When we arrived in Massachusetts, spring’s thaw had already begun to hatch the first crocuses, small bold banners breaking through the grayed dirt. We drove slowly up the driveway as I turned off the car radio and rolled the windows down. This was a big moment, and I wanted to experience it with all my senses. Birds flittered about busily, weaving a cacophony of tweeting and cawing into the air. But a quiet hovered outside their music, enclosing it the way an ocean takes on rain.
And then we were facing it: our new home. As I stepped from the car, I still couldn’t completely reconcile that this sturdy colonial, with its sweeping yard and old trees and roomy bathtub, was ours, and that I was actually going to live in it. Even more astonishing was this: I’d get to do that living with a good man and our two sweet rescue dogs, Aramis and Starlet. Here in the driveway, with the bright flowers and the birds and their attendant silence and the man I married five years ago standing just outside the car in the navy pullover fleece he often wore, was, by all appearances, a manifestation of the imaginary life I’d swiped from countless L.L. Bean Christmas catalogs as a child—the imaginary life I’d cobbled during my homeless, wandering years, staring into people’s houses after dark and wishing for their soft lamplight, their mazes of rooms, and the safety of their front doors, that clear demarcation of home.
Now, two decades later, I held a key to that long-imagined front door. Larry and I smiled at each other over the roof of the car.
We’d moved from a modest house in Maryland, where my family still lived, so that Larry could take a job as neurosurgery chair and work to resurrect Boston Medical Center’s failing neurosurgery department. I was going to take a break from teaching and devote myself full-time to writing, while the cows lowed on the farm across the road and our dogs frolicked in the yard and the forests all around us kept thrusting upward into the sky. It was going to be a happy life—that was the plan.
My mother liked saying, “Man plans, God laughs,” usually during some major disappointment or catastrophe of mine. I didn’t believe in her spiteful, cackling God, yet her words wormed their way into my psyche and left me always a little on edge, as if the minute I began to put faith in the future, something would come and scramble it. “Aha!” her God would say. “So much for your plans!”
Though I’d been putting distance between my parents and me for most of my life, and had finally marked that distance in miles, her words followed me like the wind chime outside her bedroom window, that eerie clanging I never got used to and can still hear. So the revolution of thoughts in the driveway that day was swift: Is this really my life? Yes, this is my life. Too bad I’ll lose it.
I put the key in the lock and opened the door anyway.
One of my favorite things about our new house was the generous placement of windows. As soon as I walked in the front, I could see out the back, and wherever I looked there was a haven of trees—majestic oaks and elms and maples, and a variety of conifers—the kind of woods that seemed inhabited by sprites and other fanciful creatures. And over the course of those first days, as I unpacked boxes and made our first cups of tea and set up my writing desk and hung white fluffy towels and blasted the music and danced from room to room, occasionally stopping to squeeze Larry exuberantly, a childlike wonder persisted in me.
I trotted around outside like a seven-year-old, skipping down hills with the dogs chasing behind, plucking rocks from the woods, parking myself in the fragrant shade of a pine tree and squinting up at its fans of needles. I’d left a lot behind in Maryland—my sister and her daughter, friends I loved, my favorite sushi bar, a kick-ass Sunday morning yoga class, a rewarding teaching gig, and the familiarity that can only come with time spent living in a place—but here, even in those first hours, I felt more at home than I’d ever felt anyplace else. The opening of our front door that day signified one of the clearest thresholds, literally, of my life: a beginning, a clean slate, the long quiet afternoon into which I could finally exhale.
“You make everything beautiful,” Larry said to me as I opened a window. He was standing in the middle of the room, pivoting around in his blue pullover.
“You make it easy,” I told him.
Once the books were arranged on the shelves, the dishes snug in their cabinets, the rugs unrolled on the floors, I parked myself at my desk and started working. As the words slowly spread into pages, the yard outside my window kept erupting into blossom—tulips, irises, peonies, lilies, lilacs, a blazing pink dogwood, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, azaleas. Someone had once loved this place, and that love still lived.
When I took breaks from writing and watching the blooming wonderland of our garden, I explored nearby towns and discovered small countryside markets, ponds shimmering up at the trees, secondhand bookstores selling rare books, strawberry fields where people filled their own baskets, unmanned flower stands with homemade bouquets in mason jars and an envelope for the honor system of paying, and a rocky beach with swings facing the ocean. In the evenings I would lead Larry around the garden and show him what new things had popped up, and he would bend down to sniff whatever I pointed out, even the flowers that had no scent. Then I would tell him what I’d found on my travels that day.
I had always been a solo wanderer. As a kid, in many ways I hadn’t had a choice. But on the moody October day of my twenty-first birthday, I chose to go hiking alone in the woods, and in the years that followed, I went to festivals and museums and restaurants as my own date, slipped into the bat-encrusted mouths of caves where no one saw me enter or exit, navigated road trips to new cities and to rickety spider-run cabins in backcountry towns. And in most of my favorite dreams—the ones that send me flying over trees or swimming in a glacial sea or visiting an unexplored planet—I’m by myself.
Even my secret road-trip fantasy, the one I’d been imagining for years, was one of solitude: I’m driving a convertible, always heading south, and the sun is always on its way down, setting freckles on my face while the wind whips my hair and Dylan plays on my radio, singing about a brass bed. I drive and drive with the self-possession of a girl who knows where she’s going, even when she’s lost. Also, in the fantasy, I’m wearing cowboy boots.
My fantasy used to culminate in my stopping at a roadside bar and beating a stranger at a game of pool. He’d be wearing a big-buckled belt and a cowboy hat, and he’d have deep laugh-lines around his eyes and large hands. After I’d win, he’d take me back to his humble digs and undress me on his brass bed. But over time, the fantasy revised itself, by editing him out. It turned out the thrill wasn’t about the man; it was about the journey, about making it alone.
Larry and I got along well because we both flourished in the vast and solitary space of our interior lives. We never demanded time from each other, and when we did converge, we appreciated the respective otherness of our different worlds. I relished what I learned about the brain—that its covering, for example, is called dura mater, which means hard mother; or that there is a kind of seizure that makes people laugh; or that you can remove a pituitary tumor through a person’s nose. And Larry enjoyed being quizzed on poetic forms and rules of punctuation, having discussions about narrative arcs and character development, listening to me wax on about the importance of imagery.
And now, on the open canvas of our new life together, yes, I wanted to make something beautiful.
When the ambulance arrived two months later, I was hunched over on our front step, clutching at my heart. It was summer by then, the shadows long on the lawn. The trees stood full and heavy, their leaves wet with light. I was certain I was going to die—and on such a glorious morning.
Within minutes an EMT was taking my pulse. As he leaned over me, the hulk of his shoulders blocked out the sun. He might have been a football player. His fingers were gentle at my wrist, and his touch comforted me, as if his hand could mean the difference between life and the grave. “Yeah” he announced, slowly giving my arm back, “one hundred and seventy-eight is pretty fast.”
He wanted to know if I had any history of heart problems. I didn’t. Had I taken any medications? I hadn’t. Was I on drugs? I wasn’t. I’d simply been sitting at my desk when a strange vertiginous sensation jolted me, like one of those falling dreams, and my heart began stampeding. That’s when I grabbed the phone and ran out the front door.
“You ran out the front door?” he repeated. A smile came slowly to one side of his mouth, as if he’d just unearthed a clue, and I took this as a sign that maybe I’d be okay. But I kept my hand on my chest anyway, and when he told me my heart was starting to slow, I could feel it was true. According to him, my blood was one hundred percent saturated with oxygen, my lungs were clear, and my heart, though fast, was beating in a normal rhythm. At the uncertainty in my voice as I declined a trip to the hospital, he told me not to worry. “We have a lady who calls all the time with panic attacks,” he said, still with that smile.
Panic attacks? How could something so physical—the pounding heart, the shaking hands, the tunnel vision—have been a product of my own mind? I wanted to call Larry, but he was in the operating room, removing a tumor from a patient’s brain. So after the ambulance left, I Googled my symptoms and stared at words like hypoglycemia, thyroid disease, heart arrhythmia. My face turned cold with recognition at the last: there was my diagnosis—a heart arrhythmia. Though the EMT had told me otherwise, my belief lived far deeper than his words could reach: these words in front of me, as bold as truth, were confirmation of a lifelong fear.
I’d first suspected something was wrong with my heart when I was eleven and noticed it thumping in my chest. My sister and stepbrother let me check their chests, but theirs were still. “Look,” I said, pointing at mine, “it’s moving!” Later, when the school nurse told me the reason my heartbeat was visible was simply that I was skinny, I didn’t entirely trust her. I worried constantly over my defective heart, and for months after she shooed me back to class, I regularly took my pulse and the pulses of my friends. Mine was always the fastest.
Now that my childhood fear had come full circle, I didn’t know whether to gloat or start planning my will. Instead, I looked up one more thing: panic attacks. There again, my symptoms matched. I was surprised to find that panic attacks can strike “out of the blue” and are often initially mistaken for heart attacks. But in reality, a panic attack is simply a fight-flight response that occurs at the wrong time—like a fire alarm going off when there’s no fire.
I abandoned the sea of disorienting medical text on my computer and the sketchy websites that promised a cure in exchange for my credit card number, and spent the rest of the day feeling shaky and alone. The hours trickled by, and when Larry came home that evening, I approached him solemnly in the foyer and told him my news. “I think something’s wrong with my heart. Also, I may have had a panic attack.”
Larry, being a thoughtful and steady man, and also a man who, unlike me, took his time when given information to which he was expected to respond, went about his usual habit of unloading his keys and wallet onto the front table, then walking into the kitchen to place the mail on the counter. We gave each other the standard hug and kiss, and then he asked, “What happened?”
I told him about the palpitations and the paramedics, half watching him and half watching the trees outside hold the late light like honey while the sun rested like a slingshot in a low branch. Larry exhaled audibly, and for what seemed like a long time. His scrub top was coming untucked, and his hair had lost its gelled stiffness and flopped forward onto his forehead. It had been a long day for us both. “You’re fine,” he decided, smiling as if there were no other choice. And we stood like that, in the kitchen, with all that light between us.
I couldn’t entirely blame him for dismissing me. We each had hypcochondriacal tendencies, which I found to be a source of both intrigue and familiarity when we were first getting to know each other. In fact, it was when we discovered that we’d both taken a semester off from college after diagnosing ourselves with MS that I fell in love with him. Since then, we’d both gone the neurotic route on occasion, thinking our headaches were tumors, our stomachaches cancer, our fevers malaria.
But that night, everything seemed different, as if the earth had shifted by a degree so that nothing was quite as I’d left it. The small mosaic lamp on the bookshelf glowed cooler; I noticed creaks in the floorboards I hadn’t noticed before; and when I wasn’t looking, someone had altered all the angles of the trees in our yard. In bed, I threw my arm around Larry and blinked into the darkness. “I’m scared,” I said.
Larry was silent again for a moment, and in that moment I wanted so many things—both reasonable and unreasonable things. I wanted him to ask me what I was afraid of, even if I didn’t have the answer. I wanted him to turn on the light and look at me, and maybe touch my face. I wanted him to tell me a story about a girl who was afraid and who found magical things in the woods. But it was late, and Larry was already overwhelmed by his new job in a new city, and being afraid is such a vague affliction that all he could do was tell me it was time to go to sleep. So I went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up still terrified of being alone. “Do you have to go in today?” I asked, reaching for Larry’s hand in the predawn light. “Can’t you call in sick?”
“You know I can’t,” he said, apologetically. So I watched him through the glass as he showered. He was sloppy with the shampoo, soaping his scalp as one might wash a black Lab. The suds ran down his face, his smooth chest. When he got out, I handed him his towel, then watched him drive his electric razor over his cheeks. I watched him spit toothpaste into the sink. I watched him pull on his boxers—the red ones with the gray whales—and his socks, and his scrubs. I watched his taillights disappear into the morning, and the night slink away like a lover behind him. I watched the daylight come on, steady as a train.
I looked down at Aramis and Starlet. “Now what?” They looked back up at me, wide-eyed and silent.