The Season of Second Chances: A Novelby Diane Meier
A world of possibilities opens up for Joy Harkness when she sets out on a journey that’s going to show her the importance of friendship, love, and what makes a house a home
Coming-of-age can happen at any age. Joy Harkness had built a university career and a safe life in New York, protected and insulated from the intrusions and involvements of other people.… See more details below
A world of possibilities opens up for Joy Harkness when she sets out on a journey that’s going to show her the importance of friendship, love, and what makes a house a home
Coming-of-age can happen at any age. Joy Harkness had built a university career and a safe life in New York, protected and insulated from the intrusions and involvements of other people. When offered a position at Amherst College, she impulsively leaves the city, and along with generations of material belongings, she packs her equally heavy emotional baggage. A tumbledown Victorian house proves an unlikely choice for a woman whose family heirlooms have been boxed away for years. Nevertheless, this white elephant becomes the home that changes Joy forever. As the restoration begins to take shape, so does her outlook on life, and the choices she makes over paint chips, wallpaper samples, and floorboards are reflected in her connection to the co-workers who become friends and friendships that deepen. A brilliant, quirky, town fixture of a handyman guides the renovation of the house and sparks Joy’s interest to encourage his personal and professional growth. Amid the half-wanted attention of the campus’s single, middle-aged men, known as “the Coyotes,”and the legitimate dramas of her close-knit community, Joy learns that the key to the affection of family and friends is being worthy of it, and most important, that second chances are waiting to be discovered within us all.
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It takes a keen eye to tell a false start from a dead end. I was finished with New York. I wanted out. I wanted somewhere else, anywhere else. I'd taught at Columbia for fifteen years and was, against all odds, a full professor. I'd published three books of poetry that few had read, not even my mother, and a biography of Margaret Chase Smith that no one read, not even me. How I'd managed to shred that fascinating woman—a clear-thinking, hard-talking, Yankee senator from Maine who had the guts and fortitude to run for president against Goldwater, Rockefeller and Stassen—into tiny bits of endless detail that added up to nothing, certainly nothing human, was almost an act of genius in itself. I'd created a belabored pile of facts and figures, with no life whatsoever between the hardbound covers, wrapped in the dung-colored book jacket. I am a teacher—a good teacher. I like the year in, year out repetition of the curriculum. I like the fact that my job is to impart knowledge and enthusiasm, managed within an environment where the risk is minimal; what these kids do in the future with the information and the potential they may or may not display is not my problem. I'm thoroughly entertained by them through the school year, and, for the most part, in the spring they move on. In September I get a whole new batch. It's redemption every fall. I have no arguments with this life. But New York is another story. Within the vaulted halls of Columbia I've been rubbed raw by the administration, frustrated by the exclusionary snobbery of academe and driven wild by the politics and the postures we're forced to assume to maintain any standing in the community. One is obliged to align oneself with positions that refuse to distinguish common sense from pageant, and God help you if your thoughts stray from that which is predigested and approved by committee to block any offense that might be taken by bullies masquerading as thin-skinned victims.
Should one suggest that banding homosexuals together and creating a "team" that demands recognition might, indeed, buy the team a bus, but that this bus will certainly not be in the fast lane—you will be ousted from the bosom of this academic community faster than you can say "Boys in the Band."
But go ahead, I dare you, because I am finished with this. I am packing my bags and moving away from this tempo of insistence that everyone step to an insipid dance or be labeled a rabid, right-wing reactionary.
I am moving away from an apartment that, while it has a heart-stopping view of the Hudson, if one hangs out the window, is roughly the size of the kitchen in the old Victorian I saw in Massachusetts. Four flights up when you are thirty-four may seem like an adventure. Four flights up when you are forty-eight seems an increasingly steep Matterhorn. Try carrying three bags of groceries up those stairs for decades, and you will find yourself eating only food that can be delivered.
I moved to New York when I was thirty-one, rather late to come to the press and whistle of the men and the subways, and perhaps too late to learn the wit and timing of real New Yorkers. I watched and listened in awe and delight, but I was never of their league. I was too quick for Saint Louis, that was obvious, but not ever-ready for old New York.
Since childhood, I'd dreamed of Manhattan and wished for a way out of Saint Louis, but I had no plan. When the opportunity to teach at Columbia appeared, I found the courage to leap from the Midwest, and I didn't look back. I left a pretty little starter house in Clayton, a teaching assignment at Washington University and a husband of four years, for the canyons and the peaks of New York's promise.
In my first apartment, shared with a secretary from Revlon and a stewardess from Delta, I read Kerouac, Salinger and Allen Ginsberg again and again, as I had in high school and college when the image of New York—and the woman I would become—fueled my fantasies. I kept reading and waiting for it all to take, but it never did.
There was a television commercial for Chemical Bank on the air when I first arrived, in which an attractive young woman purposefully made her way up Park Avenue. The camera caught her long stride to somewhere important. She ran a publishing company, I imagined. She designed jet engines. Her game farm in Africa bred white tigers. She commanded respect and used other people's money. The tagline to the commercial: "The New York Woman. When her needs are financial, her reaction is Chemical."
I opened an account at Chemical Bank within days of landing in Manhattan. I wanted to be that woman. Four months after my move, Chemical merged with Manufacturers Hanover and my bank became known as Manny Hanny. In New York, I was always just a tad late for the party.
Change rarely happens in doses large enough to choke you. Every day you swallow a little more and expect a little less. So I don't remember the day I stopped hoping I would become that self-assured woman who knew where the important people lunched. I don't know when I last believed that I would grow into someone Susan Sontag would choose to meet for an early supper and a movie we might then hack to pieces. I didn't know I'd given up. And yet, when opportunity beckoned to fly yet another coop, I jumped headlong into the gale that might carry me away from the niggling shame that I never would become That Woman whose reactions were Chemical.
Amherst College has recruited me, rescuing my sorry ass from what had seemed a sealed and dismal fate. For reasons I won't question, lest they wise up, they're paying me far more than I'm worth to move to the wilds of Massachusetts and work with one of the living legends of literature and criticism on developing new ways of sharing, if not teaching, the written word. This is far more than good fortune. This is like finding an unmarked envelope full of hundreds on the backseat of a cross town bus. Before they figure out their mistake, I plan to be ensconced in some ivy-covered office, so wrapped in bureaucratic tape they won't be able to unravel my contract.
The three-hour drive to Amherst in my old BMW had been easy and pleasant. The air-conditioning was working again, and encased in my cool bubble of air I felt protected from the heat of early August. The New York route into New England allowed me to drive along the Hudson until Riverdale and then catch the wide, tree-lined superhighway that unfolded vistas of the Catskill Mountains and the foothills of the Berkshires.
The feeling of freedom, driving into scenery as green and lush as a postcard of Ireland, was close to bliss.
I pulled into the Red Rooster, a hamburger joint on Route 22 that seems lifted from my Missouri childhood. Years ago, I'd stopped there with a musician with whom I'd had a brief fling. I picked the same picnic table where Roger and I sat in the middle of a very cold winter, downing hot dogs and Brown Cows, as the snow seeped into my city shoes. After a chilly night in a motel somewhere on a river in Connecticut, my hips and shoulders hurt and I wanted to be warm. It occurred to me, even back then, that I might be getting too old for romance. But I remembered the place with fondness, as I remember Roger with fondness; not perfect, but, all in all, not a bad memory. In his honor I had a Brown Cow, that sweet mixture of vanilla ice cream and root beer a friend of mine from England thinks tastes like ointment. I love this drink, but I haven't had one in—what can it be?—more than five years. Lord! More like eight or nine years. Time, as they say, flies.
Six months ago my secretary buzzed my intercom and announced a call from Bernadette Lowell. It was possible that Celeste might be playing a little joke, but Celeste has never displayed anything close to a sense of humor, and she is pathologically disconnected from academic life. She might as well be a secretary in a lumberyard (where, no doubt, as it is her nature, she would be disconnected from all things wood). Most of all, a joke in itself, Celeste would never have heard of Bernadette Lowell, who is about as famous an academic as one can be.
In my world, we don't herald the beautiful, the best dressed or the rich, but we do have the very occasional individual who breaks through the line between academy and popular culture. They publish, they lecture, they become regular guests on NPR and PBS, lending their studied air to whatever crises or phenomena the media believe must be explained to the dim public. They become our superstars; although, true to the nature of academics, we do nothing but denigrate them in our conversations and public attitude. In private, we maintain little shrines, Harold Bloom pin up pictures and prayers to the gods of academic politics, that someday we might have our own tiny place in a New Yorker profile or within the gloomy embrace of Charlie Rose's roundtable.
Lowell had done her groundbreaking work thirty years ago, defining and developing the field of gender studies, making magazine covers and television appearances and creating unlikely best sellers out of academic research. She was now making waves with equally radical ideas about how humans learn, the pejorative nature of identifying and cataloging learning disabilities and an idea about graduate studies she was tagging Immersion Technique. Amherst College had given her a chair, made her a dean of graduate studies and stood behind her experiments. Most of academe was snickering, as usual, but everyone was watching.
Harry Fox, the resident glamour boy hotshot from Columbia's School of Journalism, recommended me to Dr. Lowell. I didn't know Harry well and was surprised to learn that I figured on his rarified radar at all. Harry's a type. Every school of journalism worth its salt has one. They come out of media and swagger across our campuses with insufferable style. They can be useful in bringing some real-life contacts, a bit of attention and often a trickle of money to our limited and insular stage, but they never do seem to fit in.
At any rate, at his suggestion and crediting him with the call, Bernadette Lowell asked me to lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in February, to see, she said rather coquettishly, if we "liked each other." I was, admittedly, a little intimidated, but I "liked" her fine. She is about seventy years old, give or take a few years; her hair is white as snow, cut like Buster Brown or a page in a Maxfield Parrish mural; but the first impression was that of power. She stood as I approached. "Dr. Harkness?" Her head was tilted and eyes bright, like a bird dog on the scent of a quail.
"Joy," I answered and extended my hand, met by her powerful and warm grasp. She is big, by any standards, in a strong, masculine way, and taller than my own average height by at least four or five inches. Her hands are large, and she wore a distinctive sapphire and diamond ring. She displayed a disconcerting combination of apparently shy reserve, fluttery infectious charm and a well of immense calm. I have yet to make sense of the expression of gravitas and willful strength all wrapped in a package of girlish delight; but there you have it. My father once referred to my brother's "life force," his immense energy, his distinct and unique personality, so defined and powerful, even in childhood. And that was the term, life force, that came to mind when confronted with Bernadette.
We discussed her plans for Amherst and the team of academics she hoped to build, and we talked about my situation in the barest terms. I played no games, I was completely candid. I would run from New York and Columbia, like a hound at the drop of a hare.
A month later, on the twenty-seventh of March at three o'clock in the afternoon, Dr. Lowell rang and offered me a job for far more money than anyone who teaches might ever anticipate. For this, I would have to commit to a minimum of four years, carry what would amount to my existing workload of teaching and join her Core Team, who would, in addition to our teaching schedules, develop Bernadette's new curriculum concept. There would be weekends and evenings required, although not so many in the first year, Bernadette explained, as the plan was just beginning. She wondered if she'd remembered to mention that the team would need to work together for a month in the summers. So what? I thought. I had no other life. Summer travel didn't much interest me; tooting around the world with hordes of tourists in months too hot for comfort. I had no country house, no partner and no children, underfoot or otherwise. My summers could easily be sold to Bernadette Lowell.
The real catch was that she wanted me, or someone, on board and in place by the beginning of the following term. Here, deep into spring, I had a semester to end, a position to relinquish, an apartment to sell and pack and move and an Amherst home to find by the first of September, at the latest. Bernadette was asking me to create a whole new life in a matter of weeks.
I was her first choice, she told me squarely, but if I could not see my way clear to agree to this move right now, she needed to get on to another candidate immediately. Not see myself clear to make the move? Had I not been plain? I was out of here. Whether I sold the New York apartment or not, my psychic bags were packed and I was, emotionally, already in Amherst.
My apartment was literally on the market for four days when it sold for more than the asking price. I hadn't even gotten around to clearing out the foyer. A parade of seven couples and a single man marched through my rooms in the first two days of the listing, attended by their real estate agents and mine. Everyone seemed to think that the apartment was such a gem, with its high coffered ceilings, parquet floors and the bowed window that looked out onto broad Eighty-sixth Street. Wait until you hear the bus, I thought, but I didn't say a word. I smiled when they talked about the light. I nodded when they mentioned the perfect proportions of the rooms. I knew it was a crowded, dark, mean little apartment with a fireplace that didn't work and too few closets. Two real estate agents mentioned that the building was promising to install an elevator at the back service stairs. I didn't tell them that our co-op board had been arguing about that imaginary elevator for all of the sixteen years I'd lived in the building.
I watched the potential buyers navigate the piles of books that made my living room floor a cityscape in miniature, and chat on about the potential of the place. Potential? We were standing in a dim and noisy crowded box, drafty, sometimes buggy and not quite near enough to a subway, a restaurant or a decent garage. This apartment was no prize. But I also wanted one of them to buy it; I held my tongue, and I held my breath. And lo and behold, after bidding against one another and pushing up the price by more than fifty thousand dollars, one of them did. I could only laugh. With real estate booms, as with comedy, timing is everything.
Now it was my turn. The college recommended a real estate agent, with the promising name of Donna Fortunata, to help me find accommodations, and we'd agreed to meet in front of the administration building. I pulled into a parking space directly opposite the entrance and recognized her immediately. She looked just the way her voice on the phone sounded. Donna was small and bright in the way women's magazines sometimes describe as perky. Her honey-colored hair was pulled high in a ponytail that made her look about twelve. She was wearing a pale yellow stretch-terry warm-up suit that seemed two sizes too small even for her petite, I imagined Pilates-enhanced, figure. A small gold chain gleamed around her waist between the low-riding bottoms and the shrunken little top.
Disregarding the warm weather, I was wearing a dark gray long-sleeved shirt, a black linen cardigan and black gabardine trousers. I didn't look like anyone on the streets of Amherst. Welcome to the world outside of New York, I thought. But Donna was bright and witty and frankly stunned at the price I'd gotten for a two-bedroom apartment in New York, which allowed her to show me a series of interesting houses, all of which were buried deep in the mountainous and dark woods she described as the "desirable hills." In the Massachusetts countryside, it seems, they still think of these remote places as "town," and perhaps it does literally appear so on a map; but I know better.
Now, I've walked the streets of Harlem at all hours, and I've never hesitated to take the subway. I've never been afraid, as sirens wailed and voices—sometimes angry, sometimes drunk, sometimes plaintive—rose to the open windows of my apartment, through the nights and the years of my New York stay. And yet, the idea of being alone on a winter's night in the rattling woods of Massachusetts was decidedly unsettling.
After four houses where one could barely see (or remember seeing) a neighboring home, I asked Donna if she'd show me houses in town. The real town—with sidewalks. Sadly, she explained, there were few for sale at the moment, and none that matched my criteria.
And then she remembered a house. Her expression was pained as she recounted its details. It had been empty for years. And it needed work, she emphasized. A lot of work. Trying to follow her line of thought was confounding. The house was priced far below what I'd planned to spend, and it was a much larger house than I required. Still, it was near to school, in a lovely neighborhood, a rambling Victorian with a big front porch; but she hesitated. "It's kind of a white elephant. It needs so much work," she said gravely. "I think you'll find it daunting."
I could hardly believe my ears. If I understood correctly, it was in town, and there were actual sidewalks with neighboring houses. Daunting? Let's go there—now! My heart ran ahead. Let's leave the arena of wild bear and rabid raccoon and crazy men with axes, for the safety and comfort of a neighborhood, for the aroma of blueberry pies cooling on kitchen windowsills, for little front yards and the idea of biking to work. The concept of biking to work should have given me the hint that I was getting carried away. And why was it priced so far below all that we'd seen, and what did she mean by "white elephant"? "It's probably a teardown" was all she'd share, shaking her golden ponytail like Trigger refusing a fence.
We drove into a driveway of cracked and broken concrete, choked with overgrown forsythia and weeds. Through masses and tangles of what looked like a garden never tended, one could make out the wide, shingled porch, all strangled in vines with feminine quatrefoil corbels and a screen door of Victorian detail so fine it looked like the lace of old French underwear. Lest this sound too romantic, sections of the handiwork were missing, and the door was no longer on its hinges.
Inside was no better, though no worse. The stairway creaked and shifted to the point where I feared we might both end up in the basement, and regardless of the point of entry, I didn't want to see the basement at all. The toilets were rusty and the kitchen sink had a long brown edge and a deep green stain from faucet to drain. There was a white mineral kind of stalactite—or is it stalagmite?—buildup on the metal faucet handles, and mouse droppings littered the counter.
But there were broad-planked wooden floors, a fireplace with inset art nouveau tiles and a deep, bowed window and window seat, or at least half of one. The other half had been lifted away some years before, and the scar on the wall had never been repaired. Light streamed in the leaded windows and ran across the floor, long and yellow and warm and delicious. The first floor held a dining room and a living room and a room that could be my study. The idea of an office at home filled me with satisfaction. In New York, my extra bedroom overflowed with the furniture and household goods that had arrived more than a decade ago, when, as the last surviving Harkness, I took reluctant possession of the material remains of my family's lives. My "office" was my living room; stacked with papers and books, it had never been a place where anyone could be invited to relax or even visit. And, consequently, no one ever was.
Closets appeared everywhere in the old Victorian—under the stairs and on each side of the front door in a gracious entry foyer. A butler's pantry, large as my bedroom in the city, sat between the dining room and the kitchen.
The newel posts on the stairway and the paneling in the living room still held a kind of dignity and beauty missing from the architecture of our time. Light fixtures, pulled out of walls and ceilings, left gaping holes that didn't diminish the proportions of the rooms or the intent of those who built them.
As we walked through, surveying the dreadful conditions, Donna suggested that someone might want to buy it for the lot alone and the chance to build from scratch to their own requirements. Imagine, I thought, tearing this history out of a town, bulldozing the beauty of its bourgeois comfort and the graciousness of its past for a modern house with Sheetrock walls.
"Shouldn't someone be assigned to protect these old homes?" I asked. We heard a scratching, scrambling noise in the wall suggesting a squirrel, or something larger or wilder, had made its way to town from the "desirable hills." Donna's eyes were wide; I knew she wanted to leave, and I wasn't far behind.
Much as I appreciated this house, I knew Donna was right. It was daunting. I was in no position to take on such a task. I needed shelter and a place to work and grade papers. I don't cook, entertain or invite people into my home. I have simple requisites, but I need a house that can take care of me, not a house I would have to feed, burp, dress and send to Yale. Clearly, this was not the house for me.
I spent the night at an inn called the Lord Jeffrey, on the town green. Full of hunting prints, pewter mugs and Windsor chairs, the atmosphere was disconcertingly like Holiday Inn, the Bing Crosby musical, not the chain of bland motels. I suspected if one returned at Thanksgiving, the receptionist might be dressed as a pilgrim or a turkey.
The next morning, Donna and I saw four more houses in the scary, rugged wilderness, and one cheap and featureless condominium, far smaller than my New York apartment, in a treeless and grim development just out of town.
I asked Donna to spend more time hunting and made an appointment to meet her on the next weekend. This left only three weeks before my contract began at Amherst. Donna suggested that if worse came to worst, I could put my things in storage and take a room at the inn on the green until we found a place to buy that was simple and clean and ready to take my furniture. I hoped against hope that a move-in, postwar, suburban cape, close enough to civilization, or a town house in the fully booked ersatz-Shaker development down the highway toward Northampton, would, miraculously, become available. And, though it wasn't an ideal plan, Donna suggested that if we'd not found anything by the middle of September, I could rent a house, or part of a house, that might take me through a year, as we continued to look for a place to buy.
Still, the Victorian, with the crazy-quilt shingles, all decorative and different at each level and angle, stayed with me. I couldn't imagine myself living there, but the rhythm of its geometry and its distinct and civilized sense of place became an unspoken, unsettled, half-remembered poem that would not leave my mind, though it should have been so easily dismissed.
As I drove back into the city, the hot August evening turned sticky in that particular way only New York seems to develop; a kind of damp and greasy, sooty, airless atmosphere that holds smells of vinegar, decay, urine and car exhaust, like a stew brewing for decades. The walk from the garage, off West End, to my apartment on Riverside seemed endless, my hair was escaping, like live wires, from its long braid, and my head was wringing wet when I turned the corner and caught a blast of air that felt almost arctic. How can it be, in a city steaming as though Hell itself lived beneath the sidewalk, that the air off the Hudson might be cold enough to take your breath away, but not strong enough to permeate a city block? Except, of course, in winter, when the chill off the Hudson reaches its mean icy fingers to Central Park, and some days beyond, to Astoria, Montauk and all the way to Greenland.
The climb to my front door was exhausting, and the apartment seemed even smaller than I remembered. It was hotter than blazes, and the air conditioner took forever to cool down rooms barely large enough for me to turn in. My patience was thin. The week had been hard and hot and the issues in my leaving Columbia were not without their problems, although, for a change, they were largely procedural and bureaucratic rather than political.
There were few colleagues on campus in August, and perhaps fewer still I'd even considered calling to say good-bye. But on my last Wednesday in town I had dinner with two women of whom I was rather fond. Adele and Laura Grant were cousins, originally from New Hampshire. Laura and I had started teaching at Columbia the same year and had stayed in touch through our tenure. The cousins were related to President Grant in some distant way and had parlayed that relationship or their passion for family and historic lore—or both—into parallel careers in history, with the American Civil War their specialty. One taught at Columbia, the other at Brooklyn College, and they lived together in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, and wrote together, like conjoined twins, surprisingly poetic academic papers that were well published and highly regarded. Their success was unusual for women in the business of academic military history, not in the least because they shared the credit to the point where no one knew where one of them left off and the other began. There was speculation that one did the research and the other wrote, but no one knew for sure. They never offered, and I never asked.
The Grant cousins looked rather alike, or perhaps they just dressed alike and had the same mannerisms. They tended to ample cardigans and pull-on pants in muted earth tones. Their shoes were always devastatingly wrong; solid pumps worn with slacks, or sandals and socks under an Indian cotton skirt. Occasionally, they would express themselves with a hand-loomed scarf of vivid color and hugely misplaced creativity, or a piece of craft-fair jewelry that tended to the visual pun. One had a pin with Grant's and Lee's silhouettes wrought of silver. Another counted an Abe Lincolnvê in-repeat necklace as a fashion statement. Adele's hair was thinner than Laura's, and you could see her scalp through the pale orange waves that seemed air-puffed, like Cheetos, on her head. Laura wore glasses, though now that I think of it, Adele might have worn glasses, too.
I guess one might say they were my closest friends in New York, although we'd never been to one another's homes and we'd never talked about anything truly private. Still, I would miss dinners with the Grant Girls, as I thought of them.
They were a tie to my earliest days in the city, and it seemed we'd drifted into middle age when I wasn't looking. I remembered my Chicago grandmother criticizing a friend of Mother's who always called herself a girl, though she had children older than I. "She was a girl when the lake was at Halstead Street!" Gran said testily. Now the Grant Girls and I were no longer girls, I had to admit, but I didn't feel any differently about them or about myself.
I recognized there would be no professional celebration of leave from Columbia, and I harbored, adolescently, I suppose, the idea that this was my Official Send-Off Dinner. The Grant Girls, of course, knew all about the woman who'd hired me for Amherst. Bernadette Lowell, a kind of mother-of-all-literary-feminists, had returned to teaching five years ago after writing books about gender in literature and culture that most of us feel will be studied and remembered long, long after we're gone. She was a heroine to any and all who meant to make sense of societies that reflected the limited destinies of biology and misogyny, and mirror it back in their art. The Grant Girls were suitably impressed and, as supportive friends, pretended to believe that it was only right and just that I should have been chosen to work with Dr. Lowell at Amherst. But I knew it was a complete fluke of great good fortune.
There was a party atmosphere about the evening. We rejected our usual chardonnay, opting instead for Cosmopolitans. I felt like a coed, lifting the martini glass of pale pink liquor, canting like a liquid jewel in the shallow, angled bowl; and, in an uncharacteristically candid gesture, I told them so.
"A coed?" Adele hooted, or was it Laura? "I should think we'd look like socialites! Like Barbara Hutton!"
"Barbara Hutton, that's so long before our time! Was that the last moment women were truly sophisticated?" I asked, conjuring photographs of chic hats, diamond bracelets and a zebra-tufted booth at El Morocco. "Was Hutton the last holdout for the diamond bracelet and the martini, before we'd all read that Randolph Scott, not diamond bracelets, stood between Barbara Hutton and Cary Grant—and that the martini, not the money, stood between her and real life?"
The girls looked thoughtful for a moment, or maybe just a little tipsy, missing a beat and masquerading as thoughtful. "What do you think stands between real life, and us?" asked Laura, turning directly to me. Suddenly, it seemed, I had no air in my lungs.
"What an odd question," exclaimed Adele, as I blindly stumbled toward the path of an appropriate answer. I was grateful for Adele's response. Apparently, I was already pie-eyed. I must have been if I'd even contemplated answering such a query.
And what the hell was real life, anyway? My cramped apartment and a job with which I had so little connection I felt no loss in leaving and no need to contact coworkers to share a fond farewell? Or was it a move to an assignment so vague I had to help build its curriculum, or a move to a town with no personal associations and no suitable home? What kind of real life was this?
Then I heard someone say, "I'm going to buy this mad, old Victorian heap of a house in Amherst!" I thought I recognized my own voice announcing this with what someone who didn't know me might call "gusto." Indeed, someone else could have said it, because until that moment I had no idea I was going to buy the house. Nevertheless, and in what I can only describe as a kind of psychotic stupor, two weeks later I signed the papers. The house was mine.
How to Move Your Life
- Appraise all belongings and determine what is worth keeping and what is worth moving. Separate them. Figure out how you are going to get rid of all belongings not worth moving. Somehow, this is far more difficult than simply moving them.
- Arrange for all move-worthy belongings to be packed and delivered to a storage facility on the outskirts of Northampton, Massachusetts.
- Make a list of everything that needs changing, fixing or updating in the new house and estimate when you might be able to move your belongings into each room as renovated.
- Rethink the whole idea.
- List methods of suicide.
If you have ever moved, you understand that people will stay in the most deplorable environments simply to avoid considering things that belonged to the people they no longer are. This is not just a job of hauling heavy belongings; this task confronts memories too painful to lift. There is the picture of your mother looking beautiful and fragile in a Norell dress, taken the day she told you she would have been happier without children. In the drawer of your dresser is a handkerchief with the letter J embroidered on the corner, lent to you by your grandfather under circumstances you can't quite remember. It was never a beautiful handkerchief, and you may not even be sure that he thought much about you; and yet, it is a tiny piece of him, entrusted to you, and you can't let it go.
And here there is a chunk of lava from a volcanic park in Arizona; ugly, lumpen and impossible to dust within its million tiny crevices. You picked it up after you presented the paper at Arizona State on the "Language of Women in Politics," when you and that photographer went off to Sedona, where he talked to you about harmonic convergence and you got massaged, naked, in the hot sun on the patio of your hotel room. It is impossible to know which of those facts seems more unbelievable, but now you can't very well throw out the piece of lava. It is, like so many of these things you will consider, too close to the bone to discard.
Books with crumbling bindings and socks without mates, earrings missing tiny stones, half of an expensive alligator watch strap with a solid-gold buckle, shoes that are comfortable but too homely to wear in public and shoes that were expensive and sleek but hurt after only ten minutes of standing—all get touched and moved and considered. Underwear bought for a particular dress, binding, with straps in places that pinch, gets held up and inspected and packed in case, just in case you want to wear the dress again. The dress in question is a decade old, with a bodice that may have been cut too low ten years ago when the skin on your breasts was not crepey and your upper arms were toned.
And then there is loose change. What seems like thousands of dollars in pennies and nickels, covered in dust, some with sticky edges and some with black smudges, rests in the bottom of baskets and cups and drawers. If you stop to count, I promise you, it will amount to no more than nineteen dollars; but if you don't, you will remember forever that you tossed out at least a thousand dollars in sticky nickels.
There are photographs of people you don't recognize and photographs of you in ways you don't wish to be remembered, but they each contain elements of places or times you do not wish to forget. There are papers with people's addresses and unfamiliar phone numbers. Who is "Bob," scrawled, presumably in his hand, on the back of a bar napkin carrying a Pennsylvania area code? If you throw this piece of paper away, you will remember, at a moment when fate confronts you like a Bergman reaper on a beach, exactly who Bob is, and you will know for sure that you threw away your one chance at salvation or the number of a great rib joint on the Main Line.
On top of this, the work is hard. The boxes are heavy. No matter how clean you think you are, the things you don't want to see are grimy and dusty and crumbling and old, and that's not the worst of it. Because no matter how difficult it may have been to put these things into the cartons that have become your universe, you will dread, and rightly so, the day you will have to unpack them and go through this exercise all over again.
The day I bought the house, I drove directly from the lawyers' office and opened the door with an old-fashioned skeleton key, presented to me with a flourish at the closing. I stood alone for more than a few moments in the foyer, trying to feel something I assumed would be ownership or relief. When nothing solid or significant came, I set off to explore the house. I opened doors and entered rooms and looked in the closets searching for something—a hat with a feather, a volume of poetry, a letter with a foreign stamp; some quixotic sign sent to me from lives lived within these walls all through the last hundred or so years, assuring me that I'd done the right thing in saving their house and preserving their memories. But there was no message from the great beyond. There was quite a lot of dust and dirt, and moths flew out of an upstairs closet. There was mold in the carpets and a hole that looked to have been eaten by whatever it is that might eat rugs in a runner in a third-floor hallway. But I found no message from the next imagined world.
I ran water in all of the bathrooms to feel its pressure. I flushed all of the sooty toilets and used the one in the room I presumed would be my own bath, with some tissue I found crumbled in my sweater's pocket. The front and back stairs were compared, yet again, to see which of them seemed more rotten or rickety, as I figured I could use one while the other was being refurbished. Alas, it was a grim toss-up, and little I stood on seemed truly safe. The hot water was not yet turned on, but there was great force in the water pressure, the kind of power modern plumbing has all but eliminated in its energy-saving equanimity. The silvered knobs were original and lovely, and the porcelain of the claw-footed bathtubs and pedestal sinks was thick and white, and I could see that with some effort, the surfaces might clean up well, if not beautifully.
I returned downstairs and stood again in the foyer as the late afternoon sun poured in liquid and low through the thick glass of the windows. The effect was as romantic as I'd remembered from my first visit. This is my house, I tried again, with a small but strange and unsettling mix of disbelief, gratitude and fear. I trekked once more through the floors, trying to making mental note of the furniture I had crowded in my apartment and the pieces I still had in storage from my parents' house. A dining table, which had not seen its leaves in decades, might be reintroduced to its companions. A lovely Pembroke breakfast table, whose hinged panels had been forever folded at my bedside, might now take its place as a real table. I walked in circles and wondered where to begin, not knowing how big the pieces I owned might be, not knowing how large the walls I stared at might measure.
Abandoning that exercise as beyond my ken, I picked out a front bedroom as mine and felt the earliest twinges of possession. I might not yet be falling in love, but I might be flirting with the promise of love, the idea of love, the making of a place in my heart for love, though it may have been more a wish than a promise. What the other bedrooms could become remained a mystery, but I returned downstairs and watched the light in the room I now thought of as my office get lower and warmer and never harsh. I anticipated the likely hours I'd spend there and imagined where my desk might sit so that the light would be most appreciated. There were corners full of dust and debris and a few worrying damp patches on the foyer floor that looked newly wet, but I knew we'd address it all, once I could see my things in place.
Arranging for the furniture to be delivered had been as easy as a phone call, and early the next morning I met the moving van in my lumpy driveway. The movers eyed the cracked and broken surface with a skeptical eye toward their tires. We lifted the broken screen away from the front door and set it leaning against the house. The movers were not careful to hide their evaluations of whether the porch steps, not to mention the porch itself, might fail to support the weight of hefty men with full boxes and furniture.
I remembered to bring a carton of cleaning supplies, paper towels and toilet paper, and when one of the movers asked, early in the game, if he might use a bathroom, I directed him to the bath at the top of the stairs and handed him a new, wrapped, roll of toilet paper.
They had only begun to move the cartons into the hall of the first floor when I saw water begin to drip through a seam in the ceiling near the stairs. The surface of the ceiling began to swell to create a pouch like a pregnant cow's. I stood motionless for long minutes, not knowing what to do or how to change the fate unfolding before me. Though everything moved in slow motion, I was only marginally aware that the movers were scrambling around, getting cartons and furniture to safer positions while I stood still, unmoving and dumb, and watched the ceiling break into pieces and the water hit the floor, full of plaster and dirt and brown scum. It crashed like something hard and not liquid. It splashed toward me as if thrown in my face to say, "Wake up and smell the sewage, honey. Absolutely nothing will ever be the same."
My first call was to Donna, who dialed a plumber from her cell phone and met me on the steps of the house an hour later.
"Welcome home," she said, laughing, with just a tinge of "I told you so." My second call was a cleaning crew. The one I found listed in the Massachusetts Yellow Pages as "Disaster Master" seemed perfect on all counts. I moved back into my room at the Lord Jeffrey Inn, and I seriously considered never moving out.
When Disaster Master left the scene of the flood, four days later, the house was as clean as a whistle. The scummy water had been scrubbed away from the downstairs floor and the ceiling patched. Every surface in the bathrooms had been forced into antiseptic cleanliness, as had the kitchen. The walls and floors throughout the house had been swept and wiped and washed and dusted, the rotting carpets had been rolled up and thrown away, and the rooms smelled of disinfectant and soap, rather than mothballs, old musty fireplace soot and mildewed mold. I'd had an exterminator eliminate the wildlife in the walls, attic and basement by means I chose not to explore. But the romance was over.
I no longer had the innocent fantasy that Murphy's Oil Soap might hand me a livable house. For all I knew, all of the plumbing was waiting to explode, the stairs to collapse and the roof to fall in. I knew how to fix none of it. And I knew with a dreadful certainty that once it was fixed, I still wouldn't know how to make this place a home. The house was waiting for me to decide what to do. Cartons were stacked floor to ceiling, tight and fearful against the walls. Whether or not I could see the territory ahead, I knew that Lewis and Clark faced no whiter water than I.
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