In March, I was grateful we were in the pandemic together. In April, I looked for new details to appreciate. By May, not so much. I spent June trying not to focus on the flaws. By July, I felt trapped. Any attraction was pretty much gone by August. While I never meant for it to happen, when autumn arrived I began to stray, leaving my downtown Manhattan co-op to spend time at our modest but suddenly seductive getaway in Connecticut.
I’m not proud of my infidelity. I meant it when I said I would live in this apartment in downtown Manhattan for the rest of my life. My husband and I purchased it with such excitement, we raised our children here, and when they moved out, we gut-renovated the space into our dream home. But that changed for me in lockdown, when I was forced to spend months staring at the same walls whose colors I had so carefully chosen. The touches I once thought so attractive, like two faucets in the kitchen sink, became another reminder of what I had lost, that instead of dining out we were cooking and cleaning up after every meal.
It wasn’t just the apartment that led me astray. The converted warehouse in which it sits, whose 1930 details and 1970s Tribeca vibe we worked to fastidiously maintain, seemed to be just another tired old building with an iffy intercom system, antique wiring and an out-of-service elevator. Maybe I could have overlooked our growing list of problems if the neighborhood, whose quiet streets used to feel safe and full of possibilities, didn’t now feel so abandoned and vulnerable.
Still, I tried to make my relationship with the apartment work. When I climbed the stairs to what had become my walk-up, I tried to focus on my developing thigh muscles and not my aching knees. When I peered out of my windows at night, I tried to appreciate the stillness rather than the empty streets and dark apartment windows. Most of all, I tried to ignore the temptation of a small house in Connecticut. The original appliances were already old when we bought the place. No smart TV, little cell service, plenty of drafts. Still, in my mind it was looking more and more attractive. I didn’t want to give up on my apartment or New York, but they were no longer fulfilling my needs.
I brought up this emotional push-pull with the therapist I was seeing remotely for pandemic stress. He asked me to describe a scene where I felt completely calm. I thought about watching old movies late at night with my mother. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly. I remembered a great line Mae West had about dealing with temptation, that she avoids it “unless I can’t resist.” Was the solution to my quandary as simple as that?
So I headed north. Just once, I told myself. Just for the day. And it was thrilling. I felt things I hadn’t felt for half a year. The house was so easy! No stairs. No need to wear a mask to get a breath of air. No helicopters constantly whirring overhead – just the sound of rustling leaves and chirping birds.
But as wonderful as the day had been, I wasn’t ready to spend the night. Back in New York, after a guilty climb up the stairs and a shaky turn of the key in the door, my eyes fell on the twin chandeliers that hang over the dining room table. Created with the gears and chains from my family’s old bicycles, the two metal confections symbolized the serenity and affection I used to feel in this space – and yearned to feel again.
Determined to make another go of it, I devoted the next month to caring for the apartment. I mopped every floor, tightened loose cabinet handles, descaled the coffee maker, straightened wall hangings and organized the spice drawer. I pruned the potted fig tree that would never yield fruit and the rubber tree that would never produce rubber. I called a friend who lives across the street and asked her to wave to me. I bought ice cream from a truck and ate supper in the street in front of a local restaurant.
A Double Life
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut. That I should go up again, just to make sure the house was OK. A one-day return visit turned into a weekend. A weekend turned into a week. Before I knew it, I was leading a double life, alternating weeks between city and country, living out of a suitcase. In the apartment, I feel confined and at the same time comforted by its familiarity and warmth. In the house, I have more freedom, but meeting its needs comes at a steep price.
Yes, the grass is greener, but it needs to be mowed in the summer and cleared of dried leaves in the fall. It also needs to be aerated, whatever that means. Tall, dying trees need to be removed. The plumbing, electricity and wi-fi require upgrades. Varmints and insects need to be relocated.
My dalliance with Connecticut has cost me – literally, and in other ways. It has changed how I see myself. Last year, I was with a group of friends, indoors, unmasked, socially undistanced, when someone asked which word we’d pick to describe ourselves. As we went around the room, the descriptions varied – male, mother, short, gay – and when it was my turn, I said: “NewYorker. That says the most about who I am.”
But is that still true? I doubt my flirtation with Connecticut will develop into something more serious, but I now see other possibilities I’d never considered. Maine? Montana? Monaco? I’ve learned that the outdoors is more than a corridor between where I am and where I’m going. And while I don’t think I’ll ever pitch a tent when I have the option of checking into a hotel, I doubt I’ll ever again be satisfied with a home devoid of outdoor space.
Post virus, when I can walk outside without a second thought, slide into a booth in a coffee shop without disinfectant, hug the friend who’s joining me – maybe where I am won’t matter so much. Right now, I don’t know. As Mae West said, “No one can have everything, so you have to try for what you want most.” Right now, I’m trying to figure that out.