In every marriage there are differences between husband and wife, chronic differences in attitude that can lead to some contention. Liz and I are no different.
The fact is that Liz, since I have known her and long before that, feels something akin to physical pain when she believes she is putting somebody out, making them uncomfortable in some way.
I, on the other hand, have no problem at all with putting people out if I can somehow gain from it. Which may be how we ended up in a ridiculously beautiful house in Brooklyn Heights this week. So I think we can all agree to go ahead and score that one for me.
Three weeks ago we arrived home from South Africa. We’d given up our apartment in NYC before we left, so we had to move from house to house, looking for people to take us in. We have Finn with us who is very portable and wonderful, but our dog Emma is far away in North Carolina. That is fortunate, since most of our friends are acquainted with Emma and would be more likely to open their doors to us if I was pump firing a 12 gauge shotgun than if I had Emma on a leash.
I mentioned our homelessness in passing when talking to my literary agent and friend, Trena, on the phone. She and Liz are great friends and Trena didn’t hesitate to offer up her house, which is in a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood and is kid friendly, as she and her husband David are parents to three little boys.
“Listen, it would be a favor to me,” she said graciously. “You can feed the fish and water the plants for the week. Talk to Liz, see if she wants to do that, and just give me a call back.”
“No need!” I sang. “I’m positive she’ll agree!”
Liz was less enthusiastic.
“Of course I want to stay there. But are you sure it’s ok?”
“She said she it would be a favor!”
“Yes, because she’s Trena, and that’s what Trena would say to make us feel comfortable.”
Which was of course accurate, and which was precisely why I had purposefully not asked the requisite “Are you sure?” questions to Trena for fear she might give me some piece of information that I would be bound to pass onto my wife, and which would, inevitably, torpedo the whole deal.
“She can’t find anyone to take care of her fish. We can stay there, or we can let her fish die. Whichever. I don’t care.”
Liz rolled her eyes.
As I was in Brooklyn anyway the next morning, I stopped by her house – the day before they left – to get the lowdown on fish and plant responsibilities.
Trena’s house, a tall brownstone not far from the water, is staggeringly well appointed. It has the kinds of things in it that you would never think to put in your house, then you see it in somebody else’s house, somebody with true style, and you realize how painfully far you are from ever having that. In one room on the second floor, the back wall looks over the garden. It is filled with comfortable chairs and the walls are painted purple. On an otherwise bare purple wall hangs something that can be best described as a round shield made entirely of white feathers, or like an ostrich that’s been dropped from about 30,000 feet. And somehow, it’s perfect.
David, an attorney, was still at work, so while the kids played upstairs Trena walked me through the house to give me an idea of which plants to water at which frequency. I had expected perhaps a half dozen house plants, but discovered instead that there were about thirty five plants in the whole place, each with its own prescriptive diet.
“So, not just, like, a lot of water every day?” I said about halfway through the arboretum.
She gave me a funny look, as if I was a new babysitter who had entered her house, looked around a roomful of furniture and said “Okay, which one of you is the baby?”
“Nooooo,” she said slowly. Then: “Is that what you do with your plants, out of curiosity?”
“Yeah, but they all died pretty quickly, so I might have missed a few days.”
“So you just water-board them.”
“I’m not really a plant guy.”
But secretly I was pretty sure I was right. It’s not like plants were created to be indoors. What did they do in the Stone Age when it started raining? Run into caves?
When we finished the grand tour I realized that I’d already forgotten what to do with the earlier plants I’d seen on the tour. I could either look like an idiot right now or I could welcome her home to a house full of dead flora. So I took out a notebook and asked her to do the whole thing again, which actually seemed to comfort her. But secretly I kept thinking, how did she know how much each plant needs? What was she, a botany minor? I don’t get it.
We went back downstairs after our second house plant tour, and into the kitchen where a tank held a good number of tropical fish.
“So what’s the deal with the fish?”
“Well, there’s an assortment,” she sighed, as one might who was not eager to explain her fish. Clearly she was about to let an outsider in on some family secrets. She leaned against the counter and we stared together into the fish tank.
“Alright. The tricky one is the anemone. You have to hand feed him so that the lobster shrimp doesn’t try to get its food, which it totally will. There are two clown fish that should live in the anemone but they were tank-raised, not raised in the wild, so they don’t know they’re supposed to live in the anemone – they have no idea what’s going on. They’re supposed to do the whole Finding Nemo thing. I’d trade them in for wild clown fish but that would make it even sadder, you know? Also, I have this sea urchin that’s a total asshole.”
She tapped the glass where the sea urchin, a deep black porcupine of a creature, sat. It was clinging to a piece of coral near the anemone.
“The blue ones I got because they’re supposed to school, but they never do. And I got four of them, so it’s not like they haven’t had their chance.”
“Where would they school to?”
“Yeah, right. Where would they school to? I need a bigger tank. I’d bet they’d school everywhere if I had a bigger tank. It’s what they do. School. And we have, like, 20 hermit crabs, but they hide. Ok, let’s feed the anemone. You take this tiny piece of krill, like this, rinse it, and gently lower it down and kind of put it in its mouth.”
“Where’s its mouth?” The anemone looked like an orange loofa.
“You just have to kind of push it into the middle. It’ll take it, see – see it taking it? That’s how you know…oh, look – look! The sea urchin totally just tried to stab me – you see that? Such a dick!”
I learned that I needed to alternate fish food between red and green frozen individually wrapped cubes in the freezer. “To alter their diet, right?” she said, with just a wisp of self-consciousness.
Trena grew up on a farm but because of their circumstances they can’t have animals. So this is her new farm.
“It’s a big tank,” I said.
“Oh, this is only the beginning.”
On our first night, Liz and Finn and I slept in the guest room on the third floor. Or rather, that’s where Liz and I slept. Finn was having none of that.
We knew David would be coming home late that evening for a day or two because of work, and his bedroom was directly below ours. Finn woke up around 11:30 p.m., an hour after we’d gone to bed, screaming. Liz scooped him up and brought him into the bed with us, which usually works, but Finn was, unusually, absolutely inconsolable. I took him and started walking him around. We tried every game, we gave him every piece of contraband we had – cell phones, small coins, fragile pieces of jewelry – nothing would distract him. He moved onto piercing shrieks. I kept walking him around, willing him to stop crying.
“He’s going to wake David,” Liz said in a loud, panicked whisper, taking him and bouncing him around the room. “David is going to be lying there awake all night and he doesn’t even want to be here – his whole family is on vacation and he has to work and he had to come home to this!”
“It might be soothing for him. He has three boys. Maybe he misses them,” I whispered back over the shrieks.
“It’s not soothing! The only person this is soothing is the Devil in Hell!”
“Finn! Finn! Buddy, we need you to stop and we love you but you gotta stop!”
For ten more minutes we tried everything. It was like he was trying to win some kind of contest.
“That’s it,” Liz said, taking him from me. “I’m just going to leave with him. We need to just get in the car and drive away with him.”
“Drive away? Drive away where? We’ll lose our parking space!”
“We need to drive away and never come back. We need to drive until we run out of gas. We need to get him out of here – David’s probably pulling his hair out right now.”
I had filled the tank that morning so driving until we ran out of gas would probably put us in New Hampshire, where we knew nobody.
“Let’s take him upstairs,” I said.
We ran him upstairs to the boy’s room on the top floor, which was at least another floor away from David. If they had a ladder leading up to the roof I imagine we would have taken him up there.
Somehow, in that room Finn immediately calmed down. We pushed the two boys’ beds together and Liz and I boxed him in. He closed his eyes long enough for Liz to escape back downstairs. Liz is usually the one up with him at night, so I ended up staying with him until he fell asleep at 3 a.m., then again when he woke up at 5:30, ready to get the day started.
As I was unable to entertain him in my half dead state, I gave him the box of Wet Wipes to play with, instructing him so that he would only go as far as to open and close the top but not take any out. He got this – he’s a smart boy. He opened and closed the box a few times, saying “Opa!” and “Clo!” in this incredibly cute little voice. Then I must have closed my eyes for a minute because I woke up to find that Finn had TP’ed the room and was standing on the bed so that he was nearly eye-level with the photo of their five year old son Teddy saying “Bye bye!” and waving with his little paw, which would have been cute if it hadn’t been kind of sinister.
Liz emailed David the next day to apologize for Finn’s crying.
“No worries – I only heard him when I was up working. With what I’ve become accustomed to in that house, he’ll have to do a lot better than that,” David wrote.
Still, Liz and I decided I should also call Trena, just to let her know that everything was okay, and to say sorry that David had to listen to that.
“Oh please, David’s fine. How’s everything else?”
“We love, love, love this place. Finn loves it. He’s been hanging out in Teddy and Wilder’s room. I hope it’s ok, I let me him play with that one-eyed cow under the bed.”
“Uhhhhhh….I think it had one eye. Maybe it had two. I might be thinking of something else.”
“It’s fine, I haven’t seen that cow in years. If it has an eye left after those three got done with it, it’s doing better than I thought.”
The week, as it draws to an end, has been perfect. The plants and fish are all alive, which is a victory. The tomatoes in the back garden are ready for plucking when Trena and David return. Finn hasn’t torn the last eye from the cow, and that’s another victory. Liz and I have relaxed and cooked and read and written and barely left the house. It has been, in the end, like a little heavenly vacation in a time of instability, and for that we are just so grateful.