This is the story of a friendship, not the mushy kind full of declarations of what a friendship means or how they have shaped your life or stood beside you throughout adversity or any of that other nonsense. This isn’t emotional, it’s factual. It isn’t chock full of hugging and kissing. No one says,” I love you” or some other such drivel. Frankly, I’ve had enough of that. This friend is not my “best friend” nor is he a “sometimes” friend. He is simply, my friend. And this is just a day, a moment, in our friendship. That being said, here goes nothing.
My friend Carter and I are standing in the third floor kitchenette of a rather large, abandoned house neither of us owns. There is a smell lingering that we haven’t yet identified, but will shortly make itself known as rotting cheese in the sink where we once brushed our teeth before bed. Below us, on the second floor, we can hear my husband, Kevyn, and two other friends, Kate and Dawn, rummaging through several rooms in search of items, to be scrutinized by us, before they are loaded into our limited car space to be whisked away for safe keeping. Neither of us has been in this house in over four years, Carter having once lived here for a time and myself a regular weekend visitor from my home two hours away. The house belongs to his ex-boyfriend, a good friend of mine that introduced us some ten years prior. It has been seven years since that sunny day we moved him into this house. It surprises us that we are not surprised over the state of the place. Not much has changed. Our friend, we will call him R, is having some troubles and he will not be coming back here, thank god. The family of R has already been here and filled a truck with furniture and most of whatever else was salvageable. There was a flood in January and the place has been boarded up since late February. Today is July 5th and we will be the last people to go through the house before the bank forecloses. Carter, as the ex, is not supposed to be here, but I needed him with me and we both knew it, although it was never spoken. When I told him that I was going to the house, per request of R’s family to see if anything important was missed, I didn’t ask him to come along, nor did he insist. He simply said, “I am coming with you.” So, here we stand.
The third floor is our focus, R’s family ran out room in their truck before they made it up here. It consists of three rooms and a bathroom, the kitchenette sits in the middle, with the bathroom behind it, a storage room on the back side and an artist’s studio to the front. As long as we have known this house, it has never been what one would call liveable. There is no real kitchen with working appliances, no fully working bathroom (even though there are three, all together), and no living room to relax in. This little kitchenette, in what was once a third floor apartment, was the only refuge. At one time, it had been scrubbed clean. A table and a few chairs sat in front of the window that gets the morning sun. A coffee pot, microwave and electric tea kettle sat atop an old desk against one wall, there was a mini fridge beneath the desk. We had spent many a Sunday morning here, drinking coffee at the table, listening to The Beatles and making plans for the day. It wasn’t perfect, but it was comfortable, and in an odd way, homey. Today, the floor is littered with boxes of crackers that raccoons have ripped open, the coffee pot has rusted and the sink is filthy.
In the storage area, we get to work on the task at hand, sorting through boxes that we had packed all those years ago, searching for a purple glass door knob. Every door in the house has already been checked for said door knob, we both remember it being attached to a bedroom door on the second floor, but it is nowhere to be found. There is a story behind the purple glass door knob. A story only the two of us know and we are determined to locate it. I leave Carter to his excavation of the back room and tackle the studio up front. There are half finished paintings leaning against a wall, boxes of odds and ends for projects and an old table with spilled paint, now dry, splattered across the top. I am digging my way through the place, setting items aside, when I hear Carter calling me from the other room. Thinking he has found the door knob, I make my way over to him. I find him standing knee deep in boxes and crumpled newspaper. He looks tired and a little overwhelmed. Together, we stack boxes at the top of the stairs to be carried down later. I can no longer stomach the stench emanating from the sink of rotting cheese and make my way downstairs. I pass Kate, on the staircase, she is volunteering to help finish the third floor and I thank her. I can hear Kevyn and Dawn in the foyer discussing the logistics of packing the three vehicles. While Carter and Kate finish upstairs, I work my way through the second and first floors. Two hours later I am exhausted and frustrated beyond belief.
I take a tour of the house by myself. From top to bottom, front to back, I wander the rooms. It really is a beautiful house, architecturally, that is, in reality the place is a dump, and has been since I first stepped foot inside of it all those years ago. The walls are falling down, covered in ripped, ancient wallpaper. The floors are disgusting and damaged beyond repair. However, the rooms are spacious with large windows facing the morning sun. The bannister on the staircase is crooked with chipped paint, but winds up through the house in a rather lovely path. I stand at the bottom and look all the way up to the third floor. I have always loved this staircase. I place my palms behind me on the bannister and lean back for a better view. As Carter and Kate make their way downstairs, I feel a splinter slide deep into my left hand. Ignoring it, I watch their entire descent. They are talking and laughing. I remind myself to thank Kate again later. She joins Kevyn and Dawn in packing the cars, leaving Carter and myself at the foot of the staircase. We stare up through the house for a minute before he turns to me and says, “You and I should check each room to see if we missed anything. Let’s start on the third floor.” I nod and follow him upstairs one last time. We both know that what we are actually doing is saying goodbye, there’s no need for discussion. We have been here for three hours and it is time to finish.
This house is full of ghosts, both good and bad. I can hear a distant echo of both laughter and despair. Snippets of conversation and shadows of another time fill each cluttered room. You could be dramatic and say R descended into madness in this house, descended into madness because of this house, and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. But, this story is not dramatic, in fact, it is the opposite. And it is just a house, like any other house. Nor is this story littered with the boring details of where two people meet and how friendship comes about and all that other junk no one cares about. It is about today, July 5th, 2014.
I promised you a story of friendship. So, here goes…
My friend Carter and I are standing in the third floor kitchenette of a rather large, abandoned house neither of us owns. There is a smell lingering that we have identified as rotting cheese in the sink where we once brushed our teeth before bed. Once more, we start in the storage room and work our way out, we converse very little, instead, we move about in amicable silence. On the second floor, we start in the back room that Carter had once set up with a futon and a small television. Kevyn and I would sleep here when we visited. It had a desk and some shelves. A small electric fireplace sat next to the television. I can see Carter and I sitting on the futon my last night in this house. There was a heavy snowstorm, and we had taken a bus to downtown Philadelphia to entertain ourselves at a bookstore, while Kevyn was at the movies and R was at work. Carter hadn’t wanted to drive because of the weather. I hadn’t wanted to take the bus for the same reason. As we left the bookstore, the storm picked up and mixed a cold wind in with the snow. The bus was late, I was not wearing proper snow shoes, and I was soaking wet and a little irritated with him by the time we arrived home. I changed into my pajamas and Carter hung my jeans in front of the electric fireplace to dry. We sat and watched the fake fire, waiting for the others to get home so we could go to dinner. We both knew that his breakup with R was inevitable, yet neither of us spoke about it. That was a horrible weekend, all around. The house was cold and damp and everyone was in a foul mood. It culminated in a collapsed shelving unit in this very room, that sent everyone over the edge. There were arguments and accusations. The next day, I couldn’t wait to go home. I didn’t know, at the time, it would be my last visit to this house for years.
Today, the room is cluttered with junk. Random papers cover the floor and boxes are stacked in the corner. There’s a broken, boarded up window. There isn’t much to salvage and we move on to the bedroom. It’s littered with magazines and old bedding. There are houseplants dying on the windowsill. Outside the door, I grab R’s favorite, old coat from the bannister and hang it over my shoulder. Carter nods at me and says he’s glad that I’m taking it. We stop briefly in the front room, meant to someday be a library, it’s filled with more dying houseplants, some with broken pots. Soil is everywhere. I mention taking the plants, but they are big, almost tree-like and there just isn’t room. We fumble around with a few boxes and shuffle things with our feet, but we are just wasting time, pretending not to stew in the past. The two of us tried to fix what was broken here. We failed. Sure, Carter made some much needed improvements to the house to make it habitable, but that is not my point. We tried to fix what the house, itself, seemed to have broken in R. A boyfriend and a best friend, we were the only two confidants R had in life. And we failed. The house won. And we are too hard on ourselves about it.
Back in the foyer, we encounter Kevyn, who is sweating over the last boxes being loaded into the cars. I squeeze his arm as we make our way past him. Carter leads me into the back of the house. We stop at the back door in a little mud room, there is a bathroom to our left and a mishmash of old furniture crammed haphazardly together in the middle of the room. We search around for the purple glass door knob. This tiny room has the nicest floor in the house, an IKEA floor that Carter installed years ago. I had forgotten that it is the same floor Kevyn and I picked out for our front room. I am startled by it’s presence here. Carter mentions the floor and we exchange a tired smile. He delivered my flooring to Harrisburg all those years ago to save me from paying for shipping. It was also the weekend he broke up with R. We had sat for hours on a sofa in my new house, bins and furniture stacked around us, with the bright, new flooring piled in boxes in front of us. He told me his relationship was over. He look haggard and unhealthy from living in this house. He’d put on weight, dark circles hung under his eyes. I was worried for him, and for R. That was four and a half years ago. Yet, time seems to have stood still here. Tomorrow, we will have coffee on Carter’s front porch and he will tell me about that time standing still thing, he will tell me about how his work gloves and tools were still on the windowsill in the third floor storage room, exactly as he had left them. But, that’s tomorrow, today we just head for the front door and freedom, where time keeps moving, at a steady, reliable pace.
On the sidewalk out front I pick up a black, metal number five that has fallen from a pillar on the porch. Only half of an address remains. I toss the number into the empty box I am carrying and ask my husband, “Where is Carter?”
“He’s still inside,” is the response.
I step back into the foyer and find Carter standing in the middle of the room. His head is down and he is diligently checking through the drawers in an old dresser.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
He looks around the room and then directly at me. He rubs a hand, back and forth, over the top of his head.I know what he is about to say, but let him say it anyway.
“Baby, it’s time that someone tells me that it’s time to go.”
That someone is me.
“It’s time to go,” I tell him and he follows me outside.
The last item on our checklist is the back garden. I pick up the empty box and follow Carter along the side of the house. R is a talented gardener. His garden fills the entirety of the vacant lot next door and spills into the small space behind the house. It’s wild and full of weeds, but blooming and beautiful at the same time. We gather up his garden ornaments and deposit them into the box. Carter tosses in a few antique ceramic tiles from a bucket full of them next to the house. We wander around for a few minutes, then stop. It’s a nice day outside, not hot, like we had worried about over the telephone earlier in the week. There’s a slight breeze rustling the plants and some birds are singing.
“I always liked it back here,” Carter says,”It was always peaceful, unlike the inside of the house.”
I agree. He picks up the box of ornaments and follows me out of the garden. My husband and our friends are waiting for us. Life is waiting for us. I whisper goodbye, to the house, as I get into the car. I want to tell it to burn in Hell, but I don’t. It’s noon, a Saturday in early July, and we are free of this place. All of us. Finally.
We never did find the purple glass door knob. And we are not going back.
That goddamn house can have it.