor when you first entered. Wood floors, paneled walls, and whicker chairs scattered throughout. A few multi-colored rugs were scattered from the entrance to under the heavier furniture. Yellow walls and a blue kitchen gave me Gilmore Girls vibes, and I immediately relaxed.
If I ever owned a cottage...
Mom didn’t seem too impressed. We entered the kitchen and I could tell she held back a grimace.
“You have an interesting way of combining the rooms...” she commented. I frowned at her, but she tilted her head to the white rafters of the ceiling. “A sofa in the kitchen? I never.”
“I was never very conventional.” Iris shrugged, taking my hand with a gleam in her eye. “This is my favorite room.”
She led us into the covered porch behind the house, just behind the pastel blue of the kitchen. Another staircase hidden in back led us upstairs. The stairs creaked, shifting with our weight, and I heard Mom inhale a sharp intake of breath. “Mom.” I grumbled.
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” But she angled herself sideways against the wall, clinging to the railing for dear life as if the stairs would give out the moment she took another step.
“Here is your room.” Iris opened the door to a broad green room, woodsy and rustic like the rest of the small house with a master bed in the center. “The Sweetheart suite.”
I looked to her curiously. “Why is it called the ‘sweetheart suite’?”
“Because everyone who’s ever stayed here has a sweetheart within the week.”
“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.” It wouldn’t be uncommon for college girls to find boyfriends or hook up, or already have boyfriends come to visit.
But Iris just leaned in and winked. “If you say so.”
Mom took in the scene, her face sweaty from the panic attack experienced from the back staircase. “Ah. Cute.”
“Isn’t it, though?” Iris proudly propped her fists against her wide hips, her beige cable knit sweater stretching slightly. “I decorated it myself. You’re the first one here, and the early bird gets the best room.”
“Wait...” I frowned. “Am I not the only one staying here?”
“Oh, heavens no.” She gave a laugh, more like a chortle, and waved us to the narrow hallway to point down at a few smaller rooms. “One bathroom, a bit small but it will do. It doesn’t have a bathtube, but the shower does its job.”
I peeked inside the ice-blue beach scene of the bathroom and found myself grimacing. How many people will I have to share with?
Mom nudged me, motioning to the three bedrooms. Each of them had two beds, two dressers, and one television. A fireplace sat underneath one in one room, a small bookcase in another, and in the third potted plants. “So...how many...others...are coming?” I nervously scratched the back of my neck. Counting the beds, I had to guess six.
“Only two others.” Iris shrugged.
“You do this often?” Mom inquired, fishing for information no doubt.
“It helps me pay my bills. I don’t get enough from social security, and I try to keep the rent low enough. Kids need a place to stay close to college, that’s never going to go away.”
Mom winced. “You’re sure these kids can be trusted?”
“Mom!” I hissed.
“I’m just asking! How do you know you can trust living with strangers?”
Iris nodded, an understanding smile on her face. “Well, I try to do a thorough enough background check, and I only take in girls.” Her head bobbed as if she had learned her lesson years prior. “Boys are...well, they like mischief. And a lot of them expect to be taken care of, and I’m mother to none, but I won’t stand for anyone who can’t pick up after themselves.”
I didn’t want to agree, but then I wondered if there were other sublets who refused to take in girls for reasons. Wasn’t it discriminatory?
“Anywho, the others won’t be here until tomorrow.” Iris smiled at my mother. “Won’t you stay for dinner? I’m making pot roast and yorkshire pudding!”
“That’s what I’m smelling.” My mother was a sucker for a homecooked meal since Dad left.
Iris motioned for us to go back downstairs, these ones in the front that didn’t creak, and we gathered in the kitchen where she dished out plates of roast beef, carrots and potatoes, and yorkshire pudding. “I’ve never had this before.” I poked the yellow square that was not quite sponge, not quite pudding, as we gathered in the living room to eat. Iris had on a black and white movie playing, something my mother would be loathed to watch ordinarily but much to my relief she obliged.
“It’s best with a little broth.” Setting the example, she motioned to her plate which had the roast beef juices poured over everything.
To my surprise, I liked it. It tasted like a really thick crepe, with just enough flavor to accent everything without being the overpowering feature.
After a couple hours of chatting, our plates cleared and the leftovers packaged and put away, Mom stood at the front door to give me a hug. We had unloaded everything into my bedroom which I’d yet to unpack. “Mom,” I breathed in her perfume. The grown up part of me wanted to chastise her for smothering me, but my inner child was crying for her to stay.
“I trust this place a little bit more,” Mom smoothed the hair behind my ear, smiling with tears in her eyes. She looked over my shoulder to Iris. “Take care of my daughter.”
“I’ll watch her like she’s my own,” Iris agreeably nodded.
One final hug, and I waved to Mom until she was in her Lexus and backing out of the darkened driveway. Lamps I hadn’t noticed before lit the way, illuminating spaces between the trees that would otherwise be lost in shadow.
“Now,” Iris pulled me back inside and leading me into the kitchen. “Do you like cherry pie?”
I grinned. “It’s my favorite.”