Late November

On a Tuesday night, a couple of weeks after having moved into our new apartment, I found myself taking a swig from a wine bottle while balancing atop my three-step-ladder. Bits of cork got stuck between my teeth.

As far as I could tell, this was The Pits, no matter that I was elevated by a few feet from my kitchen floor (which itself was 11 floors above ground). I could not remember ever feeling this hopeless before. This helpless, lonely, and exhausted. I was weeks away from my 47th birthday, and life had led me to the top rung of a Rubbermaid kitchen stool, my most recent accomplishment being that I had managed to pry most of the cork out of a wine bottle with a screwdriver, which was the tool I held in my other hand, even though the true purpose of why I did so had momentarily escaped me.

All around me rose mountains of boxes. I knew a corkscrew was hidden somewhere in there, as were glasses. But I had given up on looking for them. Every day for the last two weeks or so the contractors had come and painted something, and in order to be able to do so, every day they had moved and rearranged all the boxes. They were efficient, clean and quick, but they literally turned my life upside down.

No matter how carefully I had labeled all boxes in preparation of the move, hardly any box was in the room it was supposed to be in, and the ones marked “unpack immediately” were buried under all the others. For a couple of days, I had not been able to locate fresh underwear for my daughter.

“You should have packed a suitcase,” my best friend M. said, with both incredulous and accusatory undertones in his voice. How could I, the most organized of people, not have thought of something so basic? I had, of course, except that I had thought of the suitcase more as an overnight bag. My main focus, on the actual day of our move, had been my daughter’s Halloween costume, needed one day later. We had had sheets on our beds and a few towels and our toothbrushes in the bathroom, but that had been it. And then it turned out that we would not have been able to unpack anything; we had no place to put things as long as we were sharing what was supposedly our new place with four guys wielding paint rollers and large rolls of  blue masking tape.

Of course, the homemade chicken noodle soup we had planned to have the first night in the new place had been an illusion, even though a small pot had been part of the overnight kit and the stock was in the freezer. The range and all countertops and cabinets in the kitchen were hidden by protective paper, and for more than a week we ate out every single meal. Every morning, before going to work, I stuck my arm down a half-open box of sweaters and pulled out a random garment. I hoped that nobody but my immediate coworkers would notice that I was wearing the same skirt and boots for a week straight. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get too cold just yet. I had the sinking feeling that the big box nestled in the middle of the five dozen book boxes in my living room might be the one containing all my coats and jackets.

The truth was, I had not thought this through. For once, I had been woefully unprepared. Or had I? As far as I could tell, I had spent all summer doing nothing but prepare for this move. Getting together the paperwork for the loan application had taken months, but it had been a breeze compared to the amount of time it took to compile the paperwork for the co-op admission. I had spent weekends crawling through files and standing by the xerox machine in my office. I had also, strategically, started to pack up the basement in my old cottage – what to take, what to offer to friends and neighbors, what to designate for Goodwill. We had even managed to burn the last few logs of firewood we had had left from the winter before. The last fire in our big brick fireplace in the living room. The last rose from the garden. The last cup of coffee on the front step, in the warm morning sun of a late fall Sunday.

But then there had been all the other things. Life didn’t just stop because I needed to prepare for a move. My daughter struggled with the adjustment to a new school, and I felt that I couldn’t give her even a fraction of the attention she needed. I had to prepare for a big annual business trip, so more weekends were spent in the office. There were mornings when I woke up paralyzed with fear of the chores that needed to be done in the next 24 hours, because I just knew I couldn’t accomplish them all.

This was when my friends stepped in. They could do this because over the past six years, after my divorce and during my years in my small cottage, I had learned to ask for help, something I had found very hard to do all my life. In the absence of any close family in New York City, I had had to build a new one, one of choice and of trust. We had come together not because we had known each other from childhood but because we had all gone through enough in life to understand what was important. This was.

It started over the summer. While I tried to decide which apartment to buy and if at all, my best friend K. looked at a few places with me (I have several best friends). He came along and honestly told me what he thought. And when, a bare 10 days before my closing, I went on my big business trip, my best friend M. rounded up a contractor, figured out what needed to be done, negotiated the price and had it all set up for me when I got back. (Normally, he gets paid for this.)

When we moved, K. spent the day directing the movers, accompanying them to the storage space while my daughter and I walked across the park with our cat in her carrier, from the old address to the new one (we also carried my daughter’s Halloween costume). K. directed traffic in the apartment during the afternoon, and he dropped my daughter off at a costume party on his way home that evening.

Other friends cooked for us during the first days. Nothing is more important than a home-cooked meal when your fridge is closed off with blue masking tape and when you have no resources to dress even for the neighborhood pasta place.

But there were things even my friends could not do for me. After 10 days of going to the diner at the corner even for a hot cup of tea, things started to feel very lonely. The physical labor still ahead seemed insurmountable.

To me, there is no pride anymore in being able to get it all done. Nor in doing it alone. This is where I truly feel my body is getting older: I just can’t unpack my whole kitchen in one setting anymore, pulling an all-nighter. Instead, this time it took me a whole weekend. Moving furniture around in order to unroll a carpet (straight and without the rug pad showing on any side, no less) and then putting the furniture back on top of the darn thing was hard work. And yet I had to do this work by myself. It was me who needed to put every cup, every book in its proper place because only I could determine where that would be to make it feel right.

And as I was doing all this, a sense of doubt crept in that, like the sense of loneliness, no friends could share. A sense of failing my daughter, of not ever being able to pay her enough attention. At age 10, and I had uprooted her, yet again, in the middle of an intense new phase of her life, at a time where other children are happily settled in suburban routines.

I worried about having to create a new space. I worried about the huge financial decision I had made that could not be undone, at least not for a very long time. I felt stuck, stuck between my boxes, with one pair of boots to wear in the morning. I felt like I had never had to go it alone the way I did this time.

It took six weeks to get a working home phone line and an Internet connection. “Well,” M. said cheerfully when I moaned about this around Thanksgiving, “if you can’t be on the computer, that gives you time to do other things. Hang some pictures, honey. Get some flowers. So that you can start to feel at home.”

I told my daughter that while she’d be spending Thanksgiving with her father, I’d hang some pictures and get some flowers. So that we could start to feel at home. She rolled her eyes and said, “But, Mama, I already feel totally at home.” She went into her room and closed the door for half an hour. Then she tiptoed into the main hallway and, five minutes later, rang our doorbell. She had taped a drawing to the door. It showed a flower in front of a blue sky, and it read “Welcome.”

So over Thanksgiving, I hung some pictures. I called a bunch of my best friends and asked them for dinner for my birthday. To have a deadline to look forward to: By mid-December, I would have to have turned this place into a home of sorts. I got some paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs from the farmer’s market. My new place did not feel quite ready yet for flowers, but perhaps it would by the time the amaryllis were ready to bloom.

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