“But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?”
― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams
Two weekends ago, fresh from school madness, I left Atlanta for a few days in Wilmington with one of my best friends, Hannah. We planned it as a quiet weekend. We both needed to write, to think, and given our history and the familial nature of our friendship, this kind of solitary togetherness is almost always attainable.
Hannah and I were roommates in grad school, and for a little over a year, lived in a darling little house on Metts, cramming our beautiful and mismatched things that somehow fit together, into every room, building a kind of private kingdom of words and laughter, of late night reading, and a merry fire, of purple orchids, and early morning writing, and impromptu Sweet and Savory jaunts.
It began with the house. It was imperative that we found a certain kind of house, on a quiet street, with overgrown trees and Spanish moss. A place to write. A place with its own little soul. Eric discovered it serendipitously, while riding his bike through Forest Hills. We lived among books chiefly. We lived with two children (Hannah’s half brother and sister, with us for the year), who are almost teenagers now. They were five and seven at the time. There was a porch with a long black table and red rocking chairs, a stained glass window in a nook where we set a bistro table, green cabinets, and a checkered kitchen floor, and a skylight in the downstairs bathroom. There was an oak tree that obstructed the view of the backyard, which was long and narrow like a football field, with azaleas growing on both sides.
Half way through the yard, the grass was so tall we never let Aaron and Kan play in it. Or if we did, we never admitted it to anyone. Our landlord had someone come occasionally to trim the unruly azaleas, and mow the back and front yards. He was old and kind and a bit deaf, so we never managed to communicate that we needed the second half of the back yard mown as well. Eventually, we let it go, feeling slightly chagrined only when looking across the fence to our next door neighbors’ perfectly scaled and manicured yard, complete with a goldfish pond and lily pads. By the fall, the man stopped coming, and it was months before our landlord fresh from a chemical peel face lift combo, paid us a visit (rumor was we were keeping droves of pets at the house; in actuality just one, a Maus of a kitten), and decided to hire someone (her lover, I think?) to take over. Our old gardener had gone on.
December was my favorite. The children and I sensitive to winter temperatures indulged in tuning the thermostat to summer, till a $400 plus gas bill ended our run; Hannah and I decided that the only responsible thing to do was woolen underclothes. That did the trick. Sometimes we slept in sweaters, scarves, and socks, because we were student-poor, first-year-out-of-graduate-school-poor, which meant the heating bill had to be quartered, so other things could be afforded.
That year, before all our friends ran off to their homes for the holidays, we decided on a Christmas party. Now you have to understand, Hannah does nothing by halves. In this case, the menu was out of a fairy tale book. Goat cheese balls crusted in pistachios drizzled with honey, a leg of lamb marinated in rosemary, garlic, and red wine, cheeses and fruit and dried nuts, six kinds of bread, figs wrapped in prosciutto, Caprese salad with gleaming red tomatoes and fragrant basil, bowls of pomegranate seeds to be dropped in glasses of champagne. I remember panicking, while Hannah stayed cool. We pulled it off somehow. Since then, every party I host lives in the glowing shadow of this one. Hannah, the kids and I, in our Christmas best, ribbons, and collars and such. Tables laden. Glasses never empty. So much laughter and gossip and fun. Beautiful, clever Kan, shy, sweet Aaron. They charmed everyone. After most people were gone, a few of us sang carols on our porch. Tom played the guitar. Some of the café lights began burning out, and you could spy a star here and there.
This past weekend was in some ways the same, or perhaps I always try to live back there when things were slightly simpler. We picked strawberries, went paddle boarding, read outloud late into the night until one of us fell asleep. Maus is still there, and now there is a Seamus. We are as much sisters as before, perhaps with longer stretches of silence. We wrote, though for me, it was glacially, disappointingly slow. We read through two books one night, because they were in conversation with each other. We washed the porch, walked to the end of Shell Island, cooked together. A friend gave us fresh eggs from her chickens, and we made a simple frittata of tomatoes, parsley, and a creamy burrata. Another day we made spiced Italian meatballs with spring peas, butter, boursin, and more parsley. We hunted for peonies at the farmer’s market.
It’s like each visit is a continuum of that time, that this strand of history plaits unbroken through all the folds and rivulets of my life, bright and elemental, this year of difficulty and magic and mirth. And if we drive by the Metts house, from the corner of my eye, I see them, those two girls, black-and-gold winged, waving back at us.