Tear Down

A short story.



(page 1 of 4)

While Mari and Brian were waiting for the house they’d bought in suburban Maryland to be torn down and replaced, they offered to let Julian stay there. He wouldn’t even have to mow the lawn: Everything Must Go.

“So if you don’t mind living with uncertainty…,” Mari told him. Julian had been sleeping on the sofa bed in their mother’s tiny apartment since he’d gotten out of the hospital three months earlier.

“I love Uncertainty,” Julian said. “She leaves wet towels on the floor and dishes in the sink, but she’s amazing in bed.”

Mari looked stern. “You’ll be living among our future neighbors, Hermanito,” she said. “No wild parties.”

Before marrying Brian, Julian thought, his sister would have laughed at his joke, and they’d have reminisced about some of the parties they’d had in high school.

Brian drove Julian and his few boxes of possessions to the teardown, where they set up one of the empty bedrooms with a futon, a floor lamp and an aged TV with a video player built into it.

“You’re lucky,” Brian said. “We put all this junk out for the Salvation Army, but it rained so they never came.”

“I’m lucky the stuff dried off,” Julian said, and smiled. He often played a little game where he smiled whenever his brother-in-law said something that proved what a jerk he was. Since Julian smiled so much when they were together, he assumed Brian thought they were friends.

“You’re not going to get reception without cable,” Brian said, fiddling with the TV’s rabbit ears. “And you can’t even rent movies on video anymore.”

“That’s OK—I’ve got some good porn on video,” Julian said.

Brian looked startled, as if his 4-year-old had said this. “You’ll be sure and close the window blinds, there, buddy?”

“Right,” Julian said, grinning wildly.

After Brian left, Julian strolled through the empty, dusty rooms. The bare walls made a refreshing change from his mother’s place, where photos of him and Mari at adorable ages oppressed him everywhere he looked.

As often seemed to happen, thinking of his mother made her appear. Sonia de Baum was on the front stoop ringing the doorbell, wearing a white lab coat with “Sonia” stitched on the pocket. Back in Argentina, she’d been an English teacher, but when she came to the U.S. 27 years ago she got a temporary job in the cosmetics department at Saks and never left. Her heavy accent was an asset there, where the saleswomen’s voices evoked the exotic beauty of foreign cities: Tehran, Moscow, Buenos Aires. Julian was only 3 when his family fled. He worked as a translator, and his English had no perceptible accent.

“I got you a few groceries, Hijo,” Sonia said, tilting her cheek for a kiss. In addition to roasted chickens, deli salads, gallons of milk and juice, she’d bought chips, salsa and a couple of six-packs of beer.

“A few groceries?” Julian laughed.

“You could invite friends over,” Sonia said. She looked at him hopefully.

Julian imagined calling his high school buddies: Hey, I just got out of the loony bin—let’s party! “When I think of all the times you tried to prevent me having parties…,” he said.

“Well,” she said, “Papá will be pleased to hear that you’re feeling better and living in a nice house.”

“Give him my love,” Julian said as she left.

He couldn’t really remember his father, though as a child he sometimes overheard his mother talking to him in her bedroom. But whenever Julian opened the door, only Sonia was there. This was because his papá was a desaparecido, a disappeared person.

Night fell, and he decided it was dinnertime. He opened the refrigerator, but making a choice seemed daunting. He retrieved a beer and went into the bedroom and dug out his porn video. Teen House Party, it was called—a college girlfriend had given it to him as a joke years ago. The actors were hilariously beyond their teens, but the hostess of the party, “Shelly,” was pretty and had a trace of acting talent. Julian had never seen her in anything else, though.

He fell asleep before the tape ended, and the great thing was that when he woke up the next morning he knew exactly who and where he was.

Six months earlier, in the D.C. apartment where he was living with his girlfriend, Alison, Julian was sitting at his computer when he heard a siren. He glanced up to see an ambulance careening along Columbia Road. When he looked back at the screen, he suddenly couldn’t decipher the English on the page he was translating.

He wandered around his living room, disoriented, examining the books, furniture and framed Smithsonian art exhibit posters for clues as to where he was. Then he heard a key scrape in the lock of the front door. A blond woman in blue scrubs entered. “Hola,” he said.

“Hola, Julian,” she replied gamely.

“Who are you?” Julian asked in Spanish.

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