The purple bannister (an inside joke) leading from the half landing to the front door of the apartment was gone, ripped from its sturdy wall mooring. One of the mounting brackets lolled upside down, almost torn out of the plaster. The landing walls were fingered up with dirty smears.
After Roger found the keys and unlocked the front door, we stepped into the apartment hallway, the long, slender hallway that runs some 100 plus feet from front to back. We walked to the front room, the large room with its three single light windows that look down on our core downtown.
"Oh," I said. Then I repeated it. "Oh."
Every direction, it was "oh." The nails pounded into the walls, the holes in the walls, a broken lower glass pane on the French doors leading into what was once a study, the hole in the glass about the size of a boot.
Th dirt. The squalor.
"This is nothing. You should have seen it before we carted out the garbage."
We moved through the apartment, room by room. More items nailed into walls. More holes in the walls. Broken wood panels in several of the original four panel interior doors. The antique blue glass fixture in the kitchen broken and hanging askew.
I felt a lump in my throat. This was the first time I had been back in this space since March 2005. And here it was, dirty. Forlorn. Abused.
"This space" is a third floor apartment the building owners had rehabbed ten years ago after it had sat empty and locked for a quarter of a century. "This space" is a 2000 square foot apartment atop a late nineteenth century commercial Italianate building in the heart of the downtown. "This space" in 2002 was a gleaming restoration and updating of the 1920s era apartment.
"This space" was where I lived for three years, first with Ben, then with Ben and Sam, then with Sam, from the time I began the long, slow, hard unwinding of my marriage to the time I began the long, slow, hard trek through my cancer treatment.
Roger, my longtime friend and part owner of the building, stood quietly beside me as I took in the damage. We had just come from lunch together, during which he told me of the current conditions of the apartment. I asked him if he had the keys with him and when he said he did, I impulsively said, "let's go see it."
And here I was, seeing it.
The front room, which had hosted Ben's graduation party and many a DI practice. My study, where I wrote and put my life back together. Sam's bedroom, which sat empty for the first year until his longing for his big brother overcame his anger and sadness towards me. Ben's room, where he found refuge for the last two years before college. The kitchen, which had seen numerous D & D tournaments and my parents' 50th wedding anniversary dinner. My "Live Like You Are Dying" party, which saw 100 plus people pack the kitchen, the front room, the study, and the long hallway full.
I moved out of the apartment when I fell too far behind on the rent and my advancing cancer made ever catching up rent and climbing daily the 44 or so stairs to reach home impossible. On the day I moved, a whole army of friends and family showed up to do the work. There was one quiet moment, when almost everyone was in transit between the two places and I just stood in an almost empty room and cried. My friend Linda found me and hugged me, then gave me a squeeze and said "I know it hurts. But the next step is a good step and you will get better." The next day, a second wave of friends descended upon the empty apartment and cleaned it to a gleam. And then I left it behind, handing the keys to Roger two days later after one final walk-through with him.
After Roger and I closed the door and went our separate ways, I walked to the Symphony office to see Warren. I told him about going back to the apartment. Warren said he'd like to see the space as he never made it there when it was my home. (The "Live Like You Are Dying" party? He was playing percussion in "The Nutcracker" 60 miles away that night.) "I'd like to see it to place you there in my mind," he said.
Next time, I said. And when I got home, I emailed Roger and told him the same. Next time.
Next time I will be ready to show Warren the apace. Next time, I will be able to say "this is where I lived. This is where this part of my life played out." Next time I will be able to say, "here is where Sam and I watched the World Series late into the night when Boston won, here is where Caitie kept her drum set for two years, here is where I would sit and watch the snow come down." Next time I will be able to say all those things.
This time, though, I needed to see it without that overlay of explanations. This time I needed to let the memories rush past me up the stairs and swiftly down the hall, just beyond my fingertips.
And this time I needed to say "oh." And "oh" again. And nothing more.