“Do you want to do the honors?” Jenn asked, holding the purple key with the little flower keychain out to her partner, Bianca. They were standing on the slightly slanted porch in front of their new (very old) home in North Carolina. The sky was gray, the ground was muddy, and one of the shutters was creaking, but the only thing that mattered to the two women was that they were about to step into their house for the first time since it officially became theirs.
“I would love to,” Bianca said, smiling giddily at Jenn as she took the key and inserted it into the front door lock.
After a jiggle of the knob and a hip bump to unstick the wood, the front door was open and a new chapter in Jenn and Bianca’s lives began. As they walked into the not-so-grand foyer with the ‘70s wallpaper and scuffed wooden floors, the two only saw the possibilities that this house could bring them. Sure, it was last renovated decades ago and still contained dusty remnants of the previous owners’ belongings, but Jenn and Bianca could see through the tan linoleum-tiled kitchen and blue carpeted bedrooms to a different, better version of the house. They saw instead a beautiful historic home, renovated to restore its natural beauty and historic charm and to be a perfect house for the two of them to live in, together, for the long haul.
“I still can’t believe it,” Bianca breathed out, hand on her chest as she took in the house – their house.
“Me neither,” Jenn replied, just as awestruck as her partner. “This place is ours, B, and we can finally make our Pinterest-board dreams come true! I can’t wait to pull off that wallpaper, though, it’s god-awful.”
The two women giggled as they latched hands and moved further into their house, taking it all in. Jenn had brought a notepad with her and began to write down all the immediate projects they would need to work on to make the house at least bearable while they slowly worked on the bigger renovations. They had a lot to get started on. First up was the kitchen, which needed a deep cleaning at the bare minimum. Since Jenn was a food blogger, she’d ideally have a decent kitchen set up as quickly as possible. Bianca had been saving up vacation days just for this occasion, so they were both more than ready to embark on a renovation extravaganza in the first few weeks of living in the house.
After a long day of walking through the house and deciding on projects, waiting for the moving truck to arrive, and unloading all of their belongings, the couple was exhausted. Jenn had almost fallen asleep right after their gourmet dinner of Chinese takeout. Bianca kept her awake, though, by a consistent ramble about couches and kitchen appliances and wood stains. Everything was going perfectly.
A week later, everything was still going to plan. Bianca and Jenn had begun the renovations and couldn’t be happier living in an overly dusty, mildly chaotic environment. One of their friends from college, who now worked as a contractor in the area, came by the house and helped the two figure out what they could feasibly do on a small budget with little to no outside help. It would be a lot of work, he said, but they could do it all themselves if they weren’t afraid of getting a little dirty and working on the house gradually over the next couple of years.
While Jenn loved her blogging, she was more than willing to set aside the time to make their new house into a home. For her, that was the most important part of buying a house with Bianca. She wanted to take the next big step in their relationship, and the only way Bianca was willing to move into a permanent house together was if it was perfect for the two of them. It took them ages to find the house, but when they did, they knew it was the one. Or at least Jenn knew. Bianca was a bit worried about the renovations, but with Jenn’s assurances and artistic vision, she managed to convince Bianca that while the house wasn’t in tip-top shape at the time, it could become the place where they could build their life together, get married in, and live happily for the rest of their lives in.
After the first week of reno, the house was looking almost worse than it had before they moved in. Boxes were stacked everywhere, lightbulbs were dangling from the ceiling, and it looked like a tornado had blown through the kitchen. Jenn had to constantly remind Bianca that things got worse before they got better, and that this was all going according to plan. Bianca didn’t quite see the vision that Jenn had, but as her job was mostly to clean up the mess and go through all the old owners’ left-behind belongings, she was willing to let Jenn do all the visionary work. She was finding the cleaning to be cathartic, and kept discovering little knick-knacks, books, and various other small items from the old owners that she thought they could keep for decor once the renovations were done.
“Hey Jenn, come take a look at this,” Bianca said, calling to her partner from the office off of the living room. She was going through the drawers on a big mahogany desk that hadn’t been moved out of the house when the previous owners had left.
“Yeah, what’s up?” Jenn said, wiping a bead of sweat off her forehead as she walked into the room. She had been taking off cabinet doors in the kitchen to refurbish and stain.
Bianca held out an envelope that she had found shoved in the back of the top drawer. It was slightly yellowed, and wrinkled, as if someone had spent many hours holding the envelope in a tight grip. Bianca had already opened the envelope to see what was inside, but wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“This feels mysterious,” Jenn said as she took the envelope.
“I felt like a detective in one of your crime shows when I found it. So weird… I didn’t think people actually tore pictures in half in real life, only on TV.”
Jenn took the aforementioned picture out of the envelope, along with a letter that was somehow even more wrinkled than its envelope.
“These must be the old owners – look, there’s the house and the front porch. So that must be their son? Why’s he torn apart from them? I didn’t know this was a family home, the bedroom upstairs didn’t look like a kid had ever lived in it. Maybe they changed it into a guest room when he moved out for college or whatever?”
“Or whatever. Read the letter, it only gets more interesting. But, fair warning, you might want to sit down while you read it,” Bianca said, motioning for Jenn to join her on the small couch near the windows.
Jenn sat down and started to read.
Mom and Dad,
I know you probably won’t ever read this letter, but I’ll leave it here anyway with the hopes that you’ll at least notice it, since I’m taking everything else I own with me. You told me to never speak to you again after earlier, but I need to finish saying my piece that went unsaid earlier. You cut me off, and here is my chance to say all the things I wish I had the courage to say to your faces. I can’t waste it, since so many people like me never even get the chance to speak up for themselves.
The truth, whether you like to hear it or not, is that I’m gay and always have been. You only failed as parents by kicking me out, not by failing to raise me to your old standards. I’m gay and there is nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that you are kicking me out, treating me like I’m a trash bag sent off to the dump. That is not okay. But I know that I can’t change your minds on this through a letter. I probably couldn’t convince you of anything, even by standing right in front of you. I am a human being, though, and I have the free will to make my own choices. I’m choosing to leave, not because you’re kicking me out regardless, but because I deserve a better future and life than the one I had with you. I am who I am, and you can’t change that.
That’s all I wanted to say, and that’s all you deserve to hear from me. I hope someday you come to your senses and won’t shame and abuse people like me, but I won’t be waiting around for that day. I will be living a life of love, acceptance, and harmony – three things that you almost killed within me.
Goodbye. – Charlie
By the time Jenn had finished reading, she was wiping away a tear that ran down her cheek, rather than the sweat that had pooled on her temple from before. She looked over to Bianca, who had moved closer to Jenn to put her arm around her in comfort.
“Sorry, Jenny, I didn’t know it would upset you that much. I know with your parents–”
Jenn cut her off. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m just surprised, is all. I mean, I wasn’t kicked out quite like he was. I made that decision on my own. I was better off without them, but this poor kid… he didn’t even have a choice.”
Jenn’s voice cracked as she tried to compose herself. Bianca leaned over, taking the letter and photo out of Jenn’s hands, and pulled her into a tight hug. They stayed like that for a few minutes until Jenn’s sniffling calmed. She let out a deep breath.
“I’m sorry, Jenny,” Bianca said, pulling back slightly to look into Jenn’s eyes. “Are you alright? Do you want to talk it out?”
Jenn nodded, grabbing a tissue off the side table to wipe her nose before she began talking.
“Well, you know how things were with my parents. I haven’t spoken a word to them since I left almost, uh, ten years ago now? Yeah, I left when I turned eighteen and from this letter it seems like this boy was only sixteen when he was kicked out. I just can’t imagine that. He must’ve felt so stifled in this house growing up, hiding who he was. And then to come out and finally have that weight off your shoulders, just to be scorned and pushed away? I know that feeling and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I just hope we can make this house more welcoming than it ever has been before, to reclaim it from that ugly, hateful, disgusting past that it has.”
At this, Bianca nodded and assured Jenn that the house was already better off, since they had moved in. Nothing like a queer couple to completely flip things around, she said, hoping to get a smile from Jenn.
“Do you think…? No, it probably wouldn’t be possible,” Jenn mumbled after the corners of her mouth slightly raised.
“I was just thinking, do you think we could find him? It must’ve been thirty years since he left, but maybe there’d be a way to get in contact, let him know that the house is in good hands?”
“Jenny, hon, do you really think he cares about this house? He probably wouldn’t want to even step foot in the neighborhood. So I wouldn’t think he’d be interested in hearing about the house.”
A spark of remembrance danced in Jenn’s eyes. “I’d want to know what happened to my childhood home. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of bad memories at the end there, but I still grew up within those four walls and in a way that house made me the way that I am now.”
“Okay, then we’ll ask around. Maybe the neighbors have been around long enough to remember something. I suppose it’s time for a friendly introduction anyway, right?”
Jenn smiled at Bianca’s words, and Bianca silently wished that she wasn’t getting her partner’s hopes up for them to fall flat the next day.
Fall flat, they didn’t. Luckily enough, they were able to introduce themselves to plenty of their immediate neighbors, and the ones across the street had some things to say about the history of the old family, the Cunninghams, from Bianca and Jenn’s house. It turned out, these neighbors had been living in the neighborhood for almost fifty years and had been friendly acquaintances with the Cunninghams. At least, they were friendly until what they referred to as “the incident,” when young Charles Cunningham – they called him “Charlie” – came out as gay to his parents, and they subsequently kicked him out of the house. The neighbors didn’t like the way the Cunninghams treated their son, they said, and had stopped contact with the two parents once it was known that they were kicking out their son for the way he was, naturally. Bianca and Jenn were glad to hear that. At least they had some allies in the neighborhood, which could be pretty rare in a little historical neighborhood in North Carolina.
The neighbors also had told the women that Charlie hadn’t been back to the house since that fateful day. They didn’t know where he was now, but knew he had couch-hopped with friends until he graduated from high school and started at the local community college. After that, the neighbors lost all knowledge of his whereabouts.
“Let us know if you manage to find him,” the old neighbor said as the couple left her porch. “I’d sure like to welcome Charlie back to the neighborhood, he was always such a sweet kid.”
After another three weeks of renovations, Jenn and Bianca still had no luck in tracking down Charlie Cunningham. Although, Jenn had really been doing most of the searching, and mostly online, because Bianca had returned to work and was focused on renovations when she was home in the evenings and weekends. The two had finished refurbishing the cabinets in the kitchen, had their contractor friend come in and tile the kitchen and bathrooms, and had pulled up the carpets throughout the whole house to reveal the beautiful original hardwood flooring underneath. Their belongings had all been moved in and put away, the furniture had been temporarily arranged, and they were preparing to paint the entire house in the coming weeks.
But still, no sign of Charlie. Bianca could tell that Jenn was disappointed by the way that her shoulders slouched and her forehead creased as she scrolled through Facebook pages of other Charlie Cunninghams with no match.
“Hey Jenn,” Bianca said one night as she was peeling wallpaper off the main bedroom’s walls. “Did you try checking at the library? I’ve never really thought about it before, but maybe they have some old newspaper clippings or something that would be searchable for clues.”
Jenn’s face lit up at the new idea. “I never thought of that! I’ll stop by there tomorrow before I pick up the groceries.”
So the next day, while Bianca was at work, Jenn went to the library in search of any reference to Charlie Cunningham that the records could give her. The librarians hadn’t been around for long enough to be familiar with the name, but told Jenn to check the newspaper records first. She looked for close to two hours and was about to give up entirely when she finally came across a clipping of a list of high school graduates from Charlie’s year. She looked through the relatively short list (it was a small town, after all) and there was surprisingly only one Charles on the list: Charles “Charlie” Cadman. It has to be him, somehow, Jenn thought. She had no clue how to verify that it was definitely him, though.
She sat in desperate contemplation for about ten minutes before she gave up and called Bianca. Always the clear-headed one in their relationship, Bianca was able to quickly remedy the situation. She simply suggested following the clue onto the next stage in Charlie’s life, as the neighbors had mentioned that he went to the local community college. Jenn thought it was a brilliant suggestion and immediately went digging through the newsletters that the community college had published around the time Charlie would have been in attendance. Luckily, those had all been digitized so after a quick keyword search, Jenn had found what she was looking for. There was a picture of Charlie next to a short article about science prizes that had been awarded while he was in his second year there. She pulled Charlie’s half of the torn picture out of her purse and sure enough, the resemblance between the two Charlies was enough for her to verify that Charlie Cunningham was now Charlie Cadman.
Jenn tried to resist pumping her fist in the air and laughing with joy in the silent library.
Later that night, over a pint of ice cream, Jenn reported all the good news to Bianca. She had found Charlie’s Facebook page and sent him a brief message explaining who she was and why her and Bianca had wanted to reach out. He seemed amiable, and by scrolling through his page, Jenn was able to fill in all the gaps in her knowledge of Charlie. He had gone on to work in a marketing firm, focused on helping promote small businesses grow and succeed. Charlie, open and proud about his sexuality now, had married his husband about six years ago, and they had two little boys running around, happy as a family can be. Jenn felt this sort of connection with him, since they both left home at a young age and shared more of a family bond with the friends they made around them and the supportive families of their respective life partners. She desperately wanted to meet him face-to-face, to reassure him that his old home was in good hands now, so he could find closure. She sure wished that she would be able to take that step herself someday. In a way, Jenn hoped that by seeing Charlie reclaim his belonging to the house would push her to confront her own demons from the past.
Right before Jenn had settled on the couch with Bianca and the ice cream, Charlie had messaged her back. As she reported to Bianca, he would be happy to meet with them as another queer couple in the area, but wasn’t sure he’d be interested in seeing the house after so many years. That sunk Jenn’s heart slightly, but she knew the urge would someday lead him to the welcoming doorstep of Bianca and herself.
After another two weeks of renovations, painting, and bathroom remodels, Jenn and Bianca were finally feeling like the house was becoming their own. Jenn’s kitchen and office setups were in a place where she could return to cooking and creating content for other people to enjoy. Bianca had started working remotely on Fridays, so she could take some stress off Jenn’s hands before the big weekend projects began. And, to Bianca’s surprise and Jenn’s amazement, after a coffee meeting with the couple and some convincing by his husband, Charlie had agreed to at least walk by the house that week. He was due the day after Jenn had planned to tidy up the flowerbeds out front and set up the porch and patio furniture, which made the timing work out perfectly.
Bianca kept trying to convince Jenn not to get her hopes up too much.
“He said he probably wouldn’t even want to walk into the house, what with all the bad memories here. We’ll be lucky to get him on the porch,” Bianca said the morning Charlie and his husband were set to visit. The couples were planning to meet at a coffee shop down the road before walking into the neighborhood and up to the house together. Bianca had figured that a slow entrance might be better for Charlie, and Charlie’s husband, James, agreed.
So that afternoon, right after the sun had started its slow, golden descent from the sky, Jenn and Bianca had made their way to the café. They greeted the two men with friendly hugs and smiles, and after buying iced coffees and teas for the walk back, the four left the café and began to head down the street into the old neighborhood.
Charlie stayed mostly silent for the walk, linking arms with James as he observed the changes the neighborhood had gone through since he left. Jenn was rambling on aimlessly about room decor and couch upholstery when they turned the corner and were on their street, three doors down from their own. Charlie stopped suddenly once they were within view of the house.
“I… wow, it looks almost the exact same from the outside,” he said, squinting his eyes slightly as if he was inspecting every cranny in the brick-and-siding exterior. The other three fell silent as they let Charlie take in the house in his own time. As soon as they started walking forward onto the porch, though, Charlie’s eyes started to well up with tears unshed for many years.
“I can imagine the memories that must be going through your head right now,” Jenn said, hoping that her empathy would empower the man.
“Mostly bad,” Charlie replied, “but some good. I suppose they would be mostly good from here on, since you two are taking care of the place now and starting to fill it with your own happy memories.”
Bianca blushed as she thanked Charlie. Neither she nor Jenn were planning on making any bad memories in their home if they could help it.
“So, Charlie, can I invite you in for a tour? I know it was your house, but… I want to show you how we’ve turned it into a home,” Jenn said, taking her time to choose the right words.
“Well, I’ve made it this far,” he said with a slim smile. “I suppose a first step is the hardest part, and I’m standing here on the porch already. I can take another step further.”
Jenn beamed as Bianca handed the purple key on the little flower keychain over to Charlie. He looked at the hopeful, happy faces of the two women, squeezed his husband’s hand, and put the key in the lock. With a jiggle of the knob and a bump of the hip, Charlie opened the door and the two couples stepped into the home.