This is Part #5 of Diary of a Naive. Parts 1-4 may be found in Recent Posts at the sidebar.
The train wreck always announced itself. Faint warning bells and urgent whistles would go off in my psyche every time I headed toward something I was enthusiastic about, but I always managed to brush them away, and I did so once again. I ran to my room, insanely happy that the Universe had not only blessed me with telling me what I was supposed to do with my life, it even handed me a story. It was all too wonderful to be true. But it was true. Passing the staircase, I threw a glance down to the foyer and wondered whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to quickly clean the kitchen and to put in a load of wash, which would just take a minute, and then my mind would be free to work on my future.
I turned to head downstairs and stopped myself. I was doing it again. I had done it a thousand times. Whenever there was something I wanted to do solely for myself, I headed first for the things that needed doing or that I thought needed doing or that seemed plausible to do now rather than later. I might as well call the plumber before sitting down to read. Invariably, this guy, who sometimes took weeks to come, had a free moment and came right away, which meant I didn’t read that day. Or I thought I might as well quickly clean the freezer, which would take but thirty minutes. Of course, it always took hours. Dragging everything out made a mess in the kitchen, which I had to clean as well, and it would’ve been stupid to clean the freezer and not the fridge at the same time. Or I might as well take a few minutes and go through the pile—no matter how neatly stacked—of magazines that I never seemed to get around to reading and throw some of them out. Or I might as well take the duster and quickly run through the house and get the spider webs out of the corners, because, for no reason whatever, I had looked up at the ceiling in the foyer the day before, and there it was, larger than life, a perfect web. If there was one, there would be others. Or I might as well quickly hammer the Trojan Horse together. It would only take a minute.
But this time, I caught myself just in time and headed straight for my sanctuary, where a sobering sight met me. The dark, dreary room looked like the detention room in a medieval schoolhouse. And why hadn’t I ever noticed this before? The only window in the room faced north and saw the sun for only a few minutes in the morning on a few slants of light, though it did look pretty with its lace curtains, which I had hung to give the house a uniform lacey look from the outside. The lone chair by the window held a box with clothes the children had outgrown and that I had meant to drop off at the Salvation Army.
The metal folding table we had once used in the yard for cookouts had become my projects table, where I cut out fabrics and framed pictures and fixed things that were broken. The table was covered with stuff I had meant to get to and hadn’t. When I wrote the night before, I had just shoved it all aside. But now it bothered me. Empty picture frames and matting lay in one pile. Fabric, left over from something I had sown, made up another. Thread and scissors and other assorted sewing items spilled out of the basket I kept them in. Advertisements with coupons, which I had meant to cut out, lay in yet a further pile.
Against the wall, the sewing machine stood open on top of an old cabinet, and a long-armed, brown office desk lamp finished that drab picture. The ironing board leaned against the wall. The Naugahide looked a little brighter now with the pretty quilt, but the corner where it stood was depressing. On one side, the black boom box Adam Jr. had bestowed on me when he bought a new one sat on the floor beside the black phone. On the other side, an old end table and a reading lamp, which, actually, since I’d permitted myself the splurge of a honey colored shade, had a lovely light. But the light wasn’t on that moment. And the fat yellow candle I lit sometimes when I mended looked positively lost on that table. I couldn’t help myself. I had to make some changes. And if only to match my bliss. And no, I didn’t recognize the danger signals. It seemed perfectly plausible to create something pretty and to bring some order into this place before I sat down to write.
I folded the ironing board and stuck it behind the door and took the Salvation Army box downstairs so I would make sure to take it with me when next I left the house. Whatever was on the table, I stuffed into the closet that I had fitted with shelves some years back. These shelves already held my fabrics and patterns and the rest of my life: framing supplies, yarns for weaving, water colors, a box with pottery supplies, drawing tablets, and leftovers from whatever other hobbies I had started enthusiastically, only to lose interest halfway through. On the top shelf, in a box, were all my folders and papers and books from my failed dream of getting a college degree.
Once the table was empty, I moved it to the window, wide side butting up perfectly beneath the sill. Studying that arrangement, I thought better of it. I would be sitting with my back to whoever came into the room, which would make me feel like Doc Holliday, who always sat with his back to the wall for fear someone would come up behind him and shoot him. And, if I remember correctly, someone did. So I moved the small end of the table to butt up with the sill, got the chair, and sat down to get the full effect of what it would be like once I actually sat down to write.
I glanced out the window and met our neighbor’s tall and proud pines. I loved these pines, because a little bit of sky was to be had above them. Sometimes, when I felt homesick for Colorado, I would stand by that window, remembering running among the pines when I was a child. I missed their scent so much, and I missed walking barefoot over the brown needles that got stuck in the soles of my feet sometimes. It was so wonderfully quiet among the pines. Even as a child, I craved solitude more than I craved people.
When I looked up, the bluest of skies serrated by the tops of the pines met me. I sighed. Why hadn’t I moved the table there before? Or even the sewing machine so I could look up from the drudgery of sewing and mending once in a while and see the sky? Kate Hamilton, I said, you are an idiot. But before I permitted myself to dwell on this verdict against me further, I headed to the linen closet in the hall where I found the yellow checkered table cloth I used on the patio table for summer cookouts and smoothed it onto my new desk. The first item I put on it was the notebook into which I once had jotted sewing instructions and now used as a kind of calendar/reminder to keep to-do-lists in. This notebook was essential to keep nearby, because if I didn’t immediately write down the definitely-not-to-forget-to-do things that came to me I would forget. The drab, brown, long-armed office lamp from the sewing cabinet gave me some trouble when I tried to fasten the bracket to the edge of the table, and it wobbled once I got it attached, but it would have to do until I could get myself a prettier one. I dug the old typewriter I had used to write my college papers on out of the closet, dusted it, and took off the cover.
Did this make me feel like a writer?
I ran to the garden and came back with a bouquet of daffodils and two red tulips. On the way up the stairs, I grabbed a picture of the children when they were small—pudgy sweet Julie in the pink little frock I had made for her, and Adam Jr., smiling, age five, in his baseball uniform. I stole a pillow off the living room couch as an added colorful touch to the quilt on the Naugahide, put the fat yellow candle on my desk by the flowers, and then I stood in the door, surveying my work. The room was perfect, except for one more thing. I went to get a sheet and draped it over the sewing machine, and now there was nothing left of my previous dreary life.
But even as I worked—the whole of the change taking little more than an hour —I was aware that, rather than working slowly and deliberately, I rushed to get it all done. This rushing around was very familiar to me. Whenever I did something that I truly enjoyed or something that I did only for myself, I rushed through it all as if the devil were after me. Sometimes, I caught myself and demanded that I slow down, insisting that I had a perfect right to do what I was doing and everything else could wait. What I didn’t know yet was that negative emotions are very powerful. Until you search for them and actually find them and shoot them dead, they will play tug of war with the reasoning of your mind until they win. And they most always do. No amount of telling myself that I had a perfect right to do something I enjoyed doing, like reading, or, in this case, taking the time to create a pretty room for myself, got rid of the tension that invariably rose after I had worked on whatever ‘selfish’ project I decided to work on.
I headed to my messy kitchen for another cup of coffee, realizing that it was past noon. I had about three hours of free time, but then I’d have to see to the house. Or should I do it now, and then I’d be free?
“For God’s sake, Kate!” I screamed at myself. “What in the hell is wrong with you?”
I didn’t walk back to my sanctuary, I stomped up those stairs, as if I could pound determination into my head by stomping. I put down my coffee cup, settled happily down in front of the typewriter, and took a deep breath.
That’s when the phone rang. The sound blasted the room so suddenly, I jumped. I sat motionless, as if, if I didn’t move, the phone would think I wasn’t home and would stop ringing. But it kept ringing. It’s Adam, I thought. Adam was calling to find out how I was, and why was I letting him wait when he was about to be so kind. But it wasn’t Adam. Of course not. It was Janice Reimer, my neighbor.
“Oh, Kate,” she said, “I’m so glad you’re home, and I’m so sorry to trouble you. I was supposed to pick up Tommy from his classes at NOVA, and my car broke down. I hate to ask, but would it at all be possible for you to come and get me?”
Damn! I thought. Why did I pick up the phone? Janice’s car broke down at least once a month, and why in the hell didn’t they just get a new car? Besides, Janice was the kind of person who never quit talking about the most trivial things in the greatest of detail:
And then she said, Huh?
And I said, It’s true.
And then she said, I don’t believe it.
And then I said, Believe me, it’s true.
And then she said, That’s terrible.
And then I said, of course, it’s terrible.
And then she said . . . .
By this time, I’d find myself so antsy and frustrated, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own house. As time went by, I had to come up with ever more outrageous lies to escape her.
The Reimer’s had bought the house next door about two years before, when Jean, the only friend I had made in this neighborhood, had moved with her husband to Texas. I missed them terribly. They had had no children, and Jean taught Spanish part-time at one of the community colleges. We often got together for coffee or went shopping or to the movies or to explore Washington, once the kids were in school, and I hated losing her. When we moved into the neighborhood, I had tried to make friends, introducing myself to the neighbors, or talking to them when I met them on my walks, offering help if they needed something from the store or the pharmacy. I even managed to invite some of them over for coffee and dessert. But they rarely invited me back, and I soon realized that the folks in Barclay Commons had all known one another forever, and they didn’t need a newcomer. So I was looking forward to Janice moving in, but once I got to know her a little better, I realized that, once encouraged, she would talk forever. Getting away from her was difficult, because she kept on talking, even when I said that I really had to go. For the longest time, I felt guilty trying to get away, no matter how frustrated I was. I thought that she might be lonely, even though she had two boys and a husband. But one day, I had enough, and said:
She kept talking.
I raised my voice. “Janice?”
She finally quit talking.
“I have to go,” I said, and I turned and left. I didn’t feel any less guilt, but my frustration won. Thereafter, I tried to avoid her, trying not to be too obvious. Which was equally difficult. Her car breaking down all the time didn’t help in the least.
I didn’t know just what she did all day. I had never been to her house when it wasn’t in total disarray—the kitchen a mess, clothes lying everywhere together with newspapers, magazines, and I don’t know what else. She had made a career out of suffering, as she said, from migraines and spent a good deal of time in bed. Most of the time it was her husband, an accountant, who got dinner ready for her and the boys after he came home from work. Stacks of romance novels always covered the coffee table, and she freely admitted devouring them, and she obviously lived them, expecting her husband to live them too, whether he wanted to or not. She had no qualms sharing her sex life with me, even when he stood right there, and more than once I had to listen to how she had greeted him the evening before in the nude, with only a sheer tulle scarf around her neck, laughing a coy and self-congratulatory little laugh as she told the story, because it was so delicious.
She had caught me at the mailbox when her two boys visited their grandparents a couple of weeks back and told me that she had built a fire in the fireplace, put a soft quilt in front of it, and she and her husband had sex there. She made sure to let me know that it was wonderful, while her husband, who had innocently joined us at the mailbox, tried to coax her into the house with some urgency. But she couldn’t let go of her tale until it was done, putting her arm around his waist so he couldn’t leave unless he wanted to be rude.
And now her car quit on her once again, and I had no choice but to graciously say, “Of course. Where are you?”
“Right outside Lord & Taylor’s.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said, utterly frustrated.
If I hadn’t taken the time to revamp my sanctuary, I probably would have five pages done by now. I should have sat down the moment the story came to me. And why didn’t I get an answering machine yet? Tomorrow, I would go and get an answering machine. At which butterflies invaded my stomach, because I had brought the subject up to Adam a few times, and he didn’t think it was a good idea.
I ran to rip off my sweats, pulled on a pair of jeans and a blouse, tied my hair back, looked in the mirror, found my eyes tired, stroked on some mascara, grabbed keys and bag, and ran out of the house.
She waited for me outside the store, which was just a couple of miles away.
“Hi, there,” she said, climbing into the car, “I’m so sorry I had to drag you out of the house.”
“No problem,” I said. “I wasn’t doing anything important. Do you need me to take you to NOVA?”
“Oh, would you?” I have never seen anyone so relieved. “He gets so cross with me when he has to wait. And I . . . . ” She stopped. “I wish I were as slender as you are,” she suddenly said. “How do you do it? I can’t lose weight to save my life.”
The compliment so surprised me, I didn’t know what to say. As I never knew what to say. Compliments hadn’t come my way often, aside from Adam in the beginning of our relationship. And so I said, “Oh, don’t you think I’m much too skinny?”
“Oh, not at all! You are perfect. And your house. And the garden. How do you do it?” She sighed.
How did I do it? I didn’t know either, because to me it was never perfect enough.
“You should come and see the house today,” I said. “You’d be horrified.” I hoped to be home in time to do at least a little cleaning, in spite of my resolve to take the day off.
“Is this your natural color? If you don’t mind my asking?” she said.
“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. I have the kind of hair that only a lion tamer could whip into shape. When Caruso curls came in, I was ecstatic. Holding them back off my temples with two combs was easy and permitted me to do something other than tying it back, which I usually did.
We stood by the car once we got to the college so Tommy wouldn’t miss us as he would be looking for his mother’s car. Classes had just let out, and as I watched the students stream out of the buildings, I felt suddenly sad. This is where I would be if I hadn’t caved in to the punishing demands of my family.
Two women, packs over their shoulders and carrying books, headed toward us. Both seemed to me to be a little older than myself, and I assumed them to be teachers. They stopped at the car next to mine, and I moved back a little to give the one that was the passenger room to get in.
“When he mentioned phenomenology today, he lost me,” she said to her friend, and I realized they were students. A nagging little feeling of envy made itself felt in my stomach.
“Me too. Now if I could figure out what it is, I’d be all right,” the other laughed, putting her books into the back seat.
“Phenomenology is the study of that which goes on in consciousness,” I said, and I haven’t a clue how this came out of my mouth. But it did.
The women turned to me. “How’d you know that? You teach philosophy?”
“Oh, God, no,” I laughed. “I don’t know why I remembered that, but somehow, it just stuck in my mind.”
They laughed. “Can we call you if we run into trouble with that?”
“Oh, sure!” I thought they were joking. They weren’t.
“What’s your number?” they said at the same time.
That’s when my bravado flushed me like a hot flash. I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t think I knew that much about it—that I wasn’t going to college anymore, but I didn’t want to get into a long explanation on how I had quit college in front of Janice.
“I’m Kate Hamilton, and I don’t know if I could help you,” I said, “but my number’s in the book. Under Adam Hamilton.”
I hoped they wouldn’t call. That would be awful. Mercifully, I didn’t get a chance to dwell on this, because Tommy saw us and waved, coming toward us, long-legged like my Adam. He grinned and climbed into the back seat of my small car where he folded like a pocketknife, sitting sideways, stowing away his legs. His mother, her head turned backwards, made all sorts of excuses about her car having broken down.
I didn’t hear what he answered. The women next to me were pulling out, and an outrageous thought had just come to me: Why didn’t I go back to school? The kids were older now, and aside from Adam’s grumpy face, there really was no reason for me not to go. If these two women could do it, so could I. The more I thought about it, the happier I felt. Yes. I could do this. There was no earthly reason not to.
I dropped off Janice and Tommy, for once staying firm when she implored me to have a cup of coffee with her. (“It’s the least I can do for you, after you have been so kind once again.”) But I couldn’t wait to get into the house, fiddling with the key, which always had an annoying little kink in it until it finally opened that door. I whirled into the foyer, carrying with me the scent of fresh cut grass and some other sweet spring scent that I could never identify, and caught my face in the mirror. I had never seen myself so happy. Some of my hair had come loose and flew wildly around my face, and I thought that I looked so young and glowing, I burst into tears.
“You, my dear,” I said to me, wiping away some tears, “have a plan. A wonderful plan. You will go back to school. You will have a profession. You will do something worthwhile. You may not know what it is, but you will. If these women can do it, you can too!”