I grew up in a pink house. Living in a pink house won’t guarantee you much, but it will teach you optimism. Living in a brightly-colored house makes you admit that, no matter who you are, you will always have choices about how to live your life, and that these choices are essentially possibilities.
When I traveled to Costa Rica to visit my dad’s friend, I noticed something about the houses just outside Turrialba. They were vibrant, almost iridescent, and more like petrified jungle creatures than dwellings. Brilliant blues, peacock purples, sea-foam greens. Although the people who lived in them tended to be poor, they were generous beyond their means. Twice, strangers welcomed my family into their houses for meals after we greeted them on the road. Their optimism danced in every bean and plantain they prepared.
For some kids, it’s hard to understand how good you have it. I didn’t see how hard my parents worked for me and my sister. Neither would I have fully grasped what it meant had I witnessed it. My relatively privileged life became my equilibrium. What cause did I have to question the circumstances of my life, so shot through with opportunity?
My nickname, in the beginning, was Buddha. I liked luxurious things—feta cheese, fur rugs—and I was tubby. After two years, when my sister was born, I morphed into Abo. Abo was short for aborigine. I walked around the backyard lot, spurning any attempt by my mother to clothe me, and played with dirt. My first order of business was watering the dirt. Then, I’d fashion mountains and valleys, plucking foliage from trees and weeds from cracks to stuff in the wet ground. I rounded off my faintly Biblical project by placing dinosaur toys in the idyll before flooding the scene once more. I realize now that I never needed sunblock because my whole body was caked with mud.
From the backyard, where I would be hosed off like a mischievous dog, I traveled through a hallway that we used as a laundry room, into the kitchen. Most of the picture-taking of me as a baby happened here. The kitchen had linoleum floors and a little dining nook that looked south out to our driveway and west out to a park.
The park played a big role in each one of my fantasies as a young kid. It had a lot of grass and three hopelessly old oak trees, a relatively modest swingset and a treated concrete slide. Most importantly, it was right next door. I could play there whenever I wanted to. The song played by the ice cream truck quickly became one of the lasting refrains of childhood. My adoration changed as I got older. When my Dutch nanny was cited for topless-sunbathing in the park, I switched allegiances. The park became sorely common, a refuge for people who were boring or mean, a source of evil, of abduction and theft and other far-flung threats.
The breakfast nook was next to the dining room, where my parents kept a lot of their nice stuff. Here, I remember watching my mom install earthquake latches onto cabinets to protect Meissen porcelain and Cambridge glass. An antique cocktail shaker showed up one birthday, set elegantly on a pewter tray; Japanese prints materialized on Christmas. Three or four days a year, usually on holidays, we would set the table and eat with a fire purring in the background.
The back room was the kids’ den. I can’t tell you how many hours of Scooby-Doo and Angels in the Outfield I watched, enthralled by the voodoo spell of the television. Had my parents not forbidden TV on weekdays, I wouldn’t have had as many reasons to learn how to break rules. Every child practices deception; and if not deception, entitlement. It is their own survival game, in which they test out which natural resources will be given to them, and which must be taken by subtler means. I know that I was especially adept at forging my mom’s signature when a bad test that had to be signed by a parent came back to me. I was not especially good at stealing money—my dad accidentally caught me pilfering on camera after a freak hailstorm distracted the rest of the family—but it’s the effort that counts.
My room was on the northernmost tip of the upper floor. I began playing in my room in ernest after Legos became popular. I would sit on a rug at the base of my bed, my Legos strewn about in a three-foot radius, and build. I didn’t have an eye for originality, but I was good with directions and fastidious about continuity of design. I didn’t like black castles with red-drawbridges, or different styles mixing. When I was older, I’d noodle around on a bass guitar to pass the time, but never seriously. I did get serious about books in high school. I slept with hundreds of books before I slept with a girl.
I can’t say that my house changed me, but I know that it’s is a part of me. When I get ready to start a family, that house will become a blueprint for happiness, for all the aboriginal pleasures of childhood. I’d bet that it’s been a blueprint for longer than I’ve realized.
My home still belongs to my parents. They have lived there a quarter of a century. A driveway, pulling up to a garage with an attic, rests on the south side of the home. On the top floor, two gables frame westerly-looking windows. The roof is shingled. A brick chimney climbs two stories from its base on the side of the house. A veranda half the width of the house leads up to the front door. The door is white. The house is pink.