The cool darkness of the old back hallway. Carpet feet, light falling in silver.
The green out the side window and the olive bending tenderly over my front window.
In the backyard under the maple spreading each of her red-green hands over me, a red-green net against the hot-oven sky. Stretched out on an Adirondack chair watching the dark-green pool send slivers of sunlight up to the leggy pears.
The dry heat warming my thighs under my book.
Hot tomatoes ripening in the sun, a scent too big for their tiny red cuteness.
As twilight falls, the cooling like you only get in the dry. Some stars coming out. Windows open to the crickets, the fireworks of early August.
Now rather than heat hanging in greenest green trees, it’s fog rushing adrift overhead. It’s yellow grasses waving east, billowing and ragged like the ends of my hair after nine months without a haircut. Other plants are bulbous and Seussy. All of them make an alien impression no matter how many times I see them.
Cold breezes through the windows. Water rushing frigid over my toes washing the sand off.
The sand shining like flecks of gold, like motes of onyx. The beach strewn with endless kelp and weeds, as though the ocean herself had a nice haircut and strewed the leavings on the shore.
Birds soaring in grouped Vs, then bending their wings into a V to soar into the greygreen surf.
These days I write a lot. There are various journals for various purposes. This is sort of one of them. I often find myself in the middle of an entry writing: “I don’t know what else. I don’t know what there is to say.” But there’s always more, eventually.
And other times, there’s just the horizon and the teacup in my hands, and sitting rather too far away from the people you love best in the world.
You may be shocked to hear that in the middle of the month that is in the middle of the summer, in a neighborhood once noted for its swampiness in a city that it is often (technically inaccurately, but spiritually correctly) noted for being built on a swamp, in the middle of a coast known for stifling summers, during an unprecedentedly hot moment in the Holocene era, it is hot.
I ought to have adjusted by now, but I haven’t. People who have lived here their entire lives assure me that adjustment is physically impossible. It makes me wonder how people have lasted here for so many centuries, and also if this explains the constant attempts at vehicular homicide to which I am witness.
Today in between near crashes, I drove down a street named for a building that sits like a mountain in its center. The building is white. Its most megalithic part is made of cast iron designed to look like the white stone that supports it. I can only imagine how hot it would be to the touch. From a mile or so away, I saw the heat dancing in front of the building, or maybe it was the thick dampness of the atmosphere, dancing like candlelight.
It is natural for any living creature to grow languid in times like this.
We just came back from a short walk, a familiar figure-eight loop through the neighborhood on streets that have the biggest trees and the most little free libraries. (A frequent appraisal of little free libraries is a great way to psychoanalyze the area.) I saw my first cicada up close. It was making enough noise for the whole city block from a body no bigger than a flash drive, disguising itself as a spot of dark on a birch tree.
Later, a woman flagged us down from her porch. She needed Ian’s help moving a package inside. “I’m 99 years old and I live alone,” she said. We wondered how long she’s been in that house. Who she knew growing up. Her place did not appear to be air-conditioned, which is perhaps why she was on the front porch. I am not strong enough to live that way. I need frequent lie-downs even in the climate control. I am worrying about her and will probably continue to. I hope she has people to look in on her, but failing that, I hope she is able to flag down walkers when she needs something.
Walking outside on days like these, sweat can fall like tears streaming down the forehead, running rivulets of sunscreen moisturizer into the eyes. It is impossible not to become thoroughly bedraggled, which is at odds with how I always expect to look during summer (easy-breezy in a sundress).
Outside on the new patio, the plants (formerly houseplants, now potted outdoor plants; some of them are protesting this change more than others) sway in the hot breeze. Their leaves are both dancing and wilting at once until the shade falls on them. They seem to breathe a little sigh of relief.
It is a minor affliction compared to others, but recently I’ve been getting heat-related migraines frequently. Much like someone with a case of the vapors, I must treat myself gingerly, not ask too much of my body, not exert myself in any heat, water myself like a finicky houseplant. To my shock, though, I have been finding that I miss real exercise, which has become basically impossible due to the heat outdoors and the treachery of the virus inside any gym. So I decided to follow along to dancing videos on YouTube, inside in the air I am grateful I can keep cool. Yesterday while doing it I couldn’t stop laughing, waving my arms like a leaf blown by a chaotic breeze.
Yesterday I locked the door for the last time on my apartment. It was the place I’d lived the longest since I left my parents’ house at 17 to go to college (a relatively paltry 26 months).
The place was spotless, and it was no longer my home.
An anecdote: I moved to DC just about four years ago into an apartment in an L-shaped building. I lived at the tip of the short arm of the L. For various reasons, a year later, I moved into a unit near the crook of the L. For other various reasons, nine months later, I moved into a unit halfway down the long arm of the L. Now, I have moved to an apartment at the tip of the long arm of the L. How to extrapolate where I’ll go next? Will I be flung off the long arm? Whither?
When I lived in the apartment at the crook, I had a commanding view down over the interior courtyard and over the city blocks beyond. There is an apartment with an oversized patio at the top of the long end of the L. While I looked down from the crook, I sometimes saw the woman who lived in the apartment with the patio sunning herself. She was pregnant. She would lie on her outdoor couch and rotate herself, her belly gleaming with sunlight.
The next time I looked down on them, from the place I stayed for 26 eventful months, she was holding her baby.
That’s my patio now.
I can be a little philosophical about it now, because I’m sitting in a room that has been unpacked. I feel calm and in control of my life. This is very unlike the state of mind I have been in for the last four days, and which I will continue to be in as boxes and furnitures need moving. As the floor becomes inexplicably dirty (do I exude these particles from my feet? How else to account for it?) As I find, at the base of bag after bag, bizarre little trinkets I need to meditate over for ten minutes before I can convince myself to be rid of them:
Take, for example, a keyring I found. I don’t know when I acquired it. It must have been a gift. It is a gleaming hematite finish, and it has the Cal logo on it. It’s a nice-looking keyring.
I have a keyring already. I do not need another. I do not need to add weight to my keyring by adding this one. I do not know anyone who needs a Cal keyring (although if you do, fair reader, please let me know very soon). I should get rid of it.
I could put it in the bottom of a different bag, with different random items, and surely someday in the future I will find a use for them.
Surely I will not, next time I move, curse myself for doing this time after time. No, this keyring is unlike all the other knickknacks and old papers and broken pencils and unclaimed spare keys that I’ve hated lugging around in the past. This keyring is something different: a potentially useful object. There is no worse sin than to purge a potentially useful object.
Look at this scarcity mentality that demands I shove these potentially useful objects into the backs of bags in drawers. It bears no resemblance to the reality of actual abundance around me. There are keyrings aplenty if I need them. And next time I need a keyring, am I really going to go searching through all of the bags full of potentially useful objects? Do I even remember that such bags exist, when it isn’t currently time to miserably move them place to place? Sadly not.
So hold me accountable to this next time: I’m changing my ways. I’m saying goodbye to items that once served me and no longer do. I’m going to haul less out of this place than we just hauled in, or else I’m coming out feet-first.
And to you, empty room, I say: thank you for the last two years. Good luck with your new folks.
I really want to go somewhere right now. Basically anywhere.
Alas, we cannot.
Instead let me take you on a tour of the apartment complex. And I’ll tell you about Mary,* while we’re at it.
As you get close to the building, you’ll notice a certain wildness on the sidewalks. This block has been described, not at all accurately, as the Times Square of this otherwise subdued city. There are lots of people milling around, hanging out in biggish groups despite everything, and engaging in all kinds of commerce. Sometimes there are other gatherings, too: book sales, religious revivals, heritage festivals, ad-hoc playgrounds for children, farmers markets,** etc, all happening in front of the more traditional commercial storefronts (your cellular companies, your ice-cream parlors, your nail salons, your fried chicken, your megabank).
The first thing that struck me about this place was the greenness. Remember that one afternoon hugging the bluffs over the Potomac in late July when I was 24, how green it was? I imagined God creating this place in a frenzy:
This is where He smashed His hands on the keyboard that is GREEN, playing all the notes at once and letting a thousand shades explode all over the trees.
But I can be so grateful for the trilling birds, for the bee upsetting my earbud in a mad dash for my brain.
For the flowering trees pink and white and raspberry-yogurt color against the bluest sky.
The clean breezes.
The quiet smiles of people reading a newspaper on the porch swing. Delivery workers gently maneuvering hand trucks laden with what we need to keep us all afloat.
For shy buds spreading their fingers in greybrown woods to stretch their green skin out against the sun for the first time.
For drops of rain on tulip heads. For babies screeching in sheer joy.
For the sweet salad smell of wild onions rioting through the forest.
For the cool, mournful smell of city gardens after a thunderstorm.
For a birthday party taking place on a stoop and spreading out into the street so that clusters of guests can give each other a six-foot berth. Balloons spelling out a golden HAPPY BIRTHDAY across the awning. It’s almost normal and it’s happening right here.
For birdsong at the open window and the four or so walls that keep us safe and together.
Here’s the irony about this fixation on places: so much of my time is spent in the great nowhere/everywhere that is the inside of a modern apartment with an HVAC system and the Internet.
On top of that, my current dwelling, although very comfortable for my needs, is a gentrification fever dream. How it feels to live there; the walls and pavement that line it; most of the people who now walk their (many) dogs and (far fewer) human children around it—none of these meaningfully existed fifteen years ago. It’s been terraformed of the whole cloth of long-term neglect. The neighborhood got a new name to anoint its rebirth, its entry into the witness protection program.
Living in gentrified space like this can feel like a grander version of living inside with the HVAC and the Internet. It’s a way to escape being somewhere. A way to escape being anywhere at all.
On the other hand, my search for somewhere feels as though it’s all about dirt, trees, bricks, mortar. A place that is not just anywhere. An idiosyncratic place. One on which I can have an impact, and it on me.
There’s a theme in my life: the search for a place. Or a sense of place, at least.
I’m always thinking about where I’ll be when I finally land where I will be. You see the problem: this is inherently circular.
Where will I be when I’m there?
There, I guess.
But where is that?
Where I’ll be.
I long for it. I get wistful walking through pleasing neighborhoods. When I like one particularly I visit it frequently, lurking around with longing. Most recently it’s the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of DC, which occasionally still gets away with styling itself a “village.”
It’s leafy. That’s the major thing. I think I could thrive anywhere if the trees are big and green around me. And it has that lived-in feeling, especially right now when the weather is abnormally good. It’s all people gardening, sitting on stoops drinking iced tea and shouting kindly with their neighbors from a safe distance. There are lots of Little Free Libraries, which I’m getting better about not automatically laying hands on. And I imagine the insides of the houses: tasteful art, comfortable couches for reading in, dappled natural light from the backyard, which I imagine is similarly leafy and has great places to sit as warm twilight comes on.
It’s not even so much that I want to be there; it’s that I want to be the kind of person I imagine I would instantly become if I were there. Relaxed, capacious. I’d read during the daytime, rather than just for five or ten minutes with eyes half-closed at bedtime. I’d probably know my neighbors, invite each other over for tea, that kind of thing. I’d take up crafting.
Why this longing? I’ve moved a lot over the last 14 years, not only between apartments but also states, from coast to coast and halfway in between. Depending on how you count, it’s somewhere between 16 times (unique top-level street addresses) and 25 times (every time I moved all my stuff from one room or apartment to another). That’s…bonkers.
And in all these moves, I’ve clung to a sense of the temporary. This is just for now. This is just in these weird circumstances. There’s never been a decision of ah, this is forever.
That’s what I see in my lurk-walks through leafy places. The dream of finally being the sort of person who goes ah, this is forever.
Or, because we know that God laughs when we make plans/sweeping statements, at least “ah, this is not actively temporary. I will not sabotage my happiness by keeping one foot in and one foot out.”