Grief, Dreams, and Unlikely Bedfellows
Harmony House: Episode 13
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
Paid subscribers get access to read and listen to all of “Harmony House” in addition to my other serial novel, “The Memory of My Shadow” and my entire archive of stories, essays, and videos.
In the last episode, we learned more about Fran’s background, in particular, her failed marriage and her devout Christian faith. A reality show aficionado, she is always looking for an angle to manipulate the other contestants in a way that will allow her to win the competition. This strategy blew up in her face when her prejudiced view of Riley was laid bare during their conversation. She tried to recover afterward by flirting with Deepu. While she made similar insensitive remarks about his ethnicity in their conversation, Deepu seemed unaffected and laughed it off. It was not entirely clear whether he was laughing at her or with her.
Jessie was beginning to get worried. They were days into this thing, and nothing had unfolded quite as he had expected it would. Aside from the minor drama with Cam almost getting voted out, there had been no real drama or obvious alliances. The six of them had just coexisted in this tiny space, walking around each other, and having the occasional polite exchange at mealtimes. At this rate, he’d never win.
He was surprised to find that he was not nearly as irritated with his housemates as he would have predicted. Even at close range, he found them no more or less intolerable than most people. He had spent so much of the last three years in his isolated routine working from home and backpacking in the woods on the weekends that he had forgotten there was some comfort in the physical proximity of other humans.
This morning he was in the loft with Jayden and her radiant warmth in the confined space awakened something tender in him that he’d mostly forgotten existed. The sleeping arrangement had not been his choosing. After the first two nights, the group had collectively decided to try out a sleeping rotation plan though not one as complex as the advanced calculus Riley had proposed on the first night. They drew straws. Not straws exactly, but strips of paper with a sleeping assignment written on one end.
To make it less awkward, he had insisted she go to bed first and settle in for sleep. An hour later when he climbed the narrow ladder in the dark and crawled into the covers, he expected her to be snoring softly, but it was silent. He wondered if she was even in the bed but after his eyes adjusted, he could make out the form of her pressed against the outside wall. He knew she was probably awake, and it bothered him to think she might be frightened of him. He had debated for several minutes whether to say something, unsure if the tension he felt vibrating through the mattress was just his anxiety. He decided it was best to just be still and quiet.
This was easily the best view in the house. He had stared up into the night sky for a long time before closing his eyes and commencing his meditative breathing. He felt the tension between them, whether real or imagined, begin to relax by degrees until it disappeared beneath the soft waves of her breathing which played counterpoint to his.
He startled awake from his standard nightmare at one point in the early hours before dawn. He didn’t know where he was. When he got his bearings, he was worried that he’d screamed or thrashed and awakened his sleeping partner. He was relieved to hear her gentle snores. In sleep she had given up her post against the far wall and migrated toward the center of the bed, her arm nearly touching his. It had been surprisingly easy for him to fall back asleep. In the past, the nightmare would never release its hold on him and he would have to get up and start his day at whatever the ridiculous hour was.
As the gray morning light warmed into a custard hue that filled the nook of the sleeping loft, Jessie continued to ponder the game and what his fate would be. Jayden was beginning to stir next to him and he wondered if he should get up and try to leave before she woke up and they had an awkward moment. But he was not ready to give up the best real estate in the house, so he interlaced his fingers behind his head and watched the morning come. He turned his head enough to study her sleeping form but not so much that he felt he was being creepy. After a few minutes, her eyes fluttered, and he snapped his gaze back up at the morning sky. She stretched her arms out of the covers and arched her back.
“Good morning,” she said, midway through a yawn.
“Morning, how’d you sleep?”
“Um, good I think? Did I bother you?”
“What? No, not at all. Sorry, did you want to get up? I can move. I was just enjoying the morning. This is my first time sleeping up here.”
“No, I’m not ready to give up the spot yet either. You think the others are awake?” she asked, modulating her voice to a whisper.
“I don’t think so. It’s been quiet.” Jessie turned his head to look at Jayden. “Did I bother you last night? I mean did I startle you or anything? Sometimes I have dreams…”
“No, you were quiet as a mouse. I slept good.”
Jessie focused back on the sky. They lay there in silence for a long time until he felt compelled to make some kind of conversation. It was just too weird being in bed with a woman after all this time. He didn’t know how to act but even if he did, this was not a normal scenario.
“So… um, you worked with kids most of your life, right?” he asked.
“Yes, the only job I’ve ever had.”
“I can’t imagine that.”
“Why not?” she asked. “Weren’t you a kid once?”
“Yeah, sometime before the Civil War.”
“Oh, listen to ya. You ain’t no grandpa. I don’t care what Deepu says. You got any kids?”
Jessie had a prepared answer for this. It’s something he’d had to figure out because it seemed every damned person you met felt they needed to know if you’d reproduced. But he wasn’t prepared this morning. Maybe it was the intimacy of the setting or the fact that he wasn’t fully awake. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t summon his standard response. Instead, he just froze and tried to breathe around the massive ball in his throat. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes. He clenched his jaw to hold back the emotion.
“Hey, you okay?” she asked, leaning over and placing a hand on his shoulder.
He couldn’t respond for fear that if he opened his mouth, all that would come out would be the pathetic, anguished cry of an old man. He just nodded his head vigorously and covered his face with his hands. The touch of her hand was warm and soft on his shoulder. It was substantial. Not the proforma gesture of someone trying hard to appear sympathetic, but the touch of someone who was genuinely empathetic.
“What is it, Jessie? Did something happen?” she asked, her voice soft and closer.
“Um, it’s just I… uh. Sorry, I’m not sure what’s happening here…”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to talk about it. Whatever it is. I’m sorry I…”
“No, no, it’s okay. Not your fault. I lost my son. I didn’t lose him. He died. Three years ago.”
“Oh my lord. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”
“I hope you never have to,” he said. “It pretty much feels like there’s a lead jacket sitting on your chest every morning when you wake up. And you carry it around all day until you fall asleep and wake up and start all over again.”
“What was his name, your boy?”
“Mickey, it was Mickey. He would have been five this month.”
“Oh Jessie, he was just a baby. I’m so sorry.” Jayden’s voice trembled with emotion. “To lose a baby. I’ve taken care of so many, so I know what that love feels like up close every day. To lose it like that is just too painful to imagine.”
The meager levy of sandbags Jessie had been able to pile up against the ocean that was his grief began to slide sideways and he felt the waves coming. He began to sob silently, the crushing force of his pain causing his chest to heave and convulse like a great bellows. Jayden closed the distance between them in the bed and pulled him to her. He stiffened and tried to turn away. What was she doing? Why was she doing this?
But she wouldn’t release him. Her arms enveloped him as she pulled his head to her bosom, into her yielding softness. Her warm hand cradled his head and she shushed into his ear. “It’s okay, it’s okay, you can let it go. I’ve got you…”
He gave up the fight at that moment, whatever the fight was. What had he been trying to prevent? What had his resolve given him? What had he stood to gain from his stoicism? He had been so alone in the world since that horrible day. But at this moment, he let go of everything with this stranger, with this kind woman who had made her living taking care of babies like his Mickey.
As the interval between contractions grew and the sharp point of his grief dulled into something softer and more manageable like a smooth river rock, he felt an incredible sense of relief and gratitude. Any embarrassment he might have felt was completely dissolved by the new lightness he felt in his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he managed, his voice muffled in her breast. “I’m not like this.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve seen what you’re like. I prefer this.”
Jessie laughed and allowed himself to be held a moment longer. It was luxurious to be held by someone. Vanessa had not been much for hugging and holding. The way they had expressed love in their marriage was through shared adventure, pushing themselves to their physical limits side by side. In their eight years together before Mickey, they had spent almost as many nights together in a tent as they had in their bedroom. As older parents, the baby had brought a tenderness to them both that they hadn’t been prepared for. It was a cruel joke to be softened up and given a newfound capacity for feeling and showing love only to have it ripped away. When Mickey was gone, neither he nor Vanessa could remember the secret language he had taught them. While they hadn’t turned on each other, they had turned away from each other.
Jessie sighed deeply and pulled away slowly rolling onto his back. He stared up at the morning sky where a duet of hawks was gliding around each other in concentric circles. He was grateful to have something else to focus on, so he didn’t have to make eye contact with Jayden.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m sorry I fell apart. I… I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that.”
“It’s nothing, really. I’m sorry for your loss. I really can’t imagine what that must feel like,” Jayden said, her voice soft. “So…” she hesitated for a moment and then turned to face him. He turned to face her. “Is that the reason why you’re here? I mean that’s the big question for all of us, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I feel like I’ve been a zombie walking through my life for the last couple of years. I’m not inspired by work and I’m getting too old to go on the kind of adventures I used to, at least not solo. This contest, even though it’s completely ridiculous seemed like a way out to me. A way that I might be able to unplug and live out the rest of my days in some beautiful place.”
“That makes sense. At least it makes a lot more sense than it does for me to be here.”
“Why, what’s your reason?”
“It’s funny hearing you talk about adventure. If there was ever a life spent with less adventure in it than mine, I would be amazed. I’m here because I wanted to have at least one adventure in my life before it’s over.”
“You make it sound like your life is ending. Are you sick?”
“No, not sick as far as I know other than liking donuts a little too much. I just realized I wanted my life to be about more than other people’s kids. You know I’d never been on a plane until last week?”
“No way! Really? How was it?” Jessie asked, propping himself up on his elbow.
“Scared me near to death! I was praying the whole time and I’m not even religious.”
“But it must have been kinda fun, right?”
She had this lovely way of smiling with her whole face without showing any teeth. Her generous lips pooched out as she considered his question and then she shook her head. “No man, it was just scary to me. I am an earthbound creature. But I’m glad to be here. I have never seen country like this before. It’s a little scary being out in the middle of nowhere, but I don’t miss the city.”
“New York, right?”
“Queens, since I was a girl.”
“I’ve never been.”
“To New York City.”
“What! How’s that possible mister adventure man. How’d you never make it to the greatest city in the world?”
“I don’t like concrete. I don’t like traffic, car horns. I’m probably on the spectrum. Never been tested, but the way I get in a big crowded, noisy place… it freaks me out.”
“Huh, interesting,” she said, propping herself up on an elbow. “It’s funny. I was wrong about you.”
“Ah, you probably weren’t far off. I’m kind of an asshole if that’s what you had figured.”
“No, I didn’t exactly think you were an asshole. Okay, well maybe just a little bit. But it all makes sense now, what you’ve been through.”
Jessie resisted the urge to persist in the argument that he had been an asshole long before the tragedy of Mickey’s death. Instead, he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the sky again, basking in the rare experience of being seen by someone. Jayden continued to study him and opened her mouth to say something more but decided against it. She rolled onto her back and the two of them laid together in silence except for the low-level hum and cyclical whirring sound that emanated from the systems closet a few feet away from them on the other side of the bathroom. Jessie tuned into the cadence of noises and tried to imagine what function was producing each of the sounds.
It occurred to him that Houze was like a living thing, a body with its own automatic, metabolic processes as mysterious and invisible to him as his heartbeat. It drew sustenance from the sunlight. It quenched its thirst from the rains and condensation, conserving every possible drop like a desert plant. It breathed in and out, recycling the air, and it warmed and cooled itself to maintain an optimal internal temperature. It was a marvel, truly.
When he’d taken his first shower two days before, he’d prepared himself for the spartan experience he’d been well accustomed to in the backcountry or at some outdoor shower in a hostile off some trail. Instead, upon closing the door and stripping naked in the cave-like space with its walls of faux stone shimmering in the slant of autumnal light that filtered through the skylight, he’d experienced a hot torrent of water gushing from the large shower head. He’d had time to soap and rinse completely and even savor the delicious warmth before the bell-like chime indicated that he had one minute remaining.
“What are you thinking about?” Jayden asked.
“Oh, the shower, actually. How amazing it was.”
“I know, right? Is it your turn again today?”
“Why do you ask? Does it need to be my turn today?”
“No, you don’t smell bad.” She paused, thinking, and then added. “It’s funny how smells work. How every home has its own smell. Where does that smell come from?”
“I don’t know. Detergents, household cleaners…”
“No, I mean below that stuff. There’s something else, right? Something harder to describe. Something that must come from bodies living close together.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“I wonder what our house smells like.”
“You mean beyond the Houze signature scent?” he said, cutting his eyes over to her and smirking.
“Oh my God, that smell! It’s like not going away. You know the smell I was talking about, the smell of people’s houses? That smell becomes invisible to you after a while. But this smell, it does not go away.”
“You’re right, it’s weird how it persists. What does it smell like to you?”
“Do you really want to know?” Jayden asked, beginning to giggle. “Oh my God, I can’t say it now…”
“What? What’s it smell like to you?”
“I’m embarrassed to say now.”
“You’re embarrassed? I just wept like a baby in your arms and you’re too embarrassed?”
“Okay, okay, that’s true. It smells like sex to me, man. No, not like that! But like sexy. Like this guy I used to date a long time ago. He was a player, and he wore some kind of cologne. It’s like that.”
“Ah, I see. So, you think the Houze team engineered some kind of sex pheromone into their design?”
“Maybe. Maybe it’s all part of the experiment. Don’t you feel like we are in some kind of lab being observed? Like maybe there will be some documentary someday about the six crazy people who…”
“Ate organic, plant-based meals, live blogged, and slept platonically together while under some kind of pheromonal mind control?”
“Heh! Yeah, maybe. But I’m not so sure about the Plutonic part. Have you seen the way Deepu checks out Fran?”
“I hadn’t noticed. That kid is kind of a devourer of worlds.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he’s like a vacuum that sucks all the air out of a room.”
“You’re funny when you want to be, Grandpa.”
“Easy, please don’t make that nickname stick.”
“There are worse things than being called grandpa.”
Jessie considered this. There were worse things. He figured Jayden had suffered through her share of them. But if she had, it didn’t show. She was warm and funny and the kind of person who made all other people feel better when she laughed.
“You’re right,” he said. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, Grandpa has to go use the restroom.”
What did you think of this episode?
Your feedback is so valuable to me. What’s exciting you? What’s boring you? Where do you think this is all going? Please join the conversation in the comments or even better, start a chat with other readers.
Don’t have time for that? Just hitting the ❤️ button or “restacking” this episode in Notes helps more people discover the book and it’s a strong signal to me that you’re out there and maybe I shouldn’t give up today.
Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: