It was very straightforward, but every leg of the way was roundabout. There were so many layers and choices, just for a trip up the road to a friend’s house. A friend’s house up the road. Entirely accurate, and just the same misleading enough to send you off in quite the wrong direction.
It’s always hard leaving the comfort of my home, the familiarity of my rhythms; it’s hard to divide my attention. I like to maintain the sense of containment, like a turtle keep the shell on my back. How many degrees of separation that is, I don’t always remember. It’s as if I forget how clear I am about going by myself, about taking my own car, about liking to do that. Partly, it’s important, for those of us who are partnered, to do things on our own. Not the doing so much as the knowing how to do it alone; like now I’m thirsty, or now I want to stop, or now I’m lost or now I’m found. Partly, I like my own company as well as anyone elses.
I headed out busy, in my mind, with grocery lists, and editing and watching the road, and Sonomacentric though I am, the Napa valley captured me and I was dispatched, like the night rider. I crossed a threshold. I followed the clatter of ghosts. Followed a horse drawn carriage through the valley to a house on the hill.
To the house on a hill. Another absolutely accurate description, that in its exactitude leaves everything out.
The house sits overlooking the entire valley. It reigns over the entire valley. It was hard to see. The reflections were inexact. As if we come to expect, to trust that our senses speak only one language, and they don’t. I couldn’t find my way in. There were doors enough, front doors, back doors, garage doors, side doors screen doors. And they were open. I could hear voices, and the click of the dogs’ nails on the linoleum floor as they rushed the door waiting for me to come up the stairs. It was just hard to see.
I stood, at the bottom of the brick stairs, looking up.
It wasn’t just big, it wasn’t even, it wasn’t what I was expecting. And it wasn’t that I thought it was the wrong house. It was the right house, the wrong plane.
The right place the wrong time. I was welcome, that was not it.
I was not out of place, but out of step.
Gravity was off kilter. It would take a twirl or two to recalibrate my gyroscope.
Vertigo is an astonishing experience, it’s not just dizzy, or lightheaded. It’s a proprioceptive dis-ease, a malfunction in some very basic technology, that of knowing how and where you stand in space. Sometimes, I can just breathe through it. Other times, veering this way and that I fall off edges off precipices that aren’t there.The horizon is false and the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. But it wasn’t only that. At the house on the hill, time was out of kilter. It bent, and curved. And folded, and now is then.
It was just a house on a hill, with views in every direction, with a veranda which stretched round the house, and a sitting room with a baby grand piano and a dining room just off the kitchen and a pantry just off the other side. It was just a house on a hill with a library full of leather bound books and bedrooms with his and hers dressing rooms and a full bar down some stairs and a walk-in safe. It was a house with a Chinese cook and his rattlesnakes and grounds keepers and their gardens, and not just anyone was welcome.
It was just a house, where people lived. My friend’s greatgreataunt and then her daughter had lived there.
And now my friend’s mother lives there. Her car is in the garage.
Another of those images which in its clarity leads you astray.
It had been a house. Now it was a lot more and less. It was a repository, a memory bank. It had been a house where people lived. Now, my friend’s mother, keeper of the records, stayed there waiting for the accounts to be settled.
Witnesses, we’d come, as fast as we could.
Interlopers and honored guests, we were never alone. They, all the people who had ever lived there, watched not so much over us.
Children, we’d come back to sit at a knee, to hear for the first time the stories told again and again.
My mother too is docent. Keeper of the records in our museum, she balances the books again and again one last time. She’s been able, as is her undertaking, to pull the extraordinary from the mire, and what was once such an onerous task, pleases her now. Out of breath, from running up the stairs to the phone, she calls me, to tell me the news from old clippings. “When you live with things day to day,” she says, “the extraordinary and the ordinary merge. It was hard to see,” she says, “how truly great were the things that people did.”
Story tellers ourselves, we’d come to hear for the last time the stories told again and again.