Preparing a Place

I am looking for someone. On the subway. At the hospital. Walking the sticky streets of the in-town neighborhood where I live in the shadowy, noirish, lost-dog summer nights. It takes me a long time to realize what I am supposed to be doing. Two years, maybe.

In my self-involved twenty-something way, I consider two years an unbearably long time. I think I’ve already seen enough of life to retreat from it. Enough has already gone wrong, gone past, or one way or another ended up in the “out” basket to give me grounds for resignation. A two-year long marriage, though much of that time was spent living in a “commune” with other people. I was fired twice from teaching jobs and left a few other jobs without waiting to be asked. Cohabiting with a student was a contributing cause in one of these departures. Missing school breakfasts at a residential school for special needs students was the official reason in another—when they work that hard to find a reason, you know they are so looking forward to saying goodbye.

I did my share of saying goodbye as well. I walked away from the hippie house where I lived for two years with the people I “loved,” a verb I was not afraid to use in those days and seldom used afterwards, until (as I wrote then in a poem) “love turned to words.” Sometimes hard words: I specialized in resignation letters, well-reasoned kiss-offs. The home of my youth, a family by choice, best friends, communards, all left behind. A second stab at community ended more quickly and bitterly.

Disillusioned, I filled the hole with “relationships.” One with a teenager with a drug problem, followed by a couple of unequal liaisons. When I found myself on the gives-more-than-receives end I wrote another goodbye-cruel-world letter and followed the wisdom of I Ching: the superior man knows when to retreat. But as seasons passed, my retreat became a surrender, my withdrawal an isolation. One winter night in the last days of February, a friend drove me to a rundown building in a Boston neighborhood city and helped me carry my stuff up a narrow, winding stairwell. He told me to call him if I needed anything, but I didn’t have a phone.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost.

I chose the path of solitude. I wondered how far that path would go, and whether I would know it when I came to its end.

I lived in that dark old building like an alcoholic who didn’t drink. My life was shabby, unwashed, neglected; hand to mouth; colored with occasional outbursts of irresponsibility. I permitted a cranky old car still registered in my name to rot on a city street, its tires slowly flattening. (This karmic trespass caught up to me a decade later.) The dog I was taking care of for a girl, the remnant of a last entanglement, sometimes crapped in the empty room of my apartment, especially on the nights I neglected to walk her. Sometimes I didn’t bother cleaning it up for days.

No telephone. No shower. I had a job in a hospital that would bore a high school dropout.

My condition cried out for intervention, rescue, a humanitarian mission. I was a failed state in need of a strong injection of external resources.

I needed someone.

And amazingly some part of me realized it. Because I began looking.

*    *    *

In the spring of the year in which I tried to resign from the human race but failed, I found myself wanting people. Female people, mostly. I worked on talking to the girls at my time-killing job in a city hospital. A short, cute blonde dropped by the room where I operated a mimeograph machine to chat, telling me she was engaged to a guy who lived in a different city—yet here she was in my doorway again. I liked her and her message was decidedly mixed, but I couldn’t get over the engagement thing. I was in my second adolescence: shy, insecure, defensive, while given to unexpected bouts of absurd over-confidence. I had a low threshold for complications of any sort. I needed someone to set the bar clearly; then I would leap over it, catch my foot, fall on my face. Another co-worker took me home to meet her father, but the invitation, as she carefully explained, was “not a date.” That made it safe. I changed into my sneakers so I could walk on a beach in Quincy and left my leather shoes at her house in a paper bag.

Back in my colorful, clannish North End neighborhood I frequented a Store 24 where the night clerk, a dark-haired siren, chatted to me about the joys of being Italian. Nothing developed there either because while she was attractive, she wasn’t the one. The talkative young wife out looking for her dog one spooky summer night found me instead. We stood on the sidewalk making tentative sense of the universe while a man stood in a doorway calling her name with growing irritation. No place for me there.

When I began to cross paths with Anne, however, the slender, smart-sounding admissions clerk who worked at the other end of the hospital taking insurance information from the poor souls who stumbled into the emergency room, I was at once struck with worry over what she would think of my life. The gloomy apartment, the bathroom in the hall, the shabby room where I kept the dog who sometimes used it to—well, I covered that point. But did I mention that when I failed to come home at night she would break into my cupboard and eat an entire bag of sugar, for instance, or something equally un-doglike and throw up on the floor?

I knew my living conditions posed some challenges.

I’m not sure who made the first move. Anne’s memory is that she made a point of walking by the little room off the corridor where the distribution clerk (me) pretended to be doing something. She saw me reading a book and flashed me her special smile. Somehow I failed to respond.

What I remember is nearly running her over in the corridor; and then Anne apologizing (though it was as much my fault); and the glow of the physical contact remaining with me for the rest of the day. I took it as a sign.

We had a casual date. The little complications of life make me stumble. The girl at the hospital who took me on outings that were not, we agreed, dates said she would see me for lunch in the cafeteria as usual. But I was not having lunch as usual, I was having lunch with Anne. A social coward, I neglected to mention this fact, and so, an hour later in the noontime hubbub of the cafeteria, two women eyed one another while I stumbled over an introduction. The not-a-date girl took the hint and backed off. The next day she brought me my shoes in their paper bag.

Anne and I went out to a jazz club (definitely a date). Anne only pretended to drink whatever she ordered. I drank only the one-drink minimum, because I couldn’t afford more. We listened to the music and talked between sets, both of us relieved to get past the first date.

Things progressed, but then came the Sunday afternoon when we met for a walk. The day was hot and the North End lethargic. Should I tell you how being “hot” affects Anne, burning her pale blue eyes and wilting her enthusiasm? (Well, I suppose now I have.) We went back to her apartment where she appeared to tire quickly of my company. I was on my way to the door when, apropos of something, I uttered the phrase “when I was married.”

“You were married?”

I told her the tale. It took a long time. I highlighted the more intense events, Penny’s dramatic runaway, the confrontation with the psychiatrist who wanted to lock her and her married partner-in-escapism up in a psych ward. I acknowledged some of my own subsequent (and concurrent) peccadilloes, such as my failure to realize that the girl I was doing a thing with, as we said then, had become addicted to heroin. What “thing” did I believe I was doing if I failed to notice this elephant in the room?

I was wooing Anne, I told myself, like Othello arousing Desdemona’s sympathies with his war stories. Some role model. (I knew Othello, a voice whispered, and you’re not him.)

*    *    *

A couple of weeks later, I waited patiently in a bland administrative corridor far from the crises of Anne’s emergency room or the surgery wards, where I delivered medical orders and prescriptions and picked up gossip.

“What are you doing here?” Anne asked, leaving an unhappy meeting with a supervisor who was unable to find time for her until after her shift. “I told you not to wait.”

I made no answer. My presence was the answer. I was there because I was remembering how to be a human being. And because she was the one.

Though she had told me not to wait, she was happy to see me. We left the hospital together and, for the first time, ended up at my apartment. This was not a moment free of conflict and apprehension for me. I have already mentioned a few of this place’s special qualities, such as the absence of a bathroom or a phone. My apartment was on the fourth floor of a dark, damp, ancient building in an ethnic neighborhood with an Old World feel that was clinging to its clannish black-coated, black-veiled, foreign-film, urban-peasant lifestyle with its desperate, garlic-scented fingertips. The sixties never happened in the North End. A long-haired single male was unlikely to find anyone to rent to him, but for some reason an old building squeezed between banana warehouses was owned by an embittered Polish immigrant with her own hang-ups.

She rented me the place for very little. We got along well enough until Anne showed up in my life.

When Anne came to my place that first afternoon and completed the thirty-second tour the place merited, she offered no judgments though I could almost taste the blood from her bitten tongue. She stood in the doorway of one of the small, dark, unkempt rooms and said, “Is this where you sleep?”

Suddenly I realized that we were going to make love for the first time.

My eccentric bedroom space, however, presented a problem. The bedroom window, as it still embarrasses me to recall, lacked a curtain even though my windows and those of the apartment in the neighboring building were kissing-cousin close. The view from my bedroom window was what you saw in old, black-and-white movies set in atmospherically depressed tenements: another tenement. I lived in a noir.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost. And nobody in my life I felt I could ask. As the expression goes, you can either light a candle or curse the darkness. I didn’t even bother to curse. I changed in the dark and went to bed.

But now, finally, after a year alone in my dungeon, there was too much on the line.

“But what about the windows?” I asked, desperately. “I have no curtains.”

“We’ll just have to hang something over them.”

My god. A problem solved.

Instead of getting mad at me, throwing up her hands, storming out of the house in disgust at my inadequacy, telling me I was pathetic, or merely leaving in a dignified huff, Anne found some sheets and draped them over the windows so we could take our clothes off and go to bed together without fear of the world watching.

A revelation. An approach to life that challenged my hopeless embrace of misery by making things better. Not a world revolution, maybe, but a personal revelation.

After that we were an item, a relationship that punctured the shell of my obstinate self-defeating singularity. I didn’t get better all at once. I was often distant, grumpy, unresponsive to conversation, sleepless, dream-haunted. Anne’s old friends came to visit, but I withdrew into puerile silence. I didn’t want to share her attention.

But changes happened. Anne talked me into getting a telephone in my apartment, though the poor technician almost fell off the roof trying to find a wire to plug it into while some crazy woman screamed at him. “Oh,” I said, “you’ve met my landlady.” I got the phone so we could discuss plans (your place? my place? nobody’s place?), but it turned out I wasn’t very good at talking on the telephone.

Our relationship was not seamless. I did not realize how much younger than me Anne was because I found in her a maturity and responsibility I lacked. I had thrown away the need for those qualities when I jettisoned the ideas and values (or so I believed) of the conventional, middle-class world and assumed I would find somewhere else to live. Now that I had sunk those illusions and gone down with my ship, I did not find it easy to pick up the useful everyday real-world skills I had shoved somewhere into the back of my brain, like some abandoned needlework project left to get tangled up in a closet. My personality was buried under the old shoes in the back of that closet. Not only was I unable to solve the conundrum of how to cover my bedroom window, I slept without sheets because I did not wash clothes, except in extremis, and sheets were just too big a job. I did not buy anything I literally couldn’t do without, and that narrowed the field to food and cigarettes. I had minimal social skills and couldn’t get on with anyone who required a demonstration of them on my part. When I interviewed for a job, I could not think of any reason to offer why I wanted it except for a pressing need to pay my rent. The hospital personal director hired me while candidly predicting, “You won’t stay.” (Yes, but I hope to be vertical when I leave.) My minimal conversational skills did not include inviting anyone to my place because I was ashamed of it. I couldn’t picture abiding anyone’s company for more than a half an hour without withdrawing into a sullen silence, which limited my circle to those few “old friends” accustomed to my depression and strangeness.

So Anne’s ability to improve my performance in the basic area of sustained companionship, in addition to her demonstrated practical skills in areas such as washing sheets and installing them on my bed, established her in my reckoning as at least a peer. She wasn’t. She was only a year out of college.

Still, she had lived long enough in those youth-oriented days to have her share of relationship history and disappointing conclusions. As I was to discover when the time came, at least in my view, to take the next step.

*    *    *

We met at the end of an evening that we had spent apart in a coffee shop on Cambridge Street, midway between my place in the North End and the apartment she shared with roommates on Beacon Hill. The winds blew; the night was cold. City lights hid most of Orion, but I had seen its brighter stars when I crossed the windy desert of City Hall plaza, because nowhere in the city was the air colder and clearer than that expanse of empty pavement in front of the old town’s modernist city hall. Still, I took that walk gladly because something was on my mind.

“I think we should live together,” I said, sitting across from my salvation. “This figuring out what we want to do every night is getting me down.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” she replied at length.

I took a breath and drew on my deep experience of relationships.

“It’s natural. It’s what people do when they’re serious.”

I did have other arguments at hand. My domestic qualifications might not have shone in anyone’s first impression of that dump on North Street, but I was making progress. We now had sheets on my bed. I had given up smoking. The dirty foster-dog had gone back to its owner, an ex-girlfriend. (Anne was always delighted to meet my ex-girlfriends. They hung on the border of things, possibly because I was willing to take care of their dog or paint their apartment. Anne’s approach to ex-lovers was goodbye, good riddance, get out of my life.)

Some of my rusty life-skills, besides dog-walking and painting old apartments, were returning. I could cook well enough (rice and stir-fried vegetables) to keep two people alive. Anne was a vegetarian who did not cook often and at times appeared to subsist solely on bread. Besides, we had good times together. Stir-frying the stuff we bought from sidewalk vendors at Haymarket; going out somewhere inexpensive (such as to someone else’s apartment); walking back to her place; then having a little too much to drink before stumbling into bed together.

“I don’t want to rush things,” she replied.

I persisted, lowering my voice in the emptying cafe, muttering in a wounded, exasperated manner more to salvage my pride than to convince her, now that my bold proposal had apparently been rejected.

But Anne was talking to herself as well.

“All right,” she said abruptly. “But I never want to be in the position of having to divide up our things afterwards.”

I continued talking to myself, somehow having failed to hear the “yes.”

“Smile,” she said, with some exasperation of her own. “We’re going to live together.”

“We are?”

Later, much later, she told me she agreed because she was afraid of losing me.

I should have said, “I’m not like that. I’m faithful: like ice, like fire.”

Besides, I might also have said, “If we break up, you can have my things as well as yours. My ex-wife has already taken the good stuff.”

We left the cafe and separated for the night. She would be getting up early the next morning; I wouldn’t. We kissed goodnight on the sidewalk beneath invisible constellations.

I turned away and took a running step or two in the darkness. My heart leapt up.

*    *    *

It was the decision to live together that brought her parents up from New York City so we could eat together in a traditional Boston restaurant like the Union Oyster House and look at each other. All I could tell her parents was that I wrote poetry; I’d already quit the job at the hospital. The personnel director was right; but so was I, since I left with a lighter heart than I’d arrived with.

Oh and by the way, I’m not Jewish. We were all very cautious and careful and stepped lightly around one another, but I could tell her parents were kind people.

*    *    *

Committed now to cohabitation, we looked for an apartment in the North End, checking into any place with a sign out, and found a pretty spot on Copp’s Hill with the best of neighbors, a cemetery across the street. The landlady showed us the apartment, but then asked if we were married. We knew this could be a sticking point in old-country Catholic North End, but Anne said “no” without hesitation: to live in sin you must be honest. The landlady politely, but decisively, showed us the door.

We hadn’t even talked about marriage. Marriage was a serious step as I knew well, having already taken it once and fallen on my face. Who greased the stairs?

In Cambridge, where community standards were lower, we found a rare affordable apartment, a second story loft looking over a big front yard where the owner parked his enormous black shiny truck.

We lived happily above the truck in Cambridge. I collected unemployment (my favorite job), wrote poetry, connected with a group of other aspiring writers. We started our own “tabloid” lit mag published on newsprint. Liberating herself from the hospital, Anne was temp typing and applying to graduate school. Harvard accepted her, but UMass-Amherst came across with a better fellowship deal. When she took the better offer at an institution a hundred miles from Boston, I was faced with leaving my little poetry scene in Cambridge to follow her to the Pioneer Valley. Each twist in the road is a choice, a decision, a renewal of commitment.

We moved to Amherst and lived in the woods. Almost literally.

A year went by. Living, eating, washing the dishes. Getting excited over the scent of autumn in the air, the first snow, spring, the first flowers, conversations over books, movies, or newspaper stories in which we never precisely agreed but seldom seriously disagreed. Poking fun at one another’s foibles. At our own.

I found part-time work as a research assistant: a low-commitment opportunity that left a lot of time for long walks in the woods, followed by periods of notebook scribbling. Anne drove to the university (after I taught her how) and finished her course work in a year.

Things could have gone on this way. I would not have said anything was missing in my life. Money, opportunity, a career? I lived apart from the goods of the world—except, of course, for food, coffee, sweets, warmth, a roof over my head, books, and a warm body next to mine at the end of the day. Otherwise, I buried myself in words.

When the second autumn of our woodland idyll came, Anne said she had something to tell me. She was pregnant.

“When did we make this choice?” I asked myself. Now we had the conversations we should have had earlier, but they were tough and slow-going. I gave the wrong answer in one of these, or rather was unable to commit to any answer.

“Then I’ll have to get some counseling about my choices,” Anne replied.

The next time I was able to get together with myself, however–I mean with whatever it is inside of us we need to pay attention to and can sometimes hear if our inner ears are working–then the right answer was very clear. Very obvious. And felt good.

Did I want my life to go on just as it was? How long? Forever? Change nothing? Make no marks? Leave no footprints?

“We should get married and have the baby.”

Did I say it just like that? I don’t really remember.

Maybe she said it first and then I came to the same conclusion and thought I was the one who thought it up. Eureka! What an idea.

Life went on. You have made a decision. Your wife is pregnant. She discovers she wants to eat chicken, so you buy it, cook it.

Then one day you wake up before dawn and drive to the hospital. Something inexplicable happens—something totally unbelievable though it happens every day, all around you—and that changes absolutely everything in your life for about twenty-two years. Or, by another accounting, forever.

 

Robert KnoxRobert Knox is a husband, father, rabid backyard gardener, Boston Globe freelance writer, and blogger on nature, books, films, and other subjects. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary publications, and he was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. Recent publications include stories in The Tishman Review3288 Review, and An Earthless Melting Pot. His novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Suosso’s Lane, was published in October 2015 by Web-e-Books.com.