Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s been two weeks since my ad first ran in the newspaper: “Extra nice studio apartment with sunroom and yard. $500 includes utilities.”
“What’s ‘extra nice’ about it?” someone named Paula asks over the phone.I can tell she doesn’t want it. She knew she didn’t want it even before she called.
“Well, you really should take a look. It’s bright and cheerful. Good materials. Good workmanship.”
“And this is in a house?”
“It was added to the house about six years ago as the master suite. My wife and I needed a place to hide from her teenagers.”
“How many rooms?”
“Two rooms, one large, one small, and a full bath.”
“But the large room is small,” says Paula.
“About thirteen feet by eighteen feet.”
“That’s small. It’s really an efficiency, isn’t it?”
“I’m not sure, but I guess you can call it that if you want.”
“Sorry, I need more room.”
I am in the process of moving back into the house where my ex-wife and I lived before our marriage broke up. Today I’m putting out the garbage — mostly leaves from the backyard, freeze-dried turds left by the previous renters’ dogs, and a few rattling locust pods — when Kurt Weiss, the next-door neighbor, ventures out, bent over from scoliosis, hands joined behind his back. His face and head are extremely red, as if freshly burned. It’s been five years since I lived here, so it’s not likely he remembers me.
“Moving in, are you?”
“Yup, moving in again.”
“The other people moved away.”
I don’t know if he means my ex-wife and her kids, who stayed in the house for a couple of years after I moved out, or the various groups of people who’ve rented the place in the interim: the New Age deadbeats, into crystals and NFL football, who still owe me three months’ rent; the string of employees of the Wild Oats Natural Grocery, only a few blocks away, along with their friends and lovers and their dogs that clawed the doors and ate the windowsill. But what Mr. Weiss says is true, regardless of who he means. Everybody has moved away.
“I live here alone,” he says. “My mother died, poor thing.”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry.”
He retreats to his yard, stepping over the fallen Lombardy poplar that lies across the path to his door, as if he’s long since accepted the fact of its being there. The top half of the tree blew down in a windstorm two weeks ago. The rest of it stands dead on my side of the fence. It’s my tree, so it’s up to me to haul it away. I am considering cutting it up and putting it into bags for the garbagemen to pick up.
Before deciding to move back into the house, I was thinking about selling it and buying another, maybe in town, or maybe a little ways out in the country, and even got as far as asking a couple of real estate agents to be on the lookout for “depressed properties.” Having gone in over my head to build the addition, I couldn’t afford to live in the house alone. And I didn’t relish the prospect of living in the kitchenless addition while renting out the rest of the house, heating up cans of tomato soup on a hot plate and shouldering my laundry across a vacant lot to the coin-op on Cerrillos Road.
One afternoon, my friend Julie, who’d just moved to town and had never seen the place before, came over and walked through the empty rooms with me.
“This is very nice,” she said. “How come you never said how nice it was?”
The last tenants had taken everything except a bag of pancake mix, which they’d left in the linen closet, and the bamboo wind chimes hanging in the apple tree out back. Julie and I sat on the back step in the cold February sunshine, and she smoked while I told her the story of the chimes: They were a gift from Ania before we were married. She’d moved in here with me, but then suddenly had to go back home to Poland. We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again. So she gave me the chimes as a going-away present.
“Burn them,” said Julie.
I got a ladder out of the shed and unfastened the wind chimes from their tree branch. Some of the sticks of bamboo were missing, and the ones that remained had split open and were gray and freckled with bird droppings. I got some newspaper and gathered up cottonwood twigs from the backyard for kindling. Julie lit the fire in the fireplace. We stood in the chairless living room and watched the wind chimes burn down to ash.
It was Julie who came up with the idea of adding a kitchenette to the addition and renting it out so that I could live in the more spacious part of the house, with a real kitchen, three bedrooms, and a washing machine — instead of the other way around.
“You never thought of this?” she said. “Maybe you’d better give some careful attention to why you never thought of this.”
I called my friend David, an architect, and asked him to help me plan the kitchenette. He had originally designed the addition, and had watched me agonize over the decision to marry Ania and take responsibility for her two teenagers from a previous marriage. At one point, I was arguing with the city over a utility easement that stood in the way of the addition, and David said, “Tell Ania you can’t marry her because the sewer line runs too close to the house.” He drew up half a dozen floor plans and two complete sets of final drawings (the first was second-guessed by the builder), then made us a wedding present of the money I had paid him to do it.
Now David looked at the recess between the chimney and the bedroom wall, made a quick sketch, and handed it to me: a one-bowl sink and a two-burner cooktop over a mini refrigerator.
“The counter will be a little high,” he said. “Just don’t rent to any short people.”
Those who come and look at the apartment politely tell me what’s wrong with it, as if I didn’t know already: It’s small. (“Depends on what you’re used to,” I tell them. “I’ve practically been living in a closet for the past five years.”) It’s noisy. (“After a few days, you stop hearing the traffic.”) There’s no counter space, no oven, no washing machine.
I want to tell them the whole, unsweetened story. Right over here, on Cerrillos Road, you’ve got your Discount Tire. (Someone set fire to the pile of used tires a few years ago; it was really spectacular.) And over on the other side, Amigo Tire. Between the two of them, the air wrenches go all day long, six days a week. Directly in back, behind the fence, is the parking lot of the American Spirit Tobacco Company, with its newly installed icy blue security light that shines in your window at night, as cozy as the yard lights at the state penitentiary. (Before the light went in, two policemen on the lookout for a prowler caught me climbing over the fence in the dark to avoid taking the long way around, past Pawn City, Mr. Tax, Weight Watchers, and the Berean Baptist Church.) During summer cloudbursts, the cul-de-sac turns into a lake and can take a couple of days to drain. (Every summer it’s the same: I call the city. Three men come out, open the manhole in my yard, look down in there, talk it over, replace the cover, and go away.)
To the right person, I could unashamedly, even fondly, confide these details, the things that make the house and its surroundings familiar to me, and therefore a better place to live than somewhere unfamiliar. But the need to find a renter is turning me into someone I hardly recognize: a salesman, and not a very good one. When prospects call, I hear the note of apology in my voice, just as surely as I hear the skepticism in theirs. The really pleasant-sounding ones, I know without asking, have large dogs.
Jan seems promising. On the phone, she talks about things that might disqualify her, instead of things that would disqualify the apartment. She smokes, for one thing. Her world-weary voice, resigned, ravaged by tobacco, allows my ordinary, unapologetic tone to return. The other voices were too young. They were still expecting life to be extra nice.
Jan makes an appointment. She’s only the fifth person who has actually come to look.
“How do you feel about a cat?” she asks after giving the place the once-over.
“I feel OK about a cat. I’m not sure how my cat will feel about it, though. I suppose they’ll work things out.”
“Mine is an indoor cat, so that won’t be a problem.”
She’s not as old as she looks. She’s been weathered by disappointment, but softened, rather than embittered, by it. In this rounding off of the personality’s sharp corners, I like to think we are similar.
“It’s a clean little apartment,” says Jan.
“I’m only just starting to look. This is the first place I’ve seen.”
“I get the feeling that there’s a lot to look at right now,” I say, defenseless.
“It’s very nice,” she admits, “but I’m just getting started. You shouldn’t wait for me.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not waiting.”
I’m building a fence between what will become the renter’s part of the yard, on Mr. Weiss’s side, and my part of the yard, on Mr. Spring’s side. Mr. Spring, a retired bridge engineer, also lives alone; his wife died a few years ago. He has a dog named Mitch who fetches the paper every morning and barks feebly at me when I’m working in that part of the yard. The three of us — Mr. Spring, Mr. Weiss, and I — make up a little barrio of single men at the end of the cul-de-sac, vaguely aware of one another’s comings and goings, cordial in our relations, but not inclined to chat across property lines.
The new fence, made of vertical wooden slats, will enhance the pretense of separateness between my renter and me. It will follow the line of a wall that I knocked down right after buying the house, under the apple tree, where the bamboo wind chimes used to hang and perpendicular to the back wall, where my immigrant family and I watched the pile of tires burn at Discount Tire — the greasy flames, like a judgment, curling into the nighttime sky. A troubling thought occurs to me: over the years, I have been repeating myself, knocking down walls and putting them up again in the same place.
The fence breaks the customary flow of wind, creating a backwash in the corner. Other people’s trash blows in from Cerrillos Road and settles in its lee: Lots of fast-food wrappers. A couple of those insubstantial plastic shopping bags that always snag on the power line and in the branches of the apple tree. And the first page of a child’s dictionary. The word at the top of the page is abandon: “to go away from without intending to return; to forsake completely.”
A woman named January calls me at work to ask about the apartment. She has returned to the city recently, after three years in Montana on family business. I give her directions and permission to go in the yard and peek in through the big windows of the sunroom.
Late in the afternoon, she calls again and says she wants to look inside. She’s already done her snooping, so she must know how small it is, and she must have seen and heard the unceasing traffic on Cerrillos.
“I’ll be right over,” I say.
When I arrive, January and a friend have parked their Lincoln on the street next to the clogged storm drain and the black stain on the pavement where one of my renters used to change his oil. Mr. Weiss has already received them at the curb and told them that his mother died. The four of us stand in the street being neighborly. The fallen half of the Lombardy poplar in Mr. Weiss’s yard has not moved an inch since the last time he and I talked.
“The man who used to live here is moving in again,” says Mr. Weiss, meaning me. (I have yet to reestablish myself as a member in good standing of the cul-de-sac.) “The other people had dogs.”
January loves the apartment. Her friend likes it, too.
“Look!” rejoices the friend, whose name is Ivy. “Bookshelves! You’ll have a place to put your books!”
January wants to move in right away — like tomorrow. Only one thing: she has a cherry red 1972 Mercedes that she is reluctant to park on the street. “Any chance I can park her in the driveway?” she asks. “She’ll be a whole lot happier there.”
Julie, among others, has warned me about the dangers of moving back into a house where you lived with a former spouse — the feelings of loss and desolation that might be resurrected, regardless of whether the marriage was a happy or an unhappy one.
“All that history is still there,” she says. “You’ve got to change everything, make the place look completely different from the way it did when the two of you lived together.”
“What about my dining-room chairs? Am I allowed to have them?”
“Where are they?”
“When are you going to get them?”
“Soon. As soon as she agrees to be there and open the door.”
“No, call her up and tell her when you’re coming over. Do you want me to come with you? It might be a little easier with another person. Less chance of bloodshed.”
“No thanks. The blood’s already been shed.”
Ania and her children live in a rented house in Fairway Village. Despite the name, it’s not much closer to the golf course than it is to the sewage plant. She comes to the door in a bathrobe, her hair up in a towel. She’s thinner, if that’s possible. Wearier, too. Maybe just weary of me.
It’s been more than a year since I was last here, on a Christmas night. We had been living apart for a while, but we were still a couple. “Married on the weekends” is how a friend put it. After dinner, Ania said she had something to tell me. The two of us sat unspeaking at the dinner table for what seemed a very long time. I didn’t ask, “What is it?” I just sat there studying the wine-stained tablecloth, waiting for what I probably knew was coming, at least on a gut level, if not in any conscious way.
Finally, she said, “I fell in love with Lawrence.”
My first impulse was to correct her English: it might be better to say, “I have fallen in love with Lawrence.” We had been over the difference between the past perfect and the past imperfect tens of times, and she still didn’t get it. In the past perfect, the action was over and done with. But imperfect action had a continuing and vital connection to the present, which I knew was the case here: she had fallen in love with him and continued to be in love with him, at that very moment.
No matter how she said it, there was no chance of any misunderstanding on my part. “I fell in love with Lawrence” told me everything I needed to know or would need to know in the months to come.
Now she unties the cushions from the dining-room chairs, and I carry them out to the truck two at a time.
“Thanks,” I say on my way out.
“Sure,” she says.
I think, After all that’s happened, there must be something more to say. It’s raining hard. I’ll have to wipe off the chairs when I get home.
There’s a new restaurant called Mu Du Noodles a quarter mile down Cerrillos Road, where the Natural Cafe used to be. They advertise “Pacific Rim cuisine,” which confirms my faith that if you hold your ground and wait long enough, everything will come to you — even the Pacific Ocean.
It’s busy at the Mu Du. I sit at a table by the window and watch the traffic for a full forty minutes before the waitress comes to take my order. She has the wise countenance and warmth of a mother, a face that, for all its troubles — or perhaps because of them — can look directly into mine.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You looked like you were waiting for someone.”