The House on South Stricker Street
That Southwest Baltimore rowhouse was my home for nine months, the duration of a human pregnancy. In 1973, the dwelling’s brick façade was painted a redundant red, an iconic marble stoop its sole attractive feature. The windows overlooked several lumbering 1960s sedans parked at the curb. TVs blared, parents shouted at their children playing in the street, Arabbers touted fresh produce from horse-drawn carts, and polka music streamed from the window of the old Polish lady next door on Sunday afternoons.
I moved in right before I started medical school, when it turned out that I didn’t have a room in the dorm. My third-floor bedroom was small and shabby, with a sad brown carpet, and, in late August, very hot. Thick, intimidating medical texts filled board-and-block bookshelves. A microscope rested in its case beneath my childhood maple desk, to which was affixed the sturdy knotted rope my father had devised as a “do it yourself” fire escape.
Meanwhile, my mother lay in an oncology unit in a hospital across town. Evenings at her bedside followed afternoons in the anatomy lab, a surreal juxtaposition. I studied for quizzes and tests in her hospital room while my sister did her high-school homework.
My four roommates were all male, another source of dislocation and unease and a radical departure from my previous four years at an all-women’s college. Our kitchen was small and dark, memorable mainly for its plague of cockroaches and its inexpensive elderly appliances. The grimy bathroom was even worse—tiny, with a phone-booth-size shower stall.
My housemates and I shared a telephone, located at the bottom of the battered staircase. I don’t remember whether the phone was dial or push-button, beige or black, even though it loomed large in my life that year. Calls from my father, soon after I moved in, filling me in on the vicissitudes of my mother’s cancer treatment. My conversation with her on Labor Day, when she was on leave from the hospital, was our last from home. It took her a painfully long time to get to the phone and I could hear her cane tap-tapping in the background. For weeks, calls from Dad arranged the times for my hospital visits with Mom. I always hauled my textbooks and notebooks with me so I could cram in whatever studying I could manage. Then his call came on a bright October Sunday morning, after the previous night’s vigil at her bedside where, bloated and comatose, she struggled to breathe. She was gone.
Later, there were long intense conversations on that telephone. I’d fallen passionately in love with an older man not long after my mother’s funeral. Our trysts took place a few miles from the house on South Stricker Street, in the home of one of his friends. It added to the intrigue; my lover was irrevocably separated from his wife, but he was not yet divorced. We forged a deep connection, intellectual and emotional as well as physical. The love affair allowed me to skate smoothly over the thin ice of my grief. After our evenings together, he would leave me glassy-eyed on that front stoop with one more soulful kiss and a chuckle at my “well-fucked” look. For that brief time, there was no room in my life for mourning.
Spring brought welcome curriculum changes, physiology taking the place of the veiled horror of the cadaver lab. But our affair crested and began to coast downhill. Phone conversations became tearful and fraught. The tears were usually mine, but sometimes they were his, too. I huddled in that rowhouse, weeping, feeling the full force of the grief for my mother that passion had postponed.
We broke up in March.
One bright afternoon in April, I called everyone I could think of on that phone, starting with him, but could reach no one. In desperation, I dialed the landlord two doors down. He took me to the emergency room, where an overworked psychiatry resident talked me out of killing myself. He prescribed some pills to tide me over and set me up with the therapy I so badly needed. Weeks later, the semester ended. If that nine-month period had been a pregnancy, the baby would have been ill and deformed.
When I left the house on South Stricker Streer for the last time, I obeyed the injunction that Lot’s wife ignored: I did not look back.
On a gray autumn day, some forty years after my tenure on South Stricker Street, I parked my car a couple of blocks away and walked to the old rowhouse. The crack epidemic of the ’80s had taken a toll on the neighborhood. The pavement was more littered and pockmarked than I remembered. A surveillance camera, right out of an episode of The Wire, blinked unsteadily from a corner. A few of the neighboring dwellings were gone, a plot of grass or weeds in their place. Some nearby homes were in the process of being rehabilitated. Several remained as they’d been four decades ago, while others were still standing, but barely. My former home was among the derelict. The marble stoop was gone, the window frames were empty sockets, and the inside appeared gutted as if waiting for the wrecking ball.
Like someone touching the name of a lost loved one on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial, I placed a couple of smooth stones on the doorsill. It was chest height without the stoop. I wanted to honor all the people who’d lived there, their joys, sorrows, and struggles that we had all experienced in the house we had shared.
Each of our lives, however obscure, meant something. We were here.
© Kay White Drew
Kay White Drew is a retired neonatal physician. Her work has appeared in Bay to Ocean Journal, This Is What America Looks Like, Pen in Hand, Grace in Darkness, The Loch Raven Review, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. Her memoir, Stress Test, will be published in 2024 by Apprentice House Press. She lives in Rockville, MD.