Sometimes I think that we all bumble along, living our lives and thinking we know ourselves, but really – for some of us, anyway – we’re still on a getting-to-know-you basis with our deepest desires. I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s only now I’m realizing something that has probably driven many of my life choices.
I like to move.
Sadly, I’m not talking about exercise. I’m talking about, “Let’s get the heck out of here.”
Almost a couple of decades ago, probably right before I met my husband, I read an interview of Tom Hanks that struck me. Hanks said he’d moved around a lot as a kid. Whenever he’d start a new school, his classmates would express disbelief that he could already have lived in so many places. Hanks figured that moving so much might have helped him get to know people easily.
I read that, and I thought, “Hey, I guess maybe there’d be an upside to moving every year or so. But I would never do that to my kids, if I ever have any, which I probably won’t.” I shrugged off the whole issue as ultimately irrelevant to what my life had been and was likely to become.
I was entirely oblivious to the significance of the fact that, in the previous decade of purportedly grown-up, professional, late-twenties to late-thirties, single life, I had lived in five different apartments.
My husband Richard and I are now the parents of eleven-year-old twins. When I count the places my kids have lived, I get all the way up to ten.
Incidentally, we’re moving again in a few weeks.
Cue the mania-tinged, hysterical laughter.
Okay, so maybe I’m counting some places I shouldn’t – like the long-term residential hotel we stayed at in South Burlington, Vermont for three months while the boys were still babies. Our lease was up at one place, but the next one wasn’t ready for us: hence the hotel. But I do count our accommodations there, because it gave me the sort of psychic scarring that will no doubt shape the hallucinations I endure in old age. On the last day of our stay, my husband discovered that under the desk and the sofa in the living room, thousands of tiny pink worms were methodically curling in and out of the thin, worn carpet fibers. Only the best for the Gelles family! When Richard reported his harrowing discovery to the clerk in the lobby, she looked at him as though he’d announced that everyone is made of flesh and bone. “Oh, right,” she said. “Well, that’s what happens when your room has a balcony.”
Of course, my sons don’t even remember most of the places they’ve lived. I’ve had to drill into their heads in what state they were born. To them it’s a purely academic exercise, like memorizing the causes of the American Revolution.
“So where were you born?” I’ll ask them.
The boys will freeze and look at each other. Each will adopt the crouched posture that silently begs me to direct the interrogation at the other kid.
“Vermont,” I’ll say. “What town in Vermont?”
Philip will grow confident. “Beecher Falls!”
“No. We lived in Beecher Falls, but you weren’t born there.”
Beecher Falls is a village of 177 people on the Canadian border. It has a lone, blinking traffic light for when a dozen cars pull out of the factory parking lot in the evening. The nearest mall is a three-hour drive away. It’s the sort of place where the electricity for the whole town just stops working every now and then, which everyone there finds unremarkable. I grew up in New York City, where, after the power outage of 1977, newspapers had photographs of guys carrying looted mattresses down the street in Brooklyn. In Beecher Falls, about a minute after your lights go out, you hear the friendly hum of your neighbors’ basement generators turning on one by one.
But in its own way, Beecher Falls can be as unsettling as anyplace else. Folks there boasted of how state troopers just across the river had once captured a serial killer. While we lived in our little house, a neighbor had a midnight shoot-out with the police. Floodlights were set up, and everyone in the area was supposed to be evacuated. But with our boys still toddlers, the four of us exhaustedly slept through the whole thing.
So now, nine years after we moved away from Vermont, I ask the boys what town they’re from, and they fall silent. They don’t recall the names of any additional Vermont towns, never mind the other two where we’d also lived.
“Burlington,” I say. “You were born in Burlington, Vermont.”
This is part of the information I want them to carry around, in the event that the apocalypse arrives, and my husband is swooped up by the Rapture, while I’m turned into a giant ant whose job it is to tunnel through the Midwest. Or maybe Donald Trump will win the presidential election, and martial law will be imposed, and if the boys are stopped on the street and asked where they come from, and they hesitate – even just a little bit – they’ll be arrested and sent far away to the other side of a wall.
“Say it,” I prompt. “Burlington, Vermont.”
The boys dutifully mumble the words and then escape to the safety of their video games.
We’ve had good reasons to move, I think, or at least all the usual ones – jobs, schooling, health, living costs. But of course there are always similarly situated people who make a different choice – who stay put, even though their job disappears, or they need more education, or their kid can’t get decent treatment for something where they are. So I guess we’ve moved partly because we’re able to do so, and partly from necessity, and partly because a little voice in my head keeps saying, “Run. Run to where no one can find you.” I heed that instinct by finding a new place to live, and then I thwart my impulse to hide by giving out my new address. My life is pretty much the textbook definition of cognitive dissonance.
So I yearn to roam, like a modern-day cowboy whose idea of the frontier is a nice two-bedroom rental in the next town over. After I’ve lived anywhere for six months, I start bookmarking local real estate websites on my computer. When my mother was still alive, I used to call her as soon as I’d arrived at my new place and the moving truck had left. “Don’t unpack!” she’d say. Then she’d cackle, which would annoy me. “You’ll just have to pack it all up again!”
I’d think, “What the heck is she talking about? Of course I’m going to stay here.” And within a year, I’d have moved again, and once more I’d get to hear her dark, knowing laugh.
I used to be able to indulge in such behavior without any repercussions, but now my sons are on to me. They no longer regard getting on a plane and never going home again as normal. We moved to our current apartment in the Bronx three years ago, which to me is an eternity. In cowboy terms, that’s basically long enough to raise a bunch of cattle and horses, watch the brave little neighboring town get a doctor and a saloon and a dressmaker, and then feel a kind of tragic glee when it all blows away in a twister.
Soon after we got here, the boys announced they were done with moving. They were eight years old, in third grade, and we were walking to their new elementary school. I began daydreaming aloud about someday moving to Westchester County. But should it be northern Westchester? Or the southern part? Or maybe we should move to New Jersey! Should we rent an apartment or a house? What did they think?
“It doesn’t matter,” said Henry flatly, “because we’re not moving anywhere.”
Philip gave a grim nod.
I trilled an uneasy laugh, just to show they couldn’t scare me with their bluster. “What do you mean?” I asked, my voice tilting a little too high.
“This is perfect,” Henry said, “unlike Lake Placid.” We had just moved downstate from the Adirondacks. Compared to Beecher Falls, living in the village of Lake Placid, population 2,521, was like cavorting in Paris in 1910: glittering and breathless, but in some respects not entirely modern. There’s a bookstore and a popcorn shop to distract from a cold so severe that in winter you can glide over the ice of Mirror Lake on a sled pulled by Alaskan huskies. The natives wear light jackets when the temperature drifts upward toward zero. Happily, the reward when the snow finally begins to melt is the energizing possibility of being swarmed by black flies.
If you’re not enamored of snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing and tobogganing and temperatures that dip into the negative twenties, then Lake Placid might not be for you. All of which is probably why it wasn’t right for Henry and Philip.
“What’s wrong with Lake Placid?” I demanded. “It’s pretty. Wasn’t it nice being surrounded by mountains?”
Henry stopped walking and gave me a look. “Now that I’m in the city, I finally have a reason to live.”
There’s nothing like hearing a variety of existential despair from your eight-year-old child. But I told myself he’d change his mind. They both would. Anyone can get tired of the Bronx! Heck, I’d lived there for about a month at that point, and it didn’t seem to have much more than apartment buildings, and stairways where muggers could lurk, and pollen.
That conversation occurred nearly three years ago, and Henry and Philip still haven’t changed their minds about staying in one place for now. I did have the boys switch elementary schools, though, last fall. Henry was glad to make the change, but Philip only tolerated it.
I recently tried to get Philip on my side with respect to moving. “Wouldn’t it be fun to ride a school bus again?” I asked. “If we lived in the suburbs, then we could just step outside our house in the morning and wait for – ”
“I hate changing schools!” Philip said savagely. “I hate trying to make new friends! I hate not knowing what the routine is at a new school! I’m not doing it again!”
So much for the Tom Hanks approach to life. The truth is that we all want different things and thrive under different conditions. I want to move. My sons don’t. So we’re compromising: in a few weeks we’ll move right around the corner. Nothing will be new about the experience except for the apartment itself. Thankfully, the boys are looking forward to having more room.
But how I wish, how I wish, I could ride to the next frontier and find a secluded cabin and then tell everyone where I am.
It seems that I no sooner know my own heart than I realize that to follow it would be to break another’s. Such are the ironies taught by the occasional lessons of aging, and loving, and parenting.