When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

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Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo (both from the University of Nebraska Press), the poetry books, Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots, and Sagittarius Agitprop (both from Black Lawrence Press), and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. Recent and forthcoming work appears in The New Republic, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. After spending over 17 years of his occupational life in restaurant kitchens—from fast-food chicken shacks to fine-dining temples of gastronomy—he now teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of the literary journal, Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels.

20 responses to “Boarders”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Once again, you have left me breathless at your beautiful prose.
    I can see the orange glow from the streetlight catching the snowflakes – so eloquently described.
    I wonder if your boarder was real? It’s hard to believe that a memory, that detailed, that beloved, could have been simply imagination. Although I do remember when I was child having an ‘imaginary’ friend called David. He wasn’t there all the time, but I recall him vividly. he was as real to me as any of my other friends. One night, I dreamed I saw him flying into the sky and when I woke up, he was gone. I never saw him again.
    Beautiful piece, Matthew.

    • Thanks so much, Zara. Of course there’s no telling, but that may have been my own childhood friend, David Daniels, who made a habit of flying into the sky. Last I heard, he was in LA touring with one of the stage productions of “The Full Monty.”

      Oh! And I hear you, Simon, and I may be reading together in Chicago this summer. What fun!

      • Zara Potts says:

        Thanks for clearing up that mystery! Please say Hi to David for me and tell him I was asking after him!!!
        That’s fantastic about Chicago! I cannot wait!!

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Matthew Gavin,

    I love how you write.
    Every word, every phrase, every sentence, all of it.

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    It’s hard to pick out a best line or image here because everything is so vivid and popping with magic. Though you did just about floor me by the time I got to “where, in this life, I have yet to board.” Always a thrill to read your writing.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    God damn it, Frank. Every time I think you can’t top yourself any further, there you go.

    Where does this lyricism and colour in your work come from? Do you have any particular inspirations as a writer? Because there is such… vibrancy… to the stuff I read here.

    I hope I’m not coming across like the most pretentious kind of lit student (now, excuse me while I get my black turtleneck), but seriously, reading your work feels more like reading an oil painting than prose.

  5. Wow. Thank you so much, Simon! I hear you’re coming to Chicago. I really look forward to talking to you in person there, over a bit of booze. That wouldn’t be your King King Bundy turtleneck, would it?

  6. Very nice, descriptive prose. Reads like poetry.

    I’m staggered by your memory, too. Very impressive that you can remember so much so vividly.

  7. Judy Prince says:

    Oh, Matt, you tease! Love the lines about the whispering women!

    Be sure to have someone video Chicago’s readings and greetings.

    Chicago’s gorjus in the summer; oh what fun you all will have.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Never in a million years (I like hyperbole today) did I see the story turning as it did. Amazing. What a fantastic piece. As someone who spent 12 years in Chicago and who knows those heavy, snowy nights only too well, your words took me back there with a vengeance. This is wonderful- thanks for the great read with my morning coffee.

  9. jmblaine says:

    I concur
    you really have a way of painting
    with your words
    artful strokes
    not too much
    a little flair here
    color and tone

    You have a style,
    which is rare these days
    that I could see a few sentences of yours somewhere
    with no name
    and know it was you.

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