Lives and Past Lives

1.
I’ve always loved walking at night. I’ll go anywhere: through the neighborhoods of small towns, through a dozen identical suburbs, through seedy Pittsburgh neighborhoods and seedier Latin American cities. In any location, the impulse is the same: I walk at night to look into the lighted windows of strangers.

At night, windows roll by like stills on a film reel, except there’s no logical order—just one snapshot of a home, and then another, another. A jumble of images that together add up to an idea of what a home is. They flip through, and when they run out my eyes readjust to the dark, my own breath in the night air, my solitude.

One evening in late summer, my boyfriend Ben and I were coming back from a hike on a hill near our home. I hate the word “boyfriend”—it doesn’t seem quite right. It feels too bubblegum, too teenager for the person I share my life with. Yet “partner” feels too antiseptic. “Husband”, although it might be the closest description of how we relate, would be an outright lie. He’s the person I’ve shared more of my life with than any other human, yet there’s still not a way to accurately define what we are, and sometimes it’s that lack of a word, which doesn’t bother him one bit, that nags me. Like we’re faking it. Like we’re together, but not conjoined—just merely huddling close to each other, and we could come flying apart at any moment.

We were descending through a field, the goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace brown now in the August heat, and we wandered into the windy roads of our town. It was just getting dark. Lights were on in windows. Dinner smells—meat and garlic and onions—wafted into the thick evening air. As brewing storm gusts rushed through open screens, curtains billowed into the homes, then were sucked flat when the wind changed course.

“I wish all the people in this town would just go away on vacation so that I could have a week to poke around in everybody’s homes,” Ben said.

We had our own home, which, at that moment, with a storm brewing overhead, suddenly seemed far away. But for an instant we felt a similar urge, the curiosity of knowing how other people lived. We talked about how we’d like to poke around: How did others arrange their books? Were leather-bound classics lined next to the crime novels? Were their kitchens a mess like ours, pots and pans across the stove burners? Did they hang paintings and mirrors; deer skulls and math-equation clocks; or, like many windows I’d gazed into, a crucifix over the television? Were the blankets a rumpled wad at the foot of the bed, or did someone carefully tuck and smooth the sheets, the top one folded over the blankets the way I’d learned long ago but had never mastered? Were the pillows lovingly fluffed up, or did they retain the imprint of the head that had dreamt there?

Ben’s curiosity was purely anthropological—like he wanted to do a case study of human belongings, and then be done. He wasn’t particularly keen on meeting the people themselves. But for me, it was personal. Each house I’ve ever passed, I’ve wondered: is this a place I could live? Could I slip in and function alongside the inhabitants? They’re residual questions from solitary life, a past life, where lighted windows and all they represented always seemed like something over there, just beyond my reach, and maybe even beyond my desire.

 

2.
I used to envision domesticity as something that evolves over time, that accrues—a hand-me-down chair here, a great-grandmother’s set of rose-printed dishes there. As the adults in my life were eventually taken by death, I’d always thought I’d move into adulthood bit by bit, each year growing a little more committed to my nest. I saw domestication like a ball of snow rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum until it eventually slowed and came to rest in a white, flat expanse—calm and perfect, having found peace at last. Not perfect in a perfect life sense—nobody should expect that—but perfect in that it had come into its own, matured.

It didn’t work that way for me, and I suppose it doesn’t work that way for many. Instead, I went from a sort of vagabond life, one tiny apartment to another, one state to another, to finally permanently moving in last spring. One day I was just a person passing on the outside, watching scenes of domesticity from the dark. The next day I was in the picture. That’s what happens when you fall in love with someone who has children. There’s no time to accrue; you just step into the picture that is already there. And so, I cleared a space and made a niche for myself. I excavated a corner of the office for my own, then I claimed this half of the closet, that side of the bedroom, this shelf in the bathroom. I defended my territory like a mama bear. Solitary life had a strong grip, and I thought I could chisel out a little hole within the chaos of a home and continue living my bachelor lifestyle. I was a woman in a bubble: moving in with Ben didn’t suddenly make me a mother, or a stepmother, or a wife, and so I could only go on being what I’d always been.

In some ways, I didn’t need to change. Ben and his kids already had an established routine, and the kids were teenagers when I finally moved in permanently. There was no need for me to suddenly pretend to be a mother figure. Besides, they already had a perfectly fine one; they didn’t need another. I get all the benefits of going to school plays and dance recitals without having to go to class meetings or planning my schedule around chauffeuring kids to and from rehearsals. I rarely have to do early morning school drop-offs, I never plan out their days, and I am most certainly not the disciplinarian—although I can slip into that role when needed. I had to learn that one—how to stand up for myself in my own home. Nobody in a household deserves to be subject to free-style rapping at seven in the morning or Taylor Swift at midnight.

There is a soothing rhythm to domestic life. My day is segmented into chunks—work time, meal time, chill time, bed time—rather than the interminable insomnia that plagued my solitary life, when I would read and write and work at my computer without break, oblivious to any sort of hour. Here, at six-o-clock, the day ends and Ben and I cook dinner—wonderful, solid dinners. I love the dedicated non-work time, music or a podcast playing, Ben and I navigating from counter to stovetop with grace, as though we’d choreographed it all beforehand. For a long time family dinners were a relic of my childhood, but here they are again, the ritual that ends my day. On nights we’re all together, the four of us always sit at the table, join hands and give a quick blessing: Blessings on the meal, and on our lives together. For all the things they’re critical of—they’re teenagers, after all—the kids never question this one, simple ritual.

And it’s this—our lives together, that I’ve come to love. The four of us snuggled on couches watching Werner Herzog (if Ben and I get to choose) or teenage vampire serial dramas (if they do). The four of us on Christmas playing Cards Against Humanity—a horribly inappropriate game, and therefore the only one they’re interested in. The cozy clutter of living is more satisfying than I’d ever imagined, as is the comfort of having bodies nearby that I belong to, in whatever indefinable way. Even though I still retreat to my chiseled-out space, the four of us are still our own kind of family.

But then, sometimes I over-think it—lives together. I worry that I’m not “together” enough with them, that with me in the house, it feels more like lives apart. I feel sometimes that I couldn’t, even if I tried harder, break into their trio. I worry that I’m the magnet and they’re the fridge and that the day someone puts something too heavy beneath me, my weak force will show and I’ll fall off.

I worry that maybe I’m meant to exist in the empty coldness of the apartment I had just left behind, which seemed to better represent my life. My possessions were never enough to fill it up, and I always kind of liked the half-lived-in feeling the place had. I could pick up and take off if ever I needed to. I liked having to huddle under a blanket in the echoey room to read. I liked the walls scantly adorned with thrift-store prints, a few photos and books serving as absorbers to keep the place from feeling like a chamber. I liked being accountable to nobody.

 

3.
Before I met Ben, I lived in a one-room log cabin that sat by a little pond in the woods. I lived there for two years, alone. There was no running water, no electricity. There was a wood stove and propane lights and a little gas refrigerator whose broken pilot light I never fixed. In the tiny nook of the kitchen was an old-fashioned water pump that worked only once, some time around when I moved in, pumping thick black sludge from the bottom of the pond. I lived with a lame cat who couldn’t catch mice, and the mice stored cat food in the heels of my boots and in the baskets I kept high up on shelves. There was an old mantel over a defunct fireplace, a bed tucked in one corner, an old van seat for a sofa at the edge of the orange Oriental rug that was there when I moved in.

In fact, everything was there when I moved in. The former inhabitants’ leftover belongings told of the cabin’s previous lives: My home was a palimpsest of cabin dwellers. Little clues of who lived there before littered the place: an empty vodka bottle, jars of infused herbal remedies in the kitchen drawers, a handicap toilet seat, the stock of a rifle, a tanned squirrel skin, little jars of frankincense and myrrh, a replica of Rodin’s The Thinker in the outhouse, Anaïs Nin’s Erotica.

It was an old friend’s grandfather’s hunting cabin, or had been originally, and now belonged to a local land conservancy who welcomed me to live there but in no official way condoned it; they were not landlords, they said. They liked the place to be inhabited to ward off partiers, but in no legal way could they be responsible if, say, I died in my sleep from asphyxiation if the propane stove malfunctioned, or if there was a chimney fire in the woodstove, as had happened to the last woman lived there.

I was never scared by the thick silent of the woods, by the liquid songs of coyotes that rippled down the hillsides at night. In the fall I learned to cope with the shotgun blasts of hunters, with the piles of deer guts out in the woods and the bloody trails left where the hunters had dragged the carcasses out. In winter, the snow was a blank slate upon which the wildlife made a cartography of existence: the bobcat tracks that crossed my own on a walk through an oak stand, the wing wisps where an owl swooped after a rodent in the snow. For this period in my life, I did not look into strangers’ windows at night.

In the spring and summer I uncovered layers of vegetation—hacked down the tall weedy grass to find lungwort and bloodroot growing beneath the trees behind the cabin. I sheared a hillside of invasive bittersweet and found a colony of foxglove plants, which, once freed, grew to a forest of thousands of stalks bearing their ridiculous, speckled pink bells. Everything was a sign of someone who’d lived there before, yet everything that was there became mine, my life. I absorbed it all, my life wrapping around the remains the way a nudibranch, the flexible sea slug, consumes a poison snail, the soft body of the nudibranch absorbing the poison spines and making them its own.

It was deeply silent. I lived there, I think, not only because it was fun and free and to prove to myself that I could do it, but to somehow confront myself. The solitude was sometimes bang-my-head-against-the-wall solitude, like Colette’s, or like Virginia Woolf’s character in The Waves, calling herself back to her body lest she step off the edge of the world into nothingness. It was a deep, aching loneliness, but a necessary one, where I worked through the mess to touch some internal abyss, where I waded through various lives and past lives, ghosts or demons or whatever you want to call them, to arrive at a little void inside myself. A small, singular void that frightened me with its depthlessness.

In some ways, I think what I sought was this place where I could search no further. Perhaps it took me two years to get there, to know a solitude so deep, to see that beneath all of this—my self, my being, my thoughts, my soul—there was a place where nothing existed at all. It was like I’d seen the very interstices of my atomic make up, the space between the elements that made me me, the space between them where the atoms didn’t touch. I could sense the me that was made out of nothing at all. Not air, not some infinitesimal molecular structure, not something so small it seemed like nothing—a true void, a vacuum, absent of anything at all.

The only way for my loneliness not to kill me was to stand there and look it in the face. The cabin was my first true home, and the only place that ever felt singularly mine even though the imprint of so many others existed there, even though it put me in touch with my own emptiness. Maybe home isn’t even the right word for it, but it was the place where—because of my daily confrontation with solitude, with my ability to acknowledge my own internal void—I felt like I truly knew who I was.

 

4.
It’s difficult living in a home where you’re the only one not connected by blood or by law—whatever those are worth. Sometimes I watch the three of them communicate—doing their parent-teenager thing, the joking, the nagging, the fighting, the accepting—and I feel like an anthropologist trying to learn the traits of some newly discovered civilization. I live with the tribe, I eat with the tribe, I am sleeping with the chief of the tribe. Yet I am not one of them.

The stories we get about adults who willingly step into another family never quite relay just how complicated it is. We get wicked stepmothers jealously sabotaging an innocent daughter’s youth. We get the story of the red-headed stepchild, the delinquent ne’er-do-well who’s out to make his parent’s and step-parent’s life a living hell. We get the story of combined harmony—families finally “completed” by the missing pieces that slide into place—we get Maria Von Trapp and the Brady Bunch. It’s always sabotage or restored balance, as though there’s no option in between.

My family has the feeling of one foot being bigger than the other: one shoe is always going to be a little looser and a little floppier than the other. It will always feel just a little off. For me, coming in from the outside, I didn’t slide easily into place. Everything didn’t come neatly together—it just became something new for everyone involved and it doesn’t quite fit the parameters of any of the family models out there. I’m obviously not the first woman to ever move in with a father and his children. But the stories I always hear just don’t equal my experience. They’re of instant bonding or of perpetual bickering. They’re of complete inclusion or of cold distance–girlfriends biding their time until the kids are out. There’s some sort of intensity that I figure my situation must just be lacking. I still feel like I’m waiting for something to happen, some sort of obvious way to explain the way it is for us, whether my experience is smashing, or good, or just so-so. I want to be able to define it, to quantify it. More than likely, however, whatever my relationship is to this family will only be defined in retrospect.

Without any sort of narrative out there that best represents my own experience, I struggle to write my own story—the story of how I came from the dark into this well-lit home. I feel like it should be the story of how I shed my solitude, how I stepped inside and learned to play the role of…. But that’s the problem. I can’t think of who I am. Who I’m supposed to be. And so all I can really do is just keep being the person I was before.

 

5.
When I was three years old my family moved to a house with a large backyard bordered by a cornfield. Behind the cornfield was a swath of woods with an old logging road running through it. About a mile out, the road branched and a lesser trail led over a creek and into a flat open expanse. There, in the middle of the forest, was an old falling-down cabin. It had green asphalt shingles and a caved-in roof. I had been warned never to go in, but I was lured to the threshold time and again. I would stand in the dark doorway and look in on the remains of where a man named John Love had lived. There had been a murder—John Love’s mother’s lover, or something like that—which he had witnessed as a kid, and he’d never been quite right since, or at least those are the details that my father knew.

The cabin was too dark. If there had been any windows they must have been boarded over, because I remember leaning in as far as I could, trying to make out the lay of the place. All I recall is his rotted bed in the corner. My father had told me that before John Love died, he’d been bed-ridden, so ill at the end that he’d lean out of bed to urinate on newspapers spread across the floor. Don’t go in there, my father warned—he was always warning—it’s unsturdy.

After school and on weekend mornings, my sister and I would walk through the woods, down the familiar path to the old cabin. We’d go and stand and stare into it. We would pick through the debris that was scattered outside—old shoes, rusted metal springs, cooking pots, tin cans, suitcases, and so much broken glass. There were enamel teakettles and old buckets that someone had used for target practice. I asked my father why it was all outside, and he explained that looters had come and picked through the place to see if John Love had a ton of money stashed away, like one of those crazy old hermits who was sitting on millions. He didn’t.

He may have been a relative of mine. Love was my mother’s maiden name.

Slowly, over the course of a few years, my father buried the rusted and rotting remains of what the cabin had held. And then after that, he dismantled the cabin piece by piece, and what wasn’t salvaged was buried too. Eventually, it became just a wide spot on the logging trail, where the forest suddenly opened to let in sky. A clearing, and nothing more. But I was still drawn there. We still refer to that opening in the woods as John Love’s. “I’m just going to take a walk out to John Love’s and back,” we say. It is now just a place to arrive at, to turn around and head home from.

 

6.
You made your bed, now lie in it. This is a common phrase that I often mix up with, You’ve dug your own grave. Both imply the same thing—that the bed-maker or grave-digger can only blame himself for where he is. We use these phrases, unsympathetically, to refer to people who are unhappy with their lot in life. It’s your own fault, we might as well say. One refers to domesticity, the other to death, and perhaps I confuse the two because I see domesticity as a kind of death.

For me, it’s the death of those interminable nights where I only had to contend with my own thoughts and the task of getting them down on paper. I fear domesticity means giving up a part of myself, my solitary private self, the artist self who thrives on her own thirst, her own lack. The loneliness keeps me in touch with a perpetual exploration—with the sort of searching questions that I build a piece of writing around, questions that inhabit my private, internal void.

Domesticity caulks up that void, or at the very least distracts me from remembering it’s there. The interminable hours are cut short by a home’s ritualistic schedule: Shelve that existential inquiry, it’s time to make some pasta sauce. Questions are left un-pondered for days, weeks sometimes, as I get caught up in the much more real and immediate issues—like trying to support Ben in the labyrinthine confusion that is fatherhood. And even though I feel mostly useless, I know that these attempts are somehow more important than whatever I’ve left behind.

Alone, I might mull over a project and then go to sleep, curled in my bed by myself, and wake up just to continue where I left off, sleep a mere lull in my continuum. Now, bed is a destination, soft and warm with another human to touch. What project is more important, I sometimes think, than learning the sleep patterns of someone I love, the way the breath slows, the way a leg twitches. What’s more important than being granted closeness to someone at his most vulnerable? It’s the same every night, but it still feels precious, worth witnessing. And what’s more important than just being here when we all wake up, than being here to say good morning and have a good day at school and I love you? It doesn’t seem like that should take much time out of my day, but it’s that times a thousand, times every little interaction with the people in this home.

But then I’m reminded of my solitary artistic endeavors, and I wonder if this new life is killing those, smothering them. I wonder who, or what I’ve become. Writing an essay on the meaning of home feels so frivolous when what’s important is trying to just be a member of that home. But what sort of writer have I become if I don’t grant myself the time to ponder such questions and write them all down? How I can retain my former self while trying to fit into this new mold I’m creating as I go. How can I shape shift like I did when I was in the cabin, and meld these identities into one?

There were many times when I stood on the brink of making a home. Times with Ben, and even a few times before him. I stood on the threshold; I stood outside in the dark and looked into the lighted windows, into the pretty picture of domestic life, but I feared entering it because I was always afraid it wasn’t quite right. When I entered the house, I wanted it to be perfect, and therefore I was willing to refrain as long as possible.

And now that I am in it, I find that it isn’t quite right, that a perfect fit is essentially impossible.

I know that I can live alone in the woods. That I could die alone in a hovel, leaving behind an amalgam of rusted belongings for posthumous visitors to sift through. The question now is—can I survive domesticity? Can I survive not being alone?

 

7.
This was not the domesticity I planned. I have to work hard to imprint myself on someone else’s accrued domesticity rather than slowly inherit and evolve my own. But slowly, my life meshes with theirs—my books go on the shelves Ben has built in the dining room; my rug goes onto the living room floor; my stand-up brass lamp with the lampshade that looks like lumpy pancake batter finds a home over the bathtub first, then in the dining room; I bring a cat into the home; I plant spring ephemerals around the house, and when the hepatica goes into bloom I remind myself that I was responsible for bringing it there.

Slowly, pieces of me flutter down onto the tableau, changing it in ways that are nearly imperceptible at first. When I moved in to stay, I spent several days soaking the place in. I would spend hours reading and writing out in the sun on the back steps. I’d venture into the little patch of trees behind the backyard, rummaging through the debris and rusted bedsteads of past inhabitants embedded in the topsoil. From there, I would turn to look up at our blue house in the distance. That’s my house, I would tell myself.

I remind myself that I felt the same way when I lived in the cabin. The cat I had lived with died shortly before I moved out. The day I buried her, I hiked her into the woods. She was nestled in a towel inside a cardboard box. I had chosen the perfect spot: a clearing beneath a hemlock tree atop a little knoll that overlooked the pond. It wasn’t until I started digging that I realized the soil was terrible, practically pure limestone, and digging was like chipping away at dried clay with my dull shovel. I panicked a little, because I had been so reassured by the idea of her body breaking down, becoming part of the soil, signifying some sort of transition from this life to the next. By leaving her in this near-rock it was like I was entombing her, and it was that idea of permanence that frightened me.

But I had chosen this spot, and so I pushed that thought aside. I had already dug the grave.

I decided that day not to walk directly back to the cabin on the path I knew well. Instead, I decided to walk around the pond. I walked through Virginia creeper vines and through bramble bushes—how long had it been since I’d come this way? The landscape was nearly unrecognizable, until I suddenly emerged through the trees. I was at the bank of the pond’s far end. Across the flat expanse of murky water sat the cabin: its sagging-spine roof, the woodstove pipe jutting up at a jaunty angle, lifeless without a puff of smoke.

It looked unfamiliar to me suddenly, like where some cranky old hermit lived, not me. From across the pond that I thought I knew so well, the cabin already looked like somebody else’s home.

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2 Comments

  • Kairu says:

    Amanda! The authenticity and vulnerability spills off of this story. I felt every word, every part, and yet I have lived none of it. You have a remarkable way about you and I would love to read more of your stories.

  • Lilace says:

    I really appreciate your lyrical exploration of the yearning for solitude (for art, for self) and for a belonging that, even if we resist the word, is a type of domesticity. This is complex and real and dead-on for me.

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