Wednesday, June 28, 2006
I take my trip to State School Town to look at housing. The day is gorgeous--partly sunny and dry, with temperatures in the 70s. I dawdle until noon, then finally start on the road.
The day feels surreal and dreamlike, especially because one of the main roads out of the city is under construction, and that means vast tracts of concrete in the middle of a busy highway have become pedestrian squares filled with construction workers and swirling white dust. Driving slowly by in one lane of traffic, I think about walking versus driving, about feeling the ground under my feet, about the engineering marvel of the highway, about Roman times, about the thin wires of technology holding up everyday reality. I remember the time a girlfriend and I hitchhiked to Connecticut my first year of college, drinking peppermint schnapps out of a bota bag by an underpass to pass the time before going back out on the road to stick out our thumbs. When too many cars went by us, she would announce that it was time to take down my hair. I would undo my braid, and shake out my waist-length locks. She was smart. Truckers usually stopped for us right away.
Today I open the sunroof, turn up the ac (a very un-pc trick taught to me by my southern California gf) and crank the tunes on my ipod.
The drive in June is much nicer than it is in March. The fields are kale-green and the sky is big and warm. There are MacDonalds everywhere, though that is not a good thing. I realize I am hungry, stop, buy, and eat a fish filet, and marvel at the angry feeling it gives my body for hours afterward. I am no health food nut, but there is no way that food isn't bad bad bad for you.
I enter town with a map, my face slightly tanned from the drive, and kill a half-hour navigating around. I have lived in towns like this one before. It is pretty and suburban, with shady streets and sidewalks next to real working fields. The University sprawls along the main road of town, its older pavilions and arenas set back from the street. It isn't a striver's school, such as you find in the east, or in the city; it doesn't have to compete with private small colleges or elite universities nearby. This University, the flagship university of a midwestern state, possesses a stately, middle-class assurance, its boundary lines marked with large brick wall-corners like you find in upscale housing developments.
I find my first house--a low, pleasant ranch on a leafy, well-manicured lot. I meet the owner and his father, the first a youngish kid in his twenties looking to find his way in the world, the second his highly successful dad desperate to make sure his son gets a profession. I talk with them for an hour, for once grateful that I am not a boy with wealthy parents. At first I think there is no way I can live here. Let's just say there is no sense of feng shui to be had in the arrangement of furniture in the rooms. Let's just say the father corrects everything you say. Let's say I grow tired trying to introduce topics of conversation. Let's say it's too easy to picture a house full of 25-year-old boys watching football and me, the strange older woman with really short hair, skulking around the kitchen.
After talking with them, though, I look around with fresh eyes. The dad has grilled me, and is satisfied that I am a serious person--a prize, in fact. My PhD apparently means that I know how to study. My age and gender suggest I'm not looking to marry his son. He wants my gravitas to rub off on his progeny. The kid just wants a living situation that isn't depressing. I just want roommates who don't care if I spend weekends away in the city with my gf, or am always in the library, or eat nothing but frozen diet dinners for months on end. I walk outside. Across the street is a field of vegetable plots you could rent if you wanted a garden. A tar running path runs down the road, rolling away towards parks and more fields. A running path.
I remember what it was like for me to live in a town much like this one, years and years ago. Just out of college, starting an MA, I took up running and quit the cigarette habit I began in high school. I remember the cameraderie of that town, where everyone was either a student, a professor, or someone who had moved there for school and stayed there for the quality of life. I remember the bars, the library, the peaceful, disciplined routine one lives on the way to a goal. It was the same when I moved to another state and another college town for my PhD. Classes, then working out, then a quick dinner, then the library. Every day happily the same, with excess and despair pushed to the margins by the the dream of completion. Long bike rides on winding back roads. The hot summer smells of dust and rain and sun on freshly-oiled tar.
This kind of life runs on dreams. The dream of graduation, the dream of an academic job, the dream, now, of a law degree and a decent position back in the city, a new car for the first time in my life, a place owned, not rented. New dreams, but also old ones. I have been here before, taking small but determined steps towards goals that forever recede from me, a Zeno's paradox of progress and delay, desire and frustration.
I have two hours to kill before my next appointment, so I find a coffee shop and order a giant latte. I have a trashy historical romance that I can't put down. My skin is tingling from all these new places. I am already becoming new, or old, or something that feels more realized.
I drive to the next house at the exact hour. It is a big, rambling farmhouse. In the back is a huge lot and a wild, overgrown vegetable garden. Green onions have thickened and shot up four feet high. A squash plant has clambered up the compost heap. In the undergrowth I see two sturdy rows of kale greens.
A very pregnant young woman greets me at the door. She is friendly, foreign. In the kitchen a big wooden table and benches mark a communal space. Someone is boiling pasta. I meet several women, all warm. There are plants everywhere, in the windows, on the shelves. I think maybe I could like it here. Someone offers to show me the house.
We walk back out to the garden. My guide has no idea what is growing there, and intimates that the vegetable garden is a cyclical phenomenon, dependent on the current tenants and their inclinations. Visions of gardening dance in my head. I start cataloguing the vegetables I will grow. A big tuft of tigerlilies sits in the yard, reminding me of home. This is looking good.
The livingroom is my first warning that all is not well. There isn't a scrap of carpet on the well-worn wooden floor. All the furniture is threadbare, sunken, and slightly sticky-looking. Nothing matches. The walls haven't seen paint or paper in years. Boxes and air conditioners sit by the front door, along with a few wooden chairs. The windowsill on the window by the stairs is naked wood, gray and ragged. The sagging, scuffed stairs going to the second floor ring hollow under my feet, like little wooden drums.
Upstairs, the rooms are bare and worn. One bedroom has cheerful peach paint; the rest are in various states of catastrophe. One has a sleeper loveseat for a bed, and papers and empty cups everywhere on the floor. "My" room looks as if a tripping person tried to paint it twenty years ago but kept running out of paint, trying different colors until finally giving up and falling asleep. The ceiling is peeling and hanging down in places. Most rooms have mattresses on the floor. Nobody has a rug, or a pretty bedspread, or a FREAKING BROOM. The upstairs apartment, which has its own kitchen and bathroom, is the homiest space in the house, but occupied.
Slightly disturbed, I go down to dinner.
Everyone introduces themselves, giving charming two-minute speeches. Some of them have come back to school. Some are undergraduates. Some have gone away and come back, unable to find something somewhere else to hold them. Most talk of moving on this month, this summer, this year--to another house, another city, or traveling. They have dignity. They are transient. They come back over and over to live cheap, regroup, reinvent themselves. They ask me about myself and I tell them. They murmur supportively.
I tell them that I like them, and I mean it. They are wonderful, thoughtful, rootless. I wish I could live here. I know I could take over, fix things, clean it up, make it better. Rugs, paint, and little ceiling tape would work wonders. I have enough to do as it is, though. I also have to reinvent myself. I have to have carpets, comfort, a running path, a grown-up life. I drive away into the darkness, gauging how it feels to be going back to the city. I have to imagine coming back, too. In the dark I am doing both, remembering the cycles of leaving and return I have known elsewhere, trying to imagine the kinds of movement that will come.