Imaginary Houses

Marcie didn’t think she’d walk the rest of the way home today, it was too hot. The soles of her feet stuck to the insides of her faux leather sandals like damp band-aids, and the squelching sound it made had her pausing on the sidewalk every few minutes, pretending to adjust her purse straps. There was a numb feeling in her legs and under her armpits, and she still smelled like stale sweat after splashing cold faucet water on her stinky points in the teacher’s restroom.

Maybe she could catch a bus at Bajkalská across the street and two blocks up, but then she would have to pretend to stare at the Bratislava bus transportation map as if she was lost and she didn’t have the energy for that today. The damp June air hung about lazily and plunked down onto old women’s grocery satchels, which reminded Marcie of the worn canvas tote bags her high school English teacher, Mrs. Woods, always carried around. Mrs. Woods was a slight, pinched looking woman in her late 60s with crow black box-dyed hair and enormous breasts which seemed to defy the inevitability of gravity and age. They might have been fake. At school, rumors went around that Mrs. Woods had modeled for a two-page spread in Playboy in the ‘60s. Marcie always wondered how she came to be an English teacher. Did she settle, or was English teaching the dream and the Playboy shoot was the settling? Or maybe it was the immutable and indestructible gossip of teenagers at lunch tables, bored and searching for snags. When did she feel a settling in her life, Marcie wondered, and why did it feel like a scratchy blanket, as if she knew she should find something better but couldn’t be bothered because this was mildly comfortable and did its job, and why were her feet so stubbornly plastered to the insides of her shoes?

Today after her afternoon staff meeting in the cramped shoebox that was the teacher’s lounge, Marcie walked deliberately to the lunchroom, ordered a cappuccino in a waxy paper cup from Katarina with her elbows eternally on the counter, and threw it away in the small yellow wastebasket in her classroom, untouched. She’s still not sure why she did that. She could have gone for the quick jolt of caffeine. Maybe it was the unrelenting heat of her classroom, insisting and pressing her to open the windows to let in more, making the faded box fan spin its insistence right back into her face, her third-grade students limp-haired and restless. At the back of the music room, the shelves of guitars tucked away with only their curved sides on display were an array of soft downy brown, maple red, old walnut. The necks of the ukuleles were nested between metal pegs, their painted blue and unpainted tan expectant faces on display. Wild-curled Eva, who loved to sing and was taking piano lessons with Marcie, was ashen and staring blankly at the laminated solfège poster at the back of the classroom: make a fist for Do, lay palms flat facing down for Re, thumbs face the ceiling with flat fingers for Mi.

“Ms. Riva, you know that if you open the window it makes the heat worse right?”

Ehsan, a chubby Iranian boy who always wore his pants high-waisted and loved fixing broken computers, chimed in. He was saying it as a matter of fact, a simple answer to the question on Marcie’s face. Marcie said nothing and closed the large wood-framed window, latched it shut and continued with her lesson. 

The heat had started seeping into the corners of the city at the end of April, bringing with it the swift lifting of hems and lowering of clouded car windows, the young men whizzing by in their crowded greyscale Škoda Octavias blaring distorted trance music, too much bass pumping into the car floors. At Lipa International School, the heat made the children jumpy for summer, quick to screech at unexpected noises and scuff the walls with the backs of their plastic chairs, pressing back onto the floor and back again at eighth-note intervals under a type of rhythmic hypnosis.

By May, with the daffodils and planted cherry blossoms in full bloom in Bratislava, Marcie could close her eyes and willfully forget the perils of the past year, if only in small bursts. She would go on walks with Jojo, her copper-colored Boxer, and let her sniff to her heart’s full delight. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, they would walk to the Presidential Palace Garden on Banskobystrická and walk happy circles until one of them decided to take a break, and then Marcie would reach in her purse and eat poppyseed filled buns, pulling at small pieces slowly and deliberately. Jojo would sniff grasses and low hedges and lavender bushes, sniff-exhaling out loudly every time she got to a particularly ripe lavender bush. Marcie found herself wishing for May again, now that it was June.

After she deposited her forsaken cappuccino in the yellow wastebasket and closed the large wood-framed window to stand up to the pressing insistence of the June heat, Marcie sat at her desk, sank her forehead into the rectangle of space in front of the stapler, and found she couldn’t move. Maybe it wasn’t that she couldn’t move, but more that she was afraid that if she moved, her life would be in some great danger. The moon would stop affecting the tides, and that in turn would cause all weather and the seasons to short-circuit, spring would bloom in November and snow would fall in August and this room she was in would slowly cycle into a place of non-existence, outside of time and space.

She thought of that afternoon in May when, as Marcie was finishing up her piano lesson with Eva, she felt a sharp, painful sting between her eyes. Eva was clumsily playing through “Greensleeves,” a song she had started in February and insisted on learning “to get her through the rest of winter.” Eva was a perpetually happy and imaginative child, who made beaded bracelets during recess to give to the other girls in the class. She didn’t always have string so she would use long braided pieces of grass to string the plastic beads on. Once, she gave Marcie a grass bracelet with blue and yellow plastic beads, and Marcie wore it until it fell apart later that evening. She placed it next to her potted spider plant on her living room coffee table, where it lived ever since.

Once Eva had finished the last round of “Greensleeves,” she turned to Marcie and asked,

“Do you know the weirdest thing about school? It’s like an imaginary house.”

“What do you mean?” The pressure between her eyes had loosened into a vibrating, pulsating thing.

“So we go to school every day and we pretend it’s like our house. We eat, we learn stuff, we play outside, we have to be with our fake brothers and sisters and fake moms and dads all day. And then we go home to our real house with our real mom and dad. So it’s like an imaginary house.” She brushed aside a strand of frizzy brown hair and tucked it behind her ear self-consciously, and something behind her eyes shifted.

“Do you like having an imaginary house?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Eva reached for the lanyard she had tied around her neck: the third-grade students’ homeroom teacher, Mrs. Dennison, had created little laminated cards for each student that she clipped onto a lanyard. In preparation for the fourth grade, the students were being encouraged to exhibit “fourth-grade behavior,” the traits of which included collaboration, cooperation, kindness, and responsibility. On the cards by each fourth-grade behavior trait, the students could receive colored stamps to acknowledge their achievement: a tiny blue lamb, a tiny yellow star, a tiny pink chicken. The children wore them around school like ribboned medals and asked Marcie to tell Mrs. Dennison every time they organized their classmates’ shoes under the cubbies outside of the music classroom. Eva was staring intently at a tiny green palm tree next to kindness. She had four stamps already for kindness. Marcie felt as if a metal beam was slowly being pushed into her temple and out through that inch of space between her eyes and squeezed her eyebrows together in a swift compulsive motion. The little stamps on the behavior cards made her eyes water, especially Eva’s kindness row: a tiny green palm tree, a tiny pink heart, a tiny brown horse, a tiny yellow house.

She knew the inside of the bus would be even warmer than the sharp burn of the metal benches at the Bajkalská bus stop. Marcie resigned herself to her fate and found some small redemption in her grading folder at the bottom of her school bag, pulling out its plastic heft and pretending to be immersed in the dots and lines of poorly scrawled music notation sheets her fourth graders had attempted this morning. Music is a strange and sad language, she was thinking as the bus hissed to attention at her stop. What is the point of the students writing the notes down if they don’t know what for? Quarter note is one beat, eighth notes are half a beat, but they can’t connect it to the music. What’s the point of notating music if they can’t even sing it or play it and what’s the point of language if you can’t fucking speak it?

 A large middle-aged bald man wearing a neon orange jumpsuit glared at her through his face mask. He was a construction worker, wearing the typical work uniform of a stavbár. He was probably off work now, or missed his ride. The stavbár always had their own transportation to and from work. The whites of his eyes were yellow like an owl’s. Marcie stared back at him, wondering if he had a similar day to hers. She turned away abruptly and shifted her weight closer towards her seat window.

That afternoon after the cappuccino and the window, she had been sitting there in this frozen position with her forehead on her wooden desk next to the stapler, wondering what would happen if and when she finally could move, when there was a knock on the classroom door. The third graders had just been dismissed and were trudging back to their homeroom class, pausing in the hallways to check on their tied shoelaces and flipping open their locker doors to check for nothing. Hana, the Special Needs teacher, walked into the classroom.

“Hey, are you alright?”

Hana had small inquisitive grey eyes, a sprinkling of apricot freckles across her nose and nut-brown hair, swept elegantly into a knot on the top of her head, the hairstyle pulling at the edges of her hairline. She was wearing a black denim overall dress which, combined with her short frame, made her appear to Marcie in that moment like an overcurious child. Marcie had just popped up from her desk at the knock, and felt a twinge of shame and repulsion at herself, like she had just been caught clipping her toenails on the desk.

“Oh, I’m alright. I’m just feeling a little…over it today.”

“I know what you mean. I just want to say, I am so sorry because I know how you must be feeling, especially after the staff meeting today. I can’t even imagine how much of a burden that was for you, and how hard it was to hear, I–”

“It’s fine, really. It’s something I’ve known about for a while now.”


The silence was reminding Marcie of the stifling heat in her classroom, and more than anything in that moment Marcie wished she was entombed in a glacier, on an ice planet where the sun was nothing but a ridiculous dream that had no effect on her life, no sweaty or burning repercussions, no–

“I mean, I knew about it but I didn’t know what to do with the information. I didn’t know how to–” Marcie’s throat began to feel parched beyond comprehension and she wished she hadn’t left her water bottle at home and hadn’t thrown that infernal cappuccino in the wastebasket. Hana stared at a brown spot on the grey carpet and tried to rub it out with her gleaming white tennis shoes.

“It’s not your fault, you should know that. You don’t need to hold onto all of that guilt.”

Marcie arranged her stapler in a parallel position from her computer monitor, then turned it back perpendicular, its black head and silver teeth facing her once more in dumb contemplation.

“I just didn’t know, and it felt like too much, and I didn’t know what to do with that.”

Hana looked back at the closed classroom door in strange expectation.

“I knew too.” She smoothed her tight hair from the top of her head starting at the hairline, one slow motion from front to back. She blinked for a second longer than seemed natural, then tugged at her denim overall dress and quietly opened the classroom door to exit. Marcie didn’t hear the door close.

The block on which Marcie’s pre-stressed concrete apartment resided was lined with ash trees and piles of discarded cinder blocks perched by the sidewalk at regular intervals. Marcie opened the paneled glass front door to her building and walked up the two flights to her apartment door. The old Communist Era panelák that she lived in had once been a drab cream-colored box, which had been painted over in the 2000s to an artificial popsicle lime green. Sometimes Marcie forgot what color it was when people asked her. She greeted Jojo at the door and gently kicked out her metal water bowl from under the pantry. Marcie sat on her brown fabric sectional and stared at her overgrown spider plant. Some of the leaves had curled in on themselves in tight brown tendrils. She looked at Eva’s broken grass bracelet, the plastic beads simple and loyal in their consistency, the grass dried and yellowed. She thought of calling Hana, but she didn’t know what she’d say or how she would start the conversation. Maybe she could just be silent over the phone and Hana would understand. In the end, she decided not to call her.

Marcie opened the latched bedroom window and crawled under her blue and white checkered duvet with her work clothes still on, waiting for the wash of fatigue to take her along. There was a soft breeze through the window, and she could hear a group of teenagers below laughing. It was 7:00 pm on a mid-June weekday, but she swore for a moment she could hear someone fumbling through “Greensleeves” on the piano.

About Nelmarie Zayas

Nelmarie Zayas is an author, musician, and educator currently living in Bratislava, Slovakia. She was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and raised in Tampa, Florida. She moved to Bratislava in 2018 with her husband and and currently teaches English Literature.

Nelmarie Zayas is an author, musician, and educator currently living in Bratislava, Slovakia. She was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and raised in Tampa, Florida. She moved to Bratislava in 2018 with her husband and and currently teaches English Literature.

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