I moved into the dollhouse three years ago. I remember it was a cold spring. The kind of spring in which the sun rises everyday but fails to warm anyone or anything. I had looked at eighteen apartments and filled out forms for several but was always thwarted at the last minute, superseded by earlier applications. Running out of time, I found an apartment in a neighbourhood I didn’t know, in a building that looked interesting more than nice and through an ad that said only, apartment for rent starting May 1.
It was a very small apartment with barely a kitchen and shelves so close to each other that you had to turn carefully between the making of toast and tea. I could fetch new soap while in the shower and open the window while still in bed. It was half the size of the smallest place I had ever lived in but it was bright and quiet and available.
I stomped into the dollhouse in orange shoes, a bruised heart and a head that hadn’t even begun to unwrap the unfathomably large things that had happened in my life in the last two years. My beloved, centre-of-my-world father had had a stroke. I had left my job, closed my mortgage and moved back to India and helped take care of him. A few months later, my relationship of six year years ended, taking down with it the future I had been so confident about that its loss temporarily disintegrated my present.
New York felt cold. I missed the green trees of Bombay and thought of Shashi every day, imagining her thumping around the silent dollhouse, washing dishes with pursed lips. I missed Indian food and Indian English. I missed intensely the colour and fabric of Indian clothes and the visceral femininity they endowed on me that I could neither explain nor replicate outside India. I couldn’t believe I was back in America again even though I had longed for some time to come back.
The dollhouse accepted all of this. As if things could swaddle me, I filled it completely with IKEA furniture and my sister’s hand-me-down couch . I bought sheath dresses and pumps and put away salwar kameezes. I got my shipment of things from home and cried all night when my beloved pair of Thai hand painted glass elephants arrived broken. I had bought them because one was green and one was blue and yet they had seemed to me very much in love. I blubbered all over the floor space I cleared between the first couch and the second couch, pasting together carefully a broken trunk and torso.
That was the first of many, many steps. I slowly developed a life and even more slowly, began to live in it. At first, small things elated me and small things threw me into throes of uncertainty. How could people be so rude at the intersection outside the subway stop? Would I literally explode with happiness because of the way Lucy, the homeless woman outside Walgreens smiled at me? But slowly, I began to walk the ground as if I too owned it. I formed relationships. Jose, the florist, who always slipped me an extra packet of flower food. Ahmed, the Pakistani man in the bedoga downstairs who always leered but also always gave me quarters for laundry. The Yemeni guys at the hardware store and Luis, their recalcitrant assistant who unearthed a flashlight for me in pre-Irene hysteria when none could be had for the love of money (he only charged me price and a half.) I became friends with the guys downstairs and developed a crush on Sandra, the lady who came every two weeks to clean the dollhouse and left me little notes with hearts, asking apologetically for a refill of Murphy’s wood polish.
These are the roots that made the dollhouse real. Dark days of illness buffeted my family again. I weathered them half in the dollhouse and half outside in my neighbourhood, walking block after block after block, willing the rhythm of my footfall to numb the fear.
There were also days of joy, comfort and and tranquility. Winter nights when the dollhouse was a visible beacon, guiding me home through muddy roads and freezing rain and that moment when it would all come true and I could toast my hands at the radiator watching the street outside softly fill with snow. Summer days when I’d come home from a run down the river and throw myself on the floor, sweating and happy to feel my heart thudding against the cool wood, the music from collapsed headphones pumping off the walls. Springs night when I dressed up for dates or boozy nights out with friends, angling hips and hair in front of the mirror, slipping on my heels right outside the elevator.
The dollhouse allowed me to be adventurous. I packed a suitcase and flew off to the Philippines, Tanzania, Brazil, Quito. I went diving, I went on safaris, I took classes, I made up bold fantasies. I sought and outgrew jobs, boyfriends, haircuts and exercise regimes. I made unexpected friends. My living room opened up as I slowly let go of the excess furniture. Friends came to stay with me and I made them Indian tea in the morning which we sipped with the window open, the laughter of morning school toddlers tickling the underside of our legs curled up on the couch. I began to know the days when the synagogue held their children’s fair and predict the minute the garbage truck would come on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
The moment of reckoning came a few weeks ago when I invited friends over for dinner. It was something I had been wanting to do, an insistent itch that I prevaricated for months to scratch. Finally I cooked and cleaned and bought extra wine glasses and lit candles around the dollhouse. After they left, I felt a sense of coming back to the self I had been before my father’s stroke. Always I had thrown parties. Always I had had cooked dinner for friends and kept them back till two, three, four in the morning, tipsy and laughing and happy in my home. In the last five years I had thrown no parties and had cooked no dinners.
And then that night I did and it was successful and I saw in the reflection of the new wine glasses, the same self I had been five years ago. It was a moment of coming home. And it was a moment of leaving the tiny dollhouse.
The last three years have been the hardest and most satisfying years of my life to date. I have learned a few truths and felt a few wonders. I have stood by myself which is a far harder thing to do than standing by someone else. All of this in and from the safety of the dollhouse, its gleaming floors always tranquil, the tree outside the window always still with just the hint of a smile on silent nights.
If a person couldn’t talk, we wouldn’t doubt their silence. You have never said anything to me, but tonight, when I was meant to be packing, I listened instead to you, my dollhouse. Your patient walls and your generous windows, the sweetness of your white trimmed lemon walls. You were always with me and for me and in doing that, you have helped me bring back my old self and imagine it into a new future. Not every emotion has a name and not every gratitude can be spoken but I hope, that seeped somewhere in your quiet, the memory of mine will endure.