Robert Knox is a creative writer, a freelance journalist for the Boston Globe, a blogger on nature, books and other subjects, and a rabid gardener, who makes his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. A graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Boston University (M.A. in English literature), he is a former college teacher and newspaper editor, whose stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. He was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. His short stories have recently appeared in the anthology "An Earthless Melting Pot," The Tishman Review, and the 3288 Review. His nonfiction story "Preparing A Place" was published last month in Lunch Ticket. He is a contributing writer for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and his novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane," was published last fall by Web-e-Books.com.
HOUSE MATES by Robert Knox
"Where is everybody?"
It is dark in the house when we arrive at our new home. It is never this dark on Long Island, where Penny and I have spent the last three months cohabiting in her childhood bedroom. We have been married for a year and a half. Even before I agreed to spend a summer lodging with Penny's family -- 'to save money' -- things were not going terribly well for us. Predictably, they get worse. I do not ask my wife why we no longer seem to have anything to say to one another, because the reason appears to be obvious. What do you say when Eros fails? Was this a problem that philosophers have investigated over the centuries? Is there a phenomenological approach? An existential analysis? A logical-positivist solution? Not that I have heard. Instead of confronting the problem -- or my problem; it was mine, wasn't it? -- I swallow my shame and go numb inside. At night, we draw apart, turning our backs on one another.
“Nobody’s here yet,” I reply. I didn’t expect to arrive so late in the day. "That's why there are no lights on."
“Obviously, Jon,” Penny observes shortly. “I thought you said they’d be here.”
“Harrison. And that girl.”
“You mean his wife. He said he’d be here this weekend.”
Harrison and his wife, Lisa, newlyweds, are the other couple we are sharing this old Connecticut farmhouse with. We also have two single housemates, both friends of mine from Yale. Although we were not particularly close, Harrison and I hung with the same crowd of guys for a couple of years. Ours is a commune of convenience. I have never met Lisa. I am closer to Ricky and Alex, but apparently they haven't shown up yet either.
Penny grimaces and gestures impatiently toward the house. Apparently, her body language says, somebody got the story wrong. Once again somebody has screwed up, let us down. A gesture suffices to convey this familiar state of mind. We have been let down a lot lately, disappointed in our expectations. I wonder if she’s disappointed in me; the answer seems pretty clear.
“What do you want to do?” I say.
“Go in, obviously.” She opens the driver’s seat of the car and gets out to explore. “There are some lights in there, I hope.”
Penny has never been to the house. I went to see it last spring and found some bored hippies sitting in the kitchen, wishing they had cigarettes. The house had plenty of bedrooms, and plenty of empty space around it outdoors, meeting my idea of all we would need to share a house with a few of my friends -- besides, of course, love. Harrison was looking for a place to live after a summer long “honeymoon” trip with Lisa. Ricky Fielder had won a university fellowship and was planning to hang around Yale for a year; Alex had another year as an undergraduate.
So we had it. Our group house; our commune.
“It’s big,” Penny says, stepping out of the car and taking in the six-bedroom two-story farmhouse. I get out and follow her and we walk up the driveway to the kitchen door on the side of the house. I remember that’s the way in; you'd have to climb through the shrubbery to get to the front door. On our way we picked up house keys from the landlord, a nice old man who used to be principal of the local high school and showed us the courtesy of exhibiting no interest in our lifestyle. Nevertheless, Penny tried to josh him – “So do we pass? What grade would you give us?” – which she laughed at, but he didn’t. It embarrasses me when her jokes don't connect, but Penny gave me a look that says no harm in trying. It's her strength, relating to people -- or at least trying -- while I stand back, careful not to offend, but also not risking anything, not sharing. I’m too sensitive, she tells me, when I cringe over bumpy social interactions. I hate feeling awkward around people.
“Go ahead,” she urges now as we gaze at the darkened house. "Open the door."
I've forgotten that I have the keys in my pocket.
It takes me a while to figure out which is the right key for this door and then we take turns jiggling it, swearing under our breath, and I am ready to give up when the door decides to open. We enter a farmhouse kitchen, a spacious room with basic appliances and a truly amateurish crayon drawing on the wall over the sink depicting caricatures of the previous tenants, facial hair everywhere, their faces inserted into the portholes of a submarine. To put yourself and your housemates in a yellow submarine (refrain: “a yellow submarine”) seems to me both corny and passe. But maybe I’m asking for too much from life.
We can barely see this ludicrous fresco now because the room remains dark even when Penny finds a switch and flips it.
“Maybe the bulb’s out.”
“Maybe the electricity’s been turned off,” Penny retorts. Another flub. Somebody's always screwing up. At least, I think, we're out of Long Island.
We move through the house in the dark, tentatively, like explorers or burglars, careful not to bang our heads or shins, but we can’t find a switch that turns anything on, or a lamp that works. It’s a warm night, but the house has a dank feel, as if shut up on itself and licking its wounds after the previous tenants found their cigarettes and moved away.
“We need some light,” Penny says. “Do you know if the fuse box is in the basement?”
“No.” I don't know that we have a basement.
“We need the flashlight.”
I don’t reply.
“We have one in the car, Jon,” she reminds me.
She tells me where it is. Since I'm going to the car, she adds, I might as well bring her suitcase in.
“I’ll keep looking around,” she says.
I come back with the flashlight (and the suitcase) and by its light we tread carefully up the stairs, locate a bathroom, explore the bedrooms, and choose the biggest one for ourselves. First come, she says, first served. I don’t quite agree, but don't choose to debate the point.
“You hungry?” she asks, sitting on a mattress on the bedroom floor. “I am.”
I don’t think much about food, though I'm in the habit of eating it whenever it appears. Penny tells me we passed a store a half mile back where we can probably get sandwiches, and more cigarettes.
“You go,” I say.
“You don’t want to come?”
“I’m tired of the car. Bring me something back.”
“Here,” she says, standing up and passing me the flashlight. She starts to leave, then stops and takes something out of her pocket. “Take these,” she said, handing me the cigarettes. “I’ll get more. You might as well have something to do in the dark.”
She laughs, inviting me to join in, but I don’t. I sink into silence. It's not her fault, I tell myself, but I'd rather have a few minutes alone.
After we have eaten our sandwiches and found some sheets in one of the suitcases, we make a bed up on the mattress left in the room we have chosen for ours. Actually, she makes the bed and I hold the flashlight so she can see what she’s doing. We still have no power. No electricity means no music either.
I help her open the bedroom windows (they stick a little) so we have air, and the songs of the late August night flood in. You don’t hear them at once; at first you notice only the irregular passage of cars. And then after a while you begin to hear the insect songs that fill the late summer nights in all the green and treed places of the world (as opposed to the paved-over places where we've been living); and after a longer while you can’t hear anything else. You can’t do anything but listen to them. We might of course make our own noises; we can talk. But we lie on our mattress, smoking, watching the orange cones of light at the end of our cigarettes curl through the darkness, and saying nothing.
We’re in our own house, Penny says, after a while. We could try again.
I loved the house.
It was never hers, never Penny's, but it was mine.
I loved it because you walked upstairs to the bedrooms and could still hear the sounds of creaking around downstairs. It was a compact, small-scale dormitory and I had lived in dormitories for three years before Penny and I got married and found our own off-campus apartment.
But Penny never lived in a dormitory because her parents refused to let her go away for college. Our year in a rundown apartment in a sketchy neighborhood not too far from campus was her 'going away' experience. She worked a fulltime evening shift in a local hospital to pay the rent while I finished my last year at Yale and got my diploma with the understanding that it would be her turn to go back to college the next year and my turn to use that shiny new diploma to pay the bills.
Now 'next year' had come. Getting a group together to rent a big house in what passed for 'the country' outside of New Haven was originally someone else's idea. Everything for me was someone else's idea. That someone, a classmate, pulled out, but by then I was in and Harrison and the other two of my Yale friends were interested, so we went ahead and signed a two-year lease. Sharing costs made perfect practical sense to me, but it was more than that. The idea of living together with your friends in a big old house, sharing your lives, or (more simply; childishly), having a cool place to hang out together had the imprint of zeitgeist fashion for those who could read the signs. I was better at reading the zeitgeist than I was at automobile maintenance or doing the laundry. There were plenty of precedents. The Band had just come out with their Big Pink album.
And since I was used to dorm living, a group house was not that big a stretch for me. Dorm life at Yale had felt like a free ride. It wasn't -- my father kicked in money every month for my 'residential' expenses -- but by my third year none of my courses took attendance and I lived a kind of carefree, 'lost boys' contentedly adolescent existence, the way rich young men idled away their university years in English novels. Then Penny came back into my life, confronting me with the fact of a commitment that seemed to have a precedence before all other desires and plans, and I gave in and agreed to place her truth over mine -- and took the leap. I walked into the dark, the way mystics said you had to, though maybe they had some other kind of 'marriage' in mind. But I missed the freedom of that lost boys life I had left behind.
I don't know why Penny agreed to the group house idea. Probably because she knew there was something wrong with me and hoped that a new scene, one I seemed to want, would help me find my way.
Harrison and Lisa Sears, the newlyweds, were the next to arrive. Harrison, a few years older than the rest of us, was a classic "non-student" of the sort who hung around university campuses, holding on to their youth and putting off 'the real world' as long as they could. After graduating from Cornell he spent a couple of years in the Army, then moved to New Haven, a college town where he had friends. Some of his friends were my friends too, but it says something that I had never met Lisa before we started sharing a house.
Penny and I met her together when she popped out of Harrison's blue VW Beatle
with her hair in a ponytail and a broad smile for all of existence. She was easy to meet and easy to get along with, characteristics I would not necessarily apply to her husband. She had married Harrison right after graduating from a small school in Pennsylvania, the two of them immediately launching a summer-long expedition to crisscross the Great American West. Now they had no apparent plans besides living together in our big old farmhouse and finding a chorus for Lisa to sing in. She would let Harrison manage his stock portfolio for the both of them.
The two young wives regarded one another at the top of the driveway on that balmy September day. I felt Penny hold her breath; I was doing the same.
Lisa introduced herself and said something about liking "big old houses."
Penny delivered one of her smart-alecky retorts. "Wait till you get inside this one."
Lisa laughed, easy to please.
Penny joined in, both finding something funny in the moment, though maybe different things. I breathed a little easier.
"I looked at what she was wearing," Lisa remarked to me later, "and thought, I guess I can live with her."
"Wearing?" I asked.
"We were both wearing sweatshirts and cut-offs."
Harrison terminated the welcome scene by reminding me that I "still" owed him money on the house's security deposit, his face turning from vague satisfaction to anger in an instant. "And I want it paid," he said.
Harrison had found the right kind of person to marry, I thought, someone who smiled a lot and would help smooth over his sometimes heavy-handed ways with people. Besides, after spending three months stuck in a car together in places like Nebraska or Montana -- a trial for any relationship -- they were getting along. A married couple, I brooded, who were, astonishingly, happy.
The wives' connection, however, didn't flourish. Once we settled in -- the "boys," as Lisa called them, university fellow Ricky Fielder and music major Alex Goodman arriving in their own time -- Penny cooked a few common meals, but backed off with a scowl when nobody else stepped forward to organize the next one. My college dorm fantasy of hippies sharing a house failed to include a dining service.
"I've never seen that girl set foot in the kitchen," Penny said of Lisa.
Not so hidden meaning: I am not the house cook. I am not your friends' servant.
"That girl?" I responded, avoiding the issue.
"Lisa," I said. "You could call her by her name."
I didn't know what to make of Penny's chilliness to our housemates; I didn't realize how much of it had to do with me.
Penny had met the 'boys,' college friends of mine, who lived with us. Alex was the only one of my friends she bonded with. Though younger than me, he had a soothing, wiser-head influence on both us. Charming, relaxed, a talented musician, he weathered his ups and downs with apparent ease and helped others weather theirs. When I learned one of my former roommates attacked a cop and ended up in a mental hospital, I stuck my fingers in my ears. When one of Alex's friends jumped off a roof, he comforted the widow.
It was Alex, as well, who opened to me the way Harrison's mind worked.
"We went to see The Doors last year in the Coliseum," he told me. "The place is packed tight, right. Freaks, greasers, guys in long hair and leather jackets. Smell of smoke, people on pills. Cops standing in the back of the hall too freaked out to do anything. You know how Harrison is, man."
I nodded, but I didn't.
"Harrison grabs me and whispers in my ear -- the whole place is screaming, teeny-bopper chicks jumping up and down when Morrison comes on stage -- 'Alex, Alex, look! look! All of Western history has led up to this moment!'"
Alex had talked Penny down from a few bad moments when we were tripping together as well. Ricky Fielder, however, never had time for her. Slender and graceful, artistic, intellectual, alternately garrulous and severe, Ricky was picky about people, and Penny's blunt, jokey expressiveness was too common for his taste. She felt slighted, and reciprocated.
One evening as we lay in bed upstairs we heard the footsteps of new arrivals and listened as Harrison and Lisa welcome guests to their eleven p.m. social hour.
"It's Peter, Lisa," Harrison called to his wife.
"Peter Werner?" Ricky asked, hastening downstairs to greet the new arrival.
"How's that gamma ray project of yours coming?"
I couldn't make out Peter's replies, but Harrison's cultivating cocktail party voice and Lisa's welcoming exclamations, were all too clear. Once you tune in the voices of people you're sharing living space with, you can't not hear them.
I lay in bed, listening; knowing Penny was listening as well and (the hard part) knowing what she was feeling.
"I don't belong here," Penny murmured.
Penny's pronouncement sounded like the conclusion of a discussion, or maybe quarrel we didn't have because we didn't need to. We were the only people in the house who needed to get up early. I knew Penny was feeling that the life Harrison and Lisa were seeking -- pursuing interests, cultivating "interesting people," not worrying about money because they didn't have to -- had no place for her.
I knew what she was feeling because I was feeling it too. But I also believed that if you simply hung around places, or people, with an open mind, you would learn how to belong. You learned who these other people were and how to be with them. You learned by listening; by placing a sort of neutral dust cover over your personality, your ego, your tastes and prejudices and expectations, and sitting quietly in a corner.
"Negative capability," I murmured back.
"Something Keats said."
"Keats." She groaned a little. "Is he coming over too?"
After a while Penny rose from the bed and pushed a desk chair against the bedroom's old door to make it close a little tighter. It still didn't block the conversation below or keep out the music. The voices flowed with the palpable lilt of people expecting to enjoy themselves.
I knew what it was like to feel out of place, but somehow I missed the deeper message in Penny's confession. She didn't say, "We don't belong here."
I'm the only person in the house with a fulltime job and the unrelenting day-after-day early morning schedule of the school teacher. When it came time for me to put my new diploma to use and hold up my end of the deal with Penny -- she had made the money the year before; now it was my turn -- teaching high school English was the only job I could think of. Freed of that responsibility, what would I have done with myself? Hung around the house, gone for walks in the woods, read books, scratched out my thoughts in a notebook?
I wanted to live like Harrison. I did belong in the hippie house, I just hadn't figured out how to do it.
I'd been hired by nearby Western High School, the school where my master teacher in Yale's cursory teacher-training program worked. In retrospect, he might have been savvier about the shortcomings of that program. I tried getting to bed early, but some nights at the house the party was as much mine as anyone's. I stayed up to smoke a joint with Alex and Ricky, to get into some kind of zone, dig the music. Then smoked the next one after that and grew steadily more morose over the prospect of facing the next morning; the next day. Some days the kids in my homeroom, those who bothered to show up, would place bets on when I would arrive.
Once I managed to drag myself inside the portals of big dark-stoned Western High, my goal was to get through the day one way or another without too many public disasters and make it back to the house before the flame of life within had turned to a smudge of ash in a schoolroom waste basket. Little disasters -- the kids who wheedled a pass out of me and spent the whole period wandering the halls until some 'real' disciplinarian teacher caught them and dragged them back to my classroom while offering public belittlement of my abilities -- were acceptable. I didn't much care what bullet-headed gym teacher Mr. Grumpy and the other prison guards, overweight middle-aged men and embittered women, thought of me. They were the walking dead, I told myself. Their disdain only made my adolescent charges realize that I was more like them than the people who made them go to school and told them what to do once they were there.
Making the time pass humanely among groups of twitchy, insecure, inhibited or exhibitionist adolescents was the bigger problem. My only 'lesson plans' were what I termed 'discussions' based on reading assignments most of the kids probably hadn't done.
I stood before them, with my long lank hair, my sloppy moustache, my paisley ties, as the 'young' rebel and sought to stimulate discussion, at times descending to such questionable topics as whether Paul McCartney was 'dead,' given the so-called hints and mysteries and nonsense on the latest recordings. I permitted myself, and sometimes the kids permitted it also, because I was not really part of 'the system.' I was only pretending because, as the brighter ones among them probably figured out, I needed a job. Maybe they also figured out that I needed a draft deferment too.
"There's this freak on the second floor who says he teaches English," a girl named Marybeth reported to her friends. One of the friends passed the comment on to me. It struck me as apt summation of my situation.
My days at Western High were about getting the so-called teaching over so I could go back to living the life that once I led (in the lost paradise of the undergraduate bubble), spending time with other like-minded people and lending my support to whatever was going forward. I wasn't a leader, but good followers were always in demand. Autumn blazed in the Connecticut woods on the other side of road. The little freight train ambled once day on the narrow spur line behind the house, as if looking for a previous century. After dark we found the stars you couldn't see in the city. The life of the house settled in to a few structural routines: climbing a summit in Sleeping Giant Park to watch the sunset, coming back indoors to scrounge up something to eat, then feeding our head with pot and music.
Penny's life moved in a rhythm opposite to mine. She found her comfort zone at her new college, New Haven University, judging from what she said, in the days when she was still talking to me, of her triumphant re-entry into the college scene: Look out world, here I come. The girl who knows the words to all the Dylan songs. Who drives a stick shift like her amateur race-car driver dad. Who takes positions, repeats quotations, roots hard for her side, makes allusions you might be able to follow if you're quick enough. Makes friends easily, and equally, from both sexes.
"It's all guys," she told me. "They're all taking engineering."
"You must stand out then."
"With all these guys around? It's not hard to, believe me."
She extends her left hand; in case I'm worried. "I show them this."
"So they know you're married."
"Yeah, but some of them -- you know how guys can be? They ask me, 'Are you really married?' I tell them 'I'm seriously married.'"
So we were still serious then. I wondered at times whether she was as ambivalent about out the course as I was. Whether she has walked into the same Valley of Despond I have, and yet we have failed to run into each other there. She treated college as a job, leaving the house in the early morning. I pictured her buying a Coke for breakfast in the student union, smoking the day's first cigarettes, looking over her homework in her new surroundings. She never asked me to come with her to campus to check out the place, say hi to her friends, meet a professor.
One day, however, she dropped in to Western High to 'sit in' on one of my classes, walking unchallenged into the building through the front door on Dixwell Avenue. My young (not yet twenty-one) wife, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, who could still pass for a high school student. She wore her black cowboy hat and green-tinted wire-rims, cool and speechless behind the lenses. She looked like the kid who couldn't wait to sneak a cigarette somewhere.
The kids in my sixth period junior English class had no idea who she was.
She didn't say who she was.
I couldn't manage to say something dumb to defuse the tension. 'This is my chick, kiddies. She's checking me out. So on your best behavior, everyone, and act like you're interested.'
Penny sat in the front row of our double-horseshoe seating arrangement, speechless and unsmiling, and her presence freaked out all the rest of my poor sixteen-year-old juniors, ordinarily my most responsive group, so that they didn't want to say anything either. That left it all up to me. She sat there watching while I spent an entire class period ruining Twain's "Mysterious Stranger" by talking about it too much.
Hint: "There's an antiwar message here, isn't there?"
No one wanted to take my hint.
"The Stranger hears the preacher in one church ask God for victory over their enemies. When he goes into a church on the other side he hears the same thing." I reached for a joke. "What's a God to do?"
"You're interesting," Penny said to me, her manner businesslike rather than enthusiastic, after the class ended.
I'm not sure I was. The observer distorted the observed. Didn't Heisenberg say that?
But her fascination for one of her own courses, and its teacher, was obvious.
"This guy," Penny said, who talked about the Transcendentalists, about art, what cubism and 'modern art' were all about, music even, "...it's, like, philosophy."
"Uh-huh." I remembered being a freshman. I remembered discovering 'philosophy.' I'd studied the Transcendentalists. Penny had been to college on Long Island, but it wasn't the same when you got in your car in the morning and drove five minutes to a large parking lot.
I didn't mean to be patronizing, but this was old hat. Philosophy wasn't doing me any good at Western High; no Transcendentalism in English 11. As Penny talked about her favorite course, I couldn't helping hearing Dylan lyrics in my mind: "But you and I have been through this, and that is not our fate. So let us not speak falsely now, the hour is growing late."
"He played this music the other day," she said, referring to the professor she called Sam. "This symphony where the last chord went on for ten minutes... or twelve minutes, or whatever. A single note -- for seven minutes! It's like it never ends."
I nodded. I knew vaguely what she was talking about.
"So he told everybody to sit and wait for it to end. But people were getting antsy, they wanted to go to their next class, or lunch, or somewhere. Finally he said, 'All right get out of here.'" She waved a hand, imitating Professor Sam's dismissal of the Philistines. "So then everybody got up and left and I was the only one still in the room. Still listening to the one chord go on for seventeen minutes."
"Uh-huh." I waited.
"So then I start walking up to his desk. 'Wow,' I say. 'Seventeen minutes!' And he doesn't say anything and just starts shaking his head. Then he just put his head down -- on the desk! -- and said, 'No, no!'"
I nodded. Still listening.
"Then he just stands up and starts to leave, waving his arms. Then he stops still and says, 'What do you want from my life?' "
The reason she was telling me this, I thought, was that she has to tell somebody. Even if that somebody is her husband. Could she not know what the man is talking about?
"Then what happened?"
"Then he just went out the door and kind of ran away."
Penny laughed, her face full of life. Like a kid with her excitement -- something weird or at least unusual, has happened, and it's about her! Possibly nobody has said, 'What do you want from my life?' to her before.
I pressed to know a little more about "this guy." Sam Ponti; professor in the Humanities department. He's been teaching at New Haven "for years."
Was he married? Did he realize Penny was? She didn't say; I didn't press further. She was a college kid, I thought, a young college kid excited by being the center of attention. I was something else.
Marybeth, the girl who tagged me "the freak who says he teaches English" began haunting my classroom. Showing up in my homeroom some mornings in the company of a similarly self-assured young woman she introduced as "Ellen." No surnames needed. They were the goddesses of Western High School. Seniors way too sophisticated for high school, the silly rules, the boring routines. They did not walk in the corridors so much as parade, progress, whatever royalty do. Marybeth carried herself like someone who knew who she was, though present circumstances failed to reflect her status. When she went home, she would be going someplace better than the other could. Her friend Ellen, who wore her fashionably straight dark hair almost down to her waist, gave rein to her quick, profane tongue, relying on her special status at Western High School because her father taught there.
The pair sashayed into my homeroom in skintight jeans and silk blouses to say hello. After Marybeth learned I was married, she would say things like "How's the wife and kids?"
"Don't say that, Marybeth!" Ellen chided. "That's not respectful!"
"It's OK," I put in, dismissively.
They ignored me. The dispute was between the two of them.
"What if he did have a wife and kids?" Ellen demanded.
"No he doesn't!" To me: "Do you, Mr. Russell?"
"No kids," I shrugged. "Except at this school."
They were not listening.
"He has a wife," Marybeth insisted.
I neither confirmed, nor denied.
My roomful of cowed juniors stared in silence as if watching TV as the two senior class goddesses ran this dispute into the ground, disappeared into the hallway, and burst into laughter.
The things we did in the house -- sunsets, music, getting high -- Penny liked them too (who didn't?), but, increasingly, not with us. When an afternoon class was canceled one day, she came home early, retreated to the little bedroom where we stored stuff we didn't use, and put her 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' album on at high volume to sing along with Janis. She was halfway through "Take another little piece of my heart" when a sharp knock at the door broke through the sound barrier and she found herself confronted by a rumpled, sour-faced Ricky Fielder.
"Can you turn it down?" he said. "I'm trying to sleep."
"Sleep?" Penny replied said. "It's two o'clock in the afternoon!"
"I think I have the right," Ricky pontificated in his best servant-of-a-higher-calling manner, "to choose my own schedule in my own home."
"What about my rights?" Penny demanded, describing the encounter to me.
I shrugged it off, as I did all interpersonal friction. Just make sure he's out of the house before you sing along at full volume, I told her. That was not what she wanted to hear.
Unhappily, the assault on Penny's deep reverence for Janis Joplin continued from an unexpected direction. Happy-go-lucky Alex, a composition major studying with a major international figure -- he shared with us his appropriation of the man's Eastern European accent -- was our music commissar. The gospel of jazz, as embodied in the recorded works of the great Miles Davis, gained a believer in Lisa, who worshipped at his feet and asked him to hold "a class in Miles Davis" so she could learn to appreciate the music as he did.
"You don't need a class," Alex responded, discomfited by the suggestion. "Just listen."
"I'm not just talking about jazz here," Alex said, warming to his theme when questions persisted. "Rock n' roll even. Rhythm and blues. Soul. The twelve-bar blues. Top forty. Everything!" He names a few favorites: James Brown, Sam Cooke.
"Take Booker T. and the MG's," he said. "He's better than anyone out there today."
This was too much for Penny.
"Better than Janis Joplin?"
Alex made a face. "I'm talking about the real thing here. Soul. Music."
Penny, outraged, turned to me.
"What do you think, Jon? Do you think Booker T. is better than Janis Joplin?" The insult of this opinion registered in her face.
An impossible position. I was not going to argue music with Alex, my own mentor in the field.
"Well, I don't know," I said, pathetically vague, "I mean, if we're just talking about the music..."
Penny looked at me with ill-concealed outrage.
"You always agree with them," she said. "Never with me."
Them?... My friends. The house divided up this way for Penny. The house was not her home. Her vanishing act was gradual, but steady. She disappeared from my life like the picture on a favorite coffee mug slowly vanishing from daily washings.
Sometimes I came home from school, scooting out after the last bell before anyone could stop, to find the house apparently empty. But then muffled sounds alerted me to the presence of the married couple upstairs and I would stand in the living room, paralyzed, as Lisa sang her arias of the flesh. If the house was more peopled when the love cries began, someone would make a humorous allusion to the behavior of newlyweds. But alone I fought the urge to listen, finally slipping out of doors to stroll around, buy cigarettes, or simply stand somewhere behind the house where a short grassy lawn backed up by the place we called the 'field.' Sometimes I walked back to the railroad tracks, hoping to see the approach of the slow-moving freight train that sometimes emerged, as if from another century.
Penny stopped talking about Sam's class. One evening as the days grew shorter and darkness fell early, alone in the bedroom -- Penny had taken the car and gone somewhere -- I noticed a folded piece of lined paper extending a little beyond the cover of a college book left on top of her dresser. Something told me that this folded sheet of paper was a 'note.' And that if you received a note at school, sticking it inside a book was something you were likely to do; and, further, it might contain some combination of words that you did not wish or were not able to impart orally. I had received many such notes in high school, almost all of them from Penny; and delivered plenty (not quite so many) to her.
Yet almost without reflection I pulled the paper out of the book and opened it.
The hand was not hers. I saw some spatial arrangement of words that looked like a poem and thought at once 'Who would be writing a poem to Penny?' while another part of me said, 'Put it back.'
Before I decided to follow that advice, my eyes fell on a line, took in a phrase, and then the unfamiliar writing transformed itself into a rapier thrust of meaning as I came to the words "our love."
I stopped reading and folded the note back into the book just the way I found it.
I put it back because I was spying. Because I was reading something not meant for my eyes. And, the real reason, because if I didn't read any more, I could pretend the note didn't exist, or at least in the form that I feared (and highly suspected) it did. I could put the whole subject away. Banish the universe of reflections such a note, a love poem perhaps, would necessarily give rise to. I could tell myself it could actually be addressed to someone else; Penny was acting as a go-between. Or it was poem copied for a course; from another book, maybe, or off a blackboard for study.
And while I told myself this, that other part of me was thinking, "Oh my. Things have already gone this far."
I said nothing about it. I asked myself if the note had been left purposely for me to find. Was it a warning? Something to give me the opportunity to ask Penny the questions I have been avoiding. "Why are you gone all the time? Is there something you're not telling me?"
I could ask her, in a sincere, non-judgmental way, Do you wish to try to stop this invisible but palpable slipping away? We are like two people standing on opposite sides of an icy summit, each of us losing traction, slipping downward. The speed of our decline will only increase.
And if I chose not to ask her these questions, then myself turned me into a co-conspirator in Penny's double life. An enabler.
I rejected the terms of the choice, that seemed to be forcing me into the conventional role of the jealously suspicious husband. I didn't want to be a part of that old pathetic comedy. Here we are in this house now, I told myself -- learning to live together as caring friends -- building something new.
The season declined, sunsets came sooner, blazing in the western sky over Sleeping Giant Park. We collected in the dining room, Ricky back from teaching his studio class to undergraduate art majors; Alex having dragged himself away from his fan club at Morse residential college where he regularly dropped by for friends and free meals, some days hanging out for evening jam sessions that turn into sleepovers. Standing, on our feet for some reason, sharing observations, making comments on something, the house's little collection of art books, or National Geographic, or some drawing that Ricky pulled from his portfolio to explain a funny, but probably complicated story of something that happened at Yale when he went in to teach or to show his stuff to some big wheel, and we are all into it. Somebody has walked into the kitchen to do something. Alex, maybe, growing through the pockets of his parka to pull out some treat laid on him at Morse for us to taste, or drink; or maybe smoke; perhaps somebody's hash brownies. One of those moments when call and response are flowing back and forth from all sides, like waves in a stirred-up bathtub
-- and then somebody notices the time.
"Hey, it's four o'clock." Slightly surprised.
"Four o'clock!" Harrison exclaims, eyebrows lifted, feet already in motion, a man coming out of a dream. Harrison was the first person I knew who timed sunsets.
"Lisa! We have to go to the mountain now."
It's on his schedule. The autumn day's defining event; maybe its peak moment.
"If we don't leave now we'll miss the sunset. Hurry!"
People do hurry, astonishingly. Breaking up the party in anticipation of better things still to come. Harrison races upstairs to get his 'equipment,' including the backpack with weights inside to maximize the climb's exercise potential. Lisa scurries away to find her hiking boots and lace them on.
"The mountain?" Ricky says. "I'm coming!"
He points at his feet, shod in black 'engineer boots.' "I'm ready, Harr!"
"You guys coming?" he says to Alex and me. "If you want to, you better get ready. I've watched Harrison fly out of this house. You do that, don't you, Harr!" Ricky calls, sending these words up the stairs to the rumble heard above us.
The rumble continues, weights dropping into a knapsack, but no reply.
"I'm as ready as I'm gonna be," Alex says, miming a yawn, unaffected by haste, preparation, hiking boots . Alex doesn't believe in changing clothes, in haste, in stuff.
I decide I'm going too, but I'm the only one in the house who wears a uniform, the kind of clothes you absolutely have to change out of in order to have fun. Upstairs in the room with the mattress on the floor, Penny's erstwhile high-volume retreat, I find my worn hiking shoes in the closet just as I hear the heavy slap of the storm door on the kitchen.
"To the mountain!" Ricky cries, playing a part, enjoying it.
Harrison echoes the cry, his voice pinched and high, but in the spirit of the thing.
I feel myself becoming the little kid trailing behind the gang, shouting "Wait for me!"
The others have crossed the state road, dashing between the commuter traffic, and started down the narrow path through the woods by the time I catch up. When we reach the quarried cliff face, we climb up a steep rock-hewn path that curves around one side of the face like ants traveling up the Giant's ear, to reach the 'sunset spot' at the summit. From there we can sit on the flatter rocks and look directly at the place where the October sun, already a red-crowned god in a cool, blue universe, a big fish in a small cosmos, is lipping the distant horizon, somebody else's green ridge.
After it slips all the way behind the event-horizon, the last direct glitter from its distant fire melding into all that is beautiful and remains to be seen, the gift of twilight, Ricky and Lisa begin to applaud.
"Hooray! Great sunset!"
"Why shouldn't we applaud a sunset?" Alex says, joining in. "Way to go, man. Let's hear it for ol' Sol. We applaud people, but who can compete with nature?"
"Hey," Lisa interrupts. "This is the first time that everybody's here together for the sunset!"
But everybody isn't here. Penny isn't. Nobody corrects her. I don't say a word.
I have to talk to somebody, I decide, about the note. Or about Penny and me. I choose Sandra, who as Ricky's girl friend comes to the house every weekend. A horn player in the Yale school of music, Sandra has black, curly hair and a round face that smiles a lot. Her presence has helped turn our weekend meal times into festive occasions -- especially because she cooks. But I choose her to talk to precisely because she doesn't live in the house and we don't have a long history together. I want to eliminate the house dynamic and concentrate simply on Penny and me.
"She's almost never here," I tell her. "We don't do things together anymore. I don't know what she's thinking."
Sitting on the floor of our bedroom, Sandra nods and murmurs in the right places while I talk. When I finish she suggests, reasonably enough, that I ask Penny to set a time when we can have an uninterrupted talk. What she's heard, I realize, is that our lives have grown apart. It's true, I think, but it's beyond that too.
"Is there something more?" Sandra asks, giving me another chance. Her face attentive, nonjudgmental -- a pretty good shrink for a horn player, I think.
Yes, of course there is. There's the note. But I hesitate -- deciding the note is suspect evidence, since I didn't fully read it, and therefore inadmissible. I thank Sandra for listening, tell her it's been a help to talk, and set her free to go back to her less conflicted life. She hops up to her feet and leaves the room after some cheerful words about the prospect of baking bread in our old oven.
My next attempt, acting on the same theory of appropriate distance, is to discuss my unhappiness with Alex's girl friend, Celeste. Likely Sandra has told Ricky everything I said; it's probably all over the house; but I'm trying to keep up appearances.
Also a musician but so sensitive about her art that she could never bear to play her violin if anybody was listening, Celeste was one of the most spiritual looking people I had ever met. Her white-blonde hair shining like polished silver, she looked like a thinly disguised angel or someone who could be her own grandmother. And her eyes could look through you, as they do when I sit down on the floor next to her one quiet Sunday morning.
Before I can launch my cri de coeur, she begins telling me a story of her own. Her violin teacher, she says, whom she regards as her guru, has a little boy who's ill.
"His son is the center of his life," she says. "He talks about him all the time. But he's ill. The doctors are treating him, but it's something he was born with, and they're not sure anything they can do will help."
I listen, my problems growing smaller.
"My teacher said to me," Celeste resumes, "that even if his son dies..."
She looks at me with an expression that says she's not afraid to think about death. I nod, unable to say what I'm agreeing with.
"...he will come home from the cemetery," Celeste's pale eyes drill into me, "and say, 'Hooray for life!'"
Not a matter of life and death, then; but important to me.
When Alex proposes, "Let's smoke this thing outdoors," holding up the joint he's rolled, "under the stars," I wonder if he wants to talk to me about Celeste. They're an oddly patched pair, Alex so happy-go-lucky. It's cold outdoors; it's November.
We stand at the top of the driveway, a dozen feet taking us beyond the circle of pale illumination thrown by the kitchen light. Even then the earth looks pale beneath our feet, a white scrim laid over the earth, stars gleaming above. Frost already, I think, licking at the low places. We stand in our sweaters over jeans, Alex's feet in the heavy work boots he wears everywhere. He tells people they help him keep his balance.
But I'm wrong about what he wants.
"So where's Penny?" he asks, softly, after we've shared the joint back and forth a few times between us.
I shrug. "I don't know."
I could make excuses, say "at the library, probably," but maybe out here, under the stars, I am beyond appearances. Besides, I know Alex has seen through them.
"I mean where is she, man?"
He's not questioning her whereabouts, but her head, her life. I understand the question, I can't really answer.
"I really don't know. That's it in a nutshell."
He takes a step closer me, as if to see me better.
"I see things," he says. "I can't help seeing things. Everybody does.... And I know what it looks like. But then I think, but Penny? I mean Penny?"
After a silence I say, "It looks the same way to me."
"I mean Penny and you," he says, with emphasis, "were like the tight couple, man."
His body shows me what he saw, still and steady, the inward crimp of his limbs. That's how we have looked to others. We don't quarrel, raise our voices in public, like many couples; like lovers do. We don't disagree in public.
I can't show him what goes on, or doesn't, behind closed doors. I'm afraid to try.
"I'm dealing with it," I say, at last. "Or trying to. But she's just not telling me anything."
We nod at one another in the shadows, the frost.
Alex looks up at the night sky, and then back at me.
"That's why I like living here, man," Alex says, lifting a booted foot and planting it solidly on the ground. "I mean here. On a planet." He glances starward. "Among other planets."
When the phone rings, a female voice asks to speak to 'Jon.'
"Someone from school," I explain to the others.
But I'm not fooling anyone. When it rings another evening, and the evening after that, Ricky picks up the receiver and calls out to me. "Russell, it's that girl again."
Yet when the crisis comes that fall, or appears to, it isn't mine. Someone is missing from our convivial, communal midst, without explanation. Not Penny, whom people no longer expect to see much of. But -- Harrison?
Harrison is always there. Reading his paper at the table, the only one of us who regularly does, though I suspect it's largely to check the stock market. Or with his check ledger out, paying the house utility bills, then figuring out each one of our shares (and helpfully pointing these figures out to us). Or alone in his study, the small first floor room reserved for his use, the door always shut --I've never seen the inside of it. The room where, I'm told, he keeps his own books, conducts his studies, his projects, or whatever we should call them. He does art; he does science. He reads history and politics. He exercises in the afternoon, then rests up before the sunset climb to the mountain, some days slipping upstairs for those musical rendezvouses with Lisa.
"Though, now that you mention it," Ricky says on the second day of Harrison's absence, "we haven't heard any of the conjugal music they used to make in some time. At least I haven't -- have you guys?"
Alex and I shake our heads.
"Do you think there's something wrong?" Ricky asks.
"Something wrong with Harrison you mean?" Alex says.
I grow quiet.
When Lisa returns to the house that evening from a rare night out with the French Table, the university club that's always looking for Francophiles to share meals and civilized conversation en francais, and stalks head down through the house, Alex stops her with our question.
"So where's Harrison been, Lis?"
"Oh, " she says, avoiding our glances, "he had to see somebody. Just some business."
We figure 'business' means something to do with money, and ask no more questions.
She goes upstairs. When I go up to change out of my hiking shoes -- we boys struggling along that day without our Peter Pan and Wendy -- I hear the sound of someone crying softly.
Harrison is back the next day, a Saturday, camped blithely in the living room's armchair, his wife's usual reading chair. I've been up for a few hours, but Harrison and I ignore each other. If he's not telling, I'm not asking. Alex, however, emerging from his first floor bedroom, sleep ruffled, his hair in his face, is made of sterner stuff. Rummaging in his stocking feet, he finds a smoke-able Kool in an ashtray and collapses into the couch.
"Hey, Har," Alex says, "so you're back."
Harrison grunts. He's hiding behind his newspaper.
I'm parked in a corner of the dining room with a stack of kids' papers, miserable attempts at responding to one of my rare written assignments. After a silence I hear Alex walk through into the kitchen, and hunt around for the cereal. When he's done eating and walks back, he finds Harrison still in the same chair.
"Oh... She went to visit her mother."
"Is she OK? She seemed a little down the other day." Alex calls for corroboration. "Didn't she, Russell?"
"Hmm," I say. Acknowledging that I'm hearing.
"Anything the matter?" Alex says.
"No," Harrison says. I picture his phony stonewalling grin. "She just wanted to get away."
Away from what? I think. The house? Us?
Or, possibly, her husband? They've gone on separate vacations, I conclude, taking a tip from Cosmo for jaded spouses.
"So this 'business' of yours, man," Alex persists. "Lisa was telling us --"
"She did?" Harrison looks up from his paper in alarm.
"She said you had some business. Where'd you go?"
"Where did I go?" Harrison repeats the question, calm now, playing cat-and-mouse tone. "To the city."
The city? Not New Haven, surely. No reason to be gone overnight there. Boston? New York? Harrison retreats determinedly behind his newspaper. We don't find out.
Lisa comes back from her 'visit,' and things return to normal. As the fall semester comes to an end the house fills with visitors. Celeste comes down from New York City with one of Alex's friends from home, a drummer who steps up the beat in the house's informal jam sessions. Ricky has a new girl friend, having pink-slipped Sandra, for no apparent cause. (Sandra is mourned by the rest of us, but then put behind us: group shrug.) The new girl, Deedee, a West Coast blonde, is both relentlessly cheerful and provocatively academic in her conversation. She keeps asking everybody about their college majors.
I leave the ongoing house party one evening for a "musical evening" -- meaning classical, chamber -- hosted by Marybeth's parents, who enjoy inviting teachers from their daughter's school to their events. The Watsons live in a beachfront house they insist on calling a "cottage," though it's probably the largest house I've ever seen the inside of. Marybeth's parents and their friends are happy to meet an Ivy League graduate who's teaching in the local high school. If I'm so smart, I am tempted to reply (but am too polite), what am I doing teaching your kids?
When I get back to the hippie house, the living room is filled with people listening to something new to me, it's jazzy but with a post-Hendricks electric guitar sound, apparently introduced to the house with great success by the Sears' friend Frederick. A med school resident, Frederick has a conventional look and a mild demeanor. I'm surprised when he rolls joints incessantly with a smiling obsessiveness that suggests his off-duty time is too precious to waste by leaving things half-done. People are reacting to the music, telling stories, carrying on their own conversations, throwing out comments on the weirder bits of overheard stories, and sharing punch lines that draw laughter from some and leave others confused. Laughter breaks out here and there, and I slip in among those sitting on the floor to make it easier to keep the joints moving. I don't think about who's in the room and who isn't.
Harrison uncoils his long legs, rising wordlessly with a provocatively self-pleased smile to go upstairs. Moments later lighter footsteps skip down them and Lisa descends neatly into a narrow piece of carpet between Alex and me, like a gymnast landing a fall.
"I've got some news, everybody," she says. The music is playing, so not 'everybody' hears.
"Good news?" Alex says since Lisa is obviously floating, happier than we've seen her for weeks. "Then lay it on us, babe."
"I'm going to London next week."
"London! Far out --" Deedee butts into our circle, chirping happily. "London, wow. England. You two should go all over the country. You'll love it --."
"Just me. Not Harrison. I'm going to England to have an abortion. My sister's over there, so I'll stay with her."
She waits a beat. "So there! Have I blown your minds?"
She has. Alex makes an impressed face. I nod blankly.
Emotion pouring out of her, Lisa blinks back tears, her features a mixture of all weathers, sun and storm and star-spackled dawn. They're tears of relief now that a marital crisis has been resolved with a trip abroad.
Frederick, the couple's medical connection, nods from a circle of bodies six feet away. His bland smile coasts benignly on as he rolls, puffs and slowly exhales. He hasn't needed to hear her news because he already knew it.
Alex throws in a question. "Why England?"
"Because my husband is so good to me," Lisa says. She wants us to know this, to feel it as she does.
Harrison is a planner, I realize, living on a budget. A trip to Europe was not been part of the year's spending plan, but now he has made some arrangement -- talked to someone, convinced himself he can afford it. So that was the 'business trip.'
I share a glance with Alex and his expression tells me what I'm feeling. Gratitude that life in the house will go on as before.
"I don't see why she just doesn't have the baby," Penny says.
A baby in the hippie house?
"Really, man," she insists, seeing my shock and disapproval, "why shouldn't she? It's not like they're doing anything else."
We're talking about other people, at least a little. Not about ourselves, but being in the car so much, first driving to Long Island and back for Christmas with family, now heading to a New Year's Eve party in Boston, has forced us to spend time together. The party is at a college friend's place. He married his hometown girl friend, got accepted to architectural school, and grew 'serious.' I'm not sure how well I know him any more.
The weather turns nasty just as we leave the house, snow and frozen rain alternating as we plow along the two-lane highway through eastern Connecticut. I'm driving. Penny, the person who taught me to drive stick, who endured my teenage misadventures behind the wheel when I got my license, is feeling too something -- uptight? edgy? -- to drive in bad weather on a poorly lit road. After a while I begin to have second thoughts myself, my confidence waning from feeling Penny's nervous vibrations inside the confines of the Bug.
"I can't see anything out there," she explodes, finally. "Can you?"
"Sort of," I reply. I'm staying on the road, but not sure how.
The journey begins to make less and less sense. We're feeding off one another's angst. I recognize this state as the closed-circuit emotional hotbox in which we have locked each other up over the years.
"Do you want to turn around?" I ask.
"Do you?" She sounds relieved.
She doesn't want responsibility for the decision laid to her side of the ledger -- her 'paranoia.' I agree to take it on mine.
"I don't care that much if we go to this party or not." Fact is, I hate New Year's Eve parties.
"Then let's turn around."
By the time we make it back to New Haven, the snow retreating now into rain, we decide to go to a restaurant as a substitute for a party. It's the sort of thing we would do in the 'old days.' Tell our parents we were going to a party or school event, but veer off to some isolated spot where we could be alone and then end up at a hamburger joint. Running away from the world with Penny, it's a familiar feeling. I feel it slipping over my psyche like an old coat, musty and in need of an airing.
"We'll go to Blessings," I say.
Inside the Chinese restaurant we're lucky to find a quiet back room. Here we are: alone again on New Year's Eve. But things are different. I force myself to talk about 'us.' When am I going to get a better chance?
"Here's to us," I say, lifting a glass of wine. "Another year."
I can't be serious, can I? Of course I can't, but my tone is bland, neutral, forcing Penny to make her own interpretation. That's what I'm hoping she'll do.
She looks at me carefully, running her own calculations.
"Another year," she repeats, but doesn't lift her own glass. After a moment she adds, "We made it this far."
Have we, though? Is she bullshitting me? She grows uncomfortable under my gaze, the color draining from her features.
"So," I say, taking the initiative for once, since Penny is floundering; it shows in her face.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
Her face passes through a hundred changes. Some part of her desires to be frank with me, open. I'm the one person, she's told me in the past, who can 'understand' her.
"What's going on," she says, eventually with a shrug meant to be nonchalant, "is what's going on."
Bullshit, I think. Candor rejected.
"What does that mean?"
"What do you mean?" The old feistiness flying back in this reply, the backhand smash.
"C'mon, Penny. Something is going on with you. You're my wife, but you're never around... There must be a reason."
I watch her think, trying once again to find something to tell me that is not a lie. Did she think I haven't noticed? Or that I can be relied on to accept whatever comes my way without question? Maybe. Because it appears she's unprepared for any confrontation. She's not looking for the words to tell me the truth, I think. She's looking for a way to stop me from asking uncomfortable questions.
"Can you just tell me the truth?" I say.
"I don't know what you think is the truth," she says at last. Not an answer to my questions. Maybe not a lie, but clearly an evasion.
And yet I reply.
"What I think..." I pause as another possibility occurs to me. Is she giving me some hint that my suspicions about the writer of the 'our love' note are mistaken? Misplaced even?
"What I think," I repeat, "is that if things go on the way they are now, we won't be drinking a toast to 'us' next year."
I wait. Her face softens, but she doesn't appear able to reply.
"Because there won't be an 'us,'" I add. Thinking, Let me make one thing perfectly clear.
"What do you think," she asks -- yet again passing the ball, the onus to keep the confrontation going, back to me -- "is going on?"
"What I think," I reply, "is you don't want me asking you uncomfortable questions."
She shrugs, her face half hardened, half apologetic. "Maybe."
"What I think is that you'd probably be willing to leave the house -- I mean, leave me -- if you had some place to go."
Long, heavy pause. "You're saying this, Jon. Not me."
"Isn't it true?"
I watch her face grow hard all the way, her lively, light-filled eyes flatten. Her stare tells me 'no reply.' No self-incrimination.
Why don't I just come out and say it? I tell myself.
"Are you leaving me?" I ask.
Possible replies flash between us as I watch those eyes come back to life. I even have momentary flashes of hope that she will tell me the truth. Trust me with the truth. But that hope gutters when I hear her retreat once again to the fortification she has built to keep me, or the truth, at bay.
"Is that what you think?"
"What I think...," I begin again, determined somehow to get over the wall. But as I wait to hear the truth form in my thoughts, some tempest from the shared past blows through me again, knocking me off course.
"...is that you're doing your best."
I don't know why I choose these words. Because of the years we relied on each other, clung to each other, needed each other, for one reason or another? Because I am honoring what we were?
She throws her head back a little, shakes her hair away from her eyes. Her eyes soften once more. She smiles, gently.
"You're a nice guy, Jon," she says.
I want to lean across the table, and kiss her.
I know what this is. It's the kiss-off. It's goodbye.