A Lovely House in the Country

A Lovely House in the Country
Lounge
Photo bt kevin dooley

For months Adrienne had been trying to get me to spend a long weekend in the country. She and Scott moved away from the city a couple of years ago, and lived in an old white house with camellias and calla lilies in the yard. They were trying to get pregnant.

I usually saw them when they came to the city for a show or just for dinner. Adrienne still came in to get her hair cut, and sometimes we’d go to lunch afterward. But they were coming less and less often, and Adrienne wanted me to see her house, so finally I took half a Friday off work, threw a few things into a backpack, and came up on the bus.

It only took a couple of hours, and once we’d cleared the city and were driving between golden hills seamed with oak trees and dotted with black-and-white cows, with the sky opening up overhead, I wondered why I’d waited so long. I saw myself spending all my summer weekends at Scott and Adrienne’s: I’d stop at our favorite wine store on my way out of town, and maybe pick up some fresh produce at a farmstand somewhere; Adrienne would turn the produce into a delicious meal, and the next day we’d all go hiking or something; on Sundays we’d sit under a tree and read the paper until it was time for me to go home.

Adrienne picked me up from the station in a second-hand station wagon scabbed over on its hood and roof with overripe plums. When I tossed my backpack onto the seat next to her groceries, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a gift.

“Oh, no! I didn’t bring anything!” I said.

“What didn’t you bring?”

“A gift. A hostess gift.”

“Oh, that’s okay. We don’t expect you to. You never brought a gift when you came over to our apartment in the city.”

“Never? I’m sure I must have every once in a while. Anyhow, this is different. Now I’m visiting you at your home.”

“Don’t worry about it. You brought your lovely self, and that is enough.”

We pulled into the driveway, and Adrienne parked under a purple-leaved plum tree. I tried to let myself out of the car, but the door handle was stuck.

“Just a minute,” Adrienne said, “It only opens from the outside.”

“Where’d you get this car?” I said when she let me out.

“It’s my country car. Isn’t it perfect? We found it in the local paper. I feel like I could haul around a load of pumpkins or a bale of hay in this car.”

“Do you?”

“Well, I could.”

We brought the groceries inside, and Adrienne showed me the guest bedroom on the second floor, across the hallway from her own bedroom.

“You have a guest bedroom!” I said.

“I know! Isn’t it amazing?” she said.

I put my backpack down, and she showed me the empty room next to hers. A faded blue gingham curtain left by the previous owners of the house covered the window and let in only a little light. But it was clean; the floor shone, and I could smell a lemon-scented cleaner. Eventually it would be the nursery. Adrienne smiled as she pulled the door softly shut. Then we went back to the kitchen to put the food away.

“I really want a new kitchen,” she said, “But Scott is reluctant. Once I get pregnant, I think I’ll be able to convince him that it would be better to get it done before the baby arrives. We don’t even need that much. I want to keep the stove—” she pointed at the large, curvy white enameled stove, “it’s vintage, from the fifties, isnt’t it beautiful?”

“Mmmhmm,” I said.

“I just need new counters and cabinets, a new sink—I hate the double sink—and a new refrigerator. I’d love new floors, too, but that might be pushing it.”

“It looks like a nice enough kitchen to me.”

“No, I know, it’s functional, but when you own your own home, you might as well have a kitchen you really like.”

“Well, you know me. I don’t cook, so all kitchens are the same to me.”

“I must be boring you, I’m sorry!” Adrienne put her arms around my shoulders and squeezed, “I’m so happy to see you! Do you want to help me make dinner?”

“Okay, what can I do?”

Adrienne gave me a bunch of carrots. I scrubbed them in the sink and cut off the greens, then I began to chop them into rounds.

“Oh,” Adrienne said. “I usually peel them first.” She dug through a drawer, and handed me the vegetable peeler. “Sorry, I should have told you, I just assumed everyone peels their carrots.”

“Where should I put the peels?” I said.

“You can put them in the sink, we have a garbage disposal. I’d like to do compost, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

I peeled the carrots, and resumed cutting them into rounds.

“Oh, actually I was thinking we’d do them in medium dice!”

“Medium dice?”

“I know, I’m terrible!” Adrienne giggled, “Do you want me to just do it myself?”

“Maybe you’d better!” I said.

“I know, I know, it’s… I just think it’s nicer. And it cooks more evenly.”

Adrienne chopped the carrots and moved easily about the kitchen, taking produce bags out of the refrigerator, getting pots and pans out of the cupboards, washing, chopping, and assembling, while I tried to stay out of her way.

“You know what you could do? You could open up the wine and pour yourself a glass,” she said.

That I did, and started to pour a glass for her, but she stopped me.

“Could I have just a glass of water with a thin slice of lemon, no ice?” She put her hand on her flat stomach. “You know. Just in case I’m pregnant already.”

“That’s so exciting!” I said, but as I said it I saw clearly that if I knitted something for the baby, it would be the wrong color and Adrienne would never use it; and if I ever held her baby, I would almost certainly drop it. I began to think I had made a mistake in coming to visit.

 

When Scott came home, he gave me a hug and, oddly, a kiss on the forehead. It was as if he couldn’t remember whether he usually kissed me on the cheek or not, at the last minute decided that he did, but it landed on my forehead. He helped Adrienne with the finishing touches of our meal, and he and I set the table. At last we sat down. Scott served. I said, “This is amazing,” and Adrienne blushed happily.

Scott said, “So, Amalia, tell us: what’s new and different in you life?”

“Well,” I took a thoughtful sip of wine, “Not much. Things are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. I do my thing. I go to work. I come home.”

They continued to look at me expectantly. I sopped up a bit of chicken in pomegranate molasses.

“Oh.” I said, and swallowed my mouthful. “I guess I’ve been sleepwalking—”

“Through your own life?” Adrienne said, “I used to feel that way—”

“No, I mean literally sleepwalking, at night, in my sleep.”

“Really!” Scott said, “How do you know?”

“Well, apparently in my sleep I’m planning a vacation, because I keep waking up to find my big suitcase out of the closet, opened up on the floor, with random things from around my apartment tossed inside. Once I found my hairbrush, three socks—none matching—a packet of soy sauce from takeout Chinese, and an old combination lock from I’m not sure where.”

They laughed.

“I guess you need some childproof locks on your cupboards and closets,” Scott said.

“And a few weeks ago I woke up one day with a terrible pain in my foot; the bottoms of both my feet were black with dirt, and there was a sliver of glass in one. That same morning I looked all over the place for my keys, and I finally found them in the keyhole on the outside of my apartment door.”

Adrienne gaped at me with a look of such exaggerated alarm that I thought she was joking, so I laughed.

“Amalia, that’s terrible!” she said, “You could be killed!”

“Adrienne’s right,” Scott said, “If you walk around outside in your sleep, anything could happen to you. In your neighborhood.”

In my neighborhood! Pshh!” I finished my glass of wine, and helped myself to another.

Since they’d moved to the country, Scott had grown a little beard and a paunch.

“Really, Amalia, you could get into some serious trouble,” he said. He resumed chewing, and I could not help thinking he looked like a worried woodchuck.

I laughed. “You guys are so sweet,” I said.

They both looked at me with concern.

 

After dinner, Adrienne brewed espresso for me and Scott, and herbal tea for herself. We took our cups outside to the porch behind their house. We drank and listened to the wind rustle through the tall dry grass.

“Wild oats,” Adrienne said.

Adrienne named each of the trees at the edge of their yard for me as we watched the light fall: California bay laurel, horse chestnut, plum, apple.

Back inside, we sat in their living room and gossiped about old friends. Then they told me where they’d purchased each piece of furniture in the room. After the story of the Oriental rug—which they’d seen on a trip to New York but failed to buy and finally, after looking at other rugs and then trying to get the shop in New York to ship it to them, had acquired by sending money with Scott’s step-mother, who brought it back on the plane—Adrienne began to yawn.

“Excuse me!” she said.

“We tend to go to bed early these days,” Scott said.

For no reason, I thought of the night the three of us had gone to a party together, and then back to their city apartment. Adrienne had passed out and Scott and I ended up making out for a while.

“If you didn’t bring anything to read, you can borrow something from us,” Adrienne said.

I looked at their bookcase while they prepared for bed. Most of the novels I recognized as ones Adrienne and I had both read in college, or those we had recommended to one another and traded back and forth in the years just after. There were also a large number of books on home buying and maintenance, and interior design. I curled up on the couch with a picture book on Cottage Style.

Scott and Adrienne came out to the living room in their pajamas.

“It’s so great to have you here!” Adrienne said.

“Yes,” said Scott.

“If you get the urge to walk around—” Adrienne began, and then turned to her husband, “Oh, honey, we should park the van sideways across the entrance to the driveway so she doesn’t get out in her sleep and get run over.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Scott said.

“Oh, no! Really, I’ll be fine!”

“It’s no trouble,” Scott said. “Let me just find my keys.”

“I would feel terrible if something happened to you,” Adrienne said.

Scott put on a pair of slippers and went out. Adrienne and I heard him move the van.

“I will sleep better knowing you’re safe,” she said.

When he came back we said our goodnights and they went to bed. It was ten o’clock.

I looked at Cottage Style, the Traditional Moroccan Home, and Swedish Living, but I was not sleepy yet. The house was absolutely quiet.

I found a light cotton jacket of Adrienne’s hanging by the back door. I put it on and slipped outside.

The darkness of the night was deeper than any I’d been in for a long time, and so quiet. At the end of the driveway I hesitated, but there was a moon to light my way and I was not ready to sleep yet. I knew we were not too far from town. I squeezed between the van’s headlights and a shrub and turned onto the road.

 

I had a moment of panicky dread mixed with sexual excitement when I walked into the bar on Main Street; one of the bartenders looked like someone I’d had an unhealthy relationship with a couple years after college. I quickly remembered that my ex had moved to Chicago some time ago, and besides, the bartender resembled him as he had looked when we went out, and my ex would be a good ten years older than that now, but I couldn’t help smiling at the bartender slyly when I ordered a glass of wine.

The bar was pleasantly loud. A group of college boys played pool in the back, and the jukebox played hits from the 70s; there were a handful of serious drinkers at the bar, and a middle-aged couple on a date at one of the formica-topped tables. I took my wine to another table, where someone had left the day’s newspaper. I spent perhaps an hour there; I did the crossword, and refilled my wineglass twice, smiling at the bartender, who smiled back both times. I walked back to Scott and Adrienne’s glad I’d decided to visit.

 

I scraped myself coming back into the driveway between the rear bumper of the van and a tree. The front door was stiff and required quite a lot of force to open, and to shut it all the way I had to slam it a bit. I stood still a moment to see if I had waked anyone.

There were soft footfalls, and then the light on the stairs came on. Adrienne started down.

“Amalia?”

“Sorry.”

She stood on the stairs where she could see me, squinting groggily, her fine hair teased into a mat on the right side of her head.

“Are you sleeping?” she asked.

“No, I—”

“What time is it?”

“It’s not too late. I was just about to go to bed.” I lost my balance just then, and slipped a bit to the side. I caught myself on the door behind me.

She looked at me suspiciously. “Are you drunk?”

“I had a few drinks.”

“You had a few drinks…?”

“Yes, I went to town and had a few drinks. Now I think I’d like to go to bed.”

“Oh.” She frowned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Is that my jacket you’re wearing?”

“Yes, I—”

“It’s okay. You can wear it.” She turned and started back up the stairs.

I heard the muttering sound of Scott’s voice from their bedroom, and she said to him, “It’s just Amalia. She went out drinking and she came back.”

 

I slept lightly, and in the morning none of us said anything about the previous night.

We ate breakfast, and then began preparing for a picnic at a nice spot on the river. I was washing the breakfast dishes, and Scott was destemming red grape tomatoes and tiny golden pear tomatoes, when Adrienne said, “Oh, damnit!”

She was standing in front of a blender stuffed with basil leaves and olive oil. Her chin was puckered up and she was pressing the spot between her eyebrows with her thumb as she always did when she was trying not to cry.

I turned off the water cautiously.

“What is it, baby?” Scott said.

In a voice tiny and quavering, Adrienne said, “I forgot to buy pine nuts!”

“Well, that’s okay,” Scott said, “We can go get some now.”

“I’ll go,” I said.

“No, we can’t!” Adrienne said. Her eyes were shut tight, and the corner of her mouth jumped when she spoke. “It will take too long!”

“Sweetheart, if Amalia goes right now, she’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

“But I had it all planned out! We were supposed to be ready to leave in half an hour, and now our schedule will be off!”

“It’s okay. We can make the sandwiches while Amalia’s at the store, and it will all work out. Or! How ‘bout this—” Scott opened up the pantry, and rummaged around, “How ‘bout we use almonds instead?”

“Almonds are not right at all.”

“Okay. Okay, so Amalia will go to the store. No biggie.”

Scott gave me some money out of his wallet and the keys to the station wagon. “Do you know how to get to the store?” I nodded although I was not entirely sure. “Just get one of those pint containers of pine nuts they keep in the produce department.” He glanced at Adrienne and wrinkled his nose at me, “Don’t worry. She’s just tired. She didn’t sleep well last night.”

I jogged out the back door with the keys in my hand. I got into the station wagon, and nearly backed it into the van. I turned off the car and ran back into the house to ask Scott to move it. He was holding Adrienne in his arms, murmuring, “There, there. It’s all right.”

 

When we got to the river, Adrienne spread a vintage plaid wool blanket on the grass and we ate lunch. Afterwards, Scott went to wander along the water’s edge and skip rocks. Adrienne reclined and closed her eyes.

A moment later she flipped to her side and squinted at me with one eye. “What does your shrink think about your sleepwalking?”

“What?”

“Your therapist. What does he have to say about the sleepwalking?”

“I don’t have a therapist.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Why, do you?”

“Not at the moment. I fired my last one.” She looked at me thoughtfully, as if trying to recall the occasion when she was sure I had told her about my therapist. “You really don’t have one?”

“No.”

She rolled back down on her back and closed her eyes again. “Oh. I guess I just thought, with your issues and everything…”

“Issues!” I laughed a little to show I had not lost my sense of humor.

“Oh, you know: the Peter Pan lifestyle, the failure to form a lasting adult relationship…”

I laughed some more. “Wow!”

“Well, don’t get mad.”

“I’m not mad. I think it’s funny.”

“It’s not like I’m saying anything you’re not aware of, am I? I mean, you still live in the same studio apartment you’ve lived in since you were twenty-two. You sleep on the same futon on the floor—”

“It’s a new one.”

“Anyhow, it’s true, isn’t it?”

“I don’t see what the big rush is.”

“You could get too set in your ways to share your life with anyone. You could get too old to have kids.”

After that I didn’t say anything, and neither did Adrienne.

 

They forgot to park the van across the entrance of the driveway that night, and I made sure to leave by the kitchen door, which swung quietly on its hinges.

The bartender was glad to see me back, and I was glad to see him. At the end of the night we went outside and shared a cigarette, although I knew Adrienne would not be happy about the smell of smoke on her jacket. The bartender said he’d drive me home if I could wait for him to close.

I had another drink while he shut down the bar, and then we drove up the hill in his truck. I asked him not to pull into the driveway because I was afraid the headlights and the sound of his tires would wake Scott and Adrienne. So he parked on the street and we kissed there for half an hour.

I knew it was wrong, and a bad idea, but when I opened the passenger’s side door of his truck I beckoned to the bartender to follow me. We walked hand-in-hand up the driveway and slipped in through the kitchen door. We took our shoes off inside and tiptoed upstairs in our socks. We reached the guest bedroom without waking anyone.

I thought we were being quiet enough, but soon we heard a knock on the door.

“Amalia? Amalia, are you alright?” Adrienne said.

The door opened. Over the bartender’s shoulder I saw Adrienne standing in the doorway. The bartender had collapsed down onto me, and was shaking with silent laughter.

When the door shut again, and Adrienne’s footsteps retreated, the bartender said, “Uh-oh, I think we’re in trouble!” He wanted to continue, but I made him get off of me. He wanted my phone number, but I made him leave without it. I was surprised that he looked ugly to me when he laughed at Adrienne.

 

It took me a long time to fall asleep. In the morning I wished I could sneak out and leave by an earlier bus. I could put a note on my pillow with my apologies. But there was only the noon bus. I could hear that Scott and Adrienne were up and busy downstairs. I lay in bed.

Finally, I went downstairs. Adrienne jumped up from the table when she saw me and went into the kitchen. Scott was doing something outside on the deck.

“Did you sleep okay?” Adrienne asked me from the kitchen.

I sat down at the table and looked at the paper. It did not sound as if she were asking in a pointed way. Perhaps she had forgotten. Perhaps she had been sleeping when she opened my door.

“Yes, very well,” I said.

“Good. I’m making French toast. Your bus is at noon.”

“Great,” I said.

She brought me a cup of coffee. I thanked her, but she would not look me in the eye.

I read the paper while she cooked. We didn’t talk.

When breakfast was ready, she called Scott. When he came inside he said to me, “Where’s your friend?”

“Scott.” Adrienne said.

“Well, don’t you think she should have asked him to breakfast? I like to think we provide hospitality not only to our friends, but also to the random strangers our friends pick up.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Leave her alone,” Adrienne said, “I was going to talk to her after breakfast.”

“I just think it was rude to kick the guy out before breakfast,” Scott said. “I know Amalia would never want to be rude.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said.

We spoke very little during breakfast. After we set down our forks and sipped the last of our coffee, Adrienne looked at me intently. I could not return her gaze. Scott took the dishes into the kitchen to wash.

“Amalia,” Adrienne said in a tolerant, reasoning voice, “I just don’t understand why you couldn’t have more respect for Scott and me, particularly now, in this time that is such a delicate time for me. Any kind of stress or worry could throw my cycle off. And you know how important this is to me.”

“I really am sorry. I made a bad choice.”

“You really did. I’m glad you can see that. I was terrified when I saw that strange man in your room! He could’ve been anyone! He could’ve killed us all in our beds! Now who knows when I’ll ovulate!”

“He’s not an axe murderer, he’s just a guy. And I’m sorry to have disturbed you, but if this is such a delicate time for you, why did you invite me here?”

“Because you’re my friend, and I miss you, and I wanted you to see my house and how happy we are!”

“It’s lovely, Adrienne. I’m glad you’re happy,” I said.

“I am. I’m really happy.”

“It’s wonderful.”

“I want you to be happy too,” she said.

“But I am,” I said.

She tipped her head to one side and studied me.

“Don’t worry,” I said.

 

It took only a few minutes to fold and pack my clothes and gather my toiletries from the bathroom. I made up the bed, but then decided it would be better to strip it. I piled the sheets and pillowcases on the chair, and folded the blankets at the foot of the bed. Then I thought Adrienne would not like the linens piled up like that, so I folded them. But perhaps Adrienne would not like to look at or touch the sheets, on which the bartender and I had lain, at all. I bundled them in my arms and took them downstairs.

“Shall I put these in the wash?” I asked Adrienne. She and Scott were reading the paper.

“The laundry basket’s in my room,” she said, “Could you put them in there?”

I took the sheets upstairs.

I felt funny about going into their bedroom; it was like going into someone’s parents’ room at a party.

There was an open window next to the bed, and a breeze filled and flipped the corners of the sheer white curtain that covered it. Their bed was an antique brass piled high with white pillows and a white duvet that were all clean and ironed and gave off the scent of lavender.

The laundry basket sat on the floor by the foot of the bed. I dropped my sheets into it.

Across from their bed was a heavy, walnut bureau with arms that held an oval mirror. An embroidered bureau scarf covered the top of the bureau, and on the scarf there was an arrangement of small boxes. Some of the boxes were empty. A wooden one carved with leaves held an ancient lock of baby hair tied in a fragile ribbon that had lost all its color. Inside a black lacquered box, I found several shirt buttons and a safety pin. There were hair bands inside a painted papier mâche box, and in a silver box with a moonstone set in its domed lid I found a broken string of pearls.

I took one of the pearls out of the box and held it in the palm of my hand. I could not imagine Adrienne wearing pearls, but perhaps she did now. They would have been too staid for her once. The pearl absorbed the warmth of my hand. It was so rich and creamy, smooth and impenetrable. It had no cracks or flaws or seams; the hole drilled for the string was the only way inside. I put it between my teeth. I bit down on it gently, and it would not give. I rolled it against my hard palate with my tongue.

And then I swallowed it.

It was not an accident, exactly, and it was not entirely intentional. It was almost as if I were dreaming. I had a momentary impulse to eat it, and I did, although I did not think I should, and I was surprised when I did. I cleared my throat a few times and coughed to see if it would come up, but it was too late.

“Amalia?” Adrienne called from the bottom of the stairs, “Are you alright?”

I closed the lid of the silver box and quickly left her bedroom.

“Yes,” I said.

I imagined the pearl in darkness of my stomach, returning to its origins, its enamel etched away layer after layer, until all that was left was a piece of grit.

 

Rose Gowen

Rose Gowen

Rose Gowen is an American writer who lives in Montreal.

Rose Gowen is an American writer who lives in Montreal.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *