Kate McQuade

If I Don’t Answer

Ghosts in the house. Scampers in the walls, rustles in the ceiling. A steady thumping above our bed at night. We had moved in only weeks ago, to this new-to-us (but still quite old) faculty house at the Massachusetts boarding school where I work. So we were still getting used to the pops and complaints of its inner workings: the clicking whistle of the radiators, the basement pulse of the water heater’s heartbeat. But these scuttling sounds were new.

Our bedroom door drifted open, gold light splitting the dark. “What was that noise, Mama?” I told the girls the house was just settling. “What does settling mean, Mama?” I told them sometimes a house has to stretch its arms and legs a little, just like a person, and sometimes it creaks a little, just like a person. They bought what I knew was fiction and I walked them back to their shared room, tucked them into bed.

In the hallway their older brother—eight years old and skeptical—was standing there with his eyebrow raised. I waited for him to ask about the noise. He could handle the truth, I decided; he’s never been afraid of animals, and this was certainly an animal of some kind.

But he didn’t ask. He just arched his eyebrow higher, a new trick, then walked to his bedroom and closed the door without a word.

My son’s door-closing tendency was a new phenomenon, like the eyebrow. Both seemed to have coincided with the move out of our previous school housing assignment—a bustling, light-filled dorm apartment, the only home my kids had ever known—and into this quiet faculty house at the edge of campus. It was a lot of change at once, and I attributed my son’s new habits to the transition, along with what I can describe only as his sudden evasiveness: a new introversion that didn’t necessarily seem unhappy, but which I wasn’t sure how to interpret. On moving day, as the girls ran up and down the stairs and shouted to each other—about the huge bathrooms, the nooks and crannies, the fairy lights I’d strung up before unpacking because I desperately wanted my children to love this new home—my son’s first activity was to make a sign for his bedroom. He hung it on the door with shiny plastic tape: PLEASE KNOK. IF I DONT ANSWER, I AM NOT HERE.

The closed doors weren’t the only change. It was around this time that my son stopped saying “I love you” back to me when I tucked him in at night. Not always, and not out of anger as far as I could tell. Mostly, it seemed, he did it because he could: a closed-lip smile and a slightly patronizing pat on my arm as he rolled over in bed, turning his face away. My unanswered words always dangled there awkwardly, like half an echo.

Mapping this new phase of parenthood felt like mapping the interior of a new house. It takes you a while to remember which light switch goes to which light, which direction to crank the windows, which cabinet is the one you decided would be right for the frying pans. In our old apartment, my son had shared a room with his sister, and he had never closed the door. Not once. We have always been a family of open doors, both figurative and literal—even now, I sometimes have to remind my daughters that it’s polite to use the bathroom in privacy when company is over—and I wondered if his new habit was a reprimand of sorts, a quiet protest of our move. Or maybe it had nothing to do with the move, or nothing to do with protest; maybe it was actually an expression of excitement, a claim to what was, for the first time, his very own unshared space.

In those first few weeks, as summer bent its light toward fall, my son continued to close his door every evening, the PLEASE KNOK sign fluttering stubbornly from its single piece of tape. I always knocked, and he always invited me in, although sometimes he wouldn’t answer the door right away. I would stand in the hallway and wonder if he hadn’t heard me. Then I would wonder if he had. I would imagine him behind the door imagining me. I imagined whole stories in my head about what he must be thinking, and as far as I knew, all of them were fiction.

For the first time, my son—the very first child I ever made—was a mystery to me, as distant and furtive as a thump in the night.

“Flying squirrels,” said the technician from the Office of the Physical Plant, when I called about the noises in the walls. “And probably not the last of them.” They like to pair off, he explained. Where you find one of them, you’ll always find two, sometimes whole colonies. It’s very hard to know if and when you’ve trapped the last one. And if you don’t get down to the very last one, they’ll just repopulate again. “You see, they’re nesting animals,” he said, holding up his hands.

The OPP technician explained that we should take care of the infestation now, because nesting animals meant mating animals, and because the squirrels might chew through electrical wires in the walls. He explained the pros and cons of Have-a-Heart traps, which would require someone to drive the trapped squirrels all the way to the coast to set them loose. If you released them within ten miles of the house, they would eventually find their way back to the attic, a fact that felt both magical and sad at the same time.

That fall, I was often getting up to work on my novel before the kids were awake. The house in those pre-dawn hours was dead silent, which made any noise seem outsized and dramatic. One morning, a sudden rustle in the ceiling broke the quiet, and I couldn’t help but imagine that the attic had been empty until that moment—that a squirrel had just ended, triumphantly, its long journey home. For a moment, I pitied that squirrel for not knowing how short-lived the triumph would be. How foolish it was to allow one’s heart such a permanent attachment to an impermanent situation.

Then I made a note to call OPP about more traps.

My son hadn’t wanted to move in the first place. None of my children had. Our old apartment had been attached to a dorm of forty freshmen girls—teaching at a boarding school means living at a boarding school, so running a dorm was part of my job for many years—and my kids were accustomed to the constant, muffled rumble of human life on the other side of their bedroom walls. They were used to girls coming over to play with them, to take them sledding and build snowmen in the dorm’s front yard. They didn’t feel the fatigue I felt at having lived in some version of a dormitory for nearly two decades. They didn’t share my desire to live, for the first time in my adult life, in an actual house—to create more time for my writing, more energy for my teaching, more space for our family, more uninterrupted togetherness in a house we could finally call our own.

Not that it was really our house. It was a campus house designated for faculty, and so like any rented or borrowed space, this house had its share of ghosts. From time to time, their presence would pop up: in the hatch marks of another child’s growth inside a doorframe. Or on the cream-colored walls, where framed pictures had once hung for so long, they left hazy gray outlines around blank squares. Once, in the basement, we saw something glinting amid the cotton-candy fluff of pink insulation and pulled a golf club out of the ceiling. Sometimes the ghosts were strange.

But of course, such strangeness is common. A home is always a collection of memories masquerading as a private space, and unless you built that home yourself, only a fraction of those memories belongs to you. What’s different about living at a boarding school is that you almost always know the ghosts personally. Your home was once the home of your academic dean, or your best friend, or the father of your co-coach, a woman who runs her hands along the railings with deep familiarity because she grew up in this house before leaving for college, then returning to teach on the other side of campus. Your colleagues ask where you’ve moved to, and they don’t know which house you mean until you say, “You know, John Smith’s old house.” And they light up with a recognition you have yet to feel yourself.

Living at a boarding school amplifies the impermanence of the places any of us live, as well as the fictiveness of ownership, in a way that must mirror what boarding school is like for the children who attend it: a pit stop of a home, a temporary stay, just one thin layer in the nesting doll of residences we will accumulate throughout our lives.

Still, I told myself we’d all get used to this new house. My son included. We’d grow to love it like we loved our old dorm apartment, the home I’d finally (and, I worried, selfishly) moved us away from. It takes three months, my friend had told me, for a new house to really feel like your own. I held onto that timeline like a talisman and checked it occasionally as the fall deepened its cold: three months, two months, a month and a half to go. By that three-month finish line, I decided, we would all feel at home again. We would have joined together with the ghosts to co-create this space, to make it as much ours as theirs. My guilt and uncertainty about moving would have disappeared into the shadows, departing to a place where I couldn’t see them, somewhere behind the scuttling walls and closed doors I tried my best, in the meantime, to ignore.

For several weeks, while the kids were in school and day care, I brought the OPP technician up to the attic crawlspace to set squirrel traps and check them. The access point was in the ceiling of a closet in the girls’ room. My son’s room was right next door and the attic extended to his ceiling, but there was no hatch in there, no entry point. No reason to enter when OPP came to deal with the traps, although sometimes I entered his room anyway after the technician left. In the silent house, I admired the way he had organized his books in rows, his trophies lined up in chronological order, his hand-drawn papers neatly piled—stacked pages of graphic novels he was beginning to write himself. He has always been both methodical and creative. He has always been like me, so easy for me to understand.

I knew how proud he was of his well-organized shelves because he showed them to me sometimes when he invited me in. Glowed when I told him what a wonderful job he does keeping his room clean. Still, without him there, it felt like a betrayal to enter with that sign taped to the door. I did it anyway, guiltily, because seeing everything so carefully nestled in its place made me believe he loved his room—loved, perhaps, the house itself. On his shelves, all his trinkets were lined up from tallest to shortest, like dismantled nesting dolls arranged with great precision.

If this essay were fiction, I would tell you next how my son, at three years old, used to love opening up the nesting dolls that sat on his day care teacher’s desk. I would describe how he unpacked them layer by layer, each smooth wooden lady with her bright, painted face housing a smaller one, which housed a smaller one, which housed another and another—all of them culminating, finally, with a tiny baby at the center. That central doll was the only one you couldn’t take apart, couldn’t open and close to reveal its mysteries. When you stacked the women back together, it was the baby you could hear rattling invisibly behind the many layers.

If this were a story, I could tell you how proud my son’s face looked when he finally got to the whole doll in the middle. How he wrapped his chubby fingers around her possessively until she disappeared, all the other halved dolls lined up at the edge of the desk, sorted from largest to smallest.

But this isn’t fiction, so I can’t tell that story. The dolls are true, and so is their neat descension on the desk, but it was my daughter who liked to line them up, my daughter whose anecdote fits best into this essay. It was her action, not his, that I would find myself remembering when I looked at my son’s neat shelves; it was her metaphor that could be useful now, a convenient and illustrative fiction, as I try to describe how it felt to have him pat my arm and turn away at bedtime. He was a boy, suddenly, of many invisible layers, stacked up inside him where I couldn’t reach. He liked to wear tomorrow’s T-shirt to bed each night, and in the pale gold cast by the reading lamp, his little-boy back was as blank and white as a wall, as inaccessible as a house to which you have no key: a closed door, a sudden move, a departure.

Behind his bedroom’s walls: another squirrel in a trap. A few days later: nothing. A few weeks after that: nothing.

“Maybe that’s really the last one,” said the technician, and I nodded, not really believing him. Through all of this, I still hadn’t actually seen a single squirrel with my own eyes. They were as simultaneously real and imaginary as all the other ghosts who had lived in this house before us—the makers of hatch marks and owners of golf clubs—and who was to say their presence would ever really be gone?

Certainly, I felt protective of our home and its invisible, vulnerable wires. I felt something as close to ownership as living at a boarding school allows you to feel. Get out of this house, my traps said to the squirrels. Get out of my house. Mine. The problem was, they didn’t believe it either.

It’s tempting, as a parent, to want to extend that desire for ownership to our children. Why aren’t you acting like the person I thought you were, the person I made, the person who has always belonged to me? Those first hints of growing up and going away—the earliest glimpses of the fact that our children will someday leave us—are, of course, as healthy as they are heartbreaking. As parents, we are only borrowed rooms. That’s what we’re meant to be.

Writing fiction is no different. We writers might like to pretend that we invent our characters wholesale, that their lives stop at the edge of our pages. But that’s not how characters work, any more than children. The people we invent on the page are vastly incomplete. They need to be, because readers invent a character’s life at least as much as writers do. Readers pick up where the writer left off and imagine what isn’t there; they take bits and pieces from their own lives and use them to stuff the gaps we’ve left behind. They put different pictures on the walls. It’s through this process of co-creation that readers are able to live, for a time, in the worlds we have made for them. Without the gaps—without a writer’s willingness to let go of ownership and control—there is no space for the reader to breathe, to find their own home in the work.

As a fiction writer, I know all of this. I believe wholeheartedly that what a reader sees in my fiction is just as valid as what I intended to put there. My characters have no real-world correlatives, no truths the reader might misunderstand. But as someone writing about my family, that way of thinking feels dangerous. You have, in this essay, a tiny version of my son—and I don’t want you to get him wrong.

For example, the boy you have seen in this essay so far is quiet, aloof, possibly resentful of me but probably just growing into his own independence. He is a boy who occasionally likes to be alone, a boy who is smart and skeptical and organized, and all of these versions of him are true. Sometimes.

But what you don’t see are all the other little boys stacked inside him, which are at least as true, and cumulatively more true, than the single version I’ve given you. How can I trust you to assemble him when you have only one layer? You see the boy who doesn’t always say “I love you” back. But you don’t see the boy who wakes early to join me in my office when I get up to write, the boy who arrives when it’s still dark outside, turns my desk chair around, and curls up in my lap like a baby, gangly limbs spilling everywhere. You don’t see the boy who dances along to The Who after dinner, who loves a lip sync battle above all else, whose belly-laugh is so brazen it instantly makes other people laugh out loud. You don’t see the kind and outgoing boy teachers lean on when other kids need a patient classmate to guide them. You don’t see the boy so loving that his love often doesn’t need words at all—the boy who does pratfalls in front of crying toddlers until they smile, who stoops down on the living room floor and patiently picks up every single fallen bead that his necklace-making sisters have dropped, and who does all of this, at eight, without ever being asked.

We invent just as much when we tell the truth as we do when we write fiction. Maybe more, because silence is a kind of storytelling, and often the silence will mislead you entirely.

For a long time, we were in a cycle. One squirrel in the trap. Another. Sometimes days would pass without a sound, sometimes whole weeks. But always, eventually, they would return, and the silence would be broken: again, the thumping from above, again the phone call, again the traps.

The children never seemed to notice. They didn’t ask about the noises anymore. Maybe they didn’t hear them, or maybe they had just come to associate the sounds with this house whose idiosyncrasies felt increasingly familiar—its rustles and bumps as much a part of its personality as its strangely large bathrooms, its creatively placed light switches. Perhaps the noises made the house feel, oddly, like home. The sounds of the squirrels weren’t all that different from the rumble and distant laughter of forty teenage girls.

As fall became winter and we spent more time indoors, I didn’t always remember to call OPP the moment I heard scratching. I didn’t startle anymore when I heard the scuttle of tiny bodies above me. At times, it took me a moment to register that I was hearing anything at all. The rustles faded into the soundtrack of our lives, the kind of noise you both hear and don’t hear, like the hum of children playing pretend in another room.

Here is another boy you haven’t yet seen in this essay:

When my son was a baby, he had a tendency to throw his hands high into the air the second we unswaddled him after a nap. We called it the “victory stretch.” The action was so predictable, such a pantomime of irrepressible joy, that my husband and I soon associated it with what would someday become his personality. An early glimpse: he would be jubilant, we decided, and maybe a little bit wild, an open-hearted boy without inhibition or reserve. We watched him throw up his arms again and again, and he made us laugh, and our laughter, eventually, made him laugh back, and in this way, we created who he was. Or we thought so.

What is love if not invention?

Of course, as the years passed and more of our friends had babies, we realized that this illustration of our son’s personality was in fact a common newborn reflex. We watched baby after baby throw their hands straight up after being freed from the swaddle. We came to recognize the action as unremarkable, as trite as all the other glimpses of infants that, even today, will crack the past back open instantly, return me to the tiny person my son was then, the boy I invented, still rattling around somewhere deep inside him, or maybe somewhere inside me: that specific, velvet downiness of a baby’s earlobe; the smell of a newborn’s hair; the way their tiny hand curls tight around your finger. These are Hallmark-card memories, utterly commonplace, shared by parents everywhere. They are clichés, which doesn’t make them untruthful. But it turns out they’re only a very small part of the intricate boy my son is becoming, an even smaller part of the man he will become, and by far the least interesting.

We can invent the people we love, to a point. But the people we love, with their wonderful and heartbreaking and singular mysteries, are so much better at inventing themselves.

When I was near the end of my pregnancy, my son would sometimes victory-stretch his arms and legs inside my belly. I could actually see the twin lumps of his hands sliding around beneath my skin, pressing the smooth white walls of my stomach as if he were impatient to escape. I remember the rumbling inside me, and our shared anticipation for the moment he would finally leave the temporary room of my body—the moment he would, for the first time, no longer be only mine.

There was nothing sad about this idea then, nothing frightening, nothing that felt like departure. Actually, its opposite.

I can’t wait to meet you, I would tell him, pressing my hands against the outline of his. I can’t wait to see who you are.

After I put the girls to bed each night, I scratch my son’s back before he goes to sleep. This has become our new ritual, a tradition born of this house. We never used to do this in the dorm apartment. But in my son’s solitary bedroom—where no other siblings can be covetous of my attention, counting the minutes to ensure their equal allotment of back-scratch time—we are free to share this moment quietly, for as long as we want.

My son turns toward the wall when I scratch his back, and it’s often while looking away that he tells me things I’ve never heard him talk about before—his secret worries about friends and school, the new complexities of the third-grade social scene, what he wants to do when he grows up, who he wants to be. They are details I can’t divulge here because to do so would be to betray a confidence already stretched thin by the writing of this story in any form, the creation of the boy you see here, who is far from the boy he really is. But I can tell you this: at night, as a cold spring relaxes its grip on the newly budding world outside, I press my fingers against his back, a blank expanse that has already far outspanned my grasp, and he sighs happily. I rub circles slowly against his shirt, around and around, like you might wipe away the dust on a window.

When we both get drowsy, I tell him goodnight. I always tell him I love him. Sometimes he says it back; sometimes he smiles and nods, even winks, with an intimate silence that has gathered a different resonance since the fall. I close the door and go downstairs and after a while, I hear his footsteps through the ceiling: the creak of the floorboards, then his door clicking open, then the flick of his light switch turning off. This is another new ritual, the way he opens his door every night before he goes to sleep. It’s something I know to expect now, a ritual that feels like it will never change. Until someday, of course, it does.

The night sinks into a familiar quiet. Down in the living room, I listen to the stillness from my favorite spot on our old green sectional. The squirrels are gone tonight, and the squirrels will be back eventually, and if my children ask, I will tell them that the house is settling, and it will be.

Kate McQuade is the author of the story collection Tell Me Who We Were (William Morrow, 2019) and the novel Two Harbors (Harcourt, 2005). Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Harvard Review, Memorious, Shenandoah, and Verse Daily, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Lily for The Washington Post, LitHub, and TIME Magazine. Her honors include scholarships and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Women’s International Study Center, and Yaddo. Born and raised in Minnesota, she teaches at Phillips Academy, Andover, where she lives with her husband and three children.