My neighbor puts a large plant of some sort out on his porch stoop. We all have small stoops in these post-World War II townhomes. And I smoke and watch him try to find the best position for it. Should it go in the sun directly? Onto the grass? Or should it be left by the right side of the front door, where the sun only hits in the late afternoon? He decides on the right side by the front door and then leaves his home. I watch him carry bags to his Tesla. And then he is gone. A few nights later I am outside smoking. We had a big storm that blew in overnight and left everything a mess. And there is that large plant, sideways in the grass. Blown over from the wind, pushed into the dirt like some sad small thing. It’s a peace lily, no blooms left, just tall green and brown leaves shooting into the dirt. It makes me laugh to see it lying there. He seemed to try so hard to bring it back to life. Only to leave it and now it’s half dead. Sometimes I sit out here alone and watch the chipmunks and birds rummage through the fallen leaves. I watch robins go for worms that look like baby snakes. I watch the trees go from bare to budding to full green. All while I read and smoke, always sitting on the stoop, my ass falling asleep on the hard cement. I could get a chair, some sort of seat, but I don’t. How long will I even be here? At first, it was where I went at night after the kids were down. A moment of quiet, of peace. Then I started going home on lunch breaks to read. Loving the view of the busy street in front of me, how my townhome entrance is at the side, and I can hide away and people-watch if I want to. Now it’s almost summer, so we sit out here, me and the boys with their popsicles, their chocolate ice creams. And we listen to the men behind me building a deck on someone’s condo. My youngest points out every bird that flies past. I have to keep repeating not to go past the stoop, don’t go to the stairs. We stay here. Under this awning, under this yellow porch light.
This is the place I go to cry, hidden behind the corner of my building and the beautiful sweet gum trees. I sob so hard my body rocks, my stomach muscles twitch. And sometimes no sound comes out of my mouth. And I cry because I don’t know this place, it’s new even if it is old. What happened to the home I made with someone else? It’s still there of course, different now without my things inside it. But the boys call it home and that hurts. I can’t look at the pictures that pop up on my phone, the memories it wants to remind me of. Because they were contained in that house, with its perfect kitchen and brand-new walls, its many bathrooms with matching granite. I think of all the things I bought to make it my home, our home. The plants, the rugs, the stupid little bowls, and pots from Target. I think of the orange couch we had, with the matching Navajo patterned rug. The rug my baby first crawled on, the corner of the coffee table they both bumped their heads on. How I sat there day after day nursing my now two-year-old. He was so tiny, so perfect, resting peacefully on my chest or in his little bassinet beside me. But all I wanted was sleep, the sun not to be in my eyes constantly. What does it mean to be in a house? To leave a house?
My porch view is secret and secluded. It feels like it is only mine. But what of my babies? What of this is theirs too? They have toys here and a room they share, but this house feels temporary. This porch is nowhere for kids to play, it isn’t the backyard they have with their dad, the trampoline and swing set, the bin full of pretend gardening tools and yard equipment. This porch doesn’t even have a bench. I sit on the concrete step and when it rains, I sit by the front door on the uncomfortable welcome mat that itches my legs. There are spiders and bugs but sometimes during these early summer months, there are fireflies, lighting up the bushes and trees around me. There are squirrels and robins and chipmunks who call this spot of the city their home too. I watch them climb the concrete wall by my side of the building, going into the forested area in between these townhomes and the garden homes behind me. I feel most comfortable out here, among the trees, hearing the loud hum of the planes fly over my head and thinking of the newness of my life. The strangeness of changing all the surroundings in your thirties. I thought I made a home, I thought I made a life, but I hated the suburbs, the nosy neighbors, the quiet street where no one seemed to take walks. The demand that we all put up luminaries in our driveways for Christmas Eve, the paper bags, the pounds of sand, and tiny tealight candles. As if we didn’t have enough going on, two kids and the constant noise of our oldest. But was any of it louder than our silence between each other? The way we moved in different rooms, slept in different beds. We didn’t watch the same TV; we didn’t play together with the kids. If I went on a walk, it was me alone with the boys.
But this porch, its silence is comfort. It is a space of my own. And if someone comes over, we can share it, they can sit with me and watch the birds, see the chipmunks searching for food. My sons can count the ants that cross the stoop, they can pick up sticks and pretend they are blowers for the fallen leaves no one seems to care to clean. I moved right after Christmas; asking for a divorce and took our decorations down by myself. He took the kids to his parents’ house and didn’t offer to help, but he wouldn’t have anyway. I did all the decorating myself, every year. I hauled the bare seven-foot tree in its zippered bag up the stairs to the guest room unsure why. Wasn’t I about to move anyway? Wouldn’t it come with me? I had bought it, I had put the time into making it something special for the boys. But I packed so fast that I left things I now miss, and I can’t go get them. Can’t walk inside the house where he has changed things, where the knobs of the gas stove used to be mine, where the couch seems to glare at me.
I think sometimes of the fireplace we never used. He didn’t want to turn it on. It was gas and the boys were too small, he said. And now I don’t have one. No mantel to hang stockings, no space for a seven-foot tree. Wouldn’t have room to put it away in a closet. Will I hang something on my front door? Should I make this place look like a home? Is it my home? I’ve never sat outside and watched so many bugs exist in my life. Today I saw a snail creeping across the sidewalk, so slow but so sure of where it was going. I’ve noticed caterpillars inching their way to the grass. I’ve seen cardinals so red and beautiful it was like they weren’t even real. But I am in the city now. How can I have so much wildlife around me? Is it this porch? The amount of time I spend here watching it all? One day I will move and drive past these townhomes and I will think of the time I lived here right after my divorce. When the porch was the only place I truly loved to be. The porch with its tiny covering above, its black painted front door, its rocks and ledge leading down to a secret walkway behind all our homes. I will remember the nights I sat here grateful the kids finally went to bed, the house totally silent except for the machine playing the sound of ocean waves in the distance. The days and nights I spent with strangers, wondering what they could possibly see in me, what I could offer anyone anymore. I had so many things, the things little girls dream of, and now I have a porch. I have a warm yellow light at night to cast an easy glow over the cement. I have a small space my kids can wander around, if only briefly. I have dangerous steps where they could fall down, I have bugs and worms and birds and cigarette butts crowding the ashtray I leave by the corner. I have a porch. The neighbor moves out and leaves the plant for me to continue staring at for weeks. Until finally one day I get up, walk across the overgrown grass and cement wall in our path to each other’s doors, and I go get it, bring it to my stoop. I put it by the steps but it doesn’t look right, it’s in the way of the front door. I settle on putting it in the far corner, past the steps and front door. On the side no one goes to because of the ledge right off the cement slab. When it rains it gets plenty of water, not needing me now to grow. Enough light to keep it happy and eventually, I see what might be a bloom right in the middle. A white shape forming around all that green.
Ashton Russell’s work has appeared in Sundog Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Southeast Review among others. She is a current MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.