The Mansion

The words are in my brain and then they are on my tongue and I never remember moving them from one place to the other. But it happens maybe half a dozen times a day. Fuck my life.

Earlier, they slipped out in front of my friend David and he said:

No.

We were sitting on his bed. It was his mother’s birthday. She’d passed away in the spring. He’d grieved her well, but sadness had returned and he asked me to come over to keep him company. I wrapped him up in my arms while he cried, just as he had done for me the day I thought my marriage was ending. His mom was ill back then, but she was alive. Now she is gone and my marriage is over and we take turns crying and being wrapped up by the other.

Right after his mother died, he said I need to see something beautiful. It was ten o’clock on a Sunday night. We drove through the part of town where the money lives, up through the winding hills of privilege where a historic mansion sits atop the highest peak. During the day, it is open to the public. David tells me that at night there is no better view of the city than from its grounds, which are minded by a caretaker to keep out trespassers. There is also a gate. David couldn’t remember the route exactly, but said he could feel his way there using the force.

I’d been there only once, by accident, eleven years before and had gotten there a different way. This was soon after moving to town, before I’d made friends, before I had a husband, when it was just me. I’d set out on a late morning hike without a destination. The temperature burned to 95 degrees that afternoon and I hadn’t brought along enough water. I saw a sign along the trail for the mansion, which was still a mile away, straight uphill, but it was closer than turning around and going back. I could fill my water bottle there, sit under a tree, and wait for the cooler part of the day before heading home.

The trail dumped me out into the lower parking lot of the mansion, my clothes soaked in sweat. People getting out of their air-conditioned cars grumbled about the hundred-yard walk up to the house. I felt different from them, even though I could have been them on any other day, and I was proud. I was not there to pay admission to see the historic wallpaper. I was there to replenish my water stores in the public bathroom, to rinse my face in the sink, to rest up for the second half of my trip. I watched the families come and go, taking pictures in front of the mansion, in front of the city view, all smiles. I was alone, as I had been for much of my life, but I was not lonely. I didn’t become lonely until I was married.

For my second trip to the mansion, David’s company fills the spaces that loneliness has cracked open, but they feel cavernous again when I go home to the man who will be my husband for six more months.

Something I never told him, something I never told anyone, is what happened on the walk back from the mansion all those years ago. Despite my rest in the shade, I had been hot and tired, wishing I could transport myself back to my apartment in a beam of light. Feeling sorry for myself, I rounded a blind corner, and standing in the middle of the trail, less than ten feet away, was a coyote. He did not startle and neither did I. My mind went still and we stared at each other inside of forever. It was only afterward when my brain kicked on again that I was frightened. You could’ve been eaten, attacked, mauled, it told me. But in the moment when it was just him and me, I felt safe and connected and it was obvious that everything would always be okay.

As promised, David delivers us to our destination. We park on a residential street in front of the eight-foot-high gate that has a person-sized gap between it and the side of the road. The house nearest to the gate has a flood light set on a motion detector, which illuminates our intentions before we’ve begun to act on them. We take off running behind the gate, officially trespassing now, until the groundskeeper’s residence comes into view. David stops. An exterior light casts a wide yellow half circle around the front of the house, which we must pass in order to get to the top. He slips off his clunky shoes and leads the way, tiptoeing in stocking feet. We say nothing to each other, walking slowly and quietly, everything in our bodies telling us to run. Relief sets in once we clear the yellow half circle, but when David points the way forward, I see that the path switches back and we will have to pass behind the house too. I hold my breath and walk ahead of him, silently but more quickly now, heart pounding in my head. I keep my eye on the house to see if any new lights turn on inside, any black silhouettes walk across windows, but there are none. When we are a safe distance away, relief and triumph visit briefly until I realize that we are going to have to repeat the process on the way back, two more chances of being seen, two more chances of getting caught.

We find our way to the edge of the property and sit on the precipice of the view where families were smiling and snapping pictures all those years ago. The city is twinkling just for us, just for him, his mother’s spirit in every glint. The lampposts scattered throughout the property, including the one we are sitting under, are on timers. Whenever one turns on, we think we are found. The far away beams could easily be the groundskeeper’s flashlight. I am nervous, shaky, imagining being carted off to jail. David tells me his plan if someone discovers us. “I’ll say my mom died and I needed to be up here.”

I believe the plan will work because it’s simple and true, and because people care about each other’s pain even if they are strangers. This is demonstrated to me months later, when I strike up a casual conversation with someone who works at the grocery store, a man whose face is familiar because I have been shopping there twice a week since it opened seven years ago. His is one of the faces that make living in the city feel like living in a small town. It comes up that I am newly separated, and he writes his name and number on a brown paper bag meant to carry mushrooms home. As he hands it to me he says, “I’ve recently gone through the same thing. You’re going to cry more than you’ve ever cried in your life and you’ll feel like you’re going to die, but you won’t. In between crying, you need to eat and sleep and exercise. Call me anytime for a hike. This is not a date; I know your heart is broken. It’s just an invitation to go hiking and to talk, from someone who knows what you’re going through.”

When he handed the paper bag to me, I was holding two other items in my arms. I had been separated for a month at that point and couldn’t manage to pick up more than a couple groceries at a time. As I read the sentence I have just written, I have a momentary urge for the sake of clarity to rewrite it as, “I had been separated from my husband for a month at that point,” but upon reflection I realize that the original iteration is the truer of the two: I was separated. In my experience, the loss of a part of oneself is far greater than the loss of another person. I didn’t miss my husband as much as I missed the part of me that had been his wife. She was so essential to my identity that I could not recognize myself without her. She kept me rooted. Without her, I belonged to no one, was chosen by no one to be the most important person in their life, without her I had no one to buy groceries for but myself. Without her I was unsure what to do with my devotion. Without her, I entered every room with an emptiness, which made certain rooms harder to walk into, like the grocery store. That was the place where I felt most profoundly that I was not a wife, where my naked ring finger ached, where I watched couples gliding through aisles together and I felt worthless and unloved.

As I approached the checkout counter with the only two items I could bear to select for myself that week and the brown paper bag with a phone number on it, the woman in front of me said, “Why don’t you go ahead of me? You only have those few items, please,” and she motioned me to the front of the line. And I smiled for the first time in a long time, and it was not a polite smile, not a smile that was generated by me but by something outside of me.

And that is why David said No when I said Fuck my life, because he knew that there would always be city lights and gates with holes in them and coyotes in the woods and strangers at the grocery store who want you to go ahead of them in line and smiles that come from far off and friends to hold you while you cry.

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