Other than my epileptic brown dog, I'm the only sentient being in the Holmes house today. My spouse drove a Penske one-way to Omaha with our daughter's belongings, her silver-bullet car behind the vehicle as they journeyed north for the start of the next phase of her life. I spent last evening padding around the house in black velour, rubber-bottomed slippers and a new pair of leopard-print pajamas, a size too large but cozy and warm, one-hundred percent polyester imitation coziness. I watched one of those movies whose endings you see coming halfway through, with a glimmer of foreshadowing and a nuanced glance. I cried anyway, laughing with the bitter sweetness of the heroine's move to mental health while her hospital romance assumed his old room in the ward where they had met.
My stepdaughter's voice on the phone a few hours later, eager, alive, brilliant, pulled me back nearly four decades, to the drive from Logan Airport in the car of a young man who provided a temporary berth for me, in the weeks after my early college completion, December 1976. Seventeen inches of snow had fallen that day, David told me; twenty more fell through the evening and night. I could not sleep; I could hear icicles forming, snow settling, wind rattling the window near my pallet on the floor. I set my glasses on my suitcase and closed my eyes.
I had not known what Boston would be like, but I certainly did not anticipate the biting cold. I took the Green Line to Boston College, where I planned to enroll as a graduate student in September. On the strength of my anticipated matriculation, the lady in the Student Life Office allowed me to peruse the "help wanted" and "roommate wanted" listings. I left a couple of messages, scheduled an interview, then trudged back to the T stop in borrowed galoshes, clutching my Midwestern attitude to my chest, huddled in a thin wool coat and the scarf my mother had knitted for me. The matching gloves sat at the bottom of my pocketbook, one thumb too big, the other too narrow, a little finger misshapen. I wore instead a cheap pair from K-Mart.
Within a week, I had agreed to rent the third bedroom in a Brighton second-floor apartment, from two actresses who worked mundane day jobs and auditioned as an avocation. A week later, I started work as the receptionist in a temporary personnel agency, the St. Louis branch of which had been my summer job during my last two years of college. My old boss sent a letter of reference. I did not tell them of my plans to begin my graduate studies; they promised that hard work would draw me upward in rank and pay. I felt only a little shabby for the deceit. I needed to work.
For the next few months, I learned to board a subway without falling, to avoid the glances of dubious strangers, and to take the Red Line out to Cambridge where I found myself frequenting the Harvard Co-0p. I did a stint as a relief secretary at IBM, which ended when I told my boss that I would Xerox something for him. The sales rep who had placed me apologized for ten solid minutes while I stood miserably by her desk. She slammed the receiver down. I resumed my place as the suite receptionist, and no one used me for an assignment again. Instead, I started scheduling nurses and CNAs to the night shift, keeping the lists of available personnel in neatly printed pencil on yellow cards with printed columns.
By February, I had begun to party with my roommates. I dated a banker who turned out to be gay. I drank with unemployed actors and collected bets on the waiters at the Cafe Vendomme: This one wants to be a rock star; that one came from Iowa. When one of my roommates got a part in a local performance of "Look Homeward, Angel", I chugged red wine and got sick on the fire escape of the community theatre. My date, fastidiously disdainful of my weakness but thankful for the cover that I provided on Sundays with his conservative family in Worcester, held my shaking frame while I gulped air and made excuses about bad chicken salad purchased from a downtown food cart. I fooled no one.
In the sweltering summer, on a torpid July night, I huddled against a pillar in the subway station, miserable and lonely. I glanced across the way, meeting the eyes of a man more miserable than me only because of the bent in his back and the curl of his spastic hands. He wore an odd hat, dingy plaid cotton, with a ragged brim. He held my gaze, then slid a crooked finger along the side of his face. His gesture could have meant anything. I took it as pity.
I sank against the seat, feeling the sweat soaking my suit jacket. The train lumbered out to the suburbs, raising to trolley level, sliding into Cleveland Circle. I limped towards our apartment, 27 South Street, my stomach tightening. Our landlady had given us thirty-days notice, and my flatmates had already advised me that they did not want me to join them in their new apartment. My misery sickened them. We advertised for a roommate, not a sister, they told me.
A few hours later, my boss telephoned. They had decided to change the schedule, and assign me to the midnight shift, requiring me to journey downtown in the swaying confines of an empty train car, enter a locked office building, and organize the lists of nurses available to work in the morning as each hospital called. The job would not become automated for twenty years. In those days, nothing could be done remotely.
The prospect of moving to a dingy studio, working alone through the night, and finding new friends overwhelmed me. I dialed the office answering machine and rasped out my resignation. I called my mother; and started to drag a jumble of books and clothes from the bedroom closet. In St. Louis, My brother Kevin slid into the driver's seat of my mother's vehicle and headed east. I was coming home.
A few weeks later, I staggered from the sun room of my parents' house, foggy from a late night, to find my seventeen-year-old brother hunched over a coffee pot waiting for it to perk. He shifted his bleary eyes towards me. Neither of us spoke. My desolation rose, gagging me, spewing into the silent kitchen. In that moment, the long slow slide downward began. It would only end when I hit so close to bottom that I might as well have died.
I think of my stepdaughter starting her new life, in a new town, at a new employer, in a new apartment with her boyfriend. Not for her the stacked suitcases serving as a bedside table to a pile of blankets on an air mattress. Though I feel gratitude, even now, for the welcome David showed me and the months that Marian and Melanie let me borrow their lives, this gratefulness mingles with a stronger sense of relief that Cara's journey has begun with more hope than I felt, in that brief, half-year, my Boston odyssey.
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