I arrive at my childhood home in Maryland for a two-week visit at the same time as a sinkhole starts stewing in the street outside the house, eking pools of yellow-green murk into the gutter. The sanitation department sends its team of night workers one weekday evening, and at 9pm, they upturn the earth with noisy trucks and tools, seeking the source of the leak so they can sew it back together again.
We’re forbidden from turning on our faucets while they toy with the pipes, so my dad drives to the store to buy plastic bottles of water. Dirty dinner dishes are left to languish in perilous piles in the sink.
Later, we assemble on the couch, attempting to relax: my younger sister here for the summer in between two years of grad school, my parents, and me, with our senile dog whining angstily around us. Our family tree is temporarily replanted, but with the surrounding ground rumbling and crumbling and caving in.
Every so often, we take turns traipsing barefoot into the front yard, asking questions. The construction men just keep saying, “Soon.” Still, we peek out the blinds at the trucks and bulldozers and deep holes in the gravel and grass. It reminds me of the way New Yorkers — myself included — tend to stand at the edges of subway platforms and crane impatient heads down the tunnels to look for the lights of an emerging train. Rationally, we know we’re going to have to wait several more minutes, like the boards say in their red digitized numerals, and we know our yearning can’t force time forward. But that doesn’t stop us from ferreting for some hint, however small, of progress.
At 11pm, I retreat to my bedroom to attempt to sleep. Its walls are plastered with collaged pages of magazines, each one once carefully selected for its aesthetic inspiration. Every crinkling image is a relic of the early (girly) aughts. There’s Rachel Bilson in Chanel. There’s a round-up of black and white polka-dot accessories. Models pout in Paul Frank and pink chapstick. Scattered haphazardly across the pasted rip-outs, I wrote Sharpie-scribbled lyrics of songs belonging to bands that have mostly broken up by now.
Other corners of the room display terrible paintings from high school art classes. Three of my sketches are framed and hung in a row; they were given to a then-boyfriend as a gift, then retrieved post-breakup. A letter from an old best friend dangles sideways from a pushpin, globbed with gushy promises of undying bonds. We don’t speak anymore.
The strangest, really, is the stuff from college, still recent enough that its current irrelevance seems more startling. But the whole super-sized time capsule feels disorienting, the way growth always does. Everything is a fossilized memento of whom I once was, now rendered foreign and delicate. It makes me nervous, as if the symbolic sinkhole of my prior selves might suck me in, dragging me back from whence I came.
The dog limps upstairs with me. Back in middle school, I had begged for a pet and eventually won, and after contemplating quirky names like Peanut and Harold, I chose Sam — the least clever option, for reasons I’ll never understand in retrospect. Sam slept loyally at the end of my bed throughout my childhood, with his head resting on the bulges of my feet rising from the covers.
Now, I have to pick him up to place him on the mattress. He’s too crotchety and too blind to make the leap.
He was once a buzzing bundle of fuzzy energy, but it used to take persistent prodding to convince me to walk him up the street to entertain him. I hated exercise. When I first started jogging during my last summer of college, I would bring him out with me, and he would prance next to me around the neighborhood in panting smiles.
I run almost everyday, lately, but Sam can’t join me anymore. Even at a slow lull, he can hardly make it half a block. He’s aged. So have I. It’s inevitable, I know, but still, sad. Growth always is.
So I loop alone around the neighborhood. The lawns are scattered with these Seussical shrubs called crepe myrtles that are festooned with bubbly blooms in varying shades of maroon. We don’t have them in New York — Maryland is just far south enough to nourish them — and I’m intoxicated by their effusive color, almost cloyingly flamboyant in a quiet, conventional suburb that is anything but. Somehow, in all my years here as a kid and young adult, I’d never really noticed them before.
As I settle under the sheets in my nauseatingly nostalgic room, there’s still a jackhammer shredding pavement just outside my window. Trucks reverse with their beep-beep-beep chorus, with their headlights swarmed by lightning bugs. Bulldozer teeth crunch asphalt like a midnight snack. Sam snores already at my toes.
In New York, noise is the norm. Siren songs are soft and steady, construction is constant, and if the air is silent, something’s amiss. Here, though, the humming cicadas are the only ones that never sleep.
I look out one last time at the construction scene and notice the dogwood tree in our front yard, drenched in the bright white glow. My mom had planted the dogwood in the spring, and when I last came home, over Mother’s Day, it was a scrawny, scraggly thing, looking barely tougher than a twig. She encircled it with a wire fence to ward off the deer that kept coming for its leaves, and everyone was afraid it would never thrive, thanks to the wild animals that kept threatening its wellbeing.
It did look weak and worrisome, the struggling little thing, the way growth always does at the start. It needed shelter and support, and even then, its future remained a mystery riddled with probable ailments, its fate tenuously tied to time and weather and chance.
But it’s healthy and hearty now. It matured when I was gone or wasn’t paying attention, the way growth always does when it gets going.
The trucks rumble away eventually. Whatever pipe was punctured, they’ve fixed, at least for now.
When I wake and pad downstairs early the next morning, someone has already managed to wash the dishes that had been left from dinner. I go out to get the newspaper and pass the dogwood, taller than my head. There are a few short lines of neon orange spray paint in the grass, and the road is covered with a small smattering of dirt, with a lump of asphalt and tar where they dug and refilled the hole. What was sunken now rises up like a bruise. The adjustment is discretely disorienting, different but altogether the same — the way growth always is.