When I was a kid, maybe nine years old, I was obsessed with “Harriet the Spy.” I would voraciously read anything I could get my hands on and shimmy up doorways, thinking people wouldn’t see me hiding there. I carried a small notebook and a red pencil with my name written in gold capital letters near the eraser and watched people from my carefully crafted vantage points taking little notes: Fat man has red hat, is walking small white poodle down the street. I can’t for the life of me remember what the point of all these notes were. Being a spy, I suppose, was mission enough.

As an only child, and not living near any other children, I was often left to spy on my own, making my parents my primary subjects by default. One Sunday morning I remember gathering my spy tools, pulling my stealthy black spy hoodie over my pigtails and slowly opening the white wooden door to the hallway.

Our home was a modern one-story deal: Light wood floors stretched across the sprawling spaces and windows reached into the far corners of the asymmetric cathedral ceiling, flooding the mid-century modern furniture and short fibered wool area rugs with huge splashes of southern-facing light. This all lay close above a half basement that was divided into sections: My father’s media room (no TV allowed upstairs), my mother’s art studio, and my dance studio.

My parents surprised me one Christmas with floor to ceiling mirrors lining the far wall.  As I opened my door silently, I slid my socks along the smooth floor so as not to make any noise. I passed my much-contested gerbil. I had begged for months to be allowed a rat, like my cousins had, but my mother refused and eventually compromised by purchasing me what was likely the angriest, most vicious gerbil in the great state of Vermont. We mostly ignored him, and occasionally gave him toilet paper rolls which he immediately set upon with the fervent fury of a wild beast. We would watch in half horror, half awe as he demolished the tube and invariably defecated on it’s remains before burrowing into his corner for a nap. We lived in fear of losing our fingers to the tiny creature, but in the end my father found him deceased, gripping the little metal wheel so firmly that my father was forced to disposed of them as one.

My socked feet crossed the wide hallway and I flattened myself against the cool, white wall between the office and the white tiled kitchen, holding still. I listened. My parents were in the kitchen, making toast and eggs in the pleasant silence that I was accustomed to. I can hardly ever remember my parents being angry or joyous. In that house, there was only either quiet conversation or the sweet comforting sounds of people in love going about their separate tasks, absorbed their own thoughts.

When I used my super spy hearing powers to geo-locate my parents at the far end of the kitchen, I made a run for it, sliding past the immaculate counters and magnet-free appliances and into the danger of the living room. I say living room, but really it was just the rest of the house. Off to the left was my parents’ neat white carpeted master bedroom and to the right was a sprawling space divided by simple pieces of furniture into a living room and a dining room. Consuming the wall that led to my parents’ room was an enormous bookcase filled with poetry, feminist manifestos, risque art books, field guides, New York Times Bestsellers, biographies of obscure figures, and several volumes of Calvin and Hobbes or Bloom County Cartoons, all neatly arranged and offset with various statues of globular naked women and breathtaking renderings of some of the finest cars every manufactured. Off the back was a deck looking out into the woods where I spent most of my outdoor spying time perched in the branches waiting in vain for one of our elderly neighbors to do anything at all.

I slid under the dining room table and pulled out my pencil and paper. I tried not to breath. When my parents came in and sat at the table there was a great clinking of coffee mugs on hardwood and rustling of newspapers. They exchanged a few words to determine which parent got which section of the Sunday paper. My father chuckled. My mother giggled. It felt like an hour that I sat under the table, furiously scribbling notes about the smell of my father’s feet, the sounds their throats made when they swallowed sips of coffee, and just as I was getting to the good part — imagining what they might be reading —my father’s voice cut through the hush, “You’ve gotta work on the breathing. You breath like an elephant.”


Morrigan McCarthy is a writer and photographer. She is setting off on a world bike tour with her partner, Alan,  in early July.