Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Samuel Adams Showered Here

Boston, it turns out, is an expensive place to stay.

Will and I have a basic theory when it comes to travel: the accommodations should be clean, somewhat quiet and close to public transportation. The rest – a comfortable mattress, a soaker shower head – is only a bonus. Last summer, we spent a night in a room approximately the size of a small walk-in closet in Stratford-upon-Avon, so small that only one of us could be standing at a time, and the other had to curl up on the twin-sized mattress or wait in the hallway. And yet we shrugged, laughed, spent that last day trekking through the countryside to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and allowed ourselves to be regaled again by the Royal Shakespeare Company at night.

As we travel, we constantly store up the small details that will make their way into Will’s review on TripAdvisor – the friendliness of the proprietors, the promise of the venue versus its reality. If it doesn’t work for us, we’re going to warn others away. If it meets all our needs, we pass on the tip to other bargain-hunters.

After much searching through Boston’s pricier hotels, we found ours. Not a hotel, technically, but a small apartment – one of a series of small apartments, etc., controlled by a single company. It boasted a bedroom, living/dining room, pocket kitchen and a full bath, close to the orange and green lines of Boston’s T.

“It’s received some mixed reviews,” Will admitted as we pulled our suitcases along cobblestone streets.

“Well, we won’t spend much time in it, anyway,” I assured him.

There were a few bumps to begin with – the man at the front desk had a difficult time locating our reservation, although it was directly in front of him on the desk. He insisted we pay in advance, but then seemed reluctant to return my Visa. We were given keys to open the front door of an apartment building a few blocks away, but once we’d located the address, the room number on the key didn’t match any of the room numbers in the building. Will called and an employee came down with replacement keys.

And then there was the smell. I’ve taught public school for eight years, so it’s a smell I immediately identified – mold.

“The carpet is wet,” Will marveled, stepping out of his shoes. That turned out to be no great mystery – to survive in an apartment with non-functional windows during a Boston summer, the swamp cooler was an immediate necessity. Everything in its path – an expanse of Berber, the contents of our suitcases – quickly became damp.

I don’t know what was worse – the pungent mold stench that hit us fresh each time we entered the apartment, or the fact that in five minutes our nostrils had adjusted and the smell seemed completely normal. Each morning, we went through a five-minute nose-blowing (me) and coughing (Will) routine that could not have been healthy.

It was an odd set-up – we returned from a sweaty circuit of the Freedom Trail to find our bed made, although nothing else had been touched. A small loop of my hair was still in the drain, our towels still wet and crumpled. I popped a Fanta into the freezer for a quick chill and the freezer handle came right off – it was affixed with nothing stronger than a swab of rubber cement. At night we cuddled up on the vinyl couch in front of a flat-screen TV, the experience somewhat muffled by the fact that the volume had to be at its highest level to counteract the swamp cooler. Last night, wending our way to Legal Sea Foods, we passed a Marriott, Sheridan, Westin and The Colonnade, laughing. This morning, I made a concerted effort not to notice the way the plaster above the shower enclosure was peeling, or the way the bathtub seemed to list to one side, ready to drift down the Charles River, maybe. It’s an old building, I reminded myself. Besides, the founding fathers had to deal with much worse – no taxation without representation, massacres, etc.

So we shrugged it off – the location is good, the price is right and changing hotels would be a huge hassle at this point. Anyway, we were less than a day from our train to New York and our completely honest review on TripAdvisor.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Things Observed from an East-Facing Window Seat on the Downeaster from Portland to Boston

(or Lists I Make on Various Forms of Transportation to Amuse Myself when I Can’t Sleep, Part 82)

-- Two marmots picnicking on grass outside the Portland station. They were lovely, wild, fat-bellied things and may not have been marmots at all. Woodchucks, maybe, Will theorized. Or prairie dogs. Look it up, he instructed, but somehow I couldn’t log on to the train’s free WiFi.

-- A fellow passenger, a monk, with a black robe, a bald head and thickish glasses. Two other monks were seeing him off at the platform in Portland, and he called them on his cell phone when the train was pulling away from the station. “But why were you crying?” he asked, gently. “I’m going to see you again.” He got off a few stops later, at Durham.

-- Old Orchard Beach: ice cream stands and surf shops and a somewhat rickety looking roller coaster, a fantastic water slide, tanned bodies, Crocs and brightly painted murals.

-- Christmas tree farms. A man standing uncomfortably close to the train platform. Heaps of railroad ties. A baseball field in West Medford. Woods. Ocean. Lakes. Swamps thick with lilypads. John Deere tractors. Shoes, laces tied together, looped over a telephone wire. Trees that had fallen or were kneeling, about to fall. Field hockey practice in Dover, New Hampshire. Cemeteries. Backyards. Trailer courts. Graffiti (we all want to get our names out there, don’t we?), even in the smallest blinks of towns. On the back side of a tin shed: SHY. Initials? A moniker? A lament that I share, all too often? Elsewhere: SOUP and OUST.

-- My own reflection: mascara smudged, my bangs fallen flat, chapped lips (my lip balm inconveniently stored in my suitcase, which was inconveniently lodged in the overhead bin).

- Empty buildings, self-storage units and smockstacks in Haverhill (“Have-rill”), Massachusetts. A funky-looking bookstore (Bookends) in Winchester.

-- A man who looked like (but sadly, was not) David from my writing program. I caught a glimpse of his dark hair and flannel shirt on the way into the bathroom and waited for him to come out, waited so long (about 15 minutes, according to Will’s wristwatch) that I began to really hope it wasn’t him at all, because he might be embarrassed to make eye contact after such horrible intestinal issues or to be publicly exposed as a cokehead.

-- Will: in his favorite Royal Robbins garb, Nick Hornby book splayed facedown in his lap, hands clasped, mouth open, sleepy smile on lips, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.

- The New York Times’s Style section wedding pages, which I went through with a pen, circling all mentions of “Harvard” and “Yale” and “Princeton.”

- The inside of the bathroom (technically not observed from seat). Until this moment, lowering myself carefully to the toilet seat, I had not noticed just how rocky the train was.

- Boston: the Charles River, a funky bridge, lots more grafitti, mammoth concrete loops for underpasses, overpasses, onramps and off-ramps. Brick everywhere. Blue sky. My home for the next three days.

All Good Things

I’m sitting in a laundromat in Brunswick, Maine, watching the clothes that I have been toting around for ten days take a much-needed bath. Will is out scouting shampoo and batteries; in the trunk of our rental car is my suitcase, bearing amongst other things my MFA degree, barely twelve hours old. I’m one iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts and a few hours away from taking the Downeaster to Boston.

Last night I said goodbye to the friends I’ve had for two years, the ones who freaked out over the printing of our theses with me, the ones who understood when other people just didn’t get my writing. Wearing my gray-and-silver heels and a beautiful borrowed necklace, I sweated out a few beers and half of an all-meat pizza on the dance floor. I laughed, for maybe the last time, at what MFA students look like while they’re dancing.

And now it’s time to move on.

For me, literally, this means a return to California, to my house and dog and the cats I sometimes forget I have. It doesn’t mean – not yet, anyway – a return to full-time teaching; I’m hoping instead to polish up the novel I finished in May and send it out to the world. I want to take everything I’ve learned, about writing and about life, and apply it to whatever comes next.

It hasn’t fully sunk in yet that I might not be returning, ever – but I can already sense the nostalgia that’s coming.

When I resigned as a full-time teacher at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, it took another year for that fact to hit me. In the meantime, I stayed in touch with some of my colleagues. I bumped into my former students on Facebook. It wasn’t until I went to graduation this May that I realized I had really left. I didn’t recognize most of the faces around me. No longer a staff member, I stood outside the gate, catching only a few snatches of commencement speeches that the microphone (and the wind) floated my way. Until that moment, I hadn’t really looked back. I had only considered what I was headed toward; I hadn’t really considered what I was leaving behind.

It might take me some time, then, to really miss my MFA program and the strange cast of characters (myself included, I suppose) that populated it. Give me a week, a month, a season, a year. Give me until January, when I’m not taking a propeller plane to a snow-covered northern landing strip, my winter boots taking up half the real estate of my suitcase. Give me until next July, when I’m not thinking about how my hair will react to humidity, or once again waging the dorm vs. hotel room debate.

All good things, I know, must come to an end. Even bad things do – even this moment right now, where I am waiting for the rinse cycle under the intense scrutiny of a strange woman with copious amounts of facial hair who is trying to ascertain if I am, indeed, writing about her. Yes, even this will end – with the sound of a buzzer or a natural disaster that wipes out the Northeast or the arrival of Will. Some experiences, of course, are more miss-able than others.

But right now I’m bracing myself, just a bit, for what I know is coming sooner or later. When it finally hits me that Stonecoast is in my past, I want to be prepared for the impact, like a fighter clenching his stomach muscles, unwilling to take the full brunt of the blow.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What's Next

At the end of May, I finished my novel.

Well – a first draft. A good first draft. I’ve had to let it sit for a while, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it in a month or so. I open the file occasionally and read over passages, surprised at what surprises me, now that I’ve read the book a dozen times straight through.

I spent the first week of June editing a 184-page-manuscript – a volunteer effort, but something that you can bet will show up on my resume.

I printed out my thesis, which meant two trips to Office Depot and, somehow, five trips to the post office.

And then I started summer school. It’s my fourth straight summer of marking time on chalkboards, which probably makes me even less intelligent than some of my students, who assure me that they spend each summer making up the work they failed all school year long. Not every minute is horrible – sometimes five minutes at once goes by and I haven’t looked at the clock.

The rest of my moments feel stolen – working on my graduate presentation, reading an article in the New Yorker, picking a few weeds here and there, making lists of things to pack and then quickly misplacing them.

I’m a few days from getting on a plane and leaving my life behind for three weeks. There are a million things to do – last minute straightening, so I come back to a clean house; the actual act of packing – and somehow I’ve spent my fifth of July in a state of inertia. Even bringing in the sun tea required great mental effort. Flipping channels, I found the AMC marathon of Mad Men and have barely moved since.

I know what it is – transition. I’m never really good at that.

For a long time I was plotting my enrollment in graduate school, and then it happened. I spent the last two years looking forward to a completed manuscript and graduation – and now it’s practically here. As of the 17th, I’ll be an MFA graduate. The scariest thing may be what’s next – a return to teaching? part-time jobs while I rewrite/search for an agent/move forward in my writing life? If I sit still for too long, a weird panicky feeling settles on my chest.

Get up. Move. Keep going.

Last week, I gave Mona the go-ahead to experiment with my hair. Sure, go a shade darker on the bottom, I said. Why not? And now I’m a half-blonde with black hair that sticks to my neck in the heat.

I think I might hate it, I told my sister.

Nah, she said. You needed some more edge. You’re a writer, after all.

I laughed at the time, and too rushed to do anything about it, I’ve still got the hair. It’s funny how sometimes the decisions are made for you. Maybe this is just a case of hair as destiny.