‘Mysteries of Small Houses’



To put off doing what I need to, I plan a trip to Detroit with my mom. I spend hours looking at every Airbnb in the city, thinking of all the empty houses. There’s the ones that burned on Devil’s Night and who gets to fix up the rest? It’s a blonde person named Morgan. I make a reservation with Morgan for the middle of May. She messages saying, Hi Cassandra! Happy to have you and your mom stay! I have a lockbox set up for access and will send instructions the day of your stay once the cleaning lady is finished. My mom and I have both worked as cleaning ladies.

On a walk across a bright field of snow, a friend describes all twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We’ve all heard about the one where you make amends to people you hurt. My mom has apparently gone through all twelve steps, but I don’t remember her making amends to me. In the rules, you make amends to the person you’ve harmed unless doing so would injure them.

We hear less about the step where you make a searching and fearless inventory of yourself. In the program, you humbly ask God as you understand Him to remove your shortcomings. As we discuss this, my friend tells me I’ve become increasingly self-possessed since he’s known me. Does he mean I’ve ceased seeking the male gaze to confirm my own existence? His gaze.

Later that night, I can’t keep my wine in the cup. I pour it out all over the front seat of my car. I don’t clean it up because it’s dark outside and cold. I shut and lock the car doors and imagine the burgundy liquid seeping into the center of the seat, the molecules contracting and freezing in the fabric. How can you clean what you can’t see?

The person I’m seeing is house-sitting for a tortoiseshell cat with three legs named Z. Cats get rickety and harden up as they age. Z sits on my chest while I read. The stump of her missing leg keeps sliding off my chest. I keep pushing it back into place. The person I’m seeing  goes down on me on the couch even though we’re both exhausted. After that, it’s more effort to go home than to stay. I’ve never met the people that live in this house and they didn’t prepare their bed for visitors. This type of thing used to thrill me. As I climb into their bed, I can smell their married scent. There’s a pair of sweatpants tucked between the sheets and I wonder if they were pulled off in passion or discomfort.

As I drive home the next morning, I feel the wine defrost on the seat under me and soak into my pants. They’re black so the stains won’t show. I probably can’t get away with going in somewhere to get coffee so I don’t stop. When I get home there’s a beeping in my apartment. Every thirty seconds, one long beep. I google there’s a beep in my apartment but it’s none of the top ten things that beep in your apartment. To cover up the beep, I turn on a podcast where a poet talks with other poets about poetry. The host and the guest are very clear in this episode. Nobody wants your poetry. People want you to cook them a meal.

I keep thinking of that word. Self-possessed. It means being undisturbed, being not nervous. Before self-possession we just had possession. The act or fact of possessing or that which is possessed. This can be in the legal property sense or this can mean being controlled by an indwelling demon. I can’t remember now where I heard about this theory that you go through life acquiring demons. They sort of trail behind you, causing havoc. And you can’t get rid of the demons you already have, so you just end up with more and more of them back there behind you.

When I was fifteen, my mom and I went to California and got our noses pierced. Or was it the cartilage of her ear and my belly button? She said don’t tell Dad. She got a thrill out of being reprimanded. I just wanted to show I was on her team. My mom and I can’t get along in her house because it’s covered in paperwork and trinkets and shoes and I can’t stay awake when I’m there. She stays up late, then finally falls asleep eating cinnamon flavored candies, mainly Hot Tamales and cinnamon bears. I picture her with little red dots at the corners of her lips.

I can’t read unless my phone dies and once my phone dies I read a few pages while it charges. Alice Notley writes about grief as a presence not an absence, like torn pieces of cloth in your field of vision.

When my phone turns back on, I get a text that says I worry we’re not going to leave any good trash or cultural artifacts for posterity with our current attitude towards leaving a trace.

I start watching YouTube videos of people exploring deserted places. There’s this one couple, a guy that talks and films while his girlfriend opens doors and drawers and cupboards. They drive way out into the middle of Nevada to a little house tucked against a dry hillside. They walk right in. The man says the wood floor has gone soft. They find newspapers and relics from the 1980s. But then they’re surprised. They find some Doritos from 2009 and a calendar from 2015. How long before we consider something abandoned?

Other videos feature an abandoned hotel in Japan with fairytale plants growing up around pianos. Or the bumper cars still sitting there outside Chernobyl, not that rusty. Or the famous city in China built for a million people but nobody came so it’s there waiting with the crosswalk signs blinking. Or that closed-down aquarium in Australia where a shark sits rotting in green algae-water its silhouette teeth dark against the glass.





Cassandra Lee 

is a person from wyoming

preoccupied with closeness, what we conceal, & the forces that guide poems into arrangement

she hopes one day to be out standing in her field (or meadow)


“‘Mysteries of Small Houses'” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)