Before the hurricane came, it was just Halloween weekend, and we were just four kids piling into the car to drive upstate for a pumpkin carving party. A friend of a friend was hosting, a clothing designer now, who lived in a big white farmhouse with big grey porch. I got out of work late on Friday in Manhattan, and elbowed my way into a costume shop with the rest of the city to pick up a wig, just in case — just in case this turned into a costume party.
That night, we packed: rubber boots, broken umbrella, white gown and lace vest, parts of trees, black and white striped updo, werewolf mask and gloves, toothbrushes, pajama pants, and hallucinogens. Just in case on that last one, too.
It was decided that B would drive, so he was grabbing a coffee at the cafe beneath T and C’s apartment while they packed pumpkins into the trunk, and I decided to do one last check on my phone before we got on the highway.
“Are you serious?” I cried. “This is how I find out? This is how I find out.”
“What’s up?” B asked, nestling his paper cup into its holder.
“I was just looking at Facebook, and a cousin of mine posted his status, Rest in Peace, Grandma.”
We briefly debated whether or not I should call my parents immediately, or if we should get on the road as planned; I decided to text them then, just let them know I’d call tonight. T navigated us to the highway. I stared uncertainly out the window.
A couple of years ago, Grandma’s health had reached a level where she could still live at home alone, but she didn’t have the energy or breath to clean it. Her once impeccable condo — with its white angel food carpet, gleaming copper pans, and crisp ironed pillowcases — had gathered a layer of grey, heavy dust, footprints, the blood spot from where she fell in the den that just wouldn’t fade away, despite my dad’s repeated efforts. My stepmom and her siblings visited often to deliver food and drive her to doctors’ appointments, and tried to arrange a maid service for her, but she would consistently cancel day-of. She was embarrassed for a stranger to see her home looking that way. She felt she should be showered and made-up for company. Eventually my stepmom asked if she would be more comfortable just paying a family member to do it.
When I would go, mop bucket full of bleach alternatives in hand, nostalgia hit like a scorned fiancée. The sound of the buzzer downstairs. The oak slots of the mail boxes. The smell of the elevator, the carpet in the elevator, the amber hue of the elevator button: it was the same, it was all exactly the same! I walked down the same hallway I’d walked down dozens of times before, realizing this was possibly the first time I walked down it alone. As a kid, I was inseparable from another hand. My parents, carrying paper bags full of casserole dishes around Thanksgivings. My little sister, our cartons of dolls, the ice skates we’d sling over our shoulders in purple nylon bags through February, heading down that escalator to the series of connected ponds outside. My cousins, my aunts, my uncles, the dog we’d sneak in: everyone congregated here.
But now, Grandma couldn’t stay standing for very long. By the time I would make it to her apartment door, she would be back in bed, watching television, or sleeping. I would tread sock-footed around the rooms carefully, trying not to make noise. Windex the glass coffee table, rearrange the magazines. Dust the venetian blinds, sweep the linoleum. Everything the same, everything back in its place: Ovaltine tin on the counter, small plastic jars of spices in the white wire rack on the wall, the wooden swing hanging on the balcony.
The cabinet in the dining room, though — that was the hardest. White with delicate glass shelves, she always kept its two doors wide open, with tiny lamps inside that I never saw shut off, making the whole vessel glow like the passage to Narnia. If you’ve never believed in treasure, you’d never looked inside that cabinet.
As a kid I always assumed I shouldn’t touch anything. Now here I am, I thought guiltily, rustling through her life.
At my parents’ suggestion, before I cleaned the cabinet shelves, I would take pictures of each section, so that I would remember where everything went. Then, a bug-eyed, perspiring Indiana Jones, I would pluck each artifact from its sacred holding space and place it carefully on the floor next to me, recreating each world in a nest around my feet.
Porcelain figurines with swirling skirts, holding delicate umbrellas; three-dimensional Victorian valentines; tiny flip-books showing dance moves; wind-up toys of unexpected animals; little decorative boxes, hand-painted jars, seashells, bundles of dried flowers. Careful, careful! Everything a memory. We thought, maybe before she goes, we could show her the pictures, ask her to tell us what everything meant.
“I’m leaving now!” I would poke my head in afterwards and say. She would thank me profusely, even though I was happy to help, and even though she was paying me to do it. But she would thank me, over and over. “There goes the supermodel!” she would say. “Miss America, 2012!”
I would gather my things, walk back to the elevator. I know it’s strange to be so fixated on an elevator, but it’s where we usually played. My sister and cousin Stephanie (and sometimes Scooter if he was down with dolls that day) and I would bring our toys inside, set up and await the inevitable thrill when our little room would startle into movement. What floor now? Would we be able to see the underground garage? Who would be there when the doors opened?
Ding! An elderly man, a shiny black pair of loafers, going up! Ding! A young couple in sneakers, smiling briefly down at our gaping faces, then turning awkwardly to face the door. Ding! Perfume, cologne, hairspray, pumps, tattered Keds, a tenderly held roasted chicken from Byerly’s. We stared in horrified silence at all of them, because they were strangers, because we’d been caught in the act, because anything could happen, but it was a comfortable danger, rolling the dice with the elderly constituency of that condominium and their visitors. Ding! Ding! Ding!
Now I pressed floor 1, and closed my eyes, breathed the air. For several seconds, the elevator’s movement felt like a free fall.
Somewhere along the Taconic, we lost phone service, and I wasn’t calling anyone. Tomorrow, I thought. I’ll talk to everyone at home tomorrow.
We stared out the windows and listened to a podcast about New York City ghosts. There are a lot of them, it turns out. The scariest one had a habit of making himself very tiny. The chamber maid in the story fainted too often for our liking.
“Soooo . . . how long since you’ve been back to Bard, anyway?” T asked.
I thought this over. “I think it was 2006?”
In fact the last time I was near Bard I was pushed down a hill inside a sewer tube (wheeee), punched myself in the face with my own knee when we hit the trees at the bottom, split open my eyebrow, crawled out bleeding and needing stitches; then stood in an empty parking lot while my friends broke into the dorm to retrieve my insurance card, only to be blinded with my thus far only borderline abusive ex-boyfriend’s headlights as he pulled down the road. “Adrianne?” he’d called. “Is that you?” I’d screamed, ran into the nearest laundry room, locked myself inside.
“Yeah,” I said. “Six years I think. Do we turn right here?”
“Left,” T said.
The pumpkin carving party was friends and some families, a few little kids running around, with the farmhouse smelling of baking squash and cinnamon. Our hostess had a bullet hanging on a chain around her neck, which I found immediately compelling. “You know me, the food isn’t going to actually be ready until like ten, as usual,” she said, all long dark hair and chaos. “Oh god, I still need to carve a pumpkin!”
C and T clambered into the massive tree in the back yard, where tables were set up with newspapers and knives and a little cloudy-haired girl swung her magic wand. We drank mulled cider and dipped crackers into homemade hummus, buried our reluctant hands into the bowels of our pumpkins. The woman across from us excused herself to wash her hands because, she said, she has a pumpkin allergy.
“Mine is . . . a classic scary jack o’lantern!” B said.
“Ours is a happy kitty!” T said.
“Mine is a stately gentleman!” I said. Then, “Oh, wait. I have no idea how I’m going to carve that top hat, or the monocle. Here, I’ll make its eyes squinty — at least it’s jolly?”
“Now it looks like Teddy Roosevelt,” T said.
Later we would sleepily crawl upstairs to pile on T and C’s guest bed and watch It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We were fading fast, and it wasn’t even nine o’clock. The bed & breakfast where B and I were staying called to let us know the room was ready and we could stop by for keys.
“When you get back, we’ll go out,” T and C said. “This party is fun and all, but it’s time to bring some energy back to this thing.”
They texted while we unpacked: costume dance party at the Black Swan. You may want to dress up.
I looked at B. “If we’re going to do this, we should do this,” I said.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
Editor’s Note, On Drug Usage: It’s true, world, I very occasionally do drugs, and some of my friends very occasionally do drugs. Or, a drug, and at about half the dosage an average American male would take, maybe once every few years. Employers, this does not interfere with the quality or quantity of my work.
Lots of drugs and highs are sought after for escape, but the nice thing about mushrooms, as another friend described it this week, is that they make you incredibly present. All of your focus is on right now; the small details of your environment, a reshuffling of your priorities that feels more correct even long after the drug has worn off. It’s the closest I get to meditation, to a feeling of my small place in a much bigger, connected world. I was advised once to only take hallucinogens when I was in a really happy, good place — but the one time I did that, I had my only somewhat bad trip, because I realized that much of what I was happy about was superficial, that I’d buried the bad.
Now when I take mushrooms, I like to take them when I’m conflicted about something, anxious and caught up in importance.
Back at the farmhouse, we each opened up half a capsule and scattered its contents into a mug of cider. B pulled on his werewolf mask. “See you guys in six hours,” I joked.
“Woo hoo!” T said. “To the party!”
We jumped down the porch staircase, framed in flickering jack o’lanterns, and began our walk to the bar. It was just after 10 pm.
There were only a few people at The Black Swan, but they made it count. Specifically one guy — someone’s ex-boyfriend, I never got clear on whose — had created a costume made entirely of stuffed animals. I’d never seen so many stuffed animals in one place in my life. He had massive overalls just covered with them, a shirt he’d pull over his head that enveloped his entire body with them so that only his eyes peeked out.
“Everyone’s asking me ‘what are you?'” he sighed to us. “Look, I am what I am, all right? Quit trying to define me and just enjoy it, or whatever.”
I leaned in to C. “I think I’m starting to feel it?”
“I want to hug you,” she said to him, opening her arms wide. “Can I hug you?”
A fog machine turned on; Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” came on the speakers. A few more monsters filtered in to the bar, some sexy Thing 1 and Thing 2s. There was a water jug in the corner and we kept refilling our plastic cups, sipping water and admiring the scenery. Every now and then we’d weave through the crowd to poke our heads outside.
There was a strange moon that night. Full and bright, with an expanding ring of light around it, like the iris of a massive glowing eye. We wanted to confirm with other people that this was actually an amazing thing, and not an effect of the influences we were under, but we couldn’t muster the nerve until much later. I stared at a neighboring group of costumed people. A guy walked out with a big red horse head mask. “Look at that guy!” T said.
He leaned over to us and nodded. “Hey, how’s it goin’.” Then he disappeared to the back of the patio.
I burst into laughter that went on much longer than maybe it should have. “That’s exactly what that guy would say!” I cried. “Oh god. It’s exactly what that guy would say.”
Later we would all go for a walk, ambling along the small town’s roads in the direction of the farmhouse. We took turns closing our eyes and leading one another by the hand, like the blind. You could slip into your own world this way — a black hole of just you-ness, the feeling of your clothing on your skin, the pulse of your brain, the passing street lamps on your eyelids, patterns and heartbeats. “What do you see?” I kept asking B, “What’s there?” He grasped my hand. “I don’t want to do it anymore, it’s scary,” he said. “Here, I’ll lead you, if you want.” The air was cool, rustling the dry leaves overhead and under our feet. Overhead, the strange moon watched.
Confession: I’d taken just a little bit more once we were at the Black Swan, so sometime around when we returned to the farmhouse I began peaking again. I walked to a tree in the front yard that stood beneath a street lamp, and leaned against its trunk, staring into the leaves that glowed like thin slices of citrus.
This is how it was when the twelve-year old biked by. A man in a werewolf mask was silently sitting cross-legged in the middle of the yard. C was in the driveway, building a pyramid of leaves. “It needs to be taller!” she kept calling out, laughing. “The leaves are cutting my hands! But it needs to be taller!”
My head slowly lowered as I sensed movement coming down the street, and I made eye contact with the boy as he biked by. His mouth hung open, and he pedaled harder. “Oh,” I realized, “we’re legitimately terrifying.” Then I thought, I bet all scary things are like this; just normal people, normal things, caught up in a different moment. I bet most scary things are pretty relatable, when you get down to it. That chamber maid really just needed to relax and ask the tiny ghost if there was something he was trying to express.
I placed my hands into my lightening-striked wig. Earlier in the evening I had worried I wouldn’t tolerate this costume; that its artificiality would become abhorrent, that I would discard pieces of it throughout the night and hate myself. That we would become terrified of B, in his werewolf mask and wire rod enforced werewolf claws. But B delighted us, and I didn’t think often of my costume.
I smiled into the leaves, sank into the ground. It’s an artifice, but it’s a good one, I thought. The grass swirled and undulated. I thought, if I found the right place, I could disappear into it.
Slowly, other guests began coming home. They found the group of us cuddled together leaning against the front tree, sleepily gazing at the pumpkins on the porch. B’s mask had come off and he was a regular person again.
“Oh!” a girl cried. “That’s so nice. Look at all of you, just enjoying the moment. So much of the holidays we just do stuff and run off to the next thing. Are you guys really just sitting there looking at the pumpkins?”
“Yeah,” we replied. “Wanna join?”
She nestled into the center of us, and another girl cozied up to the left of C. A passing friend set up his tripod. “Try not to breathe or blink for 10 seconds,” he said. “Starting . . . now.”
Silence. 10, 9, 8 . . .
“Hmmm,” he said, analyzing his screen. “Let’s take that again.”
“It’s such a strange moon out tonight,” someone said. “Like an eye. Did you see it?”
A storm was coming. The next day we huddled over eggs and coffee with our dark-haired hostess at a favorite old restaurant, soon to be sold or closed, depending on what the future held. But for now, everything was wonderfully the same as it had been years ago, when we’d left this place. Same cream-colored coffee mugs, same warmth against the hands. Same awkward shuffle at the end, did we really spend that much? Crap.
When cell service came back, I would call my parents: talk about coming home for the funeral services, the rituals for grieving. In the coming weeks all of the pieces of Grandma’s apartment would be packed into boxes: inherited, donated, scattered across people and places. Someone else would move in, new pictures, new sheets. All that we had preserved would suddenly and alarmingly change.
But for now, it was just this: a morning after’s pause, a slow journey through forested roads. Yellow, orange and red leaves would whip off the trees in a frenzied ballet, spinning and entwined together impossibly far above us only to scatter, land softly as birds.