The house I grew up in had a lot of little rooms and a lot of little doors. It was our second house and my parents took my sister and I to look for new places to live when my father got transferred to Des Moines. I don’t remember the other houses we looked at but I remember the day we looked at the house they bought. Our old house, the one in Prairie Village, Kansas was a split level, with a big bay window in front and diamond shaped panes, looking out from a formal living room we rarely used. My sister and I shared a room, her on the big bed, me on the trundle. My brother had the room next door, and my oldest sister got the original master bedroom complete with an en suite bathroom, though back then nobody called them en suites. My parent’s room was in the converted attic and had a long closet where they would hide our presents before Christmas. They weren’t really hidden as much as they were stacked in plain white boxes. A tiny initial in the bottom corner indicating who the gift was for.
It was a fine house, it had a nice yard and a glassed in back porch and basement with a little darkroom my mom had built for my dad. The new house felt like a mansion in comparison. It had three floors and two big, glassed in porches stacked on top of one another. There was a wood paneled room that stretched over the garage and came with a junior sized pool table. We called it the lodge room. After we’d run through every room and opened every door, my sister and I kneeled down on the raggedy carpet in the entryway and begged our mother to choose this house. This was the perfect house we pleaded, please, just let us have this house.
My oldest sister was already in college and so it was just me, my sister, and brother and five bedrooms to choose from. My siblings commandeered the two bedrooms on the third floor, which was reached via a narrow staircase and led to a full wall decoupaged with pages from fashion magazine from the seventies. Some of the women were naked, but most were wearing ruffled blouses, or high leg one-piece swimsuits, and they all had beautiful feathered hair. The rooms they chose had steep angled ceilings and built in drawers. It felt like an apartment, divided up into little rooms, with a little sitting room dividing the space where they slept. On the second floor, every bedroom had at least two entrances, one even had three until my mom turned one of the doors into a bookcase. I first chose the room at the front of the house connected to another smaller bedroom by a bathroom. In High School I would move across the hall to the room with the door turned bookcase.
The house was a disaster, we found rags shoved into the plumbing in an attempt to stop up leaks. Walls and ceilings bulged from water damage. My mother was an insomniac and took to scraping paint off the oak woodwork and rearranging furniture in the middle of the night. A few months after we moved in she pulled up all the carpet and rented a floor sander so she could refinish the floors. The plumbing was fixed, the kitchen redone, a tiny closet under the stairs was converted to a bathroom. Painting happened when my father was out of town, he didn’t like the fumes.
The night my mother painted the bedroom she shared with my father, she decided to sleep in the sitting room on the third floor, curled up on a pull out cot between my brother and sister’s bedroom. I felt strange that night, jittery. I decided to sleep in the room that sat on the other side of the bathroom instead of my own. It was the old bed my sister and I use to share, the one with the pull out trundle. I climbed up onto the tall bed, and lay down on the threadbare cotton coverlet with all of my clothes on, even my shoes. Like I was in a coffin. I tuned my walkman to the station that played the songs I liked and tried to sleep.
At some point during the night I rolled over and my headphones shifted and I heard my mother wheezing, coughing. From my vantage point, lying on the bed that wasn’t mine anymore, I could see the door to the third floor and my mother standing in the doorway, her lips moving. She was saying my name and I sat bolt upright and then heard her say loudly, clearly, FIRE. I jumped up, and ran towards her as she pushed my sister, groggy and in pajamas, towards me. Get outside she barked. Take your sister.
I pulled on her arm and she hissed at me, but followed as I took the stairs at a run and could hear her following me, stomping her feet. We stood in front of the house in the dewy grass looking up at the window where my brother’s bedroom was. He had put a candle on his alarm clock and it had burned down, cracked the dish it was in and ignited the plastic covered clock. The smoke woke the cat who never spent any time on the third floor normally, but was making an exception because of my mother’s temporary stay. The cat pawed at my mother’s face until she woke up, the room thick with black smoke.
She roused my brother who was horrified by what had happened and fled the scene. My mother woke my sister next and then me making sure we got out of the house while she smothered the fire and placed a fan in the window facing out to get rid of the acrid smell. I was worried about the cat, so was my sister who was such a hard sleeper I was certain she wasn’t really awake as she kept saying c-c-c-cat, shivering in her pajamas as we waited for the all clear from our mother. She arrived soon after, the hero cat in her arms purring madly.
There have been other times in my life when I’ve felt as though the universe was trying to send me a message. But none more so than the moment when I decided to sleep in a different room with all of my clothes on in direct eyeshot of the third floor door. Had I been in my real room, the one with the dark wood daybed and the appliquéd tulip bedspread that my mom picked out and I hated, not just because it was ugly, but because it was further proof she didn’t know me at all, the outcome would have been the exact same. My socks would have been wet. That’s the only difference. My most intense brush with premonition prevented soggy feet.