Let’s say it was dark out and it just finished raining. Pools of water finally settled into dips in the road we slowly coasted down, and I was nodding off in my car seat, face pressed against the glass of the backseat window. The puddles were illuminated by refractions of street lights above, and mirrored images distorted each time our tires shredded through them, disrupting the stillness of the surrounding night. This memory is always too saturated, and the houses we pass are grand: let’s say we were driving through a colony of McMansions. My parents were in the car together, so I would have been younger than six.
I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and that gave them trouble sleeping. The only thing that seemed to help was going on these drives. They would play yacht rock and sit in silence. No holding hands, no loving glances—they’d stopped trying long before this.
Over time the shifting scenery became something of a movie to me: I was entranced. I started noticing the differences in houses we would pass, and this was all structural at first. The idea that houses in the same neighborhood—in the same place—were made to look like they were from somewhere else was fascinating. Craftsman, colonial, ranch, bungalow, Victorian, they are all distinct. But even before I knew these words, I noticed how similar all of the homes were in my neighborhood. Small, with flat tops and pallid siding, sometimes a porch, surrounded by patches of thirsty grass. Blinds were always down and curtains were drawn tight. The houses up and down the main roads—the ones people passed by more often—seemed sturdier, bolder, like they had something to prove. And I could often look right into the windows as we passed.
Those McMansions are always made of brick or stone. Sometimes they’re clinically white-washed (how do they keep it so white, I wondered, when every white house on my street is green around the edges?), or one of dozens of subtly coded tans, browns, or burnt reds that would look like the same color if they weren’t all stacked in a line. These houses are built by swallowing outside space to maximize the interior, for tall foyers and large pantries. I’ve been invited into these houses and they feel empty, no matter how many ottomans are dressed in fur or abstract paintings are hung. They are caverns, and I speak softly inside them in fear of hearing my own voice. But from the outside they would call my gaze, inviting me in.
When I was young I thought it rained more in those neighborhoods because the grass was never patchy. Or maybe it was a different kind of grass, more lush and exotic, that only grew thirty minutes North of where I lived. The flat kind that never grew more than it was supposed to. And the shrubs, too, were tight and self-contained there. Very geometric. Their job was to protect those yards from the bad grass, the weeds, the outsiders. I don’t know, but I remember thinking that every shrub I saw outside of my car window that night was a border. One I knew I couldn’t have pushed through to the other side if I tried.
Maybe they were trying to get me to sleep, and maybe we had been out for hours. It wasn’t only the in-ground spotlights casting shadows upon grand exteriors or the doors built for giants that I felt drawn to. Time stretched and slowed as I started noticing lights on inside of the open windows of these homes. Large vases filled with plants, stiff furniture, flashes of strangers. Sometimes I could see all the way through a house if the windows lined up just right.
Me, my father, and my brother drove down roads in a truck so loud it cut off conversation. So loud it caught looks from the people in their sleeker cars. We watched houses as we passed and searched for the ones with chipping paint or piling mail. If the window glass was broken, we immediately stopped. Our father liked looking at houses too. He built them, and knew when one had become unlivable. He would park and send me through a busted window to let them in through the front (that job was too dangerous for my five year old brother). We made a game of seeing what we could find in the leftovers, and I remember him telling us to keep an eye out for anything shiny. He would later take the things we found (to sell for drugs or car parts), but let us choose something to keep. I know that the garbage was never truly waist-deep, but I remember shoving through empty bottles and newspapers like I was swimming further down. I would trace puncture wounds in the wallpaper as I went up the creaking stairs. They always look like claw marks in this memory. Pictures, furniture, and sentimentals weren’t of any value to my father, but I often found myself collecting them into piles and telling my brother about these strangers, making guesses as to where they went. My brother would always say Jesus took them. If that was true, God must have left us behind. He didn’t mean it the way it sounds, but I entertained the idea.
We might have been out looking for my father again. I was five or six, and the heat blasting made my window hazy. I rolled it down to keep watching for houses—for him—and my sister yelled at me to roll it up, and then at my mom when I wouldn’t listen. My mom may not have heard what was said, but her grip tightened on the wheel. It had been hard getting through to her since my father had gone missing this time. My coat was zipped high and I felt the coming winter against my nose and cheeks. The houses were smaller than the one we moved into after the termite infestation. All of them were off-white or yellow, without driveways or blinds at all. I could see clearly as we pulled over in front of one, and I watched my mom get out. I remember my sister being the one to climb forward and roll up my window, and then lock us inside the car. When my mom is in front of our headlights in this memory, she is pregnant. When I watch her look into the windows of the small white house, and then begin banging on them, I see my father staring back at us from the couch, a woman with him who isn’t my mom. And when he opens the door and pushes her down the steps, and then goes back to the couch, taking this woman’s feet in his lap, I can put together what happened. I have to do this because my mother doesn’t talk about it. Maybe she thinks I don’t remember.
I was eleven, eating applesauce on the charter bus, watching my best friend try to run away at a rest stop to escape her life at home. No, I was sixteen and the sun had barely breached the horizon. My mom waited through my daily panic attack and I focused on the cross above the entrance to my school. We would eventually leave the parking lot and she would insist that tomorrow would be better, that we could try again. I was in Medellín, watching a crowd form around another corpse on the side of the road. I was seven, refusing to go inside the church, scared one of the pastors would come knocking against my window. I was always watching windows, looking for an escape.
Tonight we’re driving down the road, my face resting against the cool pane of the backseat window. I don’t know who is with me. Someone is speaking, but I can’t make out the words. I see a family sitting in the living room, illuminated by a glowing fire. It’s the kind that doesn’t crack or fizzle out, always dancing and licking at new air. They’re gathered around a decorated pine I know is real because I can smell it, even though not a single needle has dropped. They wear matching pajamas and maybe they’re singing, or they’re remembering last year when the big gift almost didn’t come in time. They invite me in. They’ve been expecting me. They’re so excited, it’s been too long. We’re laughing, and it’s warm. And then they’re gone, out of my view, the bordering shrubs transitioning into the next family I will watch from the windows.
Savannah Harris is a left-handed writer from Indianapolis. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Indianapolis. She loves writing fiction, poetry, flash, and creative nonfiction, and has been published in the Penultimate Peanut Magazine, Etchings Literary Magazine, and Neutral Spaces Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2020 Lucy Monro Brooker Poetry Award and the 2021 Roberta Lee Fiction Award. She manages the Museum of Miniatures in Central Indiana.