My House Burned Down
Winner, 2015 Livershot Memoir Contest
About the Writer
Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the chapbook Twenty-Something and Assistant Editor at sunnyoutside press. She has been an artist in residence at Yaddo and her work has been published with Tin House, Everyday Genius, Entropy and Hobart. More at tatianaryckman.com.
In most cases, “My house burned down” is a get out of jail free card. For instance, “I’m sorry officer, I can’t find my ID, my car, I mean my house, burned down. Let me riffle through all my worldly possessions in the back seat to find it for you.” And subsequently, “Sorry I’m late, boss, I got pulled over on my way. Also, my house burned down.”
Even in cases like, “Sorry I smell like BBQ, but my house, you know? It burned down.” And the woman by the liqueur store, who is selling things out of her car, smells me coming and says, “Hey girl, you wear perfume? I know you wear perfume.” And I say, “No, I don’t actually. I don’t even wear deodorant.” And then with the gin in my hand good as open, I wonder why I just said that to a stranger.
People are nicer than you think they are. I mean, people are nicer than I thought they were.
When my house burned down I got to stay at other peoples’ houses. Like a vacation where someone holds a pillow over your face the whole time. I stayed in the kind of places that have bathrooms that make you look good. The lighting turns the shower into a rainbow. It looks like a party, like someone is so happy to see you that they keep throwing a constant spray of glitter in your face. The light is so bright and clear it makes you look clean. Even if you’re not.
A lot of people said, “You have renter’s insurance, right?” And this surprised me, because I’d thought it was a scam.
A week before the lawn mower exploded in the living room, the people on the phone insuring my scooter said I could get a special rate on renters insurance. They quoted a number that seemed foolishly low. And I said, No no, that’s not necessary. What could happen? What do I care $19 a year about?
You remember all the stuff you care about when it turns black and melts to everything else you care about.
It’s like this story a woman at work told me. Her sister got the better health care package—you know, just in case—right before she found out she had cancer. Some people have all the luck.
For a few weeks I wanted to tell people just to see them react. Like in the grocery store, when I’d buy cereal next to someone who was really stocking their pantry. They had a pantry, so they were going to fill it. And I’d imagine myself saying, “That sure is a cart full,” and they’d laugh awkwardly because that’s a weird thing to say. It’s weird to talk to people in line at the grocery store at all. And they say, “Yeah.” And I’d say, before even I see it coming, “You must have a nice place to put all that.” I don’t know if they think I’m talking about their house or their mouth. I’m not sure what I’m talking about either. And they’d say, “Uh ...” and I say, “Sorry, my house burned down.” And they’d say, “Uh ...”
It’s funny, though, that “My house burned down,” does not work on ex-boyfriends. They say, “What’s new?” and when you tell them about your house they just say, “Oh, by the way, I saw you last week waiting in line for that show, I was looking for a parking spot.” And you know they mean, I saw you with someone new.
And then they ask you to meet for brunch in 30 minutes and get angry that you can’t make it. That they have to cancel a reservation you didn’t know about. That you cried for ten minutes either because you can’t find a stapler or because you’ve just realized you haven’t slept in seven days.
It’s funny, though, I hadn’t really planned on telling anyone.