We could have lived here forever, I heard Max Laberman say to my parents, all of us older now, our faces slipping at their various fault lines, my parents having bought the house from the Labermans how many years ago? Almost twenty-five—and now they’d returned, Max with his wife and daughter. They’d returned to town after decades for a funeral and couldn’t resist swinging by the old place.
And Alina! The daughter. She had smiled at me from the car as we had exchanged astonished greetings—a woman now, in her thirties, but, somehow, she seemed just the same. Her face opened wide like a window, with tiny creases at her eyes. We’d ushered them all into the backyard and now the humid June evening wrapped itself around us. My son was dashing past the roses. The suburbs hummed—a mower buzzing, a distant swing set whining—just as when Alina and I had first met here as children. I’d been fourteen, but still very much a child, and she’d been nine. I’d thought of her occasionally since then, absurd as it was. We’d only met that one time on moving day. But, especially in the June evenings, back with my son for the summer, I’d be looking out at my mother’s roses and would remember Alina clutching at her young pear tree, wailing and tugging and refusing to budge. We’d scrambled to dig up the delicate sapling for her to replant and, as we’d stretched out our arms—“Alina, it’s yours!”—the defiance in her wide face had transformed almost imperceptibly to defeat.
Princeton had been shabbier and sleepier back then or we wouldn’t have been able to move here ourselves. And move we simply had to, even I’d understood that, for the schools. And the Labermans too simply had to move. I’d heard the grown-ups discussing it, some sort of money trouble. Without a doubt, my parents had worked for it, my father editing books late into the night, my mother herding us four kids through back-to-school shopping sprees at Sears Surplus, glazing her worry with a cheerfulness that somehow (children always feel these things) obliged cheerfulness from us in turn. That was before pharma-tech money had flooded the area, supplanting scruffy homes like ours with mini-mansions and merciless lawns. I could spot a few of them now, rearing their multiple roof lines and faux gables from behind the fence Max had lain himself so long ago.
What Alina hadn’t known that moving day—how could she have?—was that I’d been secretly weeping all day for my own home, stuck as it was in a working-class suburb of Trenton, a subdivision formed between highways by white flight, and with terrible schools, but my home all the same. How could I tell her then that I wanted no part of her house or yard or schools? How could I tell her that, despite our desperation, she and I were only the pettiest victims—or puppets, more than victims—of the forces that move money and people through houses and across land? I somehow half-knew from paltry history lessons and family tales of escape from upheavals worlds away that none of it is ours to have. How could I tell her, even now, that none of it is ours to have and none of it is ours to lose, though fools like she and I will eat our hearts out whenever it’s finally time to go?
Alina was pointing to a spot where there had been a cherry tree—gone now, rotted through. She was describing her birthday party set just here, all of her birthday parties. She seemed to be surveying one invisible scene after the next. All around, the fireflies had begun to flare and flash. I could see our old place again: the enormous maple shading our play — “An arrowhead!” we’d cry whenever we found a pointed stone; the porch trellis grown over with aromatic grapes; the concrete bird bath where we’d concocted “Indian potions” from rain water and crushed homegrown currants; the white stucco wall that baked and glared in the sun, where I had sobbed alone that last day, beneath the balcony we’d dreamed of but never managed to build. The balcony! It would stretch out from the top floor, with a white railing all around. We’d saunter out as if it were nothing for breakfasts high up in the morning breeze, and we’d gaze down upon everything and everyone, all of us young and at the beginning.