Lower High Street
Phoenicia was the name originally given by the Greeks to the coast region of the Mediterranean, where the palm-tree was not only indigenous, but formed a leading and striking characteristic, everywhere along the low sandy shore lifting its tuft of feathery leaves into the bright blue sky, high above the undergrowth of fig, and pomegranate, and alive… But it is through the contrasts which it presents that Lebanon has its extraordinary power of attracting and delighting the traveller. Below the upper line of bare and worn rock, streaked in places with snow, and seamed with torrent courses, a region is entered upon where the freshest and softest mountain herbage, the greenest foliage, and the most brilliant flowers alternate with deep dells, tremendous gorges, rocky ravines, and precipices a thousand feet high.
— George Rawlinson, History of Phoenicia (1889)
A dirty nest of highways stood between me and the big brown house, but we met like long-lost lovers at a roadside motel. Phoenicia was blood-red removed from my gray New Jersey nothingness and the fireworks over the porch that first night I took as a sign of a solicitous welcome home.
When we pulled up, a handful of friends and relatives were already drinking mate on the porch and playing cards; we were sent to unpack before dusk fell. It was still warm enough to wear shorts, and I worked my way up the worn wooden stairs the resident coonhound, still uncertain about my presence. Joe went to the stone basement where they kept the Mother’s Milk, a local black stout.
Alice sat at the giant drafting table in the kitchen, sharing pictures of the renovations begun last spring, after Jay’s parents bought the dilapidated Victorian across the street from the railroad museum. Months of diligent archaeology unearthed the giant barn door that divided the kitchen from the living room, desiccated by years of graffiti and sheetrock. They had just exhumed the deep oak planks buried beneath thirty years of cheap linoleum, and cut a giant beam cut the center of the house to keep it from collapsing, but paint was still flaking off the clapboard in ocher speckles across the porch. At twenty-two, this axiomatic domesticity was entirely foreign.
Since the screens hadn’t come in yet, sleeping in the blue room that late September weekend felt like camping. Joe and I had spent the summer running headstrong into our mutual affection for each other, clinging to that transitive lacuna between college and the real world. This introduction to his childhood friends was an unspoken consecration of our relationship, a turn I both welcomed and feared in equal measure.
Jay’s mother and stepfather were the kind of East Village refugees who brushed by fame frequently enough to be unimpressed by anything except art. They lived in the conductor’s house next door and ran a gallery with Jay’s actual father, who grew up on Long Island in an exact replica of Rudyard Kipling’s house. When I shook his hand for the first time he said, I should be dead right now. He almost didn’t make it out the week before, when the kitchen fire at the pancake house engulfed his apartment above as well. He left just as abruptly to corner Marshall Chess on his way out of the party; Joe reminded me in a hushed whisper about Chess Records and I blushed at my sciolism.
Later we walked over the bridge towards Main Street for dinner, past the tomato-red tube rental, past the campground screening a horror movie around a campfire. The welcome sign read: Population 381. Each wooden storefront was cobbled together from bits of the 1890s and the 1950s, so that the giant purple-and-lace inn opened onto a tin-roof grocery and a bar asking hunters to leave their weapons outside. Jay and Alice took us to the Phoenicia Hotel, where tourists still dig for the buried treasure left behind by Dutch Shultz, a notorious 1930s gangster last spotted there before being gunned down back in the city.
We went back to their house to drink and play records. Alice told me how happy she was for Joe to find me and how much she missed the parties at Bard, where she and Jay met, but also her old boyfriend who used to go to parties naked under plastic wrap. She seemed young and free in a way I’d never been, as we gathered wild mint in the backyard and stayed up dancing all night. I didn’t know yet that she was sleeping with the married plumber they’d contracted to get the house in working order when we went to the farmer’s market the next morning to get the cheese and chocolate Jud needed to make French toast. Every detail of their life seemed artfully and effortlessly composed. I took inventory of the stack of handmade soaps on the stone windowsill flanking the claw-foot tub, and the walls papered with old covers of The Stranger, and the rows of seditious iron hooks taking the place of closets. It was a blueprint for my escape.
I grew up on the banks of the Chemical Coast in a working-class town divided from Staten Island by a polluted river channel known as the Arthur Kill. When I was a kid I believed the name was premonitory: entering the oil-slicked muck would lead to certain death. Gossip was traded like currency in the bars and churches that bookended nearly every street and like most suburban enclaves, sophistication was generally met with suspicion.
Blinded by the promise of the Catskills, I fell heedlessly into my own relationship. Jay and Alice broke up, but we returned to the Phoenicia house again and again for elaborate potlucks over the fourteen-foot farmhouse table and midnight yoga at the bonfire. I never felt better than I did reading Murakami in their reupholstered barber’s chair, warmed by crackle of the wood-burning stove. It was a magnet for neighbors and friends, and by nightfall, without fail, the house would be teeming with dogs and music and poetry. On each visit I would walk through the changes and additions: the soapstone floor, the open shelves, the azure walls, the twenty-foot church pew. The art was in constant rotation — my favorites were the landscapes made from dryer lint. After a while even I started painting, but at the opening I stood around with my hands in my pockets and made staccato conversation. In the ancient Phoenician language, there are no vowels. As much as I tried, I never learned to speak without them.
Visits to the brown house made everyone feel less pedestrian. We would laugh and read the newspaper all morning, or take a hike, or pick flowers in the garden, or shop at the market for dinner. Even my grandparents, who bicker and fuss over every deviation from their daily schedule, fell into the easy rhythm of naps in the hammock and late-night soaks in the tub. We’d swap bedrooms so that everyone could have a turn, though I never wanted the master suit with the trapdoor to the attic. I never lasted more than a few weeks without returning for thrift-store scavenger hunts and cases of Grüner Veltliner, for flash-baths in frozen lakes and stargazing on broke-down old bridges, for long, hazy talks about the SoHo comic book scene in the ’70s and ’80s with Jay’s parents and their friends.
And I would leave that part of me behind, each time I left, to return to a life I didn’t really want. Joe and I lived for a few years in the city; he waited tables while I commuted across Central Park. To fill the growing static between us we got a dog who would trot along with Joe when he walked over to meet me after work.
I felt more and more removed from myself as the years passed on, but each visit back to Phoenicia rejuvenated me.
Nothing was wrong, really, but I drifted through my twenties in a fog. Joe had no interests outside of politics and couldn’t spell or balance a checkbook, but he had a good sense of humor and would never leave me. He was the perfect politician himself, charming my girlfriends at parties, but we had nothing to talk once everyone went home. We didn’t fight, but I also didn’t have to work for his affection. In six years together, we rarely spent a weekend alone.
When I got really restless — in 2008 — we bought a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It took months for him to convince me; he’d go out with a realtor and return with printouts of MLA listings and pockets full of business cards that I’d later throw away. He badgered me like a child, and like a bad parent I gave in, just to make him leave me alone. It’s a great investment, he pleaded, we have to get in before the market bursts.
At 26 it seemed a better alternative to marriage, so I signed the paperwork. Ignoring the dull ache in my stomach, I focused on the latent potential create a Phoenicia house of my own. It wasn’t Joe that really mattered, or even the thirty-year mortgage he would joke meant I was stuck with him for at least that long. The renovations and repairs offered a temporary panacea to his growing disinterest in sex, which I believed to be an outpost of his absolute laziness. I threw myself into learning how to build a fence, how to lay tile, how to swallow the clawing resentment that woke me in the middle of the night. I exchanged intimacy for stainless-steel stovetops, and rather than confront the parts of me that were dying I hung handmade toile wallpaper, creeping green and ivory elephants, in my bedroom.
There were sentient flashes, at twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, that the endless layers of paint I piled on the wall were sustaining the brittle fragments of our relationship. When confronted about the imbalance slowly calcifying my heart, about how we were really just roommates most of the time, he’d say, so what’s so bad about that, or it’s not the worst thing in the world, or it’s not a big deal.
The night I fired the warning shot, I got very drunk and read Frank O’Hara for hours:
Well now, hold on
maybe I won’t go to sleep at all
and it’ll be a beautiful white night
or else I’ll collapse
completely from nerves and be calm
as a rug or a bottle of pills
or suddenly I’ll be off Montauk
swimming and loving it and not caring where
Joe found me crying in the spare bedroom. I can change, he promised. I have to fix this. Tell me how to fix this. So I said, for the last time, that I felt like a cardboard cutout onto which he could project whatever it was he wanted me to be at any given time. That he had no hobbies, interests, or friends anymore. That even after five years he didn’t understand what I valued. That I considered myself just another mark on his college-job-car-dog-house checklist. That he had no idea how my mind worked or any desire to explore it. That I hated imitating his parents every time I alone cleaned the house-made the dinner-paid the bills-shopped for groceries-ran the errands while he watched TV. That it was unreasonable to ignore how he’d gained twenty pounds and ten thousand dollars in credit card debt since we’d been together. And I told him he had a year.
My mother encouraged me to take some time on my own, to get a sense of what life would be like without him. When I headed out for a summer intensive, a sleep-away camp for scholars and writers, I was taken aback by the space that appeared — not a void, but a breath.
At the time I thought the quicksand of our financial, familial, emotional investments demanded my loyalty, but in the wake of our fallout I came to understand that it was the house that kept me tethered to him. So we met in Phoenicia for one last Fourth of July, and fireworks heralded my exit.
The act of breaking up wasn’t hard to handle, but the blowback was shattering. For years, I had to run a mantra through my head — I matter more, I matter more, I matter more — to make it past the untruths he unloaded on our family and friends. Though I petitioned to take over the mortgage and our house, he refused; days after I moved into a place of my own he changed his mind and flew to Colorado, leaving all of his belongings and responsibilities for me to sort through. Selling was impossible, through 2009, through 2010, through 2011, through 2012, and I watched my work slowly destroyed by renters uninvested in the slate blue-gray I had painted the floorboards. I was paralyzed and unprepared to threaten their four children with homelessness in exchange for months of missing rent; instead of a check, at my final collection, I found a note blaming me for their hardship and a house full of garbage and holes. After surveying the damage, I closed the door and let the bank buy it back.
Historians say the ancient people of Phoenicia were characterized by these five traits: Pliability combined with iron fixity of purpose, depth and force, a yearning for dreamy ease, love of abstract thought, capacity for the hardest work. And when I think back to what made the woods of Phoenicia so appealing, what I thought I could learn from the people I met and the spaces I longed for, these ancient ideals are incredibly present. My time in Phoenicia awoke them all in me, even the last, which I learned when I left.