Part 1 here, Part 2 here.
January 4, 2012. After two days of apocalyptic spring, the Boston temperature dove into the single digits, a development I wasn't aware of when I left my parents' house with hair still shower-wet. It froze almost immediately as I ran my downtown errands, using my brand-new iPhone to navigate the quirky streets of the city where I was born but where now, after six years of only occasional visits, I remembered mostly images, not directions.
A T-ride later, I was back in Newton, that upright, high-strung suburb of professional parents and ambitious offspring steeped in the last dregs of old-school New England reserve. After a family dinner, I picked up my friend Kate and went with her to see "Young Adult" at the local indy movie theater. (Kate, who studies film in Denmark, is by far the best movie companion I've known.) We were both on break from grad school, and, just like the film's morose protagonist, visiting a hometown that felt vaguely foreign. After the movie, I drove Kate back to her parents' house and she invited me in.
The Krosschell home is my favorite in Newton. Their three-story house, perched on a tiny dead end street, is deep green on the outside and utterly cozy on the inside. From the porch, you can peer into a warmly-lit living room, where someone is almost always reading on the couch pushed up against the wide window. Mia, a quiet, inquisitive mini black poodle greets you at the door. On visits in recent years, Kate and I have broken from our teenage habit of escaping immediately to the chilly basement, pausing instead to chat with a parent in the living room. Cindy and Jim, both writers, have excellent reading recommendations and always seem genuinely interested in my literary-world wanderings.
Tonight, though, the living room was empty with the exception of a full, crystal-lit Christmas tree. Kate made tea and we ensconced ourselves in a couple of comfortable old armchairs. I set my mug on a coffee table next to a stack of New Yorkers, a couple short story collections, and a literary magazine I didn't know.
Since middle school, my conversations with Kate have been littered with French words, phrases, sentences. She was always better at the language than I was -- all the more after she spent a year in Paris, and then another in Normandy -- but we could generally understand each other. Until this night. At first, I thought I had just lost my French through lack of practice. But the new phrases in her speech weren't French; they were Danish, the language she is learning in Copenhagen. Usually, seeing my puzzled look, Kate would stop and explain the meaning of her new words; occasionally I had to ask. Kate was, of course, ecstatic in Denmark, in love with the language, excited about her new roommates, and still passionate about film. "Passionate" is a good descriptor for Kate in general. Passionnée. Lidenskabelig (according to Google translator). She was clearly still "young and idealistic," a curious phrase she has used to describe herself for years, as though anticipating some sudden collapse into cynicism.
My own brand of idealism, marked by rare but delirious minor revelations, hasn't fared as well. Certain things in life have been very good, but the isolation of grad school -- the pomposity and ultimate vapidity of too many things -- the sense of years slipping, of time evaporating unrealized -- these continue to grate. In uninterrupted English, I told Kate about dinner at a professor's house at the end of the fall semester. Maybe it came to mind because that house had much in common with Kate's -- same antique feel, same preponderance of books and literate magazines, same reliance on un-showy, eminently comfortable furniture. Instead of Mia, a sociable gray cat; instead of two tall blond daughters, an energetic young son and sweet toddler daughter. But the engagement with culture -- and specifically, the studied vaunting of culture over money, the determined emphasis on the home as a place for quiet reading rather than sensory indulgence -- this was the same.
At table were the six seminar students, my professor and her professor husband, and her children. My professor, a sharp scholar with an elephant memory and waifish figure, sat to my left. We discussed finals stress, our plans for reproduction (all female students; make of it what you will), and our individual family lives. All of us were feeling the shock of domestic stability after a semester of hunkering in our inherently temporary apartments, in our inherently temporary lives. And so our minds leaped back to the domesticities we had once known.
At some point, the toddler transitioned from her high chair to my professor's lap: a mound of soft, fat baby at home on her mother's slim thighs. She looked up at me with round blue eyes; I grinned awkwardly in response. My professor noticed, smiled, petted her daughter's head. I guessed we were all thinking about the dramatic differences of our life stages. Propertied versus nomadic, established versus striving, parents versus children. What alarmed me was that, though not yet a parent, I was infinitely less like this beaming little girl, now waving her arms at me, than like her middle-aged caretakers.
So yeah, c'était bizarre, I said to Kate. Mia pawed at my knee and the living room continued to swathe us in the illusion of adolescence.