It’s strange coming back to a house no longer your home. At first, as you drive down familiar streets, you feel almost as if you’re returning from a long vacation. You pick out particular places as you pass: the turn to the library, the Safeway shopping center you’ve walked to many times, the swimming pool at the end of your street. The house comes into view just as you remember, except that the lawn and garden are overgrown and the two flags- one large American flag by the garage and a smaller garden flag in the dying flower patch- are nowhere to be seen.
The garage door rumbles upward, and your van inches in, careful to avoid the close sides of the doorway. And here, in the garage, are the first reminders that you’re not really home. The shelves are empty of tools; the bikes no longer hang from the ceiling. Where the refrigerator was, an unused door leans against the wall. On the far side of the garage, a small American flag hangs in the place of your large one, like a child trying to take his missing father’s place. Only a can of paint and a few other miscellaneous items remain, abandoned by workers who slipped in while you were gone.
You walk up the three steps and into the house, and with one breath you know it’s changed. The air is sharp with the scents of fresh paint and new carpet. “Shoes off before you go on the carpet,” your parents order, as if you’re strangers in a house for sale. The whole place feels strangely new. The carpet is too soft beneath your feet, the newly-painted walls too white, as if you and your sister hadn’t spent twelve years of your lives growing up here. Nothing else looks as it should either. Some rooms seem achingly large when before they were just big enough; other rooms that once were comfortably cozy seem to have shrunk to half their size. Many seem the wrong color, though maybe that’s just because of the carpet and paint again. All the rooms, touched or untouched by workers, are echoing empty. Only the curtains limply hanging over windows and the tiny holes in the walls where pictures hung suggest you lived here at all.
The first re-exploration done, you and your family scrub and vacuum the house to rid it of all the paint and carpet fuzz left by workmen’s tramping feet. Before long, the citrus-bleach scent of cleaning supplies and the dusty odor of old vacuum cleaners cover up the paint and carpet smells, and the roar of the vacuum and the competing music in your headphones fill in the echoes. Yet you cannot forget that this is not your home, not anymore.