Arms Outstretched

Debbie’s hair is long and white, with curls that double in size on humid Vermont days. When it’s wet, it snakes down her back in matted waves, and she wrings it out like a towel.

I watched her do this one night as we came giggling into the house. Our noses dripped with water, and we stripped in silent unison, faced in opposite directions. It was the first big rain in months, and we had both just skipped through dark puddles and wriggled our toes against the still-hot asphalt outside. I thought of the berry farmers south of Burlington and of all the parched soil in the Champlain Valley. I thought of the foil boats my brothers and I used to race in the street gutters during Houston floods. As I watched Debbie stare up at the sky, arms outstretched, I didn’t think once that it might be odd that I was rain-dancing with a 60-year-old librarian I met on the internet.

Debbie and I met in May when I moved into her house for the summer. After posting on a handful of public forums and chatting with Debbie on the phone, we agreed on an arrangement: I was to pay $150 per month, cook two meals a week for her, and clean the house.

During the 30-hour drive to Vermont, I didn’t think much about Debbie. From my phone calls with her, she seemed like the archetypical librarian: lives alone, has two cats, loves audiobooks and long walks. I imagined her as the perfect housemate and quasi-employer. I boasted to my friends about what an amazing deal I had found. It wasn’t until I was on her doorstep that I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.

When I arrived, she was gone for the weekend. I groped around in the dark garage and found the spare keys hidden inside a pair of gardening gloves. I realized for a moment how bizarre it was that this woman was willing to let me into her house before even meeting me. I swung the door open and two cats peered up at me. I took a tentative step into the house and they scattered, disappearing up the stairs.

The living room smelled like patchouli, and there were plants and books on every shelf. I remember squatting next to the bookshelf, fumbling around for some sense of who this woman was. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to look at what makes up a life: her kitchen magnets, her calendar notes, the vegan butter and fresh produce in the fridge.

As I fell asleep thinking of Debbie, my mind leapt to anxious extremes the way that it does when I’m slipping into unconsciousness. I had an intense fear that I might annoy her, that she didn’t know what she was getting into, and that she would perhaps hate the whole deal and ask me to leave after a couple of days.

I woke up to her footsteps the next morning and had a disoriented moment where I had no idea where I was or how I got there. I looked across the room at the armoire of homemade remedies and tinctures, realizing that Debbie must be home. I got dressed and wandered up the stairs from my basement room. Debbie was in the kitchen, putting groceries away. Her hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and she wore a loose cotton dress. Her cheeks were round and her whole face seemed joyous. I was immediately at ease and offered my hand in introduction. Instead of shaking it, she spread her arms out and hugged me.

I learned that Debbie was more than just a librarian. Debbie and her ex-husband were once true Vermont homesteaders. They pickled all of their produce, made their own cheese, and even constructed a dehydrator out of Christmas lights, a fan, and chicken wire. Debbie had owned a garlic farm and home-schooled her two sons. She was also a trained herbalist who mapped invasive species in the area on the weekends. She also exercised diligently, recording the time and type of workout in a little notebook in the kitchen. She was kind and thoughtful. I made a passing comment that I couldn’t get into any of my heavy nonfiction books that I had brought for the summer. The next day, Debbie came home with a stack of novels and a sticky note description on each of them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Debbie and I slipped into a pattern. In the mornings, we would skirt around each other, grabbing bread from the toaster and snapping the stove off when the kettle whistled. On Mondays, I got home and vacuumed the house from top to bottom. On others, I cooked her dinner and wiped the mirrors and windows. While I was at work, she would text me different ideas for dinner and I would spend my day thinking of what to cook for her.

Our relationship teetered between business-like and friendly. In the beginning, I would dart up the stairs to the shower, giving her a closed mouth smile, and tightening the towel around my chest. I carved out a space for myself in the house and tried not to get in her way. I felt that I was there to cook and clean for her and was hesitant to make it anything more. But then, slowly, she started to offer up little morsels of her life to me.

One time, Debbie called me over as I was making tea. “Skelly, would you like to see pictures of my sons?” she asked, her voice faltering as if she regretted offering in the first place.

I walked into the living room and she scooted over on the couch, drawing a leather photo album from below the coffee table. I folded into the crook of the cushions and took the album into my lap. She watched me eagerly as I flipped through photos of her as a young mom with her two boys. There were ones of them rosy cheeked and bundled on gray winter days. In others, the boys peeked from behind curtains of drying garlic, the purple bulbs resting against their shoulders.

“I used to be a garlic farmer,” Debbie said. “Have you ever tasted fresh garlic? Oh, gosh it’s the best! I’ll have to make you dilly beans before you go.” I felt flattered by her shy glee.

Another day, I asked her how she slept and she sighed loudly. “Oh, really horribly actually. I dreamt about my dad and it made me miss him. He died 12 years ago and I don’t miss him that often, but I woke up thinking about his voice and …” She trailed off. Her eyes were shiny, and I wondered if I was allowed to hug her, or if that would be weird. It was in these moments that I wondered if Debbie thought of me as a friend. I scrubbed her toilet and baked her sourdough, but she was also my buddy. It was the first time in my life that my days were structured around serving somebody else. Although it was technically for monetary reasons, it rarely felt that way.

Actively thinking about someone else’s happiness felt like an antidote to the toxic mindset often developed at Colorado College. Here, my days are dictated by stress and the weeks that lead up to fourth-week’s sleepless crescendo. I, as many people do, handle the Block Plan by thinking about myself constantly. We go into survival mode during tough blocks and become meticulous about stress management. The structure essentially demands self-absorption; it forces us to lean into the stress with our whole selves, and so much of the richness in life is lost in these tornadoes. With Debbie, each day passed like the one before; living with her brought a measured cadence into my life. By reversing the feeling of self-absorption, my sense of urgency deflated too. The dissolution of manic CC energy felt like a huge exhale, something I haven’t felt in a long time.

Towards the end of the summer, Debbie was offered a new job at a library in Waterbury, 20 minutes east of Burlington. For months, I had watched as she flung herself into the application process. I looked over her resumes and helped her prepare for interviews. When she got the job, we went for a celebratory sail with Mary and Joanna, Debbie’s friends from her full moon women’s circle.

It was a Friday night and the sky was cereal-milk blue. I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car with Japanese takeout; the Styrofoam boxes squeaked in unison as Debbie turned onto Pine Street. We were driving to the marina to meet up with Mary and Joanna. Joanna is in her 70s but womans the ship with ease and humor. She eats a sundae and orders me around—which I love—unclipping the sail cover and fetching the wench from below the seats. Once we’re on the open water of Lake Champlain, Debbie reveals a bottle of prosecco from her Jansport backpack. The three women exchange devilish grins and Mary says, “Everyone should go around and say the last time they drank champagne.”

Mary recounts a beautiful Indian wedding that she just attended in Boston: the detail on the saris and the crispness of the wine, the joy on the groom’s face. The three of them turn to me and I describe the morning of Llamapalooza, hungover and drinking warm champagne from a mug at 10 a.m. They nodded politely at this image.

It was moments like this that I reveled in the differences between Debbie and me. Who I am at CC felt infinitely far from myself in that moment. I was grateful to be with people who didn’t know or care about my accomplishments or relationships or anxieties. I could think of nothing better than to float in metallic water with three older women who were wiser, kinder, and more patient than I ever am. Wasabi tingled on my tongue and the champagne felt warm in my stomach. As I looked around the small sailboat, I felt intensely connected to these women, despite having met only weeks before. My unlikely friendship with Debbie was more fulfilling than anything else I had done that summer. As Joanna yelled, “Coming about!” in her raspy voice, Debbie and I exchanged a warm-eyed smile and clinked our plastic cups of prosecco.

 

 Heat Issue | November 2018