It was the smallest of the upstairs bedrooms. The broad window looked down a slope of shingles, past the cul-de-sac and out to the main street. Our computer desk dominated one wall — a fortress of particle board with sliding keyboard shelf and CD-ROM tower. Along the opposite wall sat a lumpy futon usually stacked with blankets or quilting supplies.
My memories of that room are occupied by hours of online StarCraft with Aaron over laggy dial-up, squinting through frozen frames for a pixelated glimpse of alien movement; AOL Instant Messenger chat sessions with middle-school crushes; Mindlessly tapping arrow keys as colored bands of light snaked across the screen, set to the sound of Paul McCartney’s RAM on repeat.
But for the final years of my parents’ marriage, it was my mom’s bedroom.
I don’t remember exactly when she moved into the computer room, or how long she stayed there before we moved. She mentioned it over breakfast one morning, casually, like she was planning on going to the post office. My parents’ bed hurt her back, she said, so she would try sleeping in the computer room. I remember some vague confusion over how the lumpy, unforgiving futon could possibly be more comfortable than a real bed, but it was a glancing thought that I quickly deflected. That afternoon after school I walked in to play StarCraft and found the futon recumbent and neatly fitted with secondhand sheets and an antique quilt.
My dad didn’t mention the change in sleeping arrangement. Silence was the dominant form of communication in my parents’ relationship. They never fought. Never hugged. Just a rote peck on the lips before he went to work, and that was it.
All of the signs seem obvious now, but I didn’t let myself see them. They hovered uncertainly in the periphery, glimpsed only through a filter of half-thought, then quickly suppressed. I knew, and I didn’t know. Two realities existed at once, each reflecting some version of the truth. I chose the reality that was most comfortable: the one where everything proceeded exactly as planned, and where nothing could go wrong that couldn’t be made right again.
One morning I walked into the kitchen to find my mom leaning over the table, silently sobbing into the crook of her elbow. Her shoulders shook beneath her shapeless nightgown, and her socks bunched up at the ankles. I stood in the doorway, frozen, unwilling to participate in a reality I chose to deny. She pulled her head up and looked at me with red eyes, tear tracks shining on her cheeks. It was the pleading, helpless look of a child crying over something broken. I felt something inside me change.
She looked down and shook her head. She sniffed and wiped her cheeks with the heel of her hand. Her chair legs squeaked against the linoleum as she stood.
“Oh Jacob,” she said, as she walked to the sink.
I had only slept in that futon once, years earlier. Mom let us watch “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” an Australian movie from the 70s about a group of boarding-school girls who hiked to the top of an ancient rock formation and were never seen again. The atmosphere was one of oppressive doubt — of the corruption of youth by an ancient, implacable truth. Laying in my bed that night, it filled me with a terror that felt like floating, and the image of Hanging Rock loomed in the shadows of my basement bedroom.
Terrified, I ran upstairs to wake up my mom. She took my hand and led me to the spare bedroom, where she laid out a blanket on the futon. She leaned over me and let me rub her hair until I started to fall back to sleep. As she climbed back into her bed across the hall, I closed my eyes. Half dreaming, I imagined I was being drawn to the top of Hanging Rock by the same mysterious force that had compelled the girls. I floated up the dusty trail, past scrub brush and widening cracks in the stone, helpless to the ineffable pull, as steady and unforgiving as time itself.