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The week after I turned eleven I was placed in the care of my aunt while my parents drove to New Mexico for a funeral. My aunt, a poetry translator who lived in an apartment above a neighbor’s garage, decided to take me to a book fair in San Francisco rather than deal with the domesticity of shuttling me to and from school and music lessons for the few days my parents were away.
At the hotel hosting the book fair, my aunt put down the courtesy phone and looked at me blankly, then gave me a sad forced smile. We walked to a post office where she mailed a large envelope of typewritten pages to the contact she’d been meaning to see, someone who wouldn’t be back until the following year’s event. She made me kiss the envelope for luck before she handed it over to be weighed.
Instead of returning home, we drove north through rain-lit darkness and spent the night in a motel room with shag carpet, HBO, and the scent of ammonia. My aunt’s car honked in its sleep and woke us early. We continued north through forests that turned to redwoods and closed the break in the canopy the road carved. We never saw the sun. We passed empty summer camps and shuttered cabins, mills and lonely service stations selling off-brand gas, and crossed bridges over steaming creeks with names I’d never heard. We ate from a package of bear claws and sucked our fingers clean and listened to my aunt’s cassette collection.
Late in the afternoon, my aunt’s car ran out of gas. We waited on the side of the road, but the only traffic in winter were logging trucks with too much inertia to stop, their endless beds loaded with felled trees, bits of bark flittering in their misty wakes. I don’t remember why we were there. Perhaps my aunt had wanted to show me the redwoods, or had wanted to take a drive and simply hadn’t stopped.
After walking for a few miles, my aunt turned down a side road. The forest opened up to a meadow at the edge of which stood a modern two-story house built from timber and corrugated iron and great panes of colored glass. Deer stood near the front door, their muzzles fogging. No one was home. We tried the small guest cottage on the other side of the gravel courtyard. My aunt was able to pry open a window sash at the back and squeeze me in through an opening. She held my legs as my palms walked down a wall, a bathroom sink, and to a gritty floor. I found the front door and let her in.
At nightfall, lights came on in the millionaire’s house—the name my aunt gave it. We tried knocking again, but the lights were only on timers. Peering through the colored glass, I recognized furniture that might be a couch, a chair, a table, a lamp, but not like any I’d seen before.
I woke alone in the cottage that night, and went outside to look for my aunt. She was inside the millionaire’s house, upstairs, walking past a bank of windows wearing nothing but a towel. She didn’t notice me. At first I thought she’d broken in, but then I saw a Mercedes parked beside the house, and my aunt’s car sat beside it. When I woke the next morning, the Mercedes was gone and my aunt was outside the cottage, smoking. She told me she’d had her car towed, tanked up, and brought here. She slept in the cottage until the afternoon. We drove home without stopping, except to eat and gas up again, and by the end of the drive my aunt was so tired she was laughing and weeping while I had the job of making sure she didn’t nod off.
Not long after, I learned that my aunt was not my aunt at all, but my mother’s on-and-off-again partner. The week my parents were at the funeral in New Mexico was time spent deciding what, if anything, to salvage from a marriage at a crossroads. The week was also an opportunity for my mother’s friend to decide whether a full-time life with my mother and with me was for her. It was not.
On our drive home from the millionaire’s house, a thick cloud of bugs exploded against the windshield of my aunt’s car. She turned on the sprayer, but the fluid overshot the wipers, gleeking into the air. I am told I laughed maniacally at her fright and disgust. I can’t help but think it was then that she decided she needed more than my mother and her strange daughter. She wanted someone who would abandon everything for her—or she wanted the millionaire, or the person who wasn’t at the book fair. She definitely didn’t want my father, who, both open-mindedly and cowardly, had decided to stay with my mother and look the other way. A few months later, a poet fell in love with my aunt, who then moved to Montevideo to live with her and raise the poet’s Uruguayan children as her own, children who I imagined to be quiet and polite. By then, my parents had separated for good. The unit over the neighbor’s garage where my aunt had lived was rented out to a woman who played church music every Sunday morning and who we only saw on trash night, dragging out a bin smaller than everyone else’s. And then we, too, my mother and I, moved away.
My aunt stayed in touch for a few years through Christmas cards she ran through her typewriter, the card stock left slightly curved from the platen, springing up the envelopes and teasing the possibility they held more than a simple, typed, greeting. My mother saved the stamps for me, though I’m not sure why. I wasn’t a collector.
All of this came back to me, in pieces, during a family vacation down the same stretch of highway my aunt and I had traveled. I found the millionaire’s house on my phone, my fingers following the road and zooming in at nearby meadows. Once we were there in person, I told my husband and the kids the story of how I had stayed in the guest cottage one cold winter. The main house was now empty of furniture and for sale, though it looked to have been on the market for a long time. The back door had been forced open at some point, the bolt exposed behind a harelip in the metal. We heaved the door open and entered, walking through the building’s lofty spaces, just me and the kids. My husband stayed outside as though standing guard, a man who doesn’t even jaywalk.
I took the kids up the stairs and past the bank of windows where I had seen my then-aunt walking in a towel. There, at the end of the corridor, we saw an emaciated deer. She wobbled to her feet at the sight of us. She didn’t bolt; she couldn’t. Instead, she let me and the children guide her gently down the stairs, out the front door, and into the meadow where other deer were waiting.
Feeling uplifted for having saved a life—and for the sheer luck of having come back to the house now of all times—I made a call before we left and inquired into the asking price. I could already see it: this would be our summer home if we went in together with my sisters and maybe my cousins. Our own private timeshare. Deer House. We would hike through thick wood, fish streams and rivers, breathe clean air. But no, the price was obscenely out of reach. Before leaving, we walked through the house again, completely, room by room, making certain we left it empty. We placed a heavy stone against the door, then drove on.