You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
One Saturday night, when Norton was away for two months in Jamaica, the Sanford residents threw a party to raise rent money. Its second story rose above the two-bedroom bungalows up and down the block, its girth spreading wider and deeper than those of its tiny neighbors. Norton actually owned Sanford House, but everyone else was responsible for rent while he was away. Mary, one of the residents, affixed a quart glass jar to the top of the banister with clear tape. Various vegan and vegetarian dishes were prepared and colorful tie-dye decorations hung.
Word of the party had spread, and the staircase jar was filled with ones and fives. In the room off the kitchen, several residents and a few designated friends each sat at kissing stations with tip jars, a basket or blanket or box nearby for creating privacy, just in case partygoers were feeling shy. Sanford residents were an interesting bunch. They marched against Monsanto, organized field trips to the Ozarks, and maintained a downtown office for Heartwood, an activist group bent on saving the oak-hickory forests of southern Missouri. Norton was a former punk DJ for the local community radio station – he studied physics at the university and spent most nights camped out in the treehouse in the backyard or on a bluff overlooking a city park. When he and I weren’t tangled in his sheets upstairs, his tall, lanky body wrapped around mine, he was reading treatises on physics to me, and poetry, by candlelight in the tree house.
I thought Norton and I had agreed to an open relationship, and in the weeks since he’d been in Jamaica, I’d begun seeing one of the other residents. Derek worked on a nearby organic farm. He was building a teepee on land along the Missouri River. He lived in the smallest bedroom upstairs with his girlfriend, Mary. One evening, Derek and I had done the washing up after a house dinner while Norton was away. We ended up nestled on a sofa late into the night, Mary asleep upstairs above us.
My kids were with my ex the night of the rent party. I was five or six years older than most of the Sanford House residents. I’d left home at sixteen, married at eighteen, divorced at twenty-eight. I had two kids and rented my own (tiny) apartment across town on child support and tips from waitressing. Most residents of Sanford House still got checks in the mail from mom and dad, which I wouldn’t have admitted to being jealous of at the time. I needed these people. At Sanford House, I felt part of something. That night, I had the entire evening alone, so I enjoyed myself and wandered from room to room until I found the kissing stations. I stopped at Derek’s booth, of course, but I also kissed, for a fee, his girlfriend Mary, and a female trustafarian friend from the East Coast, and Kevin, who was a bit of a loner and worked on the vegetable farm with Derek. Dozens of partygoers circulated through the room to take their turns. So liberating, and so strange.
I put a bill in Kevin’s glass jar. He smiled and invited me to his side of the table. I sat next to him as he lifted the blanket over our heads. Or maybe it was a basket or a box. In the muffled dark, we laughed, bumping chins. His beard tickled my cheeks. His fingers brushed my neck. Then came his lips on mine. He pressed, I opened, and he pressed a little more. Inching a little at a time, we went in, deeper and deeper.
I’d paid for Mary’s kiss just moments before. I was taking notes, feeling the various ways each person would lean in, tilt the head, open the lips, press with the tongue, and stay to explore, or not. I’d kissed half a dozen people and felt an expert at it. As the party continued into the early hours of the morning, Kevin’s lips and tongue lingered in my mind, and I puzzled over how good he kissed. Mary had complained about his kiss, said she didn’t like it. Kevin and I never dated or hooked up after the party, but I always felt a mix of fascination, desire and protectiveness when I saw him. How dare Mary say he kissed too deep? She always acted so cool with Derek, so detached. Whenever Derek and I were together, holding hands, kissing, Derek never talked about her. They never showed any affection in public. Maybe it was just a careless, mean remark she made.
Of course, I knew it was weird to kiss a roomful of people. I also knew, thanks to my ex-husband, what it felt like to be married to someone who watched my every move, who threatened to kill me if I ever cheated on him. The free love at Sanford House was refreshing.
Norton returned from Jamaica in February. He’d missed me, but he hadn’t set up a way to call, so we’d been out of contact for weeks. It turned out he missed me much more than I missed him, and, in his mind, we’d never actually agreed to an open relationship. When he came to my apartment, a bleak, gray day, I told him about the rent party and about Derek. Norton was surprised, his blue eyes skirting away from mine. He had a way of lisping when he spoke, and he’d hold up his long hands, palm out, for me to draw pictures on. This time though, he wouldn’t look at me. He kept his hands in his pockets.
I didn’t find out until days later what happened when Norton went home. He dragged Derek out of his car that evening, punched him in the ear and began wrecking the house. Norton tore parts of the wood-slat starburst off the wall in his bedroom upstairs. He dragged a washing machine down the steps and gouged the woodwork. And because he owned the house, he told his Sanford family to get the fuck out.
Derek came by my apartment a few days later, his lip bruised and swollen. He asked if I’d really told Norton before he left for Jamaica that I wanted an open relationship. I said yes, but the harder Derek pressed, the less certain I became. Derek said he needed to stay away for a while. He and Mary were fine, but they were looking for an apartment. My guts throbbed and churned. I was losing him. I was losing them all. He told me Norton had taken off west without a forwarding address. Trey, one of the other residents, had begun negotiating rent and eviction terms with Norton’s father, a local minister.
My kids were at a neighbor’s house. After Derek left, I rinsed my face and washed the dishes and swept the floors. I stared out the window onto the empty playground below. In the Sanford House kitchen, pinned to a corkboard, hung a postcard picture of a tree trunk. A knot had formed in the bark of this tree trunk, which looked just like a vulva. The postcard was addressed to the residents of Sanford House. The signature belonged to Erin, the woman Norton had dated before me. Erin made her living working nights and weekends as a dominatrix. I’d looked up dominatrix in a dictionary to figure out what this ex-girlfriend was all about. When I’d asked him one of those nights we were lingering in his treehouse, Norton assured me I was enough for him. Whatever kind of sex I wanted, he wanted, too.
What I didn’t know about Norton’s ex-girlfriend was that she’d left him for a housemate, Johnny. When I’d started hanging out with Derek, it was like I was recreating Norton’s worst-case scenario all over again. He’d been months recovering from the breakup. When I’d met him, Erin and Johnny were still together, traveling in the Pacific Northwest and living the honeyed life all real activists dreamed of.
Before he left town for good, Norton agreed to see me one night after his shift at the hospital, the job that paid for his physics classes. He sat in the old wicker rocker I’d inherited from my divorce. He gave me a book by Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. It was about a pie-shaped wedge who kept trying to find someone to “fit” with. I didn’t like what I thought Norton was trying to say. But I was lonely. I wanted to sit on his lap. I wanted to kiss him. He said no. He couldn’t do it.
After the divorce, I’d wanted to find someone who, if I closed my eyes, I’d still know wasn’t my ex. Norton, tall and thin like a distance runner, looked and felt nothing like my ex-husband. According to him and Shel Silverstein though, I just needed to roll around on my own awhile, stop kissing anyone at all, and smooth out the rough edges. I’d be fine.
A year after Norton left town, I started working one day a week at the organic vegetable farm. It was early spring, so I stood in the greenhouse with Kevin, pressing seeds into plugs of clean soil. When I looked at his lips, his chipped front tooth, I remembered the long, slow kiss that night at the rent party. I’d kissed so many people that night, and it felt so long ago. Kevin and I were only friends though. He gave me updates on former Sanford residents. Norton’s father, the minister, had sold the house. The leader of Heartwood moved to St. Louis or Southern Illinois or somewhere to continue his work fighting for the trees. Trey was heading up a community garden in town. Mary worked for a local indie cinema, and Derek spent most days alone on his land near the Missouri River. Once or twice a week, Derek worked at the vegetable farm. I knew this already. I hadn’t seen Derek for months, but I knew he was working on the farm.
After the blowout at Sanford House, I’d made an appointment with the minister at the UU church I’d begun attending. All I could talk about was Derek, how lonely I felt. The minister suggested I see a counselor. I got on a waiting list – three months long – and in the meantime tried to keep myself from driving down Sanford Avenue when I was in that part of town. Derek left a note by my door once – he’d used a crayon on a paper lunch sack to ask how I was doing. He came by my house that evening and looked at my car to see what was wrong. We kissed. We hung out. I felt so relieved. But then he left. He didn’t return my calls. Weeks later, I ran into Mary downtown and gave her a lift to Sanford House. They were moving out the next week. We sat in the car and talked. All I really wanted to know was how Derek was doing, when I could see him. But of course, I couldn’t ask Mary. I don’t remember much of what we said. When I pulled away, when my car was still making that loud noise that wouldn’t stop, I felt like the trash they’d set on the curb a few days early, hoping the trucks would come by to pick it up before the wind and rain blew it all over the street.
Months later on a hot, summer day, I drove my rusty hatchback south to the vegetable farm in Hartsburg and parked in the shade of the barn and headed out to the field. And there was Derek, walking up one of the rows. He stopped when he saw me, and I saw his tight expression before he loosened into a smile.
I’d thought about Derek, asked after him, tried to catch glimpses of him for months, and now, here he was. But he wasn’t happy to see me.
Months went by. In late summer, some of the former Sanford House dwellers asked me out for drinks. I’d been working one day a week at the vegetable farm, but after that first day of seeing Derek, we were never scheduled to work together again. In the meantime, I’d gone to a psychiatrist. I’d cried on the phone speaking to the receptionist, cried the entire morning, cried in the car when a friend whose kids played with mine drove me to the office south of town. I asked the psychiatrist if I could be admitted to the local hospital. She asked me about my friends, if I was suicidal, why was I so sad. I told her about Derek, and she reassured me that yes, sometimes it hurts that bad when someone breaks up with you. She encouraged me to keep looking for a therapist, and by the time I stepped out the door, I realized the sky was blue, blue like I hadn’t seen it in days. I told myself I could hold on, I could keep going.
The bar where I met the Sanford House residents on that late summer evening was in town near my ex-husband’s office. He worked days writing computer code and maintaining servers for the university. From the pub patio, I watched the parking lot, gripping my plastic cup of beer as my ex left his building and walked across the street to the park. Everyone saw where I was looking. Derek and Mary were there, too. Mary was holding Derek’s hand. She asked who the guy was.
None of the Sanford House residents knew much about my married life. I said, “He’s my ex-husband.” Mary leaned forward to get a better look. She laughed. “He looks just like you,” she said to Derek. And he did. Broad shoulders, thick chest. They both walked like fighters entering the arena, shoulders shifting slightly, placing one foot deliberately in front of the other. I couldn’t look at Derek. I couldn’t look at any of them.
The night my husband had said he wanted a divorce, I’d stood on the bare wood floor in a long tie-dye T-shirt, hands wrapped around my chest. I’d sunk into myself, held myself still, let him go. Weeks later, we sat in the car outside his office and he offered to give me back the TV if I’d have sex with him. I said no. He had left me for a stripper. In the car, he said we’d have to use protection. I said no. I’d never said no to him. His threats to kill himself, to kill me, had worked. But this time, I said no.
Sitting on that patio on that warm summer day, I watched him strolling across the park. It was clear, when I finally looked at Derek – when I admitted to myself how very much he looked like my ex – I wasn’t done yet. I could throw a blanket over my head, or a box or a basket, but it didn’t mean I was kissing someone different.
I think about Norton sometimes. Rolling around out west, a big O. No obligations, no kids, no family. No lovers to break his heart. If he wanted to know, I’d tell him maybe he was right. Maybe a lot of rolling around alone does wear away the rough edges. I wouldn’t know, though, because I was never alone long enough to find out. I had my kids to take care of.
I did find a therapist, one who let me talk about Derek until I didn’t need to talk about Derek anymore. When I was ready, I started talking about my ex. She listened, and together, we started untangling the mess.
I remarried several years after that hot summer working on the vegetable farm. I found a nice guy to help me raise my kids. We bought a house big enough for all four of us. It’s not big like Sanford House, but it’s big enough.
I saw Derek years later at a dance party. He was dating someone who looked a lot like me. He’d started selling vegetables at the farmer’s market. He looked happy.
I asked if we could dance. He said of course, the lights and bass line pulsing around us. I leaned in and told him I was sorry for how I’d been with him, for all the shit that had happened at Sanford House. I said I’d been in a bad way, the divorce and all. I’d never meant to hurt him or be weird.
He held me and said he was sorry, too. He said that was all over, those days at Sanford House. Not to worry.
And then the song slipped away and a new beat filtered through our bodies, through the alcohol and laughter. I said thanks. And I let him go.