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The Chronophobic

 509 South Main Street, Blackstone, Virginia. 23824.

I don’t remember what the kitchen looked like, other than the tacky black and white linoleum on the floor. I remember that the dining-room was where my mother kept the hundred-gallon fish tank and that I had one of those bottom-feeding eel things that I named Jojo. I was fascinated by that tank; the lights, the fake coral that all of the fish would swim through. I remember standing on my knees to peer in when everyone else had gone to bed, when the rest of the house was dark and it was just me, the lights, the fish, the water. 

My room was on the second floor, just to the left of the top of the staircase and my bed was in the corner, beneath the window whose frame was painted khaki, like the rest of the trim in that house. It was lead paint. I liked to chip it off when my mother made me angry, or write on the flakes in Sharpie marker and hide them under my curtains. There was a walk-in closet at the end of the room, where my dresser and glass vanity table were. It’s strange to think of that room now, the bedroom of the house I grew up in where I spent most of those angsty pre-teen years and had friends over for the first time, and realize that I don’t remember much about it other than the furniture and the time I found a pair of glasses that I’d been missing for several years behind the radiator. 

I think of these rooms when I pass that house by now, the one my parents call the brown house, as an adult that has lived in several different houses on opposite ends of the country. I think of all the Halloweens and the days beforehand that our family spent carving ten or twelve pumpkins to line the front sidewalk; I remember the Christmas mornings when my brothers and I would stampede through the house to wake our parents so that we could open presents and how the wrapping paper drifted through the air like false snow, the sound the torn pieces made when we kicked them like soccer balls just to watch them jerk in different directions and fall back to the floor; I think of my parents room and how large it seemed compared to the rest of the house, how their bedroom furniture seemed to float in the middle of the room.  But mostly I remember the foyer. 

There was a small square of linoleum on the floor, just inside the front door. The pattern reminded me of a giraffe’s, but instead of yellow and brown, the spots were dark green and the rest of it was beige. The surrounding floor was covered in carpet that was an awful shade of pink. In my memories, it is the color of Pepto-Bismol. 

Nearly every wall in that house was covered with brown paneling; the cheap kind, the sort that would snap back against the wall behind it if you pulled it down. There were dark brown grooves between each panel, so dark they almost looked black, but those details aren’t important. What I remember most about that room is the chandelier and the matching table and mirror that my mother bought to sit beneath it. 

When we moved into the brown house, I remember that I felt like a princess because it was so much more than the house we’d lived in before—but I’ll get to that later. This one was bigger; I had a bigger room, a bigger yard, and a chandelier on top of it all. It was a terribly tacky thing, with metal arms that were wrapped in a cheap gold foil and glass crystals that hung in all directions. But when my mother bought that table—a half-circle, made to stand against the wall, with four legs and a shelf underneath, maybe a foot off the floor, and a big, oval mirror made of matching wood—the light that came from the chandelier reflected on the glass, and it made the paneling on the other side of the room look as if there were rainbows hidden in the grain. The grooves between the boards changed from the dull dark brown into the bark on a tree, with highlights and low lights and texture. All of the brown and the ugly and the cheap came together when the lights turned on and made something small, something beautiful. 

When the older of my brothers started to crawl, he would situate his body in front of the table, and back in so that his legs were beneath the shelf. When no one noticed his triumph, he would start to cry until we cheered him on. 


148 Winesap Road, Madison Heights, Virginia. 24572

When I was younger I didn’t understand the fascination with baby pictures. I thought they were overrated—why would anyone want to look at the baby when they could look at the adult?—and just another way for grown-ups to tell me about all of the things I didn’t know. I was a smart kid; I made good grades, I asked a lot of questions, I read the encyclopedia for fun—what were they doing telling me all the things I still had to learn? I suppose I thought learning ended after high-school. 

I think I realized how ridiculous that all was when I was about to graduate high school, when I realized, oh, shit, I have to like, be an adult now and learn how to balance a checkbook and pay taxes. It felt like I’d been waiting so long for those four years to end that I hadn’t realized what was beginning. But the moment that happened, the second that I realized I was about to become a different person, was the moment I realized that something similar had already happened to me. 

I had to find a baby picture to use to go along with my drape photo for the senior quotes in the yearbook. My mom keeps all of our baby pictures in a wooden chest that her grandfather built for her before I was born, and it’s a pain in the ass to dig through. But she sat with me and helped me look. We ended up choosing an old Polaroid from my parents’ wedding day. 

I was two years old when they got married, and so naturally, I was the flower girl. My dress was white with a big tulle skirt and I wore white tights that my mom says I hated and little black flats. There was a bow in my hair. But the picture is of me asleep in a church pue, my tiny hand and fingers in my mouth. I think every person in my family has at least two copies of that picture. My mom cooed and teared up but I remember feeling sad. Looking at that girl, I could see the similarities between us—our hair falls from where it’s been put up in all the same places, and our noses and mouths are shaped the same way—but it felt like looking at someone I didn’t know, or maybe someone that died. I look at that picture now and realize that I have no memories of that day. I don’t know that little girl, what she wanted or dreamed of, what her favorite food was. I know she loved The Little Mermaid, and that by that point she could sing the entire soundtrack. But I don’t know her because she doesn’t really exist anymore; she stopped existing the moment that flash went off, the moment she woke up and went back to dancing and blowing bubbles and being passed from person to person. 



707 Nottoway Avenue, Blackstone, Virginia. 23824. 

My grandparents’ house is a place that I am not fond of. It sits on the edge of one of the lower-income neighborhoods (though that isn’t the reason I’m not fond of it), and it used to be blue. My family has a thing, I think, for odd colored houses. I remember telling my pre-k and kindergarten teachers, when I rode the bus there after school, that their house was blue. I was very excited about that. 

Despite the ways in which I hated there, and still do because my grandfather is a miserable man who enjoys making those around him just as unhappy, it was where my parents and I went when it snowed. As a child, I had an irrational fear of the snow: I knew what the ground looked like beneath it, and I could see the driveways and roads where it had been cleared, but I was terrified that as soon as my foot fell through the soft, cold blanket of white I would go under, slip into depths of icy water, and I did not know how to swim. My mother would wrap me up in layers of long-johns, sweats, socks and coats and boots, but as soon as she moved to set me down on the smooth surface of the snow, I remember feeling like I could hear the ice (that I knew wasn’t there), cracking. Like I could see deep blue water behind my eyelids. I was terrified. 

So my mother would set me on one of the wrought iron benches that my nana had arranged in the yard, just off to the side of the front porch. I have a picture, taken from that porch, by my nana or my grandfather, I’m not sure, but I am sitting, or maybe standing, right on or next to that bench, looking down at the fluffy white ground in wonder. I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I remember, years later, standing in our driveway, when my family relocated to Washington state, waiting for the school bus with snow nearly up to my knees, and thinking about how afraid I was of the snow as a little girl. 

There was no humidity there, but the wind was so cold that it chapped my lips. The snow was heavier, but less wet somehow, less depressing. Even though it was different, it reminded me of where I came from: that tiny yard, across the street from the preacher’s house, where my nana was waiting inside with a cup of cocoa and thick wool socks to put on my feet when I was carried in. I remember, waiting at the end of that driveway, how I wished that I’d been right about the snow. How I wished that there was some secret body of water beneath it to splash up around my ankles and drag me under, back to where I came from, even though it hadn’t been perfect. I look at that photograph and think of how comfortable I was in my discomfort at being in their yard, in their house. How easy it was to be there, as compared to a state three thousand miles away, standing at the end of a driveway waiting to go to a place full of people I didn’t know and didn’t want to get to know. 

How strange. The baby version of myself was the blueprint for the self I am now. I knew this. It’s logical: we are born with natural dispositions and genetic make-up and likes and dislikes. But it doesn’t feel like that little girl standing at the end of a bench was ever a part of the woman I am now. The year I spent in Washington was miserable, I admit, but it taught me a lot about the ways in which people differ from place to place, and how growing up in one place can make you more resistant to another. I didn’t want to like it on the West coast because I ached for what I was missing on the East. Now that I am older, I wish I’d paid more attention to the landscape, that I’d been more open to the way of life that existed there and the traditions that my friends, members of the Spokane Indian Reservation, upheld. 

5060 Highway 29 South, Hunters, Washington. 99137. 

It was a yellow house. Split-level. The night we got there, after a week of driving across the country and seeing mountains for the first time – and I mean real mountains, the kind that make you think about how inconsequential and tiny you are as a human, not the hills of the East coast – I got out of my mom’s Chrysler Town and Country minivan and thought, We traveled three thousand miles for this? It was dark out but there was a lamp post in the back-yard so the structure was back lit and the pale yellow color of the day time was made to look orange against the darkest sky I’d ever seen. 

Hunters, Washington is about two hours North of Spokane, both of which are on the Eastern side of the state. The estimated population is little more than 300. It’s really more of a street than a town, consisting of a convenience store that has things like Ibuprofen and bread and milk. Other than that there’s a post office, a bar, and a diner where the old men go for their daily morning dose of shitty black coffee and middle aged waitresses that have sons in the local high-school who play football. Of all the things I found in that town that felt familiar, that tiny little restaurant was the most striking. 

Our time in Washington was before I made it to high-school, so it was before I started working in the local Blackstone restaurant where my mother had worked when she was a teenager. But years later, when we’d relocated back to Virginia, and I spent my Saturday and Sunday mornings in Blackstone waiting on a table of old men (that had been nicknamed the “Big Boys” years before), I’d think of that restaurant, and the ways people can be different from place to place, but the ways in which you can also count on old, cranky white men to seek out the best place to go to get bad coffee and average service. I came to love those old men, in a weird cranky-and-distant-but-still-all-together-affectionate way, but that’s besides the point

The night I got out of the minivan and looked at the house I’d be living in for the next year (although I didn’t know it would only be a year at that time), I remember glancing up at the sky and noticing how different the stars were. They were brighter, more vivid, and it felt like they were winking at me in cruel humor, as if they were saying, “Welcome to planet Washington, where the people are unlike any that you’ve encountered before, and nobody drinks sweet tea!” And then we went inside. 

My father’s father is a bean pole of a man. At 74 he was still lithe and strong, still a farmer that got up at four in the morning and worked the fields all day. I’d heard about men like him, and I knew that they existed, but I’d never met one. We’d walked into the house and before he greeted anyone else, he’d walked right up to me and smiled. His smile was like my father’s; it was crooked and showed his upper gum line, the same as mine. He called me Jessie. I hated that nickname, and I still do. 

When he showed us around the house, he started upstairs. The kitchen was bigger than the ones we’d had before, and I remember my mother saying, “I can’t wait to cook in this.” Her and my father’s room was upstairs, across the hall from the master bath that had a shower that didn’t work. My room was downstairs, at the end of a hall, and had two huge windows that showed the backyard. But what I remember most is the living room downstairs. It was a large room, with shelves lining the back wall and a wood stove in the corner, near the door that led to the garage. But when we got there, every visible surface was covered in doll parts. 

My grandpa’s ex-wife liked to make dolls. The creepy kind, with eyes that follow you wherever you go. I was scared of them when I was little: my mother’s grandmother collected them, and her house was full of collector’s edition Victorian era dolls with pretty dresses and parasols that matched. But Maryann, my ex-step-grandmother, made them. There were shelves of disassembled arms and legs and torsos, bins full of heads and hair. But the worst part of it was the eyes. She’d been particular about the dolls’ eyes; they had to fit the rest of the face. So they were hung up on the walls, in sets; green and blue and brown and hazel and every eye color you could imagine, just hung up and watching everything that went on in the house. I didn’t sleep the first week that we lived there, because those eyes were all I could think about, hanging on the wall just down the hall from my bed. She came to get them after that, but I remember the feeling of them watching me. Even though they were just circles of shaved down porcelain painted to look like pupils, I felt like they could see how angry I was at my parents for uprooting our lives to a place that was foreign to me; how sad I was at what I’d left behind. 


310 Second Street, Blackstone, Virginia. 23824. 

I don’t remember much about this one; I was four when we moved out and into the brown house. All I really remember is one snippet of one of my earliest Christmases, when my dad gave me a ring – a sterling silver ring, with a sapphire stone in the middle, my birthstone – and a playhouse my parents constructed out of cardboard. But I have pictures. It looks somewhat like a Craftsmen; an overhang porch with a green roof, built out of brick and wood with siding painted a weird off-white but kind of yellow color. I remember the cat that we had when we lived there, but only because I named him; Buttercup, like the weeds that grow through cracks in a sidewalk. He was a big, black tomcat with yellow eyes. There are pictures of two and three and four year old me carrying him, with my arms under his and his long body stretched out almost the length of mine. My parents are dog people, but when I mention that cat all they have to say is that they saw him take down a squirrel once, and that he was a good cat. He got hit by a car when we went on vacation, and when we came back it had already gotten infected. The wound made him feral towards me, and everyone else, so he had to be put down. He was my first pet. 

509 South Main Street, Blackstone, Virginia. 23824. 

My pet fish died when I was in second grade. I don’t know if it was a boy or girl, but I’d named it Sarah. It looked like one of those fish that are pictured on the fish-food cans. I don’t know when exactly it died, either, but I remember finding it. See, I’d kept the fish in a cute glass bowl on top of my dresser. But the previous Christmas I’d asked for a cat, and my mother, being the angel that she is, got me one. Her name was Rosie. 

I’d been at a friend’s house for the weekend, and when I got home my mother had laundry folded for me to put away. When I went upstairs to do so, I noticed that the second drawer of my dresser was half opened. When I pulled it all the way out, I saw my fish laying on a darker spot of wood than the rest of the drawer, from where the water that had splashed down around her had started to dry up, and her little scaly body was struggling to breathe. The cat had always been fascinated by the fish, but I didn’t think she would get to it. As a (maybe) 7 year old child, I’d never encountered death before. But my fish was laying there, panting in my dresser drawer, and dying

When she finally passed, my mom put her in her fish food container and dug a hole in the backyard, next to the spot of fence that was under the acorn tree that grew in the neighbors’ backyard. I don’t remember much else of that day: I don’t remember what I was wearing when I got home, or what my mother was wearing, or the specific items of clothing that I was going to put away. But I remember putting that can of fish-feed in the ground. The texture and weird brown-gray color of the dirt that went over the canister. I remember draping myself over the grave, falling to my knees on top of my dead fish and crying out, “Why?” in half-drowned sobs that I sent to the sky but that I really meant for God. 

See, I was raised in a Protestant household. My parents believe in the Bible, and in God, and the new and old testaments. When we lied as children they would reprimand us in the name of Him, saying that it was against the ten commandments and that it was wrong. As a child I believed without question. As an adult, I believe but I question almost all of it. But that day, standing under a tree and on top of a grave, I didn’t. I just felt overwhelmed that that tiny little life that had been mine to take care of, to watch over, had ended. 

I remember that it rained. How fitting. 


The bulk of my childhood was spent in that house. We moved in when I was four and out when I was twelve or thirteen. That’s nearly half my life and yet I only have twenty or so  distinct memories. The rest of them blur and bead up and spill over, like rain on a car window. I remember my dog, a Miniature Pinscher-Chihuahua mix with spots on her tummy, that we named Freckles; the time we all woke up to my mother yelling from the upstairs bathroom because there was a bird in the floor; learning to ride a bike; my fifth birthday party, that had been a surprise and which my mother’s half sister flew up to visit and meet me for the first time; the smell of the closet in our playroom that seemed to always be damp and that we called the stinky closet; the feeling of the lead paint that covered all the trim and how smooth it was; the taste of the cold air that came from our air conditioners. 

I looked for pictures of that house, or of us in that house, and I only found one of the outside, taken from the street, and put in a scrapbook by the preacher’s wife that was a gift for my mother when we moved to Washington. But I found several from the inside, most of which were taken in the living room, so that you can see the foyer. The one that struck me the most was a picture of myself. It was probably a year or two after we moved in – my hair is longer than it had been when we got there, and I look taller. There’s an Ariel doll on the floor next to me, and a backpack on the other side. I can see one of my father’s shoes on the floor in the foyer, and I remember trying to wear them as a child, just to see how clunky they were on my feet. The huge pillow that my mother kept for all of us as babies is folded nearly in half on the floor next to the radiator. There are pictures of both of my brothers and I as infants on that pillow, all of us in the same onesie, with Twizzlers next to us to see how long we were in comparison. I can see the entryway to the dining room, and the coat rack that held the light purple puffy coat that I got for Christmas one year. There are pictures of me in the snow in that coat, taken years after the one of me at my grandparents’, and I’d gotten over my fear of the snow. It looks so small, I look so small, standing there smiling, eyes shut. 

I wish that I could step into that picture, with time frozen, just to walk around that house one last time and take everything in. I would lay in my parents’ bed and glance around the room to remember the pictures on the wall that I can’t think of now, and then I would sit in my room, and open the window and wish it was raining, because I used to do that when it rained. I used to press my face up against the screen and smell the water as it fell down to the earth below. And I’d sit on the landing of the stairs and look up at the air conditioner and remember all the times that Gabe and I would sit there and pretend that it was our apartment somewhere, that we were grown ups and that mommy and daddy weren’t there. 

I’d walk through the playroom and touch toys that I forgot about. Walk into the bathroom and stare into the mirror that I looked at when I got poison oak in my eyes and my face swole to three times its normal size. I remember how much it hurt, when my face was that big, and how I thought, when I saw my reflection, I’m a monster. And I think I’d want to hug that little girl, standing there, smiling, still ignorant to the ways of the world and the things that would happen to her in the future. And even though she couldn’t hear me, I would tell her that it would all be okay one day. That even though she’d see this photograph of herself and think that maybe she’d let that little girl down with all of the mistakes she’d made – all of the lies she’d told and the gossip she’d spread and the friends she’d hurt – that the little girl standing there in sweatpants and her mother’s socks and a butterfly t-shirt was still there somewhere. She might be far away, and her houses and her toys and all of her clothes might be gone, or packed away in a drawer somewhere, and most of her childhood might feel lost, stolen by the passing of time. But that she is still there, even with all of the ways that she isn’t. 


I told my mother about this essay the other day, over lunch. I told her what I was writing about and where I wanted it to go and she asked me, “I’m not the victim in this one, right? I’m not crying or anything else like that?” 

She was asking me if I’d written about my father, about the years we spent tip toeing around him because he was battling addiction and none of us knew what to do about it. Whenever I write about those years, she falls to the background. Not because she wasn’t there, not because she wasn’t important or vital or the only thing that got me through those years, but just because he’d taken up so much space, then. So much of me and my attention and my hurt. But she was my best friend. She was what made every house feel like home, every birthday special, every Christmas wonderful. Time has changed us both, but it has not changed that. 

“No,” I finally answered her, both of us chewing stale tortilla chips and salsa that tasted strongly of cilantro and laughing, “I think this time it might be me.”






One Response to “The Chronophobic”

  1. JBell: This is an extraordinarily detailed portrait of the places you’ve inhabited. The essay was a pleasure to read.

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