She held a wedge of Gouda and gnawed it nervously into a perfect ball, like a trained chipmunk or mouse, her front teeth shaping the semi-aged cheese with little bites while I sat on the porch reading Young Werther. We came for weekends whenever we could and the old house wrapped around us like a cocoon, forced us together. No TV, no Internet, no networking at all except for humming birds and a 300-pound black bear who walked past us with a shambling, lazy gate, as if his pants were falling down at the back. (Could he smell cheese?) At night I read passages from Moby Dick out loud until she confessed she’d rather be doing something else.
One weekend she dressed up as a Dutch milkmaid, did a clog dance, and chased me with the garden hose. We baked acorn squash and root vegetables. That’s what I remember. We took baths together, chopped our own wood and made fires in the walk-in fireplace that had hooks for an 18th-century crane and kettle. She made chicken with Indonesian peanut sauce, kecap manis, sliced bananas. I made hi-cholesterol finan haddie with smoked fish, butter, leeks, eggs and potatoes. We ate our meals by the fire and made love.
Why go and mess with a good thing?
Because people who fall in love think they can transform their randomly exploding endorphins into a locus perpetuum, a fixed point in space and time, a holy shelter with walls, roofs and discrete spaces for everyday living. It just seems to happen.
We make plans.
Was the cheese ball an early indication?
I’d promised myself no more fixer-uppers, no more renovations: been there, done that. But I started to cut away a few overgrown bushes and uncover an ancient stone retaining wall. (That’s how it starts.) She stalked the stream, clearing weeds, covering herself in slime, looking like a swamp creature.
Something was up.
She got pregnant and then pregnant again, the second time with twins, just after the river flooded. I joked to friends that it must have been the river gods who knocked her up. I took photographs of her naked body, tall and thin but supporting an amazingly extruded belly that seemed anatomically impossible. How could she stand and walk without tipping over?
The sonogram showed two bodies with legs and arms knotted around one another like Siamese twins–something of a shock, but it provided an image, something to work with. We did a lot of sketches, tore things out of magazines and old books, pasted them together, made collages and wrote long lists.
We wanted more than a house.
We wanted a performance piece that would transform our lives–nothing less–a magical place that hovered among the treetops like a puff of smoke or burrowed into the hillside like a hobbit hideaway. We’d lived together in a Tribeca loft and a cavernous old factory. We were ex-urban pioneers, not suburban Babbitts who’d settle for less and lose edginess as soon as we crossed the Hudson to raise a family. We refused to become safe or domesticated, too Martha Stewart. I’d just fled the Hamptons to escape phony neo-Palladian crap and wicker furniture, knowing all too well how it masked unimaginable levels of insecurity, greed and one-upmanship. I’d written about so many rich people who expressed their manic aspirations through rambling houses and formal gardens. Did any of them really need a 30,000-square-foot Mac-Versailles with twenty bathrooms and soaring foyers?
Small was cool. There were all sorts of books coming out just then on “tiny” living and “simple” living. We would be both tiny and simple, even though we were both over six feet and incapable of doing anything without neurotic levels of complexity.
And green! Off the Grid! Solar roofs, thermal wells, wind turbines, recycled materials, low carbon footprint, nothing toxic, nothing caustic, bees wax and milk paint, gently sheered wool from Abyssinian goats.
And local too! Local was very cool. Think global, act local. Support the local economy. Hire local craftsmen. Learn how the old-timers did it. Integrate with the community. Attend church suppers.
Then, suddenly, we had our window of opportunity: a good builder ready to go and a quicky mortgage from a company that had no mailing address and changed its name the following week. All we needed was a set of plans and an idea.
I remember looking out from the little upstairs bedroom and imagining something growing off the side of the house, a kind of mushroom or fungus with big windows, jutting out over the roof of the dining room, out towards the apple orchard and leaning down to where the two streams converged. That’s how things start. Some arbitrary image locks into the mental screen and you fixate on it till you figure out what it means. Now that I look back I realize it wasn’t arbitrary at all. It was the house getting pregnant, prepping itself (and me) for the expansion to come: a place that would embrace the natural environment while protecting and nurturing a growing family.
I just couldn’t see it at the time.