In the summer between my MFA and PhD, I housesat for a professorial couple from my graduate program in New Mexico. They had a beautiful house: nothing outrageous, just a nice two-bedroom-one-bathroom with a backyard. I loved it. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room overlooked the mountains and lavender in the front yard. Those were the two things I had always wanted in a house: French windows with a view and lavender in the garden.
In their house I lived a perfect life. I woke up without an alarm and had my morning coffee staring at the mountains. I had long, slow breakfasts with the guy I was seeing. I read books in the backyard in the shade. I had friends over for intimate board game nights and picnics, shopped in a nearby fair-trade store with a large selection of fresh greens and coconut yogurts. I took candle lit baths. At night I got lulled to sleep by cicadas, not screams of my upstairs neighbors. There were no deadlines, no teaching at 8 am, no wondering whether that sound in the middle of the night was a gunshot.
I knew very little about either of the professors. I knew they were tenured, got their PhDs from a prestigious university. They had their first baby on the way and were taking sabbaticals in the fall. They wore expensive clothes and often showed up at university events together and were called “the power couple” by the grad students. They had a dog they had taken with them. Their house was very neat and orderly with plenty of stuff I had never owned, like mixing bowls and measuring cups. They had enough plates and glasses to host dinner parties.
That summer I hosted many parties, though none of them large, out of fear of ruining the house. My grad school friends loved the place. We were used to crowded one-bedroom apartments and studios in the neighborhoods where you couldn’t be outside after dark, used to solo cups and disposable plates.
“They have such a minimalist house,” one of my friends said once after looking around.
“Really?” I said. “I think they have a lot of stuff. If it was my house, I would have gotten rid of so many things here.” But the longer I stayed, the more I wondered if that would have been true. I hated accumulating, but I had to admit it was nice to have a food processor and more than two wine glasses and one spatula.
When I was not in the house, I went on trips with the guy I was seeing. We went to Taos and Santa Fe, stared at the stars in the middle of New Mexican desert, hiked the trails surrounded by cliffs and mesas, and visited vineries that inevitably popped up on the way to our destinations. Back at the house, we had sex, the kind of sex I had never had. He always had sex with me, not with my body.
The hosts of the house told me I could eat their food. At first I thought I wouldn’t, but gradually I changed my mind. They had cashews, dried fruit, fair trade coconut oil, artichoke bruschetta, fancy jams, and all the other things I liked but rarely bought because they were expensive and unnecessary.
At some point, I realized I had to eat their food. The dinners and picnics I was throwing for my friends were eating away my savings. It was easy to get carried away in that fancy grocery store with its nut cheeses and strawberries that actually smelled and were red all the way through, but even though I temporarily lived in a nice house all by myself, I was still making $15,000 a year, was still on F-1 student visa and that summer wasn’t allowed to work at all.
In a couple of months, I would have to move from New Mexico and go to Rhode Island, start my PhD, once again teach composition classes no one wanted to take, and return to the perpetual state of tiredness. I would have to live in noisy, ugly apartments with roommates. I would have to end the relationship I didn’t want to end or leave it hanging in the air. I would have to leave the people I had intimate and close friendships with that took years to form, and try to replace them with new ones.
There were downsides of living in a house of course. I had to push the trashcan to the curbside every Tuesday. Weeds were constantly trying to take over the lavender plants, and even though the hosts told me not to bother with the yard work, I didn’t want the lavender plants to die. Bindweeds gave me most trouble. They tied around lavender stems, and it was impossible to remove the weed without harming the lavender. The weeds themselves had beautiful cone-shaped flowers on them, and I felt guilty tearing them out of the ground and throwing them into trash. Sometimes I picked the flowers and let them float in small glass jars, but they only lasted till sunset and I would have to throw them away anyway.
Cleaning the house usually took me way too much time, and having so many kitchen appliances meant a lot of organizing. I wondered how my hosts managed to keep the house so clean and orderly while having full time jobs. The house was a commitment, and I didn’t even have to pay the bills or worry about the mortgage, repairs, pest spray, gardening or clogged sinks.
I wondered how the professorial couple managed to keep their other commitments, how they maintained their relationship in the midst of grad school and later while moving from one tenure track job to another. I wondered how many years they spent getting where they were now. But more frequently I wondered about other people, the people from their graduate program who couldn’t keep their relationships and didn’t end up with tenure track offers, never bought a house, postponed having children until they could no longer have them, lived in a never-ending state of uncertainty. I thought about my friends who separated from their spouses because they wouldn’t follow them wherever the tenure-track offers were, about another professorial couple whose long wanted first child hadn’t lived a day after being born, about how every year at least one graduate student in my program had a break down or ended up in the ER, drained by the workload.
That summer my lover and I went for a camping trip in Colorado, to a tiny town hidden in the mountains. It had beautiful streams, houses with pointy roofs, pools with hot spring water, and a chocolate factory.
But the best part was the camping spot. It was isolated and unshaded and no one wanted it. I loved it. It had the most amazing view. I could see the entire tiny town from above, all the houses in the mountains and the blue round pools we would later soak in. I had a terrible headache from the altitude, but I felt like the luckiest person on earth. I was there, encircled by the mountains, with a person I had started to fall in love with.
I knew it was all fleeting and temporary, that I couldn’t hold on to that piece of land, that my relationship was up in the air, but in that moment it didn’t upset me, didn’t take anything away from that experience. Perhaps being oxygen-deprived meant that I could only feel one thing at a time.
When the professorial couple was about to come back to New Mexico, and it was time for me to move out, I bought white carnations and left them a bottle of wine someone had brought to one of the parties. I knew it wasn’t the best gift since she was pregnant, but I had no energy to come up with anything better.
The house was no longer mine, even though it had never been mine to begin with. It was one of the many goodbyes I would say over the next few weeks, one by one, until they accumulated and came crashing down on me, and I would feel raw for days, breaking into tears unexpectedly.
But I didn’t feel much then. I was exhausted from meticulously cleaning the house from top to bottom, trying to erase any traces of me living there. My skin was itchy from the cocktail of cleaning products and I felt them in my lungs. It was incredibly hot, like it usually was in summer in New Mexico. I placed the keys on the coffee table and shut the door. Before I left, I lingered outside and stared at the drying lavender. One lavender plant had completely dried out, despite me having tried to water it back to life for weeks. The other one was persisting, and so were the weeds that secured their place in the garden, covering it with delicate pink flowers that only lasted for a day, from sunrise to sunset.
Tatiana Duvanova is a writer, a Fulbright alumna, and a PhD candidate.
She was born and raised in Voronezh, Russia. She holds an MFA degree
in creative writing from the University of New Mexico and is currently working toward her PhD in English at the University of Rhode Island. Her writing has appeared
or is forthcoming in Litro, Southword, Notre Dame Review, and Necessary Fiction.
Her stories have placed, been highly commended or included in long- and short-lists in the Val Woods Fiction Prize, the Badal Short Fiction Prize, The Manchester Fiction Prize,
the Sean O’Failain International Short Story Prize, and the Fish Publishing Competition.