The old front entrance to the house before the addition was added. Photo by John Goodwin.

Going Home (part 3): Scotch and Hammock

Sitting back down on the lawn chair, I looked up once more and smiled. I had surely done harder things than I was about to do, and besides it would only be for a brief moment and then I’d find some relief. I did consider walking the mile to the one grocery store and purchasing something to open the bottle with, but aside from the fact that I had no idea how late the store was open, it felt foolish. I didn’t actually need the booze to enter the house, but the broken cork would haunt me unless I did something about it. It had snapped in half, brittle with age, and it taunted me with it’s fragile denial of the gold within. But I didn’t need the boost of gold to walk inside, get a cork screw and then come back out. So, with one deep breath, I got up, didn’t think, and walked over onto the porch and in through the front door. I left my bag, I left the bottle, and I left Carly, still hanging in the branches above me, her glorious laugh reminding me of nothing at all.

I pushed through the bags of newspapers that lined the front hall, and I was thankful it wasn’t yet dark out. If I had to find a light I might not have the nerve to keep going, but as it was, I walked into the kitchen and tried not to stare. The place was as full as I remembered it and then some with more clutter than felt possible. The old wood burning stove was covered in papers and precarious boxes shoved in between layers of magazines. The cat’s bowl sat next to the refrigerator even though he had been gone for over a year. I instantly remembered the phone call from my dad, his voice trembling as he told me the cat had died, and we cried together over the phone, him for his friend and companion and me for the grief I heard in his voice. I shook my head, unwilling to get distracted, and pushed through to the counter where a large bin sat full of spoons, ladles, tongs, chopsticks, and the occasional knife. Wedged in between, stuck beneath a potato peeler and a melon baller, was an old waiter style wine opener, which I grabbed as quickly as I could before turning back towards the front door.

I pushed by the old desk, which was now hidden beneath cans of food, more newspapers, and boxes full of old cameras and other gear, before passing into the hallway. I was just about to make it through, when I saw the old cupboard, and I couldn’t look away.

When I was a small child, the front entrance had been the kitchen to the house before my parents put the addition on. I was only four when the new section of the house was built, but still I remembered that kitchen even if only from one occasion. Hiding in that little cabinet had once sat our old toaster, the tray at the bottom so full of crumbs I was surprised it didn’t catch fire more often. It did it’s job, but on occasion it did it too well, and I remember my grandmother standing there in the kitchen with me, the light shining through the small window as she scraped the burnt edges off my toast, calming me down with sweet words.

But that smell, that familiar and tantalizing smell of burnt toast, hit me all at once. And after the smell it was the sound: her knife scraping back and forth as the black bits crumbled free, landing on the floor as I watched in anticipation. And then it was hot butter soaking through until the bread was once against soft and edible, and I held one piece in my two small hands and bit into it, still tasting the charred edges even as it mixed with the butter. The kitchen was small, the light was yellow and green, bursting through the thin curtain my mother had sewn by hand, and yet all I could smell was the toast, and all I could taste was the butter.

It took me a moment to look up and realize that the cupboard was in fact no longer there. Three years earlier the entire section of the house had been redone, fixed up just enough for dad to stay there when he really shouldn’t have. I blinked as I stared at the open door to the tiny bathroom and the wall inside it where the cupboard had been, and I shook my head before continuing on my way. I swore that I had seen it, that some of it must have still been there, that the smell was at least true or maybe the crust on the floor. Something had to be real, because those memories came back too strong for it to be something else.

And then I was outside once again, my breath quick and hollow, like I had run a hundred miles without once looking back. I leaned on my hands, coughing and hacking for a moment as I clutched the bottle opener so hard in my hand that it nearly bled. The only thing that brought me back was the smell of the damp earth beneath my feet covered in a layer after layer of pine needles, so thick they might as well have been a carpet. I closed my eyes and breathed it deeply, tasting the hint of mold and mildew that was left lingering in my nose from indoors, and I let it out gently, trying to hold myself together.

When I sat back down, I told myself it would be alright. I had in fact done the hard part, and I could do it again. I could go back inside, I could sort through the piles of things to find what it was I was looking for, and I could get through it alive. Of course, now that I had the corkscrew I didn’t have to do any of it sober, and that thought instantly brought me back to the present, the smell of burnt toast left behind in a flash.

I was careful as I worked the sharp screw into the delicate cork that remained stuck inside the bottle. The last thing I wanted to do was to break it even further, but it slowly twisted into the flesh of the cork until it poked through below, just inches above the light brown liquor within. I gently pulled, feeling it slowly give way, and then finally, with a thin pop, it came free and I had done it. The smell of the Macallan 18 overwhelmed everything else, and I raised it to my nose to burn out the memories along with the mildew. It was sweet with just a hint of smoke, and I breathed it in again, feeling it burn my nose hairs.

I placed the bottle down next to me and leaned back in the chair, looking out towards the street, which was only blocked by the skirt of the tree, it’s long branches bending down with age until they encircled me completely. It was a small oasis in the middle of suburbia, and we had made use of it more and more the older we grew. As kids we mostly chopped wood there and used it as our base camp for scaling the tree, but when we came home after college, we hung a hammock and planted torches full of bug repellent to brighten the space. Late at night we’d sit outside with bottles of beer and guitars, the local rednecks in a fancy north Jersey town that was more accustomed to backyard decks, in-ground pools, and cabana houses built for marital affairs.

Those memories felt safe and warmer, and when I raised the bottle of old whiskey to my lips it was with fondness on my mind for the first time all day. And yet, even as I tasted the smoky liquor on my tongue, I stopped before I took a real swig. I held it up to the light, wondering at my odd restraint, before putting it back down. I let out a long sigh, because I had done the thing I set out to do. I had gotten on the bus, I had taken it all the way, and I had even gotten off at the right spot. I walked the half mile to the house and dug up that fucking bottle of booze, a gift from my brilliant thirteen-year-old self. If I had only known just how much it would mean to me, I might not have done it. In fact, if I had known my current need, I might not have made it through the night, let alone through the last thirty years.

But instead of drinking it, instead of losing myself to the glorious release that I knew would come with the booze, I did something else instead. Before I could let myself think better of it, I got up once more, walked to the door, entered the house, and found the front closet already open. I threw four pairs of rubber boots out into the hallway along with an old coat, two sweaters and a plastic garbage bag filled with who knows what. And there, in the back, just where I had left it, was the hammock, it’s bright Yucatan colors calling to me. I held my breath as I dug it out, and less than a minute later was I back under the tree trying to attach the damn thing. The carabiners were still clipped to the ends, and the old rope wrapped around the tree somehow felt secure. I hooked on one end, and then managed to loop the other side around the smaller tree by the side of the road and connect it back to the hammock. It hung low, but it didn’t matter. Standing perpendicular, I spread out its bright patterns before grabbing the bottle and sitting my ass down into it, pulling my feet up as soon as I knew it was safe.

The hammock stretched out like it was made to do, and instead of cocooning myself like you do when you lie the long way, I was flat and comfortable, with the tree to my right and the road to my left as I gently rocked in the breeze. Leaving the bottle next to me on the soft earth beneath the tree, I leaned back and I closed my eyes once more. There was something peaceful about being there after all that time, and there was something joyful about lying in the hammock as the crickets started to play music in the backyard. Maybe it was my minuscule sense of accomplishment or possibly even my small amount of restraint, but I felt the bus ride slowly melt away along with most everything else.

When I was in college, and right after, I prided myself on never getting bored. It was an odd point to feel pride in, but it felt important, because happiness, contentment, and ease were the things I valued most. I don’t know where the hell that all went, but sitting in the hammock maybe I got a sense of it once more. I used to lie there for hours at a time, reasoning that only boring people got bored. If I couldn’t keep myself going with my own thoughts, hell if I couldn’t keep myself going by not thinking at all, then what was the point? So I rocked myself all afternoon, I took long slow walks, and I did everything I could not to entertain myself.

It’s hard to imagine now, even looking back, what life was like before cell phones, before Facebook, hell even before the internet. I got my first email account my freshman year of college and back then I had maybe two or three friends who used it. Mostly we wrote letters, scribbled out by hand on paper, folded into an envelope, licked with my tongue, and then dropped in the mailbox with a postage stamp on with hopes that it would find where it was going. And then I waited. For days or weeks I waited for a response, checking my mailbox everyday for just a few lines of connection.

Fuck, that would probably drive me insane now. I get upset if I don’t get a text message back in a few minutes, so waiting weeks would be a torture I’m not sure I could endure. But even aside from communication, those lazy days in the hammock, those hot summer nights of trying to sleep up in my room, and those long walks to and from the diner, all felt different. There was a sense of space and time that I’ve somehow lost now, and I’m not sure how to get it back.

When I wake up in the morning I check my phone–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and possibly email–before I do anything else. And when I’m waiting for the subway? Check my phone. In line for the restroom? I check my goddam phone. Lying in the hammock, the booze finally going to my head, I couldn’t remember the last time I did as little as I was doing right then. Sure, I was avoiding a hundred things, but it was different. I wasn’t avoiding thinking about them, hell I wasn’t even avoiding their existence, and I wasn’t really distracting myself either. I was simply waiting. I was preparing and taking my time. I was swinging in a hammock, and if that’s not one of the most beautiful, most important, most glorious fucking things to do in this world, then I don’t know what is.

The hammock itself was slightly musty, and it smelled like the old house just as I remembered it: a combination of mildew, wood smoke, and spring rain. It was old wood, apple cider on the stove top, and the honeysuckle in the backyard. In the winter it was the smell of the Christmas tree, the overflowing piles of clementines, the cinnamon and cloves boiling on the wood stove, and apple pie and cheddar cheese left next to the piano for someone else to finish. As I turned and pressed my face into the fabric, a hundred other things returned in an instant.

There was the Swedish au pair who was going to teach me Swedish, and for at least two whole days I believed her. I don’t know if she taught me a damn word, but I do remember her coming to that very spot and climbing into the hammock next to me. I kissed her and she kissed me back as I unbuttoned her tiny white shorts and untucked her shirt. She muffled some sighs as she shifted next to me, and when I slid my hand inside the denim, when I finally touched that golden delicacy, I nearly stopped in my tracks, because that girl had the softest pussy I had ever felt in my entire life. It was in fact, so shocking, that I’m not sure I managed to do anything for her at all other than maval and gawk at her, pawing all over her in disbelief.

I don’t know how long we made out, and I don’t remember much else other than the feel of her wet, slippery cunt as I slid two fingers inside her, amazed that anything could feel the way she did. I do know it didn’t happen again, and I’m sure somewhere in there I fucked it up. Maybe it was my surprise or my lack of focus, or maybe I simply didn’t ask her out again. It could be she wanted to see if I was good for anything and it turned out I wasn’t, or possibly she left and went back home to next week and I was just a memory: the boy with the roughest hands she had ever felt between her legs.

But after her, after that blurry afternoon, there was Lisa, curled up next to me in the same spot as we kissed and groped, this time her hand in my pants as she jerked me off. We had known each other for a few years and we teased each other to no end, but never sealed the deal so to speak. Lisa was in town for two nights, and she stayed with me there, sleeping next to me in my little twin bed with my brother and father close by. But in the middle of our kissing, in the middle of what I thought might turn into something else, she whispered in my ear.

“Would you be upset if I fucked your dad? He’s hot you know. He reminds me of you, but older.”

“What the hell, Lisa?” I said, looking at her as I sat up. My hard-on was gone, and I was unsure of everything.

“I guess that’s a yes. Come on, I wasn’t that serious about it. I mean, I would totally fuck him, but I don’t think he’d do that.”

But of course I knew better than she did on that front, and sometimes I wonder if later that night, as I lay sleeping, she crawled into his bed and took advantage of his constant willingness. Because the truth is I’ve never met a woman my father didn’t like, and on occasion he liked all of them at the same time. And girls my age, girls twice my age, or even years younger than me never seemed to matter. Much like myself, my dad loved women and he was generally unashamed to admit it.

But Lisa and I didn’t become something, and as far as I know, she didn’t become anything with my dad either. She moved to another city, and while a few years later we hooked up once more, this time in my tiny apartment looking out over New York City, it wasn’t the same. It had nothing to do with Dad, as much as I might have tried to think it did, and more to do with everything else: my inability to ask the right questions, my failure to decide on anything, and my complete cockiness in not realizing the first two.

But we had made out in the hammock, along with how many other I can’t say, and it was beautiful and it was pretty, and maybe for those moments I loved her. Even as she teased me, hell maybe because of it, I loved her because it’s how I am. I can’t kiss a person and not feel something in my chest, because I’m a broken lump of heart meat that doesn’t know any better. My brain chemicals spill out the second I get that rush of desire, and I mistake those urges, those secretions, for genuine affection. I don’t know how anyone else learned to navigate them, but I surely didn’t. Instead I embraced them as true, I dove in head first, and yet no matter how much I pushed, I didn’t get anywhere. At least not for more than a few months.

I took another look at the bottle on the ground and once again decided against it. I lay back, wondering what had gotten into me just as I heard the first thunderclap. Within minutes I could smell the ozone–the hot pavement mixed with the rain– and even though I was covered by the canopy, I knew it was coming. I sighed and growled as I finally crawled out of the hammock, and the heavens opened up and there was nothing even the tree could do to protect me.

I shouted into the storm, I yelled up at the tree, and then finally, without any grace but with plenty of pity, I took my bottle of scotch and I made a dash for the porch.

It was going to rain, and from the looks of it, it was going to rain forever.