We lost our house in November. The insulation was that of a cardboard box with holes poked through and the window panes were welcome mats for intruding bugs and insects. Hot running water had been as extinct from the pipes as a dishwasher in the kitchen. Structurally speaking, we didn’t lose much. But the bills were paid and a bedroom existed for each of us three, a circumstance unheard-of for a Chapin household. My poppies bloomed in the front yard and our friends knew where to find us.
Eventually, even my dad’s new and glamorous management position at the International House of Pancakes wasn’t enough to pay our neighbor’s utilities on top of our own, or a lawyer to remove the unlawful eviction from our rental history. The landlord was a dentist, and he took our sense of stability through gritted teeth.
Couch hopping and car living has taught me a few things. You can’t buy warm meals with EBT. A coffee shop downtown will give me their bathroom key without making me buy something first. A bed has a flexible definition. While my dad sleeps somewhere in Olympia on a declined car seat headrest, I’m in my own parked car or a pile of blankets on the floor of various acquaintances’ homes trying to do the same. My sister’s name lights up my phone screen to assure me she’s safe at a friend’s house I’ve never heard of.
Before you know what makes a home, you have to live without one.
A house is a shower. A bowl of fruit on a kitchen counter. Dry clothes and warm towels. Pillows with cases and blankets without mold. A room temperature never below 60 degrees. Roof and walls; tangible and constant.
It’s April and my body and mind feels unrecognizable from it’s condition last fall. I can tell when desperation creeps out from my eyes, pity from others has become a survival mechanism I never wanted to reach for. It’s hard not feeling like a guest to the universe, roots untethered and cut shallow.
But twice a month, we meet at IHOP and gift each other the old sense of belonging we used to take for granted. Cheap pancakes stacked between the faces I want to keep familiar.
Conversation starts with our distance, nostalgia, and chronic body odor, but half an hour passes and we laugh louder than our table can contain and our food goes untouched to leave space for words in our mouths. I can see the color come back into each pair of our cheeks and eyes, and I remember.
A house is how you stay alive, but a home is where you know you are.