I’ve had a curious relationship with my dead mother-in-law’s house for the past ten years. And now suddenly, it’s over and done with. I would describe the relationship as close, protective, love/hate, proud, loyal, agonizing, infuriating. Indeed it’s as close as any relationship I’ve had to any house, since I’ve never had a house of my very own and have always longed for one. My ten year thing with my mother-in-law’s old house encompasses all the range of feelings people have about the places where things have happened to them and to people they love, though I have never lived in the house, except for a short period of time a couple of summers ago. I wrote almost a whole novel during that time, within its walls, and though the novel has yet to be published, I hope one day it will be. It was an odd couple of months for me. I hardly cooked a meal, I blamed it on the fact that there was only a couple of knives and forks, two bowls and maybe three glasses, none of them proper, all from the Ladies Village Improvement Society bargain box. There was just the one sofa to sit on, as I had long ago emptied the place out for selling. Back in the big bedroom, my father-in-law designed and everybody called “the motel” there was one uncomfortable bed and a broken down vintage, modernist chest of drawers so splintered, every time I reached in, I invariably had to retrieve the tweezers and alcohol. Yet it was one of the happiest summers of my life. In the early mornings I took Henry to the beach and we ran until even Henry tired out. Then we came back and I stuck post-its all over the walls of the hallway between the motel and the living room, and I figured out my book. I did online yoga, made new friends, and once in a while got invited to places I’d never been before in all the years I’d been coming to Springs, the not so fancy area of East Hampton.
Always, until the other day, when the new guy, a tasteful Mr. H, did his walkthrough and signed on the dotted line, I’ve halfway hoped, from time to time, I would one day live there with Henry and it would be my house. My husband, my son, and all my friends would come for dinner and then everybody would go home and there would just be Henry and me.
Every time in the past ten years, when there wasn’t a tenant living there, and my husband and I had words, I would imagine packing a bag, a couple cans of dog food and a few shaky toys, and I’d mentally move to the little house in the woods. Often, I’d furnish the place in my mind’s eye. It was a cool little house and it was fun to imagine what I’d do. It was far better and I think healthier, psychologically I’m guessing, than re-decorating the studio apartment in New York, where I lived when I was younger than my son, something I was in the habit of doing for years. Why didn’t I have those floors re-done? Why didn’t I use the little alcove more efficiently?
Houses get inside your skin and bones. And the little house on Fireplace Road got inside mine. No one else cared about it. My son said he never liked the place. My husband who had once been a little boy there in the summers turned his nose up also. Though I suspect with him it’s his usual inability to voice his feelings about the past.
My niece and nephew have fond memories of the place where they came and visited their grandparents every summer. Their grandma was a burn-the-bra bohemian and their grandfather a famous architect who died much longer ago than she did. Famous painters came to dinner: big deals from the New York School. Friends flew in from Paris, from Athens, from London, Ireland, in the summer in its heyday, the artistic and the louche lounged on its deck in uncomfortable summer chairs. That’s one of the things I really liked about the place: it was louche, while at the same time being ascetic and uncomfortable. Had the orange curtains made out of sheets, that covered every window been white I would have liked that too. I just happen to hate the color orange.
When I gutted the place all the boho trappings went with it. I can’t say I recreated a joint with even a single luxury feature, but it was a different place I rented out. The bathrooms were better, the old fridge got axed and the stove replaced with a Bosch.
All that’s left of the old days other than the gorgeous light, is the grape arbor that grows outside the main room, and the sad old table and chairs underneath it, Mr. H will do what he wants with the remnants.
I remember Ms. U our first tenant, whose bf was a well known sculptor who knew my in-laws. She left skid marks on the lawn and slid the slider in my face when I went to ask for the rent. Mademoiselle Nut Job came next: a painter who found out, on his last drunken night, Jackson Pollock flipped his car in front and killed himself. Yes, that Jackson Pollock. She had white-on-white monogrammed linens and never did the dishes, then fled, bleating about mice.
Two boys and a girl came next. They left a lot of beer cans. Finally, a young widow whose kid left glue-on stars on one of the bedroom’s ceiling.
I almost rented it the last time to some crazy chick at a bargain rate because she claimed to want to live there forever. That’s the thing, I was always worried when it wasn’t rented, yet secretly wanted to live there myself. In the last instance, I flew out from the coast to move her in and she went screaming into the woods never to be seen again.
What will I do with myself in my spare time now that the little house in the woods is gone?
The other night, after the tasteful Mr. H walked through, there were lights in the windows. Now the place is dark and I wonder if I’ve dreamed the whole thing up. In the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I fell to decorating the place again.
Where will I go when I fight with my husband? Where will Henry and I live?
I asked my husband this last night. He was reading the newspaper and didn’t look up.
“I guess,” said he, “you’re going to have to live with me.”
Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levyby