The house J. lived in was the last one on a street carved into the wooded cliff over the Interstate. To get there one had to drive past the country club, behind the apartment complex, past neighborly houses down a winding road under the cover of high, tangled trees to an empty cul-de-sac. There was no reason for anyone to drive there unless they were visiting J and his housemate - or doing something they weren’t supposed to. Sometimes people drove there to illegally dump their trash in the woods, other times you’d see a man in a business suit taking a nap, and, for a while, a couple used to park there and have sex.
Theirs was the only house on the cul-de-sac, and, once you got there, you still had the long driveway under the shadow of tall trees. The twenty-year-old colonial set way back at the end of a trim lawn looked like the home of a nuclear family, not the house of two single adults. It looked shut-down - well-maintained but void of life. “Is your housemate home?” I asked J when he opened the door, “yeah, come on in.” he said, locking a deadbolt behind me from the inside and placing the key on the edge of the bannister. Though it was light outside, the house was dark. Under the shade of the trees, the blinds of every window were shut. The stairs had a large cardboard box blocking passage.
Two white Bichons raced over, barking furiously. “Hey!” J said, authoritatively, and we both squat to their level as he encouraged the dogs to greet me properly.
At the end of a room crowded with oversized furniture covered in brown microsuede, a dim electric light illuminated the kitchen. There, a very small woman stood wearing a baby pink sweatshirt that looked several sizes too big and stonewashed baggy jeans rolled back at the hem. Her pale, wiry hair was cut in layered bangs framing a face whose features seemed to fade under the shadow of the bangs. Her ash-blonde hair was pulled back at the crown with a barrett and one could imagine there a bow like Minnie Mouse’s holding the long, rippled strands that tapered into thin, jagged edges at the back of her knees.
J introduced us and we greeted each other. Her voice was thin and high and hard to hear. I knew she was a Spanish teacher, so I added a greeting in Spanish. She froze and said nothing. Confused, I stared, waiting. “She’s really shy,” J explained, turning back to the hallway. “Well, nice to meet you!” I waved and I followed J over the cardboard box at the base of the stairs up to his room.
“Her birthday is coming up.” J said knitting his brows, “I don’t know what to get her.” “One of my instructors custom-makes hula hoops. You could order her one in baby pink and I could give her a gift certificate so she can take classes at my studio.” I offered. “That’s a great idea!” he said.
We coordinated to present the gift together the day before her birthday. I drove to his house and turned into the street when the light changed. Passing me on the other side was J. I tried to stop and honk the horn, but, he didn’t see me. “That’s strange,” I thought, “he knew I was coming over.” But I had to get to work in the city that night, so, I continued to his house. Fortunately, his housemate was home, so I presented her with the gift certificate that she accepted politely in that timid, quiet voice of hers.
Shortly afterwards, J emailed me requesting to change plans because he was getting into bed. “Huh? I stopped by already and drove right by you. I gave it to her already. I hope you gave her the hoop already? I hope she liked it!” I replied. “No, I haven’t given her the hoop yet cause I’ve been waiting for you. Thanks alot!”
What? He was leaving his house when I passed him. He was definitely NOT waiting for me or he would have been there when I arrived. Now he was getting mad at me for keeping him waiting?
To this day that one puzzles me.
The following Sunday I came to their house after work with a bag full of groceries. I was going to make them a healthy, sugar-free, gluten-free dinner to celebrate her birthday. “Do you prefer chicken or pork?” I asked her. “Oh, no, I just won’t eat it.” she answered. “No, I…” and J stepped in to translate, “she’s asking because you have a choice, she can make you chicken.” “Oh, ok, thank you.”
Next to the stove were two fully-stocked Kitchenaid cooking utensil caddies; one in black, the other in baby pink. I pulled the pink meat scissors and cut the chicken breast into individual portions then put the scissors down to brown the meat with the pink spatula. As I reduced the orange juice to a glaze I could hear whispering behind me. When it was time to cut the next piece of meat, I reached for the pink meat scissors I’d left on the butcher block next to the sink and they were gone. I looked in the sink, on the crowded counter next to the stove, on the island counter behind me, and couldn’t find them anywhere. Reluctant to let the glaze burn, I reached for the pink spatula I was using and couldn’t find it either. I shook it off and reached for the black ones and kept cooking. Later, I learned she shadowed me and took them away as I was cooking. It would have been funny if they were just messing with me, but they weren't. The whispering was to remind J that he had forgotten to tell me that some utensils were not to be used for cooking.
J and I were a few weeks into our sugar detox when he got a mad craving for some candy. His housemate kept bags of his favorite mint-chocolate M&Ms in the pantry. He was debating whether to have one. Seated at his left side on the oversized couch, I reminded him of all the reasons he had for giving sugar up. On his right side she said, “one won’t kill you.” J’s eyes darted quickly to me and back to the TV. With difficulty, he resisted.
J’s housemate spent the hours between students curled up at the end of the oversized couch stroking her two dogs as she watched the Cops show with her boyfriend. He was a tall, slender ex-military on disability who spent the time he wasn’t with her camping in the woods, or taking walks. Whenever he came back from his walks, his glassy eyes danced gleefully over a calm smile. He liked to cook for her. He loved his candy. She liked to fret over him. She made sure he always had his candy fix.
J walked me to the bottom of the stairs to say goodbye. Climbing over the large cardboard box at the bottom of the stairs, I leaned on the bannister and knocked off the key to the deadbolt. “Why don’t you just leave it in the lock?” I asked him. “Because she’s afraid someone will break the glass and unlock the door”
Above the doorknob a yellow post-it note said, “lunch”. “What’s this?” I asked. “Oh, that’s one of her notes. She leaves notes all over the place.” J answered, looking embarrassed and brushing the air with his hand.
When I first started spending time with J in his home, I caught a cold. J’s housemate was upstairs in her room and we had the couch and TV all to ourselves for a change. J’s phone sounded. He read the text and looked up at me uncomfortably, “she’s hungry, we need to go upstairs.” I looked at him, confused. We were in the family room, not the kitchen. “She doesn’t want to catch your cold.” he explained.
The week before we were set to move into our apartment together, J’s birthday fell on a Friday, his day off. I had to work during the day, so we had to save our celebration for that evening. “What are you going to do with your free day?” I asked. “I don’t know, it’s supposed to snow.” J loved skiing, I did not. “Why don’t you head over to Wachusett Mountain for the day?” “That’s a great idea!,” he said excitedly, “I haven’t been skiing in so long!”
His housemate spent the weeks leading up to the move crying. When J crouched down to pet her dogs one night she said, “How can you just abandon your babies?” J kept petting the dogs and ignored her.
She needed pictures hung up on the wall over her king-sized bed in the master bedroom. “Can’t her boyfriend do that?” I asked, “He never does things right." J answered. Instead of skiing, J spent his birthday hanging framed pictures in her bedroom.