Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thinking of Home

"How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Rain fell on a strange roof over my head in Brooklyn the first time I read that line. It was the summer before my junior year in college and I'd managed to wangle a low-paying summer internship with a New York publisher and a rent-free place to stay in Flatbush. At the end of my first day of work in the city, I boarded the wrong train and ended up not in Brooklyn but in a particularly unnerving part of the Bronx. I don't know why I thought leaving the tunnel for the street would give me a better chance of figuring out where the hell I was, but that's just what I did, without either a dime or a subway token in my pocket. The sight that greeted me wasn't all that different from some of the more benign but still harrowing pictures that would come out of Sarajevo a few short years later, the distinction being only the matter of degrees that separates devastation by bombs and bullets from decay by poverty and despair. Two cops stood on the corner, and they glanced my way as I climbed out of the subway. The looks on their faces when they saw me expressed what I already understood: I was lost in a bad way. Fortunately, that fact wasn't lost on the woman in the booth when I quickly descended back into the tunnel and started to explain my predicament: before I could even finish, she slid a token through the slot below the glass and wished me luck. I rode the rails for more than an hour, eventually making my way to Newkirk Station, all the while, and not nearly for the last time, thinking of home.

Two years later, a freshly minted college graduate, aspiring writer and accomplished malcontent, I boarded a plane with my pixieish college girlfriend and crossed the country to that city of perpetual rain, Seattle. We had a housesitting gig for a month, after which the plan was to find an apartment and live happily ever after a while. Less than a week in, she announced that she didn't think we should live together, and almost instantly I felt the sands shifting under my feet. In a sense, she wasn't wrong: we were ill-suited to each other. I was guided and therefore limited by the only three things I feared in the world: sharks, sinkholes and homelessness. She was (and presumably still is) thoroughly suffused with a patently upper middle-class perspective that means almost nothing to me, a perspective the primary quality of which is what can only be called social grace: polite agreeableness at all costs. One evening we had dinner at an upscale restaurant with friends of her family, and just after the entree was served the matriarch turned to me and said, "So, Charlotte tells us you're a writer," at which point I swallowed the hunk of salmon I'd been lovingly chewing and said, "Actually, Charlotte and I have a deal: she doesn't tell anyone I'm a writer, and I don't tell anyone she's a stripper." You'd have to know Charlotte to understand why that was funny, but you probably don't need to know any more than what I've told you to recognize why she didn't find it funny. That was a long, icy night, the prelude to a long deep-freeze that would eventually find me climbing Capitol Hill to my friend Q's house, where I'd spend many night sleeping under a rain-spattered roof, thinking of home.

In the ensuing twenty years, there have been a god-awful lot of homes. There were five alone with my daughter's mother during an eight year span: the toxic three-story with the gay baker on the third floor; the big move to Portland, upstairs from Silly's, where we lived when our girl was born; the desperate dash to the Revere House in East Vassalboro when the baby blues kicked in; an equally mad dash back to Portland to an ill-fated apartment downstairs from my best old ex-friend; and finally, three years later, half of a duplex here in the 'Ville that, one fine morning, was raided by the police (neighbor's side, not ours, but that's not exactly how the kid announced it in kindergarten that day -- "The police raided our house for drugs this morning!"). The three years between High Street in Portland and our crack house in the 'Ville, I lived in a narrow top-floor apartment with a progressively leakier roof. I almost loved that apartment, but that's entirely because I spent almost every weekend there with my little girl. It's the place where I learned to be a dad. Of course, it's also the place where I learned there's a difference between being solitary and being alone. It is the very depth of bittersweet. But then the rains came in earnest, and the girl's mother moved with the girl back to the 'Ville, and I found myself thinking this was no home.

And then there was the house where I say I lost everything in the fire. But of course there was no fire. To paraphrase As I Lay Dying, there was no me: I was not is. I had left the building long before the boys came along and trucked me off to the emergency room. Perhaps it's telling that the summer I started to lose my way entirely, it rained nearly every day. I'd lay stretched on the couch on the screen porch, listening to the drops pounding down around me, waiting for something to change. A year later I lay stretched on the same couch beside a young woman who didn't want me to love her but didn't want me to leave her either. By then I was morbidly unwell in a way that made it impossible to resist futility, particularly the sort that might well guarantee a glorious immolation. And so I marched, step by predictable step, into the flames. And thus is the metaphor apt. But, as I say, there was to be no fire for me. The people whose occasional misfortune it is to be my friends and family gathered like a volunteer fire brigade, tossing bucket after bucket on the flames, remaining until the last ember faded into harmless soot.

It takes time, though, to rebuild after a fire. It took, in fact, until pretty much right now to put the final pieces in place: the bricks and glass and plaster and wood, the chair to sit on, bed to sleep in, the pictures of the girl on the night table. It's a good place, this Bear Lair, that looks out across the city's downtown and faces the light from sunup to sundown. It's a place the girl can visit -- the girl who, as of a month ago, is now technically a grown-up, and poised to begin embarking on her own adventures away from home. I picture her listening to rain on strange roofs, and hope she'll always have someplace to think of as home. I know I do.

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