Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Requiem (For Four Hands)
By Emma Sklar
When I was a year out of college I moved back home to save money with the intention of moving to New York City. I had a job lined up for winter at nearby Sugarbush Ski Resort, but the lease my then boyfriend, who we’ll call Fredrick (because why not?) and I shared in Burlington had run out in June, so I spent the entire summer at home with my parents and my younger sister who was in eighth grade at the time. It was the house I grew up in in Moretown, which is the least populous town of the already quaint Mad River Valley in Vermont. There is a “general grocery” (which is really a gas station), a library that is never open, an Elementary School, and several dozen small graveyards (to be fair all Vermont towns have graveyards in the same way that more civilized parts of the world have Starbucks). It is beautiful and serene and as long as you stay out of the general grocery on a morning when the hunters converge for their pre-murderquest sustenance you would have the sense that nothing bad has ever happened to anyone here, or if it did it was only because the cemetery was looking a bit sparse.
During that time Fredrick also moved in with his parents In Manhattan, and against all better judgement we stayed together while living apart. I could feel the love between us dimming but to admit that might mean having to change my plans, and my plans were all I had. Otherwise I was just another aimless 23 year old living with her parents. In the name of productivity I suppressed my fear of inadequacy by consuming my weight in cheap sparkling wine that I bought at the general store on a nightly basis. Maybe I wasn’t exactly “living my best life” but goddamn do I miss being able to buy bubbly at the gas station.
By then my father was no longer giving piano lessons in our home but the upright piano was still in the back room. When I was younger, maybe 6 or 7, I used to sit with my back to the door and listen while reluctant students plodded through their hastily practiced sonatas and imagine the day when I would be able to play one (in a sparkly gown on a stage with roses being thrown by ravenous suitors). I like to think it was my father who was always rescheduling my lessons because there would always be another time, but of course I just didn’t like to practice. That summer while everyone else was out of the house at work or summer camp or generally living their lives I would sit at the piano with my drink and wish I had followed through with my own lessons. I learned the basic chords in college as part of my voice studies, but never developed the coordination or skill to play a solo piano piece. With the right practice I think I could have done it but something else always took priority.
I said goodbye to that house on the 5th of July in 2016 when I was 28 years old. My hair was blue, I had ruined enough relationships and fled enough apartments to feel well on my way to being a New Yorker, and my parents had by then been split up for about 3 years. My younger sister was leaving for college in the fall and my older sister was living in Colorado. I had no plans to leave New York at that time but since everyone was dispersing the distance felt greater than it had in the past.
On one of my previous visits my mom, my dad, my mom’s boyfriend and I all went to go see my older sister’s band play in Stowe where my mom and her boyfriend were living. I overheard my mother’s boyfriend saying “This is my girlfriend Alice, and this is her husband, Bruce.” You’ll have to forgive my lack of clarity here because after that particular incident I decided that I didn't need any further dialogue on the matter and that was that. I can’t say that I wasn’t excited to return to my colorful, if not floundering, life in Brooklyn after that particular trip.
On this visit I slept on the couch in the living room and stayed up late going through old books and papers. I kept packing and unpacking my suitcase, going back and forth between feeling like I needed to bring everything with me and fighting an intense urge to bring everything into the backyard and burn it. If you're wondering why I didn't, you should know that Vermonters are very serious about fire safety and our two closest neighbors were both volunteer firefighters. In the end I settled on taking pictures of some stories I wrote when I was 6 and absconding with all of the Calvin & Hobbes books. I also cried a lot. I cried more that weekend than I had during my breakup with Frederick three years prior.
Leonard Usher Wilson was comfortably into his golden years when his first grandchild, my sister Annie, renamed him “Hoppy Toad” after the character in the Raggedy Ann series. The name was actually a confusion between two characters, Hoppy Toad and Grandfather Hoppergrass, but the name stuck, and Len spent the next twenty some-odd years receiving toad and frog themed gifts for every birthday and holiday. You would think a distinguished Veteran, Vermont politician, Harvard graduate, and seasoned traveler might find this new amphibian appointment somewhat undignified, but if he was at all bothered by it he never let on. Let the record state the he was a very handsome man and even in older age never resembled a toad in any way.
I ended up seeing the house in Moretown one more time, during an unplanned trip to Vermont in August of 2016. My grandfather had passed away quietly in his own bed in East Montpelier, Vermont at the age of 89 on July 31st. It so happened that the weekend I was able to come home to see my grandmother was the same weekend that my younger sister Nina was leaving for college in Colorado AND that the sale of the house was officially closing. With my sister no longer needing a home base near her high school the house could really actually finally be fully relinquished, which did mean going back one more time to power-wash the shower and sweep all the floors. So where before I sorted through the rubble of my childhood, now I got to wander through its empty husk.
I was in charge of sweeping out what used to be Annie’s bedroom. This proved nearly impossible because the floorboards were so haphazardly placed that there were huge irregular gaps between them in which everything including the broom got stuck. I kept finding old colored pencils, earrings, money, hair ties, and all kinds of worthless treasure hidden in these cracks, but I had to let them stay there. When I was done I glanced through every room, none of which I had ever seen empty. The most jarring was my dad’s old studio. Without the piano is looked enormous. It felt for a moment like maybe it could all go back. All we needed was a clean house and the past could be reconstructed; better and stronger than it was because now we all know what we’re doing. I had to let that feeling burn itself out inside of me while I stood with my broom in hand inhaling dust which was no longer mine. The house was indeed brimming with hope and possibilities; just not for us.
We pulled out of the driveway and I watched everything familiar scroll through the passenger window and slip away for the second time. The crunching of gravel under the tires echoed the static in my head as I tried to stop myself from crying. I put my hand out the window and let my fingers drag through the air hoping to pull the images with me. The car built up speed and the dirt road turned to pavement and soon enough it was all in the past. I would spend one more night with my mom and her boyfriend in their new house and then head back to the city, where no one in particular was waiting for me.
I still often feel, even in New York where everyone is at once famous and anonymous, that everyone is friends with everyone but me, and I’m the only one left to my own devices, sitting with my back to the door, listening to someone else try to make something happen, and hoping for some magical outcome in which I’ll have everything I want without ever having to do the work or figure out what it was that I wanted in the first place. Maybe I’ll stay in my lopsided attic apartment forever and some poor social worker is going to have to clear out of years of unfinished projects when I die. Chances are though, things are going to change before I realize what’s happening, and I’m going to miss something about the way things are now even if at this particular moment it all feels like absolute horseshit.