by Hannah Zeman
When I was young, I saw a lot of things break at my aunt’s apartment. The old swamp cooler that hung out of the window on the second floor. The old sink with its pink tile. My uncle laying half in the cabinet, his feet on the old linoleum as he did his best to fix the problem. Water balloons on summer afternoons, splattering on the walls, on the pavement, on me, during the huge fights that we’d recruit anyone for—neighbors, parents, bystanders on the sidewalk. One day, I even witnessed a car accident from her balcony, one so bad that a helicopter parked itself outside, and the person was taken out of the car with the “Jaws of Life.”
With my aunt close by, my neighborhood felt full. Everyone I cared about was in a 500-foot radius of each other. It made me feel like my life was a movie, where all of the main characters lived close together—something I’d never really been able to experience with my friends because most of them lived far away.
My house was one street over, and almost every day we would take the shortcut down our alley to the big white apartment, the most beautiful place in the world to me at the time. There were “Greek” statues out front and old-but-sturdy pillars that supported the front porch. In my free time, I would hang onto them and swing myself around. The entire front yard that wrapped around the corner of the street was always green, even in the summers, shaded by 100-year-old pine trees lining the sidewalks.
Some days, when my parents were working late, my aunt would pick me up after school and take me back to her place. She would sit me down at the table and give me an old mechanical pencil with no eraser to do my math homework, and she would help me because she was good at math. I used to wish I was as good as her, because more often than not, I’d shed tears at her little wooden table, staring out the window as the sun set behind the trees, wishing that we were outside playing in the yard. She’d make me spaghetti and a pitcher of Crystalite red punch, serving it on a plate shaped like an animal’s head, her condolences for making me do my homework. She made sure to tell me I was smart—maybe even smarter than the other kids.
“I’ve never seen anyone read as much as you. Or talk as much as you. You were talking by the time you were two months old, I’d never seen anything like it,” she’d say, taking any opportunity she could to brag about me. Everyone liked to joke that I talked a lot—too much, even. If I had something on my mind, you’d most definitely know it, but it was a good feeling making adults laugh. Like I had their approval. I’d said something witty enough for my age that even they were impressed.
Other days, we would haul laundry bags over to the room behind her garage, and she would sit me on top of a washer and let me put the quarters into the machine. I loved spending time with my aunt. It felt special. We would play Mario Brothers on an old Nintendo DS for hours at a time, until we eventually beat the game together. She would make me laugh because she had no filter around little kids, constantly saying words like “fuck” and “shit” and not caring that I was young. She carried huge purses and wore velour sweat suits and low rise jeans and sequined BeBe shirts. She wore big sunglasses, even inside, and she always had her nails done perfectly in her classic baby pink shade, Mod About You. Getting our nails done together was our special thing.
I especially loved the apartment itself. I thought it was beautiful, because it felt like a different world, even though it was on the corner of two busy streets and was so close to my own house. There was a magical quality to it, with the trees and the white picket fence and the old statues.
On warm afternoons, my uncle would help me set up a hammock out front when he got home from work. I always liked when it was just my aunt and I, but when he came home, I was still excited. I was able to make him laugh the most, and he would always indulge my odd questions or things I would say. There were two palm trees directly across from each other that worked perfectly as our base. We would lay in it and stare up at the clouds and make out different shapes by squinting and tilting our heads at odd angles. My aunt would watch us from the balcony and laugh at us because we loved to pretend like we were on a tropical vacation, somewhere far away, even though what I really wanted was to stay there in that hammock, at the apartment, for as long as I could. My uncle may have been imagining that he was on an island, but I was perfectly content to listen to the sounds of the cars driving by and breathe in the scent of the dinner that my aunt was making us from above.
I’d spend nights in the summer with them. I would ask my parents and pretend it was a mini vacation from my own home, just so that I could pretend like I was older and it was my own apartment. I’d lay on the couch and listen to the busy street below that never seemed to calm down, no matter the time. I’d see myself in some busy city, all grown up. The swamp cooler would be the only sound I heard once I eventually drifted off to sleep.
I wanted to live there, secretly. This was something I only said out loud once, resulting in a frown from my parents, even though I was too young to understand why.
“You can’t seriously mean that,” my mom had said. She loved our house almost as much as me, but the idea of me choosing to live in Ontario for the rest of my life was absurd to her. Sort of like the time I said I wanted to be a hairstylist, just like her. She used to let me shave the back of my dad’s neck with the clippers, something he wasn’t too happy about once he realized what was going on. I wanted to be just like all three of them, though. My mother, my father, and my aunt. And all three of them had spent either their whole life, or their teenage years, living within six miles of this apartment.
My mom had once lived in the same apartment building while she was dating my dad, before they’d gotten married. There’s an old picture somewhere of my dad, holding up our old dog who was a puppy at the time. He’s standing in the middle of the apartment next door to my aunt’s, propping up the little labrador who had just peed on the floor. They often wondered if there was still a stain on the carpet.
Sometimes I would picture myself all grown up, living close to the three of them. I could be my aunt’s neighbor, and my parents could walk down the alley to come to my place for dinner. Or maybe my mom would park her old, red Expedition with the dying air conditioner out on the street. I drew pictures of this life with skinny Crayola markers, while sitting at my aunt’s table, in the chair with the slightly broken leg. They wanted me to get more out of life, to move away from the “weird” place that is Ontario. But I disagreed.
I had friends in the apartment that were around my own age. There were two siblings whose mom was a gymnast. They would teach me how to cartwheel, how to somersault. We would walk along the curb with our arms outstretched and pretend it was a balance beam, while doing our best to land different jumps. There was another girl who loved to play hide and seek with me.
One of my favorite people in the apartment, though, was my aunt’s best friend. She wore loose clothing and big earrings and she worked at a store in the mall that sold rocks and crystals. We visited her at work, once. My aunt had taken me to the mall to shop, and I’d begged her to take me to see the crystals. Every time I would see this woman, she would bring me a new rock to add to my collection, something I’d been carefully curating over the past few years, picking up anything that looked interesting to me and stashing it in a flower pot taken from dad’s garden. My aunt’s best friend’s name was Jen, but I liked to call her “Gem.” She was one of the coolest people I’d ever met, besides my aunt.
When I was six years old, I dropped a white ceramic mug. I was standing in my aunt’s bathroom, and I picked it up with two hands. I remember the weight of it, and the feeling of letting go. I hadn’t really grasped the concept of breaking things yet. I’d heard it happen in restaurants, when someone drops a plate on the ground. I’d seen my mom accidentally break a mason jar once, its contents spilling out onto the ground outside. There’s always a sort of sadness that comes with breaking something. A deep sense of regret, even, because if you’d just held onto it for a moment longer, it would still be intact.
The coffee mug slipped from my hands and fell onto the pale yellow tiles, shaped like hexagons. I used to stare at those tiles for what felt like hours. I’d blur my eyes and let the different shapes take over, trying to make something out of the painstaking work that some contractor in the 30’s had done. Flowers were usually what I wanted to see, and they were the easiest shape to make out. I remember staring at them while the mug lay shattered on the floor. There was one big piece next to the bathtub. It was a piece with the handle still attached, and it was facing me dejectedly. I hated how startling loud, sudden noises could be, and the sound it had made as it slammed against the floor was enough to bring tears to my eyes, inciting fear even though I would’ve hated to admit to being scared of anything.
My aunt had run into the room, taking in the broken pieces of ceramic—how upset she was. It’s important to note that my aunt has always been a loud woman, in the best way possible. She has a joyous laugh, and is not afraid to yell when she’s excited, to some degree. So when she took in the sight of me, standing in the middle of the bathroom, surrounded by pieces of ceramic, she said—or maybe rather, yelled—the word “fuck.” This word in particular was something I knew wasn’t always a good thing. Especially if it was directed at something I’d done. I’d done plenty of things to annoy her, it’s what kids do. But this was something more. She wasn’t angry, she was upset and disappointed, which is always worse. The mug had no meaning to me. I’d never seen it in my life, never gotten a really good look at it until it was in pieces on the floor. But it had meant something to her.
I wasn’t supposed to be barefoot around broken glass. Or ceramic. That’s what she told me as she picked me up and carried me out of the room. I was placed in the doorway, feet away from what I’d done. She was never quick to treat me like a child, but when she sternly picked me up, there was a sudden emphasis on how young I really was.
When I was a child, everything was a living thing in my eyes. Objects had life, they had feelings. It started with my stuffed animals. If they weren’t all on my bed, they would feel left out—even if this meant me squeezing onto one corner with barely any room for my own body. If I ate with the pink spoon during one meal, I would have to eat with the purple spoon during the next meal. I had to be fair to them all. And even though the mug was an inanimate object, I’d ended its life. I hadn’t killed it outright. But I’d taken its purpose away. I felt especially bad for my aunt as she swept the ceramic pieces into a dustpan.
I wanted to fix it. Maybe I could fit the pieces together again like a puzzle. I could Superglue each one, because I’d heard Superglue could fix anything. It was hard for me to grasp that something so solid could be broken so easily, without the ability to be fixed, but as time went on, this began to seem like something that was a part of life. There’s always a certain state of permanence that one might believe they live in, until things change.
The mug was breakable, and things that are breakable feel very temporary. Maybe she wasn’t meant to have the mug forever. Sometimes there are things that are almost expected to be broken, even if it’s surprising on a surface level.
My aunt and Jen stopped being friends soon after I’d broken the mug. Jen had slept with one of my aunt’s ex-boyfriends. We stopped seeing her, and when I brought her up, I was met with angry words about how she was a “fake friend.” Even though my aunt was married, it would have been too awkward to hang out with them. Jen had broken a friend-rule, I’d come to find out. You were never supposed to sleep with a friend’s ex-boyfriend, no matter what.
Eventually, my aunt moved away from the apartment. Not far, just in the opposite direction. I didn’t want her to move, especially when I was twelve and she took me to see a house down the street. I remember the realtor being late because he couldn’t find the right key. Once he let us in, we walked around the spacious interior, staring up at the ceilings, and then down to the newly polished hardwood floors.
“What do you think, Nanners?” That was her nickname for me.
“It’s okay.” Nothing would beat the feeling of her apartment. But I wanted to be happy for her. She always said she couldn’t live in an apartment forever.
When she finally bought a different house, still close to mine, I wanted to be happy. It was a cute house, and was the perfect size for her and my uncle. But, similar to the breaking of the mug, it was hard for me to accept this sudden change. Things didn’t feel normal anymore. In the years before I got my driver’s license, I used to walk to her house, like how I would walk to the old apartment. Each time, though, it was never the same. I missed the time I’d spent at the apartment because her new house doesn’t hold the same meaning for me that the apartment did.
She just got a new patio in her backyard, and has been wanting to have me over. I still enjoy spending time with her, in her house now, where she was finally able to get a dog named Gracie that she has a love-hate relationship with. Sometimes I make her cook me spaghetti for dinner, which she still serves on a child’s plate shaped like an animal’s head.
Whole Lotta Love #1
Hannah Zeman is a 4th year English major with a concentration in writing. She plays on the women’s golf team at The University of San Francisco. She hopes to publish her own books someday, both fiction and nonfiction.
GJ Gillespie is a collage artist living in a 1928 Tudor Revival farmhouse overlooking Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island (north of Seattle). In addition to natural beauty, he is inspired by art history — especially mid century abstract expressionism. The “Northwest Mystics” who produced haunting images from this region 60 years ago are favorites. Winner of 19 awards, his art has appeared in 56 shows and numerous publications. When he is not making art, he runs his sketchbook company Leda Art Supply.