My paternal grandmother lived in a brick ranch, with white trim and black shutters that didn’t close, in a small Ohio town. Her house was two doors down from where her ex-husband and his second wife lived until they grew old and were parceled out to nursing homes and cemeteries. Her second husband, my grandfather, died of emphysema and alcoholism before I was born. In my earliest memories, she is already old, sitting in her blue-gray recliner in her blue-gray living room, wearing navy polyester pants or a burgundy velour sweatsuit. She perpetually waits for her Meals on Wheels, or Wheel of Fortune, her waterbed, Sunday lunch at our house. Her kitchen was carpeted and smelled of frozen dinner rolls. The most exciting thing to happen there was the garter snake sliding past my foot as I pulled weeds around her marigolds. I had just read “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” in my fourth-grade English textbook, and envisioned Emily Dickinson in my grandmother’s backyard, looking towards the neighbor’s field of horses and the ethered Ohio sky as she wrote.
My grandmother gave us socks for Christmas and birthdays, except the ninth birthday when she gave me the forbidden Barbie doll (Mom relented). I inherited her pink glass sugar and creamer set when I was thirteen and her burgundy 1983 Chevy Cavalier when I was sixteen; the wedding ring I was supposed to inherit was long gone. By then, she was shrinking up inside a Kentucky nursing home. When I was twenty-eight—when she had been dead eleven years—I bought a house in Indiana. Red brick, white trim, black shutters. I tore out the carpet and the post-mature evergreen shrubs, then painted all the walls blue and gray. I still live here, five years after the divorce.
I dreamed of divorces for a long time before I saw one. Summer after summer I’d awake in thick Ohio heat, having dreamt my parents were splitting up. I felt only an uneasy relief when it wasn’t true. A month into their reconciliation, I dreamed my father ran off again. In the afternoon, I found out he had.
I’ve been divorced from my first husband almost as long as we were married now, but I still dream he appears at a party after the split, oversized polo shirt and cargo pants, face quivering, asking me to relent and come home. Sometimes my now-husband is standing in the corner, arms folded across his chest, waiting to see what I do. I stand between two doorways, cringing. In my dreams, my ex does not scare me. He is not the person I thought might kill me that last day of December. He’s just a sad boy, the version who brought overdone baked goods and re-marriage proposals to therapy, who pouted when I said I wasn’t coming home. Sometimes, he’s even the person I loved.
In real life, I could recognize when to set my jaw, think screw you, and walk out. In dreams, he’s just sad and annoying so I stay at the party, sometimes thinking of leaving, sometimes knowing I’m going to leave, sometimes knowing I already have. But I never move. Some mornings, three years after remarrying, I wake up in a haze of dread or guilt. I look out the window into the grey light, then roll my still-pounding body towards my husband’s. I try to fall asleep, heart tapping out a rhythm: relief. Guilt. Relief. Guilt.
In a strange mercy, I’ve been dreaming of houses lately. In every version, I own a house that used to belong to my grandmother, but this time it’s not our brick one-story ranch, but a big midcentury right next to the neighbor’s glorious yellow Victorian. I appear on a split-level staircase, or the tiled back patio, looking around the yellow walls and varnished furniture for the first time. Right before the dream ends, I am walking into a room I didn’t know I had; every furnishing in the room is a blaze of velvet and gold.
One night in a long week away from home, I spend four minutes of a phone call wondering why my husband’s phone voice sounded so much like my ex’s, and after too many unanswered texts and phone calls, my old paranoia and loneliness flare up. I begin to dread sleep, wondering if the ex-husband dreams are due to come back, wondering if my grandmother dreamed of ex-husbands too. I hope, instead, she dreamed she owned a house with extra rooms, and papered it in gold, just for me.
Katie Karnehm-Esh, professor of English at Indiana Wesleyan University, graduated from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, with a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. She has published creative nonfiction and poetry at Fourth Genre, The Other Journal, Topology, Whale Road Review, and Windhover, and writes regularly at annesleywritersforum.com.