Buy a house in Maine and they will come. And come.
By Ann Beattie
June 1, 2005
What did we expect would happen if we got a summer house? We’d seen Fawlty Towers. We knew that our friends were usually not happy to be introduced to each other. I was already oppressed, making the water run (which years ago replaced the wine run) every time we entertained: gazeuse for some, non-gazeuse for others; the talk of Perrier “having changed.” More often than not my husband, Lincoln, enjoys giving people a tour of his painting studio about as much as the exterminator enjoys putting on his special suit and crawling into the eaves in annual pursuit of wasps (“When did you last hear the humming?” “When did you paint all this?”). Still, we did it in 1988: we bought a house in Maine. Two people whose parents managed with one home, and who left that home only briefly for an annual family vacation that didn’t always happen annually.
We bought a summer house built around 1900, twice the size of the house we owned in Virginia, and started fixing it up, rolling Benjamin Moore Historic Colors on the walls, changing the light fixtures from wagon-wheel light bulb to Victorian incandescent, borrowing a truck to pick up the lovely bed at the antiques shop, adding a screened porch, throwing out the wall-to-wall carpeting and finding perfectly fine wood floors underneath—though we immediately bought an expensive, impractical, antic rug for the living room that could not be vacuumed because the weave was too delicate. A chimney was removed from the attic to make more studio space; dormers and skylights were put in. I took one of the second floor bedrooms as an office. It looks across a field where, last summer, we were threatened by the building of a 24-hour-lighted, cyclone-fenced storage facility; now we are apparently getting only a horse barn. I’ve found this out about summer houses: renovate and they will come. They will also not hesitate to come during the renovations. They will offer better alternatives than you thought of, but too late to implement; they will sit on the back porch and chat up the handsome builder they’ve developed a crush on, who is paid by the hour.
We started living in our house in Maine for a longer part of each year, not naming it (we don’t order funny license plates, either) but gratefully accepting a doormat with a picture of a moose and the words WELCOME TO THE CAMP. Our phobia about the cold abated so that we developed slightly different parameters (not necessary to leave at the end of August; very necessary to leave by the end of October), thereby avoiding the tourists for the last part of our stay but also extending the summer visitors for two more months that they, too, found especially low-key and pleasant.
Because, you know: a house in Maine. There were summer visitors.
Let me make a disclaimer right away. We most often have a great time with these visitors. They were and are our friends. Sometimes we even invited them. The first year, one brought a little tree in a gallon bucket that has now grown 15 feet high (I would say 20 feet, but Lincoln insists I exaggerate). I used to send an annual picture of myself to the friend who brought it, standing next to the tree, hand extended horizontally to show its height from the ground. For years, I’ve pointed at the sky, and my husband has had to back up farther to get the picture. Without the summer guests, FedEx packages would not get signed for; without them, we’d drink, and dislike, tap water. We appreciate the expensive magazines they leave behind; the deliberately stupefying gifts stupefy us (“A playhouse!”). They force us to get ourselves together, to buy groceries, batteries, more comfortable cars. They even have us drive them around to look at real estate, so they might be more than summer visitors, but when my husband could not please one guest after days of touring, it finally came out: the friend would not consider any house that had a foundation.
These same summer visitors arrived two months late, when another friend, from San Francisco, was sitting on the back porch. “What’s that?” he said, looking up at the road, which takes a frightening turn just at our corner. It was our Texas friends who we came to understand disparaged foundations, arriving at last, complete with a mobile home containing a merry menagerie of cats, dogs, and birds. A truck pulling a horse trailer brought up the rear, and they all proceeded to the field across from our house, where everything was reassembled as if Legos had been given to a person in a manic phase. It all soon had to be put elsewhere, however, because a hurricane hit. While other people had jars of homemade jam in the basement, I had cats in crates. There are those who think that fiction writers get their material from what transpires in front of their eyes. In my experience, this is almost never true; for example, the sinking of the mobile home into Ypres-like deep mud occurred during the night, during torrential rain, while I was asleep. I sleep and sleep in the summer.
There are those who think writers are indolent, neurotic, keep crazy hours. Go into their kitchens, and there are bottles of Perrier everywhere on the floor, like a bowling alley gone out of business. What happened to the writer as alcoholic? Gone, those days—gone to non-gazeuse, and it’s probably good that the Café des Deux Magots crowd who made life one big, long summer vacation isn’t around to see what’s become of things.
Before they leave, summer visitors usually mention when they plan to come back. It’s a matter of etiquette, I’ve decided, their way of saying that they had a good time. You are to take it as a compliment. You are also to have next year’s calendar handy, even if you might otherwise wait until March to buy it half-price. If you don’t, you’ll get it as a bonus gift! Write in pencil. He doesn’t know whether he’ll keep his job; she isn’t sure if she’ll have lost enough pregnancy weight to even take the hike she couldn’t take this year.
They depart, and you become an archaeologist of your own past, as well as theirs. Where did they find that picture of you as a baby? (Do you look as homely as you think? Is that why they didn’t say anything?) The long-lost gas bill reappears as a bookmark in your cookbook, with the guest’s handwriting on the envelope, an improvised notepad to hastily scribble down the name of their teenage son’s … surprise! … wife. The missing juice glass of a set of six is found holding bobby pins that are not yours, hiding behind the superduper extra-large-sized Excedrin bottle guests love to shake and partake of, as if it’s a big medicinal maraca. One guest left his watch (Got it, Dr. Freud) and called to ask quite reasonably if I could send it back. I immediately began to wear it, in order to remember to do just that, and did so for weeks: weeks, with two watches on my wrist, passing the post office daily.
They’re a wake-up call, these summer visitors; they reveal to you just how bad off you are. You see yourself as they see you: the person with batteries dead in the remote, dead in the flashlight, dead in the calculator. The person who gets too much mail with form letters misspelling your name (“Miss Bettie, if you could take just a moment to look at these galleys”), the person who screens calls and who must therefore always be home and deliberately not answering when they, themselves, call subsequently. You are the person who subscribes to tabloids (I’m too busy in the checkout line of the supermarket to flip through them quickly; I’m taking mental inventories about impending visitors, trying to remember who takes only 1 percent milk and who drinks Lactaid). Their simple requests—one is happy to tell them where the nearest cash machine is—are easy to deal with, and they don’t seem to pick up on the fact (maybe at first you don’t pick up on it) that you’re invoking some of Mr. Rogers’s vocabulary. But you see yourself strangely when asking to be reminded, yet again, if someone likes green pepper. To say nothing of how your self-esteem dissipates like a squirt of expensive room fragrance when a friend decides to go to church for the first time in 20 years (“Well, it’s sort of near the cash machine, but you’ll need to go around the rotary … ”), then asks to borrow a slip and you dig around every drawer only to admit defeat (“You don’t have any slip of any kind?” ).
As host, you have to remember that they are on diets, have allergies, dislike clementines but like blood oranges. They are, of course, vegetarians. They are overworked and underfed. Their clothes need washing. One of the best clothes-washing stories—yes, I now have clothes-washing stories—involves the time two women friends didn’t quite compute that Lincoln’s kiln was on, and electricity use should be kept to a minimum. They kindly loaded and started up the dishwasher, then tossed their bras and panties in the washing machine, quickly blowing the fuse that fired the kiln … so that months of Lincoln’s sculpture blew up. Crazed, he began a summer-long task of reassembling his now much tinier little figures, gluing any teeny surviving pieces together, revealing himself to be the sort of person who’d lick the rug if he’d sneezed on the line of coke. Summer visitors will make you see not only yourself, but your mate, in a new light. (Note from Lincoln: “Always the wet blanket, I must clarify what actually happened. The circuit breaker turned the kiln off prematurely, and I was unaware that I should have used a new kiln sitter cone. The sculptures cracked before I realized my mistake and turned it all off manually.”)
The anecdotes could go on forever, but let me mention a more serious matter. Let me mention the perfect summer visitor. The visitor we keep in touch with throughout the year, though it is next to impossible to speak to him and we deliberately don’t ask after him on every call we make. This is a visitor so amusing, so kind, so indistinguishable from summer itself that you would think Sandy was a member of our family. He is an aged golden retriever who likes Lincoln’s convertible so much that he will sit in the back seat when the car is parked in the garage, waiting. He prefers vanilla/peanut butter swirl ice cream. He lives in a suburb of Boston, but he vacations in Maine. When we point out that he isn’t our dog, friends think we’re kidding. Sandy’s owner once visited us in Key West. Quite aware of how much we talk about his dog, and how large a role the dog plays in our lives, he answered another friend’s polite question about how he happened to be visiting by saying, “I’m the owner of Sandy the dog.” But, alas, the questioner was the one friend who hadn’t met Sandy. With cautious politeness, he responded: “You have a dog?”
Well, as with so many things … maybe you had to be there. And if you were Sandy, you always could be. Sometimes, when we’ve visited him during the winter, he’s jumped in our car and his owners have laughed and waved goodbye (“We got him!”). We’ve taken Sandy as the excuse to pull the occasional prank, such as the time we photographed him and wrote a little book from his perspective (“I peed in this garden”) and buried the book in his dry dog food, so that “My Summer Vacation” was not found until he’d been home a week. Another writer has mentioned him by name in a book that was on the best-seller list. If you want your Vichy water and your blood orange, you’d better admit that this is a special dog. The convertible seems more fun with his doggie ears flapping; people who would otherwise never speak to us at sidewalk cafés stop by to compliment him and pat his white muzzle. He gets us to the beach, when otherwise we’d forget it’s there. (You think Maine = beach? Do you think New York City = Empire State Building?)
But let’s talk seriously about summer visitors. Overnighters, I mean: not the ones who stop for lunch and continue, racing off like Paul Newman after a pit stop. They might have said they didn’t want to impose, but really: it was something else that made them not want to linger. The visitors who call hopefully on the spur of the moment on a weekend in July (well, the other visitor might have died)—the ones who plan to visit, who even, sometimes, do impose, offer something else. They provide a moment, or many moments, in which you may falter. No one is expected to be the perfect host. English muffins are necessary and can sustain people until they go out for a real breakfast. Ibuprofen should be stocked as a more moderate solution than Excedrin. But beyond a few basics (sheet thread count; beach towels that are big enough; a sailboat), it’s almost expected that you not be the perfect host or hostess. You can be that on a Saturday in January, when your fire is crackling and you’ve spent the day making tofu en daube. When you’ve put on under-eye cover cream and picked up the newspaper, and everyone is going to go home at 11 o’clock. In the summer, because you are inundated with guests (you know, the other guests, not the guest who is staying over), you are not expected to look happy, pulled-together, relaxed. You are not expected to be gracious, attentive, amusing. You—if you are acting as the seismic register for summer happiness or the lack thereof—must show signs of imperfect sleep, you must express (badly) puzzlement about the meaning of life. The summer visitors know you’re not living your usual life. They count on it. If you’re out of context in a summer house, if summer itself is out of context in being a season of sun ’n’ fun, then they can make their own transformation more successfully: old rules don’t apply.
That’s why you whisper to your husband that so-and-so seems particularly wired; why he whispers to you to stop whispering and let him get some sleep and he thought you promised not to have nonstop guests this year. The summer guests show up with new hair colors, new self-destructive plans, with weight gain or frightening loss, with people they aren’t married to, but whom they might marry if everything, always, goes exactly right, all summer, all fall, all winter, spring, and into the next summer. You are there to see that it does not—even in the moment (“Let’s ask Ann if she regrets not having children”). Oh, they’ll accept it if you cook well and you’re witty. They’ll love Lincoln’s spontaneity, be scandalized at what a good mimic he is (“Does he have one of me?”), marvel at the obscure art book plopped on their lap, thank you for the anchovy-stuffed olive in their martini (“You must be so happy they’ve opened that gourmet store up on Route 1”). They’re happy to see you doing well—particularly under the circumstances: people are calling nonstop!—but what they really want are those midnight moments when you assure them your career is washed up, when they learn that you do not know how to sew a button on your own pajamas and if they hadn’t brought in their dry cleaning you wouldn’t even have the safety pin that is keeping the bottoms up. And that your whole soul is kept together with a safety pin. They are reassured that your big, colorful house, with its amusing tchotchkes set in positions to suggest simulated sex with other tchotchkes, might be imperiled by a glowing, barbed-wire nightmare spoiling the view across acres of field you couldn’t afford to buy. They shiver with schadenfreude at your property-tax increase, weep with you when it is discovered that silverfish have tatted a Conté crayon drawing into a tiny doily.
For anarchy is everywhere, even in summer houses. The center cannot hold—or, it can, but you have to get it pumped out every year. (“Lincoln, there’s seaweed coming through the drain in the bathtub.” “That isn’t seaweed.”) Your friends are there to console you, to try to make it better with little gifts you’ll have to hide if your parents visit, but remember to display if they, themselves, return; with baguettes; with spray bottles of “natural” mosquito repellent (“She’s going to the garden for parsley. Look at her run!”). O, host and hostess, even with all you have, even with your plenty (“Lemon curd! Thanks!”), even though blessed with (former) book advances and painting commissions that made all this possible, understand that nothing lasts, not your happiness, not your sanity, not your careers, certainly, though it’s fun to bang around a big house—under your skylights and with your desk pushed up against a window to take in your temporary bucolic view—pretending you’re still functional. And when you falter—for falter you must (“I’m so sorry! You should close the bathroom door … ”)— when you falter, there will be a summer houseguest to embrace you, to share with you her own tales of woe (“The HMO was willing to let me die”). There is only limited time, for the season is short, the phone may ring, and an outsider may intrude. Why, even Lincoln’s been known to come home with one! Huddle on the porch, under the glowing pig lights, where the earwigs skate across splattered gas-grill grease, and share your stories of winter and its miseries and depredations. No one will disagree. It was a struggle, though behind us now. Temporarily. Until the days shorten and it begins anew.
Your house, your very peculiar house, is nevertheless shelter, and shelter in a way the visitor’s house could not be. The houses—particularly the pseudohouses, the quirky, part-of-the-year houses of others—fascinate and then need to be demystified, as is true of their owners. Visit in summer, and see him trying to triumph over weeds and you’ll see where he gets that energy! Look at their rent-a-dog, and understand how really different from other families they are. I mean, why couldn’t they get a dog? Have you noticed they have fewer houseplants, year after year? If they bring in cacti, it’s a bad sign. But the garage got shored up, so no more worry about the floor caving in and the convertible falling into one of Dante’s rings. They finally realized they had to put a railing on the front steps after they saw so-and-so, trying to walk up them in the rain, shooting his arms around like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Psst: They put all the aspirin products out in a basket, like it’s potpourri or something.
Humbling, even at times humiliating, we see how crazy it all is, how fragile everything remains, even when repaired professionally. In winter, pipes can burst, neighbors’ gutters get airborne like Frisbees; friends look in, but we’re not even there. This winter, someone called long-distance, having tracked us down through a mutual Maine friend, to see if we’d like him to take his chain saw to an enormous fallen tree. “Where did it fall?” Lincoln asked, plaintively. We have succeeded in having a source of constant worry, a century-plus-old Victorian that keeps us on our toes as much as any teenager, and whose maintenance costs might soon equal sending that teenager to college.
Our summer house is not our official portrait, but rather the snapshot: the outtake that convinces more than the posed original. When people visit, they see us rumpled, nervously watching everything, including the proliferating weeds in our peripheral vision. If we had a veneer, it would be as cracked as the plaster wall in the dining room, as obvious as the seam that opened in the kitchen ceiling when the upstairs tub leaked. But come ahead, come in! See the flotsam and jetsam of so-called creativity (“Do you have that thorny fruit, or whatever that stuff is, in the bowl because Lincoln’s going to paint it?”), use the doorbell, which I discovered we had after about three years, when someone’s two-year-old stood on tiptoe to ring it. And ring it. Ignore that sarcastic “You never know how many friends you have until you have a cottage” sign hung in the hallway. Come see us as we actually are: ostensibly in charge, but not really.
Do you also remember old black-and-white movies—they fascinated me, in childhood—in which the young lady of the house receives a note inviting her to visit grandmamma, or perhaps her mother’s favorite cousin? She presses the message to her heart, knowing that it will mean a coach ride into the distance, transported by galloping horses that cannot move fast enough to take her to the family of the man she secretly adores and wishes to marry. Today’s version is to call ahead, or more often to e-mail (Under “subject” will be written, “Can you stand one more visitor?”), then to call along the way to report bad traffic, an unplanned stop for fried calamari. Disembarking, totally different in appearance than when last seen (the message was sent by Lara Flynn Boyle; Kirstie Alley alights), fatigued from detours and near accidents on the road, holding not the beeswax candle you suspect, but rather a pee jar, unwinding stiffly in the driveway like Gumby dipped in Superglue, the summer visitor extends her arms and you rush into them. This has nothing to do with romance, just as the engine power that brought her has nothing to do with real horses. But still, there is a frisson that comes less from romance than from a romantic conception of oneself: you are not a fixed entity, and neither is your visitor. Like you, your guest is ever changing, filled with inchoate longing, thinking: take me as I am, today, this day in summer, and I’ll take you. For at least three nights, or until you throw me out.
Ann Beattie whose latest book of stories is The Accomplished Guest, is the fiction editor of the Scholar.
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