Never buy a house with drop ceilings. Drop ceilings hide a multitude of sins, the effeminate, affable house painter warned, shaking his head like you would at a child old enough to know better. He gave us a quote to remove the ceiling tiles and framework and patch and paint, and then he gave us an affordable one to leave it all up and just paint the fake wood paneling below.
Were we high when we bought that house? I remember we’d sold our old house in a day and took the train back and forth on weekends from northern Virginia to north Jersey. It was a seller’s market there too. When we first visited the drop ceiling house, the owners brewed hazelnut coffee and set out fresh pastry. It had just stopped raining and everything was green and bright outside. They had a smiling golden retriever in the backyard. We fell in love with the dining room, where I once took a picture of our favorite cat sitting at the table in a chair, the Game of Life spread before him. He looks like he’s waiting his turn. He doesn’t necessarily look like he’s winning, but it’s so hard to tell when you’re still in the game.
It was a great dining room. The walls were painted brick the softest shade of sage. I believe when we opened the can later to do touch-up, its odd aroma prompted us to rename this shade ass paint. I guess I do kind of miss that house, just not the drop ceilings or the unexpected pond in the basement or the tiny downstairs bathroom some moron had tacked on. Later, other morons would find it very aggravating.
The effeminate, affable painter found a stack of letters tucked above a ceiling tile in our soon-to-be baby’s room and handed them over eagerly, if hesitantly. He probably found stuff like that all the time, never sure how old it was or how explosive it might be. These letters were decades old, left behind by a teenager for someone else to deal with. Please take care of my horrible secret. Signed, The Terrible Boyfriend
I was more mother than teenager then. I was bloated and round, not just in the belly but in the face, the ass and thighs. Even my fingers plumped in pregnancy like obscene sausages. I was brimming with life and wonderful, terrifying hormones.
I felt a mother’s protective instinct when the painter handed over the letters. I almost didn’t read them because even an almost-mother can smell someone else’s pain. This stack of letters reeked.
I read them, but only to make sure they didn’t reveal a murder or the location of buried treasure in the backyard. In our first house, we thought we’d struck gold while moving an azalea, but it turned out to be a partially decomposed bag of poodle. Never bury your dead pets in plastic garbage bags. There’s another tip for homeowners. You’re welcome.
Back to the letters. I don’t know who I felt worse for: the poor girl who wrote them or the poor guy who hid them in the drop ceiling. Neither seemed particularly likable, but you can still feel pity for unlikable people.
The girl was in college. She slipped a picture in one letter. Dark, shortish permed hair. Indeterminate height. University of Delaware sweatshirt with a white turtleneck underneath. Wary but confident smile. Cute, I guess, but prissy is the word that comes to mind.
Our boy was out of high school but still living at home, either skilled labor or burger slinger at the White Castle, maybe bagboy at the Stop ‘n Shop. I never got the sense of what attracted the one to the other, but it might have simply been the mysterious blend of different worlds and hormones. I gathered they met at a party and that lover boy already had a girlfriend he didn’t want anymore. Miss Delaware bought that one. She was raw need, but not the physical kind. She was more like when are you coming to see me again? I thought you were coming this weekend? Everyone loves to play hero, but not when it involves a lot of driving and nagging.
Her letters became progressively desperate. The first two aimed for cool detachment and missed the mark. By the third letter, it was clear our hero wasn’t writing back. She said she missed him, but in a tone that suggested she really missed the opportunity to shackle him to her dorm bunkbed. She said she tried to call but wasn’t sure his brothers were giving him the messages. By the final letter in the stack, she said she wasn’t used to feeling discarded. She said she hoped his girlfriend never found out what he was really like. I pictured him reading and re-reading this last part before shoving the stack up into the ceiling for good. I bet when he laid in his darkened room that night, he kept reading that part again and again in his head.
When do you think he realized he’d left the letters up there? Do you suppose he’ll wake at 3 a.m. a year and four months from now and think Oh dear god, the letters! Do you think he married the oblivious girlfriend? Is it possible he married Miss Delaware? (no way, right?) Do you think he died in a car accident, and that’s why he never came back for the letters? Or maybe he never wrote her back because of the accident, and it was a thoughtful brother who stashed the letters to save the oblivious, mourning girlfriend further despair.
I threw those stupid letters away right after reading them. We had a terrible trash compactor in that house that would stop working in a few months, and I distinctly remember dropping the letters and slamming it shut. I felt like I’d wrapped myself in a smallpox blanket. The deceit felt catching. Months later when I discovered Found Magazine, I kicked myself for throwing the letters away, but I probably did the right thing. Maybe I shouldn’t have written about them here. Your secrets aren’t safe anywhere, so don’t think you can hide them in drop ceilings. Never buy a house with drop ceilings. You know all of this already.
I decided to make Friday a day I post more creative writing pieces. If you have to wash your hair on Fridays, I’ll understand. I probably won’t post every Friday, though you should still wash your hair.