By Kate Devine
Illustrated by Alberto Pazzi
When Meg asked Ali and I if we would house sit for her parents while they spent the last few weeks of June in Maine, we responded “absolutely.”
For one, Ali and I were both temporarily living with our parents, in the New Jersey town where we grew up, about a mile down the road from each other. We had been friends since middle school and roommates in college, and were giddy at the idea of living together again, even for a short time. Also, Meg’s parents’ house featured a master bedroom with a king-size mattress, newly finished bathrooms with shower heads that expelled ornate and well-pressured water streams, and perpetually stocked wine racks and liquor cabinets. The work assigned to us was light; watering indoor plants and outdoor gardens, bringing in mail, and feeding Louie the cat.
I’ll always take an opportunity to watch over someone else’s home. As a curious observer of people, a ticket to explore somebody’s medicine cabinet is more fascinating than most museum exhibits. A home is a blueprint, a diorama of someone else’s life, and I could spend all day wandering through rooms, thumbing across bookshelves, and eyeing up what’s decayed in the back of the fridge.
Ali had recently graduated with her degree in environmental engineering. She took a job as a waitress at a new bar in town, where she planned to save money, find a bartender to kiss, and take it easy after all that studying. In my eyes, Ali had worked harder than any of our other friends to finish school. We barely saw her for months at a time despite the fact that we only lived a half hour south of Rutgers University. Every spare moment during those two years when the rest of us were out of college, starting jobs and whatnot, Ali was doing science in her bedroom for all I knew.
Our friend Jack once called the postgraduate, early twenties years the “yoga and blowjob period.”
“I thought I’d graduate, do a lot of yoga and give a lot of blow jobs and then find a job,” This didn’t happen. Jack graduated a semester early and landed a full-time job as a photo editor shortly after. While some of us missed out on this designated time of spiritual and physical growth, others spent more than enough time dwelling in it.
Two full years into my own post-graduate life, I felt less clueless than I did at twenty two, but not by much. I was armed with a list of accomplishments and general nonsense I had been up to, and some days, my eclectic resume sounded more interesting than sad. Truthfully, I felt adrift in my many part-time jobs. Some were writing gigs, most were not. This was only giving me half the amount of anxiety it usually would because I also had an end-goal of sorts, starting graduate school in New York in September.
There was, at least for Kat and I, who moved home too after college and bounced through jobs even faster than I did, a lot of yoga, in a 105 degree room, taught by another friend, who let us take her classes in a yoga studio we otherwise couldn’t afford. In the mirror were slender blondes, intense practitioners in nearly no clothing, and Kat and I, in the back corner by the door, sweating out our weekends and swaying in three-legged dog. We were loyal to those classes, attended regularly, until eventually we too could balance in dancer's pose. Our hips grew stronger and more open in pigeon. We breathed deeply like lions exhaling, or quickly in breath of fire. We set intentions, and tried to slow our racing thoughts. Sometimes after class, we cried, together in her Subaru, too hot, baby hairs sticking to our foreheads, with the rest of our hair wrapped in wayward buns. Side by side, we mouthed lyrics of “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin and “That’s Alright,” by Fleetwood Mac, songs from the class playlist. Over time, we became less wobbly.
At the time we were propositioned to house sit, Ali and I were both in what would end up as short-lived relationships. We recognized this, though rarely admitted it. Mine was a tall bass player with blonde hair, in a rock band that I believed in. He introduced Ali to a friend, and somehow all three of them wound up working at the same bar. In an unspoken but palpable way, Ali and I both knew we were up to the same thing. I liked my boyfriend’s band, liked his arm slung around me after his set, liked being on “the list,” and drinking beers backstage. Ali liked the restaurants hers took her to, and the fact that he was a little bit Italian. When alone, she and I discussed the lofty, never-would-be possibilities of our romantic situations. Walking on the boardwalk with coffees one breezy morning, she admitted she thought she loved hers, and silently, I wondered if I could ever love mine.
At Meg’s parent’s house, the refrigerator water dispenser had a digital screen that displayed exactly how many ounces were pouring into your glass. It was like the movie “Smart House.” The fridge suggested something about healthy, mature living. In a house like this, you’d always be hydrated.
“What do you think these chocolate things are?” Ali asked me, cracking open a Tupperware container she found chilled in the smart fridge. She sniffed them and took a bite. We solidified how we would divvy up the household work. Ali, the environmentalist, preferred to water the outdoor gardens, I’d take the houseplants. After a scratch across the face when I was four years old, I am decidedly not a cat person, so she would feed Louie, and I would bring in the mail.
“Oh my god, they’re good,” she confirmed about the chocolates. The late afternoon sunlight had just started deepening, and I was comfortably spread across Meg’s parents’ couch. Glowing sun lines ran up and down my bare legs. Orange parallelograms scattered themselves over the walls. Our only job at that moment was to settle in. Ali opened two beers for us, before plopping down next to me.
“We should have the guys over for dinner one night,” she suggested.
“That would be so fun,” I agreed, even though I was fairly sure that all three of them would never be able to take the same night off from the bar together. “What should we make?”
“We can barbeque,” Ali said. We rattled off a possible menu. Ali pointed to a pink bottle of wine from the rack, which we were instructed to drink in the detailed note Meg’s mom left us. “Look at this, grapefruit rose.” We laughed and poured ourselves the fruity wine, which tasted like we should have been poolside.
Ali and I slept at Meg’s parents’ house that night, dreaming of double dates and playing house, imitating the grown-ups whose home we were guardians of, whose lives we always thought looked pretty great. We had been picking up and trying on Meg’s parents’ lives for years. We were experts at enjoying their conveniences.
As I suspected, Ali and the guys couldn’t all take off from the bar on the same night. So we split the couples up. One night, I’d get the house to make dinner with my boyfriend, and the next night Ali and hers could take over.
Over the next few days, Ali fed Louie, and I filled a small watering can with tap water, careful not to miss any jade plants or philodendrons. Ali sprinkled water on baby tomato sprouts, rose bushes, marigolds, and impatiens planted in mounds of mulch beside the front door, and encircling the mailbox. We watched TV, drank half of the bottle of rosé, then moved onto a Spanish red. We sat on chaise lounges on the deck, sunning ourselves in the suburban backyard. Ali talked about applying to an engineering firm, I talked about moving to New York, we talked about our parents getting older, we talked about our boyfriends.
On a Wednesday, while Ali worked, my boyfriend came over. He loved the house, the television, the Netflix button on the remote control, and the big backyard. He did not like the wine I chose.
“I can’t believe you expect me to drink this crap,” he said, using my most detested word. It also irked me that he ordered “penne pasta,” at a restaurant once and referred to all iced coffee as “nitro-cold brew” for a time.
I made quesadillas for dinner, and he mixed cocktails for us from the well-stocked bar. We ate and drank inside at his insistence, even though it was balmy on the back porch, which was illuminated by string lights and scented by rose bushes that Ali was in charge of watering. “I don’t want to get bugs in my food,” he explained.
I texted Ali when he was in the bathroom, "I wish you were here instead." By that time, I’d spent enough days and nights with this man to sense that our natures were misaligned. It was fun when it was, like when we both bought vintage bicycles and spent afternoons cruising by the ocean. Once, we picked out matching palm trees for our bedrooms. We spent one rainy afternoon wandering around an aquarium, snapping pictures of each other in front of shark tanks. We didn’t fool ourselves into thinking we would keep dating after I moved, and that seemed fine, except for the times when it didn't.
After dinner, I asked if after months of being with me, he happened to love me.
“That’s a big question,” he responded from a chair across the room.
Maybe I was reaching for a whiff of intensity that had always been lacking. Maybe if he loved me, even quietly, I’d understand what I was doing with him. Most likely, I asked because I knew it wasn’t love, but felt tempted by the whimsical notion that I could be wrong.
“That’s my big answer.” I said. In a day or so, we’d decide to stop seeing each other for good.
The next morning, the sun shone brightly and he left for work. I washed dishes from the night before, gazing out the window above the sink as neighbors went by. I ate a banana for breakfast. I padded around from living room to guest bedroom, studying framed photos of Meg’s family over the years. I watered the plants. I read a book in the backyard on the chaise lounge, putting it down only to move bedsheets from the washing machine to the dryer, then from the dryer to the bed. Ali was hosting her dinner party later that night, and I would be expected to leave, as we planned. I refilled my water glass over and over, drinking well over sixty four ounces.
My friends and I all wanted the same things, for the most part. To stay close. To make little glowing lives with nice partners who understand us. To do work that aligns with our passions, that pay the rent in homes with enough windows. To eventually have babies who we take to the beach, whose toes we dip in waves, whose heads we cover in soft hats. We didn’t necessarily dream of material things, but in Meg’s parents’ house, filled with luxuries and liquor, we could almost see ourselves with our own smart refrigerators, our own rose bushes, and leaving all these things to take our own summer trips to Maine. That summer, our twenties still felt stretched out before us like an interstate highway. We had miles ahead of us, and space for pit stops and U-turns. There will be time, we told each other, for the missteps, the breakups, the half-hearted stumbles. After all, it was the yoga and blow job period. There will be time to get serious, we reminded ourselves, whatever the hell that means.
I saw my upcoming move to New York as a deliverance, like most people do. My plan for change left me feeling unanchored and temporary. It made me light. I could blow away at any moment, and none of this would matter. I was on the cusp of something, which made the present, the relationship, and that summer, feel as borrowed and temporary as sleeping in Meg’s parents’ house.
Ali came back just before the sun went down. In each hand she held a grocery store bag filled with ingredients of what she’d be cooking up for her boyfriend that night. I opened the front door for her, and called “welcome home,” in a sing-song tone. I asked when her boyfriend would be arriving, to gauge how much longer I could be with her before I had to vacate. Secretly, I wished she’d cancel on him and spend all night with me. It seemed fair that now that my relationship was toast, she could ditch hers too.
I watched while she unpacked groceries, placed lettuce in the refrigerator, opened a new bottle of wine, and sliced sweet potatoes with a stainless steel knife. She talked about her shift at the bar last night, about her boyfriend’s roommates, all the details and anecdotes that embellished her life at that moment. I watched her pull open the cabinet and reach for olive oil and spices, which belonged to neither of us, but to our friend’s parents.
Kate Devine grew up on the shores of New Jersey. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently living, hiking, and writing near open windows in the Hudson Valley. You can keep up with her and her writing on Instagram.