Tonight I found a cache of old notebooks. You know the kind: small, black, nondescript back pocket-sized. For years I always kept several around—one in a pocket, one on the coffee table, one in the bathroom, others—to record details of travel (where I ate, what I drank, what was playing on the jukebox at this bar or that—I have a ton of accidental travel play lists), stray bits of conversations, notes on television and movies, and ideas or lines for poems or the novel that I'll never write. The year I lived with S., the year we brought E. into the world, though I had stopped writing as a professional practice, as a recreational practice, and soon, as a vocational necessity, I continued to keep the black books around, pressing them into duty as repositories for grocery lists, to-do reminders, address and phone number collection devices. Though, no longer a writer, I constantly wrote in them.
This evening, my aim was to write down the phone number of a friend, a number I've been forgetting repeatedly for the past few months, the idea being that I'd later put it in my cell phone, because I'm usually more likely to have a pen and some paper around than my phone, which does a daily loop of travel from pocket to kitchen counter to dresser drawer to lost and back again. I opened the first book in the pile, jotted down the digits and then became transfixed on a short list, then another, then another.
It may be that these little books are the only tangible record, save photographs of my infant daughter, that I have of that time—certainly the only testament to the fact that I once shared a life with another adult human being. The lists themselves are not exactly gripping human drama. Most of them are instructions to work in the yard, to install the AC unit in the bedroom, to finish laundry before S. gets home, and in one case, to “cook dinner w/garlic tonight.” The grocery lists may be my favorites. Every one of them includes popsicles.
Finding these lists, very simply, reminded me of that fraught and slender year and of the fact that I knew what lay ahead from the day we moved in. That early December evening, the sun only recently retired, but seeming much later, we stood in the dim light of the large open living space of a house nearly a hundred years old and creaking like one twice its age. S. stood, trembling almost, in tears, sobbing quietly. She mouthed, barely audible, “this will never work.” I wasn't sure what she meant. But I was. I had a task to complete though. Standing before a too-big mass of furniture, books, undifferentiated papers, dishes, food packages, random junk, all our stuff, our two haphazardly thrown-together households, I set to the work of putting everything in its place, a seemingly impossible chore, determined to do it all that night. I thought it would comfort her; my words always failed me at that task. Then, mission accomplished, more or less. The heavy lifting was done.
The next day came. We went to work and returned each evening to dinner and quiet domesticity. It was a couple of calm months with moments of something like joy. I shared my home and I liked it. We didn't exchange cross stares or tears. I was happy there. We made late-night grocery runs for ice cream nearly every night. Once we decided that 2 am was the perfect time to make falafel from scratch. We ate at the dining room table, which we never did. We lit candles. There were board games too, which I always lost. There was crime drama on television. Our windows didn't lock but rattled wildly, wind and rain behind them. We had a dumb but loving dog.
There were also labor pains. Daily labor pains, a growing belly. The two weeks leading up to E.'s birth are particularly vivid in my recollection. S. was due on the 14th, but E. refused to arrive for another 12 days. Each of these days was tense, anxious, exciting. On the 14th we had brunch at Studio 1—French toast of course. S. ate fruit. It was a particularly warm and sunny February weekend.
I spent my other moments in those few days passing time by destroying comfrey in the back yard and mixing spices in the kitchen for vindaloo or making paneer. We were, in a very pure sense, just waiting. And it was all right.
Now when I have occasion to look back on those months, which isn't often—at least not under the lens of S. and me, I see shades of gray, dark browns, mottled memories. It's always cold, always winter; S. is always perched over her writing desk, head down. We are tense. I am walking the dog a lot more. Long walks late at night. Anything to get out of the house after we put the baby down.
It can't be said that, in any conceivable fashion, it was a good year for either of us, though we had those isolated moments, or the notebooks make me think we did, that make me cling to the hope of a past sunnier than I actually know it to have been. Truth be told, it was pretty dreary, pretty desperate, a year of self-assessment, and for me, the first steps down a path of months, years, of self-destructive behavior.
E. was the sole blessing of that year, of my life, and now, three years hence, she's also nearly as much of a memory as that old house. When she came along, S. and I were finally realizing that the three of us would never be a family.
Tonight, two years on, two years since the frigid morning I packed my last boxes out of the house on Orchard Street—I remember that day so clearly as well—there were wild turkeys on the frozen lawn—I read these scribbled reminders and know that despite the general tenor of the year, two—no, three—people loved one another there once.