I packed everything I owned into my Honda Civic and drove 3,000 miles across the country. Again. I’d been doing this roughly once a year, trying on small desert towns, coastal living, and major metropolitans, and while it was no new adventure for me, this time I had stakes—a man I had met only a month earlier at my best friend’s wedding, with whom I knew, within five minutes, I was in love.
But I wasn’t moving toward him. I was moving away from him, to a small cabin in the northwestern Connecticut woods with no mailbox, where two cats waited for me to feed them, brush them, and tolerate their impromptu conjugal sessions on my bed. I was watching these furry guys for two months while a friend took a sailing job on the Atlantic. “Lucy pees on one particular chair,” she said, “Rangeley spells his name with two ‘e’s.” I’d quit my job and told my roommate to keep the security deposit, and, honestly, I was lost. I was turning thirty and could fit all my possessions in a hatchback.
The cabin was on a lake in Winsted, a town that still talks about the flood of 1955 that ripped the main street in half and destroyed the spirit of its citizens. I’d walk the half-mile into town for breakfast at the diner, and the locals would talk about so-and-so’s alcoholism and the keg he kept cooling in the river and how his family never recovered from “the flood,” and then, “Oh, enough about that.”
The cabin had no heat. I ran a bath once every night, and crouched there until the spiders with banana leaves for arms came in to heat seek. My second week there, I called the man I loved from the bathtub. We’d seen each other only twice before I left. His voice seemed more nasally than I had expected, and I realized I was in love with someone whose vocal chords were unknown to me. What would he sound like in the morning? What is his middle name? Would he dispose of spiders for me?
I said, “I’m sorry, I’m just not good on the phone.”
He said, “I know.”
Three weeks in with no mail, dirty cat-pawing alarm clocks, and too much time on my hands, my sailor friend called and said she was sending me to dinner with her parents to stave off my loneliness. Her old boss, B, who was also a family friend, came to pick me up.
B was in his early 50s, wore a gold chain from his son around his neck, and was generally Italian and charming. He picked me up in a Volvo and said, “Don’t be fooled by these guys. They’re billionaires. They’re my closest friends, but they’re filthy rich.” I said I wouldn’t have known, because my sailor friend lived a pretty vagabond life, one that I’d admired with little in the way of weighing her down besides the two cats I was watching. He said, “We always want what we can’t have. She wants to be poor.”
On the way there, we passed by my neighbors across the lake, a large, but unassuming house looming over the water, and B stopped the car for a moment. Three elegant Jaguars were parked outside the garage. B said a blind man who can diagnose a Jaguar using only a tuning fork and acute hearing lived there with his wife. He shook his head, said, “And she stayed with him even after he went blind.”
At dinner, S’s parents grilled me. They wanted to know everything she had ever told me about every man she had ever dated. She was about to turn 36, and her mother and step-father still mentioned her ex as the guy who was never good enough for her and the one she should have married.
“Is there anyone she’s mentioned?” they said.
“There’s a 26-year-old sailor from Maine,” I said. “He wears pink sunglasses.”
“Does he have money?”
I’d worn my best clothes, which were really just a pink jean skirt, some torn leggings, and a yellow cardigan with holes in the armpits. I never put much stock in material possessions or in owning anything. Just more stuff weighing me down, I thought. Either way, it seemed my appearance lowered their expectations of me. S’s mother turned to me, asked what was I going to do about relationships?
I said, “I’m in love. If I get married, it’ll be to him. We just met, but I know.”
“But how do you know?”
I said, “I just do,” and it sounded like the dumbest thing I had ever heard in my life.
By the end of the night, I was consolidating leftovers into plastic tubs, talking to my friend’s billionaire mother about relationships as though this 29-year-old drunk woman, who only the month before accidentally ate a whole pound of raw bacon in her sleep, knew all the secrets to love. Mom always said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” I promised they’d be invited to the wedding. On the way home, B said, “I wish to God that someday I’ll know and be as confident as you are about love.”
I was glad he was so sure that I was sure, because I’d come to wonder if I was crazy. Yes, I thought, maybe I was.
Before I left, B promised he’d call me with a job if I wanted to make some money. He warned me, “It might be a dirty one.” I waved him off; I’d seen it all.
That night, I got a call from B. He had a job for me the next day and would pick me up in the morning. He said, “I’d tell you not to wear anything nice, but…” He laughed. I sighed. He’d be there in the morning. I picked up the phone to call my love, and I couldn’t do it.
On the way to the site, B told me the story of Barbara, a once-gorgeous woman in her 50s who now hoarded QVC collectibles and other mail-order sundries. Barbara had bad knees, and this developed into obesity, and she turned to shopping online. Because her knees were so bad, if anything fell on the floor or below her waist, she was unable to retrieve it, resulting in mounds and mounds of stretch pants, glitter pens, TV trays, etc. We’d been hired by a lawyer to come in and remove as much as possible to get the house fumigated and livable again.
I was not prepared for the stacked ottomans, couches, end tables, and lamps that barely budged as we wedged the front door open. B said, “Just work fast. She’ll be back soon.” Me and Moe, a 70-something retiree who lost his wife to cancer only months earlier, put on our masks and gingerly dug through the mess. Right before I thought to myself that Barbara should have one of those plastic grabby things with a trigger, I found at least five of them buried in the mounds. Moe tackled the kitchen, tossing out rotting vegetables from the oven and stacks and stacks of storage containers overflowing with cheap kitchen appliances.
About four hours in, I heard meowing. She was white and seemed healthy enough for her environment, but she was terrified. These tunneled out sofa cushions were her home. Maggots infested her cat bed, and burrs ground into her fur. I did not know what Barbara looked like, but this was the face I felt I was saving. I worked harder, less gingerly, and tossed everything I could into ten-gallon black bags. I called to Moe the ridiculous things I was throwing away, and every five minutes, he would call to me, “We having fun, yet?” We took a lunch break, leaned against the front porch steps with Subway sandwiches. Moe pointed to a small trailer in the backyard about 8’ x 10’ and said, “She used to live out there. After the fire.” The trailer was rusted out and wheel-less. It would have been cramped for me, but for a 400-pound woman with bad knees, it seemed like a torture chamber. B hadn’t mentioned a fire.
We went back to work, I pet the cat and made friends by giving her fresh water, and then I found what would have been my Midwestern mother’s dream—roughly $5,000 worth of scrapbooking merchandise. B walked in behind me while I was analyzing the unopened fancy papers and rivulets. He said, “Throw it all away.”
This was normally easy for me. I could go through a houseful of my own things and pare down my possessions to 5 square feet, but as I lifted the unopened packages of decorative paper squares and calligraphy practice sheets, I began to wonder if any of these unassuming objects were something this stranger could not live without. There were just so many of them it was impossible to tell. I took another break, lifted my mask from my face and watched the daddy long legs stationed on the ceiling while they drifted in the wind from our oscillating fan, such long and sprawling legs taking them places, and yet a gust of air fanned in their direction could demobilize them for hours. Too light.
B had left when I lifted up the lounge chair. I was ready with a broom to bat off living things, but all that was there was a pile of Hallmark cards and ten college-rule notebooks. I’d like to apologize for what I did after this, because I understand the invasion of privacy. But I am human. I opened one Hallmark card after another and read over fifty vague condolences, some sorry for “her loss,” some wishing her a speedy recovery, and at the bottom of the pile was a card that said, “We will all miss him, though you more than most.” Moe was still busy in the kitchen. I opened every notebook. Nine were completely pristine and empty, but the tenth had a single poem scrawled in arthritic writing. I can’t remember all the lines, but the end and the beginning were the same: “Why did you leave me?” I gathered all these papers in a neat pile and placed them all where I had found them beneath one of the three lounge chairs in that room. I am not a psychologist. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I know the sickness of love could never be cured by removing its vestiges, and that night when I went home and drew the bath and waited for the spiders to leg their way into my tiny room, I didn’t feel any remorse for saving those things even if they were first to catch fire.
Two weeks later, I packed up all of my own possessions again and moved across the country to be with that guy I loved, and I write this in the home we share, surrounded by our family of cats.
In a small, red box with corners worn, I have a picture. In it, the man I love is 25, carving a Thanksgiving turkey on my 19th birthday in my old college apartment. I didn’t even know him then, but he had been there, and I had to check and recheck it to make sure it was him in the photo, then confirm that he had indeed gone to a stranger’s birthday party once in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and had carved a turkey. Against all odds, I had kept this picture of the stranger, when many others had been tossed in the decade since it’d been taken, and now this slim Kodak is among the heaviest and most valuable of my possessions, a reminder that the man I love has been treading lightly in circles around me, even if I do not see him.
When I’ve gone senile and have lost the ability to communicate with the outside world, when a woman rummages through my things to clear it all out and make room for my therapeutic bed and walkers, and this woman finds this picture in the small pile of things I own, I want her to know its gravity, and save it. It is the heaviest thing I own, and I wouldn’t be right without it.