No one ever came over to my house. They never came to any of my houses, in any of the six states I grew up in. In high school, both my evangelical friends and my sister’s Wiccan friends got the heebie-jeebies the moment they stepped inside.
But this had been a lifelong thing. It began with my best friend, Gavin, in elementary school.
We lived in Reading, Pennsylvania for six years — the longest we lived in any one house. I’d walk to Gavin’s house in the mornings, where he’d stare at women in one-piece outfits doing aerobics on the TV, and I’d go to his house after school, where I’d watch him play Doom on the computer.
Doom frightened me. My dad was a pastor who preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” once a year for fun, and anything that had to do with hell scared the shit out of me. I didn’t understand how Gavin could do it. He fascinated me.
And we did everything together: German club; the gifted and talented program; orchestra (he played violin, I played viola). Everything except soccer, and even then, he tried to get me to kick a ball around with him in his backyard.
So of course, I eventually fell in love with him, and once, during a sleepover at his house, after he’d fed a mouse to his snake and said goodnight to his turtle, I told him I wanted to turn into a girl so that one day, we could get married. He wasn’t sure what to do with that, but it didn’t seem to affect our friendship.
Everything changed on my tenth birthday.
It’s important for me to play host, so for the first time ever, my friends come to my house — the hundred-year-old, rickety, three-storey row home at the corner of North Fifth Street and Robeson, next door to a crack house and across the street from Charles Evans Cemetery. My mom spends every spring trying to beautify the hollow, rotting tree stump in our front yard with tulips.
Gavin gives me The Fifth Element and The Arrival, with Charlie Sheen, on VHS. My mom makes dirt pudding and strawberry cheesecake, my favorites.
Everyone goes home at the end of the party except Gavin, who stays the night for the first time.
By now, I have a room in the attic to myself, with a loft bed, lime green carpet, and bay windows overlooking the busy intersection. I watch the specters of car headlights travel across the ceiling, and I get woken up every time there’s car crash. There are lots.
Sometimes, I sleepwalk from the third floor, down to the kitchen, and wake up the next morning to a story from my parents about how I tried to pee in the fridge. There’s something about that kitchen.
So Gavin’s over, we’re staying up late, and we cook up a plot to sneak midnight leftovers of the cheesecake.
We tiptoe down the creaky stairs to the second floor, careful on the step we’re sure at some point is going to give way, lurk through my brother’s room, to the butler staircase that feeds directly into the kitchen. One missed step and my parents will hear us from their room at the end of the hall.
Finally in the kitchen, I feel my way in the dark to the wall with the light switch while Gavin waits by the stairs. I flip on the switch, and every single surface of the kitchen is covered in a skittering brown mass. It’s a roach infestation of biblical proportions.
Terrified, I smash the switch down and run back to the stairs, where Gavin is breathing fast and brushing roaches off his body. We make a run for it all the way up to my room, where we sit across from each other, staring into each other’s eyes, breathlessly, for several minutes.
Eventually I fall asleep, but not for long. I’m woken up a few hours later by the sound of moaning. I look down from my bed to see Gavin, cross-legged on the floor, illuminated by the lights of nighttime traffic, rocking back and forth.
To this day, I don’t know if it was an omen or just the fact that it was an old, neglected house.
He changed somehow after that night, and we lost touch, even before I moved to South Dakota two years later.
I didn’t see Gavin again until I was 20. My sister and I fled my grandparents’ home in Texas after a violent confrontation with my father, and we spent most of our trip back to Pennsylvania licking our wounds from what had been a traumatic coming-out. It was supposed to be a vacation.
Gavin met us at the airport and hosted us at his apartment in Philadelphia. He was guarded and gaunt, and though we stayed at his apartment, we hardly saw him all week — he went to work during the day and spent his evenings playing video games with his college friends.
He took us back to Reading, where I saw that our old house had been renovated, repainted, and the stump in the front yard had been removed. Everything seemed smaller.
What struck me the most, though, was how scared he seemed. Was he scared of me? Scared that, newly out of the closet, I’d develop feelings for him? Had the night with the cheesecake and the roaches, from 10 years before, traumatized him more than I ever could’ve imagined? Where was the brave boy who I’d watched play scary computer games, who had stuck by me even when I wanted something from him he could never give me?
I used to be scared of cockroaches, but I’m not anymore. I used to be scared of my dad, but I’m not anymore. In the end, I wonder if, somehow, the real-life horrors I lived through prepared me better for the plague of roaches, for coming out of the closet, for my willingness to revisit my painful childhood, than Gavin’s had.
But, for all the things I’m not afraid of anymore, I’m still scared to have people over to my house. I don’t sleepwalk, and the water bugs that used to come up through the sink have disappeared. Mostly.
So… wanna have a sleepover?
Originally told at Sabrina: Queer Horror Stories, at Tilt BK, on October 31, 2018.