We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.” —Simone Weil
MY FIRST DATE with a building involved a handsome Victorian with a cupola and a widow’s walk. After that, I was involved with a SWM farmhouse with a rambling barn and front porch of wicker furniture and hanging petunias. When things didn’t work out, I dated a five-bedroom Tudor on South Street I’d met through speed dating. I exchanged emails with a Craftsman I flirted with in a bookstore checkout line, but the Craftsman was already married, left his wedding ring in his pick-up beverage holder. I begrudgingly agreed to dinner-and-a-movie with a boyish A-frame with solar panels who had been a teenager in the 1970s, when I was a toddler. No shared interests and two kids by two prior marriages. I generally preferred older homes—a Federalist style or anything, really, with hardwood floors. I used to tell myself, when I settle down, that’s the type of house I’d commit to, hardwood floors, though I ended up in a Contemporary constructed in 1987 with original shag carpet. I broke up with a Georgian Colonial in his late forties on Valentine’s Day after his sexist remark about how professional women who hope to become mothers are delusional. Later, when I was married with two children under the age of three, carrying a full-time job while also enrolled in a doctoral program, I fantasized about living by myself in a Cape; a single-story Cape is normal and easygoing but can be convinced to try Vietnamese food or independent cinema.
During the time in question, I lived alone in a miniscule two-bedroom apartment with low ceilings and cereal-box sized windows on Vernon Street in Nashua, New Hampshire. The houses were entirely white sans shutters—albino without eyelashes. They resembled their wintery residents who seemed to stare back with a flat unfriendliness in grocery stores, on the street, or in restaurants. My apartment in Nashua was advertised as a two bedroom, but really all that I could squeeze into the second room was my desk and chair, a filing cabinet, and the litter box. From my desk, I had a view of the landlord’s backyard where he occasionally sunbathed with his ex-wife and up a stony slope, a walk-in bird cage, with the square footage of my whole apartment, that housed homing pigeons. The window in my bedroom looked onto a cramped single-family home with a weedy backyard. New neighbors with a loud extended family from Scotland moved in on 9/10/2001 and threw a party that spilled over into the morning of that precipitous next day, a gathering I glared at through the slits of the blinds every half hour between midnight and two in the morning. By noon the next day, I never cast the neighbors another thought and a few months later discovered that they’d moved away, without a sound, without a U-Haul.
NEW HAMPSHIRE CULTURE is not a porch culture. It is not like Baton Rouge, my residence prior to returning to New England. In New Hampshire, people rarely entertain on their porches, usually decorated with an American flag, a single chair, and no more than two hanging pots of petunias, the no-brainer flower. When my landlord saw that I’d painted the kitchen walls a teal blue, he warned, “This ain’t Lousy-ana anymore.” I quickly realized the truth of his edict. My short residency in Baton Rouge, only ten months, was actually a minor reprieve from loneliness. Though I’d braced myself for a tough time when I pulled into town with all my belongings in the back of a Chevy Blazer with its undercarriage rusting from winters of road salt in Maine, quickly finding a $90/month one-bedroom furnished with cast-off lawn furniture from my landlord, knowing nobody, I came to count this period in Louisiana as one of the happiest in my life. It was a companionship typical only of childhood.
We were a pack of university instructors, recently freed from prolonged graduate educations, minor correcting of papers or lecture planning or our own writing but otherwise no families, no commitments, in a low-budget setting, none of us competing for anything, including, as far as I can tell, anyone’s amorous affection. Several of us had non-turbulent, long-distance relationships, myself included, with a beloved whose absence didn’t distress us much. It was just evenings around chimineas or on the streets of New Orleans, on porches, in backyards, eating duck gumbo carefully because so-and-so’s father might not have extracted all the buckshot. All this joy compounded by the total absence of winter. I turned thirty in March, same weekend as Mardi Gras, and it felt like the place was celebrating me. My Baton Rouge companions even tolerated my Northern ways. I read it as an omen that the first phone call I received in my new apartment in Nashua, seconds after I’d plugged the retro phone into the jack, was from the dean of the college, my new employer, calling in July to ask about my plans for the writing center. For weeks, this was my only phone call except from family.
Whole days passed that first summer in which the only communication I had with other people came from magic-marker shoplifters will be prosecuted signs abundant in shops on Main Street. Through my living-room window, I overheard the daily banter between my Nashua-born landlord and the older downstairs tenant. At first, I thought a flock of mallards had landed in the street. The New Hampshire accent incorporates as many short “u” and “ar” sounds as possible. The landlord, whose source of income seemed to come solely from the apartments, would accost the elderly tenant, “Why don’t you get a job” and the tenant would retort, “You wouldn’t know how to work a day in your life.” I was never sure if the two men actually disliked one another. It was a conversational style opposite of the ever maintained and melodious pleasantry of living in the American South where good manners seemed constantly kept on like air conditioning.
• • •
TO READ MORE OF THIS ESSAY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 53.3
ALEXANDRIA PEARY is New Hampshire Poet Laureate and the 2020 recipient of an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. She is the author of six books, most recently, The Water Draft (Spuyten Duyvil). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Meridian, Guernica, and the Cimarron Review. She specializes in mindful writing, the topic of her 2019 TEDx talk, “How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write,” available on YouTube.