Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
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I woke in the root cellar, morning unable to penetrate. I wanted day, wanted off this compound. I pulled on jeans and went outside to the big natural nothing, tingly with Mick's silent surveillance. Inside the dirty truck the keys hung from the ignition, but I didn't understand the knobs and sticks and extra pedal. We weren't going anywhere until Mick wanted to take us down.
Claudia appeared. She said, “Do you have any tampons? I'm bleeding.” She was less in love with the land and the event of my arrival.
“We could go down and get some.”
“Swim in the pond, Claudia,” said Mick, who had followed
her, tin cups in hand. “It's natural, it'll clean you.” She brightened and stripped off her blouse, dropped it and her skirt to the ground in front of the root cellar. White naked except for brown leather sandals, she grabbed my hand. “Don't come near us!” she called to him. “Susanna's very shy!” We burst into hysterics, because flamboyance in front of each other had always been required, egged on. Beyond his earshot she said, “He's quiet, isn't he? It's the pot, I guess.”
“Are you, do you, is it good?” I said. “With him?”
“He says I'm the smartest person he's ever met. He says I intimidate him.”
Although swarming with pinprick gnats and mosquitoes, the water felt lovely as my shoulders dipped under the surface, the compound forgotten. I let the muck and silt push up around each toe, my fingers sifting the dark water.
“Isn't this worth it?” Claudia said. “No one ever comes up here. I can relax, I can breathe.” She didn't look like she was breathing or relaxing. She never did. What's Mick's story, anyway? I thought. What's his
? But I didn't ask, afraid I'd betray my disapproval, which was weird, because usually we said everything. “
honesty,” we always promised. Bravery in front of each other, because of each other. Even if we were faking.
“You feel okay?” I said. “The cramps?”
“He was right,” she said, dreamy. “They're gone.”
We stayed another night. I fell asleep before I could hear them. Mick drove us down the mountain and dropped me at the house of a friend whom I lied about seeing before I went to the plane I lied about catching. “She'll give me a ride,” I said. “Bye! Thanks! Love you!” They drove away, and I used a pay phone to give my teacher the address, and when he got there, grinning behind glass
as he slowed the car, I told him all of itâthe homemade root cellar and the dull food in cans and Claudia's creepy older boyfriend. My teacher shook his head and said, “I wouldn't expect our friend to make such poor choices. When will she know how much she has to offer?” We spent the next days in a motelâmore anonymous after all, he said, than the bed-and-breakfastâwhere I was restored by wrapped soaps, wall sockets reliably inset, and the immense body of my lover bearing down on me.
sther and I connected again, twenty years gone by, an exciting burst of solved mystery. Well, not mystery. Curiosity. From time to time I would put quotation marks around her name to search for her on Google. Driven and political, what great station would she now command, my first housemate? She wouldn't still be wearing those dropsy cotton blouses and Indian print skirts, would she, but that was the picture I sought and expected, my life's own bookmark. I accrued bits of her personal file, outdated announcements, a string of cities, and I'd deduced she was a rabbi. This fit. Esther had been fierce with morality. But I never got in touch, an old intimidation preventing me.
I lived with Esther in an antique three-bedroom in Waltham, Massachusetts, an upstairs apartment on a long, bleak street. The house was gray, among other elderly houses of grays or blues, the block lined with aging cars. Although I stayed a year in this house, into a bleak winter, a summer, I remember late fall as perpetual: I walk home after classes, and the sky is darkening in metallic contrast to the orange maple leaves, the red-leafed oaks; I am becoming.
My friend Rachel lived downstairsâI'll tell you more about her laterâand in the beginning I would stop at her door when I came home, before I headed up, hellos in the mahogany-paneled entryway. I was a little scared of Esther with her convictions and
activism, her feminism, and docile Rachel shored me up. But I
with Esther, which bid us into friendship, and we depended on each other with an affability that grew smoother, at least through the first months. We went to the supermarket in my car. We made a household and negotiated interlocking needs. We ate her lentils and yogurt, we drank my white wine. We took turns with choresâhow central they wereâwashing the dishes, the rice pot, feeding the cats. Monday I'll do it, then Tuesday you. The two cats made tender parents of us.
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Eventually, it was Esther who called me. She'd stumbled across my memoir at the library, the audio version I'd recorded, and she'd sped through a cross-country trip with my voice filling the car. “There you were, it was weird,” she said. “Your voice just the same. And so many stories you never told me.” Her voice, too, just the sameârooted in me with such domestic familiarity that within the first moments of the call I sensed where our conversation would lead and how we would conduct it. I was excited. As if we might find each other in the next room, the outside concerns excluded for the evening, I gave myself over. Remember the Christmas lights we strung over the bay window and never took down? Remember how the cats liked to sit side by side in the kitchen sink? “What are you doing now?” we asked, and I knew any answer would suitâ“I'm a rabbi,” or “Cleaning out the fridge.” With resurrected intimacy, we answered in minutiae, as if the question were “What are you doing right now?” asked yesterday and every day, one of us sorting the mail in her coat as the other sat at the kitchen table.
I described my sons, their personalities, abilities, good company. She didn't have kids yet. She expressed amazement at my unlikely odyssey to Montana, admiration I'd stayed committed to
a place, one man. “Fidelity was never your strong suit.” I worked in an abortion clinic for several years, I told her. “You?” she said. I was proud and annoyed that this surprised her, and gratified that I'd grown into someone serious. She'd had a hand in that. Her startling example had made an imprint, and I wondered if any residual impression of me lingered in her life.
“What happened?” I said. “Us, when did we stop being in touch?” I didn't want to say “lose touch,” in case blame was assigned, another old dynamic suddenly recalled.
She sighed, a sound that made me feel the Waltham floorboards under my feet. “I just remember that it always seemed like we would sleep together,” Esther said. “There was all this flirting. And then I came to visit you in New York, and we had a fight, and I ended up going to Penn Station in the middle of the night. Remember?”
What? Even though I didn't remember everything clearly, I knew that this version was not among my lost memories. Esther had taught me how to share and cooperate, schooled me in seriousness. I was embarrassed to have a meaningful focus that was so different. I said, “Sort of,” hoping she'd fill it in. What would we have fought aboutâalthough I had no trouble picturing us in conflict, Esther's eyebrow raised to accentuate her intractable judgment, her huge-eyed stare that said, “You are accountable.” What I remembered was that Esther led us with righteous certainty, and I often felt sheepish and mistaken, as if I lacked conviction. I admired her, but it had been hard to go on feeling I was a disappointment.
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The roommates of my life have been women, and none lasted except Esther. The snob at my first boarding school said to the
dorm mother, “I don't like
” which two days in I knew was anti-Semitic code, and the dean moved her out. Courtney replaced her, candied perfume in the red bottle and her singsong giggle. She stood next to me, the press of her bare upper arm to mine when we wore T-shirts. This physical closeness tasted of home, the overheated way I knew to connect. Courtney touched my hair all the time, brushed her fingers on my neck as she passed behind my chair when I was at my desk. We shared clothesâWhere's your blue satin blouse? Can I borrow your raincoat? Her shirts left sticky scent on my skin, made me strange to myself. We sized up the other girls, quizzed each other for tests before breakfast. Courtney offered to rub my neck one day and had me lie facedown. She straddled the small of my back, and her thighs pressed in at my waist. “Take off your shirt,” she said, the wide-open of her smile audible behind me. I did. She warmed her hands on my shoulders and under my hair, pushed at the muscles, and then she turned me over. I kept my eyes closed. She stroked first along the sides of my breasts, then over my breasts, her touch growing feathery, until with barest pressure the tips of her fingers circled my nipples. I sat up, put my shirt on, and we went to the dining hall. Aroused and uncertain, I said nothing and avoided her needy, penetrating look. We made it through the spring, but we didn't write letters after I moved to Colorado, where I would live in singles two years in a row. We weren't friends. Her attentions spooked me.
In freshman year of college, my mother arrived for an early parents' weekend and so poisoned my rapport with the school-selected roommate, the girl transferred to another dorm. You've heard that story. We'd been roommates only a few weeks, but over the next three years we avoided eye contact or shared paths, like dogs who scent the call to fight yet restrain themselves.
I lunged for intimacy, for the reassuranceâ
I like you! do you
âbut I always grabbed for it too soon, thinking that
equaled intimacy, and “a lot” never seemed like enough anyway. This made the girls quickly awful, at once too significant, and it probably made me awful to them, my alarming, unexplained hungers. We ignited, large, and flamed out.
I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore when I moved in with Esther, and it stuck, it worked. I'd torn a paper fringe from a flyer in the student union, arrived at the appointed time. Esther toured me around the apartment, sizing me up. She wore a long skirt over bare legs, the unshaven skin visible above her ankles. The place smelled of dissipated curry and cumin, perhaps from the night before. Afternoon sun revealed spans of dust in the air. Our tread made noise, a groan with each step. Esther pointed out “hardwood,” it was an asset. And see the built-in drawers, the small closets we'll be sharing? She said the doors shuddered in their frames when the wind was high but I'd get used to it. Another girl, her friend, lived there, too. Esther was the one who collected the payments for the phone and heat, turned in the rent, the one who managed the kitchen rules and chore schedule. I wasn't a vegetarian, but she forgave that.
I got the sunniest room, in the front off the living room and behind glass doors (I must have paid more). I brought boxes of books and a thrift-shop single bed frame for the box spring and mattress already there. For privacy I taped movie posters over the glass, a passionate couple mid-tango in
and an image of a woman's gleaming, voracious mouth from
Esther slept on the floor in a room off the kitchen, her mattress flooding the space. Her door was adorned with a hand-drawn poster from a folksinging festival. I also brought the brown rug my mother had chosen for my dorm room and the expensive vacuum cleaner she'd gotten her rich boyfriend to buy. “We need a vacuum,” said Esther.
“But how can you justify six hundred dollars for one? That could pay our whole rent for two months. That could feed people.” I shrugged, aware I was inept at certain conversations, uneducated in circles beyond my own; but I wasn't worrying about my ignorance, I worried she didn't like me. “Well, but we have it now, it's really powerful,” I said, hoping she'd forgive whatever blunder I'd made. Weâwe! New family!âalso had a stately pantry, a deep porcelain sink, an oven with an archaic nameplate, the logo having since undergone many calibrations. We had push-button light switches, yellow linoleum with pale buckled seams in the kitchen. Things here had lasted past their fashion and outlived departed tenants. We had a bay window in the living room, a dilapidated hint of formal times in our livable shabbiness; an inherited couch, table lamps on the floor; my stereo on plastic milk crates. The shower curtain, suspended above the claw-foot tub on a circular rod, leaked water onto the tiled floor if you weren't careful. One of us was always annoyed as she wiped up after another. I could hear Esther's muttered irritation behind the bathroom door before she turned on the taps, and I'd feel guilty.
But I would be grown up here.
shabbiness. Our dark stairway and jammed locks. We were giddy to put away groceries, to buy Comet and wipe it in the bathtub, to say, “I'm going down to do laundry.” Once a month we spread franked checks on the kitchen table, and slid the calculator back and forth. Little by little, we trusted the other's advice. She said, “Is heavy cream what you buy if you want to make whipped cream?” or I held open the check register and said, “Do you think you're supposed to enter this here?” The third girl, a dancer, was often absent, but she left notes. “I watered spider plant,” “Back Sunday.” I can't remember any conversation between the three of us, but Esther and I chatted, companionable noise I counted on. At last I
enjoyed the word
its vein of
implicit. Chat, though, was not Esther's real way. Angry with injustice, she was prone to extended statements and passionate insistence to get me to wise up. We didn't run into each other on campus. Esther might stay out late at a shantytown protest of apartheid, while I'd be fired up by a Renaissance art scholar; but we were engaged in a monumental and political act. We were Living Together, and we became loyalists.