The house was quiet went she went in. Isabelle remembered how much she loved going to that house with her parents when she was still a kid. Forty-five minutes away from Chicago, the “lake house,” as she called it, had been her oasis for almost every weekend of her childhood. It was still the morning, and the intensity of the sun forced her to bat her eyelashes to get accustomed to the change of light as she opened the heavy blue metal door. The handmade clay floor kept the house cool for hot summer days like that one. She walked through the living room, with its fireplace, its blue and yellow cushions that were stacked up on top of the wooden benches, and with its two big Indian silver platters at the center that served as tables. She heard the light buzz of the fridge, and heard the wind blowing out the trees in the garden. She opened the door and walked through the terrace.
The garden was deep and surrounded by short stone fences that allowed seeing other houses and their gardens as well. The lake was still and silent, and reflected in its gray waters the contour of the distant mounts, and the buttery yellow and white of the clouds. Everything was calm and looked almost exactly as she remembered. She slowly recognized each plant in the garden, the lush ferns and wildflowers, the creepers that slowly danced around the wide columns of the terrace, and the water lilies swaying on the lake.
She walked through the grass towards the lake and sat down on the stone fence. The rainy season had been generous this year, which allowed her to touch the water with her left hand as she bent forward. She felt the cold water barely touching her fingertips, and smiled when small ripples of water hit the palm of her extended hand.
She looked back towards the house and saw the old oak tree that she had climbed endlessly, and saw the handmade swing that her father had hung when she was seven years old. The wooden seat hung almost twenty feet from the thick branch that held it. She had been the happiest when her father pushed her high up in the air with his strong hands. She remembered feeling her hair being blown by the wind when she went forward, and then how it got in her face and mouth when she was being pulled back by gravity. She used to laugh and scream, hypnotized by the repeating motion. She used to feel eternal.
Like her father, she was a public accountant, and after she had finished her degree, he had taken her under his wing and they had been working together at his office ever since. She liked her job. Helping people made her happy and the predictability that numbers innately provide was calming. Still, her favorite thing about her job was that she got to see her father everyday. A car accident had tragically taken her mother away when she was twelve, and since then, Isabelle and her father held on to each other more than in anything and anyone else in the world.
She reminded herself that she had taken the day off from work to go get her memory box from the house. When she had turned ten years old, she felt she had to do something special to remember that time of her life. She kept thinking that her age would never be just one digit ever again. She felt as she had entered into the realm of the adults, and didn’t know how satisfied she was with that thought. She had compiled in a shoebox all the things that she cared about at the time, had sealed it with scotch tape and promised she would open it at least age forty, her parent’s age at the time. She wasn’t there yet; she had only turned thirty-four that year.
Isabelle’s best friend, Julia, had asked her if she wanted her to go with to the lake house. Since kindergarten, they had been as close as sisters, sharing everything but blood, especially when Isabelle’s mother had passed away. Julia found herself wanting to retreat back to that house with Isabelle, looking to spend as much time as she could with her. She would have given anything to go back in time and relive her time together with her. Isabelle kindly told Julia that she wanted to go alone, but promised she’d share every detail she would find in the box with her.
Isabelle walked back to the house, and went up the spiral staircase. As always, she took a second to look up towards the narrow skylight. The light was amber and warm and she remembered her mother saying how lucky they were because the sun decided to stretch one arm through their roof everyday. At the top of the stairs, she looked again at the family pictures that hung from the wall in various sized frames. She saw a picture of her parents sitting casually at the terrace, another one of her 8th birthday, where she shyly smiled, trying to hide her missing front teeth.
She turned left and opened the door of her bedroom. The blue and white curtains were half open, and she could see the garden and the lake from them. The two beds were made and had the usual floral comforters that she loved. The yellow walls made her comfortable. She went in the bathroom to wash her hands, rolled up the sleeves of her black shirt, and saw herself in the big mirror that lay from the top of the sink to the ceiling. She bent over the sink and looked inside her own eyes, noticing how her pupils dilated and contracted each time she blinked. Her black, wild wavy hair was roughly up in a bun. She noticed the dimple on her left cheek as she smiled. She tilted her head towards her right and saw the scar that ran through her neck. It went up almost to her left ear. It stung when she touched it.
The doctors had found that she had thyroid cancer about two months ago. She had been feeling some pain around her throat and neck for some time now, but she pushed it to the side until she couldn’t ignore it anymore. After going several times to Dr. Newman for testing, the news hit her boldly in the face. She went in for surgery days later. She remembered feeling fragile and feeling the insides of her body hurting as she lay down on the bed with her thin sky-blue robe. After she woke up, Dr. Newman told her that they had found other twenty-four harmful nodules and had to remove them. He recognized in Isabelle the same look he had seen in so many patients by then. He knew what she was thinking, and thought carefully of how to phrase what he too, had said many times before. She looked so young and vibrant in his eyes. He thought she had his daughter’s eyes. He took a deep breath. Hoping that it would be true, he said that most likely, the cancer had not spread out, but they needed to do at least two radiations and some more testing to make sure that there wasn’t any more cancer in her body.
She looked at the colored sunsand moons that she had painted with her mother on the white walls of the bathroom when they built the house. She was around six years old. She saw the crooked eyes and smiles of her blue and purple suns and felt how nostalgia hit her in the stomach.
She went outside of the bathroom and into her closet. She turned on the light, and crouched to find her little military green safe, waiting for her at the corner of the bottom shelf. She took it out and turned the light off. The top of the safe was dusty and made her sneeze. She opened the window and blew the dust off, allowing the morning air to fill her lungs. She sat down at the edge of the bed across from the window, opened the safe using her date of birth as the code. She remembered thinking long and hard of what code to use when, twenty-four years ago. She smiled thinking about how she really thought nobody could ever figure it out. She thought of how wonderful children’s innocence is. She forced her keys into the scotch tape to tear it apart, and finally opened the box.
The smell of cardboard and old paper reached her, as she took out the pink round container of the bubble gum she used to love. Still a kid, she had removed the sticker with the brand name, and had used it instead to keep various sized shells that she looked for alongside the lake. She opened it and found three of them. Then, she moved on to a map of the world that her father had given her in her early childhood. They had spent countless hours by the fireplace at night, and at the porch during the day looking at the lake, discussing where they wanted to travel and why. Isabelle would point out countries and cities and her father would describe all the places and tell stories about them. She never knew if he had gone to those places, but she didn’t care. Her favorites were Morocco, Thailand, and Bora Bora. She remembered how much fun she had rolling her tongue to that name. Bora Bora. Her father always laughed and pinched her cheeks when she did that. She also found her favorite shoelaces of the sneakers she used until her mom told her she couldn’t use them anymore because they were so torn. They were tied up in a knot, and were electric blue with purple glitter. Oscar Wilde’s short stories lay silent at the bottom of the box. Her mother used to read them to her before she went to bed. She knew them almost by heart, and remembered the cover as a clear picture in her mind. The pocket-sized edition had a watercolor of a rose and a hummingbird. She opened it, and saw the dried daffodil she had so carefully squished in between the pages. Some of its yellow ink had sunk into the paper. There was a subtle halo of the beauty preserved in it. Her 4th grade picture from school was there, too. She remembered her teacher, Miss Blanchard and how sweet she was. Her hair was short, dyed and blow dried, and from her thick neck hung a pair of glasses with golden frames. She looked proudly at the camera. The kids in the picture were struggling to stay still. Some of the boys had tucked out their shirts, and some others had a little bit of dirt on their faces. The girls looked at the others, imitating whomever they thought was the prettiest. She was no different. Nevertheless, she could feel their freedom, their carelessness. She wanted to unburden herself and feel that again, and knew that she had to reconcile with her ten-year-old self and re-learn it.
She then picked up a folded striped sheet of paper, which had a heart drawn at each corner of it. It took her a second to realize what it was. Her friend Julia and her had written down the features of their perfect man, and remembered how they had both drawn little pictures of the men they thought they’d love. She relived the excitement she felt as a kid as she saw her handwriting in colored pens. She wanted a man who was tall and fair skinned, a man who had black hair, blue eyes and a kind smile. She wanted a man who loved the same music she liked, who liked to travel around the world and who would go on walks with her. She had never found that man. Isabelle didn’t realize she was crying until her father called her phone.
“Hi sweetheart, how are you? Are you at the house already?”
“Hi Dad… yeah, I got here about an hour ago.”
“Are you all right? You sound…”
“Yes, I’m fine Dad” interrupted Isabelle, now smiling. “Thank you. I should be going back pretty soon, I’ll let you know when I’m near the office. Maybe we can grab lunch, or something?”
“Of course, it’s on me. Give me a call when you’re around, okay?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Isabelle. More than you’ll ever know.”
She hung up the phone. She gathered herself and went to the bathroom again, this time to wash her face. She was happier than usual to see her father, but knew why.
Her cancer had already begun to spread. The clock was ticking fast for her.