Close to Home

For years, at some point during each night, our son’s feet hammered the stairs as he fled his downstairs room, spooked by whatever dangers loomed large in his imagination. Once we gave up trying to jolly him back to sleep in his own bed — often dozing off in the chair beside it while he still lay awake — my wife made a nest of sleeping bag and pillows next to her side of our bed. I was sympathetic, as I’ve been subject to night terrors most of my life: on the verge of sleep, some irrepressible projector sends me or the people I love falling from great heights, or throws us in the path of speeding cars or trucks. I writhe and exclaim, sometimes even get up and read for a while. Our son would thunder up the stairs, usually half-asleep, yet somehow dragging his pillow or a blanket, and curl up to rest in his nest. This went on so long that, the first night he didn’t run up, we went down to check on him. There must have been a few years of normal sleeping, but soon there was music until all hours, and various parties and sleepovers, most of which involved no sleeping at all, and the birthday his friends slept in the woods, came to the house for breakfast, went back to their tents, and saw that an impatient bear, following the scent of some cheese-flavored crackers, had slashed through the fabric that, hours earlier, had seemed to protect them.

They had kept in touch, but they had also begun setting off on the next stage of their lives, following their own paths.

This summer was a homecoming for all of us. Last fall, when our son headed off to the state university four hours from the house he had grown up in, my wife and I began new jobs on the other side of the country. We’ve kept the house. Fifteen years, we lived there: returning after just ten months away, we quickly slipped back into comfortable patterns. Our son reunited with his high school friends, especially the tight gang who had slept over at each other’s houses without invitation or need for one, eased into booths for waffles and hash browns at various twenty-four-hour restaurants at three in the morning, then went to hit golf balls at the driving range in the dark (“We keep thinking someone is going to show up and run us off,” our son said, “but not yet”), talking endlessly about bands and teams, giving each other advice about girlfriends, complaining about each other’s girlfriends, ragging on their various teachers and coaches. Three of them had gone off to state universities; two stayed in town. They had kept in touch, but they had also begun setting off on the next stage of their lives, following their own paths.

And so while many things seemed familiar from that last year of high school, enough had changed that they did not fall directly into their old habits. They didn’t sit downstairs on our sleeper sofa playing xBox games or watching bad Japanese television shows late into the night. They weren’t suddenly immune to games or bad television, by any means, but they all had jobs for the summer, some of them had girlfriends, and of course they had new friends: people from college, people from work.

One night I heard, in addition to the ever-present music, muffled banging, curious thumps. I went downstairs and saw that our son had started taking his bed apart. It’s a sort of bunkbed, the kind with a desktop and drawers underneath, the bed above. Looking ahead to the start of the next school year, he had decided to move off campus, into a house he’d share with two other people. To give the place the feeling of home, and to save money, he intended to take from his room the sagging blue sofa, which all of his buddies had slept on at one time or another, and the desk/bed, which was wooden, defaced by various stickers and drawings and carvings, and so big that it needed to be disassembled to get through the door. Needless to say, the instructions were long gone.

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