Once again the air conditioner in my living room is not keeping up. I should have gotten the 12,000 BTU. Obviously. Because these are high ceilings. And this is a brick house. And it's so hot out. It's the hottest summer in Pittsburgh's history. Well, not really, but it might as well be. I feel like a loaf of bread. I feel like a bloated loaf of bread in an oven experiencing a teeny, tiny draft. A pathetic little breeze. My God, with all the clunking and clanking and complaining this air conditioner is doing, you'd think it would have more to offer.
And now look. Now Bob is coughing. Bob is my cat, sitting beside me here on the couch. Okay, why is he coughing? The vet did not say anything about coughing. It's all right, Bob. Calm down. That's right. . . . God, you shed. One thing I am not going to miss is the way you shed. All right. You can stay here a few minutes longer. But stop staring at me. Go on, now. Go to sleep, Bob. You are a . . . cat. Take a nap, Bob. He's okay. And don't worry; I am not a person who has long, complicated cat conversations. Technically speaking, I am not a person who even talks to cats. Because I never say the words out loud. And Bob does not talk back with any cat telepathy or anything. We're normal, me and Bob. We are not the kind of overinvolved cat and cat owner you see in photographs on bags of premium cat food or anything. But we are a unit, me and Bob. Bob is a big orange cat, like the one in that movie Thomasina I saw as a kid. I always wanted an orange cat like that. I remember nothing about that movie except it was about a girl who had a deep love for her cat. So of course I related.
But Bob isn't just a big cat. Bob is a huge cat, a very tall cat. I tell people Bob used to play basketball in college. Bob has a very luxurious tail, a thick tail, a tail like a raccoon's with stripes that go in circles, orange, white, orange, white, all the way up. It's a tail I think any cat would be proud to own, although I cannot verify that.
The only other particularly noteworthy feature about Bob is his love for me. Bob drools with pleasure at the very sight of me. I can't let Bob in my bedroom at night because he will sleep on my head and slobber with happiness. Sometimes when I'm holding Bob, he'll purr so loud, I'll feel it in my teeth. You'll never meet a happier cat than Bob is when he is in the presence of me. And I'm not saying this to brag. In fact, I don't know why I'm saying this, except to say that sometimes saying is easier than feeling. And when it comes to Bob, I am sick of feeling. A few months ago, the vet said, "I'm sorry." He said, "Bob is dying." That was a blow.
Because for eleven years I've had Bob. For eleven years he's been Bob, the wonder cat, the mighty cat; he's been Ram-Bob, defender of my universe, or at least of my yard, or at least of my heart, and now he is dying. Only no, he doesn't look like he's dying. He doesn't look like some pathetic, skinny, scrawny, icky thing you are afraid to touch. He looks . . . normal. So it's hard to remember that he's dying. But the vet says he is. The vet says the combination of feline leukemia and feline HIV is a one-two punch, leaving Bob with a lethal disease and no immune system to fight it.
In fact, the vet was awfully surprised that I got Bob past that last infection. But I did. Because I will do anything for Bob. Because for so long--for so, so long--it was just me and Bob. Bob was all the love I could handle, all the love I wanted. And I know, there is something pathetic about that, woman-with-cat. Young-writer-and-her-cat. There's something so cartoonish about that.
You could imagine, if you were a lesser person, me and Bob appearing as a silhouette on a bath towel or something. But it really was the truth, my truth, for a decade. And yes, things are a lot more complicated now, but don't think there aren't days when I don't yearn for just me and Bob, the unit. And now Bob isn't allowed outside, because there is no way he could survive another fight, or even a little scratch--and really, I am doing fine. I am totally finished feeling anything about this. I am done being hysterical. I cried for three straight hours the day the test results came back, wailing like an infant in the living room, having no idea that Lois, the cleaning lady, was upstairs listening, or trying not to. That will cut into your crying. That will bring reality back into your gut with a thud. Hey, it's a cat. A stinkin' cat. And Lois, jeezus, the life that lady has lived? With all those divorces and kids being born and a few dying and those men beating her up? Lois has lived fourteen lives in the time that I've lived just a third of one puny one, just me and Bob.
And I know, Bob is dying. That is a fact I do not need to be reminded of. In fact, I would really prefer if we not discuss it at all. Well, then. Okay, then. I just wish this air conditioner had more oomph. And to tell you the truth, I'm starting to hate the way I have to have an air conditioner going in order to concentrate, in order to sleep at night. In order to live. Isn't it a bad thing when you need a giant air compressor plugged into your life in order to survive? That can't be right. That's not right. I have to get out of here, away from this clunking noise. I should go farm shopping. This is my current favorite escape. No, I have no intention of actually buying a farm. Of course not. This is a fantasy, a game. Farm shopping is a reason to get away, a reason to sit in my swanky new VW Passat with the sunroof, leather seats, and most excellent air-cooling system. All right, Bob. Excuse me. I am standing up. I am not going to waste this Sunday sitting around whining about . . . air.
I'm going to go down and get a paper so I can look at the ads. I open the back door, slam through the wall of heat, and step outside to find Betty, my dog, chewing a large piece of garden vegetation formerly known as a variegated hosta. "Oh, come on, Betty. Give me that." Betty, a mutt of unknown lineage, has made a complete mess of this little garden. She dug up my petunias. She trampled my dahlias. Now she's working on my hosta, making little dog beds where the plants used to thrive. My poor hosta. My poor garden.
Ugh. I know; I'm starting to sound like Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace or something. What a whiner. Who cared about his stupid flowerbeds? Actually, now that I look at her, Betty does have a Dennis the Menace quality to her. She is blond. She is short. She is a rascal. But in order to really capture the essence of Betty, you'd have to cross Dennis with, say, Ginger, on Gilligan's Island. Betty is a beauty queen. A mischievous, privileged princess. "Betty, sit. No, girl, down!" Betty is a jumper. I really have to work on that. Betty has dainty paws that belie their digging and scratching potential. Also, Betty has extremely beautiful brown eyes. Everyone comments on her eyes, which seem to be encircled in eyeliner. Some people say Betty would make a very convincing canine Marilyn Monroe. These are the people who haven't seen her with a variegated hosta in her mouth. My poor garden. Before Betty came along, I had a perfect garden. Well, not perfect, but definitely on the way. Gardening is all about the urge for excellence, which a gardener never achieves, which is what keeps the gardener hooked.
Gardening is about power. You are the master of that world. You are the king and the queen and the duke and the duchess. You see what happens when you can tame a four-by-six slice of nature, and pretty soon you think: What about ten by twenty? You tame, and you tame, and you tame, and all you can see is what is not tamed. Taming the land. Controlling nature. This was one of the ways in which, up until recently, I was able to keep my life extremely tidy. Writing was another way. The control! The characters in your stories did what you wanted them to do. The people cried when you wanted them to. Love happened exactly on the page number set by you. I have only very recently discovered that this was all a ruse. I mean, I certainly was not conscious of the fact that my ordered life, my near-perfect garden, my carefully structured stories, my rigid exercise schedule, my first-this, then-that way of life was a protective cover for my heart.
Well, it doesn't matter. Because Betty came along and ruined everything. Well, not everything, but she might as well have. And, ouch. If she would just stop this jumping. "Down girl! Yee-ouch! Betty, you either have to cut your nails, or I am going to have to stop wearing shorts." I got Betty two years ago at the pound. Just walked in one day and saw her, an eight-week-old puppy curled up in a cage. The tiniest little angel puppy. Who knows how it happens? I fell instantly and thoroughly in love. I plunked down thirty-five dollars and took her home and loved her. God, how I loved her. But not quite like I loved Bob. This was not a replacement love for Bob. This wasn't some kind of insurance-policy love. I don't know exactly what kind of love it was, but it was something entirely new. I couldn't stop staring at her. For weeks I sat there staring at the little angel mutt with the bedroom eyes.
Then one day, when we were in the garden and I was staring at her, she got stung by a bee. Her neck started to inflate. Inflate like a balloon. It kept getting bigger and bigger. Jeezus! Soon it was as big as a beefsteak tomato. It was the most horrifying sight. I stood there with my mouth dropped open, paralyzed. To make matters worse, I had a date.
Some handsome young man I hardly knew was due to pick me up within the hour. I didn't want to have a date. I didn't like dates. I didn't even like the word. I would say "fig" instead. I would tell the babes, "I have a fig tonight," and they would say, "Good for you!" It was, they said, good to have a fig. A single woman in her thirties was supposed to have figs. Whatever.
So, panicked over the sight of my little love puppy with the neck the size of a beefsteak tomato, I called the guy. I told him there was an emergency, that I would have to cancel. I thought perhaps he would hear the terror in my voice and offer to help. He said: "So what am I supposed to do with these theater tickets?"
I gave him another chance. "My puppy," I said. "Something is terribly wrong. Her neck is blowing up!" He said: "See, this is why I don't have pets. Pets are so much trouble--" I hung up on him. Hung the hell up on him. Because now Betty was throwing up, over and over again, violently.
I called Alex. He was a friend, a friend for some six years. He's who I would always call. He said, "I'll be right there." He dropped everything and zoomed over and whisked me and Betty to the vet's. And Betty lost consciousness, right there in the waiting room. She suddenly and completely went limp. The nurse grabbed her, yelled something to another nurse, everybody started running. They stuck an IV in her little leg. I stood there horrified, seeing my puppy lying limp on a shiny silver table, looking most definitely dead.
It's hard to say how a dream forms. Especially one like mine, which at first seemed so utterly random. It could have been a sailing-a-boat-to-Tahiti dream, a quit-your-job-and-hitchhike-to-Alaska dream. It was a fill-in-the-blank dream, born of an urge, not content. An urge for something new.
I was thirty-seven years old. I lived on Eleventh Street, the last house on the right, in South Side, a gentrified old mill town on the banks of the Monongahela River. I rented an office in downtown Pittsburgh, a fifteen-minute bike ride away, which is where I spent my days writing stories and magazine articles. I had a garden. I had a cat. I had a dog.
And I had a farm dream, a fantasy swirling around in my head about moving to the country. Where in the world was this coming from? That's what I wondered. It might have made sense if I was a miserable person, sick of my life. But I was not. I had a good life; it had taken me a long time to get it that way.
A farm dream would have made sense, I supposed, if I was at least the farm dream type. A person with some sort of deep personal longing to churn butter. A person who had had city life forced upon her and now was determined to go be true to herself and live among the haystacks. A person who wore her hair in long braids, used Ivory soap, and liked to stencil her walls with pictures of little chickens and cows. A person who, at a minimum, had a compost pile in her yard where she diligently threw lawn clippings and coffee grinds and egg shells and earned the right to use the word organic a lot.
But I was not that person. I was not even sure what hay was, or why anyone would stack it. And if I composted anything, it was only by mistake.
In fact, I was a person who liked to go to the mall. I was a person who had no conflict about liking to go to the mall. I wore my hair in a bob courtesy of Christine, who also touched up my roots every six weeks with bleach. I used Clinique products on my skin, mainly because I was a sucker for the free stuff you could get during Clinique Bonus Time. I had a formidable tower of Stouffer's Lean Cuisine in my freezer, and I harbored little or no fear of processed foods. I believed very deeply in the power of air conditioning, microwave ovens, and very many things you plug in.
And I had a farm dream. The real source of this dream was something I was able to admit only after a lot of torment, as I'm sure plenty of people can understand: my farm dream had its roots in Green Acres
. Which was never even my favorite show. But to grow up in the suburbs of the 1960s is to have TV, glorious TV, as your reference point. And I had always been one to side with Eddie Albert. "Farm livin' is the life for me." And I knew every single word of that song--"Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue"--and suddenly, after decades of not singing that song at all, I couldn't get it out of my head. Ba-da-de-dum-dum. Dum dum.
It's funny how the urge for something new can really be an urge for something old. Something you let go of a long time ago.
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, on a happy little street called Lorraine Drive, which featured a row of tidy ranch houses and a most excellent hill for riding bikes down. That's what you saw when you looked out our front windows. You saw: suburbs. But if you looked out our back windows, you saw a farm. A working dairy farm that once encompassed the land that became Lorraine Drive. That farm was the backdrop of my life. It was the scenery I emerged from. That was the way I saw it, back when I understood everything.
I was eight years old. I understood exactly how the world was organized. Everyone was either this or that. Everyone was either Italian or Irish on their mother's side. Everyone was either Lithuanian or German on their father's side. Everyone was either Catholic or Jewish. Everyone was either a country-person or a city-person. And everyone had a willow tree in the backyard.
That these categories overlapped, or consisted of sub-categories, or didn't exist for some people at all, was a realization that would continually shock me. For instance, I remember the horror I felt when I visited Laureen Hampton, my very first city-person friend. I went from window to window, room to room, pulling back curtains and pushing up blinds in a most desperate way.
"What is the matter, dear?" her mother finally said.
"Where is your willow tree?" I asked.
I did not understand her explanation, not for a long time. How could you not have a willow tree?
In my family we were Irish and we were Lithuanian and we were Catholic and we had our willow tree and some of us were country-people and some of us were city-people. No, you couldn't just be a "suburb-person." That didn't mean anything. The suburbs was an in-between place, a place you were headed in or out of, depending on your country/city orientation.
I was a country-person, at my core, in my heart. Because I loved that farm in our backyard. I would play there, in those woods and in those fields and in that barn. "Oh yeah, I live on a farm," I would practice saying, loving the sound of those words. When I was upset, I would run there. I would pack a pretend suitcase and move into a shed near the barn. A little red shed, with benches and rusted old tools and bags of chicken feed to prop your feet on. I would sit there. I would say, "Well, I'm home. Thank goodness I'm home." There was a secret passageway in that shed, a board that swung left that I could squeeze behind. I had my stuff there. I had my paints and my sketch pads. I had my secret scrolls. I had things I would say to God. I had stories I would write about my life on the farm back in the olden times when there weren't even any toilets.
Perhaps most importantly, there were animals on that farm. There were horses and goats and rabbits and all those cows. These were my friends. My most trusted friends. In the real world I had siblings, John and Kristin, a distant twelve and eight years older than me, and Claire, just two years older. Claire was my friend, but she was better than me at every single solitary thing I ever tried to do, so this friendship had its limitations. This friendship so often was seen through a wall of tears. I was a painfully shy kid; I would cry if you tried to talk to me. The grade school teachers would send notes home to my mother saying, "We can't get her to stop crying." I remember how hard it was to make it through a whole day of school without at least once bursting into tears, how I would congratulate myself if I actually accomplished this. I would leap off the school bus and run past our house, head down to the farm and I would tell the goats. I would tell the horses. I would say, "Hey everybody. I did it. I did it!" And I swear to you those goats would applaud. The rabbits would run in circles with glee. The horses would sing.
I felt safe, like I belonged, on that farm.
One day, at the farm, God spoke to me (which, to tell you the truth, I half-expected). He said, "Okay, I am getting a headache from all these prayers coming at me for me to take care of people. People, people, people. What about animals? Somebody down there has to take charge of praying for the animals." So He anointed me. It wasn't a big deal. It wasn't like He promised that I'd one day show up on a stained glass window or anything. It was more like, "Hey, could you do this for me? Could you pray for the animals?" And I said, "Sure." So I began looking out for the welfare of turtles. I became an activist for chipmunks. I had meetings with many neighborhood cats on a bill of rights I was drawing up on behalf of the sparrows. Eventually, I became a crusader for the eternal life of all animals. I would bless myself, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, every time I saw a dead animal on the road. This act would send the animal to heaven. This was my job. I took pride in my job.
As I got older, I never quite abandoned my animal friends, but by the time I reached junior high school I was done being shy. I turned into a loud mouth. I won the award for Wittiest and Peppiest in the Eighth Grade. I had discovered, rather late, that there was more to being a person than just having an inner life. And the outer life was a blast. I was having so much fun in the outer life that I stopped doing homework and played hooky and took up bowling and smoking and almost flunked out of school. My mother yanked me out of that school, dressed me in a uniform, and whisked me away for ninth grade to a private all-girls school. My siblings had all gone to private schools. I was my mother's public school experiment, which she saw as a failure.
I didn't see it that way. Leaving public school was the worst tragedy of my entire life.
I turned shy again. I couldn't quite figure out how to have both an inner and an outer life at the same time. The inner life was safe. The inner life, which I had come to equate with the farm, the animals. The farm, the animals, they brought me toward God. Toward prayer. Toward an urge to step back, really far back, and try to understand what was going on in the giant universe. It was strange how the inward would catapult you upward. I turned inward and inward and inward. By the time I got to college I felt like the only place I really belonged was in my own head. I discovered writing. Thank God for writing. It was a way of getting all the inward stuff out. It was like installing a ventilation system, a link of fans blowing through duct work, releasing emotion and thought to the wind.
Right after graduation, all my college friends got married, settled quickly. They had clear paths set out for them. They were turning into accountants and middle managers, and soon they all got Subarus.
I had no clear path set out for me. There was no set path toward becoming a writer. I moved to Pittsburgh to go to graduate school because I didn't know how else to become a writer.
Pittsburgh opened my eyes. In Pittsburgh I understood how someone could actually be a city-person. I loved the neighborhoods, each one its own minisociety tucked in the fold of a hill. I loved the huge sycamore trees. I loved all that energy, which wasn't the same as the collision of energy in the East Coast cities. In Pittsburgh there was collaboration, participation, a weird but contagious spirit of civic pride. I loved the way drivers wouldn't cut you off when you were trying to merge. In Pittsburgh, they waved you in.
I took to exploring the city neighborhoods on my bike. One day I crossed the bridge into South Side, and I was hooked. That neighborhood captured me. I loved the abandoned steel mills, huge hunks of orange and brown, bent this way and that, stretched across the sky. I loved the hilly, cobblestone streets. Some of the streets were so steep, they weren't streets at all, but stairs with street signs. I loved the flower gardens in patches of dirt surrounded by little plastic picket fences. Tiny flower gardens adorned with aqua blue Virgin Mary statues and yellow and purple pinwheels. I loved the red brick houses that leaned into each other, held each other up. I loved the utter absence of straight lines. I loved the way everything was so old and hobbled and slumped.
Soon South Side became my every-Sunday destination. I would go to the Lithuanian church there and sit in the wooden pews darkened by generations of prayer, of hope, of thanksgiving, and I would bask in the whispers of my ancestors. One day I rode my bike down Eleventh Street and there it was: 136 South Eleventh Street. A house for sale. It was like a lot of them: It needed help. Paint, new windows, pointing, chimney repair; it needed a lot of help. I loved it instantly and without reservation. "This is where I belong," I thought, and soon I was a home owner. Soon I was an urban dweller. I had a newsstand four blocks from my front door, a corner market, a dry cleaner, and shoe-repair place within skipping distance. I felt as though I had entered a storybook, and I half-expected to bump into Gepetto walking Pinocchio to school.
I was twenty-six years old. My house became my coming-of-age house: I renovated it, and it renovated me. I tore down walls, opened up rooms, added windows and skylights, spent three months chipping plaster, inch by inch, reclaiming a wobbly brick fireplace. In this house I learned how to handle a hammer, a socket wrench, a leaky faucet, a frozen downspout, a trowel, and many, many bags of tulip bulbs. In this house I acquired a community of friends who came to represent family: Beth up the street, B.K. and Kit over the hill, Nancy and Lynn and Sally across the river, and the rest of the so-called "babes," a group of single women who encourage one another's dreams.
It was while living in this house that I discovered my love of gardening. In that most wonderful garden. By the standards of the neighborhood, my yard was large: an L-shaped piece of land, about a quarter acre, going alongside of and behind the house, separating me from the Conrail tracks. Freight trains would come moseying by a few times a day. I came to depend on the clatter, and I liked waving to the engineers when I was out there pulling weeds. This was an urban garden, a little oasis, a miniparadise surrounded by the noise and smells and warmth of the city.
It was while living in this house that I became a writer. I wrote essays for The Washington Post Magazine
, traveled the world and wrote about the collapse of the Soviet Union for Life
magazine, and for GQ
I traipsed around after a cult of very happy people who believed they would live forever. I wrote about rock stars and preachers and old ladies I met, as well as plenty of characters I stumbled across in my own head.
But the writing life, it turned out, was difficult. It wasn't like you could sit down and flip a switch and crank on the ventilation system. Sometimes it didn't work, and sometimes you couldn't even find the switch. The truth about writing was, writing made you nuts. It made you adopt weird napping habits. It made you overly sensitive to smell, touch, sound. It made you eat nothing but popcorn for thirty straight days, and then nothing but carrots, and then nothing but Pop-tarts. It made you not belong anywhere. And there were all those old college friends trading in their Subarus for even better Subarus, and they got condos and then one of them had a baby, so then they all did. Then they traded in their Subarus for minivans and started driving through the Taco Bell Drive-Thru. And South Side didn't even have a Taco Bell. I was way, way, way off track.
Married? Kids? Minivan? Hell, I didn't even have a boyfriend. And, as anyone knew, first you had to get a boyfriend to get the ball rolling. But really, the only men worth any time at all, I found, were men you met in foreign countries and brought home to show your friends. I brought home a man from Israel, a man from Switzerland, a man from Russia. Funny how these men revealed their tragic flaws only when on American soil. These were relationships that could exist only when I was in another place, another time zone, another planet.
I was terrified of love. Love was so chaotic. Love was freedom and passion and Wittiest and Peppiest in the Eighth Grade. Freedom and passion meant you flunked. Freedom and passion called for intervention. Freedom and passion meant you should wear a uniform. You should stop having freedom and passion and start having a structured environment. Well, you had a choice. You could have an intellectual and spiritual life. Or you could have love.
You couldn't have both. You couldn't have inward and outward. It was impossible. Inward was order and outward was chaos. How could you have both?
I chose order. Of course I did. We always choose the familiar path first.
And so this is how I ended up, at thirty-seven years old, at 136 South Eleventh Street, the last house on the right. I spent my days writing stories and magazine articles. I had a garden, a cat, a dog, a good life.
And I had a farm dream, a song I couldn't get out of my head.
Excerpted from Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Copyright © 2002 by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.