Maple, Part One: 2004-2005


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.

The Author

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