In the early morning, in the waning days of summer, the autumn air blasts in and causes steam to rise off the surface of the pool.
I say, “steam.” He says, “water vapor.”
I say, “Magic! Wonder!” He says, “Science!”
We mean the same thing.
Next month marks fifteen years of marriage for my husband and me, and I’ve been working on a special series in honor of all the Places We’ve Loved along this road together.
We found the ad in the classified section of the Sunday paper. As we planned the wedding and made a hundred frivolous decisions about it, this decision seemed to cement our life as husband and wife more than most. We found a place to live together, under one roof.
It was an old school building with hardwood floors and tall windows in every room. We had an intercom and buzzer to let people in the front door. We used to imitate Jerry and Elaine with the intercom. The kitchen was new, with corian countertops; the bathroom was old, with retro yellow tile and fixtures. The hard water dried out your skin and drove you crazy.
You moved in on my birthday, the same day my mother and sister threw me a bridal shower. I came home sweaty from helping you move to find tens of women dressed for tea on the front lawn.
The landlord was old school — so private and mysterious that we speculated about connections to the mob. We mailed our rent to him and hardly ever saw him. If we needed a repair done, it happened while we were gone.
We were often awakened in the early morning hours by the territorial cats around the trash shed outside. Their attachment to the address was explained when we learned that Connie, the elderly lady down the hall, fed them every few days. The carport was littered with cat food cans.
We affectionately called her “Crazy Connie.” She loved to listen to Jordan Levy, the local political talk show, and tell us who should get the boot in the city. The day they announced the rent increase, she called Jordan to tell off the landlord publicly. She used to talk about her husband, who we never saw. We thought maybe she was delusional — hanging on to a memory — until the day I opened the front door and there he was: a slight elderly man with steel-gray hair and a walker clutched before him. He walked the halls while we were at work to keep his muscles from deteriorating. We wondered how many cats they had inside their apartment.
Sometimes in the middle of the night when the cats were quiet, the window shades would let go of their lowered position and shoot up the length of the window with the sound of a gunshot. Adrenaline pumped through our veins and we prayed for rest to come after the jarring fright.
I burned up our first Christmas tree in the working fireplace in the living room. Looking back now, I see how that was a foolish decision. But the only time I set off the fire alarms was when I used the oven to season our “new” cast-iron skillet, the vintage one I bought at the Brimfield Flea Market.
The hallways were poorly lit with beautiful brass lanterns. The basement was terrifying. The two washers and dryers were in the best-lit room in the place, but they adjoined the storage rooms — a series of stalls with padlocks where the twelve tenants each stored their worldly goods. One had a painting of a black figure with a glowing red heart. It was life-sized and it seemed to peer at me while I folded. I knew the exterior doors didn’t close properly and I wondered who was hiding in the stalls. Eventually my fears caught up with me and I started using the laundromat.
On nice days, like my first Mother’s Day, we walked to Institute Park across the street or across the campus to Tortilla Sam’s or the Bean Counter. You took me to the Boynton and gave thanks that we were together, since you used to go there as a single grad student and wonder why you’d moved to this social wasteland.
On snowy days, you diligently moved and shoveled out our cars at various hours. You prayed the plow wouldn’t hem you in too badly. The ice became so bad in the deeply-rutted driveway that one tenant scraped off the bottom of his oil pan on his Mercedes. Serves him right, said Connie. He didn’t pay for that car anyway; his daddy did.
The neighbors had fierce fights — sometimes physical ones. One night it was so bad, I had my finger on the phone to dial 911. We heard the door slam and out he went. After that it didn’t happen again.
On December 3, 1999, we drove home on the highway and saw some firetrucks on the street below. The next morning, we awoke to the smell of chemical smoke and learned that six firemen had died the previous night. The city was quiet and grieving. The President and Vice-President came to town for the funeral.
The millenium came and went with much fanfare. We didn’t prepare (sorry, Dad). We fell asleep before midnight, figuring that we’d wake up with no power….maybe.
The next January, we drove the five minutes to the hospital in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday and welcomed our first child as the snow approached. He came home with us that Saturday at noon, as the new President took the Oath of Office.
When the spring came, heralded by the blooms on the trees in the churchyard next door, we had a deal on our first house. You had shrewdly talked our way into it, buying it from a friend with no realtors involved. We signed the papers on a Friday afternoon at a round table in a noisy corner of the courthouse. We walked home.
One of our family favorites is Garrison Keillor’s series labeled with the names of the seasons. A particular favorite is the
“Spring” collection, which contains the following piece entitled Letter from Jim.
The letter comes from a childhood friend who has recently turned forty. At the same time, he has lost his job and, out of desperation, taken a job for which he is ill-suited and overworked, for far less pay. He feels unappreciated by his wife and family. He befriends a younger woman in his office, and the opportunity presents itself for him to drive to Chicago with her for a weekend conference. He continues:
‘I thought, so this is what adultery is like: simple. I sat down in the front yard under our spruce tree and waited for her to pick me up.
I believe that men and women can part for many reasons, including the lack of love and appreciation. I left my parents for my wife because she appreciated me and they didn’t. Twenty years later, I sit in my own front yard, waiting to join a woman who appreciates me more. But in five years, or six, or eight, will I go to a higher bidder? What happens when I’m older and my grade falls? Who do I choose when I’m old and can’t run fast and nobody chooses me?
‘I sat there in the front yard and thought, so this is what adultery is like: it’s just horse-trading.
‘As I sat on the lawn, looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they would be no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gasses come out of the ventilators in the elementary school.
‘When my wife and I scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth.
‘If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard an intersection, and someone’s child may be injured. A sixth-grade teacher will think, ‘What the hell?’ and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, ‘What the hell? I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.’ Somehow, my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, ‘To hell with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday; it certainly can’t be any worse today.’
‘I just leave this story there. Anything more I could tell you would be self-serving. Except to say that we depend on each other more than we know.’