By Mary Switalski
When we moved to D.C. in 2004, we couldn’t find a place to live. My partner Laura’s great-cousin Barry and his wife Ruth generously let us live in the basement apartment in their home in the Tenleytown neighborhood. We lived there for over a month, searching for an affordable apartment while Laura began her doctorate program. We had come from the wild, having spent the summer camping, and we moved our camping dishes into the kitchenette and our sleeping bags into the little den in Laura’s great-cousin’s basement. I was so glad to be at the brunch table, I could almost forget how strange it felt to be welcomed so thoroughly by strangers.
“That’s what family does,” Laura would say.
It was hot in D.C., and we were broke. We were working, but saving it all toward the apartment that we weren’t finding. We’d stay home and watch the Olympics. There was a big TV with sound and a bad picture, and a small TV with no sound and a good picture, and we stacked them and turned them both on. When it was too hot to go out, I’d lie on the white carpet and read the dirty parts of good books. Tropic of Cancer. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A Spy in the House of Love. Or we’d go out and try to spend no money. The high hedges around the neighborhood were hammocked with spiderwebs and the sidewalks crossed with slimy slug trails. We went to every free museum—even the Sackler, even the Renwick. Battlefields from Antietam to Bull Run. Finally, finally, we found what we were looking for: a one-bedroom in Silver Spring close to Metro, brick, and the perfect price. We were to sign the lease Labor Day weekend, but it all fell through.
Panicked. Outraged. Breaking the news to Barry and Ruth was awkward; Barry had the rare tot of Scotch. The next day, Laura and I walked down to one of the few free institutions we had not yet visited, the National Cathedral. Neither of us is religious, but it was close, cool, dim, quiet. We came to the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, and Laura asked whether this was the same Joseph who helps Catholics buy and sell homes. (You just bury a plastic statue of Joseph —the carpenter, Jesus’s stepfather—upside down in your backyard and then BAM! Your home is bought or sold.) I didn’t know whether Joseph the Carpenter was “of Arimathea” or not.
“Worth passing through,” we decided.
When we got back to Barry and Ruth’s, we checked Craigslist again. An apartment in downtown Silver Spring for exactly the same price as the one that we’d lost was available immediately. Because it was the same management company as the one that had fallen through, our paperwork had already been approved. The former tenant had worked as a mechanic, and had been crushed to death under a vehicle. There were motor oil stains on the carpet, but the full south wall was windows, and so we signed the lease. Turns out Joseph of Arimathea is the Patron Saint of undertakers. And the apartment that had fallen through—razed within the year.
Surely, we never meant to live in Silver Spring Towers high-rise for eight years. “That’s half of our relationship,” Laura said as we each wrote up our pro and con lists—to move or not to move. Eight years. Half. The plants had grown. The cat was fatter. But not much else had changed between those walls. All of the growth and transformation we experienced in those eight years was personal or external. We finished graduate school and got jobs. Relationships deepened, faded. We traveled. We established ourselves as regulars at a local dive bar. The city had grown and grown. But spring would come and we’d wander the streets like exiles just to smell the flowers in other people’s yards. Summers would come and the Eastern European pool-boys and pool-girls would appear on deck below all those windows, hired as lifeguards in a international exchange program, and after about six years I started to feel like a creep, looking down at them in their red suits. Early on when all we had was camping furniture, we’d dance half the night. “Dancing through life,” Laura’s mom once said. It didn’t always feel that way, but we never stopped dancing. There was plenty of room for darts, but we never got any better at them. There are habits you love loyally, habits that please you, and then there are those that take root out of boredom and compulsion, and by the end, I felt like I had too many of those. The last night in the apartment, I lay awake needling myself: what does it all mean? And if we became who we are those eight years, who were we before?
Our first apartment was on South University Street in Ann Arbor, two very small rooms above a Korean restaurant. There were eight or ten units, and each door was a different color; ours was orange. It was furnished and when other units were left open for cleaning between tenants, we’d switch out our furniture for better versions. It had twin bunk beds; we slept in one of them. Mitch’s was the bar next door. After writing class, I’d come home and find my friend Cobb had arrived, and she’d make the calls and pretty soon the whole place was full. Someone would get a case from Village Corner and we’d play drinking "Hot Potato" with a mini-football, hilarity ensuing. An attendee once claimed, “There were no parties anywhere on campus better than at Mary and Laura’s on a Wednesday.” To this day, I’m partial to a WNP. But one day, the management company came and ripped off half of the building, the half connected to our bedroom wall, and that was the beginning of the end.
After a short stint in our second, unremarkable apartment, we moved to Willowtree, across from North Campus. Our friends lived two doors down. We faced a drainage pond ringed by a walking track. One early April morning the four of us went outside to find that everything seemed to have multiplied overnight. There were ducklings, baby turtles, baby snakes, baby muskrats all around the shimmering pond. But then there was a storm of the sort that turns spring back to winter, and the pond water rose with the sleet. Geese had been nesting at the edge of the pond. I ran out and dredged the icy water for their eggs while they flailed and squawked, but I was too late.
We could not find an apartment in Boston alone and hired a service. The boss of this service was a loudmouthed, spray-tanned Masshole in a hot pink tank top cut deep on the sides for that full body ventilation. While we were in the Rental Service office, he fired a middle-aged mother right in front of us. Crying, she slipped a framed picture of her two young boys into her purse and she left. I had deep reservations about Boston. But eventually, after some morale-building at The Burren in Davis Square, we found a place in a charming brick building. It had a (non-functioning) antique intercom and a (non-functioning) fireplace. One side of the building was Somerville, and the other side was Cambridge. None of the neighbors were friendly on the walk to the T. Up the block, smokers would gather and quietly smoke, dozens and dozens of them, several times per day and night. I got it in my head that it was some kind of secretive institute collecting data on smokers, and I took that conceit pretty far before finding out that it was a telemarketing call center.
When I wasn’t working, I would walk over to the Somerville Public Library and bring home books by Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Kerouac and read them beside the open windows. Then I’d go to the writers’ homes and to their graves. A Petoskey Stone is a prehistoric fossil of the coral “Hexagonaria percarinata,” a grey stone with a honeycomb pattern, found only on the Northwestern shore of Michigan. When I went to Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery with a pocket of Petoskey Stones, and placed one at each grave, I meant, “I’ve come this far to say thank you.”
For what we would have paid in Boston rent, we could spend the whole summer on the road. The map was unfurled, fingers tracing all the possibilities, all the roads that could end in D.C..
Staying in the apartment. Pro: Cheap, plus utilities. Inertia is easy. Walking distance to Metro. Con: The carpet, the carpet, the carpet. Inertia is boring. Going outside is a big project.
Moving into the wee house. Pro: The yard. The kitchen. The laundry in the root cellar. The built-in bookshelves. Proximity to Sligo Creek. Privacy. A neighborhood. Con: It was all happening so fast that almost as soon as it was considered, it was done.
We moved into the little house on Flower Avenue in Takoma Park on Labor Day. The first night, I lay in bed, exhausted and awake. There was a cricket somewhere in the house. Its incessant stridulating was unbearable.
The second night, I sat out on the back deck listening to the cacophony of crickets, cicadas, tree frogs. Listen long enough, and you hear their overlapping rhythms. The resonance of the whole organism, each cell a universe, and the universe, a great cell.
It’s what sold us on the house—the back deck. We arrived at the showing early and decided that the house was too small. Why move from one too-small space to another? Why bite at the first bait? The tenants weren’t yet gone, so the landlord asked us to sit out back and wait.
Outside. I could immediately see myself out there every day, all the time. In my mind, I was out there grilling, painting, building things, whittling, playing guitar, planting herbs, taming squirrels, attending to my correspondence, drinking iced tea, drinking sangria, weaving a hammock and whiling away the afternoon in it with a good book, and there are grape arbors and hops arbors and a fire pit and the smell of magnolia wafting through the trees. In reality, there were mosquitos and yellowjackets and work to be done and the squirrels are intractable bastards and the smell of compost is what mostly wafts through. But we did get the fire pit!
I am aware that to most people my age, moving into a rented house is no biggy. I am aware that people navigate escrow and mortgage with aplomb, and I respect that immensely. I have never yet been ready. “What would I do with a house?” I’ve asked myself. “I’d have to put things in it.” Sounds like a lot of bother. In twenty years of re-reading Walden (in which Thoreau calls renting versus owning a “doubtful choice of evils”), I’ve internalized quite a bit. He pities his townsmen “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools” and he advises that “if one designs to construct a dwelling house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.” So it didn’t concern me that the house was tiny because I’m wary of material excess, and I’m wary of material excess because I have long believed Thoreau’s promise, that “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
We were just settling in when the gas man found a leak, and a short in the wiring blew the electricity out of all but one socket in the house. We used the socket for the computer and speakers so we could still have music. All the food went into coolers. We navigated the night with our headlamps on. It was still dark when I’d get up and ready for work, starting each day with an ice-cold shower. Laura says that it was that hardship—quite like camping, really—that made her finally feel like she lived here. One of us had commented that it wasn’t much of a house after all, more of an urban cabin.
“Once I knew what to call it,” she says, “it was home.”
On football Saturdays in the fall, we wake up and hang our flag out. Between games, we walk down to the creek and run plays under the yellow trees. We run plays and laugh until we’re exhausted—no, until we’re injured, until we’ll need plenty of rest and therapy if we’re going to be in any shape to do it again next Saturday.
Turns out those bushes are azaleas. Turns out the tree in the front yard is a double-blossom cherry. Turns out Hester’s favorite bush becomes a stunning cascade of white flowers in the spring, just beyond the kitchen window. Turns out crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, irises.
In early August, molting season, I started finding dropped feathers around the yard and under the birdfeeder. I decided to see how many I could collect in the month, no one reason. It wasn’t long before I had too many to fit between the pages of my bird guide, and I began collecting only clean and significant feathers: 239 feathers, and the yard is full of down. There are empty cicada casings (exuviae) clung to bark. Down on the Bay, someone’s eating a soft-shell crab. I walk in the door and the little shack fits me like new skin.
Sometimes, when I have to run an errand, I find myself sitting on the Rockville Pike and wondering about all those shiny new high-rises. Red-light daydreaming another life, a fantasy in which I have a different job, high-paying and routine. The maid’s been in, everything in its place. I step out onto the balcony in well-tailored clothes and with the sun setting on the National Institutes of Health, you can almost see Bethesda. But the light finally changes, and just as fast as I can, I drive home. To the kitchen of sunlight and spices. To the too-smoky fireplace; to cross-ventilation; to hardwood floors. To no shared walls so I can crank the music up loud as I please and I can scream at the TV during games and elections.
To the reel-mown lawn and ladderball; to front-door bus service, and to chasing people out of the yard. To neighbors who say hi, and say “How y’all doin’?”
To Hester, who is a whole beast again, having regained her instincts out in the shrubbery.
To the pine-roosting doves; the thirteen blue-black grackles with their quick yellow eyes; the mean and gorgeous blue jays; the multitudes of sparrow. To Edwina and Loretta, the orb-weaving spiders; to the legions of camel crickets down the cellar. To Rat the Tomato Thief.
To happy sunflowers while they last, and fresh herbs nearly year-round. To a garden, something I’d been missing for a decade. Every morning, I wake to Hester’s pleading and I open the back door and follow her outside with my coffee, and in the morning sun, I look at how the garden fared overnight. I’ve had successes (arugula) and failures (romaine). But my later fried green tomatoes are something to sing about, and my first eggplants, white and purple, are plumping up beautifully. I’m thinking all the time about what I’ll do better next year. There are habits you love loyally, habits that please you. I’ve got more of them now.
Mary Switalski's work has appeared in Bethesda Magazine, The Dunes Review, The Pinch Literary Journal, Copper Nickel, Obsession Lit Mag, Monday Night, the anthology Defying Gravity, and others. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland with her partner, Laura; her cat, Hester; and all the wild beasts her small yard can sustain.