The choice we didn’t make niggles at me. What if we could make it again?
Time moves differently at night. The hours are viscous, smothering me.
Sometimes I’ll leave my bed and wander around the house, just to pass the time. I’ll stand at the doorway of Levi and Manny’s room, lean my head against their doorjamb, and listen to them breathe. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and breathe with them. If there was a way to siphon some of that easy sleep, I would.
Tonight, I skip the younger boys’ room, walk past Sarah’s empty room, and see light filtering from under Daniel’s door. I touch my fingers to the door as if to feel my boy on the other side, feel his turmoil, yet all I feel is smooth wood, warm like skin, but unresponsive. I pause, wondering if I should call out to him, but I don’t want him to push me away.
Daniel takes up so much space in my head there’s only tiny bits left for the twins, for Sarah who married a year ago and has a baby on the way, for my husband, Asher, for the things we need to maintain daily living. All I think about is which path got us here. Maybe it was the way I held him as a baby, or the things I’ve said to him in love or anger. Maybe it was the school we sent him to.
I’m sure it’s the last one.
I touch the door one last time and walk downstairs.
This house belonged to Asher’s grandparents before it became ours. We’d lived across the street, and after his grandparents passed away, we bought it. I’d always loved the house, a sprawling old Victorian, because of its whimsy. It has two turrets, stained glass windows, and a walled garden, and though we’ve lived here for years, we keep finding new details.
There was the time the kids were playing in what used to be the library, and a bookcase swiveled open to reveal another room behind it. The day I moved the dusty rug in the center of the kitchen and I noticed a lighter patch on the floor. Thinking it was dirty, I got down to scrub it, felt grooves, and realized it was a trapdoor, which opened to a set of stairs leading to a storage room filled with old mason jars.
Tonight, I feel drawn to the basement; I’ve not yet been there in the middle of the night. The darkness is deeper below, and each sound becomes more discernable. The house is trying to talk to me; Go back to sleep, it says.
I run my fingers along the dark basement wall, and feel a notch I don’t recognize. I let my fingers follow a vertical ridge. It stretches higher than I can reach. I move my hand across and feel another vertical notch. I press and something gives way.
I’ve opened a door I never noticed before.
There’s a draft coming through, and I’m certain it leads outdoors. I walk down a rough stone passageway that looks carved out of bedrock, but I know it isn’t because we aren’t far down enough. The passage ends at the street.
In the light of the moon I can see my house. It isn’t the usual gray, but cream, and the shutters aren’t white, but black. Still, it’s the same house — the shape is the same, the garden has the same rosebushes, the same boxwood shrubs, though these aren’t as high as the ones I remember. I look across the street, and I see the blue colonial where Tom and Celeste used to live.
In the cool night air, my arms prickle, but not from cold.
That colonial exists no more; the new owners knocked it down when Daniel was ten. The last time my house was painted cream was 15 years ago, when Asher’s grandmother lived here; we repainted when we bought it. The parked cars and minivans seem boxier, and I notice a lot across the street, with a house half built. The Kleins live there now. They were building their house the year I applied to school for Daniel.
I’ve heard about Doors like this that can warp time and place, but I thought they disappeared as the old houses were remodeled, or cleared to make way for the new. Our house gave us a few surprises over the years, but I never thought it had a Door.
Doors are tricky. They don’t always open to places you want to go.
The moonlit street is deserted. I turn back and go inside.
Asher says he doesn’t remember hearing this house had a Door, and honestly, it doesn’t interest him that much. He wants to talk about Daniel. Daniel who was up all night, who doesn’t want to go back to yeshivah, who doesn’t want to get a job. Daniel with his debilitating anxiety that has stopped his life — and ours too.
“It’s not working anymore,” Asher tells me, as he balances his briefcase, a cup of coffee, and several Redweld folders.
We’re outside together. The twins are kicking piles of leaves on the front lawn.
“This can’t go on,” he says.
“I don’t see another way,” I say, turning my back to Asher and focusing my gaze on the boys, who are still kicking leaves.
“He can’t stay home all day.”
We’ve had this Gordian knot of a conversation a thousand times before. There’s no satisfying conclusion.
I feel the weight of a gaze on my back and turn. There is Daniel at the door, holding his tefillin bag under his arm. He looks at me, and at Asher standing near his car.
“I’m going to shul,” he says. He’s bleary-eyed, but neat, shirt tucked in, hair brushed. He comes out of the house, walks past Asher and me.
“See,” I tell Asher.
“One morning doesn’t set a trend,” he answers.
He gets into his car and drives off to work. I turn away, and give Levi and Manny a quick hug before the bus comes to take them to school.
We sent Daniel to the wrong school, for the wrong reasons. We’d been so young, and at the time it had seemed a logical decision. Asher’s brothers had gone there, my friend Faye was sending her Ari there, and the boys played well together.
But the school was wrong for Daniel. He got picked on, his teachers pushed him too hard, and any time we tried talking to his teachers or principal, they all told us just to give it more time.
What niggles at me is the choice we could have made, the road we didn’t take.
Asher’s cousin had been starting a new school then, and wanted us to send there. Asher thought we should at least discuss it, but I wasn’t open to it at all, resolute in my decision to send Daniel to the more familiar, established place. Now I doubt my earlier conviction.
I shove these thoughts into a corner of my head. Daniel is back from shul, back in his room. I head to the basement.
It’s lighter than last night, but not by much. Shafts of light filter in from the two tiny windows at the top of the wall facing me, adjacent to the Door I found last night. Even with the additional light, I can’t make out the Door. I’m not surprised Asher doesn’t know about it. I run my hand over the wall, feel it beneath my fingers, and open it.
I make my way through the rough passageway, and out onto the street that used to be. There’s an older woman standing in the garden, holding a cup of jasmine tea. I recognize the scent. It’s the one I drink all the time.
“I know you,” she says. “You came through the Door.”
“Who are you?” I say.
She ignores my question. “You know what this is.” It’s a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” I say.
“We always look for an easier way,” she says.
There is no answer to that, and I don’t want to chat with her because I’m in a hurry, so I walk away and cross the street.
I review what I’m about to do. I’m going to knock on the door of the home where we used to live. I will look my younger self in the eye, and I will tell her, me, I’m you, and you must do what I say, or you will regret it forever. I’m here to tell you what it’s like to live with regret.
I cross the street to the place we used to live, climb five steps to the front door, and ring the doorbell. I hear kids, my kids, and I feel fluttery. The door opens, and I am face-to-face with myself.
“Yes?” she asks, this former version of myself, 19 years younger than I am now. She looks at me, waiting.
“Don’t you know me?” I ask hesitantly.
There is a question in her eyes, and uncertainty on her face, and I know her answer before she says it.
“No,” she answers.
When you look at yourself daily in the mirror, you don’t see the lines deepening around your mouth, the crease between your brows, the sharpening of the planes on your face, but then one day, there they are. Looking at my younger self, I understand why she doesn’t know me. Her face is firm with smooth contours and curves rather than the angles and creases that come with time.
Behind her, I see the gold-framed mirror I had hung in my entry hall, the wrought-iron shelf for keys and mail. I see the cream and red patterned runner on the floor of the hallway leading to the kitchen, and there, in the kitchen, I see three-year-old Daniel, looking both guarded and vulnerable, drinking a glass of milk. It’s all I can do to stop myself from running to him, gathering this undamaged version of him in my arms.
Do I try to convince her? Do I tell her, Look at me, look at my eyes, look at this scar on the back of my hand, our hand! I am you! No, I decide, I’d be risking too much, because if yesterday, had someone knocked on my door, and told me I am you, I would have slammed it in her face, and chalked up her madness to modern world stress. I realize that although she cannot recognize me, we’re the same, and likely her reaction will be the same as mine would have been. I take another route.
“I used to live here,” I tell her. “We moved a long time ago, but passing by your house brought back so many memories. I was hoping you would let me take a look around.”
She steps aside, and I walk in. The living room is on my left, and it’s like no time has passed at all. I remember this — the basket of unfolded laundry near the couch, the floor strewn with Polly Pockets, Lincoln Logs, and a Furby. I can’t help but compare the living room to the house I live in now, where everything is neat and orderly. I look at her, this previous me. She seems taut, like a wire stretched; touch it and it will twang a high shrill note.
I don’t comment on her stress, or the toys on the floor. Instead, I look at the moldings, the ones that made me want to live here, and I compliment her on them, knowing it will foster a connection.
“Yes,” she answers. “I love them, too.”
The ground floor of the house is small, and comprised of three rooms. From the dining room, I step into the tiny kitchen.
Sarah is sitting next to Daniel. I couldn’t see her from the door. Both kids are coloring, and I’m sure this quiet activity is a tenuous peace. I’m struck by her smallness, too. Back then, five seemed big to me.
I spot the pile of mail on the counter. At the top of the pile is the application for Daniel’s yeshivah, the one where we never should have sent him. And peeking out from the bottom of the pile is the other application, the one I so cavalierly dismissed.
You know that rush of blood you get when everything you’ve ever wanted seems just within your grasp, but the sense of urgency turns the edge of your vision black, and you can’t hear anything over the rush of your blood? That’s what I feel like when I gesture to the top of the pile and say, “Is this where you’re planning to send your little boy?”
She looks at me, her lips pressed into a thin line, and I know she thinks I’ve crossed a line. But there’s politeness engrained in both of us, and she answers, “Yes.”
I try to sound casual. “I’ve sent there, too.”
“Were you happy?”
“No,” I tell her. “It wasn’t the right place for my son. He was the kind of kid who needed a smaller place to thrive.”
I see her eyes flit to the counter. I know she’s looking for that other application, the one that Asher’s cousin gave her. Her eyes slide back to me.
“What?” I ask her.
“My husband’s cousin is starting a school,” she tells me. “He wants us to give him a shot.”
“You should,” I tell her.
“Maybe,” she answers.
My heart beats hope.
Then there’s a crash from the living room, followed by cries. Standing in the doorway, we see a muddle of Lincoln Logs. Sarah looks busy as she rocks a doll, Daniel sits at the pile, sobbing. I want to run and wrap my arms around him, wipe away his tears. I look at my other self, wait for her to do just that, but she doesn’t move from the doorway.
“Nothing happened,” she says to Daniel. “No need to cry.”
Then she looks at me, head slightly tilted, one eyebrow raised.
“I better go,” I say, and walk to the door.
NothingÕs changed at home. Daniel spent the day in his room, and now he’s on our couch in the living room — a nubby pink fabric I picked years ago, one I’d never choose again. We need a new one, but I want to take my time choosing something that would suit all of us, and I don’t have that kind of patience and attention right now.
Whatever I said to myself on the other side of the Door hasn’t worked yet, but I’m not worried. I’m not sure how Doors work, but I think I have more time.
Daniel leaves the room, then comes back with a glass of milk.
“I’m going back up,” he says.
“Won’t you eat dinner with us?” I ask.
“I’m not hungry.”
I go to the window and look out, trying to superimpose the image of our street I saw earlier today onto what I see now, but I can’t. Too much has changed.
When Asher comes home, he hands me a paper with a list of names.
“What’s this?” I ask him.
“I put together a list of some new therapists for Daniel,” he answers.
I put the list on the ugly nubby couch, and say nothing.
“I know you think we should leave things as they are, that you’re afraid of making things worse, but we have to look forward, not backward,” Asher tells me.
He wouldn’t like where I’ve spent the day; I decide not to tell him. “I can’t have this conversation with Daniel now. He’ll just shut me out.”
“You don’t have to. Let’s call these therapists, talk to them. We don’t have to make any decisions.”
“Maybe,” I tell him, but I don’t mean it, and I walk away.
I have a better chance with the Door than with a list of therapists. Asher tries to talk to me again, but I rebuff him. His determination notwithstanding, I know he’ll give up soon, and he does. The list still sits on our couch.
I let two days pass before I open the Door again. It’s early evening, and I slip out before Asher comes home.
The old woman is in the garden again. Her fingers are wrapped around a green mug, and I can smell jasmine.
I say nothing, only look at her. I consider the fine lines around her eyes and mouth, her green floral dress, and her earrings — two interlocking gold circles. I’d like to own a pair like that one day.
“I went through that Door, too,” she says.
I wonder if she got all she wanted, but I don’t want to know if she didn’t.
“It’s just a door,” she says. “People do what they want. People create change. Not the other way around.”
“I need to go now,” I tell her.
My younger self opens the door when I ring my old doorbell. I hold a brown bag in my left hand.
“It’s you,” she says.
“Cupcakes,” I tell her, and hand her the bag. “My kids loved them when they were younger.”
She peers inside and catches their scent.
“What did you decide about your son’s school?” I ask.
I try to sound detached. I hear my kids in the background.
“Come in,” she says. “I can’t leave them alone.”
I follow her to the living room where the kids are playing in their pajamas. On the floor, among the toys, I see a swatch of familiar nubby pink fabric, and bend to pick it up.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“I ordered a couch today.”
I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but this memory of myself feels discordant.
“How long did it take you to decide which one you wanted?” I ask her.
She gives me a funny look, but answers anyway.
“Less than an hour. I don’t sit on any decision.”
My face is unrecognizable to her; her actions are unfathomable to me. I give all my decisions thought, even ones as trivial as a new couch.
Then anxiety swells in me because I remember this was also the day I gave in Daniel’s application. Right before I ordered the couch, I dropped off his application at the school’s admissions office. But maybe this second time around, I did something different.
“Tell me about your son’s school,” I say.
She does, and then I can’t hear her anymore. I should have known her choice the minute she told me she ordered the couch. She just told me she doesn’t sit on any decision.
I look at her, and though this is who I used to be, she is a stranger to me. The me I am now is no longer the person I used to be. The things that would change my mind can’t work for her. It’s like that old woman said. People do what they want. Even if we could do it all again, we’d still do the exact same thing.
There’s only one place I can try to make the change I want.
“I’m going home,” I tell her, and look at my children and myself one last time before I go.
Everything is still the same on the other side of the Door, as I knew it would be. Asher is sitting on the couch. I look at him in his reading glasses, the list still where I left it.
I still wish things were different.
“Asher,” I say.
He looks up at me, and I walk to my ugly couch and pick up the list.
“We need a new couch,” I tell him.
I’m stalling. I sit down next to him.
“Let’s talk about these therapists,” I say.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 787)
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