Party Starts Here
The summer was finally over. I had not fallen to my death, nor been arrested, nor committed adultery. At some points during the summer it had seemed like any of those things might happen. But the gear was good, I’d talked my way out of it, and the married man and I had merely corresponded fervently, an act in which even my namesake Emily Dickinson indulged, all the while wearing white.
On my way to the first tutoring appointment of the school year, I tried to appreciate the beauty of everything, and not feel indignant that I had to work for a living and couldn’t climb and write all the time. I was damn lucky to be alive, free, self-employed, and no man’s mistress.
As I wound through the newly paved streets of a gated McMansion community, the sunset finaled, orange and pink. People stood on their balconies, taking pictures with their iPhones and iPads. I pulled into the cul-de-sac and dutifully did the same.
In college, I took a class with a photographer who specialized in showing how exburban gated communities gashed the land. His award-winning photographs depicted ludicrous houses rising from landscapes to which they had no aesthetic connection, illustrating the absurdity of mixing turrets with tiled roofs and wrought-iron balconies with Corinthian columns, melding Mediterranean villa with Greek revival with English Tudor, then sticking the whole thing in the Utah desert, along with its inappropriate lawn.
I thought of him now, in this suburban gated community. Its inhabitants were leaning over their culturally confusing railings, gawking at the natural glory their newly constructed houses had done their part to destroy.
The photographer was a good artist. He changed the way I saw the world.
Inside the McMansion there was much to see. Everything in the house was in plural. There was not just one atrium, but a plethora of atria, in which there were suspended multiple chandeliers. Chandelira? There were built-in ten-foot-high carved wooden cabinets in the multiple atria housing candelabra redundant to the chandelira.
“You can work in the dining room,” said the mom. “Or, we have a home theater upstairs.”
In an alcove off the kitchen, there was a gigantic desktop Mac, and in the adjacent vaulted area I presumed to be a family room, an even larger flatscreen. What, exactly, differentiated these downstairs screen-dominated areas from the “home theater upstairs?” Different climate-control zones? The number and angle of the leather recliners?
Positioned under the kitchen-atrium was a gigantic island, adrift in an even larger granite sea. Through the dining room’s bay window, I glimpsed a hot tub and a pool, lit from within and glowing green. Beyond the pool was a pool house, in which the kitchen and family room had been replicated twenty feet away from the originals, complete with the same granite island, barstools, stainless-steel refrigerator and flatscreen television.
We sat down at the dining room table—or what I presumed to be the dining room table. It was a large table under a chandelier in a dedicated atrium. The kid pulled out her iPad and tapped her way into the summer reading assignment. I silenced my iPhone, frowning. The photograph I had taken of the sunset was not uploading to Facebook. The signal was probably ricocheting around the atria.
The McMansion may have reminded me of my old photo professor, but the kid herself was teleporting me back to my homeland of Long Island. Barely seventeen, her hair was severely highlighted, eyebrows sharply waxed, makeup heavily and expertly applied, loungewear skimpy and duly emblazoned across the butt with the announcement, “Party Starts Here.”
Underneath it all she might have been pretty, but she and her mother were doing that thing common to certain affluent suburbias. They were converging at some age that was neither the mother’s age nor the daughter’s, nor the simple average, either. The young woman wore so much makeup that she looked old. The older one was trying so hard to look younger that she looked alien. Like the house itself, the people within consisted of a combination of features that were, on their own, approximations of beauty, but when combined, formed an incoherent whole.
The summer reading assignment I was now here to assist in completing concerned a theme in the novel Ethan Frome, which the seventeen- or forty-seven-year-old before me had read, or read the Spark Notes on.
She said it was really boring, but as she summarized the book, or the Spark Notes, it didn’t sound that boring. Some guy had a wife who claimed to be very sick, but was really just a hypochondriac. The husband got the hypochondriac wife’s cousin to come help him take care of her. Then he fell in love with the cousin. The wife figured this out and sent the cousin away. But when the husband went to drop the cousin off at the train station, he couldn’t bear to let her go, so they decided to commit double suicide by sledding into an elm tree together. But they didn’t die, they just got really fucked up, and the hypochondriac wife ended up taking care of both of them.
When summarized by a teen as more of a teen drama, the story was compelling. I especially liked the ending. Now, to find a theme.
The Spark Notes said that the themes of Ethan Frome were “society and morality as obstacles to the fulfillment of desire” and “winter as a stifling force.” But given my recent correspondence, I was more interested in the adultery angle. What did she think about that?
Well, she said, what the man did was wrong. He was married to the one woman and it was wrong for him to fall in love with the other one. Adultery was a sin. (The iPad case was embossed with the seal of her Catholic school. Salve Something of the Perpetually Virginal Virgin.)
But, I argued, playing devil’s advocate, manifest(o)ing Romanticism, guiltily thinking about the lines we write, and blur, and sometimes cross, is love not a force that takes us when and where it takes us? Can we control whom we love? Can we control how we feel?
And into the echo of the McMansion’s cathedral ceiling, holding her glowing tablet like Moses in makeup, out of the mouth of the babe came truth:
“You can’t control what you feel. But you can control what you do.”