APPROACHING EXIT 27: Weary and Fretful


Spaces we need to add: master bedroom, master bathroom (x2), walk-in closets, bigger kitchen, family mosh pit, studios (x2), etc. I was standard male-issue wreckage, in recovery, midlife or early-mid crisis, whatever, publishing oddly personal pieces about suburban cul-de-sacs and highway culture–“blow-and-go” was memorable rest stop–while driving on L.I.E., back and forth, one end representing guilt and remorse, the other love and synergy and I must have gone slightly mad with so much driving because the highway itself became a hard-surfaced Pilgrim’s Progress (at 75 MPH,) every off-ramp another station of unraveling that defied interpretation. I kept a daily journal of my manic journeys and wrote a 250-page allegory that never saw print (one editor agreed to publish it if I rewrote book with a “body in the trunk,”) but it was operative landscape for that year of flux.  I’d come to a big intersection in my life, an interchange, with sluices, clover leaf ramps and swales.

Exit 27: weary, fretful driving. Graffiti on overpass reads “FUK.”  Place of indecision, distraction, too many options:  Dante’s  “Dark Wood,” Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond,”  Fitzgerald’s “Valley of Ashes” where ashes grow into  grotesque gardens. Could’ve stayed in city  another night with her. [“Her” was you.] Skeleton of burned-out Toyota says never too late but way too late.

When schedules were tight we’d meet half way at a mirrored, pyramidal hotel off Exit 50-something, near where Joey Buttafuoco fuked Amy Fisher and the notorious Parkway shooter aimed his rifle at motorists driving eastwards. (Only eastwards for some idiosyncratic reason.) We took a room behind the big red “R” on the seventh floor and I remember those highway trysts illuminated by a lurid hue, bloodfire red you called it. We made love and ate Chicken Parmesan, micro-waved from the deli across parking lot, gazed through window at traffic blur and young women with big hair in pastel chiffons crowding out of laser-flecked disco after midnight. It rained all night and I dreamt that your long legs were highways and I was driving, hopelessly lost, up one leg and then down the other. Early morning we went separate ways–romantic even in such marginal  infrascape of culverts and plastic bags trapped in chain-link fencing–you to Paris, Milan or Hong Kong, me to chilly, off-season beach house, sending long fax scrolls–now faded sepia and almost unreadable–with little sketches of yourself squeezed into a Tokyo taxi (“prepare for accident!”) or reclining on emperor bed at George V, eating room-service, wishing you were here

So the house became an essential place to meet between separations, escape, unfold, in dreams and for real. E.M. Forster wrote “landscape is personality” which I never understood until then. We both wanted new space, green space, cultivating areas that had been formerly unseen or deeply tangled. As with highways, the house became another allegory but this time for recalibration, healing, future life, love. 

You did drawings that were like dress patterns with one idea attached or hinged to the next like origami unfolded but the sections were rooms or views, not sleeves and bodices. (I was still learning about how you thought, designed, made collections that weren’t just clothes but narratives with mythical names and scenarios, whole new worlds.) And that’s how we found our way inside, jumping back and forth in time, collaging parts together from mutual memories, childhood travels, parents, remembered rooms, windows, shady gardens. We borrowed a cross-fertilization of ideas, intoxicated by possibilities: a separate studio building straddling the stream or hovering in the woods at tree-top height; bookcases for five thousand volumes engineered like  suspension bridge between slit windows, supported by crisscrossing struts; built-in counters and benches made from thick slabs of white oak–everything minimal and modern but made with a kind of dumb, Fred-Flintstone carelessness–sloping pylons like buttresses bolted in place by outrigger joists; translucent shoji screens opening to forest. We both kept scrapbooks and made lists. You were much more diligent and tore pages out of World of Interiors, Architectural Record, Dwell: a stone wall with a blue door somewhere in Tuscany; a house in the Engadine clad with horizontal slats like a corn crib; stone steps crawling with ivy; wisteria-tangled arbors.

I kept dreaming of an endless lawn of clover and buttercup, beautiful and open-faced, beneath a tangerine sky, like the poppy fields in Oz with slo-mo narcotic haze and I’m standing at the gate wondering if I should charge admittance or let everyone in for free. Had urge to expand perimeter, push back forest to reveal selected Larch,  Slippery Elm, Shagbark Hickory, open “view lines” to reveal beds of ferns and old stone walls, and kept thinking of those “blue lawns” in Gatsby, especially Tom Buchanan’s, the one that “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens–finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its  run…”

How could we make something like that?





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.

We expand.

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.

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.


Start with house, I guess.
This house.
Where I’m sitting.

First came September 1990.
Didn’t have a clue.
She drove blue Jimmy (with lift kit) after sushi on Hudson Street, Tribeca. Late and dark Friday and we’d been drinking saki with Chet Baker slow blues through nowhere Jersey, west and then north, over some bridge.
We’d only met the week before at end-of-season, inter-gender softball behind a church in East Hampton, me on first, she in right field. I didn’t know anything other than that she was tall (like me) with a Brit but colonial edge to voice. Australian? Kiwi? South African?
(First impression: high-powered Amazon. One drink at Lucky Strike, then forget it.)
“Who are you?” I asked, not intending to sound like lame pick-up.
“Who are you?” she fired back, rudely but flirty.
Turned out she was Dutch, from Amsterdam, lived and worked in London, thus Anglo accent, former model, now fashion designer with big sleepy eyes and long legs.
She’d been using my old outfielder’s glove and refused to give it back.
“It has ‘Gordon’ written on it,” she says. “You said your name was Alastair.”
“Yes. Gordon’s my last name.”
“Oh, OK,” her eyes turn up, then away, handing me the glove like she still didn’t believe it was mine.
Next day we went for picnic and swim at Accabonac and shared mutual passions for design, for dark British humor–Goon Show, Dudley Moore & Peter Cooke, Monty Python. Her father, a Communist architect, had been in German Concentration Camp while mine, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, had been in Japanese death camp, so we were off to a good start.
A week later I’m sitting in the passenger seat of her fashionably distressed GMC listening to Chet Baker and wondering where the Hell she’s taking me: past lakes, dumbstruck deer by edge of road, trailer park, back woods, abandoned boy scout camp.
She made a slight sucking sound between her teeth as she drove–trapped sashimi?–later confessing she’d popped a valium with the saki. For nerves.
Where the hell were we again?
She named a place I’d never heard of, way out of Manhattan-Hamptons-Maine-Princeton comfort zone.

What was that? A family of suicidal possums? Up winding, spooky lane lined with pines to small clapboard farmhouse with hand-hewn beams and big fireplace. Sounds of gurgling stream. Blue enameled antique stove and Dutch coffee grinder in kitchen.

A little boy’s navy uniform hanging on bedroom wall had me flashing on Glenn-Close-in-Fatal-Attraction-style scenario, gorgeous but crazed, with no one ever finding my mutilated body parts.
Chet was singing Let’s Get Lost and I still didn’t know where I was but that’s how it felt, like when you get lost in the woods, a little scary at first and then not so scary as your eyes and body adjust to the surrounding environment. Then you let go, like with anesthesia, and succumb.
When I woke in morning she was already outside, standing in her underwear, shooting arrows at a target made of straw.
Goddess of the Hunt, I thought.
There was a James Bond book sitting on the shelf and I could see that it was her on the cover, much younger, wrapped in furs, lying provocatively on a giant golden gun.

Diana of the Golden Gun.
Twenty-one years later this coming Labor Day weekend we’re still together but the house has expanded from that rough little hideaway to a fairly rambling residence/studio for work and four children, somehow, leaving 18th-Century parts in tact, paring back to original bones, while adding modern loft-like spaces to one side. “Best of both worlds,” we kept saying to ourselves and anyone else who bothered to ask.