(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Seven. Day Six is here)
One night in late July, Art Night came home with the magazine rack. It was a huge metal contraption with two vertical shelves and a trough above constructed to fit the sort of hearty ceramic ashtrays one imagines that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton probably lobbed at each other nightly around 1968.
Art Night parked it on the porch with some fanfare and refused to tell us how much she paid for it. She was clearly very proud. For our parts, we were pretty excited too, as it combined two of our favorite things—smoking and print media—into a fantastic looking accessory that looked as if it could also be used to both spear and bludgeon the opposing side, should we have to make a run for the barricades.
“You’ve really outdone yourself,” I told her, with absolute sincerity. Even Cranberries agreed, and Cranberries was generally more critical of the kind of shit Art Night brought home—heavy plaster of Paris columns, a leopard-print bench, plastic furniture covered with super-glued army men, a quilted, ruffled red satin coverlet ala Poconos honeymoon suite, a, a mini-trampoline, a novelty “Bagel Barn,” an actual event tent. The magazine rack was useful, aspirational even. We stuffed it full of old New Yorkers and music magazine. Local weeklies. Classified sections still bearing the ballpoint glyphs of my futile job search. We smoked enough cigarettes to fill at least one of the ashtrays.
“You’ve got to go to this store where I bought it,” said Art Night. “That place is amazing.”
I told Art Night I didn’t have any money. I’d just tilted my debit card buying a PBR at the bar and bought a frozen burrito with quarters, which I was pretty sure should have humiliated me. I was twenty-six, after all. I lived slightly dilapidated, half-airconditioned ramble of a rental house with a rotating cast of roommates and adjacents. I could neither find a real job nor support myself with sporadic freelance jobs and record reviews for $10/per and free promos. From any reasonable perspective, my life was a mess.
Outside in the world, my peers were getting married, finishing law school, sliding into their first job with a 401(k) and a clear path to management. In that house, though, we were all broke and marginally employed. We reveled in our collective purposeless and penury, even as we suspected each other of having it easier being thus less entitled to performative angst. All of us telegraphed a certain style of misery, a depressive, slackass fatalism, that in retrospect felt like the last gasp of a particularly Gen-X attitude (though at least one of my roommates was a millennial) that still looked askance at selling out and could, after a hit or a couple of beers, drum up a moral argument for its own lack of industry.
But the thing is: I loved it.
I’d walk through the house on the way on the way to the porch, through a collage of mismatched furniture, a tumbling disaster of bodies and cigarette ashes and spilled coffee grounds and records and empty wine bottles and beer cans. It looked like it housed undergrads (it did) or a comfortable squat for middle class-raised packrats (we were). All the apartments I’d lived in, even when I was myself an undergrad, always had a particular look to them, a certain organization of things and colors I felt obliged to curate, an image I’d felt necessary to project. The new house refused to cooperate; it could not be controlled, no matter how many paintings I hung or records I alphabetized. I lost myself in its cavernous, needless hallways and weird closets. I submitted to its chaos. It felt a little like liberation. It definitely felt like a clean slate.
I’d been slowly crawling my way out a depression for years, but it was in that house that I remember waking up in the hot, hazy Piedmont sunshine a few days after I moved in, thinking, it’s possible I’m not sad anymore
The original plan was that I live with Art Night, who’d been living in Chapel Hill with Flat Tax’s little sister. Flat Tax had been in a long-term, mostly long-distance relationship with Cranberries since they were in high school. Cranberries and Flat Tax had been surfing the vicissitudes of young love and long distance, separated by most of the Eastern Seaboard. At the time we decided to live together, they were broken up. But the kind of broken up that meant Flat Tax left New England and also moved to Chapel Hill around the same time I did, into a house literally two doors down from ours. He said he was there to start a band. Art Night and I knew he was there because of Cranberries.
I was still in Asheville the day Cranberries and Art Night found the house. They both called, passing the phone back and forth, as they tried to describe the interior. I remember nodding along like I knew what they were talking about, though all I was able to parse was enormous kitchen, nice porch, seriously comic amount of linoleum. “It’s an extremely weird floor plan. And the house has a lot of wood paneling. It’s a little bit ugly, but also kind of awesome?” said Cranberries. “And the back half is huge, but it doesn’t have heat or air-conditioning. Price is right, though.”
I balanced the phone on my ear and tried to imagine it. I couldn’t. I could, however, see tendrils of ivy actually breaching the bedroom window of my current apartment and through the window, the side of the mountain where I’d lived during high school. I thought, if I don’t get out of here now, this place will suffocate me.
That night, I went out with Asheville friends. I told them I was moving. To New York? To San Francisco? To Seattle or Portland? To Austin? To Chicago? I know guy who knows a guy who knows Ira Glass. I told them I was moving to a college town across the state, barely fifty miles from the city where I’d completely lost the plot three years before, in with two younger roommates, at least one of whom was still an undergrad, into a semi-air-conditioned house with some kind of hilarious linoleum situation that I couldn’t explain.
“You’re absolutely going to regret that decision,” one of them, a recent Asheville transplant. “I mean, whatever cool Chapel Hill was wore off years ago. That place is totally over. You’re better off staying here. At least here is beautiful. At least here is healing. You know, here is the kind of place that speaks to people’s soul. Don’t you feel it?”
I thought, I don’t care where I go so long as I don’t have to live among credulous assholes talking about how my overrated hometown speaks to their soul.
I said, “Technically, the house is in Carrboro.”
We moved in on a hot day at the beginning of a long, hot summer. A few weeks later, my friend the Divorcee followed me down from Asheville and took the unoccupied back bedroom beside mine. Art Night and Cranberries were dubious, but I vouched for her and she settled in for a few months to rebound from her first marriage with leather pants and musically-inclined gentleman callers. She was a little older than I was and knew people. She was the kind of girl who got invited to parties and always had people offering to buy her drinks. When I was with Divorcee, I never had to pay for my drinks either. It was a practical sort of hedonism and more fun than I felt comfortable admitting, which is why I encouraged my roommates to tolerate the strangers in the back of the house, and try not to freak if, say, some coked-up, half-dressed touring mess of spiky hair and Black Flag tattoos wandered in at at 4am, helped himself to Art Night’s frozen pizza without asking and made long distance calls on the house phone.
Sometimes Divorcee would take a night off from her beaux and give us all haircuts, because she was eager and we mostly couldn’t afford them otherwise. We’d sit on the three-legged stool that typically held the coffeepot in the center of the kitchen and she’d experiment with bangs and bobs while we listened (and mostly complained) about the playlist at college radio station (What kind of sadist plays ten minutes of Frog noises, followed by Annette Funicello?). I always told Divorcee she could do whatever she wanted to my hair, because I felt safely removed from both my sad hometown self and the disaster of college and maybe if I cut my hair short enough it would clear out the cobwebs and dismiss the lingering shadows of the preceding eight years. Or as Flat Tax said, when he came over one night to buzz his head over our kitchen trash can, “It’s funny how every haircut feels like a clean sheet of paper.”
I liked that. I wrote it into one, then two stories I knew I would never finish.
The thing about being overeducated and underemployed and twenty-six is that you have time. You have lots of time, time enough to invent projects to fill the spaces between words and cigarettes and the next song on the radio in the brutally hot stillness of an unventilated addition of a house in Chapel Hill in July. I did that. A lot. Gas was cheap, so I spent a lot of time driving around in air-conditioning . I went to the libraries—the university library, the public library. I went to all the used book shops and all the used record shops. I wandered through thrift stores. I sat on porches. I snuck into apartment complex pools. I read Tristram Shandy. I wrote a couple chapters about a fake cowboy, a dead bull and a peach orchard.
I finally cobbled together enough spare change to go to the store where Art Night bought the magazine holder. It was a pollen-colored cottage across the street from the Duke Surplus Store stocked with not-yet-completely overpriced vintage goods. I admired the furniture. Then I found the dress on a rack in the room with the clothes. It was black and orange with a square neck and a full skirt made of motel room polyester, but it was, as my mother would say, extremely flattering. It also cost $13, which was at least $5, maybe $10, out of my price range. I carried it around the store, debating whether it was worth it. Finally the proprietor said she’d give it to me for eleven. “Sold,” I said, and counted out bills. I was sure it would fall apart before the end of the summer.
In late July, I finally got a job working at the gift shop of a local historical museum where no one bought anything because no one ever came to the museum. The job paid 8$/hr and I worked barely 20 hours a week. I sat behind a glass display case working crosswords and reading Lawrence Durrell novels, sometimes knocking the dust around a glass case full of vintage Tarheel basketball jerseys with a pink feather duster.
I drove to work every morning past empty sorority houses, down streets so lush with summer green they might have been liquid, listening to mix CD half full of songs by local bands that sounded, to me, uncannily like my life in the place itself.
One night when Cranberries was at work. Flat Tax came by to see if I wanted dinner. I wore the new dress and we rode uptown to the punk rock pizza place on the empty college strip. He’d recently become enamored of Marxism, perhaps because he could not find a job, even with his endless charisma and Ivy League degree. We talked about dialectics and guitar pedals. He carped bout his life. “It used to be that I tried to look shabby. It was a thing I cultivated. Now I think maybe I am shabby.” He touched the frayed ends of his shirt cuff and stared forlornly at the table.
I thought I had been shabby for a while, years perhaps, and I found myself untroubled by the revelation. I wanted to say to Flat Tax, remember how you came down here to make art or something? That’s not a decision you make if you’re worried about being shabby.
“I thought this was going to fun, this part of my life,” he said. “ I mean, are you having fun?”
I stared at him. Yes. I wanted to say. Yes, I am having fun. I am having more fun than I’ve had in years. I sing in the morning, for Christ sake. I grin like an idiot. I dance to “In A Big Country” in the front yard at one-am with all my roommates after an unholy amount of cheap wine. Doesn’t the happiness just waft off of me at this point?
He looked so troubled, though, and I wasn’t sure I could explain, so I just shrugged.
That house felt sometimes like a terminal, a pass through. I’d always liked train stations, so I didn’t mind.
Even in that first summer. The Divorcee lasted ten weeks in the back bedroom. She left and mostly took the gentleman callers with her, through for a while they’d still show up at 4am and tap at my window, wondering if she were there. Do you have her number? Could I borrow $20? Will you give me a ride?
Art Night moved into the room in the back and painted visceral red. She went through a religious art phase, then a communist art phrase, and somewhere in there completed a thesis on Romantic Poetry. Houseguests came and went. Flat Tax and Cranberries acted more, then less, then more like the couple they were. I lost my job at the museum. I started working at the record store. A best friend from one of my old lives moved into the other bedroom for a spell while she tried to work out her own version of Next.
I suspected it wouldn’t last–the lightness, the lazy chaos, the endless nights–and of course it didn’t, not exactly. People can only survive so long on off-brand macaroni and the kind of art projects you dream up when you never want them to be finished. But you don’t always know when your foundations are being laid, especially in a place so stubbornly impermanent. You might live with the person who becomes your best friend. You might create a family. You might realize the first, best version of yourself is the broke one with weird bangs, puttering around a screened in porch, while she sings to herself on an impossibly humid August morning. You might even buy a dress for $11 that will still be your favorite summer dress seventeen years later.
 With a few exceptions, we’d all attended the same high school, though not at the same time. Explaining how we knew each other complicated enough (Cranberries was my childhood best friend’s ex-boyrfiend’s ex-best friend’s girlfriend, for example) to require a chart that I used to keep on a clipboard nailed to the kitchen wall.