Maple, Part One: 2004-2005

Houses

Maple is a hidden street, a dead-end spit of old mill village wedged between three parking lots and a pastel suburban maze of cul-de-sacs that popped up on the hillside sometime in the 1990s. I’m not sure when I first drove down—like most I was probably foiled trying to use it as a shortcut to beat traffic on Main Street—but I remember thinking that I’d stumbled upon something wondrous: a collection of cottages with ample front porches, dwarfed by the huge oaks, poplars and magnolias that shaded the yards and branched over the street like a leafy vault in the summer. I rolled slowly past a small gray house with a brick sidewalk and a mossy birdbath in the front yard, thinking, Lord, this would be a dreamy place to linger. I wasn’t looking for a new place to live then, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have expected Maple to be an option. It was idea. Something lovely and quiet. A corner I didn’t think anyone else knew about. A vision of a life that was not mine.

 In spring of 2004,  I found myself in need of a place to put myself and, after a cursory introduction, Cranberries’ friend Expat, a clever, multi-lingual girl I barely knew. It did not occur to me to even look at Maple. Instead we looked at classifieds (Craigslist was still a novelty) and the listings of various rental agencies and toured a bewildering number of addresses with a wide variety of fatal flaws.

Expat found a house over behind the university hospital. A brick bungalow with witch hat gables, precariously perched over a kudzu-flooded ravine. It was adorable, just the kind of scarred floor, high ceiled, old house disaster I was predisposed to go nuts for, but the location was not great. And when we went to sign the lease and handover a pet deposit, the sleazebag landlord informed us the house came with a tenant in the rotten basement with the painted over windows. “He’s a strange old man, but he probably won’t bother you.” Probably.

“You realize that’s the plot of a horror movie,” said Art Night, when I went to meet her and Numbers at our favorite bar.

I knew. I already felt weird about the house and bereft at the loss of the Estes community. Art Night to New England. Cranberries to the Pacific Northwest. The idea of a creepy, unevictable tenant who probably didn’t mean any harm in the basement of the falling down house I was about to move into with a clever, seemingly mercurial girl I barely knew? A bridge too far. I sobbed. Cranberry bought me a gin. Numbers tried to comfort me. He said that he and his roommate, Shrug, were also looking for a new place. What if we all lived together. Cranberries thought this was a fantastic idea.

“I can’t move in with Apollo until the end of the summer anyway,” she said. “So I’ll need a place to stay too. We’ll all just live together until I go to Seattle.”

They nodded hopefully. They were all younger than I was, a bunch of freshly minted college graduates still  years away from twenty-five trying to calm down a blubbering twenty-eight-year-old with zero prospects.

I called my mother. I called Expat. “I can’t do it,” I said. “I’ll pay you back whatever is non-refundable.”

She was put out but agreed. “We have to find a place though,” she said. “No fucking around.”

No fucking around. I swore. I hung up, relieved, and looked at the plate glass window and the late afternoon sidewalk. A piece of paper caught on the wind. I went out to fetch what turned out to be an Irish five pound note. No one else was around, and the note was technically worthless in 2004. I slid it into my pocket. Superstitious atheist and all. This has got to be a good luck.


We set off looking at five-bedroom houses, places with space for two boys, Expat, me, Cranberries, and three cats. The general attitude was conciliatory. Everyone seemed eager to compromise. No one particularly wanted to. We’d shifted from tiny cottages to the kind of over-sized falling apart rentals favored by shunned fraternities and punk rock kids that put on house shows for rent money. Places even more obviously party than Estes, where we couldn’t stay because the landlord had rented it out within moments of us giving notice.

I loved the idea of messy Bohemian group house, even if I secretly wondered what it meant that I was approaching thirty, looking at back yards still littered with solo cups from the last kegger and considering the minimum number of minimally-appointed bathrooms needed so five mixed-gender theoretical adults wouldn’t kill each other. Should I be ashamed of myself?  My mother kept asking about my five-year plan. I thought that was hilarious. I barely had a five-day plan.

“I can’t force anyone to hire me,” I’d say.

She’d say, “That’s ridiculous. Just put on lipstick and smile and go sit in the office and refuse to leave until they agree to interview you. That will show the employer what kind of person you are.”

 And I’d say, “The kind of person they need to file a restraining order against?”

She chided me for not being ambitious enough or driven enough. All the things that worked for her in 1974 should work for me in 2004. I couldn’t seem to communicate that  the world had changed. That I lacked my mother’s skill at winning people with a smile and a well-placed compliment. That instead of radiating competence and enthusiasm, I came off like a collection of nervous tics, doubtful, awkward, grubby, unqualified, clearly not a good fit, “And follow that girl out, Barb, and make sure she doesn’t try to steal any pens from the waiting room.”

I knew my time was running out to prove that I could even pretend to function like a normal human being. I had some freelance work. I had the record store. “I don’t want to move home,” I said.

Mom knew. She sighed. I was pretty sure she didn’t want me to move home either.

I kept packing, pretending I had somewhere to go.


Seventeen days before we were supposed to be out of Estes, we found a house, a sprawling rancher between a golf course and a divided highway. The landlady was a pair of pursed lips who looked at us suspiciously when all five of us marched up the driveway. I didn’t think we looked like trouble. The boys were cleanshaven in collared shirts. The three of us girls had brushed hair and nice sweaters. No unnatural hair colors. No visible tattoos. But we were young, and she struck me as the type to view all young people as probable members of a communist sex cult. She asked twice if any of us were Presbyterians. The second time I lied and said, “Sure.”

Hers was the nicest house we’d looked at together. It had a huge rec room, a wide grassy lawn, a perfect vision of 1955 suburbia. “We could do all sorts of things with that rec room,” I said to Numbers, and gave the landlady my most we’re not going to have orgies, I swear smile. It was expensive, though. The boys balked.

“What if I pay a little extra?” I asked.

“With what money?” asked Cranberries.

Mom was in town to visit my little sister. I joined them for dinner and updated her on the house search. I explained about the ranch house. The price. I asked if she would consider helping me so I could help my friends justify the price. She didn’t think that sounded either fair or sustainable. But I was going to be out of a house in seventeen days. “Desperate times,” I said.

After dinner, we drove over to see the house. She hemmed and hawed. “Is this really where you want to live?” she asked .

I’ve looked at everything. Hyperbole, but barely. “I think it’s the best I can do.”

We got back on the highway to drive toward Estes. She asked where I would live in town if I could live anywhere in town. I went to make a joke about the white shingled mansions on East Franklin, but I thought better of it. “Mill Village,” I said, and then, “There’s this one sort of secret street. Want to see it?”

It was almost dark when we pulled down Maple. The canopy of branches newly leafed above us. The glowing porch lights illuminating the  flowering shrubs in the front yard. I told Mom the street was adorable. She agreed.

“Too bad I’ll never be able to live here,” I said, as she slowed the car, and gestured out the window toward the little gray house with the toothy molding and the mossy birdbath, a hand-lettered FOR RENT sign leaning sideways in the lawn.


The property manager met us the next morning. Inside, the living room floors shined, dark as mahogany. The wallpaper in the dining room was old and the kitchen tiny, outfitted with ancient appliances. The bathroom door was swollen, and the floor slightly bowed. But the two back bedrooms were airy. I claimed the one on the left the first moment I saw it.

I think I’d filled out a rental application before I even thought to ask Expat or Cranberries if they liked it. The property manager said she’d take it back and run them by the landlord (he lived in the house behind). I went home that night with a nervous stomach, wrote lines in my journal like a punished schoolkid, like a ritual, please let me get this house please let me get this house please let me get this house please let me get this house.

We got the house.

The move-in started nearly immediately, though the first week was mostly me riding back and forth through Carrboro with carfuls of boxes for the empty house. I’d walk into the leafy green afternoon light and observe the perfection of Maple, which was about as perfect a cottage as you could get in a town without stone gables and an overgrown English garden.  How did I manage this? I wondered.

Expat moved into the room next to mine, filling it with Russian novels and furry white rugs. Cranberries took tiniest bedroom in the world—“Temporary,” she said, “just until Seattle.” Her queen-size bed fitting almost perfectly wall to wall. We introduced our cats. They eyed each other warily from their respective corners of our overstuffed house.

That first night in, I was exhausted from handling the chaos of leaving Estes and facing another day of clearing out trash. Expat invited over a bunch of her friends, scruffy scene boys who draped over boxes in the dining room and wondered aloud why we didn’t have any cocaine or Bergman films on hand. 

“This might be a different vibe from the whole pot and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and radical empathy thing we had at the old house,” I said to Cranberries, after a particularly condescending, drunk twenty-two-year-old, dressed like one of the Strokes, opined that I was prude and a person of hopelessly pedestrian tastes.

She shrugged and said something about still-hypothetical Seattle, where Apollo’s new life was taking ever-more elaborate, if imaginary, shape. “He wants to live in a modernist box. All concrete and glass. It sounds uncomfortable and sort of soul-destroying.”

It sounded expensive. I looked over the living room to where Apollo was reclined, half visible, strumming my shitty old guitar, behind the shuttered door to Cranberries’ jury-rigged bedroom. “Does he think he’s going to make the money to buy that house in music or tech?”

She shrugged. Apollo grew up in a castle, even if the castle had since been sold. He’d attended college classes with both Hollywood royalty and actual aristocrats. Cranberries poured herself another glass of wine. “I’m not sure he’s really thought about the move at all.”


Three cats is a lot of cats for 900 square feet. One of them had always seemingly escaped, leading to numerous late-night search parties through neighborhood yards. We had three food bowls and ancient Le Creuset pot on the hearth filled with water. We had at least two litter boxes. Cranberries’ cat refused them all, choosing to pee on the floor outside the largest, which removed an Australia-shaped swath of finish off the nicely-refinished floors.

“There goes the security deposit,” I said, and we all sort of shrugged hopelessly.

Three girls and their various romantic entanglements are a lot for 900 square feet, one bathroom, and old wooden doors, swollen with age and the near-tropical humidity of Eastern Piedmont summer.  All of us worked evenings, to a certain degree, but Expat manned the bar at two different local nightclubs in between occasional shifts at the local animal hospital. She’d crash in at 4am, a few hours before Cranberries rose fora brunch shift at the restaurant.

I tried to fix my gaze on the bathroom door in the morning, lest I catch sight of skin through Expat’s open bedroom door. I’d wear headphones to make coffee, so as not to inadvertently overhear Apollo and Cranberries through the shutters. I’d think, one day, when I have a boy in my bed, they’ll have to step by my unclose-able door and try to ignore the kissing noises. I’d think, one day, when I have a boy in my bed, I probably won’t care.

The summer days were long and hot. I begged people for jobs. Cranberries had her wisdom teeth taken out. Expat had friends over to watch foreign films.

In August, Cranberries loaded up the little room and moved in with Apollo to a house that looked very much like a sad dinghy, just around the corner from the place he’d rented with his siblings. They signed a year lease.  Cranberries shrugged. “I guess we can break it if we move to Seattle.” And gave me a look that said clearly, we are not moving to Seattle.

Expat and I failed to coalesce. Maybe it was the schedules. Maybe it was the friends. Resentments festered. She didn’t like me smoking in the house (fair). I didn’t like the late-night scene on the back porch, in her bedroom. In retrospect, she was run ragged, staying busy to stave off sadness. I was still adrift, underemployed, unsettled after Estes. My mother gave me a hard ultimatum—Christmas, you have until Christmas, to pull your life together. I sent out another hundred resumes. I got an interview for a tech writing job. The guy in charge was like, “But you work in the record store? That’s the coolest job ever. Why in the world would you want to do this?”

And I was like, Because I am twenty-eight years old and I am still buying boxed mac & cheese with dimes and I am permanently single and lonely and, in a period of historic economic growth, no one will even give me a temp job. I am afraid there is something deeply wrong with me. I know I am a burden to everyone. I suspect I am the biggest failure in the history of failures. I would probably clean your toilets if you offered me more than $8/hour.

But I said, “Because I’m looking for new challenges and an exciting role with your company.”

I didn’t get the job.


In November, I hosted Thanksgiving Potluck in the new house to a boisterous crowd. At around midnight, the plumbing backed up. The sink wouldn’t drain. The toilet wouldn’t flush. The contents of the pipes breeched the bathtub drain from the wrong direction. Apollo and his current bandmates attempted, in earnest, to uncover useful talents on the fly, but they were none of them at all handy, and they’d devolved, with alcohol, into giggling children splashing each other with filthy water. I was annoyed. Expat and her guests had retreated into her room in a cloud of pot smoke and indifference. I called the property manager, who called a plumber, who found it astonishing that somehow had thought to try and flush a paper plate and a whole turkey leg down the toilet. It was a 350$ bill. I blamed Expat’s friends. Expat probably blamed me for the party. We tipped into the holiday season on the vanguard of a domestic Cold War.

“I just don’t want this to turn ugly,” I said to Cranberries, one morning, as we smoked on the lifeboat shaped front porch of the Dinghy. “I’ve lived with roommates where it turned ugly.”

“You could ask her to leave,” said Cranberries.

“What if she doesn’t? What if it ends up a pitched battle of wills?”

Cranberries inhaled, thoughtfully. “That thing that happened to you in Greensboro? You need to realize that was kind of an anomaly. That probably won’t happen with other people”

It was sage advice. I wished she’d move back in, because no way I could afford the house on Maple alone. She gave a glance to the front room of the Dinghy, recently surrendered to garbage bags full of Apollo’s clothes he’d worn to his lab tech job and become convinced were contaminated. He wouldn’t let her wash them. He wouldn’t let her touch the bags. He wouldn’t let her clean little bathroom in the front, where he’d shattered a glass in the sink three months earlier and left it in the bowl to gather dust. Things were weird with them.

They’d been together, off and on, for almost eight years. Cranberries and Apollo were a constant, a cornerstone, a foundational truth in our universe. “You know, my mother asked a couple of days ago when you guys were getting married,” I said.

Cranberries laughed. “Maybe after we move to Seattle,” she said.


Expat moved out after Christmas. The conversation I’d been dreading went off hitchless. After the new year, she came home from work. We had a beer. I told it was cool if she wanted to move out. I braced myself for her refusal and was met with her relief. She found a place with another friend within days and moved out without a quibble. A week later, she drove up at lunchtime and asked if I wanted to come out for a diner burger.  We talked like normal people, unburdened by the challenge of cohabitation, and counted each other as close friends within, what felt like, moments. And that friendship has since stretched over a couple continents and lasted something like, sixteen years.  There are stranger ways of making a best friend, I guess.

I stretched out in the house, moved my desk into the little room, and encouraged the old crowd from Estes to come back over for TV nights. Cranberries was over a lot. We’d contemplate Expat’s empty bedroom. The big windows. The quality of light. She said she wished she could move in, but you know. I did. Something would have to happen. The inertia at the Dinghy would continue until another force—or perhaps an avalanche of garbage bags containing Apollo’s clothes—acted against it.

My mother encouraged me to find another roommate. I’d picked up a regular ghostwriting gig that kept me at better-than-destitute levels of income. But still, “You can’t afford to live there alone.” I knew I couldn’t. I also knew that Cranberries was moving back. Just a matter of when. Twelve weeks later, Cranberries brought over a stack of boxes  and started to move her cups and bowls back into the kitchen.

She didn’t really have to say anything. The I’m done was implied. It had already been her room for months.

Estes, 2002-2004

Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is part ten of a series. Part nine is here.)

We knew the ice storm was coming. Sort of. Cranberries went to work at the coffeeshop that wasn’t really a coffeeshop around the time the rain started to freeze out, around the time the rain froze. Apollo was worried about her driving home, so he asked me to drive her to and after her shift, we went to fetch her over the icy roads at about ten. Cranberries thought we were worrywarts, “I totally could have driven in this,” and maybe we were, but the wheels kept slipping, and Apollo’s knuckles went white as the flakes on the windshield whenever we approached a red light. Safely delivered, Cranberries stood at the back door and watched Apollo move his car back to his house—two doors up—as the sleet continued to crackle against the windows.

Technically, the two of them had been broken up for months, but he found reason to be around all the time.  Most recently, he’d come over to shave his head over our kitchen trashcan a couple nights previous. Exactly the sort of thing it made zero sense to go to your ex-girlfriend’s house to do. “Unless there’s some kind of weird fuck-you intention behind it. Like, I’m leaving hair all over your kitchen because we’re dumped or whatever,” I said to Art Night, earlier in the week after Cranberries had retired to her bedroom to cough herself to sleep.

Art Night inhaled thoughtfully and muted the television. “It’s probably because our kitchen is bigger than Apollo’s. And it’s, like, our kitchen.” Meaning it was a mess, with stacks of coffeemugs and filled ashtrays and veggie burrito wrappers and PBR cans and a coffee pot that rocked on a three legged stool and left grounds splashed on the wall behind like ancient runes. Meaning it was a perfectly reasonable place for someone to come over and mess up with their art project or buzzcut or whatever. They weren’t going to make it any worse.


We’d moved into Estes at the end of May but it was already hot as blazes, which I couldn’t say anything about because the people in my hometown would just I told you so themselves to death with their, “Either stay here or move to New York” garbage. As if it couldn’t be hot in New York in May. As if a little humidity was the worst thing in the world.

“Does wonders for my hair,” I’d tell them (true!), while they sighed and predicted I’d miss the mountain peaks (rarely) and bluegrass (literally never).

My parents rented a truck. We rode down and met my roommates, their friends, my sister and her then-boyfriend. It was the fastest, easiest move-in imaginable, though it took us weeks to unpack all the boxes.

I decorated my bedroom in vintage hats and old linens to the sound of oddball Pete Townsend songs and Robert Pollard side projects on the college radio station. I felt weightless and free,  probably because I was completely unemployed, though I think I attributed to something almost metaphysical at the time.

The Divorcee followed me down ten days later to occupy the Futon in the room next to mine in the back wing. She and I drank too much and stayed out too late, while my younger roommates dawdled through summer school. Cranberries was nineteen years old when we moved into the house. The Divorcee was pushing thirty. I’d always been the oldest sister. That first summer in Estes made me feel like the middle child, filling out job applications in the fog of an endless hangover, and weaving between the  Divorcee’s endless post-breakup joie de vivre and Cranberries’ youthful fatalism. 

I was both heartbroken and practically inconvenienced by the Divorcee’s inevitable departure in early fall. Neither Art Night nor Cranberries were particularly saddened to see her go. “She was condescending,” said Cranberries. “You were condescending when you were around her.”

Maybe, but it had been a fun ride, all the vicarious thrills of hanging out with the kind of woman so endlessly charming that you never have to worry about buying your own drinks, even though you certainly don’t look like she does in leather pants. For some weeks afterward, her gentleman callers continued to turn up at my bedroom window, pawing at the screen at 4, at 5am, wondering where she’d gone, if I had her phone number, and hey, now that I’m here, would you mind giving me a ride home or a couple of bucks for a taxi?

I would mind. I did not.

Summer stretched into fall. I was hired, then fired from, a job at a museum gift shop. I picked up freelance work. I bought groceries with silver change.


The power flickered for the first time around midnight. We were all too wound up to sleep, and Cranberries was coughing again. She had been coughing like the tragic heroine of a 19th century novel since approximately October. She might have been dying or might just been smoking too many cigarettes. Whatever the case, I was pretty sure we couldn’t get her to the hospital that night.

We were giddy with the anticipation of calamity. Tree branches thudded around outside between the gunshot sounds of distant transformers. There was one right outside the house. “That’s going to be loud when it goes,” said Art Night. We dreaded the sound.

At 4am, the lights went dark. We’d been listening to Queen on the stereo. I stood to get candles, and after a second, the power came back, Freddy Mercury sang, It’s a kind of magic. And we were like, Holy shit, no kidding

An hour later, the power went out for real.

***

The house filled up with thrift store scores and unfinished art projects. It was squalor, but it was our squalor, one of those places you cannot imagine that you ever lived five minutes after moving out.  I was as house proud as one could be of a sprawling dump, constantly full of noise and smoke and whatever halfway interesting rattled up the driveway and through the back door. We all believed we were miserable at the time. Maybe we were. But it  was the kind of misery that felt like a good time ten minutes later. Happiness is a thing you remember and all. I remember being broke in that house and bored and anxious and occasionally furiously angry. I don’t remember being sad. That’s not, as they say, nothing.

I wrote to Boston, who was at the time barely employed and running out of money in Berkeley, California. I extolled the virtues of my shabby existence, ticking along as it was until the money and the time well-nigh ran out. On paper, I thought my life sounded as about as romantic as it felt on days when I could scrounge enough for a beer and a taco and talk someone into putting me on the guest list at the Cat’s Cradle. In late fall, Boston gave up on the Bay Area and took me up  on the offer.

“Boston is not at all like the Divorcee,” I assured Art Night and Cranberries. “You’ll like her.”

They looked suspicious, but we could all do with the extra rent to help us pay for the cigarettes, art supplies, and cable bill for the (approximately) two hours of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reruns we were watching every weekday evening. She was due to move in the first week of December, a couple of days after I got hired at the record store.


The first day without power wasn’t so bad. The second day was worse. We ate through snacks and cereal (it was cold enough that dairy didn’t need to be refrigerated if we kept it on the porch). We drank cheap wine. We tried acapella singalongs. We learned that Pavement is a tough band for an acapella singalong.

By nightfall the cold was nearly unbearable.

Apollo and Radio wandered down with a case of beer and a notion that somehow more of us might make the scene less bleak. We’d generate more body heat. I couldn’t get drunk, really, just dried out and headache-y. Apollo freestyle rapped about microbiology, which was both marginally impressive and absolutely obnoxious. Cranberries coughed. We passed at least a dozen stages of now what? The boys walked home. I crawled into bed in two overcoats and watched my breath fog my glasses on the nightstand. I thought, this is what things must have been like in medieval times, and then, at least in medieval times they would have had a working fireplace.

When I woke, I hurt with cold. I stumbled into the kitchen and found my roommates at their wits’ end.  Boston came by midmorning for her inaugural tour of the house. She found us at an undeniably bleak spot–cold, unwashed, ornery—and the whole vibe of the house lacked the cheery warmth and camaraderie I’d promised. She invited me to her mother’s house in the suburbs south of Raleigh, where I slept on a sofa, grateful for the warmth. 

I left the next morning. Boston would follow, eventually, when the power was back and it was reasonable to move in. At the house, Cranberries sounded like death, hacking and shaking. Art Night was worried about her. They were going to drive to Durham and stay in Ringer’s dorm room at Duke. Did I want to come?

I thought someone should stay, just in case the power came back on.  It was the first time I’d been alone in the house since we moved in. I was tired, slightly hungover. I stretched out on the bed and tried to will myself to sleep. The cold was oppressive. It hurt to breathe.  I packed a bag and went out to the car, not sure where I would go or when I should surrender and go there. I sat in the driveway, working a crossword in the local weekly, periodically warming myself by turning the heat on and then turning the car off. Night was coming. Eventually I’d run out of gas. Eventually I’d have to go somewhere.  I willed the power to come back on. I put the car into gear.

I wished. I prayed. I hoped. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw a bulb burning over the back door. I shrieked with joy. I went inside and turned the heat up as high as it would go and stood over the grate, feeling the warmth rise over my shoes, up my body and brush over my face.


People recall Estes as a party house, in part because it had been before we got there, and would continue to be after we left.  The second Thanksgiving potluck I ever hosted brought nearly forty guests to makeshift table (a number I thought impossibly huge until five years later would bring something like sixty to a much smaller house). Ringer invited a friend from Duke, a tall young man in  fancy overcoat who thought he was in an Evelyn Waugh novel. He sniffed at our cheap, unpolished wine glasses and insulted the wine. He famously fled the kitchen in mock panic, describing the scene as, “God help me, it’s like an indie rock explosion in there!” We all thought that was hilarious, even if, especially if, it wasn’t entirely accurate. And that scene became the postcard version of Estes.

We didn’t actually have that many parties, per se. There were just always people over. Friends and boyfriends, acquaintances just stopping by. Our living room crowded, hazed with cigarettes smoke. The television was almost always on—something I never quite adjusted to—even if muted, so people could play videogames to the “The Teaches of Peaches” or the same Yo La Tengo record that skipped on the seventh track.  I could count on one hand the number of times, in two years of living there, I was alone in the house. I think I only spent the night there by myself once, and it was such a weird feeling that I spent the whole night freaking myself out with House of Leaves and not sleeping at all.

After Boston moved in, we took to referring to the house as The Estes Drive House for Wayward Girls. We meant it as a joke, but it often felt a bit like a halfway house. We drank burnt coffee and talked about our feelings. We played games that were essentially just asking each other (and our friends) difficult personal questions. We journaled. We made collages. We had a copies of Art and Fear and Codependent No More floating around.  We let anyone that needed to stay, stay, whether friend, stranger or touring band. We lived on cobbled together paychecks from cobbled together jobs, which fit the cobbled together nature of the house. We didn’t really do much of anything.


By the time, Cranberries and Art Night returned from Durham, I’d showered and dressed. I’d washed dishes and put a pot of orange peels and cinnamon on the stove to repel the odor of despair. I was thinking about making a pot of soup. Did they want some?

Boston officially moved in a couple days later. She painted the baseboards of her room dark blue and hung it with batik tapestries. I sat with her and we reminisced about college. She talked about grad school, where she’d studied playwriting. I told her I thought we should write one-act plays for our next house art project.  We did, of course. Art Night wrote a play about a foul-mouthed lion that appeared out of nowhere and berated men into being better boyfriends. We all agreed it was the best.

Status quo restored.


Boston was first of us to get a salaried position with a title and benefits. Within weeks of her hiring, she announced she’d be vacating the bedroom, trading up for an airy one-bedroom in Durham about nine months after she moved in. By January 2004, Cranberries and Apollo, reunited, were planning to move in together somewhere that wasn’t in her bedroom in Estes, like maybe Seattle.

By March, the landlord came by to ask if we’d be renewing the lease. I tried to talk Art Night into it but she kind of rolled her eyes like, Really? Here? She suggested we think bigger. “Maybe we should get out of our comfort zone,” she said. “Maybe we should move to Raleigh.”

We didn’t. I gave the landlord notice about two days before Art Night told me she was moving back home to New Hampshire. It was unexpected. I felt suddenly rootless, with no notion of where I was going or who might be available to come with.  I was still patchworking odd jobs, scraping by, but barely, sending out resumes into the silent void, feeling embarrassed about the fact that my parents were still helping me out a bit and even more so by the fact that I was terrified they’d stop. Mom hinted at ultimatums, and these felt ominous, quite Damoclean to my 27-year-old brain. Like, what if I can’t ever find a real deal reasonable job? What if I have to move home again?  I didn’t know if I could survive it. I wasn’t sure I’d want to.

It took us weeks to move out. I drove boxes of records a mile up the road to a new rental house a few at a time in the backseat of an air conditioner-less Volkwagen bug. Estes was a disaster. It felt like everyone who’d ever lived there, maybe everyone who’d ever stopped by, had left some measure of literal baggage behind. Our last day in the house, we lined the driveway with a mountain range of trash. Ringer and Art Night borrowed a pick-up truck and dumped load after load in various apartment complex trash cans around town.

Art Night and I were the last to leave. We shared a cigarette on the empty screened-in porch at 11:55pm of the last day we were legally allowed to be in the house. I think I cried a bit, because I knew no other place I’d ever live would be like Estes. Maybe the tears were sadness. Maybe they were relief.

Growing up, getting a real job, those things were impossible in that house.  Estes existed outside of office hours, perhaps outside of time and space itself.  Most of us worked nights or mornings, usually both. Long swaths of afternoon were surrendered to lounging and listening to hours of music. We pretended our sloth was justified by our inability to convince the world—and maybe ourselves– that we were better than part-time minimum wage. Art Night, Cranberries, and I  were all graduates of the same boarding school. And I remember reflecting, ironically on its aspirational Latin motto, translated on the threshold of an excellent life, every time I passed through the door. Estes was the threshold. We just lingered longer than most, there while our peers went to grad school or learned to code or got married.  It was a long breath, an ellipsis, a well-placed fermata. I would have never admitted it at the time, but I needed it. I’m not sure I would have survived my twenties without it. 

Cumberland, 2000-2002

Uncategorized

(This is part nine of a series. Part eight is here.)

In fall of 2000, days before the election, Jordan told me she was moving to New York.

“My old friend and her brother have rented a place in the East Village,” she said. “I feel like New York is maybe a thing I should do.”

I felt like New York was maybe a thing I should do, and that I was endlessly squandering my best life by not having done it years ago, but I was still living with my parents and paying off my failures in weekly installments from my paltry paycheck, so like, beggars on horses, comrade.

I pouted. Jordan reminded me that she’d never been to New York, strictly speaking. I reminded Jordan that I’d never been to California, strictly speaking. That didn’t mean I was just going to up and vamoose to San Francisco.

“It’s different for me, though. I’ve already moved across the country. And I’m—“Jordan shook a desultory hand around at the patchouli-reeking, beanie-wearing wannabes at the hometown coffeehouse, “here.”

I couldn’t argue with her. It was a depressing scene. The week before we’d been to a reading, where one of the town’s most arrogant tryhards had tried to pass off a Baudelaire poem as his own, and literally no one, save Jordan and I, even noticed, let alone cared. Fuck these provinicial assholes, she’d said. Because most of them were assholes. They’d been assholes since high school. I could verify. High on their own supply. Even before they discovered cocaine, and David Foster Wallace.  “The only decent people from here leave,” I told her, then, and meant it, too. Even though I appreciated the irony. She was decent, so she should leave. I was doomed, at least temporarily, to stay, until I earned back my decency.

Sitting here in Limbo. I think they were even playing Jimmy Cliff over the PA.

Jordan leaving meant I was stuck at my parents until I could find someone else willing to move in with me. If I begged her to stay, what would that say about my relative decency? Might as well embrace the worst parts of myself.

“New York’s the most overrated city in the world,” I lied. “You’d probably hate it.”

I wish I could tell you I felt bad when she told me she’d decided not to go, but I didn’t. I felt relieved.


One thing for sure, Jordan had to get out of her apartment ASAP. The situation at my parents’ house may have felt crucial but we had about 4000 square feet of tract mansion to lose each other in. The garret shithole Jordan lived in was about double the size of Mom’s closet. And she shared it with the nearly 7-foot tall stoner son of my father’s girlfriend. We’ll call him Jeb. He was a mess, but a qualitatively different sort of mess—the underacheiving, inauthentically folksy, WASPy southern good old boy kind– than me and Jordan. I couldn’t quite figure out how Jordan, a French speaking aesthete with a fondness for gold lame, had hitched up with him in the first place. Neither could she, from the sounds of it. She spent a lot of her time sighing at him across their tiny apartment and frantically scrawling down notes for the memoir she was writing about their time together. Working title: Whatever, Jeb.

We decided to move in together and undertook the process of looking for a place. I was picky. I wanted something historic, ideally, high ceilings, chandeliers, all that. North/Central to downtown. It needed to look nice, but no more than 40% renovated. “Ideally the paint will be chipped in an artful way.”

First we visited the town’s preeminent local property manager, whose office was located in the renovated ballroom where I’d once taken ballet. He led us through the old hotel and showed us an alarmingly renovated apartments that looked very much like a yuppie dorm and not at all like the cobwebbed haunt of hippie soup kitchens, skittish cats and emphysemic Jazz Age relics that it had once been.  “I remember when this hall was nothing but pigeons and an old lady with marcel waves that called me Young Dolores when I was five and escaping ballet,” I said to Jordan, while young leasing agent prattled on about fitness facilities.

The next two places we looked at were unhygienic basement shitholes in nice neighborhoods that smelled like scorched potatoes and incontinence. But when I went to look at Cumberland, I knew it would be the one, even before I saw it. I’d loved The neighborhood with  its blocks of shady streets with limping Victorians, edged by downtown, a huge baroque cemetery, the local Shakespeare Reperatory Company, and the former mental hospital where Zelda Fitzgerald burned alive and a child Nina Simone (apocryphally) took piano lessons, since forever. For most of my life, middle-class white parents spoke in low tones of the horrors of The Neighborhood, but I’d always gone to school with kids that lived over there. Most of them struck me as completely normal, not even remotely scary, but parents tended to be full of shit, especially otherwise liberal white baby boomers, who would do pretty much anything to avoid saying, the neighborhood is scary because it’s mostly black people that  live there.  

My middle school bus route took me right down Cumberland. It was a stunner of an avenue, lined with enormous trees and sidewalks. I’d rest my head on the window glass and crush on the shingled turrets and the embroidered porches. The pretty dormers embedded in overgenerous mansard roofs. The overgrown gardens with the serpentine paths. “All those houses look haunted,” Irish Name would say to me when we rode past. And I’d think, yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they actually were.

I wasn’t the only one to harbor such fantasies. My hometown is a mecca for castle fans and visionaries of grand and romantic squalor, armed with just enough money and spare time to remake The Neighborhood (and since, countless others) into the Tesla-driving, Whole Foods-shopping version of what they are today. By the time I was in high school, the gentrification had begun in earnest. The houses looked better, I guess—cleaner, safer—and the residents of were significantly whiter, if still reasonably young and not-rich-exactly. And seven years later, when I went to look at Cumberland, The Neighborhood boasted a decent bookshop and an extremely fancy bodega (R.I.P) where you could buy cappucino, a bottle of Barolo, and Brie and green apple paninis, along with your cigarettes and toilet paper.  The house catty-corner across the street from the apartment building, a rambling old stone and shingled mansion with a Rapunzelish tower over the port-cochere, had gone on the market in 2000 with a historically high price tag[1] for The Neighborhood.

My new landlord mentioned this to me as I toured a third floor walk-up with vines growing in the windows and a kitchen straight out of 1925. There was a table and benches that folded out of the wall beside an ironing board that did likewise. Most magnificently there was an expansive west-facing porch, its high roof supported by Corinthian columns whose peeling paint merely made them look more embellished. I looked out over the treetops and the street below, only half listening when he mentioned that the building had asbestos, lead pipes, lead paint, and no metal fire escapes, and that with the lease, I’d need to sign a waiver stating that I wouldn’t sue if I got brain damage or cancer or burned alive because I couldn’t get downstairs.

“Fine,” I said, and asked for a price.


We moved in on New Year’s Eve, on a day so frightfully cold, the air hurt to breathe. I assembled a motley crew of helpers, including my parents, my stepfather, Dad’s girlfriend, Art Night, Ringer, and the bass player and rhythm guitarist of Apollo’s band ( Apollo himself deigned not to show up) to haul furniture, accessories and countless boxes of books and records up three flights of highly flammable, lead painted stairs. Jordan brought along Jeb, and her two brothers and future sister-in-law. It took all fourteen of us something like nine hours to get in.

The toilet stopped working two days later, around the same time that we were made aware that, even with windows closed, the draft was such that the wind would push objects off tabletops and scatter unsecured paper. We called the landlord. He told us the apartment was for charm, not for comfort and that he recommended we hang blankets and use a bucket to flush the toilet. Jordan threatened to rent strike. He threatened to evict. I waited she was gone to work and mentioned to the landlord that my stepfather owned a large local commercial real estate brokerage and development firm. And that my stepfather, upon visiting the apartment, had casually noted that his friends at the County Inspector’s office might be interested in Cumberland’s myriad deficiencies. Like, nice building, shame if it were condemned.

I felt ashamed to do it. I didn’t think I’d ever played the don’t you know who my parents are? card, but it worked. And from that point on, we had no problems with the landlord.

***

The building was a not-quite-first wave mix of gentrifying underacheivers. Across the hall were a friendly pair of young women I initially believed to be a couple but revealed themselves, at a zealot-eyed party they invited us to–full sparkling grape juice and Christian folk–to be a couple of evangelical cultists. Downstairs was a music student, who played Chopin with the door open when she thought no one was home. The second floor was a surly couple of motorcycle enthusiasts and, in the basement, a couple of locally famous junkies, so lovely you could almost believe they weren’t careening toward tragedy.

I spent a lot of time marching up and down the backstairs after innocently depowering half the building (you could not, say, make toast andcoffee at the same time without—literally– blowing a fuse). I made friends with neighborhood cats. I walked up to the fancy bodega for coffee. I was offered a job by an actual pimp on the overpass that crossed the freeway between The Neighborhood and Downtown. “Girl, you could earn a lot of money if you came to work for me,” he said.

And I was like, “Dude, I’m already whored out to the advertising industry, and I’m pretty happy with my insurance plan. But what are you offering in the way of a 401k?”

We walked back and forth from town for anything and everything—Sunday bagels, art films, books, endless nights at the 2 ½ marginally decent bars in downtown Asheville at the time. It felt tremendously cosmopolitan. It was such a relief to walk places after my months in Deep Suburbia and my years in the wasteland surrounding my college apartment. I was happy when I walked up to my apartment. Even when I was broke (I always was) or lonely (often) or annoyingly preoccupied with the bullshit business of finishing my obviously bullshit college degree at the bullshit local outpost of the state university (I did, finally).  

The first summer we lived in Cumberland, Jordan went home, and spent the season some two thousand miles and three time zones away. I had endless parties in her absence. We drank cheap beer and chilled red wine on the porch because the apartment was hot and the only place the air moved in the summer was outside. I tried to start a band (didn’t take). I applied for a job as a rock critic (got it). When Jordan came back in the fall, it didn’t surprised me when she said it was only temporarily. Until Christmas. She was a creature of the West Coast. I’d always known she’d go back.

And I was leaving too, bound for Chapel Hill on what must have sounded like a lark ror most people, but seemed reasonable at the time, back when I thought it was just a stop off on the way to New York City.

I cried when Jordan moved out, but loved the feel of the apartment as mine alone for my last five remaining months before I left my hometown, finally, for good.

Those five months were the best time I’d had in my hometown since I was a kid, maybe the best time I ever had there.  There was way too much drinking and too many parties with the same three dozen or so people, at least half of whom were also on their way out of town. All the decent people leave. I’d come home wondering why I was leaving, things are kind of great, maybe I could stay here forever, which is exactly when you know it’s the right time to leave a place.

We hired a couple of guys to get me out of the apartment on a mild May morning. It took them about an hour and a half to strip the joint of furniture and boxes. Afterwards, I left my key in the mailbox and drove away to my new house.

Cumberland still stands, still unrenovated, on its gorgeous corner. Whenever I’m back in The Neighborhood, I find reason drive past (easier now that I have one close friend living up the block and another close friend that opened a bar two blocks behind it). I’m always astonished it hasn’t burned down or been sold and transformed into fancy condos. I’m always a relieved that it’s still there. It probably still has vines growing in the bedroom window. It probably still howls with wind in January. It probably still operates like a sweet, drunken chapter of someone’s season that almost goes on for too long.


[1] 600K. Locals will note this would be a reasonable asking price for a much smaller house in The Neighborhood these days, and that equivalent properties and now regularly sell for seven figures. Which no one who actually works for a living in my hometown can actually afford. Which means The Neighborhood is, these days, increasingly the province of Assholes From Other Places who have priced out the first and second wave gentrifiers, because real estate irony is a beast of a thing.

The Park, 1996-?

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History / Uncategorized

(This is Part 8 of a series, Part 7 is here)

You never expect the Deep Suburbs.

Not when you’re a young person inclined believe they are dystopias, whose bookshelves are packed with searing indictments of, whose politics are starkly aligned against, whose internal jukebox comes programmed with so many songs decrying, whose family (you believed) were absolutely committed to the revitalization of the urban core and strictly anti- the interests, ideologies and infrastructure that hollowed out downtowns and created suburbs which in turn everything so much worse to begin with.

All of which is to say, that when your Bohemian, Historic-Preservation-minded mother tells nineteen-year old you that the family is moving into a brand new house in a brand new neighborhood on the far south outskirts of town, ten miles from city center, where an historic forest is bulldozed to make room for an adjoining shopping center, your first inclination will be something like, “Right. And I’m going to spend the rest of my young life living contentedly in the North Carolina Piedmont. Good joke.”

Mom wasn’t kidding, though. Once I cycled through Kubler-Ross, I realized my mother would not be swayed out either the closing or her marriage to my stepfather (who I blamed—unfairly– for this development) by my repeatedly accusing her of being both a hypocrite and a sell-out.[1] This was gong to happen. So I took solace in the books, the movies, the articles, the playlists. Think of the many great minds that survived life in a suburban hellscape, I thought. Maybe I’ll go into urban planning and policy to spite them. Maybe this will be my opportunity to really get into classic SoCal punk rock.

Throughout the spring of my growing discontent, I would go home for visits and allow my mother to drive me out into a part of town I’d only recently become aware existed at all, where we would wind up past striped twin smoke stacks spewing out baroque plumes of smoke from a coal-burning power plant to arrive at a maze of well-landscaped, mostly empty blocks of gabled homes with enormous garages on the back-end of the property my hometown’s most famous robber barons did not sell off during the Depression. We walked through the framed house and I tried to imagine her living there.

“You see how they’re putting in trees and sidewalks,” said my mother. “In fifty years, your stepfather says this neighborhood will look just like the neighborhoods we like on the North side of town.”

I was dubious. In fifty years, Deep Suburbia would still be ten miles and a freeway thick with commuter traffic from downtown.  But Mom would explain that the house was a compromise, an agreed-upon halfway between her aesthetic and my stepfather’s, her neighborhood and his, and I got it, I really did. Neither wanted or could stay where they had been living and forge a family together.

The weekend Mom emptied out Griffing for a moving sale, I stopped through for a night, on the way to a show in Atlanta with Punk Rock Roommate. I was horrified at what had already disappeared, the emptiness of my bedroom, the seemingly cavalier disposal of any past I was part of. Later, much later, I would learn that my mother was equally horrified that Punk Rock roommate and I shopped her sale in our piercings and hardware store jewelry and partially shaved heads. Your stepfather’s family were there! What must they have thought! She went on to speculate that I’d been acting out, which I really and truly wasn’t. My fashion choices had nothing to do with my mother, certainly not by then anyway. I genuinely thought she might think I looked sort of cool and interesting. So I vacillated between being gobsmacked that my mother was so offended (Weren’t you the artist? The Bohemian? The Downtown Savior? Have you already gone full Stepford?) and weirdly satisfied that I hadn’t been the only one upset that day.

Because honestly, everyone else seemed thrilled. They shopped. They planned. They talked about it. When house was finally complete, I came to town to help them move. My fifteen-year old sister, who’d spent the years at Griffing in the smallest room, got her own suite. I was packed off into to one of the spare rooms upstairs, decorated for guests and scrubbed of any trace of what looked like me. I remember feeling like I had been elided, my part written out of the next season of the family drama, as the rest of them discussed their new life, in what felt very much like a new city, miles away from the one I knew.

It was fair. By then, I had my own  spin-off, as impenetrable and disorienting to my family as their choice to relocate to the least interesting corner of my weirdo hometown. And in some ways, I felt like the universe was doing me a solid with one of those, you know how you said you never wanted to come back? Well, we’re about to make that a whole lot easier for you.

At least, I thought, I’d never have to live there myself.

***

You never expect to find yourself living  in the Deep Suburbs until you do.

I was twenty-three when I found myself washed up in the upstairs bedroom, my worldly possessions largely split between a storage room by the interstate and my father’s infinite basement.

My first weeks home were bewildering. I spent a fair amount of time watching cable tv and staring off into the middle distance. My mother put me to work at her office, so I might have spending money and also pay back debt. On lunch breaks, I’d spend my paycheck on records and smoke cigarettes on park benches unoccupied by the local gutter punks. I read big, complicated, sad books and wished I had anyone to talk to about them. I didn’t. I had no friends in my hometown that summer, but I’d sit in the old coffeehouse where I’d spent most of my high school life and pretend they were still all still around.

Downtown absent social life was still downtown—albeit a different downtown than it is now—and going home meant sitting upstairs making mixtapes for no one. Sometimes I’d wander the tidy, paved greenways of Deep Suburbia, full of jogging mothers with fancy prams, legions of ersatz 5000 square foot French Chateaus, Georgian Mansions, lushly porched Colonials, and a few sprawling Arts & Crafts “cottages” with hot tubs and four car garages, and be struck by how many of the people that lived in them were less than a decade older than I was. How do you end up owning a joint in Deep Suburbia at 27? How much of your soul do you have to sell for a 7,000 square foot joint with a turret and a two-story wet bar? It was nice to bully them in my head because it saved me from feeling like a failure. These people, I’d think. These soulless yuppies.

Of course, they weren’t living with their parents. They had their own lives. I might not like it, but at least they lived somewhere that felt like theirs. Was I jealous of them? Oh yeah. Totally. Insanely.


You never expect to become accustomed to the Deep Suburbs until you do.

I lived in my mother and stepfather’s house for about eighteen months, between 1999 and 2000. By the time I moved out, my mother and stepfather were talking about moving. Maybe we should move closer to town. Maybe somewhere with a view

That was twenty years ago, though. They’re still there. They’re still happy there, even though they grouse. My sister and her husband live out there too.  I’m forced to concede that maybe I somehow gleaned the wrong messages from my childhood, or maybe I just missed the part that people can change, and that wanting something nice and big and new and absolutely yours doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on your moral character. And that the old houses I grew up in, that always struck me as fashionably imperfect and cool and chic and aspirational, maybe just struck everyone else as shabby, the kinds of place to aspire to leaving one day.

The house in the Deep Suburbs has been the home I go to when I go to my hometown for nearly twenty-five years. And it feels like it. Sort of. Even though it took me  years to stop exiting off the highway on the other side of town and driving halfway to the old house by accident. Suburbs are no good for wallowing in the past. I’ve always thought that’s why the rest of my family like them, because, they were ready to let go and move on. I always thought I was that person too. The first to run away, jump headfirst into new adventure, try something new.

I was wrong, though.

Obviously.


I close on my first house in a couple of days. It’s not in the Deep Suburbs, exactly, but it’s closer, in style (if not geography), to where my mother lives than I ever thought I’d end up. There’s an HOA. There are garages. There are bay windows and gables and garden tubs. Moving away from the place I’ve been—a house that (more or less) conforms to all my youthful prejudices about what is right and cool and has also been my home for almost sixteen years—is hard, impossibly hard, and I probably wouldn’t have done it had circumstances not demanded (a more of that story to come). But now that they do, it feels necessary. It feels critical. It feels like a step I have to take if I’m ever going to unstick from the past and keep the nostalgia from turning pathological.

Also, the new house is nice and big and new and absolutely mine. Which, if I’m honest, feels just great enough that I’m not worried about being a sell-out, or a hypocrite or something far more improbable like a grown-up.


[1] The two worst absolute worst things a person could be, in my estimation, at the time.

Elm, 1995-1999

Uncategorized

Let me tell you how writing used to be.

When I was eighteen, twenty, twenty-two years old, I could sit with a notebook, at a keyboard, in the margins of a textbook, and words would pour out without hesitation. I could do 5000 words in a couple of hours, 10000 in a night, hopped up on nothing but diner coffee and Camel Lights. It felt so natural, that I’d unlocked this superpower. I could turn a tap and it would never run dry. Even when everything fell apart. And, of course, it did.

***

I moved to Elm because I moved to a mid-sized southern sprawl city to attend a second-tier state university.  I did most of that so I could escape women’s college and live with my best friend.

We met junior year of boarding school, settled into sort of best friend and soulmate territory sometime between “Hamlet” and Milton senior year of high school. We both got into the same fancy, weird liberal arts college in upstate New York, where we’d be roommates and fabulous. Neither of us could afford it. So I ended up at Women’s College and she took a gap year. And I told myself my grief about settling for my corner of last resort was as much about not being with her as it was the rest of it.

I went through another round of complicated transfer applications to schools I couldn’t pay for. And when she called and said, “What about second-tier state university? It’s less than an hour from the first-tier state university and didn’t you say they have a good writing program?” (I did). “They having rolling admissions and we’ll absolutely get in.” (We did). “We can live together. We do the things we thought we’d do in New York. We’ll make a heaven out of this still-heavily-segregated mess of box parks, mega-churches, strip clubs and subdivisions!”

I’d never visited Second Tier State University when I applied to school there. I’d been to the city where it was located exactly once, years before, when my ninth grade Latin class stopped to eat at the mall food court on the way to a convention in Chapel Hill. I had no particular sense of the town, save its Civil Rights history until my mother and I drove down to meet my best friend and try to find an apartment. 

The city was hot. Campus was a sunbaked, with little green and less ivy. There were too many parking lots and too many divided highways. No one walked on the streets downtown. We toured two apartments, the first a prefab joint, overpriced, specifically engineered for shitty undergrads. It smelled like a Lysol and locker room. The landlord was an oily creep. We fled two miles uptown, to a green tree-lined neighborhood with Park in the title to check out an apartment I circled in the classified because the listing named chandeliers, high ceilings, vintage tiles.

Elm was the second floor southwestern corner of a U-shaped building, with a verdant courtyard that look like something out of a film noir. The apartment was a giant two bedroom with huge windows and shiny wood floors and the afore-mentioned chandeliers. It had grumbling old radiators connected to a cantankerous boiler and a window unit. It had open shelves in the kitchen with hooks for teacups. It was completely impractical, slightly overpriced (at the time) and unquestionably the biggest and most beautiful place I’ve rented to date. It looked like a cross between an apartment in a Film Noir and one of those fancy Upper West Side joints where rich intellectuals lived in  Woody Allen movies.

“We’re absolutely taking this,” I told my mother.

“This apartment is everything,” said my best friend.

We signed a lease and handed off a deposit.

Three weeks later we moved in.

We sat on the fire escape smoking cigarettes, dusty, sweaty and tired that first night, squinting at the skyline two blocks up and pretending it was a real city.

“This place may be hell,” she said, but smiled a bit.

I nodded, and thought, but this apartment is heaven.

***

I’m a bit of a worst case scenarioist, but I’m pretty bad at anticipating disaster.

I should have predicted Elm’s first big heartbreak.  I could feel the change in the weather, the pressure drop, the thickening air, the first gusts of hot air from the east. I probably should have taken shelter when Best Friend started speaking to her ex again. He was a furious scowl with green hair and a rap sheet, a habit of showing up uninvited. He hadn’t cottoned to me from the go, probably because he saw me as spoiled, entitled,  an unambiguous poser, and owner of no punk rock punk enough for him to enjoy –“Don’t you have anything with less melody”– but maybe also because I was dangerously and completely full of shit. So was she, though. It was one of the reasons I loved her. Probably one of the reasons he loved her too.

We were each other’s best and absolute worst impulses, the sublime and the ridiculous. We lived on the knifepoint. I was from the mountains. She was from the coast. It was no wonder our collisions felt tectonic. We had no buffer zone. Things were terrible until they were wonderful.  And since the first Christmas or so, they were mostly terrible, unless we were seeing bands play or traveling to see bands play or stealing vintage dresses out of after-hour donations bags left outside the DONATIONS ACCEPTED sign at the thrift store. It’s not really stealing if someone’s already giving it away, right?

 We shared multiple jobs between us but were always, always, broke. . The only class we didn’t failed spring semester, the only one we even went to, was the one about Decadent Poets. We wore sequins under gas station jackets. Fishnet tights and combat boots with Oscar Wilde quotes carved into the soles. Hours were golden. Whole days, misery. I didn’t trust her friends. She mostly hated mine. I wrote a short story loosely based on her and submitted it to the campus literary magazine. I meant it as a tribute, because I was young and dumb. She didn’t speak to me for a week.

We officially failed out of school couple weeks before my mother’s wedding though, failed out is too strong of a term for a school that gave countless underachievers countless opportunities to fuck up, spread out over as many semesters as possible[1]. The only way to remove ourselves from Academic Probation was summer school. We’d both enrolled, but on the first day, my roommate left for the season. I stayed back in our apartment and started writing a novel, because she’d opined that I never would just before she fucked off for Atlanta. I didn’t tell her about it. I didn’t tell her much of  anything over the summer.  I couldn’t wait for her to come back. I wished she never would. Usually at the same time.  

Late in August, I sleepwalked through the discombobulating business of moving my mother and sister into the home they would share with my new stepfather. When I returned to Elm, to make classes, best friend had returned and the apartment was trashed. Like, trashed. Like, furniture missing, things broken, and in my bedroom, walls graffitied, sheets littered with garbage, and  a stuffed bunny, an embarrassing relic of childhood had been hung with a panty hose noose from the overhead light, the word YOU written across its plush chest in lipstick red.

I called her at work. She sounded like a tempest, barely contained, cruel, snide, “I had some people over. Maybe things got out of hand.. I think it would be understandable if you wanted to move out. I’ll be staying, though. I’m not going anywhere. This apartment is fabulous.”

The apartment was fabulous.

I wasn’t going to leave. Neither was she.

I bought cleaning supplies. I tried to handle things methodically. Bed. Carpet. Walls. Things. I swept away shards. I scrubbed at stains. I found notes in my journals, wounding things, scrawled in the margins. I felt unspooled. I worried for second, she’d reached through paper, that I somehow wore her brutal annotations on my skin.

The next day we convened a summit. We both went down a list. It was arduous and complicated. We left it at muttered, half-baked apologies and a stalemate. We each refused to leave.  It’s hard to let go of a great apartment– Chandeliers! Courtyard! Vintage Tiles!. It’s also hard to let go of your best friend, even when she hates you, even if you deserve it.  

I threw the notebooks away. I password protected my computer. I could hear her talking about me through the bedroom door as I tried to go to sleep at night. I listened to music on headphones. I bought earplugs.

Ten days later, Hurricane Fran carved up the middle of North Carolina, I went to sleep in light the exact shade of an old bruise as the tall pines outside beat against the brick walls like they were snare drums. I went to sleep to the sound of transformers exploding. I thought, maybe this is how the world ends.  I thought, that would probably be okay.

***

I did most of my writing facing west at a salvaged library table wedged between the two tall windows on the front side of my bedroom. I used an old Packard Bell desktop, replaced by a Dell in 1998 as a preemptive and hilariously optimistic “graduation present.” I liked West as an orientation in those days. It seemed safer than the Northeast I’d failed to acheive. I dreamed of Northern California. I thought I might be a little in love with Oregon.  I suspected I could move there and scrounge out a life without having to prove myself as I would in Manhattan. I wouldn’t have to be as beautiful or talented or smart. I could work in a coffeeshop and write a zine and see shows and live in a dirty house with some number of dirty young people who wouldn’t care that I hadn’t lived up to my potential, that I’d left a second rate state university, that I’d quit everything meaningful save writing and talking to boys that didn’t want to date me about loud and furious songs.

I finished a first draft of a first novel in late 1996, about six weeks after the hurricane. I took the disk home to Asheville and printed it out on my mother’s office computer. It was a pretty dumb book-150,000 words of cliché, pastiche, hugely romanticized squalor, and poorly edited, barely-post-adolescent rage. But I was twenty years old and I’d finished it

I didn’t tell my roommate, my ex-best friend. We were barely speaking to each other by then anyway. I flew to Portland and spent a week enamored of the rain and the scruffy boys that congregated on creaky front porches and waxed poetic about revolution. I gave Xeroxed copies of my book away to Ivy League and the Smile, who received 750 pages with extreme trepidation. Is this another thing about the kind of weird, unhappy people you hang out with in Mid-Sized Southern City? Is this another thing about how you’re trying to pretend you’re tough?

Yes.

***

After eight months of Cold War, ex-best friend left in May, to study abroad for the whole of the following year. She would not move back to the apartment. I watched her drive away and it felt like the most Pyrrhic of victories. She had not, ultimately, forced me out. I endured.  But I was wholly adrift, terribly broke, and lonely. Stuck in a place I never wanted to be without the sole reason I’d ever gone to begin with.

My writing professor and head of the MFA program asked if I’d mind putting up a poet and her boyfriend for the summer. I didn’t. The Poet had grown up in New Orleans and brought tales of madness and the macabre, a few of which were maybe even true. She dressed like a curvy Stevie Nicks and wrote so earnestly and obsessively of death that it came as no surprise when she said she’d never been to a funeral. 

“The real deal is never as beautiful as you want it to be. Oftentimes, it’s really boring and kind of institutional,” I told her. “On the plus, actual funeral services are often unintentionally hilarious.”

She found this disappointing or upsetting or both. I’d been thinking a fair amount about death too. Not because it sounded beautiful, but because it seemed like an option reasonably left on the table when a life had become as bewilderingly purgatorial as mine. I wrote stories about people affected by suicides and snarked in my journal about Hamlet and rolled my eyes when the poet talked about how her ninth grade Goth boyfriend hung himself with the pull the Venetian blinds in the middle of their Spanish final and looked just like St. Sebastian.

“But he was shot by arrows,” I said.

“I meant his face and body language,” said the poet. “Sad, epicine, sensuous even in death.”

“And he literally hung himself during your Spanish exam? Like, what did the teacher do?”

“She looked on with unfeeling eyes, the eyes of a deadened soul.”

“That didn’t actually happen did it?”

She looked hurt. “It’s a metaphor.”

Whatever.  The poet was a mess, maybe a bigger mess than I was, but she was in graduate school and I was suffering from atrophied will, according to the last therapist I’d seen. I was barely keeping my head above water, according to second-tier state university. I was writing. I never stopped writing.I wrote plays. I wrote stories. I wrote novels. I wrote essays. I wrote letters to friends. I wrote letters to strangers. I wrote my name in the inside cover of the books I finished and the date to remind myself. I wrote in the bed and when I couldn’t sleep, rose and wrote all night, slept all day, skipped all my classes, but went to watch the theatre department rehearse my play.

As long as I was writing, I was still alive.

***

When it became obvious I wouldn’t graduate on time, my mother did not make me send back the new computer that was to be my present. She did suggest I come home for the summer.

I hadn’t been home for a full summer since I graduated high school and the idea at once fascinated and repulsed me. I couldn’t imagine going back to my mom’s house, but I’d also found the longer I lived on Elm, the more relieved I was to be away from it. So I emptied my refrigerator. I locked the windows. I went home, and for ten weeks, I worked for my mother.

I barely wrote that summer, but every night  I dreamed of Elm. And in my dreams, the courtyard opened onto lawn, and wide bay. By day I lived in verdant green and salty sea air, but by night the bay went overcast red, its expanse cut with blinking wires, and the building shook with a commotion beneath. One night, in one dream, I crept around the back of the building, to a cellar full of angry boys with the heads of stags writhing to blistering, wailing music. And I knew that they were okay with me being there, but I wasn’t sure they would let me leave. Now that you know how this place really works.

I wrote the Poet to tell her I thought there were furious stag dudes in the basement of Elm and their nighttime shenanigans might account for why I was so miserable and also so productive there.

“Actual stag dudes?” she asked. “Like pagan gods?”

“Definitely metaphors,” I said. But I think I’m losing my mind.

By the time I came back from summer away, Poet treated me like I was her best friend. She was jealous and exclusionary. I withdrew, deeper into the worlds I wrote by the window. I adopted a kitten. I named him Oscar Wilde. I added more things to the apartment to fill the empty spaces. I began to think it was normal to spend days and days and days alone.

That’s what it is to be a writer. And writing is the only thing I can do. Thus, this is what my life looks like.

Sometimes I’d sit in bed, sleepless at 5am and feel like I would go until my hands would fall off, until I was knocked hard by some external force. Like a freight train. Like the dancer in “The Red Shoes.”

I didn’t even like what I was writing anymore and I bitterly resented the people that did. “They’re all stupid,” I’d tell my dad. “What kind of asshole would even like this shit?”

“I do,” he said. “It’s maybe the best thing you’ve ever written.”

And then I hated him for saying it because it terrified me that it might be true

***

There are two versions of how came to leave Elm. The true one is quite depressing. The fictional one is maybe truer. The simple fact is that my parents ceased to subsidize the joke of my existence there, for both practical and emotional reasons. After a fair amount of tears and remonstrations, I received the gentlest ultimatum in history. And instead of pretending I could meet it, I simply started packing one box of books at time. Stripping the walls of my things, emptying the drawers and closets.

Those last two months, I split my life between the writing and an old wicker chair I’d draped in red velvet, where I sat reading a stack of huge, famously difficult novels, as if passing time in the waiting room of my life. I felt impossibly old and tired. I was impossibly depressed, and it would take some number of appointments with simultaneously frustrated and empathetic mental health professionals before I sorted out that it wasn’t just because I’d maybe been a little in love with my ex-best friend and/or metaphorical stag men in the cellar and whatever they used to spike the boiler and haunt the radiators, filling the most fabulous apartment ever with all sorts of dark magic and that being a writer means constantly trying to navigate the chasm between the real world and the one you build in your head with nothing but adjectives and a few sexy verbs.

At least not entirely.

***

I’m just superstitious enough to think that referring to any day as worst in my life is asking for trouble. I’m also not an idiot. The day I packed up out of Elm, with my mother horrified by how dirty the apartment had become and my stepfather’s conservative brother lecturing me on personal responsibility as he hauled away the refuse of the last four misspent years was not, like, the Battle of the Somme. It wasn’t grand tragedy or even petty tragedy. It was just the day the bill came due for a life I could no longer afford to squander, for both practical and emotional reasons.

There’s an obvious chemical component to that level of despair. You’re maybe nodding if you’ve gotten this far . You’re probably thinking, thank goodness she got help. And you’ll know that I did because, (in full Elaine Stritch), I’m still here, twenty years later. Even though I can’t write like that anymore, for pages, days, hours, like it’s a zombie curse animating an otherwise empty vessel. Some of that comes from age. Some of that comes from the various compromises required for something like sanity, if not always contentment. 

I miss being able to write like that, but I don’t miss being so terribly unhappy. I don’t guess I can have both without significant developments in the pharmaceutical sector. Until then, so be it. I’d rather not write six plays in a week. I’d rather the stag boys in the basement keep it down so I can get some sleep.

The apartment is still there too. Sometimes I google the address and look at pictures. It was for sale recently. They replaced the kitchen floor and repainted, but the chandeliers are still there, the high ceilings, the vintage style.

It’s still maybe the nicest place I’ve ever lived.

There is no power on Earth that would ever make me go back.


[1] An enduring bit of girl’s bathroom graffiti on the first floor of the English department crudely translated the schools’ acronym as U Never Can Graduate.

Randolph, 1994-1995

Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is Part Seven of series. Part Six is here.)

Let’s get this out of the way:

I hated college.

Maybe I was destined to. I’ve spent an adult life (and nearly twenty years, post college living in a college town) trying to work out whether the problem is me or the institution.

Probably me.

Like most of life’s great disappointments, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. College was supposed to be the best part of my life. I had been assured of that since I was a child. I believed that, in college, I would finally discover the people the people that understood me, the classes that would turn my world upside down and fill me with much fervor and curiosity. I thought I might figure out why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do while I am. I thought I might have my talents finessed, by skills honed, and be put on a path toward something great and sublime. In the meantime, I’d spend four years talking all night about philosophy and history and literature with a bunch of people who also wanted to make strange and beautiful art and explore whatever we could figure out to explore in or around our scenic ivied campus. I’d have lots of sex with the sort of boys (and maybe girls, perhaps something neither and in-between) my grandmother would never approve of. I’d probably get into radical politics. I’d maybe start a band. I’d read Ovid in Greek. I’d travel abroad and study Joyce in Dublin and Dante in Florence. I’d study aesthetics and revolution. I’d write novels and plays about both. I’d definitely have weird hair.

By the end of the senior year, the reality of financial situation collided with my fine, but not competitive enough for a fancy scholarship academic record and I was left with a handful of highly unappealing options. The best of which was Women’s College, who liked me enough to offer a generous scholarship and invited me up last minute to tour a campus I’d honestly never believed I’d set foot on. I was wary in my introductory chat with the admissions director. She was so confident I’d be happy as a Women’s College Girl that she smiled right through me noting that I was reticent about single-sex education because my impression of young women en masse was that they “tended to act like a bunch of vicious @#nts.”

“We like diversity here,” she said. “We’d like you to accept the scholarship because we think you’ll bring something unique to campus.”

A terrible attitude? A kind of self-loathing misogyny? A determination to transfer at all costs? I couldn’t work it out. The admissions sent me out to tour the campus with a chubby theatre major. She was funny, brassy, and outspoken in that way that chubby theatre majors are when they don’t want you to think they’re the type to spend hours in the kitchen and the rest of their monthly allowance making cupcakes for everyone they know (but she herself will not eat, because chubby) because they secretly believe they have to provide material incentive for people to like them.  I was also that person, and recognized something of myself in her when she shamelessly took off her t-shirt to show me the scars  from a breast reduction surgery the summer before. “Check out my fucked up tits,” she said, in a way you do when you’re greatest fear is people thinking that you’re a nice, sweet girl with a pretty face, so considerate! Which is shorthand for Jesus Christ, have you ever seen a creature so pathetic, so desperate, so terminally uncool.

I liked her. I thought we might be friends, if I had to make friends at Women’s College. I really liked her room, which was located on the close end of a creaking old colonnaded dorm overlooking the main quad. The ceilings were high. The windows were tall. The floors were old scratched up wood. It felt like a platonic version of a college dorm room. Even if outside looked like the sort of postage-stamp antebellum Virginia that conjured images of hoopskirts and served as continual reminder that the only non-white people you’d seen so far on campus so far were either emptying trash cans or working in the dining hall. Inside, the light was good for reading and you could read yourself anywhere.

“This is kind of the arts dorm, so none of the girls that live here are really straight or, like, normal,” said my still-topless host. “There are a lot of cool talented people in this dorm. Obviously, this is where you’d want to live.”

Obviously.

I was so flattered. Neither straight nor normal. And I didn’t even have to namedrop a single band or shave my head. Then I thought, only at a place this unsophisticated would anyone in their right mind mistake me for cool.

“Tell me the name of the building,” I said. “I’ll put it on my room request form for next fall.”

She beamed and clapped her hands. “Does that mean you’ve decided to come here? Yay!” She opened her arms. I hugged her gingerly because I didn’t quite know what was appropriate  contact with the boobs.  “I know you’re going to love it here so much.”

I thought, well, that makes exactly one of us.

~~

The campus housing forms arrived early in the summer. I filled them out with all the impotent rage I had at my predicament. I wrote the name of the dorm on the main quad under Preferences and then in the section about Roommates, mentioned that I was a baby eating psycho killer, whose interests included painting frescos with bodily fluids and listening to death metal at 4am. My gag reflex is activated by Christians and debutantes. I cannot promise I will not projectile vomit if you pair me with either/both of the above. Satisfied,  I sent it back and waited.

Campus housing responded by pairing me with a girl named Nino from the Republic of Georgia, whose sole contact (when I called to ask if she wanted me to bring a TV) was an answering service in the State of Georgia that ominously promised to forward my message to Nino’s handlers. For the dorm, they’d stuck me not in the dorm on the main quad, but in Randolph, a building I did not remember from my tour.

I cried all the way to Virginia the day I left for college, vacillating between fury and despair. My mother, kept trying to cheer me up. I was inconsolable. “This was supposed to be the best day,” I told her. “Now I just wish I were dead.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said (I didn’t), but I was still in terrible spirits, puffy-eyed, stomach-churning on opening day, when we pulled up in front of Randolph.

The Campus of Women’s Collage was mostly made up of the brick colonial buildings, the afore-mentioned antebellum quad, a series of adorable white houses. Even the new construction mostly came festooned with shutters and cupolas. Randolph was sole nod to the modernism, specifically the Holiday Inn era of modernism. The front entry looked like the loading dock of my high school cafeteria and the inside was a white-washed cinderblock warren of what looked like cheap motel rooms.

Even my mother, so far the eternal bluebirds and sunshine retort to my despair, took one look and said something like,You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” I got out of the car and entered through a gaggle of thin-nosed leggy blondes making arrangements to stable their horses. I received a key to my room and an invitation to an ice-cream social on the central quad by Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike in a scarf with a jaunty fox-hunting motif.  She  told me that my roommate had failed to matriculate.

“So I don’t have a roommate?” I asked.

She gave me a God, peasants look and said, “You’re still in a double. You don’t have a roommate, yet.

Mom and I unloaded the car. I dumped my shit in the double room I had to myself. After Mom left for some parent function, I played Mozart’s Requiem at top volume to drown out the sounds of happiness surrounding me, as I wept in earnest at the realization that I had no choice but to soldier on.

When my mother came back, she found me dressed in some variety of Goth mourning, as if all the years since eighth grade had never happened. She said, “I don’t know what to do to help you, but there’s a girl across the hall that has a lot of shoes like the shoes you like, and she seems friendly.”

I pshawed, but I was curious, and that’s how I met Texas, the first of the four friends I would make at Women’s College freshman year. She and I skipped the ice cream social. I changed out of my black brocade and we cruised around downtown until we found a coffeeshop and heard skateboards and kids talking about punk rock bands. They weren’t the glamorous aesthetes and genius radicals I’d assumed I’d be friends with in college. But they were uncommonly hospitable and generous and nice.  They probably weren’t going to do transgressive theatre with me, but they might keep me sane.  When we returned to Randolph, I felt marginally less suicidal. I still maybe wanted to kill myself, but there were a couple of local record stores and at least five shows I wanted to check out first.

~~

Randolph Hall was a smoking hall at a time in which that was not so unheard of (when I arrived on campus, there was still an old-style cigarette machine in the lobby. It had been regularly stocked until 1993). I can’t imagine that  the building hadn’t burned down, because only places we really had to sit in our rooms was on our beds, and so we all dropped ashes in the sheets.

My Hall (third), also had the laxest visitation policy on campus. By visitation they meant “male,” and I found this humiliating in the extreme to explain to people. Some halls never allowed men. “Like some kind of convent,” I would say to friends, or the boys downtown. “For girls who worry that running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord. Or maybe for  parents worried that a girl running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord.”

We all got a good chuckle. Me blushing, how did I end up here? What did I do in a past life?  In retrospect, I can imagine many scenarios in which a woman might not want dudes on the hall, but I was all wrapped up in myself and not terribly sensitive in those days.

As a result, third Randolph was kind of a party hall. Our RA was basically like, “Be cool and don’t be obvious, but I don’t really give a shit what you do,” and went back in her room to stay with the boyfriend we all thought maybe (secretly) lived in her room.

It was noisy, but there was always alcohol  (never beer, Women’s College Does Not Do Beer, to my neverending disappointment) and pot available. I also had parking outside the front door, which I was technically not supposed to use, but did so often enough that I racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets by year’s end.

Women’s College was a lot like summer camp. There were always activities we were expected to participate in en masse. Traditions. I’d come from boarding school.  I was over it.  Girls came door to door to summon you for mass hikes and costumed rituals and all kinds of bullshit. I wrote FUCK OFF across my white board and after it kept getting erased and replaced with a  smiley face, wrote it again in permanent marker.  

I heard someone refer to me across campus one days an asshole. I was like, Score.

~~

About three weeks into the first month, I went to check my mail for the latest batch of transfer applications and found an envelope from the housing office. My stomach sank at the sight. My sole consolation  in the first few desperate weeks at Women’s College was that I had a room, ugly as it was, to myself.  But now, according to the letter in my hand, my idyll was coming to a close. I had forty-eight hours to find my own roommate or the school would just send somebody over.

I went to find Texas in the dining hall, but on the way in I had to pass through the gauntlet of Student Government Elections. Pretty blondes handing out buttons and leaflets, promising better treadmills in the fitness center  and more low-fat options in the dining hall. One of them got right in my path. She literally wouldn’t let me pass.

“Why don’t you vote? You have to vote.”

 I sighed. “I’m an anarchist.”

And she said, “Whatever.  Just because you don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean you can’t vote.”

It was the kind of exchange I’d been making up to help me bolster my case against Women’s College when people would be like It can’t be that bad, can it? I should have felt vindicated, but all I could feel was regret.

I couldn’t find anyone to live with me, in part because no one hated Women’s College the way I did.  I was depressed and angry. I was bitter and judgmental and zero fun. So I walked through all the blondes in riding boots on the quad wondering which of them would be my doom. Would she go to frat parties? Would she bring frat brothers back to our room? Would she be a Republican?

I was so caught up in my waking nightmare I didn’t notice the tall girl waving at me across campus until she was right up on me. She said she had film class with Texas and Texas had told her about my dilemma. She was having her own version of a housing crisis. She heard I had an empty bed. She didn’t have a horse or a weakness for fraternity parties. And she thought if I knew one things about her, it should be that she was almost expelled from public high school in Virginia for being a Satanist. She thought we maybe should take a walk.

We tramped off over the quad, headed for the fields past the stables, beyond the reach of even the most avid campaigners for student government. She told me a little about herself. She was studying film. She had a terrible roommate, a girl who believed trousers would lead women straight to Satan. “Sooner or later, she’s going to find out about the Satanism thing.” Even though Tall Girl wasn’t actually a Satanist, but she was a afraid of waking up to a prayer circle. Or an exorcism.

“Ordinarily,” she told me. “I’d be all over that. But I’m overloading this semester. I don’t have time for shenanigans.”

We’d been walking for a while. We were well off the edge of campus by that point and into the future. I told Tall Girl I wanted to be a actor/rock critic turned playwright turned novelist, but not, you know, a southern novelist. Tall Girl told me she wanted to become a cult leader, so she could have her devotees sign their property over to her and she could use the proceeds to make gory b-movies about bisexual vampires.   

We were standing in a sun-dappled pasture at golden hour, steps past the kind of ominious NO TRESSPASSING sign that usually implies shooting first and asking questions later.

I asked if we should turn back. Tall Girl nodded to a stack of bricks.

“We could,” she said. “Or, since we’re here, we could build a giant pentagram in the middle of the field. See if we can start a local panic.”

“A satanic panic?” I asked.

She nodded.

I remember thinking, God, this is what a meet-cute must be like.

~~

Tall Girl and I didn’t exactly work as roommates, but my social life improved. I got involved with the theatre department, where I met Boston, who’d end up being one of my very best friends.

Randolph ended up being a hub, my room in particular. I grew to like it in that weird grudging way you end up liking the grumpy old man that lives up the street. After short term, I took Texas home with me for the holidays. Boston called to see if I could get back in a hurry.

“A room opened up in the dorm on the quad. You know, the artsy one. The one you liked. I can move in immediately, but I need a roommate immediately.”

I remember the scarred wood floors and the high ceilings. The topless girl (she’d been studying abroad all year, so I hadn’t seen her). The only time I ever felt for a second that I wanted to be at Women’s College was in that room. But I couldn’t get back quick enough. My car had died while I was  home. I sighed and told  Boston to go on without me. I would only be at Women’s College for a few more months.

I guessed it didn’t matter where I spent it.

Sherwood, 1991-?

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History / Uncategorized

(This is Part Six of a series. Part Five is here.)

At some point in the last three decades, my sister and I became fixated on the geography of Dad’s basement. We know where it starts, at least in a material sort of way, but we’re not entirely sure of where it ends

“Across the street? A couple of miles away? Canada?

It’s a joke, of course, but one rooted in the peculiar reality of the house on Sherwood, a house that makes exactly zero sense to anyone, save perhaps its primary inhabitant, my father.

“I don’t think the basement is actually bigger than the house,” I said, to my sister, though the last few times I’d been over there, I found reasons to go down to the basement and double-check. And though I was  probably right, if any house could break free of its own architecture and defy physics it’s Dad’s. “But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe it’s not where it ends, but if it ends at all.”

“Spooky,” said my sister. “Reasonable, though.”

***

When Dad announced he’d bought the house on Sherwood, we were all kind of surprised. He’d been antsy to get out of Fenner since the Great Beignet Fire of 1991, but we were  dubious about what he’d do with an actual house. Dad was not famously handy or particularly geared toward housework. He’d come from a long line of people so inclined to outsource domestic labor,  his familial punchline to the old lightbulb joke was something like, “Fix a martini and call an electrician.”

Sherwood was a definite fixer-upper. Best case scenario: it was an adorable Arts and Crafts cottage on a significant forested lot just up from the hospital, in a whimsical semi-gentrified neighborhood named after a Sir Walter Scott novel.  Most of Dad’s neighbors had (and would) renovated their own adorable arts and crafts cottages into the sort of homes featured in décor and garden magazines. Worst-case scenario held that Sherwood was a shingled money pit with a kitchen and bathroom last updated during the Blacklist, a floorplan devised by a closet-loving paranoid Dadaist, and a basement that somehow broke the space-time continuum, all situated on way too many acres of kudzu-clogged wilderness.

Our first weekend there, I wandered, amazed, through the house, as Dad explained some its wilder features. The glassed-in study, like an aerie over the side yard, was very cool. The old-style wheeled fire door that opened onto the basement stairs was a real head-scratcher. “Theoretically if you just punch through your bedroom wall it will open,” said Dad, “so you could escape a fire. Cool right?”

I tried to imagine hitting the wall with enough force that I could burst through the plaster, activate seventy-five-year-old wheels, and have the agility to not also fling myself down the basement stairs. I couldn’t. I could, however, imagine turning the plywood cell with book shelves at the bottom of said stairs into a kind of secret hideout. I asked Dad for paint. He took me to the hardware and I indulged every pastel fantasy I’d ever had. After hours of Carolina blue-drenched work, I’d painted a sky and fluffy clouds on the plywood walls, sponge-painted the utility cabinet lemon yellow and mint green, and striped the wobbly stairs. The end result looked something like a cross between a petit-fours and a room for traumatizing hostages. “I’ll probably hang out down here all the time,” I told my father and sister.  

(I never did.)

My sister found her own space, a cubby built into the wall over the stairs, with a ladder/stairwell you could pull down with a kind of vaudevillian hook. She furnished the interior with pillows, blankets and stuffed animals and hung out there whenever we were entirely sure no one would need to get down to or up from the basement. Then, somehow the hook disappeared, and we could no longer open the cubby. Whatever was inside was lost to time. As far as I know, it’s still there, much like the clouds on the walls at the bottom of the stairs and the contents of the drawers in the room where my sister used to sleep on paternal custody weekends. This gives the house a sort of personal history Room of Requirement air. I can always summon up things I forgot I lost and things I never knew I wanted to find. Wondering  about that tie-dyed camp t-shirt last seen in 1992? It might be there. How about a newspaper with a write-up about some ancestor from 1789? Sure. A VHS copy of “Raising Arizona”  I thought I’d misplaced between colleges in the late 90s? Wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning in 2005.

“This is mine,” I said. “Like, this is literally my copy.”

“Right,” says Dad. “It’s the ultimate regift, buddy. Happy Holidays!”

***

On the main floor, Sherwood didn’t have a lot of places to hide. I spent a lot of time on the deck, which was high and vast and appeared to be looking out into the middle of nowhere, even though we were in the middle of town. Sometimes I’d tromp off into the woods, blazing a trail through at least seven different varieties of parasitic vines down the ravine, where legend had it there was a path, but I only ever found a colony of golf balls Dad had driven off the deck and never bothered to recover.

I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, trying to will enough hot water from the stingy water heater to run a full tub. In those days, the door the bathroom was tiled with the kind of green that makes you feel like you’ve been committed to a locked ward inside a Clinique compact. The door wouldn’t shut all the way, so I drew the curtain all the way around whenever I bathed, and tolerated interruptions from my sister because there was only one bathroom in the house.

Unlike Dad’s previous two apartments, Sherwood offered few nearby places for us to go, save the emergency room(where one dad’s dogs, Zellie, famously tried check herself in). My sister and I often didn’t know what to do with ourselves when we were over there.

I was almost sixteen when he moved in, and hence old enough to get myself out when necessary. Dad’s benign obliviousness was a real boon to me in high school, because I had absolutely no curfew whatsoever. After coffee on a Saturday night, if The Countess wanted to drive us to South Carolina and watch the sunrise over Charleston harbor, it was unlikely anyone would notice when I wandered back to Sherwood at noon on Sunday, especially if I brought bagels and a New York Times.

I brought the Deck Party over from Mom’s on a couple of occasions, because Dad’s deck truly was epic. Parties took on a different, wilder character because even with parental supervision, there was never exactly parental supervision. Dad could walk into to a room full of empty beer bottles and noisy teenagers in drag and complain only about the fact that we’d been smoking cigarettes in the house.  I remember one night everyone had left but The Countess and The Dropout. I’d had a bad day and they were trying to cheer me up. When I seemed totally lost to melancholy, the Dropout announced that he would relieve the tension of the moment by taking off all of his clothes.

It was chilly out, early fall, and I couldn’t figure out how watching one of my classmates get naked was going to make anyone feel comfortable and said so.

He disagreed, proceeded to drop trou, leap up, and pose like a Peter Pan in tidy whities on the deck’s rail.  I promptly fled indoors caught in a cringe so overwhelming it threatened paralysis. Dad was in the living room watching a documentary on PBS.

“Everything cool out there, bud?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said and tried to explain how I was going to hide in the bathroom for a while because Dropout was nude and doing ballet on the deck rail. “He’s either going to go full-frontal or fall to his probable death,” I said. “Honestly I’m not sure which one would be more awkward for me.”

Dad nodded and gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds awesome. Have fun!”

***

There came a time when it stopped making sense for me to stay over Sherwood. The custody arrangement my parents had worked out following divorce almost never followed arranged schedule. Schlepping stuff over there every other weekend was frustrating, especially given that since wrecking my first, I no longer had a car. I told Dad, shortly after my eighteenth birthday that though I was happy to hang out whenever, I wanted to just stay at Mom’s, where I had my own bedroom, my clothes, and my social life. He didn’t take it well, which I think I understand now better than I did then, but at the time he and I were really struggling to get along, for reasons much more complicated than his house. I couldn’t believe how angry he was at me.  I’d assumed he hardly noticed I was there unless we were arguing.

 The last time I slept at Sherwood Road was the night before my mother got remarried, about two years later. Mom and my sister had moved out of Griffing and were currently in a hotel suite with Nana. Punk Roommate and I stayed at Dad’s . He wasn’t home—he’d understandably, left town for a few days– and I remember it being very weird for me to be in the house. My sister had, in years since, covered part of our bedroom wall with a collage of 90s era teen magazine ads. My bed from Sherwood had come with me to college, but otherwise everything was very much the same. Comforting and perplexing all at once.

***

I’m a lot like my father. I’m neither handy nor particularly inspired by housework. I’d prefer to have a gin and tonic and call someone to fix things, but my budget only supports so many professionals, so lots of stuff in my house stays broken. I think using a stack of books as a table support is a practical solution. I’ve spent fifteen of my adult years living a place with a barely functional kitchen, a weird basement and  a bathroom door that doesn’t really close.  

I have fantasies about transformations. I’ll watch any before and after television show if they got an old house. Sometimes I think about doing that to my house. Sometimes I think about doing it to Dad’s house. It could be a showplace.

Recently I took a friend, one who has redone a bunch of homes, over to Sherwood. I lead her through the glass aerie of an office, past all the cubbies, down the still-pastel painted stairs and into the basement.

   “This joint is amazing,” she said. “I mean, how far does it actually go?”

“No one knows,” I said. “Maybe across the street. Maybe Canada. Maybe it’s just infinite.”