Thursday, January 22, 2004

Where I Come From (part one)

It was an big gray three-story house in Spokane, smelling faintly, as old houses will, of damp paper and mold and mouse-droppings. A big wide staircase went up to the second floor, with a dark polished wood rail and balusters. Then a narrow staircase, a servants' staircase, leading up to the third floor, where there were five little bedrooms. The ten of us lived up there.

On the left was the room that Nannette painted deep, deep blue, so that you sank into it as if it were a sea-grotto. Moria shared the room with her at one point.

Second left was the room I shared with Don, smelling comfortably of the cigarettes he rolled. I liked watching him roll cigarettes -- something I had never seen before, growing up in a strictly nonsmoking household: I remember vividly the light blue can of tobacco, the quick sure movements of his fingers. Don had long straight dark hair that hung to the middle of his back, a languid habit of speech and movement, and a slight nasal problem. He would end a sentence, typically, with a long, deliberate sniff. The first openly gay person I knew. He was a couple years older than me -- was he seventeen? eighteen? Terribly old and sophisticated, anyway. Cynical, calm, kindly. A godsend to a wrought-up, self-absorbed, emotionally unstable fourteen year old on the run from his family. A still place in the turbulent world.

Then opposite the stairhead was Marcel's room; later on, the room I shared with Billy. The nicest room, with three windows overlooking the city. We built the fire escape from that window, and we would go and sit on it on warm days, or climb up to the roof (though we weren't supposed to do that) and sunbathe, sometimes nude, on the little flat tar roof.

On the right was my sister's room, which she shared with Annie; later to be Monique's room. It had a lovely wallpaper pattern -- several of the rooms did, old Morris wallpapers. That was the room I stayed in one night, a couple of years later, when I came back for a visit in hopes of being old and sophisticated myself. New students were there. We smoked dope, and watched the smoke curl up through the rays of the late afternoon sun. But the magic was already going, inexorably, draining away. The school's days were numbered; the heyday of free schools had passed; and -- far from being the vanguard we had fondly imagined -- we were become the rearguard, haphazardly covering the retreat of the Sixties.

But in truth an elegiac nostalgia hung over the place from the moment I arrived there. The school had burnt down the year before: and on the first day I went to see the new building, we began our journey by visiting the old, burned-out buildings. People told stories of waking that night, the red wavering light, the tears as they stood outside, watching it burn. The real heart of the school, some hinted, had died that night. It could never be the same.

My heart was fierce and utopian, and I was determined it would be the real school still. We worked together, getting the new building ready. Building the fire escape, among other things. At some point we demolished the ancient garage out back, covering ourselves with black, oily dust. The first day we had the kitchen up and running I happily washed the dishes, and announced -- making it up on the spot -- that I really liked washing dishes. (Within weeks, I was notorious for wriggling out of my turn at the dishes, any way I could. The flush of utopian enthusiasm lasts only so long.)

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