The Blue House
by Alison B. Hart
When I was 22 years old, I fell in love with an older woman. J was from out of town, a poet and a musician wearing leather pants and a dog collar at the club in San Francisco where I’d gone to dance. Her friend was dating my friend, and we tagged along with them to a late-night diner not far from my apartment, talking about books while they made out like teenagers. I had no idea what I was doing that night when I took her back to my place—that this would be love and not a fling, that she was much older than me, that there was a meaningful difference between 37 and 22. All I knew was something, finally, was happening to me.
At first it was a fling, but then J came back to town a couple months later and looked me up. She used to babysit Patti Smith’s daughter on the road sometimes, and when the three of them wound up back at that diner, J stole away and slipped a folded-up note in my mailbox. “Hiya,” it began, as would all of the letters and emails she wrote to me in the year that followed, when she went back to Boston and our dial-ups ringed and hummed. While she ended things with her girlfriend, I disentangled myself from San Francisco, where I was broke and lonely. I didn’t know where to go where I would not be broke and lonely, and so I ended up in Los Angeles, but I could have been anywhere. From time to time, J and I would pool our dollars and I would fly out to Boston to be with her. She had a one-bedroom apartment in the South End with hardwood floors, exposed brick, a reading loft with a ladder that led up to the roof. She had 5 cats, to which I was allergic, but she kept them out of the bedroom while I visited, and we spent our days and nights on the mattress on the floor. I took my cues from her but eventually there was nothing else to call this thing between us but a commitment, and still we hadn’t grappled with the age difference. We hadn’t needed to.
I’m in my forties now, just a couple years older than J was when we broke up. One day this summer my family and I drove upstate for a party for my husband’s colleague, who was turning 50. He and his wife and kids had moved from Brooklyn, where we still live, to a sweet little town with reasonable schools where they’d found a giant old house with a sprawling yard around it.
“They live in that whole house?” my daughter asked as we walked up the hill toward it. “The entire thing?”
Inside we kissed the host and wandered through room after room looking for a place to set down the pie we’d brought. In the parlor, a jam band was playing. In the dining room, there was no place to stand, and the table and sideboard were crowded with cheeses and olives and salads and bread. In the kitchen we found the desserts, waiting their turn, and a table piled with booze and the dregs of a fruity tequila cocktail at the bottom of an enormous mason jar. My daughter ran out into an overgrown garden where more people were gathered, chatting and drinking and tending chicken and pork in a smoker, until eventually she found a pack of kids bouncing high over it all on the trampoline.
“As soon as we saw this place,” our friend told us, “we knew we had to do whatever it took.”
It was romantic and tumbledown but by no means the only gem in the neighborhood. Next door was a house painted the perfect shade of royal blue.
There are two things I did not know when I was 22, but by the time I was 26 and my world was crumbling, I did. First, it is deceptively easy to feel like you are getting to know someone in a long-distance relationship, when nightly phone calls last into the wee hours and love letters are like volumes of Proust, but the things you are learning about each other are often the wrong things. As imperative as it may seem to share a similar taste in books or music, it’s far less important than knowing whether you’ll both fight fair. Second, age is just a number … until it isn’t.
After two years of dating I was gunning for us to live together, but six months before that happened J bought a three-story house on Boston’s fringe. It had a front porch and a big kitchen and it was on a double-plot of land. She would take the top floor. On the second floor there were three bedrooms, where she installed her two best friends and me. I don’t remember whose idea it was for me to have my own room, but moving across the country was already a big enough deal and it seemed a reasonable interim step. J bought a lawn mower and planted a vegetable garden. There was a gravel drive to park her truck. There was now enough room to separate the crazy cat from the rest of the cats, so we gave him the downstairs, from which he occasionally escaped into the neighborhood and we’d wander the streets shouting, “Killer!” The other cats lived on the third floor.
The exterior paint was chipping, so J’s first act of home maintenance was to have the house repainted. It cost a relative fortune and so to save money over the long-term, she chose a shiny latex paint, meant for bathrooms, that grieved me but would hold up in all weather. It looked darker, too, once it dried, not royal blue but navy.
I temped until I found a full-time job as an office assistant, but even then I wasn’t making enough money, so I moved up to the third floor and J rented out my old room to a stranger with two rabbits and a rat. Since it would be cruel to cordon off the cats in their own home, I let them sleep wherever they wanted, which was usually on top of me. For a year, I couldn’t breathe. It was cramped up there under the eaves, in those two rooms already filled with J’s stuff. For the life of me, I can’t remember where I put my clothes.
When J bought the house, I think she’d envisioned a sanctuary for the people she loved most, rooms filled with love and laughter, family meals fresh from the garden. Instead, the five of us holed up in our rooms, too superstitious to take photographs (they’ll trap your spirit), none of us bold enough to answer the landline when it rang.
I thought the house was to blame for how unhappy we all were, how much we struggled. I’d preferred the apartment in the South End, where there was no yard work, no roommates, the T in easy walking distance. This wasn’t my version of utopia. It wasn’t even J’s. We fought constantly, breaking up and getting back together in the space of a few hours. I applied for graduate school, which shouldn’t have been surprising—I was in my mid-twenties; it was time—and yet we hadn’t planned for what that would look like. The programs I was interested in were all out-of-state. J was finishing up her master’s and had planned on getting a PhD, but when I researched schools where we could both go, she seemed uninterested, resentful even. I accepted a spot in North Carolina, but then switched to a program in New York City, because she said at least we’d have a chance then, but I think we both knew I was escaping her, that house, our life together that I did not want even after all that time of gunning for it.
At the party upstate, I hadn’t seen my daughter for a half an hour, which meant she’d made friends. I celebrated with a glass of rosé and found a seat on the windowsill in the parlor to listen to the music. Above me I heard a familiar yelp and then a troop of footsteps came crashing down the stairs. Rufus, the cat, darted past me and into the dining room. The kids called out for help. I chased after him to the kitchen, where the open back door beckoned, but then he chickened out and ran back up the stairs just as quickly as he’d run down them. We found him hiding under the bunk bed, and I lured him out with the back of my hand, which he sniffed. “Don’t touch him, Mommy,” my daughter said, almost crying, because she knew I was allergic but she’d never seen me hold a cat before and didn’t know what would happen to me if I did. This cat wasn’t crazy. He was sweet and let me carry him like a baby back to the master bedroom, where we stroked him behind the ears and got him settled again on the unmade bed.
After that, it was time for dessert. My husband had baked the pie the night before. The crust was from his mother’s cookbook, and the recipe calls for Crisco. I hate the way shortening clings to everything and you have to do the dishes twice to get it all off, but what are you gonna do? Not have pie? Or worse, pick a fight with the baker? No. You count your blessings and you wash the measuring cups again. The other desserts were store-bought, resting on the sideboard in their tinfoil platters, and I usually don’t think of myself as a snob—I’m not one to turn up my nose at cake or a cannoli, whatever the provenance—but all I wanted that night was a bite of apples and cinnamon and that buttery, flaky crust. I wanted more than a bite, in fact, but my daughter hogged the rest.
On the drive home, I entertained, for the umpteenth time, the fantasy of leaving Brooklyn for a royal blue house with a yard. So much of what J wanted when we were together was too hard, too complicated, too much for me then, but now I get it. As my daughter grows bigger, our apartment grows more cramped, every square inch of space dedicated to at least three different forms of living. Why not consider the suburbs? But I would miss my friends, and we can’t bring them with us. They have their own families and lives and dreams, and dreams are very individual, specific things that don’t travel well.
Alison B. Hart‘s writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, Joyland, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the long-running reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg.
Image source: Wikimedia