(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.