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J e s s i c a E a s t o
House on
Aweekly insert of
publishedby the
HE HOUSE IS ONLUTTRELL, yellowpaint peeling. I
am not yet twenty-six. We have the first floor, and the
front porch, which is wooden and wide and will always
feel empty with our sparse collection of outdoor
furniture: the white-lacquered swing that hangs from
two lengths of creaking and rusted chain and the
charcoal grill. I knowthat porch-sitting is something of
a Southern clich and that James will always feel, for a moment at least,
foolishas he sips his sweet tea andlemonade andwatches the passersby, but
it feels good and right doesnt it? and we will swing away the nights,
regardless of our anxieties inthis newandunfamiliar place. Ive rarelyfelt at
home anywhere, but something about this old house welcomes and invites
me in. I look forward to coming home eachevening and noticing whichway
the shadows of our things bend and fall, according to the sun, the season.
The front door is a heavy, solid wood, and I keep an aerosol lubricant under
the kitchen sink for its aged and groaning hinges. The light switches are
neither expectednor convenient, andsowhenwe arrive after duskandhave
forgotten to keep on the kitchen light, we must pad through the long, dark
corridor and grope for the switch before we can see.
Because this will happen often, and because wed rather not waste the
energy, the practical thing would be to procure some kind of standing lamp
for the foyer, one that canbe easily turnedonfromthe doorway. Weve come
upwithtwogoodreasons toavoidthis: a) it wouldnt beanyfun, andb) there
The House on Luttrell
are nonearby outlets. If we must cohabitate withancient electrical wiring, it
shouldat least bea gamewithJames leadingthewayandmeclosebehind,
a finger hooked around his belt loop in anticipation of his sudden, sly stops
in the dark. An extension cord might disrupt the charming aesthetics of this
small alcove, with its chair rail separating the red oak wainscoting from
thick wallpaper, which is cream in color and embossed with a brocade
pattern. To the right hangs a large, rippled mirror in an ornate frame it
belongs tothe house, our landlordtells us. Inthe foyer especially, it is easy to
imagine that weve traveled back to a simpler, more romantic time, and so I
arrange candles onthe console table, next tothe immortal Christmas cactus,
a relic frommy grandparents first married year. Alas, James is convinced of
a fiery catastrophe, and the candles remain unused. Occasionally, when we
are rushing past inthe morning, James andI will catchour reflections inthe
mirror, holding ONeil, the escapist Maine Coon, and see a kind of distorted
and living family portrait (when we are together) or, perhaps, an alternate
reality (when we are alone). To the left of the foyer is a long front room
containing a set of pocket doors that leads toa dining room(whichwe use as
a study) that leads to another set of pocket doors and the kitchen. Together
with the sometimes-dark corridor, these rooms create a complete loop for
ONeil to runwhenshes feeling frisky or rawtowardthe wildlife that teases
her from just beyond the windowpanes. Because we feel bad enough
cooping her up in the house all day (she was declawed when James rescued
her fromthe pound), we keepthe pocket doors tuckedaway unless one of us
(James, usually) needs to close himself off in the study to work.
Unfortunately, ONeil dislikes closed doors and tends to pace and mew
when she notices her daddy is locked behind them.
The far wall of the front room boasts a row of beautiful built-ins, which
we have filled to capacity with our books. Most cherish their personal
libraries, but ours is particularly dear to me not only because it is
organized by color, but because James has written one of the novels, a green
one withgoldlettering across the spine. I spendthe better part of twoweeks
removing and packing away each dust jacket, stacking the spines into
color-coordinated towers, raiding used-book stores to fill in the gaps, and
finally placing eachvolume on the shelves, red to violet, like a rainbow, with
the bottom shelf reserved for grayscale. Though its heavy in greens and
blues, the whimsical effect, I must admit, is worth the effort. The windows
in the front room are tall and paned, with thick wooden casings and wide
ledges that perfectly accommodate the width of ONeils hunting haunches.
Inthe bedroom, the windowis without a ledge, andwe have pushedour bed
against it in lieu of a headboard. The windowfaces east, so in the mornings
we can wake and watch the sunlight creep fromour feet to our stomachs to
our chins. On the opposite wall hangs a large-format, aerial photograph I
took one winter froma Cessna while living in Chicago. Its black and white
and depicts the skyline and its buildings shadows, stretched and looming
over a frozen, snow-dappled Lake Michigan. Lake Shore Drive snakes its
way fromone edge of the photographto the other, awashwiththe pinpricks
of rush-hour traffic. The grid of streets and avenues yawns into the hazy
distance, which somehow, combined with the whitespace of the lake, both
diminishes and bolsters the stature of my windy city. Who cleared all those
streets of snow? Who thought to build this shore, strong enough to support
all that metal and thumping of feet? (Sometimes, before sleep, I imagine
chipping away the skyscrapers and concrete barriers to reveal its original
banks and bogs.) Next to the photograph is a door that, like the door down
the hall, leads to a large bathroom. Weve been told this entry has been
locked for years, the key lost, and so it is of no use to us save for the
opportunity it affords ONeil, perched on the clothes hamper, to paw and
rattle the doorknob each morning when shed rather we be awake than
snoozing. (On the weekends, successfully thwarted from sleep, James will
turn and suggest we drown out the racket.) The mission-style rocker in
that corner is the only piece of furniture James brought withhimfromNew
York. A woman, the one he left twice once for a writing residency at a
Chicago university and then, after a blustery interlude, for me made it for
himwhile they were still living together in Greenpoint. It is a dark oak with
an aniline leather back and seat. The chair arrived here in Knoxville a few
days after he did, and we moved it around the house several times before
James settled on this corner a most inconspicuous place for such a
beautiful piece where he sits with his large headphones and listens to the
universitys public radio station. James favors a local show about food and
farming (of whichhe knows a bit), andthe national programabout opera (of
which he knows nothing), while I nap, or read, or examine contact prints in
bed. We picked up the antique chest-of-drawers at a flea market in
Strawberry Plains, andthe hand-braidedrugcame fromEngland, a gift from
a friend whose aunt lives in Yorkshire.
I was alone when I was first shown the apartment, and the landlord
insisted he stay on the porch so that I might first explore each room
privately, and at my leisure. The house was empty, all light and air but for a
ladder, the foyer mirror and I stood in each doorway arranging all the
furniture I did not yet own. At the time, I thought often of wooing James
away from New York, but I wasnt confident, and so if the thought of
accommodatinganother personandhis cat crossedmymind, it was fleeting.
I did not stay long in a dogged attempt to trust my instincts though Im
sure the landlord wouldve let me spend a trial night (something Id done in
the past) on the floor, wrapped in blankets, had I asked. He is a very nice,
generous man, the kind one remembers to send a Christmas card long after
hes passed out of the rhythmof daily life. In the warmer months, hell leave
baskets of tomatoes on the porchfromhis garden, whichcontains exactly15
prolific plants. (James will cube the tomatoes with cucumber, the
windowsill basil, feta cheese, and we will eat this salad every day in the
summer, somehow never tiring of it.) And so I signed the lease that same
afternoonand returned at the end of summer withJames and the big Maine
Coon in tow.
Now the apartment is largely furnished with other peoples things (we
spent toomuchof our free time that first fall at antique malls andyardsales),
which makes each room feel lived-in and cozy, if not stolen. This idea, if
pondered too long, troubles me. (You never cared about taking other
peoples things before, James teases me.) The front-roomwalls continue the
wainscoting from the foyer, although, above it, I hang a few of my
photographs to distract fromthe less charming cracks in the plaster, which
branchacross the wall like ever-widening rivers. The plaster itself is a warm
buttermilk color that reminds us both of the dried bouquet we filched on
one of our late-autumn walks across the prairie reserve at the botanical
gardens. The wildflowers, liberated by Jamess pocket knife and now lost,
had layer upon layer of cream-colored petals that burnished their way back
to dark, hickory centers. Before he left Chicago, James and I often strolled
through those dormant, empty fields, our private garden it was easy to
forget that anyone else had ever stepped there. We never saw a soul, and,
once, despite the chill anddrawnto the groundby the allure of the illicit, we
had sex while all around us the persistent hush of tall, bending grasses
insistedthat we try our best tobe quiet. The sofa beneaththe photographs is
long, square, and made of a creaking olive vinyl that grabs your skin when it
sweats. InJune, July, andAugust, we will occasionally forget to avoidsitting
on it. Aseasoned quilt chest, a roadside find, serves as our coffee table. Near
the bookshelves weve placed a reproduction Queen Anne wing chair,
mauve, tufted, andwithmatching ottoman. Next to it: anearly-20thcentury
walnut Pembroke table, which we will say is period, if anyone ever asks. We
found it in a ragtag flea market booth. We didnt see a price tag, and the
woman who rented the booth informed us it was not for sale, at least not to
us. Sheheldagoldcompact mirror whileshespoke, and, withanimblehand,
penciled great, angular brows above her eyes. I think these necklaces, she
said, are more in your price range. This here tables the real deal. James
politely suggested that the table wasnt all that old or valuable, and asked to
see the furniture makers marks. The womans face collapsed (save for her
eyebrows) like a house of cards. Are you calling me a liar?
Of course not! I said.
Yes, said James.
Toour surprise, thewomanlaughedandsnappedthecompact closed. So
mythings arent worthmuchtoyou, she said. Well, take it! I lookedat James,
whose face betrayed nothing. Ill give it to you, she corrected, if you haul it
away today. I cant stand to look at it anymore. The galvanized serving tray
and the large white vase, emblazoned with the silhouette of a womans
profile, were bought at an estate sale in Kentucky. The cashbox woman told
us that her father had given the vase to her mother as a gift when they were
still dating. No flowers or nothing, she said. Just the vase. She asked if that
was strange. Askhimwhy he didit, she said, gesturing towardthe older man
sitting next to her. Go on. And so we did. I thought it would get me laid, the
man told us. And I was right. He was in love with her, corrected the woman,
as she stuffed our vase withnewspaper. Why give it up, then? we wondered.
The womanlookedat her father andsaid, I toldhimthere was roomenough
at my place but the old man interrupted: Who in their right mind, he said,
wants an ugly old vase with some ladys head on it? We didnt have an
In the middle of the study sits a long, wide table made of reclaimed
wood, which we use as a shared desk, a single plush chair on either side.
(Mine faces the windows; James cannot handle the distractionof blustering
leaves, bending grasses.) The wood is old railroad ties from a length of
abandonedtrackjust afewmiles southof town. I findthis bothromanticand
apt, as we both enjoy listening to the distant whistle of the freight trains as
they pass through downtown. I saw a flier for the service stapled to a
telephone pole near Worlds Fair Park. James was concerned about the
expense, but we drove the 30 minutes to visit the woodshop anyway. The
craftsman claimed he couldnt reveal how he salvaged the ties from that
particular length of track (Whose permission does one need to salvage such
materials? Or didhepull themup, bylanternlight, inthenight?), but assured
us it was legal. He showed us a few different styles of chair, a bench, a
bookshelf, and then a sample tabletop. I fell in love immediately with the
rustic look, the rough grain, the idea of owning such a thing a piece of
history, really. All we had to provide were our desired dimensions. James
thought weshouldsleeponthedecision, andsinceevenI hadtoadmit that it
was a rather large, unnecessary expense, we left without having placed an
order. In the car, James explained that we could find something similar
elsewhere for a fraction of the price. But not handcrafted, I reminded him,
and not made of railroad ties railroad ties!
I have friends who build furniture, he said. Theyd never charge that
Friends? I asked. In NewYork City?
Apause before: Yes.
Who? He said that it didnt matter, and I didnt say anything.
I think youve strangled the wheel enough, he added, gently. Its no one
you know.
And hes right.
We bickered the whole way home, and went to bed in silence. In the
morning, I found James measuring the study and jotting down dimensions.
He called the number from the flier, and, a few weeks later, the craftsman
arrived with our table in pieces, wrapped with burlap, in the back of his
truck. We helped him carry and maneuver the heavy tabletop through the
apartment, around our things, and watched as he attached it to the trestle
legs. We thanked him, and I insisted he take a basket of our landlords
late-season tomatoes for the road. The craftsman looked at me withsuchan
intense, peculiar expression, I wondered if I didnt have a wasp crawling
across my face. (Or is my breast exposed? I foldedmy arms over my chest, to
be sure.) The check will be fine, he said. And that was that. Its unsettling to
be perceived so acutely, particularly when you havent the faintest idea as to
what the other party saw. That night on the porch, I worried to James that
Id said something inappropriate, perhaps offensive. He doesnt even know
me, I insisted. James placed his hand on my knee. Maybe, he said, he just
really hates tomatoes.
Just outside the window, weve placed a birdfeeder that attracts, to our
tired amusement and ONeils wide-eyed chagrin, nothing but squirrels.
Aside from our library, this wall is my favorite part of the house. Its nice to
be reminded with the concrete, the tactile there comes a time when one
must learn to supplant certain insecurities, creeping and constant, with
other obsessions.
The recently remodeled kitchen is white, save for the wide-plank
hardwood floors, which run throughout the house, the butcher-block
countertops, and the basil, which spills from terra-cotta pots on the sills.
Someone, at one shameful point in history, painted over the pressed-tin
ceilingtomimicthoseornate, plaster ceilings of theEuropeanoldcountry. (I
oftenimagineremovingthepaint withchemicals, but inmyheart I knowthe
ceiling is forever condemned to be mere shadow of what it could be.) The
cabinets are also painted matte, and weve replaced the old hardware with
delicate, round glass pulls. Because there isnt much space, and because
wevecommandeeredthediningroom, weveattachedcastors tothebottom
and a piece of pre-cut quartz to the top of an old buffetalso painted white
andset it perpendicular tothewall, formingakindof make-shift breakfast
bar. (Sometimes, James will sit here to work and, from the front room, his
typing sounds like rainagainst the windowpanes.) There are four high-back
stools, metal and powder-coated. Also: an old silver trophy cup filled with
fresh flowers hydrangeas when theyre in season. Nothing in our house
looks modern, which, I suppose, is modern. Because it is timeless. In any
case, Ive been known to pause and comment on the contrast between our
thin, sleek electronics and the worn surfaces weve given ourselves no
choice but to place themupon.
nd so here we live, filling empty spaces: shelves, drawers, paper
(lined, photographic, electronic), walls, whole rooms, time.
Occasionally, when our minds feel too crowded and our rooms too
cramped, we venture out into the world. We often take the 20-minute walk
from our house to downtown during weekends or after work. We like to
glance into our neighbors windows. (I could easily be a peeping Tom, says
James. Im not ashamed to say it.) Next door live the Martins in a
neutral-painted bungalowwith bright red shutters. Their front roomseems
somewhat contemporary all clean lines and metallic accents a style we
canonlyassumeextends totherest of thehouse. BenjaminMartinhas steely
blue eyes, which match both the dcor and his disgruntled attitude toward
the mailman and various unwelcome solicitors, Jehovahs Witnesses and
Girl Scouts included. Across the street, another Craftsman boasts a front
roomwithaplum, mid-centurymodern, L-shapedsofa. It faces thewindow.
Ina, the womanwholives there, usedtospenda great deal of time tending to
her hydrangea beds, but one day she took a hatchet to the whole thing. Inas
husband decided to leave her for another woman, and this the violent
furrows, the pale, loose petals is how she expressed her grief. (Later, the
husband will change his mind, for the sake of the children, and Ina will ask
me tohelpher get the yardbackinorder before her sons birthday party, and
I will sit in a cold bath and decide then and there that Imtoo busy with my
own work to do it.) On the corner of our street and Third Avenue is a large
Victorian with two grandfather clocks in the front window. James insists
there must be a good reason for this a loved one in a different time zone,
for example but the hands (we confirmedone evening) are set tothe same
time. I prefer to think there is no reason, not for any of it. We take Fourth
Avenue to Central, which is lined with tired storefronts and industrial lots
and much gravel. Then we walk right under the rumble and shudder of the
Interstate, past the bus station, and over three railroad tracks before we
arrive at the cobbledstreets, brick facades, the bars andboutiques of the Old
City. Sometimes well stayfor adrinkor two, but moreoftenthannot weturn
upJacksontothe galleries, restaurants andtheaters of Gay Street. We spend
a good deal of time here or in Market Square at one of the outdoor cafes,
sipping a dry Merlot and watching the constant ebb and flowof activity.
At the beginning of one month, a stranger asks for my card. Toward the
end of another, a man approaches our table, saying my name, but I do not
recognize him. The diptychs, he says, aiming his beer bottle somewhere
further down the street, at the Emporium awhile back? He tells me that he
bought the one of the motorcycle looks like a rustedcorpse, he says and
hung it in the garage, where hes rebuilding a vintage Harley. You opening
anywhere Friday? Nope, I say, but Ill be out for the free wine. Well, he says,
maybe Ill see yall around. I try to catch Jamess eye, but hes looking down
at the napkin he smooths over his knee and doesnt see me. Oh, I say,
noddingacross thetable, hell probablybeat homeworkinghes anauthor.
Yeah? The manturns to James, who does look up. What do youwrite about?
I know James, who grew up, like me, not knowing the names of his
neighbors, will never get used to the familiarity of the strangers in this city,
but I amcharmed, and soon enough the man walks back to his own table.
James sips his wine and settles back into his chair. He peers across the
street. The air has a weight to it here, a stillness that it never had in Chicago,
like a light sweater best paired with a cool drink, or musing idle thoughts.
Often we invent aloud, in great and lively detail, the secret lives of those
around us, which isnt exactly the same as living out our own dramas, but
close. The street musician across the way, for example, is a geology
professor, no longer satisfied by rocks. The woman walking both her
Labrador and her child on leashes plots to snuff the creature (the dog)
before cancer does. This champion fly-fisherman, who moonlights as our
waiter, cannot tie his own flies and, therefore, no matter how many
competitions he wins, will always feel like a failure. James drains his glass
and motions to our waiter before ducking inside the bar to check on the
game. The empty seat makes me aware of my bulk, my breathing and the
others sharing drinks with ghosts. What mightve happened had I never
gone to New York? Perhaps my mind would never wander, wonder, in this
way had I never been the other woman, or had James stayed with me in
Chicago insteadof leaving to live withher. But those are not the decisionwe
made are they? and so these questions, they are not worth being
answered or asked, aloud and otherwise; I knowthis.
uring the week, I leave the house around eight and take the car to
work: I enjoy my day job, and the company of my colleagues
though, for the most part, I work blissfully, quietly alone. I have
time, and half of the railroad tie desk is perpetually covered in matte board
and prints. The office is not far, and, if not under deadline, I can come home
for lunch with James. I stand in the kitchen, stirring soup hes made and
listening to the news while he finishes upinthe study. This news programis
underwritten by a coffee shop that currently displays a series of my
photographs. I hear the radio say my name, and so does he. Out the window
ina far corner of the backyard, I see Gladys, our bored, blue-haired, upstairs
neighbor, watering a dirt patchthat one day James will help her make into a
garden. She has a habit of dropping what sounds like bowling balls on her
floor, our ceiling, most evenings around seven or eight. When I bring it up,
she smiles and tells me, not that shell try to be more quiet, but that I dont
look like I want to know what shes doing. What kind of rough and tumble
sex is she having? What kind of full-contact sport is she training for?
(Perhaps shehas aguillotineupthere, suggests James. Andwhat wehear are
the heads of her victims, rolling.) Once or twice, we made the exaggerated
motion to compete, but my cries of ecstasy broke quickly into laughter
something James has never been able to weather in bed. Our Gladys also
plays the piano quite beautifully, and since James and I figure these
contributions to our homes nightly squeaks and creaks cancel each other
out, we let it go. If only she might bump into the geologist-cum-street
musician and introduce herself. What beautiful music they could make
together, what dark rooms they could fill withtheir heavy, desperate noises.
If it werent for the radio and Jamess typing, this house would be silent,
which he prefers when hes writing. Because I do not ask and because he
does not tell, I dont realize that James sits here all day unfulfilled, toiling
awayat a bookhe will not finish. I donot believe himwhen, one night inbed,
he whispers that he doesnt wish to write a second novel I think hes
asking for my encouragement, my compassion, but he is only asking for my
ear. A week before he left for New York City, James asked me if I had
anything that I wantedtotell him. He hadsurprisedme withthe questionin
mybathroomwhileI was perchedonthesideof thetub, hardlywrappedina
towel, shaving my legs, and because I was afraid of what he might reply
lies I turned on the tap and told him no. Of course, I never intended to
break the two of themupwe hadspent the year convincing ourselves that
there was no other option, that he would be happier if he left when the
residency ended, and so I was perfectly willing to go on pretending that our
romantic feelings did not exist. (Isnt that, after all, what we promised
ourselves in the beginning, before the bed but after the bar, the bottle of
wine?) It was unnecessary, selfish, to say otherwise. But James understood
what I didnt want to admit: We were selfish, crawling beneath the sheets,
tangling our limbs, andso he turnedoff the tapandaskedagain: Why are we
doing this?
Because we want to.
Why do we want to?
And because I refused to recognize what he was asking me to say (I love
you, dont leave me), and because he could not bear to acknowledge what
those words, confessed or otherwise, meant or didnt mean, he quickly
dressed to leave and kissed me on the cheek.
For him, the days have begun to crawl. He spends much of the morning
staringat a blankscreen, a padof paper. Most afternoons, he runs toclear his
head. He reads books, magazines, the online reviews of his own
slow-selling novel. He works on essays and his column and pitch letters for
various publications. These words come more easily, but onlyjust. He cleans
for the distraction. He cooks because he enjoys it and because I could burn
coldcereal. Sometimes, his friends fromNewYork call, but they are no help.
They will tell him about new houses, marriages, babies, vacations. And
theyll ask if he misses Brooklyn. And theyll ask how his new novel is
coming along. Andbecause James wont be any more willing totell themthe
truththanmethat hedoes miss Brooklyn, that hehasnt touchedthenovel
in weeks they will congratulate him, and, nowthat its safe, inquire about
this exotic land the maps call Tennessee.
In New York, he moved at a ferocious pace. He worked on the novel
while studying art history at a prestigious university. But it was a summer
fellowshipat anartist retreat upstate that allowedhimtime enoughnot only
to finish the book, but to develop his burgeoning interest in agriculture. He
received aninvitationto help out at a nearby family farm, where he couldnt
help but think hopefully of Thoreau, or maybe Annie Dillard, and the
notorious secondbook. By the time I knockedonhis door, the first book had
been sold and hed just secured funding for an urban farm campaign for
at-risk youth in the worst South Bronx school district where a friend taught
middle school. But he was also on the outs with his girlfriend, staying at a
friends apartment until they workedsomething out, andthinking more and
more about me. On the long train rides back and forth from the Bronx, his
mind between worries about edits and the looming search for a new
apartment would wander back to my windy city, where we so effortlessly
met and parted. Because we had insisted on friendship, I knewmost of this
before I arrived. Inhis buildings stairwell, he wrappedhis arms aroundme,
easily, like nothing had changed. And maybe it hadnt. By the end of my
weeklong visit, he had bought the plane tickets. How rare it is for life to
afford a second chance, we told each other, a fresh start, take two. I told him
about the house on Luttrell, about how hed have all day to write wont
that be nice? about the mountains, the lush, vertical landscape, the slow,
warmafternoons that slidquietlyintonight. I never askedhimhowmuchhe
toldClara, what wouldhappenwiththefarmingprogramheworkedsohard
to build, if he would try to do something similar here, if he would miss all
those kids he taught to dig, sow, and reap.
James has lived untethered for most of his young-adult life. He bounced
from city to city, coast to coast, for various jobs and internships. He taught
English overseas. Twice. Like many people, he almost went to law school,
but decided he could settle for nothing less than a life dedicated to art,
literature, the land. James, more thanmost, fears mediocrity, but because he
knows that I cannot fathom he could write, could do, anything less than
brilliant, he smiles and accepts the unconscious, ever-present weight of my
expectations. He wonders if all hes done to get here, to this house, this quiet
andclutteredstudy, means nothing. He looks at me, at the six years between
us, and imagines he could have spent them differently so that, right now, I
wouldnt seemso much younger and farther ahead. When, at the end of our
first year, a national magazine features my work, he imagines tearing my
photographs fromthe wall bothhere inthe house andat the gallery. I have
anopening this evening, and thoughJames dapper, charming will go so
that I can linger in happiness, in achievement, hed rather stay home with
ONeil anda glass of Scotch, neat. Inthe foyer mirror, he adjusts his tie, andI
pin back a loose strand of hair. Dont be nervous, he says. Youre gorgeous.
He kisses my neck and, for a moment, he sees my Leica forgotteninthe rain.
He sees the confused faces of so many gallery patrons who pause politely
and sip their wine before shuffling frommy section of the white wall to the
next. These are secret thoughts. And he keeps them from me, because if
these arent the things one holds inside, he doesnt know what are. Hed
rather they just lift from his mind as easily as theyve settled, the way an
early-spring frost melts before full daylight, the way a sudden blush softens.
But there is another secret, one he cannot hide fromme, because at night
in bed, with a book open on his lap, with his eyes fixed on the page, I know
hes not reading. Hes not reading because his mind is elsewhere on,
perhaps, the woman who has been calling him at lunchtime. When his
phone rings, he goes into the study and, through the walls, I can hear the
excitement in his voice, the quick laughter. He could tell me who it is and I
could ask, but because we are both afraid of what the other might think, we
do neither. Instead, we feel for each other beneath the sheets. Instead, we
planadaytriptothemountains. Instead, hecloses thebookandturns out the
light, and I peer through this dark roomand try to make out the hard, sleek
lines of therocker inthecorner. ThewomaninNewYork, Clara, shemustve
known. She couldfeel it, too this tightness inher chest, that gravity of lies,
in all lifes common pauses: a blink, a swallow, the moment before sleep. In
this way, life beats on until, one Saturday morning when his phone rings, I
cannot take it anymore (You have a history! I reason. Dont lie to me!) and,
over a plateful of bacon, scrambled eggs, the cheese melted and laced and
clinging to the stoneware, his face twists into something close to anger,
closer still to disappointment. We sit there for a good long while. I dont
knowwhat to say, he finally concedes. Youll have to trust that I havent. He
leaves theroom, lookingwounded, andI stareat our plates of foodandthink,
not that you wont. Later, I apologize. Because there is no evidence is
there? theres no evidence either way.
Neil does not appreciate Jamess absence three days a week. She
wanders through the house mewing desperately until she happens
uponhim. Shut up! I tell her. Hes inthekitchen! Oneday, I openthe
front door to let her on the porch with us, figuring shell be so terrified of so
much wild, open space that she will turn to Jamess lap. I am wrong. She
bolts out of sight. James is livid. He yells her name and throws a bottle into
the recycling bin so forcefully that it breaks. You better clean that up, I tell
him. The collectors wont pick up broken glass. Shut up! he says. Just shut
up. And then he runs down the street after her. I cant help but wonder if he
would react as strongly if I just up and left, which I do, but only in search of
the cat. We never find her.
It occurs to the landlordthat he shouldsell the house. We come home to
a FOR SALE sign in the yard, and we wonder just when he was planning to
tell us. We wonder what will become of Gladys upstairs. Landlords are so
inconsiderate, I say crossly. But because thats not true in general, and
because it will never be true of ours, he comes over that evening toapologize
andbreakthesadnews. Hedidnt knowtheywereputtingout thesigntoday.
Our landlord wants to get out of the rental business and move West to
thembig mountains, he says, where its not so dang humid all the time. Did
you hear that, James says to me. He wants to sell the dang house. (The heat
rises inmy cheeks, andI gripthe crookof his arminwarning.) Imnot inany
kind of rush, our landlord continues, unoffended by or unaware of Jamess
mocking. Heleans ontheporchrail, sippingtheteaweveoffered. Whichis a
good thing to be in this market, he says. Cest la vie, what I say. We
understand, but we are not pleased. Later in the study, over beers, we devise
two plans: a) we could burn the place down, or b) we could move. Or, says
James, we could try to buy it.
Between the two of us, he says, we have a down payment. Easy.
I need another beer, I say. Do you want one?
I take my time opening the refrigerator, removing the bottle caps. Is
James serious? Could we buy a house this house! together? Should we?
It is just as difficult to imagine that anything would change as it is to believe
that anything could stay the same. I lean against the counter, sipping my
beer. Ive let too much heat into the refrigerator, and its cooling mechanism
warbles before settling to a low hum. It occurs to me that Ive been waiting
for this, this kindof reassuringandconcretegesture, for alongtimelonger
than I realize. But standing here in the dark kitchen, all of the options seem
equally distant and ridiculous. I will miss his tomatoes, James calls fromthe
other room.
Instead of doing anything, we do nothing. After the first week, we dont
even look at listings. And the house doesnt sell and no one comes to look at
it, so we come to regard the sign in our yard less as a reminder and more as a
lawn decoration. I ampromoted to associate photo editor, and James, at the
recommendation of a friend, starts volunteering at an organic farm just
outside of Lenoir City. They pay him in fresh-cut flowers and eggs, honey
andproduce, and, he says, inspiration. He calls the office fromhome one day
to tell me that hes just finished a chapter and that birds, whole flocks of
them, have finally discoveredthe feeder outside the studys window. (Youre
in my chair! I say. No, he says. Im standing Im taking a break.) When I
come home from work, hes writing at the desk, still streaked in dirt and
evaporated sweat and, not wanting to disturb himjust yet, I walk quietly to
the bathroom, where I draw a warm bath. When the tub is full, I return to
the study, this time inthe nude, andcoax James out of the study andinto the
bath. At dinner, he speaks of the farm, of rain, andvegetables ripening ahead
of schedule. He stands to refill his glass with water. Laurel says well be
digging sweet potatoes the first week of August, he says. Laurel is, or
becomes, something of a muse. She drives him back and forth to the farm.
Occasionally, she stays for a drink, and, while I am unarmed by both her
youth and her quiet confidence, I choose not to ask questions. Instead, I
understand. Instead, I pour her another drink. Instead, I inviteher todinner,
only to realize, with rising horror, that I we we live in squalor. I spend
the day hand-washing my grandmothers silver flatware and the crystal
glasses, which we keep in view on open shelves but rarely touch. James
dries. I dust andpolishall thewoodandcleaneachtall window. James, at my
direction, sweeps under the olive sofa. And he runs the broom across the
edges of the ceiling. We clear my clutter from the railroad tie desk. We
straighten my photographs. To our surprise and delight, Laurel brings the
same craftsman who made our shared desk (we eat on it now, because there
is no roomin the kitchen) as a date. His name is Shane, and, after we eat, he
turns to me and says that I amwrong. He never looks at strangers in disgust.
And he loves tomatoes. He repeats himself, earnestly, though what I see in
his face is neither sincerity nor embarrassment. Its offense. And diplomacy.
It could be true that I misread his expression that day, but I want to tell him
that, regardless, what we feel is never wrong is it? and its no ones fault.
Alas, this isnt the kind of discussion for the dinner table. I see that James
wishes to change the subject, andso Laurel, I say, howlong have youbeen
working at the farm?
This is my third semester, she says, glancing at Shane.
Mmhm. She sips her wine. Its kind of like a practicumfor my degree.
Your masters?
She laughs and between bites of the chocolate cake she brought,
Laurel would like to know how old I think she is. Later, in the bedroom, I
brush my hair, and I knowthat, for once, this isnt an issue of trust I only
wish James was motivated as much by me.
here is a void in our life, and her name is ONeil. And no amount of
my apologizing will bring her back. (Its not your fault, James tells
me. Shes punishing me.) We miss her weekend wake-up calls. We
must start settinganalarm. We continue invaintosearchthe neighborhood,
calling her name, but no mewing Maine Cooncomes. None of the neighbors
have seen her when we knock on their doors, but their brows shoulder our
sorrow, andtheir heads bowwiththeweight of our hopewhenweaskif they
could please, please keep an eye out for our precious little kitty.
My parents come for Christmas and unload one gift after another. For a
moment, we arent sure if the parade will ever end. When my father
discovers that we dont have a real tree, just the cheap, plastic, table-top
kind, he is deeply offended. What kind of girl did I raise? he says and eyes
James suspiciously. His disappointment upsets me. Is he serious, James
whispers into his shoulder as we hang their coats in the closet. Your dad
thinks its my fault. Yes, I say ruefully. I told you we shouldve gotten a real
tree. Despite our unsatisfactory holiday dcor, we have a lovely evening. My
father has brought poker chips, a favorite game of his, and his newest
homebrew, which James enjoys and asks himabout while I shuffle and deal
the cards. My father explains something about an orange peel, and my
mother looks at me from across the table with an approving and knowing
smile. All they have ever wanted for me is happiness. Many parents say this
and really mean monetary success, but, from the mouths of my parents,
Ive always understood the phrase at face-value. They are absolutely
glowing, and, in response to their pride and their joy, the darkness outside
presses against thewindowpanes until wecannolonger makeout thefences
and trees beyond our own reflections.
Jamess father is here for NewYears, and we host a small, neighborhood
party. Everyone is here: Ina, the young wife (though she arrives without her
husband) with the L-shaped sofa; the older man with the two grandfather
clocks; the Martins even steely eyed Benjamin, who quietly follows his
wife around the room. Gladys is not present, for she has already heeded the
warning of the FOR SALE sign. We are careful to sidestep the subject, even
when someone brings it up, which they do because they are neighbors. Ive
never met Jamess father, and so Im surprised when he pulls me aside and
asks for the young, blonde womans name. Thats Ina, I tell him. Ina
Reynolds. I wonder what makes her so sad, he says and chews one of the ice
cubes fromhis glass. After a moment he adds that she is exactly the kind of
woman youd want to, as he puts it, split in half. James sits across the room
chattingpleasantlywithMr. Cope, the manwiththe twograndfather clocks,
but Im able to catch his eye and mouth, I think your father needs another
drink. Benjamin Martin spends a good deal of time examining our
color-coordinated library and stops us to compliment our aesthetic efforts.
Also, he would like to borrow a book. Of course, we say. We are even more
surprisedwhenhewalks directlyover toJamess bookandplucks it fromthe
shelf. This onewill do, hesays. Hetucks thebookbeneathhis armandsettles
down into the wingback. There, he takes in our room, our party, with a kind
of contentment that says, I know you think I am a mean man who doesnt
thinkor care about the same things that youdo, but youhave misjudgedme and
I forgive you.
Ina sits in the mission-style rocker, which we have dragged in from the
bedroom for extra seating. She touches my arm as I pass this chair is
beautiful, she says. Where did you get it?
Oh. I pause. James brought it with himfromNewYork.
Gosh, she says. NewYork City!
We both hear the whip of a tumbler sliding across some surface before
that quick, pregnant second and the inevitable shatter of glass. Jamess
father stands at the helm of the railroad tie desk, looking guilty. I was only
playing bartender, he says. Only there wasnt anyone on the other end to
catch it. I apologize to Ina, who sits, rigidly now, in her chair, before
scrambling to the kitchen in search of towel and a broom. No one come in
here, instructs Jamess father. Theres broken glass.
James serves another round of appetizers tomato-avocado toasts,
which, thankfully, everyone seems to enjoy. Leah Martin, who has taken
over as DJ, plays anoldLeonardCohenalbum, andMr. Cope asks his wife to
dance. James whispers that he wants to resolve the mystery of the clocks,
but I beg himnot to.
And not soon after, James walks in on his father in the bathroom with
Ina something that he waits a week or so to share with me, though I do,
then and there, take note of Inas hasty and sudden goodbye.
I lose trackof time, andits only whenpoor old, polite Mr. andMrs. Cope
get uptoleavethat wenoticetheclockat all. Exactlymidnight. This signals a
mass exodus, and we are startled by a pang of clarity: We dont very much
know our neighbors, and they dont know us. We say our goodbyes and
exchange pleasantries we should do this again soon and yes, yes we had a
lovely time and, after our guests file out and the door is closed and only
Jamess father is left, we beginto gather: glasses, plates, bottles, the napkins,
the extra seats. We arent tired so much as spent, and a little sad. Jamess
father says goodnight before the first glass is washed. James thinks to stop
him, but he says hes already called a cab. And just as I wrap the last of the
leftovers for safekeeping, James notices that a note has been slipped under
thefront door. His eyes flickquicklybackandforthbeforehehands it over to
me. The note is written in thin, loopy letters on lined paper and reads: I
thought you would want to knowthat your cat was hit by a car and killed. My
deepest sympathies. It is signedAnonymous. James tells me that hes going to
bedandtothrowthenoteaway, andI saythat I will. Instead, I slipit between
the pages of a book on the shelf and sit up as long as I can before falling
asleep on the olive sofa.
n Ohio, there is a retired couple who wishes to renovate our home.
Theyalsowant tobuyit, our landlordtells us. Fromthe foyer we lookat
him, framed in the doorway, and regret our indecision. Sensing our
panic, the landlord explains that this couple has generously agreed to let us
continue living in the apartment after closing. But, of course, its not that
simple. In exchange for a fewmonths time, the retired couple would like to
keep some of our furniture: the railroad tie desk, the breakfast bar, the
strange olive-colored sofa. We have good taste, they say. This is out of my
hands, says our landlord, zipping up his jacket. He says, This is up to yall. I
find myself unable to speak and so James says, Well need to think about it.
When the landlord leaves I turn to James and say, But those are our things. I
love our things. He points out that we canget newthings, and that I canlove
thosethings, too. Becauseit saves us frombeinghomeless, andbecausethere
will be very little furniture to move, he thinks its a win-win situation, but I
cant help but think the retired couple is taking advantage of our
predicament. What about our desk? I ask. The railroad tie desk!
HowlongdidI knowJames? Its adifficult questiontoanswer because
our perceptions, bothof time andof people, are not so clear or linear as wed
like tobelieve. Sooften, it seems, we are looking at eachother throughpanes
of glass with all the fear and thrill and hopefulness of a lonely peeping
Tom. And perhaps, too, the projection. Behind one pane of glass my father
rests in an armchair and watches baseball, the neckline of his t-shirt pulled
up over his nose. Behind another, a man sits across fromme in a coffee shop
doing the same thing. Only its James. And instead of baseball, its a book.
And what he says to me when he looks up and notices my gaze makes it
easier toimagineworkingthis dead-end, officejobfor at least awhilelonger.
Behind another pane of glass, I attend a party with him and his writer
friends, expecting something new and exciting. Instead, I feel alone and
drink too much so that he must drive me back to my apartment and draw a
warm bath (my embarrassment is not more crippling than the gin) to settle
my head and soothe my stomach. When I then vomit into the water, he
cleans me up and puts me to bed and it occurs to me that never, in my adult
life, have I had so little left to bare and, because of this, I do not expect to see
himagain. But inthemorninghes here, andhes handingmeaglass of water.
Behind another, we visit an open house, and the real estate agent busies
himself with other prospective buyers while James and I sit in another
couples bedroomandadmit the things we couldnt say to eachother behind
our owncloseddoors. Beforewedothis youmust, I say, tell methetruth. But
instead of the confession I expect, I hear James say that he fears hes a
failure, that its painful for himto support my successes, that he worries hes
madethewrongdecisions. I turnaway, towardbirdsong. Here, onadifferent
day, lookingthrougha different window, I might have made excuses, offered
my patience andcompassion, but today I canhear only insult, andall I feel is
hurt. Despite the intimate nature of this room, we are still inpublic, and this
conversation will not end here. And so we go on living in our apartment.
Until the day comes whenwe must start filing all our possessions into boxes
andbins. We sit cross-leggedonthe floor, packing upthe books, dismantling
the rainbow, when James discovers the note concerning ONeil and her
untimely death. He slips the folded piece of paper back into the book and
asks me why I kept it when he told me not to. Its like you try to hurt me, he
says. This is wheretheglass shatters. I askhimif hes capableof beinghonest
with me. Then I stand up and ask if theres ever been a time when hes been
honest with himself.
I ambeing honest, he says. I told you that you hurt my feelings. Isnt that
what you want?
Because it is not what I want, and because he will never give me what I
want him I say, This isnt working, is it? And from there we pack our
things into separate boxes, the his and the mine. Soon, the bookshelves
are empty and the apartment, understanding what the future holds, steels
itself against abandonment by growing cold before we can manage our
goodbyes. The silhouette vase looks foreign and resentful. No one, not even
for a minute, the Pembroke table seems to sneer, ever thought I was anything
other than a reproduction. And the sofa says, I never liked you anyway. And
wheneverythingis off thewalls andour dividedpossessions packedintoour
cars, weleavethehouseonLuttrell andall thefurnituretogather thedust its
newowners will polishaway. I drive just a fewblocks, to a small brick house
draped in ivy. James drives farther, to his hometown of St. Louis.
Through one pane of glass I see us standing on the sidewalk in front of a
house on a tree-lined street. Come here and hug me goodbye, he says, and I
realize that hes hurting, too, and that maybe this is the wrong decision.
Throughanother paneof glass hesits inmyapartment inChicagoandasks if
hes a bad person. And through another I see that the new residents have
moved into the yellow house and construction has begun. They rip out the
oldelectrical wiring and, withit, the romance. Eachpiece of furniture wears
a sheet of plastic to protect it from the dust of demolished walls. A new
staircase goes up, connecting the bottom apartment with the top and
returning it to the glory of its original, single-family days. One afternoon, I
see the old chest-of-drawers by the side of the road, with all its legs broken,
and I fear for the safety of my railroad tie table, all the nicks and notches
fromall the steel and wheels that weathered the weight of those of us trying
to take something of ourselves from the last place to the other. On another
pane of glass, I knock, andwhenanolder womananswers the door I explain
that I used to live here, that we traded our things for more time, when time
wasnt what we needed. She pulls her lips tightly into something of a smile
and says, Imsorry dear, but I dont knowyou. Now, whatever it is youre
selling, were not interested. Please, I say, Ill pay you for the table.
ometimes I walk down Luttrell and pass the house that now boasts
new, white-vinyl siding, and I think of the long, dark corridor, and of
theprettypocket doors, andof thewhitekitchenwithsofewplaces to
sit, andof thecreaks andsqueaks andguillotinenoises inthenight aboveour
heads, andthe rainbowlibrary, the chalkboardwall, the greenbookwiththe
gold lettering that read For Jane or For Me, and the guests who were family
and those who were not, the guest who knew we hadnt liked him, and the
guests who hadnt liked us, and the cowardly neighbor who killed our cat
andcouldnt tell us, andof our poor MaineCoondeadandruinedintheroad,
the click-click-click of typing fingers that sounded so much like rain, and
ONeils pawon the door knob urging us not to sleep, and of Jamess secrets
and howit was discovered that, for different reasons, we never could come
to trust each other enough. And of our flea-market adventures, the foyer
mirror that warped our faces, and the young students who played a trick on
their teacher, and the geologist who looked so sad playing his guitar, and all
the nights we sat rocking in the swing on the porch, and the craftsman who
saw straight through me, how James sliced tomatoes and how he cleaned
the house, howLake Shore Drive was but a ribbononour bedroomwall, and
all the flowers that were beheaded at our heartbroken neighbors hand. I
think of the peeling yellowpaint, and of howthe sun shone in the windows,
the birds who finally came to eat, and all our things I could see and feel and
hoped meant something more than what they did, and of our walks
downtown, andour bodies beneaththesheets, themuseI knewI wasnt, and
the landlord who kept us always in fresh produce, the radio that said my
name, and the man who tried not to listen and if its true that most of us
enjoyrememberingas muchas living, thenI believe the manwhowrote that
when speaking of the past, we lie with every breath we take.
Jessica Easto is originally from North-
west Indiana and attended college in Ten-
nessee. She will receive her MFA from
Southern Illinois University in May. She can be
contacted at j
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