Not very long after Nick and I met, I decided that although we were already having sex at least twice a day, I needed to show him that I was interested in officially making him my boyfriend. The only comparable gesture that I considered befitting of the occasion (since I really didn’t have a reliable set of parents to introduce him to), was to invite him on a weekend trip to my hometown in Upstate New York. I figured showing him where I had come from was a pretty solid statement of my good intention to commit to him. When I told Nick my idea, he was thrilled. This would be our first trip together and right away both of us were looking forward to it.
I wanted to make our weekend out of town the perfect little getaway, so I booked a room for the two of us in an expensive bed and breakfast called “The Colonial House.” The tiny inn was right in the heart of Ludlowville, a small hamlet situated about twenty miles north of Ithaca. I knew of Ludlowville because it was where my mother had spent the earliest years of her own childhood. In the late forties, my grandfather had purchased an old wood frame house in the village built in 1850. Once upon a time the house had belonged to the village doctor. Over the following years, Grandpa built a small apartment house on the back part of his property to help bring in some extra revenue. Eventually, when all of his kids had grown up and moved out, my grandfather sectioned the family house as well into four small rentable apartments.
Our first night in the room at The Colonial House was spectacular. The weather was so fine that we left the windows to our room flung wide open throughout the night. After having unbelievably hot sex, Nick and I laid together on top of the sheets and watched the lace curtains in the window as they drifted gently back and forth.
The next morning I made sure that we woke up at seven to get an early start. I only had two days to show Nick everything I wanted to and I was pretty excited about the first stop of the day. Just a bit up the road from our bed and breakfast there stood an old abandoned schoolhouse hidden halfway up on a wooded hillside that had mesmerized me as a boy. When my mother brought to Ludlowville to visit Grandma and Grandpa, I almost always stole away to play alone amidst the dusty hallways and rickety stairwells of this ghost building. I explained to Nick that the school was so old it was abandoned and rotting even back when my mother lived here as a little girl.
It was a lovely morning as Nick and I strolled down Main Street. Naming the street that ran through the center of town Main Street, however, was an audacious move by the village founders. In any other community Ludlowville’s primary avenue would be considered nothing more than a forgotten side street.
Our tandem footsteps made a pleasant crunching sound upon the gravel as we walked along the side of the road. The early morning air smelled clean and fresh, and a sweetly fragrant scent wafting from the thick patches of tall weeds growing in the ditches alongside the roadway roused within me a pang of nostalgia. I remembered how I used to rustle these weeds to upset the thousands of grasshoppers that were hiding within. When they’d burst forth in surprise I’d catch one in my hands and keep it as my pet for the entire day. The grasshoppers fortunate enough to escape me would leap into the road and then bound away, zig-zagging across the sizzling heat of the asphalt to the other side of the road. They’d disappear once again into obscurity into what must have been for them a brand new neighborhood. It was too easy to romanticize this place. It was that beautiful to me.
I lead Nick past the few crumbling buildings that still stood along Main Street. There was a large, three story brick building that had, at one time, taken up the entire block on the street’s western side. Half a century ago the building had contained several local businesses. There’d been a general store, a barber shop, a post office, and throughout the years, a host of various other mom and pop shops that had since come and gone. Now the entire structure was converted into a collection of quaint apartments that were marketably referred to as “rustic” by the sign hanging above the main entrance. Directly across the street from the apartment building stood a boarded up single-engine firehouse. Next door sat a dilapidated clapboard church with three of its nine stained-glass windows busted out. Altogether, these three modest buildings were the totality of “downtown” Ludlowville.
We walked around the apartment building to the back side where I knew there was a hidden path into the woods. Taking Nick firmly by the hand, we ducked beneath the low branches of a stand of century old trees and entered the shade of the gradually sloping hill bearing the path. The hillside was overgrown and mysterious now, but I explained to NIck that there had been a time when the villagers had completely cleared this hill of all its growth in preparation to build the stunningly gorgeous new schoolhouse. It was completed in 1896. These days, in order to see the remains of the old place, a more adventurous person must be willing to trek through some pretty dense underbrush to get to it. Nick stood looking ahead at the darkened trail and it seemed clear that he wasn’t sure about venturing any further.
“Are there bugs?” He asked.
“Everywhere.” I said, squeezing his hand playfully. “But don’t worry. They all know me.”
We began to ascend the hill together, Nick constantly swatting and slapping at his arms, legs and face in a panic. I laughed every time. As we reached the top of the slope, the long, rectangular two-story wooden building revealed itself, still resting sleepily in the exact same spot in which I remembered it. “There it is,” I whispered. The school’s rotting walls of pocked and chewed slats were penetrated with dust-filled shafts of sunlight that filtered through its hulking frame through countless gaps and holes that had formed over time. Considering that the structure had been exposed to the elements for nearly a hundred years, it was surprisingly intact.
The front entrance of the building, a pair of sturdy and ornate wooden doors set beneath a molded arch, divided the edifice into two symmetrical wings. One of the doors was slightly ajar, inviting the bravest of visitors to walk closer and take a peek inside. From the outside, the place appeared as fragile as a house of cards, threatening to collapse with the gentlest breath of wind. But that had never stopped me from going inside when I was a kid. Danger wasn’t a word that concerned me. The promise of adventure far outweighed any worry of possibly falling through a rotted floor or tumbling to my death out of a broken second-story window.
I directed Nick’s attention upward, far above the heavy wooden doors to a gabled bell tower. From above the front entrance and all the way up the walls of the tower twined a decade’s layer of thick vines, both dead and alive. In the open space at the top of the tower was a belfry, but the bell had long since been removed. It entertained me to wonder where a bell like that might have ended up. Transferred to another nearby school, maybe? Or perhaps it was ringing every Sunday in a church tower in some far corner of the country. I thought about the person who’d had the privilege of ringing it that one final time. Had he known it was a momentous occasion as he pulled the rope, or did he only realize it long after the school had shuttered and died? There’s a certain sadness to experiencing a meaningful ending when you don’t understand in the moment that an ending is what’s happening. I looked at Nick as he stared up at the tower.
“It’s creepy.” He said. “You found this place when you were a kid?”
“My mother showed it to me,” I said. “And it’s not creepy. It’s amazing.” I felt a tinge of disappointment when Nick said that. His comment somehow felt personal. I recovered quickly, realizing that I’d probably sounded curt just then. “She told me that even way back when she was a little girl it was empty. They used to store hay in it.” I pulled out my digital camera and started taking pictures of the building even though I had already snapped hundreds of shots during previous visits. It didn’t matter. I was compelled to photograph it every time I saw it. I had taken so many pictures that, if I’d wanted to, I could’ve laid all of the prints side-by-side and watched the old relic decay before my eyes in a sort of photographic slideshow. “She said she’d come up here to escape.” I told him. But I didn’t feel like explaining all of that to him just yet. I decided that some things are best kept secret when you’re at the beginning of a new relationship.
“Let’s go inside.” I said, pulling Nick after me. He pulled against me and took his hand from mine.
“I’m not going in there.” He said.
“Why not?” I said. Who wouldn’t want to explore the inside of a beautiful old abandoned school building? Someone less adventurous, I thought. But surely that didn’t apply to Nick. Back home he was always so spontaneous and fun, willing to do pretty much anything at the drop of a hat. But as I thought further, I realized that anything spontaneous that we had done always took place on Disney property. Nick was more than ready to drive out to the Contemporary Hotel at the last minute to watch the fireworks from the top floor. He was gung-ho to get up before the crack of dawn to get to EPCOT before everyone else so we could boast that we’d been the first ones to ride the new Soarin’ flight simulator attraction. Once, we even hid deep inside Injun Joe’s Cave on Tom Sawyer’s Island, scaring people in the dark as they wandered through the pitch black maze of the cavern. We knew that eventually, someone would tell security and we’d be blown, so it was expected when the beam of a flashlight appeared at the entrance to the tunnel. We squealed like little schoolgirls and made our escape out the back way. Nick’s willingness to be brave and impulsive was one of the things that attracted me to him. Spending time with him was like reliving my own childhood all over again. Evidently, however, his adventurous spirit had its limitations and didn’t extend beyond the confines of make-believe. I tried to talk some sense into him.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I explained. “I’ve spent hours playing inside. Come on. A couple of the original blackboards are still there. We can read the nasty stuff other people have written on them.”
“No.” Nick said again. “I’m not going in there.” I stared at him, not quite knowing how to respond. I’d been looking forward to sharing this place with him more than any of the others on my list. He sat down on a tree stump and said, “Besides, there might be wasps in there. Wasps love to nest in old buildings.”
I turned and stared up at the school. I didn’t tell him that there weren’t any wasps nest, because he was right. Many times when I’d visited, especially in the summertime, I’d seen huge hives clinging to the highest corners of the musty classrooms. But, so what? leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone. I’d never had any problems with them.
“I thought you’d like this place.” I said. I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice.
“Well,” he replied. “I kind of don’t. Old buildings freak me out, to tell you the truth.” I put my camera back into my pocket and sighed.
“You’ve read too many ghost stories.” I said. I was trying to sound lighthearted, but, this really sucked. If Nick wasn’t as bold as I’d pegged him to be during our first few months together, I wondered what else about him I might have gotten wrong. Inwardly, I crossed off my mental list the leisurely stroll through the cemetery that I had planned for us. I sat down next to him and put my arm around him, kissing him behind his ear playfully. “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve only really thought about the things that I want to do while we’re here. This is our weekend.” He looked at me with gratitude and kissed me back.
“Thanks.” He said. I grabbed his hand again and pulled him to his feet.
“Okay then,” I commanded. “Then tell Daddy what you’d like to do.”
He thought for only a second before he replied, “Let’s go downtown and see if they have a Disney Store.”