JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

Ode to an Empty House

“I am not moving again unless I have an incredible job opportunity or there is a guy involved … or I find out this place has an insurmountable rodent issue.” That was the promise I made myself eight years ago, sitting on the top step of the stairs that overlooked my newly inhabited, cathedral-ceilinged living room, which was at that precise moment stacked high with boxes and furniture. A small path gave me access to the kitchen.

I'd rented the small duplex in a quiet subdivision after giving life in the downtown core of a nearby city a try for almost two years. Before that, I'd spent my entire life in small towns and stable exurbs, so the city apartment had been an experiment—an effort to venture outside my comfort zone in some small way. A few months earlier, an evening drive had led a friend and I past a cityscape of lights that triggered a description of his many-times-larger hometown. He absorbed city energy like battery power, thriving on the people and the pace. And, despite leaving the area, he'd become the voice in my head that urged me toward new experiences and broad horizons.  

So for two years, I called a second-floor flat in Little Italy home. I could peer out on the local coffee shop and buildings that made it halfway to gentrification before the owners’ funds ran dry. Out one side of the building was the Catholic Youth Center's paved basketball court and, further down the block, a convenience store that doubled as a drive-through for the local drug trade. Out the other side was a half-block-long apartment building inhabited by various portions of one family, in the shade of the looming grey stone Catholic church, where I parked my car on street-cleaning days, or when one more slow spin past the convenience store would have served as an invitation.

As my lease there drew to a close, I accepted two things. First, I was in the wrong city for me, assuming there was a right city for me. And second, fanciful thinking wasn't getting me too far in a practical sense, although it inspired courage and daring. The voice in my head had grown fainter, but I still heard it when it mattered. 

I looked to move closer to work, where I might pay a bit more in rent but would cut down on commuting time and gas money. I wanted a garage, so I could avoid unearthing my car from feet of compacted snow several times each winter. I wanted a yard with some grass and space to hang out. So I took the very adult step of having a realtor—a former coworker—help me find a suitable rental in my price range. It still held the original 1970s kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures and fittings, but it was freshly painted, with new carpeting and a recent appliance upgrade. And the landlord seemed pleasant enough.

For the first time, I took a week off work and paid movers—which was an excellent decision—and proceeded to move in. It was about Day 2 when I made my stairway promise to myself, in a calm and measured moment taken to prevent a complete melt-down at the thought of trying to unpack and arrange everything while taking unnecessary conference calls from the job from which I was supposed to be off. 

Over the last eight years, the house did exactly what it was supposed to do. My lovely wee place saw me through paying my way entirely out of debt—and back into it with graduate loans. It nursed me through one serious surgery and a few hardcore sunburns. It was a cozy home base through a change in jobs, a shift to self-employment, all of graduate school, two years of pipe band competitions and four years back on the instructor side of music. It was a cave to crawl into while I made new friends, parted ways with a few old ones, planned new adventures, considered the voice in my head and the value of fanciful thinking, and contemplated how far courage can take me.

Last week, rooms slowly but surely returned to their plain white walls and tan carpets—clean, blank canvases for a new resident. I packed more than I should have, lacking time to properly sort through and donate all of the things I’ve carted from place to place through the years. I enjoyed my final few nightly visits with the bunny wabbits who make a summertime salad of the weedy lawn. My running away was rapid, at the end. Less a measured and calm move and more a fleeing from the scene, on to the next adventures with time a constant threat. 

I had, after all, kept my promise for all that time and broken it right at the end. There's no amazing job awaiting me, just an evolution of the career path I've chosen and a chance to get some substantial research done. There is no particular guy inspiring a move, at least as far as I know. And the rodents all stayed outside for the duration. 

So leaving felt a little like walking away from an old friend who’s cheered me on. Whispering, through every small scuff on the walls, through the gaps in paint where a contractor freshened up around the furniture, through the creak of the subfloor in the upstairs bathroom.

I took a minute in the car, sitting in the driveway, to say thank you. I found the last track from an old children's album, a sweet prayer preceded by the familiar voice of William Sears reminding me that, "If there were no goodbyes, there could be no hellos." And with that, I backed out of the driveway and drove down the street in the summer sun.