When I see my new house in Portland for the first time, it’s something I’ve only heard about, and viewed through pictures. It’s a familiar stranger, a storybook character come to life. My eye looks for and finds little things that are amiss, not how I imagined. For one thing, the temperature is chilly, until the heat kicks in and blows hot dry wind into my face, drying my skin and leaving my throat parched. The paint on the walls is erratic, with scuffs and mismatched colors. The electrical system is nothing short of bizarre. Lights that should all be controlled by the same switch, or, at least, by switches on the same plate, are instead controlled by switches located on opposite sides of a room. Half of the switches in the house are an old-fashioned push button style that I’ve never seen before, and the fact that each room has at least twenty outlets raises my suspicions about previous activities on these premises.
If it was just me here, I’d spend as little time as possible in this empty, depressing house, where there is not so much as a single comfortable seat in which to rest. I’d figure out the bus system, not caring how long it took, as long as I could read a book or look out the window to get familiar with the neighborhoods in my new city. But it’s not just me. There are two little ones, and the baby is waking me up at four a.m. because his strict bio-rhythm (a drill sergeant!) dictates that, despite the pitch black, this is definitely the time to rise. The rest of the day, we are all wrecked, but at least the baby goes down for naps. During these naps, Thing One and I knock around the bare, echo-y walls looking for something to do. We try to make the place a little homier. We hang Christmas lights from the porch, but I’ve never done this before and so I don’t quite have the knack. What looks inviting and warm on our neighbors’ porches looks bedraggled on ours. We make paper snowflakes and a gingerbread house. All of this is more exhausting than satisfying, but, still. It’s done.
Having heard the tales, I ready myself for the onslaught of neighbors. They will come, I’m sure, bearing casseroles and cookies. Their children will clamor for play dates with mine, and we’ll be forced to initiate the rite of suburban basement play dates. Though the intrusions will border on annoying, we’ll be glad to connect with the people around us. We will be rescued from our solitude.
As hours and then days pass, we wonder, where is everyone? Winnie wonders the same thing, aloud, and repeatedly. In Brooklyn, we had a dozen casual encounters each day, with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whom we just happened to meet on the stoop or on the street. Here the homes look vacant, except for those movie-set-perfect lights on the porches. Days go by in which we see not a soul.
I feel like a heart that’s been transplanted to a new, foreign body. Everything about the place is strange, from the smell of the air to the cadence of the speech. At first, I feel like this new place is rejecting me. Then, little by little, glimmers of welcome shine. Strangers surprise me with their helpfulness. One, then two, neighbors knock on the door. There aren’t casseroles, but there are donuts and chocolate wine. An acquaintance makes wonderful efforts to connect, and quickly starts to becomes a friend. It’s the few people who make the most difference.
This body is not as inhospitable as I once thought, but if this transplant is to be successful, I will have to make my own adaptations. I’ll have to forge my own connections, and adjust my own rhythm. I’ll have to come out of my new, imperfect home rather than sitting inside and waiting for the knocks on my door.
I plan to make my own cookies and casseroles, and invite my neighbors to share them with me. I’ll do it, I swear. Just as soon as it stops raining.