I used to share a house with three of the biggest geeks you ever saw. They were computer programmers. I had my own excuses.
The four of us had discovered just how viciously we valued our privacy by sharing a two-bedroom squat. I do not recommend sharing a space that small with anyone you're not deeply in love with, or who isn't a very small tank of fish. Mike used to try to cheer us up by riding around the apartment on his unicycle in his underpants, which was funny for a while, especially when he was cooking, but then he'd bump into a stack of somebody's stuff (stacks were our primary storage technique: clothing, books, discs) and knock crap all over the place and we'd all swear and get pissed off and wish we had rooms to storm off to and doors to slam, but we didn't, so we spent a lot of time at waffle house instead. We usually went there together, which I realize is funny. They're good guys.
When Jackson's boss suddenly realized he had hired a coding savant he could not afford to lose, and quintupled his salary, the first thing Jackson did was to start looking for a house. He said he'd pay for it and we all said Oh we couldn't let you do that, when what we all meant was, Please be serious, there will be some bad homicide if we don't get out of here soon. He was serious. He found a house in the classifieds and we moved.
Our new home had two floors, plus attic and basement. I'd never had so much room to spread out in. Even shared among four, it was more than enough space for everyone to have a bedroom and separate work area. Jackson was quite the darling of the house for a while. Our salaries couldn't compete with his so we showed our appreciation in the ways we could afford: Conrad washed his Honda, I cooked, and Mike kept his room admirably free of accumulated filth for a far longer stretch than we'd ever seen. It all embarassed Jackson terribly and I think he was glad when we fell off our weird gratitude-driven habits and went back to being pigs and bickering over whose turn it was to do the god damned dishes.
The house was fully wired, but the power was a little iffy. I was raised by my grandparents, so I had an edge: I was able to show off lots of previously useless skills, adjusting the flues of fireplaces, trimming the wicks of kerosene lanterns, and generally making sure we didn't burn the place to the ground. One day I came home to find Conrad kneeling on the living room hearth, running his hands over the stones. Where is it, he wanted to know, Where's the thingy? There's no gas, dorkus, go chop some wood. The boys learned to hit Save every three minutes, but still, sometimes the lights would flicker and I'd hear three distinct shouts of godDAMMit from all corners of the house.
None of us owned much furniture other than sad hollow mattresses and folding chairs, and most of that got taken out to the curb, fast, after we saw the ridiculously elegant stuff the house was full of. None of us were experts on antiques but we all knew that beanbag chairs and pressed-wood card tables don't go with maroon velvet divans and glowing mahogany. It was elegant. We hated to ruin the effect with our pcs and xboxes. But we did. I got used to typing while engulfed by a massive chair whose gnarled legs ended in lion's feet, my keyboard and monitor lonely on the end of a table built for twelve.
The house came complete with curtains, paintings, dishes. A few lovely sepia-toned photos in copper frames. The wallpaper was beginning to peel at the edges, and the carpet had worn a bit thin in the halls, but everything was in amazingly good shape for its age, cheerfully frozen in the era of the previous tenants. It was like living in a charming, historically accurate dollhouse, or a museum, or someone's odd antiquated dream of the past. We weren't sure how old the house was, or who had lived there, and we had no one to ask. Our landlord was a small, silent man who preferred to receive the rent by mail.
At first we did not explore - in a house so filled with personal relics of someone else's life, we felt like we were staying overnight in a stranger's grandma's very weird home. The attic was eventually too much temptation for me, and I climbed up the terrible rickety wooden ladder and through the trapdoor. By the time the boys got home from the grocery store I had found the most amazing trunk full of artifacts. Connie came up the ladder to find me rustling around in a high-collared wedding dress.
And in the hope chest, under layers and layers of lace, was Sarah's diary. The leather was cracked and the pages were crispy with age. We couldn't wait.
We read from it every night after dinner. We gathered in the parlor, the one room we kept free of all modern junk. No Depeche Mode cds lying around, no Snickers wrappers. We sat on ponderous, brocaded loveseats and listened to Mike decipher the spidery scrawls in the little book. He read slowly and made it last. We watched the grandfather clock's brass pendulum gleam back and forth. We kept it wound although it was never right - the ticking did not measure accurate seconds, the bird jumped out at random and disconcerting intervals, and who can say, really, in which direction the hands were moving?
We learned that Sarah had married Benjamin, a wealthy mill owner who had built the house to impress her. It worked. We learned that the marble for the mantels of the eight fireplaces had been shipped from Italy at enormous expense, and that the immense and curving bannister had been hewn from the trunk of a single tree. This sounded like nonsense, so we went to check. We slid our hands all over it; such a smooth wood, it left the illusion of having applied an opulent oil to our palms. We found no seams.
We learned that Benjamin had died only a few years into the marriage. After his death, Sarah had nothing to say for several months. The next entry, though, was full of an enthusiasm that seemed anything but forced. She'd started painting. She learned to sew. Once, she admitted to have initially thrown herself at these pastimes as a way of distracting herself from grief. But, she said, despite this broken heart, she was not yet done with her life.
It was Conrad who had the hunch, went looking, and was right. The paintings and sketches which cluttered the piano and hung on every wall each bore a tiny S, often hard to spot, twisting among tree branches or edging the curve of a cloud. I fell asleep each night in Sarah's old bedroom, under a sheet edged with delicate needlework - blue tulips which danced on the ends of S-shaped stalks. In my dreams it was prounounced shhhh, shhhh.
Connie got hooked on the things. I'd come in and yell Anybody Home, get no answer, and scare the shit out of myself by bumping into a person where I did not expect to find one. Gazing into a canvas, he would go into a contented trance. We made fun, but the more I thought about it, the nicer a place it seemed he had found, so I started standing with him, at first trying to see what he was seeing, then relaxing into my own experience, imagining myself creating the same shapes with charcoal or pencil or paint.
So of course she turned us all into artists. I will not say we had talent, natural nor developed, but that didn't worry any of us. It was enough to lie on the floor in front of a fire, making marks on paper. Connie went through this phase where he insisted on drawing me with butterflies tangled in my hair, or feathers, or tiny little fish.
It had once felt wrong to rifle through a stranger's belongings, but soon enough we stopped thinking of her as a stranger, and we could not imagine living anywhere else. We agreed that this was the first place any of us had chosen to live that had ended up feeling like home. Jackson decided to buy the house. We voted him Dad.
We made ghost jokes, of course. We live in a haunted house ha ha. OooOOOOoooo. In private, though, Jackson admitted that he often felt as if we had an invisible fifth roommate, and that he gave her a little nod every time he entered the house. Mike, drunk and urgent, once whispered that he often felt like Sarah was always one room over from wherever he was. He would hear distant footsteps or the shish of pages being turned, way over on the fuzzy edge of perception, but he could of course never catch her at it, though he tried. And Connie, who told me everything, admitted he often woke himself up at night by talking to a woman whose face he could not quite discern, nor touch, which he wanted very badly to do. And I - well, I thought about her all the time. None of this was creepy. It was just the way things were. We liked it.
We stopped spending so much time goofing around with electricity and started talking to each other a lot more, every day. None of us had ever had anyone to talk to every day before. Not for this many days in a row. We had all been hurt enough times by worse people to be able to really appreciate the good ones. I mean me, of course. I felt lucky all the time and I knew I was right.
When people are allowed to live the way they'd most like to, in a happy house filled with the people they like best (tangible or otherwise), funny things start to happen. Jackson quit speed. I quit prozac. Mike planted a garden and found out he could cook. Jackson started making a comic book. Conrad started touching me, and I found out I liked it.
So it was quite a shock when our landlord stood grimly in our parlor and said That is not a possiblity. He turned to leave. What? What do you mean, not a -
He said we were not well suited to the house. He said we could not buy it. He said something about development, and the house shortly being torn down to make room for a - No! (Out of whose throat did that burst? All of us, or someone who was no longer there?)
The landlord stopped and looked at each of our faces. He said, Why should you want to live here?
Because we love her.
He closed his eyes and stood there, looking tired, looking like a tired little old man, but smiling, which we had never seen him do, but there was no time to think about that because we were all caught in a crash, a, I don't know what it was, a sonic wave, an invisible WHOMP that caught us all in the chest, what happened?
You might think death will be the biggest thing to happen to you, maybe you're right, but there are other moments which will end you just as thoroughly, or begin you. What happened? The air did something, it changed form, we could see it ripple. A shimmer, hard to see, but there, we all saw it, we are skeptics and math majors but we saw, it was all around us and it was inside us and it was so LOUD, it was like a deafening chord of music when you weren't expecting any music at all, it was, forgive me, there isn't any vocabulary for this, what happened will not be punctuated -
What happened to us? It's easier to repeat the question than to explain the answer, there are many answers. A lot happened to us. We were opened up. We were taken to the edge of something that might have stopped our hearts, then sent us home safe. We were given a flicker of time in which an entire other life might be carried out, birth to death, as an exercise in paying attention, as a gift.
We were electrified but we were not afraid. Somebody gave us the truth in a lightning bolt : the world is warm and likes having us in it. The room spun; I thought for a second that the house was falling down, but it was only me, and I woke up back here, my night-silent apartment, in what I used to think was my real and only life, lying in the same position as I'd fallen, with the word Sarah audible in my room, I heard it, I heard it, she was there.