We grew up in houses without walls. Literally. Janna lived on the first floor of an incomplete two-story house. Her five-member family occupied the two bedroom lower level, while the unfinished upper level held the promise of space, privacy, and the hope of a grander life to come. I lived just around the corner in a three-car garage with my parents and newborn brother. Single-layer plywood walls partitioned our tiny home into three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen with only a microwave for cooking our meals. Our promise-to-come resided next door, in a larger-than-imaginable home waiting to be built . . . a brick exoskeleton protecting a cavernous empty interior, with only studs to show what the future might hold.
We were fifth-graders with stringy hair and scabby legs and bare feet forced to become friends by virtue of proximity. These were the days before helicopter parenting was a thing, and we were expected to amuse ourselves, mostly outdoors, when we were not in school. We had long country roads bounded by deep muddy ditches and dark culverts to explore. We had pastures to cross, dotted with a variety of beasts to slay, and bicycles to take us beyond where our feet could travel. Our days were open and blessedly unscheduled.
We tired of our bicycles and started driving before we were supposed to. Our mothers worked, and we had endless hours to entertain ourselves. Daytime soap operas and prank phone calls could only occupy a small portion of a long, unplanned day. So we began sneaking Jane’s car and driving all over those long country roads. We always stopped at a grubby little foodmart on Blacksferry Road to replace the gas we used, and if we could scrounge up enough change, we would treat ourselves to some Cheetos or Sweet Tarts and a couple of cans of A&W to enjoy on the ride back home. We lived in terror of being caught, which made the adventure that much more enjoyable. I am still amazed that the clerk at the foodmart never reported two twelve-year-olds driving themselves all around the back roads of Wild Peach.
We were improbable friends. Janna enjoyed being the center of attention, the wisemouth who always had something to say about everything and everybody and thrived with large groups of admirers. I was the awkward introvert who shunned attention and who always preferred books over people and solitude over adventure. We shared a flair for drama and a penchant for exaggeration. We were both storytellers, and we created a world for ourselves where we were the heroines, the victors, the slayers of dragons and school bus drivers.
In the hot summers, we would take respite in the shade of our houses without walls. We would hide upstairs and prop open the windows, hoping for a hint of a breeze. We talked, and we talked, and we talked, and we laughed. . . that kind of wrenching painful howling pee-in-your-pants belly laugh. We imagined the future and created places for ourselves . . . places where we could be bigger than the small country towns we lived between. And in these houses without walls, two fifth-graders became teenagers and then became women. We created stories for ourselves and lived in them, and learned from each other that friendship grows from laughter, stories, and some weird kernel of acceptance of each other’s differences.
Janna’s family never finished their second story. Her parents divorced and everyone moved away, leaving a house that yet remains without walls. I lived in our completed home for just over a year before leaving for college. The house that my family built now stands empty, abandoned, no longer the hope of a future to come. We left our houses without walls and entered a world full of walls that tried to confine us and bind us and make us be “normal.” But two young girls who grew up without walls, who freely roamed the countryside with only our imaginations and our laughter to occupy us, who dreamed of boundless possibilities and grand futures, could never be contained in a world that seeks to bind us. Our acceptance of each other grew into acceptance of others and acceptance of life and all its strange happenings. Because sometimes people live in houses without walls, and it’s not normal, but being “not normal” is not a bad thing. And she and I, well we’re not normal either. And we’re still living lives without walls. And, that’s not a bad thing either.