My mother asked me what I wanted for my fifteenth birthday. My request was simple but urgent. I wanted a room with a lock—more precisely, I wanted the back room with the back door that allowed me to escape the house itself.
The back room had lived many lives, as had this house. My parents bought the suburban Texas house in the early ‘80s, after several sellers rejected my father despite having higher educational and financial qualifications than that of our majority white neighbor counterparts. This fact would remain a foundation by which this house and our family began its story.
When my parents moved in, the back room was an average garage. It was quickly converted into a home office for my dad, and then finally, a few years later, it was turned into a bedroom. My older brother occupied this back bedroom for much of his time in high school. When he moved out, I began petitioning for the space and after a lot of persistence and annoyance, my mom said yes, and the room was mine.
Many nights, I would finish off a plate of mom’s chana gobi, leave a dirty plate in the sink for her, and slip behind my door, lock it, walk through that back door and come out on the other side suddenly able to do all the things that my mother would never allow.
I’d end up meeting for dates with boyfriends or smoking cigarettes and talking with friends on wooden bench swings on their identical front porches. It really wasn’t the boyfriends or friends or free cigarettes or parties that drove my desire for a back room of my own though. It was access to the roof. It was access to more.
We had this really rickety fence that I climbed to get onto the roof of the house. Each year, the paint would peel off a little here and there or the railing became wobblier than usual, and each year the same repairman who built the faulty fence in the first place would repaint the incredibly ugly, not-quite-brown-not-quite-orange color a more palatable shade.
The fence swayed just enough to make you feel like you had to hold your breath or pray each time you scaled it. That feeling of danger was always there from my first time on the roof to my last.
Our house didn’t contain the higher peaks of a two-story house, so it wasn’t as fully removed from the street below. You could walk along its mostly horizontal shillings like you were on common ground. Because the streetlamps weren’t tucked out of site, they mixed with the night sky and created this imperfect foggy view that I grew to love.
My house had lived many lives and told many stories. I remember lavish Christmas parties where the inside and outside of the house was decorated in excess of reds and greens—with icicle lights coating the perimeter of the roof. I remember two dining tables covered in fine china, a more than five course meal, and multiple options for dessert. I remember the same three Christmas CDs we played every year. I remember those parties like a faint wound, of a time that won’t return.
The house told other stories too. There were arguments my parents had over money and in-laws and their children. There was my dad beating my brother when he was just a child. There was my mom putting me on diet medication when I was still a minor. There was my dad wanting a different kind of son and my mother wanting a different kind of daughter. There was silence where there should’ve been loud. There was loud that could have been quieter.
By the time I was gifted the back room, there were neither parties nor full houses. It was just my mom and me and the silence about our shared history spent in my father’s house before his passing. There was everything that came after this loss. Before and after, there was the roof.
Sitting on the edge of the roof with my legs hanging below, I could see the soft pink flowers of our mimosa trees floating off a branch, the stiff shaped juniper trees which stood taller than the roof.
I could smell the roses from the garden, just after the sprinklers had turned off, the summer wind pushing the floral scent up towards me. On Saturday nights, I could smell the aromas of my mom’s vegetable curries sneak through the vents of the roof. They were meant for lunch after church the next day, but I’d often sneak a small bowl.
Sometimes, I could hear the murmurs of neighbors in conversation, but on those extra hot Texas summer nights, all I could hear was the buzzing of locusts stuck to mailboxes and front porch posts.
That’s when I would move towards the back of the house, towards the pool. A place I had a complicated relationship with. The pool had been finished the day my dad died. He was going to take a half-day and pull me out from school early so he and mom and I could try out the pool. I would sit above and look down at its soft glow of blue, the buzzing of the pool vac, the reflection of the rotating pool light on my hands shone red, blue, green, red, blue, green.
Most of the time, I would lie with my back against the roof of my house and all the stories it contained. I would wonder if my mother could hear my feet moving from place to place. I sat up there whether it was cold or hot outside, whether there were Texas-sized mosquitoes buzzing around my ears or not. I would lie against the tiles of the roof and I would look up. I had this giant foundation beneath me, but when I looked up, I saw more.
My mom spent most of my childhood attempting to correct her tomboy daughter from climbing trees, from playing contact sports with boys, from never brushing my hair or dressing ladylike enough, for risking falling off the roof I kept climbing.
But one day she stopped telling me not to climb the roof. I think she understood that I needed the space up there. I think she also needed the space below. It was a quiet compromise that we never spoke of, but at a certain point, she stopped paying attention to my behavior entirely. That’s when the nights on the roof became more frequent. She would sit in her room and I would sit on my roof. I’d like to think that we both began to heal some wounds together, with no more than an attic in between us.
We shared but never really spoke about our complicated love and grief for a man who was at once incredibly loving and incredibly flawed. Who had been rejected access to the American Dream more times than one could count.
Who we had witnessed harm my brother, her son. The things we hated to admit.
Who sometimes had to ask for help and became angry. The things we hated to admit.
Who was so busy surviving as an immigrant father in the South that I’m not convinced he was able to be happy. The things we hate to admit.
Who wasn’t always the husband she wanted, nor the father my brother and I needed.
But he was still my father, still her husband. And this was his house.
My mother wasn’t the type that voiced approval or love. Instead, she made your favorite dish or gifted you something. About a year after I moved into that back room, my mom gifted me a shiny star pendant necklace. I loved it instantly. A few weeks later, while some romantic comedy played on mute in the background of the living room, my mom casually told me a story about her grandfather, my great-grandfather. He was my mom’s favorite.
She said he’d hike up to the highest peaks of the neighborhood parks to escape the world below. Sometimes he brought his grandchildren along for the adventure.
They’d sit on wooden benches together as he taught them the star constellations. She said sometimes he’d go up alone and spend an hour looking up into the sky without saying a word. She told me that I had been the only person she knew as obsessed with the night sky as he was. And she told me all of this a few weeks after gifting me the necklace, casually, as if they were isolated incidents.
I wore that necklace for years. I used to tell people that it reminded me of God, that the night sky reminded me of God too.
Now, I know that was my way of simplifying something that I did not know how to communicate then, that I’m still learning now—that my mother and I had always shared this deep grief—on either side of that roof—and that climbing to the top, even in doubt, was worthwhile.