Place Love

This is a falling-out-of-love story and an old boyfriend story, though I was never in love with him, but that’s another story. I was in love with a place and an idea of where I could live that was incompatible with who I was becoming, though it took a long time for me to accept it.

The place was Maine, and the love wasn’t a mad passion but an achy, nostalgic, security-blanket attachment. I’d spent my early childhood summers on one of Maine’s most remote islands in the Penobscot Bay, and had idyllic memories of kerosene-lit cottages, beach-combing, berry-picking, and unsupervised roaming with other children for hours. The sight of granite cliffs, shingled houses, lobster boats, and pine trees brought forth a powerful rush of dopamine and nostalgia. When my family moved to Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, we put island rocks in our sea freight. I reconnected with Maine after we returned to Washington, D.C. Once I started college, my parents moved overseas, and Maine became a touchstone, a place I returned to as often as possible, an imaginary home.

By that time, I was also becoming serious about dance and transferred from the University of Pennsylvania to the dance program at York University in Toronto. A year later, I met B. He had come for graduate school at York in Environmental Studies. Actually, we met in line at the Toronto Canada Customs office, where foreigners had to register their cars to avoid import duties. B. was a bearded, early-balding, guitar-playing, hippy type. I was still holding a Statue of Liberty-sized torch for a boy who’d gone back to his old girlfriend. But we started going out and, though we never sparked each other’s joie de vivre, dug in for the long haul. He was from Charleston, West Virginia and dreamed of living in the country and building a house. I graduated, he dropped out.

I could have stayed in Toronto in those days of easy immigration. I was afraid. Of striking out on my own in a field in which chances of success are slim at best, and I, a late starter, had no natural advantages. And of being alone. I was still hurting over that other guy, and my parents lived overseas, so there was no family home to retreat to.

So I followed him to Durham, North Carolina, where he’d gone to Duke and had friends. I hated Durham from Day One. It was the South. I knew already I was in the wrong place, with the wrong person. The economy was miserable—galloping inflation and unemployment. He worked as a carpenter’s helper. I worked as a breakfast waitress, cook, dance teacher, furniture refinisher. I took dance classes and performed here and there. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area had an embryonic dance community. To be a dance pioneer, you needed to be good enough to make it somewhere else. I had little to offer at that point. We went on food stamps. This should have been my cue to cut bait, but with the strange doggedness that characterized our relationship—more akin to a ten-year married couple with kids and a mortgage than unencumbered twenty-somethings—I persuaded B. to try Portland, Maine. My choice, this time, I was sure it would go better.

Portland had beautiful old buildings and vistas and a sprinkling of islands in the Casco Bay. It was a few hours drive from Rockland, where the Penobscot Bay ferries came in. There was one serious modern dance studio and an affiliated company. I even found a teacher of South Indian classical dance, a technique I’d studied seriously in Toronto. But I wasn’t happy in Maine either. As many summah people have found to their shock, Maine is poor and cold. The company, which rarely had openings, held auditions in New York and Boston when it needed dancers. But, one of the company’s former dancers (to whom I remain ever grateful) liked my dancing enough to recommend me for a one-year gig funded by CETA, the Federal jobs-creation program running a dance program in the public schools in Cape Elizabeth. Alas, when it wound down, there was nothing on the horizon. B. and I passed up another chance to unchain ourselves. This time, we decided to move to Washington, D.C., where carpenter’s wages were higher. B. could save up for that house, and I could make headway in my dance career. B. left before me and stayed with my parents, who’d returned from overseas, so he could get a head start on making money.

The night I left Portland, D., our next-door neighbor and my teacher colleague, invited me to dinner. I started talking about how much I loved the Penobscot Bay islands, and D. said, “Oh, you must come back and stay with us on our island some time.” His island was in Casco Bay, which Portland overlooks. His family had owned property there for a long time. It sounded wonderful. I was young enough to treat this as a serious invitation.

On the drive to D.C., I was bursting with the desire to leave B. But once I got there, I stuck it out. The dance scene in Washington was lively and varied, and I immersed myself in it quickly, and found teachers and friends and people to perform with. But we hadn’t exactly struck oil. I was waitressing. Construction was better paid than in Maine and North Carolina—but still hard, hot, and dirty. Our apartment in Alexandria looked nice but swarmed with mice and roaches, refugees from the demolished complex next door. I had this squirmy restlessness, which I could hardly complain about, having gotten my way twice. As the sticky Washington heat set in, I craved Maine’s freshness. I wonder now what B. thought when I proposed a long weekend in the place I insisted on moving to and then wanted so badly to leave. I don’t remember any argument. A hotel or rented cottage being out of reach, I called D. and asked if the invite stood, and he said, “Absolutely.” Or so I recall.

We drove the ten hours to Portland and caught the last ferry on a perfect Maine summer day. Blue sky, crisp air, sparkling sea. The air redolent with wild roses and brine.

D. didn’t greet us at the dock, but we found our way to his house easily by asking. Everyone knew him. He was a Maine blueblood, but not the lanky, blond, topsider-wearing, ur-male type of Ralph Lauren ads. Round, balding, married with children, he had a soft, droll manner that made me suspect he was gay—which has nothing to do with my story, but might explain the chasm of communication between him and his wife.

The house was dark, camp-style, with a bay window and window seats covered in canvas cushions. The instant we entered, we knew something was wrong. D.’s wife greeted us stone-faced.

“Nice house,” we said. “Thanks so much for having us.”

After a perfunctory hello, she left the room. D. didn’t show us around or tell us where to put our things or ask us to sit or offer us a drink. So we stood.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, after fidgety silence. “My wife is recovering from a hysterectomy. I forgot to tell her I’d invited you. Do you know anyone else you could stay with?”

My stomach fell as if I’d swallowed a granite boulder. Had I been so needy, so insistent on wanting to come that D. felt he couldn’t say no, despite his wife’s condition? Did B. blame me for this fiasco? Possibly. My recall of B. at that moment is generic—shaggy, disheveled, myopic. Present, but disengaged. Maybe he didn’t want to be there any more than D. wanted us. Outside the picture window, lobster boats, sailboats, motorboats, and ferries to other islands traversed the sparkling blue bay. Gulls cavorted. At the bottom of the bay, lobsters crawled into traps lured by rotten herring that would soon land them on dinner plates.

Of course, we knew no one on the island. The last ferry had gone.

D. knotted his forehead. He was a nice guy, and eager as he was to get rid of us, he felt bad. Suddenly, he brightened. “My cousin Rita went to Rhode Island for the weekend. She said I could put guests in her house. Any time.” They were close, he and Rita. “You can stay there. Do you mind?”

Mind? I’ll speak for both of us here. We were deeply relieved.

We grabbed our backpacks and followed D. The houses were all perched on the side of a hill overlooking the water, like seats in a theater. Rita’s house, higher than D.’s, was shingled, gabled, dark green with white trim and porch. A house a summer artist would paint on a pack of souvenir notecards. Getting in posed no problem; D. turned the knob. The kitchen had an enamel-top table, the kind you only find in yard sales now. The appliances were what we call retro. We set our things in a lovely little bedroom at the top of the stairs. Rita’s house was much nicer than D.’s, and we had it to ourselves. D. was happy, too. He was a good host at heart. Before scurrying down the hill to break the good news to his wife, D. asked if we wanted lobsters for dinner. Of course, we did. He sent us to a fisherman friend to buy them, and we got the fixings—tomatoes, corn, butter, lemons, white wine—at the island store. We must have made love. The late afternoon light was delicious.

Evening came. We boiled the lobsters in one of those huge navy and white-speckled enameled pots. The hanging kerosene lamp converted to electricity cast a halo over us. We dined like a cave couple, scarlet lobster shells and white-yellow corncobs piling up around us, lobster juice squirting onto the checked tablecloth. What luck. A perfect Maine island moment.

Suddenly, the porch door banged open, and a woman with black curly hair flew in, followed by a tall ruddy man who had the imposing paunch of a lobsterman. “What the hell are you doing in my house?” screamed the woman. The granite boulder rolled back to the bottom of my stomach, joining the lobsters, corn, and tomatoes. The man, we gleaned, was the island constable. The woman, of course, was Rita.

While the men watched, Rita and I locked in a duet, like in an opera where two people sing at cross-purposes. “Burglars! Squatters! Violators of privacy! How dare you!” “Please, listen, I’m terribly sorry, but we’re not thieves, listen, I can explain everything, I know it looks terrible. We’ll clean everything up and leave, just listen, please, listen.” At some point, my desperation resonated with the constable. “Why don’t we give her a listen, Rit-er,” he said, in his Maine accent.

“D. said it was all right,” I said.

“My cousin?”

“He said you let him use your house.”

“Never,” she said.

Surprisingly, she didn’t curse D., though she did call him “my irresponsible cousin.” Perhaps, this wasn’t the first time he had exhibited such un-Yankee chutzpah.

We cleaned under her furious eye, speaking only when necessary. “Pass the cleanser. Here’s the sponge. Don’t forget to rinse the bucket.” I felt a strange need to abase myself, as if I’d personally burgled every summer home in the state. I might have scrubbed the floor with a toothbrush if we’d had a spare. We stripped the bed, scrubbed the toilets, swept every room—including ones we hadn’t entered, washed the kitchen floor. I even laundered the lobster-juice-saturated dishtowels in the sink with dish liquid. She didn’t say don’t bother. She seemed disappointed that we weren’t real burglars. The cleanup took a surprising amount of time, considering we’d only been there a few hours. It was embarrassing to realize the extent to which we’d taken over her house.

D. came up the hill to escort us back. We had no idea what to say to him. His wife didn’t appear. We slept on the window seats, curled up. Was there no spare bedroom? From D.’s description, I could have sworn his house was as vast as a Newport “cottage.”

The next morning, we went down to the dock to wait for the ferry. D. hung around with us, chatting and joking with the other people who’d come to take or meet the ferry. He seemed quite normal.

The ferry pulled away. The dock was crowded with waving people. We waved. D. waved. The pines, the rocks, the white clapboard houses were lovely, but, for the first time since my childhood, they didn’t make me yearn to return—and they never have since with anything approaching the old intensity.

B. and I talked about D. most of the drive back to D.C. What possessed him to invite us when his wife was convalescing? Surely it can’t have been that hard to turn us down. Presumably, there was some deep hostility between him and his wife. Why else would he be so inconsiderate? But why use us to express it? I guess we didn’t matter. We were transients. Passers-through. In D.C., I was in an avant-garde play made up of surreal, quasi-historical scenes, linked by recurring phrases, one of which was: “You know it’s time to leave town when…”

I finally left B. the next summer. First, I cut my hair. I lost weight. I moved into a basement apartment. Then I went to Toronto for vacation and had a fling with a close friend’s handsome, undependable brother. That did the trick. When I came home, B. had thrown everything I’d left behind in the stairwell, blocking my door. I saw him once at a party. I moved to New York to get my MFA in dance, and a year after, stopped dancing. I became a journalist and eventually a fiction writer, and I’ve lived in cities ever since.

I’ve been back to Maine quite a few times. The beauty of the remote coast still takes my breath away. When our kids were young and difficult to travel with overseas, we vacationed on one of the Penobscot islands, but found it unfriendly and stopped. The kids are almost grown now. A few summers, ago my husband and I spent three weeks in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the U.S., a bridge away from Canada. He studied piano. I wrote. It was perfect. The air had that pungency, and no one bothered me.

 

Julia Lichtblau is the Book Reviews Editor at The Common

 

Place Love

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