We had always been apartment dwellers. When my parents first arrived in this country, they lived on Amsterdam Avenue in the upper 90s, in a walk-up with other refugees as neighbors. Then they found an apartment in Forest Hills.
When I was born, my parents moved with my brother, sister, and me to a doorman building with a blue lobby in Kew Gardens. This two-bedroom was all I knew. My best friend, Claudia, lived down the hall, and Lucy, my babysitter, lived in an identical apartment below mine. Claudia’s parents worked for the airlines, so she was alone a lot, a latchkey kid. Lucy was the super of the building, and she was home all the time. My mom didn’t work, but she went to Queens College and then graduate school.
Mom played a game of tic-tac-toe with all the beds. Many times we switched rooms and reconfigured furniture to try to make it work. I stayed with my parents in their room till I was five. Then I shared a tiny bedroom with Debi, while Dorian slept on the couch or a vacated bed,
and my parents slept in their room. Once my parents slept in the living room so Dorian could have his own room for a while. Often we had visitors from overseas, and Debi, Dorian and I had to sleep on cots in the living room. This was especially fun for me.
My dad enjoyed apartment life, overheated, with a handyman available at all times. I liked being in a bustling household, sharing beds and being underfoot.
My mom wanted space. She’s the one who found the house. She had gone to her cousin’s for a card game in Forest Hills. She told me that the card table was by the front window. She looked
up to see a hand-painted “For Rent” sign on the porch of the house directly across the street. She said she excused herself from the game and slipped into her mink coat. She knocked on the door of the stucco house and talked to the owner.
A few days later, my family visited the house. It was old. We went upstairs single file, whispering. “It’s so big,” Debi said. “I love it.” I agreed that it was grand, with so much space. The backyard was big enough for me to do three cartwheels in a row on a diagonal. On the second floor, the bedrooms were all different, and we each called the one that we wanted. Still, I didn’t believe it was really going to happen.
Suddenly, my dad was on board to move. I never thought this would happen, ever. He was seated in an armchair in our apartment living room, and we were surrounding him. My family was animated. My world was starting to tilt.
Wait, I said. I don’t want to leave.
I’ll drive you to P.S. 99 every morning, said my father.
I’ll pick you up in the afternoon, said my mother.
Claudia can sleep over every weekend, said my father.
You can have your own room, said my mother.
We can get a dog, said my brother.
My bare feet were deep in the tan shag rug. I didn’t want my world to change. I wanted Lucy and Claudia in my building. I wanted my school to be across the street. I didn’t want my own room. I didn’t even want my own bed. I only wanted to sleep with Debi in hers. My universe,
the way I had known it for all of my eleven years, would crumble if we moved. I tried to say something, but when I opened my mouth, a sob came out, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
We moved a few weeks later.
That night, we all went to bed in our separate rooms.
Debi shouted, Goodnight, Les.
Can I sleep in your room? I said.
No, she said
Maybe tomorrow? I asked.
Maybe, she said.
And then it was too quiet, and it was the first time I was alone. Goodnight, John Boy, I said.
My sister giggled. I heard Dorian laughing, too.
Debi said, Goodnight, Elizabeth!
Dorian said, Goodnight, Ma!
Goodnight, Daddy, I said.
Then my father joined in: Goodnight, Billy Bob. More laughter because it was really Jim Bob.
Goodnight, everybody! Mom said.
I stretched and pressed my toes into the wooden frame of my water bed, the smile still on my face, and went to sleep in a room of my own.