We pulled up to the house in the station wagon Jordy had been given by his parents, the car of his childhood, dark blue with wood paneling on the sides. Jordy had guided this boat all the way from New Hampshire while I sat by his side, stretched out on the passenger seat, scanning stations on the radio. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and we were coming home from college. My father was on his way to Connecticut to pick me up and take me the rest of the way home to Manhattan.
When Jordy and I met during junior year, I had just had my heart badly broken. Jordy, with his wide smile and flannel shirts, was a soft place to land. He was loving and gentle and I chose him in part because I felt that he would never hurt me. After a year of dating, we had the ease of a married couple. Instead of heading out to parties, we often stayed home, curled up on the sofa in the living room of his ramshackle off-campus house, our woolen feet intertwined, and shared our dreams for a life infused with poetry and art.
I’d met Jordy’s parents—his dad was an alum and they visited campus often—but had never been to their house in New Canaan before. We swept through the back country on shiny black roads bisected by a sharp yellow line that looked like it had been drawn with a highlighter. A blanket of leaves cast everything in a warm, golden glow. Fluffy white clouds drifted through the bright blue sky like spun sugar. Jordy’s house was set back from the road behind large rock formations and towering evergreens. As we drove up a long driveway, the house—a white colonial with crisp black shutters—came into view. It wasn’t the biggest house on the street but looked like the one that was there first.
We stepped out of the car and were greeted by his mother, a short woman in embroidered slippers, her auburn hair pulled back with a headband. I shook hands with Jordy’s father, a trim man with thick, wavy hair and a strong chin. He was fresh from a hunting trip and was wearing a plaid jacket and cap. A leather satchel was draped across his chest and, as I stood there, he reached into the bag, pulled out a long, striped feather and handed it to me, a bead of blood suspended from the translucent tip.
“Did you color your hair?” Jordy’s mother asked when we came into the kitchen, the ceiling hung with copper pots and pans.
“Yeah,” I mumbled. A cheap rinse had turned it red, not a natural color but red like Jell-O. It looked bad, the color clashing with my dark eyebrows.
“It’s fun,” she said. I smiled, and my hand darted up to cover my hair.
Jordy and I wandered through the house, room upon room of faded carpets, their patterns intricate and ancient, high-backed chairs, soft flowered sofas. Beth, Jordy’s younger sister, trailed behind us, her freckled face framed by a delicate add-a-pearl necklace. It was all so different from the apartment I had grown up in. Instead of sofas, my parents had built platforms that rose out of the floor and covered them with steel grey industrial carpeting. On the windows were metallic Venetian blinds. The coffee table was a solid black formica cube with razor sharp corners.
I tried to imagine my family visiting this house: my father who remembered how much he’d paid for every car he’d ever owned and the rent on apartments he hadn’t lived in for decades; my mother with her black blazers, high cheekbones and packs of Benson & Hedges Menthol Ultra Lights. Although I’d grown up in New York, in many ways I was as sheltered as someone who’d grown up in a small town. I liked to think of myself as worldly, but Jordy’s world—his real world, beyond the one we had created together in college—was completely foreign to me. I realized I had little experience with how people, even those people I thought I knew, really lived.
Later, Jordy and I scurried upstairs to his room and closed the door. We dove deep under the covers and giggled when we heard his mother walk by, delivering clean laundry or straightening the beds.
Lying together in his childhood bed, I fingered the soft patterned quilt and watched the checkered curtains sway in the breeze. College had leveled the economic playing field somewhat, but it was clear to me now—if it hadn’t been before—that Jordy’s family was rich. They owned real estate in our small college town, including the local movie theatre, and Jordy was in charge of stocking the soda machine there. In return, he got to keep the money. Sometimes after restocking the machine, Jordy would leave the money there because he didn’t need it, turning a tiny key in the door of the compartment that held wads of folded dollar bills and fistfuls of coins. If I had been in charge of the machine, I would have checked it every day.
It wasn’t just our homes that were different, it was everything about us, especially our parents. My parents had met on a blind date in Manhattan, and my American father had been bewitched the moment he laid eyes on my Swedish mother with her long blond hair and rabbit fur coat. In her, he saw his ticket out of Brooklyn and the insular community in which he was raised. Through my father, my mother staked her claim to her adopted country, leaving Sweden and its quiet history far behind her. Together, they created a New York family without borders, religion or cultural identity. My father always said we had a small family, but it was only because they made it that way. When they split up after eighteen years of marriage, my brother and I were set adrift, atomized individuals looking for a place to stick. Jordy found my background exciting and exotic while I yearned for the stability and lineage of his. He knew who he was and there was comfort in that.
When Jordy’s mother died a few years later, we were no longer together. I called him when I heard the news and said I was sorry, but my words felt empty, like a glass bottle. He broke into tears on the phone.
The disease that claimed her came quickly, he told me, but not so quickly that she didn’t feel its shadow bearing down on her. On her last Christmas, he and his siblings had unwrapped a small upholstered chair she had bought for them. They were confused. There were no small children in the family. “Who is this for?” they’d asked.
“For my grandchildren,” she told them. She loved them already.
I put on a black skirt and went to her funeral, which was held on the Upper East Side. The church was grand, overwhelming, the people white-haired and well dressed. I sat in the back, unsure of my place among this family. Jordy sat up front, in a line next to his father and brother and Beth, sixteen years old and motherless.
As we poured onto Madison Avenue, I felt awkward. I found Jordy and gave him a weak hug. He clung tightly to me, and I wanted to say something to him, to this boy I had once loved, but wasn’t sure what and so fell back into the crowd. I saw Beth standing next to her father. Her face was puffy and wet and she wore a black dress and party shoes that shone like mirrors. I wondered if her mother had picked them out. I walked off before I had to say anything to her.
Walking uptown, my eyes blinded by the winter sun streaming down between the buildings, I thought back to that day at the house on the hill, to my red hair as garish and bright as the blood at the tip of the feather. I had been seduced by many things that day, by Jordy and his family and the beautiful world they inhabited, one I might have become part of. They knew that time went on without them and they planned for it. They passed down houses and pearls and embossed wooden antiques. They ordered chairs for unborn grandchildren. Standing there, in the country of New Canaan, I had felt fractured, my past too shaky to build upon, my history too murky to pull a line through. I was the inheritor of nothing.
Daisy Florin lives and writes in Connecticut. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People and Mamalode, among other publications.
© 2015, Daisy Florin