Once again I was in my mother's house, the way it was back in Penn's Vale when I was a child, before she and dad replaced the white cabinets and the wonderful wide old white porcelain sink with its high spigot (high enough for me to drag a chair over to it and drink right from the unaerated fall of water, a thing I was expressly forbidden to do, but did anyway if the parents were out of sight, letting the cool water spill over my cheeks and chin) with the gleaming two-bowl stainless steel creature set into a countertop and prefabricated cabinets. Late afternoon sun, the sun of summer, was coming in through the window over the sink, having passed through the windows of the enclosed porch outside. I looked around, remembering how comforting it was to when I was little.
The house must have originally just had a wide back porch outside that kitchen window and the back door that led from the kitchen, for the wall, under its paint, is made of the same dark, brownish-gray cement bricks as the rest of the exterior of the house. In the tongue-and-groove floor, from my earliest memories, at the far end was set a heavy double door, that opened on a set of steep stairs to a kind of cellar, or crawl space between the foundation walls of the rest of the house. Perhaps someone before my parents ever walked on the earth had decided to make a root cellar for storing potatoes and apples. Walls had been built around the porch long before we moved there; I remember from my earliest years that porch as being a dim and frightening and musty place, dark with the old weathered clapboard of the outside, a big, splintery homemade door in the middle of the western wall. On the north end, a hole had been cut in the floor and plumbing had been cobbled together to service an old wringer washing machine and its matching porcelain-coated rinse tub. The wringer mechanism could shift back and forth across the machines, so that the unfortunate woman doing the laundry could squeeze the water from her clothes after the wash and after the rinse. (Clever, and no doubt better than wringing them by hand, but God, I am grateful for the automatic washers of today!)
The little cellar and the back porch were lit by naked electric bulbs hanging from spidery wires in the ceiling. There were no windows, and I seem to remember wads of newspaper stapled or nailed across some of the gaps in the wood.
Mom and Dad changed that. He re-studded the walls, and put windows all across the western wall. He cut off part of the eastern end of the porch and ingeniously built a stairway with a landing in the middle of it: one side led down to the cellar, the other to the outside of the house. She painted the walls white, to maximize the light, and the floor with a shiny utilitarian gray. Heaven alone knows how many coats she put on that floor - it had to have been old raw wood when she started, and by the time she was satisfied the floor was smooth and waterproof.
So! Once again I was there, standing on the faded kitchen linoleum. The heavy back door, with its thick window and sheer curtains, opened and a young man came through it. He was slight, with dark hair in a professional style cut. He was carrying a briefcase, and wearing an overcoat with a red scarf over his suit. "My uncle told me this was the house for the set-up of the introductory sale."
"Well, he was wrong. this is the Ambris house and I am not interested in buying or selling anything. You need to turn around and leave, NOW." He shrugged, twisting his mouth to show that he thought I was a bitch, and headed towards the stairs at that end of the porch.
The sleazy bastard had already hung advertising banners from the ceiling of the porch, hooked into the acoustic tile. They were very colorful, reds and blues and yellow, ugly garish wastes of paper. I was pissed. Did he think I was going to leave his damned advertisements in my house? I was about to start ripping them down until I realized he hadn't left, he'd gone down the steps to the cellar. Suddenly my anger turned to fear. I shouted, "You need to get out NOW or I'll sic my dog on you!" Very, very glad now to have Gabe with me, beside me and pulling forward as I held onto his steel choke collar. The creepy salesman wouldn't leave, so I sent Gabe after him.
The man was coming back up the steps when Gabe hit him, spinning him around. Gabe grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him, but then, uncharacteristically, let him go and walked away, sniffing at the cracks in the floor.
I ran to the kitchen phone, picked up the receiver, and punched 9-1-1. Nothing, not even a dial tone. Then I realized that the phone was upside down on the wall and I had dialled 1-9-9. I tried again, but the keys were so hard to see without my reading glasses. I was trembling by then, but I slowly pressed the keys in what I thought was the right sequence. 9-1-1. Instead of the emergency connection, it was the directory assistance operator who came on the line.
"Please help me," I begged. "I've got an intruder in my house and I can't seem to be able to get to 911!"
The operator said to someone else who was with her, "She seems to be having a hard time ..." And then the line went dead.
I hate dreams of being helpless and so I woke myself up to rearrange my pillows and try for a dream that was more interesting. There was too much misery and desperation and worry about my mother in waking life to want to experience any more while I slept. As I shifted the bedding, Gabe lifted his head to see if I was getting up, or just moving around to inconvenience him. Big ears erect, glinting a hint of shape in the moonlight. Moonlight, ah, no wonder. I always sleep poorly and dream badly when the moon is bright. Probably lack of good sleep is what turns people into werewolves, I thought. And speaking of wolves ... "Just what did you think you were doing in that dream, Gabe?" I asked the big dog and rubbed his neck. "When I tell you to bite someone, you are supposed to bite the living hell out of them!" Gabe stretched his long yellow legs and then, with a sideways switch, rolled onto his back so I could rub his belly. His upper lips drooped towards the bed, and even in the dim light I could see the rows of teeth. I snugged back onto my pillow, facing away from the window, too lazy and content to get up and pull the blinds.
About the time that I acquired Gabe, a dog so big and toothy that Adam would have crossed the street to avoid him, and so messy with slobbers and shed hair that Adam would have refused to set foot in the house, I also began to think about my forthcoming life, long term.
There was an empty spot in my life that even a good dog couldn't fill: the absence of romantic love. Some people are very susceptible to love, and I had been one of them. When I was four years old I was madly in love with the actor Michael Rennie and then it was Sean Connery, and then one or another boy in my classes at school, and then my long infatuation from a distance of Tommy Snedeker in high school. And then the madly eccentric California boys, and college dates, and then, while I worked incredible amounts of overtime to secure my future at Houston's, if I wasn't working or sleeping, I was toying with romance; there was always a boyfriend or two to be dating. Work, sleep, date. That was what I found Life to be all about. Then I stopped dating anyone but Adam for almost two years, so Life was just waiting for the next phone call or visit, and work, sleep. Then the six years of bliss and misery with Adam, and then another two years of pretending Adam would come back, and now here I was in early middle age, can you believe it? and no romance at all. I had left Houston's to work at an attorney's practice in Riverton, reasonable hours, rare overtime.
Now what? I had this deeply rooted conviction? indoctrination? that every one in the world is supposed to want to be married, or partnered sexually somehow. Every book, every movie -- don't they all suggest that? Okay, nuns don't, except that they are encouraged to live in communities and they're married to God, or something. And priests, right, but they're basically married to the Church, and no one ever lets a parish priest alone, he's pestered constantly by his flock.
Romance was not what I wanted; I just didn't know how to fill in the space left by the lack of it.
On either side of my house were unmarried neighbors: Andersol and Bodie had never built a life around romance or a spouse. Just each other. And Mary LeMay had been widowed for some time; she had to have learned to cope with a horrible emptiness. I hoped they would have some inspirational words for me.
"What happens if one of you falls in love and wants to get married?" I asked the twin neighbors one evening after we had knocked off two bottles of Clos du Bois chardonnay.
Andersol laughed. "Who would we marry, Sully?"
"I don't know. I do know you both go out on dates from time to time, and sometimes you don't come home early. What would the one who was left do?"
"Well, that's the point right there. There isn't going to be 'one who's left.'" Bodie wasn't laughing, just a kind smile. "How could I marry someone who would object to my sister? That's not something I would find very attractive in a woman."
"Same here," Andersol nodded. "We've been together all our lives, Sul, from before we were born. We like each other. We want to stay together. If that means we never get married, well, oh, well."
I was also inclined to talk to Mary LeMay about love, and her choice to remain single. Her gray hair was fine and faintly curly; she patted it along the sides to try to make it stay in the sedate clip at the back of her head. "Jack lives here with me all the time," she said. "I can't seem to see anyone clearly without him standing at my shoulder, pointing out all the ways they're different from him. He was so brave and wonderful, Sully. Some nights I just give in to wishes and think about all the things I've done that Jack and I could have done together. Whale watching. Yosemite National Park. Watching the orchard bloom. The riverboat tours. Seeing our son John doing so well for himself." Her eyes seemed to focus on something far away. Abruptly she rapped her knuckles twice on the table between us. "I miss Jack every single day, but I can't turn back the clock. All I can do is my best with the days that I have left to me. I came out here and joined our parish and got involved there. There's always loads of people who can use my hands or eyes or help; and since my son doesn't seem to want to settle down and make me some grandchildren, I help with the kids and their Sunday school classes. You're right, Sully, love is important, but it doesn't always have to be about sex."
We'd both been married. I looked her squarely in the eye and said seriously, "Not always."
She blushed and laughed her witchy laugh, loudly, and swatted me with a placemat. "You bad girl! I'll dream of Jack tonight and giggle all through my workout tomorrow morning!"
I think talking to Mary was the most helpful; she was making her life happen fully without having a man in her bed, though she obviously wished he were still there. I could identify with that. There were things I still missed about Adam very much, though life was getting to be a lot less painful without him. At least I had family to occupy my spare days; Mary and Bodie and Andersol didn't have that consolation, what with Mary's son being in New York and the Talles cut off from their folks.
We don't live from Family Day to Family Day, though. The days that need the work are the Tuesday and Wednesday mornings when you look at the mirror in back of your reflection and see the dust motes swirling in the sunbeams in the empty room behind you and know that they will be your only company on Thursday and Friday morning as well. Ah, but perhaps not the only company, as several hundred dog hairs go sailing through the light as Gabe shakes himself. His morning routine is to stretch himself, yawning, shake himself, and then butt his huge handsome head against my belly for a face rub. The German shepherd's version of a shower-and-a-shave. He is so confident that I love him.
And that's what the reflection in front of the dust motes needs to get a grip on. Whose hands would I rather work with? Whose brain would I rather dream with?
I can live by myself, I don't need anyone to tell me to get up and go to the office or to eat my supper like a good girl. I don't need someone else to tell me I'm a good cook, or whether or not my back yard looks inviting and interesting. The person that knows all those things is already here.
Can't turn back the clock, Mary said, and indeed that is true, and indeed, I wouldn't want to, not really; as my life and time moves forward, I need to learn to rely on myself for love and direction and encouragement.
That's always hard to do; we batter ourselves worse than most anyone else we know.