(Continued from Chapter 17.2 – Elbow Room; to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) At dawn she pulls on sweats and drives to the gas station to pick up a copy of the Bergen Record and, just for the heck of it, the New York Times. Armed with a giant coffee and a pair of glazed donuts for Luc and Céleste, she spreads out the newspapers on her parents’ dining room table and sets to work combing through the “Rentals” section of the real estate pages. Jittery from a sleepless night and too much caffeine, she circles ads for furnished rentals and sublets in towns as far north as Montvale and as seedy as Newark—any place where prices are low.
Over the next couple of weeks, this becomes her routine: an early rise, the gas station, a giant coffee, and the real estate pages. Quickly, before her children and her parents wake, she makes lists of the rentals that look most realistic and, on an occasional whim, the ones that seem ideal. Then the kids call for their milk. Her parents shuffle down the stairs. The house snaps into motion with coffee brewing, waffles toasting, and disputes erupting over who gets the prize from the cereal box. The old, familiar feeling of drowning in motherhood, of treading water desperately just to stay afloat, returns, making her want to throw in the towel, quit treading, and end her ridiculous search. But that would leave her right back where she started: stuck between a protracted adolescence and the stagnant, incomplete adulthood she slackened into in marriage.
This notion sends a cold burst of panic through her veins, followed by a rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline. Like a drill sergeant, she pushes doubt aside and orders Luc and Céleste to quit whining, eat their breakfast, and stay still while she gets them dressed so she can hurry on to the next logical step each day: phoning the numbers on her lists for more information. Her firmness, her absolute conviction that other priorities matter and that she, not the children, is the boss, has the surprising effect of convincing them, too.
Never before has she thrown herself into a task with such unfailing energy or determination. But then, never before has it seemed that her very soul, her survival, depended on her actions. Grateful for the comfort of a house to cocoon in, she’s accepted the constraints of letting someone else provide it. And secure in the knowledge that she could always fall back on Didier or Rich and Shirley for the things she needs, she’s felt no real impetus to act. Now, if she doesn’t, she’ll suffocate. Her spirit will die.
She’s not even sure what she’s looking for. A place to rent for a couple of months? A place to settle down in and call home? Or simply a starting point, a random endeavor to spark ideas, break the stalemate she’s in, and generate momentum? Because without momentum, nothing will happen. This, at least, she knows.
Back in art school, Terry used to call the conception phase of any new project the “gray matter” phase. Mushy and amorphous like the gray matter in a brain, it served a similar purpose: channeling a hodgepodge of stimuli into something coherent. At that early phase, vision still muddy, she had to sift through a big blob of confusion in order to excavate the seed of her inspiration and then cultivate it into a balanced ensemble of colors and forms. Whether painting or sculpting, she always began with a very long series of aborted attempts—brush stroke after brush stroke, blobs of color splattered down haphazardly, then wiped away, piles of metal scraps banged and hammered paper-thin and then crushed wrathfully in her callused hand. “You’re not getting anywhere,” Veronica would say circumspectly. Terry would stare past her, eyes murky, as if possessed. “Are you kidding? I’m cutting through the gray matter to the heart of the matter. Clearing away the superfluous shit.”
The rental ads are Veronica’s gray-matter phase, and her first foray ever into such a mushy, amorphous place. Her own artistic process always used to start with a swift sketch of something familiar, something she’d seen or done a thousand times before. She’d then tweak it slowly until distinguishing features emerged. Similarly, her broader choices have always sprung from an instant vision of an end point or a clear reference point: a bachelor’s degree to take pride in, a wedding under a chuppah, Antibes’ chalk-white cliffs. In checking out ads for two-bedroom apartments, she’s sifting through the gray, haphazardly pounding metal strips, and dropping dollops of random color onto a canvas, testing to see what’s viable—or not—in this seed of an idea that has popped into her head.
Scouring the ads, she quickly learns the jargon of “eiks,” “hwfs,” security deposits, and heating bills. Within days she figures out how to glean from a two-line description whether or not a place is a dump. Though seemingly trivial, these new skills boost her confidence and spur her on. She forgot how good it can feel to wrap her mind around something new. She also trains herself to pick up the phone and recite her questions mechanically, regardless of how pathetic or embarrassed she feels, going out on a limb as she’s never dared to before. After all, the strangers she’s calling don’t have to know her reasons. They don’t have to know that she has no income and only several thousand dollars to her name.
In the middle of her second week of searching, she ventures off on a couple of visits, schlepping Luc and Céleste along. Shirley, back to her usual routine of spending half the day at the health club and the hair salon, can’t always watch them. The frustration of having to stop every few miles to find a bathroom for Céleste or to search for a binky that fell from a yelping mouth makes her want to tear out her hair—or theirs—every time. Yet the urgency of her mission transforms her stress into will power. It sharpens her mind, enabling her to concoct solutions to each new dilemma that arises. One afternoon, running very late on her way to a visit, she pulled into a Verizon shop and bought herself a cell phone so she could call the landlord she was meeting. On another visit a few days later, she asked the realtor to stand by her car and keep an eye on the kids, who fell asleep during the drive, while she did a quick walk-through alone. Situations that used to seem like immovable mountains have become trivial, laughable, just another new twist to another crazy new day. And with each challenge she overcomes, her stamina increases. She can hardly remember how it felt to crave the languor of her bed each afternoon.
NEXT INSTALLMENT, 18.2, COMING IN A WEEK. MEANWHILE, MORE BACKSTORY BLOG ON THE WAY