I like to find quiet mountain cabins where I can read and write over the weekends, and I always take my dog Millie. She’s a 60-pound tan dog with pretty eyes. A mutt. I got her at a nearby shelter nine years ago, and now she’s eleven.
A couple of years ago, we started going to a cabin in Virginia, about an hour and a half from my home in central North Carolina. The cabin was built in the 1940s, and it’s a ways down a bumpy dirt road, with no marked street address. There’s a creek on the property and a one-mile trail behind the cabin to the New River.
People are fine talking about sobriety if you turn it into a dad joke: I came to the desert to dry out. But that’s not why I came here. Not initially.
Two years ago I found myself completely untethered. Divorce, job loss, foreclosure, bankruptcy, career change, new city, another relationship ended, another job lost. To quote Fitzgerald, “I had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess…I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” But I kept telling myself that I was in control, to just keep moving. I had daily panic attacks and high blood pressure. And I drank.
I tucked my hands into the pockets of my cardigan and pulled it around me in a hug as I set out for my walk. The sun was low in the west, the air nippy. I wandered into Central Square just as the City Hall clock above me struck seven. Crossing the street, past the noisy tavern on the left of the sidewalk, and people enjoying conversations and dinner al fresco on the right, I arrived at Rodney’s. The bookstore is an institution in Cambridge, MA. It sells used and rare books with a fast-changing inventory. I made a beeline for the New to Rodney’s table in the center of the store.
“There’s something doctors won’t acknowledge and won’t treat,” my grandmother says during our afternoon coffee. I’m visiting for the summer. These few months are the longest I’ve been in Bulgaria since my parents and I left for California in the early 90s. My grandmother and I drink our coffee in the living room, where we take our meals as well, facing a wall of cheaply made wooden cabinets, an Eastern European décor trend from the Cold War years. One cupboard has a glass door through which I can see a photograph of my mother from when she was a teenager.
We arrive at night, landing at West Palm International, still wearing jeans and fleece jackets as we step into the Florida night and walk to the taxi stand through air softened by warmth and humidity. Fifteen minutes later my sister and I stumble over the tiny brick path that leads from the edge of the cul-de-sac to the front door, swatting at mosquitos while my dad punches in the security code, everybody exhausted but excited to finally be back. It’s always like this, in all my memories of the place – an evening flight out of Boston landing us in West Palm sometime between ten and midnight, the night always clear, the air a humid 73.
The house belonged to my grandparents. Every February while I was in elementary school, my family would stay there for a week, a brief respite from the New England winter. My grandparents purchased the house as an eventual retirement home, but my grandfather had still not retired, and so the house occupied a strange sort of limbo, going entirely un-lived-in over the summer, and seeing only nine or ten weeks of use in the rest of the year. We returned each year to a sterile, static domicile that was clearly nobody’s home, greeted by the same immaculate white carpets, spotless tabletops, and barren kitchen. The house felt like a blank canvas over which our vacations were painted; it functioned simply as a base of operations. And this was the role my parents wanted it to play, because they were always desperate to get out of the house, to not let their week off go to waste. But for me, the house, and the similarly sterile neighborhood around it became the consummate vacation setting. February vacation came to be synonymous with Florida, the days 80 degrees and sunny, the blacktop so hot that wiffleball games couldn’t be played barefoot, the nights cool and humid and echoing with the hooting, melancholy whistle of the night train that passed along the outskirts of the gated community just after my nine-thirty bedtime.
Scorpions, jellyfish, poisonous flowers. My orientation as a young newcomer to a Caribbean island began with a litany of how to avoid being stung or cut or poisoned or burned. At age four, I learned to shake out my shoes to check for scorpions. I learned to back away from the pink blooms of jellyfish in the water. I learned to recognize the dark, flitting form of the stingray. I learned don’t step on a sea urchin, don’t eat an ackee raw, don’t taste the milky sap of the oleander plant.
To practice the quick slipping away of ground beneath our feet, geologists built a second mountain. This one is a tender surface, fitted with sensors, and rigged for data. On sunny, cold mornings, to practice how helpless, they measure piles to drop — peat, gravel, water-saturated masses of organic matter, combinations to mimic what might happen — and let them fall into chaos. To practice the moment of shock, they invite everyone like a performance. The scientists on their lunch break gather, promising to stand quietly for five minutes after the stopwatch starts, for the duration of the drop, to watch how it all tumbles, gaining speed, no gasping no matter what it looks like, and for ten whole minutes after. This is the most difficult part. Practicing the quiet after.