On the first day of her residency, she unpacks her bag in the space that will be hers. There’s a main house on the property and a cluster of three small cottages a few hundred feet away. Her cottage has no electricity or running water. It’s named the Library House. Theo, the residency’s intern, informs her that a group dinner is set for 5:00pm. She throws a sweatshirt on over her outfit and takes off her baseball cap. The drive was long, but she feels good about being here. She’s come here to write her novel. She will take walks in the forest and participate in yoga. She will give back to the property by milking the goats, watering the pepper plants in the garden. She will, she imagines, drift into a peace that comes with being in the right place at the right time.
Her ex-boyfriend, Charles, always talked about ecstatic truth. He was in recovery and seemed to know everyone in the city. He told her that he once went to a woman’s house and watched her clear someone’s energy. “She reads your bars,” he had said over pizza one night, back when they were still together. “She didn't even touch the woman she was reading. It was more like she could feel her, manipulate it, tune it like a guitar.”
After they broke up, she applied desperately to residencies all over the country. She was willing to uproot, to completely change everything. A writing residency in the Redwoods of California got back to her first saying she could come. Her parents didn't think it was a good idea, but she thought it might be the answer.
She had resigned from a teaching position at the high school where she worked right after Charles called it off. She left those kids right in the middle of the year. Charles broke up with her the night before New Years Eve. When she returned to class in January, she just couldn’t do it. Another teacher, with whom she shared a classroom, got engaged over break and was showing off the ring, a teardrop shaped diamond set on a gold band.
“All this because of Charles?” her mom asked. “You are young and healthy and have your whole life ahead of you. I think you’re just trying to find a way out of yourself.”
Charles wasn’t ready for a future. She had wanted so badly just to be with someone, have a family of her own, to go grocery shopping and have a real job and cook dinners and make the bed. She tried to envision what it would be like at the residency, somewhere new, somewhere she could start over. She imagined walking barefoot across the grass in the backyard, sitting in the hammock and reading that book her teacher from graduate school had published. He had done a reading once and read the story about the boys who set the old movie theater on fire and drive away from the city. The image of that burning theater had stayed with her, the way it didn’t deserve the boys’ violence, but how it suffered anyway, all the film strips curling at the edges until they disappeared.
There are four other writers at the residency: a screenwriter, a memoirist, a poet, and another novelist.
She wishes there wasn’t someone else at the residency writing a novel, but then again, it might be helpful to have some friendly motivation.
The novelist likes to give updates on her work at dinner, “100 pages in,” “I did four hours of research.”
While washing dishes, she asks Theo if there is anywhere in town she could buy cigarettes. He’s been working at the residency for almost a year, watching people come and go. She assumes he must know his way around Santa Cruz.
“We’re not supposed to smoke here,” he says. “But I can take you after curfew.”
Theo looks Sephardic. He has tan skin and a full head of curly, black hair. He wears glasses and dresses simply in all black. He wears a puffer vest at night, she notices. The drive into town takes twenty minutes. It’s a straight shot down the mountain, but in the car it’s difficult to maneuver. Theo directs her to a convenience store. She buys a pack of Marlboro Reds, the same kind her brother used to smoke. She waits outside and bangs the pack against her palm a few times, flipping it over and over. She smokes and waits for Theo. Theo comes out eating a powdered donut from a box.
“Have one,” he says, offering her the box.
“I’m not hungry,” she says.
“If we’re going to be bad, we should be really bad,” he tells her.
She plucks a donut from the box, her fingers smelling of smoke, and eats the donut. She hasn’t enjoyed anything in weeks. The powder is all over her fingers so she licks it off.
“What brought you out here?” she asks.
He eats another donut and considers the question. “I’m from Nevada. Not Vegas, but close enough. I’ve been working at this veterinarian’s office for a few years, my girlfriend is a painter, but it’s just not going anywhere.”
“The vet or the relationship?” she smokes and licks her fingers.
“All of it. I think I just needed to get out of there. Just let it go for a while, release it.”
It feels good to listen to another human being. It also feels good not to be writing, or thinking about writing, or being underneath the pressure of constantly having to write or think about writing.
“The more I think about it,” Theo goes on. “I just need to clear out my life, take the space and gain some presence.”
“Have you ever considered keeping a dream diary?” she asks.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Theo says.
“Or some grounding rose quartz…”
“Come on,” Theo laughs.
“You just remind me of someone I used to know.” She thinks maybe it was this thing about men of a certain age, their incapacity to think about forever. She thinks of a piece of string, the length of someone’s life, and how every time you lost someone or had to say goodbye to a person, your string gained a knot, making it shorter, just by a little, little bit each time.
She had met Charles at an Al Anon meeting. She was going because her brother was using again and she needed some tools to help her get through it. She didn't want to enable him this time, or deny that there was a real problem, like her parents did. She found out because her brother had left a suicide note on his girlfriend’s kitchen table and hid out on the roof for three days. He had a backpack full of black and white speckled notebooks filled front to back with journal entries. He didn't eat or sleep, but stayed awake on pills and cigarettes. When she heard this news, she drove to his girlfriend’s apartment and waited for him to come down but he never came. His girlfriend eventually called the police, who came and took him to a hospital.
She shared all this at her first meeting, possibly an over share, but she felt the need to get it off her chest. Charles came up to her after and told her that he understood. He was the alcoholic brother, though, and his little sister had been through the ringer. She had hoped to meet Charles’ sister someday, but she lived in Arkansas and did arts and crafts for kids with Down syndrome. Charles showed her pictures of his sister. She stood in some grass holding the hands of children and smiling sweetly. She thought they might get along, both of them with brothers they weren’t able to help.
She started going to the same meetings Charles attended. Even the ones that were strictly meant for alcoholics, she went anyway. She wanted to be around him as much as possible, someone that understood. She searched the rooms for his ragged hair and scruffy face; a face that would look even more handsome clean-shaven, but his way was a little rough around the edges. He had brown eyes and he always wore khakis and a t-shirt with flip-flops. He gave her a mini Alcoholics Anonymous book on a keychain, out of the blue, one day after a meeting.
After a month, Charles stood up at one of the meetings and gave her a little white poker chip. “Welcome to the club,” he said and they hugged. That night was the first night they slept together at his apartment, which was nicer than she had expected. It overlooked a quiet street, and when she couldn’t sleep at night, she’d sit out on the terrace and watch the cars go by, wondering where they were off to so late. She had a new life with Charles, and it felt like she was progressing, getting over her past burdens, finally leaving some of the baggage behind.
She is facing a problem at the residency. She can’t really get any writing done. It isn’t a lack of peace and quiet. It isn’t that she doesn’t know what to write either, because she does.
There are spiders. She has never seen so many spiders concentrated in one area. When she goes to the main house to bathe, they congregate in the folds of the shower curtain, on the windowsill, on the ceiling, the floor, they even seem to be on knobs she has to touch. She has to take a broom in the bathroom and swat it around like crazy before she can even step inside the shower. Spiders hang above her bed at night. She spends most nights awake— another big issue, lack of sleep— and finds it easier to rest during the day when the spiders seem to retreat to another location. She isn’t exactly sure where they go, but they definitely move elsewhere. She begins, instead of sleeping, instead of writing her novel, going to the main house’s living room and sitting on the couch all night.
She starts cataloging her losses, beginning with Charles. She thinks about her parents in their apartment on the beach, how they watch television; shows about people singing in masks and shows where lower rate celebrities dance on stage and audience callers have to phone in and vote on their performances. She thinks about how she no longer makes them proud, but instead, makes them worried. She thinks about her dignity, how she feels like all she has are enemies, even herself, how everything feels so heavy and urgent and impossible.
She tries to picture Charles, her parents, her brother, out there somewhere in various apartment buildings, how none of them can hurt her anymore, but yet here she is, on a couch thousands of miles away, hurting. She texts Charles and walks outside to the back porch of the main house. He doesn’t respond, so she tries calling.
“Hi,” he says, and her blood turns cold.
“I'm in California,” she says, as if this might mean something to him.
“My writing. I'm writing a book.”
“It is. This place is amazing. You’d love it. ”
“It’s late here. Can I call you back tomorrow?”
“I'm pretty busy tomorrow, but I just wanted to make amends.”
“To me? Okay, go ahead. I'm all ears.”
Her body shakes, not from the cold, but from anxiety; the internal, shivering kind of shake that she can’t control. She brings the sleeve of her hoodie up to wipe away tears and blot her nose, which is dripping. She is grateful Charles can’t see her, that she is so far away from his view, but that his voice is right there with her.
“Thank you. Thank you for breaking up with me and letting me go, setting me free.” A ball of mucus clogs her throat and she chokes on the words as they come out. “You let me live a life outside of my life.”
She knows it isn’t an apology, but it’s truly the best she could do.
Theo asks if she wants to go into town that weekend and visit the farmer’s market. He’s responsible for cooking meals and she offered to help him. This time he drives her down in his truck and she gets to enjoy the scenery, the green mountainside and tall trees, the old houses and their beautiful painted mailboxes. Theo walks around the market gathering herbs and spices for dinner that night. He shows her how to check the freshness of the mint and basil, how to pick the rosemary from the stem and rub it between the fingers to test its scent.
“I want to go into psychology,” Theo says. They stop at an ice cream vendor and sample a few flavors. Cherry and chocolate, hibiscus bloom, strawberry basil. “I’ve always loved people.”
“But what about the animals?” she asks. She orders a cone of strawberry basil and it’s so pink it looks fake. It’s the color of a lipstick she had when she was too young to even wear makeup. Pastel pink.
“Penelope’s family got me that job,” Theo says and makes a gesture towards her cone. She hands it over and it’s obvious that he wants to share. They start to pass the cone back and forth, bite for bite, lick for lick. She feels something in her gut, her loins. It feels like a weakness, a buckling, a dull ache. She says nothing.
Theo goes on about the girlfriend, the ease of her life, the way everything is decided for her, marked out. The path ahead “mapped,” he uses that word. She’s the kind of person that things just happen for. She’s lucky. She’s blessed. Her parents are wonderful people but they don’t have a zest for life. Theo wants to travel the world and learn everything he can. He wants adventure. He wants something wild.
She’s quiet on the drive back. Theo asks to bum a cigarette and she gives him three. He puts two in the pocket of his shirt and smokes one, driving up the winding mountain road. She picks one out of her dwindling pack and smokes one too. She likes the feeling of reclining as the truck climbs up the road. The sun is starting to set and the fresh herbs rest on her lap, fragrant, promising.
When they arrive at the house, he parks and she asks if it’s safe to use the pool.
“Cleaned it this morning,” he says.
She puts her bags down on a lawn chair and jumps into the pool with all her clothes on. She hopes to God there are no spiders in the water.
The screenwriter left after the first week. The residency is supposed to last two weeks, but it’s become a game of who will stay and who will go. The memoirist lives an hour south and wants to go home to her family, the family she is currently writing about. The poet suggests he could teach a yoga class to whoever wants to participate. In the foyer, it’s the poet, the memoirist who wants to leave, Theo, and her. The other novelist has cracked the code to her novel, and cannot make the gathering. The poet leads the group in a standard yoga flow, but it takes a turn after sun salutations A and B. The poet has everyone lay on their backs and comes around with burning sage. She wonders if he’s allowed to burn something inside, but no one stops him. He seems to be going around to everyone individually and giving them specific stretches to practice. The memoirist is in a reverse warrior and Theo is in pigeon pose. When the poet gets to her spot on the floor, he puts his hands on her shoulders and lifts her up so she’s folding over her legs. He moves close to her ear and whispers, “Release the demon.” Before she knows it, she is hysterically crying and everyone is gathering around her asking if she’s okay. The poet seems angry with her. Theo has his hand on her back. The memoirist leaves the next day.
San Francisco is an hour and a half north. She thinks she can get a hotel on one of those last-minute deal websites and drive up the next morning. She calls her mother and her mother wants to know what will happen to the money she paid to be there. “But I didn't pay to be here,” she says. “It’s free. They feed me and everything.” She wants to go to the airport and go home. She is ready to admit failure. She packs her bag and finds Theo in the garden.
She notices a pepper plant that Theo's been watering, how the droplets seem to bounce right off their bodies. They're so brilliant, so vivid, bright orange and red and yellow.
“I want to give you something,” she says, and takes the white poker chip out of her cardigan pocket.
“What is it?” Theo asks.
“I'm not sure anymore. Maybe it’s a token to get into heaven or something. I just think you better keep this.”
She gave Theo the poker chip and watched as he held it in his palm, considered it, like maybe it truly was a token to another world, or perhaps that it was just another thing he'd have to carry with him, another item, another thing, another piece of evidence that he was really here and that his soul belonged to his body on earth. She looked beyond Theo and tried to see out past the tree line but everything seemed to blur into a brownish green that made her dizzy.
“You know, heaven is what you make it,” Theo says.
She wonders if she’s having a spiritual awakening, but in the next moment, she’s driving off the property, passing the rainbow of mailboxes. Tall trees are giving way to roads, and eventually she’s back on the highway, driving north this time. She takes a deep breath, imagines pushing all her feelings forward, out in front of her. She thinks about her brother, his pain, his suffering. She feels guilty for being the sister, the one who has complained of carrying such a heavy load, when really it was he who suffered most. Her mother calls, a hopeful sign, her checking in, concerned, still loving, still caring. “How are you doing?” her Mom asks. She feels chipper all of a sudden, lighter, maybe even happy.
"You know,” she answers. “Still praying for that miracle.”