Words || Grace Finlayson
Dad bought my ticket and signed me up to housesit across America for three months. He said I’d been sad for too long. I needed to get out, to meet new people, to find someone new. The first house I stayed in was in South Orange, New Jersey. My job was to feed the cats, water the plants and pick the tomatoes from their vines when they were ripe. The owners, January and Barb, were going to a jazz festival in Louisiana.
The key to their green two-storey house was in a box underneath the BBQ on the back patio. They’d left me a ticket and a timetable for the train to New York. It’s only 30 minutes away, said their note on the counter. We recommend walking the High Line.
The note didn’t mention the cat’s names, so I named them after their owners. January was black and kitten-sized. Barb was speckled like a quail egg and bad with her claws.
In the morning, I heard the neighbour’s footsteps down their driveway. The mail dove through the front letterbox. Autumn leaves piled on the lawn. I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life.
I couldn’t figure out how to use the drip coffee machine so I walked to a café and then Trader Joe’s and bought pasta and donuts. I felt like I was floating through a set from Dawson’s Creek.
I read the books I found in the house: Things Fall Apart and The Brain That Changes Itself. Barb brushed up against my thigh while I lay on the couch.
‘I’m here for you,’ I told her.
I watered the plants when their leaves drooped and I moved them towards the light. Dad emailed to say he hoped I was enjoying myself. I’m learning about America, I said.
When January and Barb came home, I was lying naked on their bed, staring at my body in the wardrobe mirror, wondering what my ex-girlfriend used to see. A pot of hot water was boiling in the kitchen. The tomatoes were sliced on the bench.
I grabbed my shirt off the floor and hid behind the door.
‘You’re back early,’ I said.
‘It’s Sunday,’ they said.
I was supposed to be on a train to Boston, arriving at my next house before 10 pm. I came out from the behind the door.
They smiled nervously.
‘The website said you were 22.’
‘I am,’ I said.
Empty beer bottles were all over the lounge room.
‘Did you enjoy New York?’
They were wearing matching red t-shirts with a cartoon saxophone printed in the centre.
‘I haven’t been,’ I said.
They let me stay one more night. I slept in their bed and January slept on the couch and Barb slept on a mattress beside her. They held hands in the dark. The cats roamed the house and stared at me from the hallway.
The plants in Boston would die without me.