BY Michelle Mehrtens
It began with Disney Channel houses. Large, shingled, two-story homes with big windows. Usually painted an eggshell blue, or, perhaps, a starchy white with a provocative red front door. Inside, the Disney protagonist dropped her backpack on the floor and walked—shoes, perversely, still on—to the kitchen island, where she grabbed a Granny Smith apple. She hated living in the suburbs. She wanted adventure. After grumbling with an armful of snacks, she walked upstairs. She slammed the door to her room, approximately the size of two full-grown elephants. Then, she jumped on her bed—shoes, perversely, still on—and called one of her best friends with a fancy purple cordless phone.
As a kid, I lived in southern Miami, tucked away in one of the many condominiums that dotted the city. Five of us coexisted, somewhat peacefully, in this small, one-story condo. I shared a bunk bed with my twin sister. Through the wall, we could hear our dad in the living room watching NASCAR or tennis, our mom typing her dissertation on her brick-heavy laptop, our older sister playing Mario Kart in her bedroom. Even though we all lived on top of each other, I loved our home. We had Sunday barbecues in our tiny, concrete-edged patio. We put our plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the living room, right next to the too-big television, and battled for carpet space with the mountains of shiny wrapping paper from our gifts. Despite the physical constraints of our condo, my parents constantly hosted weekend parties with friends and family, offering Brazilian classics like steaming feijoada with rice and farofa, along with chocolate or coconut brigadeiro for dessert.
Then, we moved from Florida to Massachusetts. The equilibrium tipped. I met real people who lived in real Disney Channel houses.
We rented a small house in a small town one hour away from Boston. I became friends with girls who lived in large, shingled, two-story homes with big windows. They left their front doors unlocked. They wore new shoes for picture day. My mother asked my friend’s mother what type of cleaning service she used for her house. My friend’s mother told her that she could not afford it. She also frequently pulled aside her daughter while we were playing to tell her to befriend other girls.
Suddenly, I hated my shoes. I hated my clothes. I reconsidered all of the outfits that my grandmother had lovingly packed and sent to me from Brazil. I never hosted sleepovers. Inside the large, shingled, two-story houses of my friends, I would wander down their hallways, admiring the wooden floors and the silver frames and the Pottery Barn couches. As my friends ate their scrambled eggs, I would look at them, study them, trying to gauge if they knew how lucky they were. My friends did not share rooms with their siblings. They did not shop clearance at Gap Kids. All they did was eat their scrambled eggs and play with their Tamagotchis. I did not have a Tamagotchi. It was maddening.
By the time I reached middle school, we had moved to a second-floor apartment next to a pastel pink strip club. I now attended private school on a hefty scholarship and the stakes were even higher—these were the kids of anesthesiologists and financial consultants and local politicians and trust-fund realtors. After school, as my mother drove down the long stretch of asphalt, winding away from the elegant neighborhoods and stretching valleys, making a U-turn past the strip club, my stomach dropped. I walked heavily up the stairs to our apartment. The walls felt too close. The room I shared with my sister felt too small. I looked out our window at night, watching the fluorescent streetlights flicker on the parking lot, on the dark strip of forest behind the cars.
My friends asked to come over and I always made up an excuse—I had a doctor’s appointment after school, my mother had office hours at the university, we were going to Boston (I did not explain why we were going to Boston on a Tuesday after school, but instead let that mystery linger in the air). I knew that I was behaving strangely, but I hoped that they didn’t notice. My mother still took my friends to Panera, to the movies, to the bookstore—we just never ever went to my home. One day, my best friend casually revealed that another girl at school had been talking about how weird it was that I wouldn’t let her visit. “She thinks you’re hiding something,” my best friend said, fiddling with one of her three iPods. I touched her robotic iDog, which had started to light up and dance to Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
College eased my anxious, jittery heart. The housing lottery system evened the odds. Here, students had an equal-opportunity chance at either being placed in a new, renovated dorm with bookshelves and abstract art or a haunted, chlorine-smelling dorm from the seventies. One of my friends loved to complain about the lottery system. She railed against the fact that we were all paying identical housing costs, yet some of us were callously abandoned to living situations as dire as Mrs. Rochester’s attic. I spent Easter weekend at her house in the Boston suburbs and it all made sense. She lived in a mansion.
The physical minutiae of home followed me everywhere. I was consciously attuned to the ways in which others talked about their houses, or apartments, or townhouses, or duplexes. My friend from San Juan often invited us to visit her in Puerto Rico—she spoke of sparkling beaches, the pool at her gated house, the veranda with all of her lush succulents. My friend from Bayamón never spoke of her home. I sensed a kindred spirit in her silence. Neither of us tossed open, impulsive invitations to our past lives.
When six of us rented an off-campus apartment, I basked in the privacy of my own bedroom. Despite the bizarre odor emanating from our dishwasher and the mismatched furniture, I felt at peace. I loved our yellow-painted walls and sandy brown cabinets and the empty wine bottles on the mantle. At night, I would sit at the kitchen table, doodling in my notebook, while my roommates made dinner. It smelled like red peppers and onions, like black beans and rice, and we would talk about Hot Cheetos and Gabriel García Márquez and Hilary Clinton and Fleabag. It felt like Miami again. It felt like home.
One afternoon, through my window, I looked at the parking lot and the apartment complexes and the backdoor entrance to CVS. Although it had rained heavily only a few minutes earlier, the sky had cleared. Sunlight looped through the trees, their leaves drooping with water. Raindrops slid off the bushes. A woman walked down the wet pavement. Her brown hair caught the light, caught on fire with the light, and everything about her seemed otherworldly, even the plastic bag wrapped around her wrist, the heavy way she hunched her shoulders. Sprinklers went off, steaming the grass and the stone. This was the moment, here, right here. This was the moment when every house, every building on the street, gleamed.
Here, the equilibrium tipped. I stopped caring so damn much.
Since the pandemic, I have returned to my mother’s apartment in Providence. We spend our late afternoons walking the neighborhoods of the East Side. They are a collection of Disney Channel houses, postmodern disasters, brick condominiums, cottages, and college apartments. Previously a student of architecture, my mother shares her unfiltered opinions on every single structure, pointing out boxy misfires and lovely soft blue triumphs. Unlike me, she has never liked the idea of living in a large, shingled, two-story house. “What happens if you watch a scary movie?” she says. “You’d be scared of your entire house.”
She makes a good point.
Michelle Mehrtens is a writer and filmmaker from Miami, Florida. She recently graduated with an MFA in Documentary Film from Stanford University. She is interested in further pursuing work that centers on issues of gender equality and immigration.