Freshman year of college, I remember visiting a friend’s dorm for the first time and noticing that she had a small potted tree and several other plants in her room. I was impressed. As a young adult living on my own for the first time, I was barely getting the hang of keeping myself alive. My idea of cooking was using a plate; I cackled gleefully every time I left the house in winter without a hat. I was not a good candidate for the custody of anything with even basic needs.
A year after graduation, though, once I had settled into a house where I planned to stay for awhile, with furniture that hadn’t all been dragged in from the curb (some of it I carried), I began to pay a little more attention to the art of interior decorating. Plants lend elegance to a room, I decided. It is cheerful to surround oneself with living things that did not spring forth from overlooked supper dishes.
I yearned for my home to give an impression of maturity and sophistication, deserved or not. I wanted people to visit my room for the first time and think to themselves, “Now here we have a girl with a sense of style. I’ll bet she reads good books”, rather than the more probable, “Nice ‘Snoopy’ sheets. How long has that coffee cup been there?”
So gradually, I began to accumulate plants. It became something of a habit. An impulse purchase at the supermarket here, a baby spider plant acquired from a friend there. They grew larger, I repotted them; I bought more plants to fill the empty pots. Eventually, in a suspiciously healthy way, the urge leveled off. Something in me felt that I finally had a suitable number of leafy green companions.
Now, however, there are other problems to contend with. I have enough plants that some of them have come down with various planty afflictions. These illnesses are mysterious and frightening to me. For one example, there’s the hearty backyard tomato plant that I potted and brought inside to protect it from encroaching cold weather. It began looking droopy and wrinkly-leafed not long after it moved to my indoor back porch. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” I told a visiting guest. “It looks like Bea Arthur. Is that a known plant disease? Could my tomato plant have Bea Arthur?”
“Your plant has spider mites, you dummy,” she said. “Just look at it.” I looked closely. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny red mites swarmed all over its poor little leaves, encasing them in debilitating strands of web.
“Gross,” I said compassionately. I turned to the Internet for help. Several websites recommended various chemical sprays that sounded toxic and difficult to pronounce. Others suggested wiping the mites off with a clean cloth. I shuddered. This plant-owning thing had suddenly become a little too intense, too real. I wanted to be a passive spectator in the lives of my vegetation, but I had been forced into the ring. Wincing, I did as the Internet advised, but it was to no avail. Tomato succumbed not long after.
Other leafy misfortunes have since followed. A sweet-potato left to its own devices on a table by the window in my apartment began sprouting leaves with great determination after several months. Upon discovery, I applauded its indomitable starchy spirit, and potted it immediately. A few months of vigorous growth later, I noticed that the undersides of several of its shiny green leaves were coated in what looked like small black dots. Several Internet searches for the source of the problem brought me to an unsatisfying conclusion: my sweet-potato plant had contracted what is scientifically known as “Black Dot”.
“Seriously?” I shrieked. Currently there appears to be no cure for Black Dot. However, against all odds, sweet-potato appears to be holding its ground, so to speak. I am pulling for it.
Through it all, I will readily agree that although plant-ownership has had its ups and downs, and has introduced me to some distressing ailments of the plant-kingdom, the joy and beauty that my silent and immobile friends have provided me have made them very worthwhile companions. Also, the forest of undergrowth in my place is excellent at hiding my bad decorating, dust, and clutter, which is really quite handy.
Returning to my house that evening, I saw everything with a freshly critical eye—particularly the twenty-five-year old blue Landcruiser with the mismatched red door panel that’s been parked in the driveway for over a year. Should I stick a few dried ears of corn on it, to fit in? I worry that there is nothing to be done for us, especially when I recall that time we left a full-size freezer to defrost on the front lawn for an entire weekend. It was fully defrosted after only a few hours, but we figured, better safe than sorry. Also, better lazy than respectable.
I was already growing ashamed of the fact that, when recycling day rolls around, ours is the only bin that overflows with empty beer and wine bottles. Sure, the occasional milk-gallon jug or soup can sneaks in, but mostly it’s a shiny brown avalanche of empty booze receptacles piled at the end of the driveway every other week. It is some small comfort knowing that we drink decent beer, even if it is in obscene quantities. Our neighbors, their monocles splintering in disapproval, will have to admit that at least we have taste in something. And I know that the man who comes around in the mornings before trash collection (in his Saab) to cash in on our empties appreciates us. Last week he left the loveliest gilt-edged, monogrammed calling card.
‘Molly,’ you are probably thinking. “Why are you complaining about your excessively wealthy neighborhood? You grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. You never fit in there either. You used to hug your doorman. At least you can feel safe walking the dog at night.’ But I can’t! In my last neighborhood, all I had to fear was roving gangs of teenagers and drunken college students. These I at least vaguely understood, having once been part of each of their ranks. Now I am faced with the unknown, having never even remotely rubbed elbows with wealthy suburbanites. When I am faced with the unknown, my mind fills in the blanks with outlandish, unrealistic fears. I blame being read to as a child.
I feel increasingly out of place as I amble past immaculately trimmed lawns in old sneakers and pajama pants, with an unpedigreed dog at the end of a leash that is frayed in three places and coated with dried leaves—and not as a decorative homage to fall. What if someone thinks I am trespassing and calls the cops? What if they decide to administer their own brand of high-end vigilante justice, and I am found in the woods, beaten within an inch of my life with a diamond-headed walking stick? I fear that during one of my innocent, late-night walks, I will accidentally witness a clandestine affair between a wealthy socialite neighbor and her landscaper and have hounds released at me, or be run over by a limo.
I know. There’s something wrong with me. I think it’s mostly the abundance of lively fall decorations that have me flustered. There’s something unnerving about a neighborhood in which lawns are green and uncluttered in the twilight of October, while entranceways, pillars and gateposts are ablaze with fake foliage. I suppose I should be appreciative of the time and effort that is put into these embellishments. After all, they are there for the enjoyment of myself and the few other residents who live in this small community, and they certainly beat my last neighborhood’s October decoration of choice: raw eggs. The least I can do is admire their work. And curb my dog.
I did four loads of laundry last Sunday. I even did one load that was only bathroom mats. This meant washing the mats from my roommates’ bathrooms along with my own so that I would have a full load. I was concerned that this was creepy, but was also secretly proud of my thoughtfulness, and part of me hoped they would notice. They didn’t. Or at least, no one approached me to say, “My bathroom mat was so fuzzy and clean when I stepped out of the shower today! Did you wash it? I’m slightly unnerved, but grateful.” I guess I’m glad no one noticed, but on the other hand, it was a lot of effort for little reward. I didn’t want to dry the mats in the dryer for fear of melting their rubber backs, so I spread them out on the grass in the back yard to dry in the sun. This way I figured they would also be fresher, and have a ‘sun-dried’ appeal. I came outside to check them often, flipping them over when I thought one side was getting dryer. I tended to them like a shepherd, watching over a flock of brightly colored bathroom mats that weren’t going anywhere.
That very same day I gave the dog a bath, swept the house (at least the parts where the dog wanders, which necessitates sweeping), and tended to the backyard garden. That evening, I found a recipe online that looked good, picked up a few groceries, and cooked dinner.
Until relatively recently, none of those activities would have occurred to me naturally—except perhaps the laundry part, and then only if my pile of dirty clothes had reached Orange Alert status, also known as Code “Bedroom Door Won’t Open”. I am not sure what has changed. I was more or less content to live in squalor while I was in school and then during my first year or three out of college. In my first post-college apartment, the linoleum floor in the living room generally had the gritty consistency of cat litter, and I slept on a camping mattress for eight months. The closest I ever came to cooking was heating up leftover takeout, and adding water to cans of frozen juice concentrate. With that standard of living, perhaps I had nowhere to go but up?
Granted, at that point mine was not an apartment that invited even base-level maintenance. It more invited murder. We were living in scenic, beautiful Hawai’i, but our seedy Honolulu apartment lacked an ocean view. It did offer a view of an alley strewn with trash, and the occasional wandering chicken. More than once we came home to find the police parked haphazardly in our parking lot, lights flashing. Years later I would watch on TV as Dog the Bounty Hunter busted junkie after junkie in apartments that looked exactly like the one I had lived in. No one was ever impressed when I pointed that out, though, so I stopped.
My roommate and I knew that anything we put up on those unevenly painted cinderblock walls was mainly in an effort to cover them. This set the bar for our decorating standards embarrassingly low. We endured months of visitors noticing our arbitrary “23rd Annual Honolulu Beer Fest” poster in the living room and asking, ‘Hey, how was the Beer Fest?’ We couldn’t tell them. Had they seen our apartment? We were clearly on a budget. Fancy beer, like legitimate wall-art, was well out of our price-range. We preferred to sit on our concrete balcony and drink coconut slurpees laced with cheap rum and pretend we were pirates. I hope my mother isn’t reading this.
But since she probably is, let me point out once again that I have clearly matured. My wall decorations now reflect my taste in art and entertainment, rather than my ability to peel flyers off of walls in public places. I drink snobbish imported beer occasionally. I walk around my house in bare feet without risking tetanus. Sometimes though, I am not sure how to feel about this domestic maturity. I almost don’t want to admit to myself how much I like sweeping the beautiful old wooden floors of my current house. Washing the dog gave me a feeling of great satisfaction, until he did that thing where he walks around the bed, rubbing himself against it on every side and leaving enormous amounts of wet dog hair on the comforter. Washing the comforter gave me decidedly less satisfaction. Damn dog.
Perhaps it is my improved living arrangements that have caused this change, making me take notice of my surroundings and look after them with a new respect. Perhaps it is the acquisition of a job that doesn’t pay me in large wads of singles at the end of the night, meaning that I am able to spend money on where I live. Possibly I just got tired of sticky floors and leering piles of laundry, cheap liquor and streetcorner furniture. I suppose I can get used to this new me. Whatever caused this change, though, I hope it lasts, because although my roommates don’t appreciate clean bath mats, they probably really won’t appreciate rum slurpees.
“You should spend a winter here on Cape Cod, sometime,” my coworker Matt tells me with a strange grin. “It’s fun, in a crazy way. It gets so quiet. There’s snow everywhere. You get to the point where all you want to do at night is dress up and have dinner parties at your friends’ houses and drink yourself into oblivion.” This doesn’t sound unappealing. It’s probably something I could get into for awhile. But I’m not sure I trust myself. I was not wired to appreciate alone time; I’m just not used to it. By the time I was four and my parents could begin to think about leaving me to my own devices once in awhile, I was already being shadowed by a little sister who followed me everywhere for the next 13 years of my life. Until graduating from college, I’d never had my own room for any length of time, with a one year exception.
I want very much to be the kind of person who doesn’t mind being alone. Doesn’t even notice it sometimes. The kind of person who sinks back in a leather chair, wiggles their toes in a pair of heavy wool socks and spends the entire evening absorbed in a yellowed book with miniscule type. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s something I could ever manage. Within 15 minutes I’d be up making nachos and flipping around to see what was on VH1.
Growing up in a bustling city, I took for granted from a young age the idea that someone, somewhere nearby, is always awake. Frequently, they are setting off car alarms, kicking over trash cans and yelling down the street in the middle of the night, but at least they are living proof that the world is open 24 hours. Everything doesn’t stop just because most of the shops are closed, the traffic has died down, and the city feels hushed. The validity of this idea was not disputed during my four years at Bard, when whomever was awake always seemed to be out in the hall with a kickball at two am, or in the room above mine, playing Abba at six-thirty in the morning.
Now that the summer tourist season has come and gone on Cape Cod, however, and most of the houses closest to mine are shut down for the Fall, there are many times, late at night, when the windows up and down my road are dark and it feels like I am the only one awake in the world. When you live in a city, no matter what time it is, there is always a 24-hour convenience store clerk a short walk away who will have no choice but to interact with you. Up here, at night, I frequently drive for long periods of time on stretches of dark, lonely road without passing another car.
Matt insists that winter on the Cape is the perfect time to catch up on all of the projects you’d always been meaning to get to, although he warns that “sometimes, you’ll spend an entire day rearranging your living room, and when you leave and come back, it barely looks like you’ve done anything at all.”
“See, I’d never survive,” I tell him. “That’s exactly it. I would start to lose it. I barely made it through a year of living alone in college, and this time I’d probably crack. I’d start folding my underpants into origami swans and storing them in the bathtub. I’d take my vodka martinis with ketchup. One day you’d knock at my door and I’d greet you wearing a giant bread dough penis. ‘Oh, this?’ I’d say. ‘I’ve just been catching up on so many projects this winter. It’s been great.’
“Matt laughs and shakes his head, but I can’t stop thinking about it, long after the discussion has moved on. Sure, in theory, I could spend a winter here. I’m sure that eventually I would discover a rhythm, work out a routine, find things to occupy my time. I could do a lot more reading. Maybe write a few letters. I could explore Cape Cod more fully than I ever have during nearly 10 years of working here during the summer. Meet more local people, spend more time hanging out in coffee shops and taverns in town, learn more about the way things work in East Orleans, MA during the cold, isolated, slow winter months. Freeze my ass off, and follow the course of events in “The Real World: Philadelphia” just a little bit too closely.
Maybe next year.
“Molly.” My friend Rose explained patiently. “If you are over the age of 21 and no longer live at home, you need a double bed. Don’t even think about getting a twin.”
“But I’m the only one sleeping in it. I don’t need all that extra space. When I sleep in anything larger, I just take one side anyway! What’s the point?”
Rose would not be swayed. “Someday you’ll be glad you have it,” she insisted. “Besides, it’s not even like you’re buying a new bed. You’re taking one from home! Take the big one! God willing, it’ll come in handy.”
“See, that’s the thing. What if I jinx it? What if by bringing a larger bed I unwittingly guarantee that one side of it will always remain empty?” Or, worse, that it will be permanently cluttered, first with books and clothes, then with cats and recipes clipped from Women’s Day, and eventually with old bridesmaid dresses and moldy Hope Chest linens. It seems a little presumptuous somehow, starting out with a big bed like that.
Certainly, I have nothing much to live up to this time around, in terms of both my furniture and my living space. I arrived at my last apartment to find it unfurnished, with cinderblock walls and a kitchen so small you couldn’t fully inhale while standing at the stove (not that I ever wanted to, when I was cooking). I had brought with me no more than I could carry, having spent the last year traveling from New York to California and finally to Honolulu.
In Hawaii, the first piece of furniture my roommate and I managed to acquire was a mattress box spring from the street corner. We figured a mattress would eventually follow. Eight months later, it still hadn’t. We’d gone to a mattress store early on to discover that our idea of a cheap mattress was drastically different from anyone else’s. “All right,” the salesman had said finally. “I’ll give you those two twin mattresses for only $325. I’m being a huge pushover here. You can shop around, but I guarantee you’ll be back.” A pawn shop a few blocks away begged to differ. There we found two thin foam camping mattresses, one used, one new, for $28. I slept underneath a stolen airline blanket on that camping-mattress for the duration of my lease in that apartment. My desk was a broken television we’d retrieved from the curb across the street. Don’t ask me why my roommate and I assumed that someone would leave a perfectly good television on a street corner. We lugged it optimistically up three flights of stairs and plugged it into several different outlets before we finally accepted the fact that it didn’t work. The story of that broken television is an excellent example of the complete naiveté with which we entered the real world. Really, it’s a miracle we’re alive today.
It’s certainly a nice change of pace, moving somewhere a few hours away from home, rather than a few thousand miles and several time zones. For one thing, I get to raid the house, looking for things I’ll need in my new place; things my parents hopefully won’t miss until I’m far enough away. For another thing, I get to bring furniture with me. This is a whole new world. This time, my roommate (the same one as before) came equipped with a couch, a love seat, a bunch of lamps, and a whole mess of end tables. A few hours after moving into our apartment, the living room looked like the set of the Cosby show. It was almost too much for me to handle. Last Fall it was weeks before our living room stopped looking like the set of an off-off Broadway play whose set designer went for ‘severe’. There’s a little fun lost, having things fixed up right away. But there are also fewer used camping mattresses involved, and I can live with that.