819 Gaffield Place

819 Gaffield Place

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

819 Gaffield Place

A run-down, off-campus student house in a family neighborhood, 819 Gaffield Place was where Zoe, Judy, Lisa and I lived during our senior year at Northwestern University. The shingles were covered with yellow and brown chipped paint, and the roof was the pale, cloudy color of chocolate milk. A worn white sofa sat on the porch among piles of mail and coupons delivered to anyone who had ever lived there, and two bicycles were chained to the stair rail. To our neighbors it must have looked like a perpetual garage sale, but to us it was home—one that was always a soothing sight to me.

One night I walked there from my boyfriend’s apartment after a fight. It was 2:00 A.M., silent and dark, but as I turned the corner past Philbrick Park, the lone street lamp illuminated Gaffield in the distance. I started to run, wanting to be there, to feel safe instead of empty. The curly numbers of “819” came into view. When I opened the glass door and saw the first-floor light, tears welled in my eyes. I burst into the living room.

“Uh-oh,” said Zoe when she saw my face. Grabbing her car keys, Judy said, “Slurpees.” The others put on their sneakers. We always dealt this way with breakups, failed exams and bad news from home. There was something reassuring about a Slurpee always tasting the same no matter what time it was or which 7-Eleven we went to.

After driving to the all-night 7-Eleven, we headed for Lake Shore Drive, our favorite ride. Lake Michigan was calm outside the car window; inside I was comforted within the cocoon of my friends.

I would be okay.

I had not always felt okay. As a child growing up in New York City, I was often lonely. On Sunday mornings, I sat in our sleek, white Formica kitchen hoping my mother would wake up and make waffles with raspberry jam and maple syrup. But my parents, tired from late Saturday nights, stayed in their room with the door shut until noon.

Then, my parents divorced when I was twelve, and my mother moved out. Months passed between her visits and calls. Though I lived in my father and brother’s world of football games and boxer shorts, what I really needed was someone to do my nails with, and talk girl-talk and cry to.

At our house, there was no such thing as being late for dinner because most nights I ordered from a pile of takeout menus. A “family dinner” meant we all ordered from the same restaurant, but we still ate separately, each one of us watching television in our own bedrooms. I knew the string of deliverymen who brought our dinners better than any neighbors.

So I was ready for Gaffield. I first saw the cozy house during my junior year when I visited a friend who lived there. Immediately, I arranged to live there next, and Zoe and Lisa were interested. To afford this house, we needed a fourth. The current Gaffield girls suggested Judy, who they knew was eager to move in. But Judy and I didn’t like each other. A year before, she had dated a guy named Billy for a few months. Then I dated him. It turned out he cheated on each of us with the other. Billy was out of our lives, but the jealousy and resentment lingered.

“You’re a lot alike,” said our mutual friends.

“It’s a big place. You’ll hardly see her,” said Zoe.

I wanted the house and warily agreed. We moved in on a June day after the resident seniors graduated. The price for all their furniture and dishes was fifty dollars—exactly what they had paid the girls before them and the price as long as anyone could remember.

For the first few weeks, Judy and I made stilted small talk when the four of us were together and avoided being left alone. One night I was boiling water for tea when Judy came into the kitchen to make popcorn. We proceeded in silence for several minutes. Finally, she spoke. “This is ridiculous. I don’t care about Billy anymore.“

Startled, I burned my hand on the teapot. “Me neither,” I said.

“But,” she paused. “There are a few things I want to know.” We talked for hours, sitting on the wooden countertop with a bowl of popcorn between us. My other friends had always dismissed Billy as a jerk or a phony, but Judy understood his allure and the pain he could cause. It felt so good to say what I wanted and to stop pretending that things were fine. When Zoe and Lisa came home and found us together, they began talking quickly, trying to break through awkwardness that was no longer there.

“It’s okay,” Judy interrupted. “We talked about everything.”

The four of us had already lived in the same house for almost a month, but that night marked the beginning of our life together. We started developing rituals and routines. We had bagel breakfasts, walked to class together, grocery shopped on Wednesday nights. Returning from class on rainy days, I would count the slickers on the porch railing to see who was home. In the fall and winter, Sunday dinner was pizza, and in the spring we barbecued on the porch. But the best time was meeting at home at the end of each day.

One night I was late for dinner because I had a meeting with my American-literature professor. On my way home, I imagined Lisa, who loved to cook, at the stove in our kitchen and Judy, who preferred to watch, asking, “Isn’t Michele’s class over at five?” I walked faster. The second porch step made its familiar sigh as my foot landed on it.

“We were worried,” said Judy when I walked in. Everyone was in her seat at the table beside the large window. The fourth chair was empty with a place set. My shoulders relaxed. I was back in my spot.

As seniors with most of our credits complete, we didn’t feel guilty about cutting our afternoon classes. We would walk down the alley to buy tomato soup or candy at the deli and rent movies from the video store. We would spend the afternoon in the living room by the brick fireplace or on the plump sofa covered in blue velour worn to the color of a spring sky. We talked about everything, from what we were learning from our majors to what we were learning about sex. I knew whose boyfriend liked red lingerie and whose preferred none. When my boyfriend said, “Don’t tell anyone,” the Gaffield girls didn’t count. I saw them as an extension of myself; nothing I told them would go beyond our circle.

At times like that I felt that we had become a kind of family. I realized family doesn’t have to be your relatives— family means that your life is part of someone else’s like sections of hair that need each other to form a braid. Often I raced upstairs to my journal to record these scenes. Most of the entries ended with, “This won’t last forever.”

But in some ways it has. Seven years later, we all live in New York and see each other every few weeks. Recently, two nights before her wedding, I handed Lisa the blue satin garter I had worn at mine. On it I had sewn a piece of pink ribbon on which I wrote “The Gaffield Garter” in indelible ink. As the first of us to marry, I decided to pass my garter along. I know sisters who have such wedding traditions, and my old roommates are my sisters.

Occasionally, we talk about visiting Gaffield, but we haven’t. We don’t want to see other people’s raincoats hanging on the porch railing or another car parked in the alley. We don’t need to see that creaky house—it is inside each of us.

One mention of Gaffield, and all our faces relax with a softness usually reserved for remembering a first love. Recently, when I was giving blood, I felt faint and had to look away from the needle. “Think of something pleasant,” said the nurse. “Like the Caribbean or ice cream.”

Like Gaffield’s rainy day smell or the softness of the blue sofa. Like seeing the curly numbers come into focus as I hurried down our street and ran up our porch steps.

That’s my something pleasant, now and always.

Michele Bender

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