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Ours But Not Our Own (Housesitting)

By Joshua Tong | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/joshua-tong/ | Joshua Tong
Edited by Aleksandra Hill || Narrated by Alex Bankier || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
3450 words

I suppose we were hoping to have some grand adventure. The cost of living in the city was eating into our attempts at saving up, so Liz figured that spending a week housesitting in the suburbs was good enough for a vacation; after all, Marissa was letting us stay free of charge, so that was one traveling expense taken care of. We could use her kitchen and renting a car for a week was far more cost-effective than plane tickets, so, really, the math worked out. Sure, it wasn’t anywhere near as exotic as we’d hoped, but it was still worth the week of vacation days.

I picked up the car from the rental place and headed across the city to Liz’s, long-dormant muscle memories waking up as I drove for the first time in years. The distance between our apartments seemed so much smaller by car than by subway. We’d talked many times about moving in together, but the subsidized housing the university offered me would disappear if we did, and the commute from her place to work was far longer than we could justify.

During the drive, Liz joked about how we were going to be grown-ups playing house. There’d be a yard and everything. A washer and dryer rather than the laundromat down the block. Actual, usable floorspace.

Marissa had done quite well for herself in the move out to the suburbs. The commute, she’d said, wasn’t nearly half as bad, and courtesy of an audiobook subscription, she was getting more reading done than she had in college. Her neighborhood was tree-lined and sleepy. A car passed us; the driver waved. I glanced at Liz and, seeing my puzzled expression reflected on her face, broke out in a laugh. We’d both grown up in suburbs, but we’d been in the city for so long that what had once seemed routine was now quite foreign.

At last, we turned onto Lockwood Avenue. I slowed down, eyeing the mailboxes for the one marked 2371. It was a low ranch house with tan siding and a small porch, wedged between two similar-looking houses on either side. The one on the left proudly displayed an American flag.

The gravel of the driveway crunched under the rental car’s tires as we approached. I turned off the car, interrupting David Byrne singing about things being the same as they ever were.

We stepped out of the car. Liz raised her arms and groaned as she stretched out that last hour.

“Ah, the sweet scent of suburbia,” Liz said as I got our bags out of the car. She had a point; I could smell the trees and the wind, free of the stale tinge of baked asphalt and recycled exhaust.

• • •

“Two couches!” Liz said when we walked into the house. “She’s got space for two couches in the living room. And a coffee table!”

We made a fancy dinner that night. On the menu: fish ball mee pok, a dish Liz’s dad had taught us ages ago. I’d had the ingredients in my fridge from my last trip to Chinatown. Laid out on the table were fishballs, sliced fishcakes, and minced pork. The all-important flat noodles, mee pok, waited with the bean sprouts near a boiling pot of ikan bilis stock as we got everything else ready, taking advantage of the abundant countertops to prep without once having to awkwardly chop vegetables on the dining room table.

Afterward, Liz and I each took a couch and talked over a second round of wine. A candle flickered on the coffee table, sending shadows dancing across her face. Not for the first time, I wished that my university job paid more, that we were more established, that we could own a house of our own and be the adults we’d dreamed of when we were young.

• • •

It was the second day when we found it. I first noticed it out of the corner of my eye. I could have sworn that the man in the mirror didn’t look like me as I walked past it, but when I stepped back to double-check, my reflection faithfully matched me. Chalking it up to early morning grogginess, I brewed a pot of coffee. The days back in the city when Liz would have the coffee going before I woke up were ever a highlight, so I figured I’d return the favor. I browsed the Internet on my phone while waiting but couldn’t shake the nagging in the back of my head of what I thought I’d seen. But when I checked the hall mirror, it was just me once again. 

“You look good, hun,” Liz said. She emerged from the bedroom wearing an old T-shirt of mine. “Is that coffee?”

“Yeah,” I said, turning away from my reflection.

“You’re the best.” Liz wrapped herself around me and rested her head against my bare chest.

“Eh, least I could do for all the times you’ve—”

“Shh, Owen, shut up.”

“Sure, sure.”

I wondered how to mention the weirdness with the mirror—or if I even should—as we put together breakfast, a simple meal of eggs and toast. It sat there, an ever-present itch at the edge of my consciousness: that image of myself that wasn’t quite me. 

• • •

Grocery shopping was an experience. It wasn’t that the store was bad, just that the selection seemed so limited compared to back in the city. 

“And if I wanted a pepper that’s not a jalapeño?” Liz said, perusing the vegetables. “Just to get a different kind of heat?”

“Good luck finding mee pok here,” I said. “Although I did see a sign for an ‘ethnic’ aisle back there.”

Liz winced visibly at my suggestion. “I’m sure there’s a Chinese grocery somewhere.” She held up a tomato. “You know, there is something to the simplicity of this. Not having to choose from a dozen kinds of lettuce.”

“Might be nice,” I said. “I wonder how Marissa manages…”

“I asked her once,” Liz said. “She said you get used to it after a while.”

“Funny. She always liked more… exciting food. Maybe the suburbs do that to you.”

“Maybe. Their tomatoes seem good. Wanna make pasta?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Pasta is good. Find some basil, some meat; whatcha feeling?”

Liz didn’t respond at first. She stared past the vegetables, lost in thought.

“Liz?” I tapped her on the shoulder.

She jolted and turned back around to face me. “Hm?”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, just, damnedest thing.” She rubbed her eyes. “Anyway, you asked something?”

I posed the question of meat again; Liz gave it some thought and decided that chicken seasoned with rosemary and garlic would make a nice complement to the fried tomatoes.

• • •

We spent the afternoon watching Netflix on the couch, finally catching up on a show that Rameen had recommended forever ago. The back of my mind prickled with the feeling that I had something I needed to get done, that there was some other responsibility I was shirking.

I pushed those thoughts away, banished them back to the city where they belonged. I was away for the week in the house on Lockwood Avenue, my arm around Liz’s shoulder, with nothing to do but be here. 

• • •

We spent a good chunk of dinner discussing the show. She wasn’t really sold on the twist that came late in the story, arguing that it wasn’t foreshadowed nearly enough. I was more forgiving, feeling that the winding nature of the show granted it leeway. Our conversation circled between sips of wine and mouthfuls of chicken pasta.

“Hey,” Liz said after we’d reached an agreement that the show had really sagged during the middle couple of episodes. “I’m glad we did this.”

“Me, too,” I said, raising my glass. The shrill clink of our toast echoed. “Man, it’s quiet. Almost eerie.”

“No sirens.” Liz cocked her head. “Or really any cars.”

“Or noisy neighbors. I’m not used to being this isolated.”

“Means no one can hear us later.” Liz’s eyes had a familiar twinkle.

“So… dishes?”

She laughed, and we got to work.

• • •

“Owen?”

“Yeah?” I looked over from putting back plates. Liz had headed to the bathroom to wash up but was now staring intently at the hall mirror.

“C’mere. Look at the reflection.”

I went over and stood next to her in front of the full-length mirror.

“Huh,” was all I could think to say.

It was our reflections in the mirror, only it wasn’t quite us. Liz’s cropped hair fell to her shoulders in the mirror, and her ears had only one earring each instead of their usual three. My shaggy hair was tidied and my scruffy beard neatly trimmed. Though I was wearing an old T-shirt and hoodie, my reflection had a dress shirt on with the top buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up. Liz’s reflection wore a cardigan. She’d never owned one in all our years together.

But beyond appearances, there was something else about those people in the mirror. They shared our faces, but the Owen in the mirror wasn’t idly hoping the future promised by his degree would come to pass; that Owen didn’t have to worry about the delicate balance between making rent, paying student loans, and enjoying his twenties. That Owen had renounced the hustle and taken a stable job. He’d forgone the chaotic call of the city for a comfortable life outside it. He had finally learned how to slow down and truly rest. 

“What the hell,” she said quietly, reaching her hand out toward herself; their fingers met at the glass. “You see that too, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. I stroked my chin and watched my reflection stroke his beard. He had a band around his ring finger. “How much wine did we drink?”

“Nowhere near enough for this.”

I reached for my phone to see if it would see the same thing, but it was charging in the bedroom. I took Liz’s arm; my reflection did the same. 

“C’mon, let’s go.” I looked over at Liz—my Liz, the Liz standing next to me. She turned toward me, lifting her chin to look me in the eye. “I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

“Yeah,” she said, glancing down for a second and snorting a stifled laugh. “Wine was probably stronger than we thought.”

Nonetheless, we both looked back at the mirror. It was just us looking back, those strangers gone.

I forced a laugh, and a moment later, Liz chuckled, too. “See? Everything normal,” I said.

Still arm-in-arm, we walked to the bedroom. I closed the door before embracing her.

“You okay?” I asked, slightly suspicious I was asking her to tell me that I was.

“That was hella weird,” she said. “You still wanna have sex or should we go straight to bed?”

I kissed her. “Hey, I’m still game if you are.”

“Oh, good,” Liz said, and she pulled me to the bed.

It was while we lay together naked and drifting off to sleep that I saw that reflection in the back of my mind again. Content as I had told myself I was back in the city, and now with Liz’s head resting on my bare chest, I still felt a pang of jealousy for that other Owen’s life. 

• • •

I woke up before Liz did and, knowing how precious the weekends and the sleep they offered were to her, did my best not to disturb her as I rose. 

The timer-brewed coffee waited for me in the kitchen. My mind wandered as I filled my mug and settled down at the kitchen table with the newspaper. It was the Sunday of a long weekend, a chance to get some stuff done around the house that I’d been putting off for some time. The lawn had to be mowed, and the weather outside was nice enough that I wouldn’t work up a sweat. It would be good to clean out the gutters after that storm last week; Liz would be willing to help with that. Maybe we’d finally get around to rearranging the living room like we’d been talking about. Certainly time to update the photos in the frames along the wall with the ones we’d had printed. In any case, I was keen to have an extra day away from the office.

“Morning, love,” Liz said as she entered the room, shrouded in her fuzzy robe. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down opposite me. “How’d you sleep?”

“Pretty good,” I said, an unremembered dream nagging at the back of my mind.

Liz took a deep sip of her coffee. “I think tonight calls for a fancy dinner.”

“Any reason?”

“Nah, no reason; just in the mood for us to cook something nice.”

I spent the rest of the morning working through the list of chores, then showered off the sweat and happily tucked into the grilled cheese Liz had made for lunch.

• • •

We went to the grocery store without much of a plan.

“So whatcha feeling?” She asked as I inspected the vegetables under the fluorescent lights.

“Something noodley,” I suggested. “Spaghetti or macaroni, maybe? Or one of those unpronounceable ones?”

Liz wrinkled her brow. “There’s this other one… Not an Italian one though…”

“Chinese?” I asked.

“I think so, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it’s called.”

I racked my brain for what Liz was referring to. We hadn’t eaten Chinese too often since we’d moved, much less cooked it. Though there was one time when we’d visited her parents where her dad had made us a dish he’d eaten growing up… “Fishball mee,” I said.

Liz’s face lit up. “That’s it! We’ll need mee pok to make it properly, though.”

Mee pok. I knew that term, those flat egg noodles so vital for fishball mee. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I knew the term. I wanted to say that Liz’s dad had taught us the dish and written down the recipe on the back of an old receipt replete with ketchup and soy sauce stains, a photo of which I had on my phone. But I wasn’t sure that that had ever happened; it seemed hazy, as if my mind was climbing through a fog and into a dream.

“Good luck finding that here,” I found myself saying.

“There’s an ethnic aisle over there, c’mon!” She took off with a start, all but running through the grocery store. I followed, pushing the cart. An older man gave me the stink eye when I almost crashed into him rounding a corner.

“Wait, that’s it?” Liz said, staring at the deserted half-aisle. There were tortillas, soy sauce, and fava beans. That jasmine rice was in this aisle struck me as funny, though I wasn’t sure why.

I found some dried, yellow noodles on a shelf. “These them?”

Liz took them from me and inspected them. She frowned. “No… I mean, they’re close, but can’t we get them fresh?”

“Love, we haven’t been able to find fresh noodles since we left the city,” I said gently. “Kinda why we gave up on cooking Chinese food.”

“Right, yeah.” Liz sounded dejected. “I coulda sworn we just had them the other day.”

The same sense of déjà vu washed over me again. The image of candlelight dancing against her face flickered in the back of my mind, latent dreams of domesticity crashing against the remembrance of a Friday spent late at the office and a dinner of reheated mashed potatoes. The memories flitted away out of reach, slipping through my fingers whenever I tried to grab ahold.

“Must’ve just been a dream,” she said quietly. I almost told her that I thought I’d had the same dream.

Defeated, we ended up buying the ingredients for pasta: farfalle noodles with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes and rosemary with ground beef. I grabbed some bell peppers to add a bit of heat.

“Be nice to have a red with this,” I commented as we passed the wine aisle on our way to the checkout.

“Dude, Owen,” Liz said. “No wine for us, remember?”

“Oh, god, I’m such a jackass,” I said.

Liz rubbed my arm reassuringly. “It’s okay; it’s all still so new.”

It still blew my mind: Liz was pregnant; we were going to be parents. We’d talked about it for a while, weighed finances against where we were in life. Our jobs were steady, our savings robust, our mortgage manageable. We wanted a kid at some point and now seemed as good a time as ever. Liz had stopped taking her birth control and soon, her missed period had been met not with dread, but hope.

• • •

“This isn’t right.” Liz paused her chopping, a tomato half-diced.

“Do we need more salt?” I looked over from where I was washing the bell peppers.

“Not the food, all… this.” She held up the knife and examined her reflection in the blade. “We don’t live here, this isn’t us.”

“What are you on about?”

“We had the choice. You could have taken that job with Inkom… but we’d have had to move out of the city.”

“And instead, I went back to school so I’d be able to teach down the line,” I said slowly, unsure of where this knowledge came from. “You joined that startup.”

“Owen, I don’t know if that was real.” Liz put down the knife and walked to the living room. I turned off the faucet and followed her. “But then, maybe all of this isn’t.”

“How couldn’t it be?” I asked, parallel memories of the last few years conflicting in my mind. Nights on the subway clashed against driving a commute; a rooftop party against a backyard barbecue; an uneventful Saturday night and a wedding. “We’re here, right?”

“But not like this,” she said. “We never moved here. We still live in the city.”

“We still live in the city,” I said, and with the words, a fog in my mind started to clear. “We’re only housesitting.”

“Housesitting,” she repeated. “But what if we’re not? What if all this”—she gestured to the living room around her—“this is real and our life back in the city is the dream?”

“Can’t be,” I said, moving to stand next to her. “We made our choice.”

“Did we?” Liz asked.

The question echoed in my mind as our life stretched out before us, this life ours but not our own. I remembered us getting married a couple years prior in the small church Liz’s parents attended in her hometown. Our parents and extended families smiled at us from the pews; the small contingent of friends from college and work cheered when we kissed.

We signed the mortgage on the house and arrived on the doorstep to an empty building with a full moving van. I watched us take our first steps into the living room we now owned, disbelieving smiles plastered on our faces. Days, weeks, and months passed. Furniture was added, rearranged, and settled. Weekends came and went, and I saw the Sunday morning I spent drinking coffee, reading the paper, and contemplating afternoon chores.

We became parents. 

Liz and I named her Adrianna—this wonderful new person we brought into existence. I could feel the joy catch in my chest when I came home from grocery shopping and opened the door to see Liz and Adrianna playing on the rug in the living room. My daughter walked unsteadily from her mother and into my arms. This was our life, our past, our future, here in this house on Lockwood Avenue.

I reached out my hand to the Liz standing next to me, felt the skin on her ring finger where a wedding band might someday be. She turned toward me, and I saw that her eyes were as wet as mine. 

My mouth opened, but no noise came out. There was a question on my lips with an answer that I didn’t dare voice. I told myself that we had chosen a different path; we had wanted to stay in the city and embrace its restlessness. In a few days, Liz and I would return to the city, to our life and unknown future there. 

And yet.

I turned back unbidden to my family in the living room. Adrianna’s eyes met mine from where she sat cradled in my arms. Was this the life we’d wanted but never known to wish for? I felt myself shake.

Liz, still by my side, squeezed my hand.

Joshua Tong grew up in South Carolina, Singapore, and on a ship before spending nine years in New York City where he felt oddly normal. He now lives in Pasadena where he can be found writing in a coffee shop, doing video post-production, or mixing alcohol and video games. He tells stories.
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