One late afternoon, Ethan and I come home to find the doors of our apartment building propped open with boxes, and piles of furniture lining the lobby walls. We’re used to this. Hoboken is a transient town, and ours is a particularly transient building. I’m the anomaly. I’ve lived in the same apartment for twenty years, longer than I lived in the house where I grew up.
My life was very different when I first came to this town in 1993. My parents were both healthy and alive, as was my marriage to Richard. The question of whether we’d become parents ourselves was still unanswered.
The manuscript of my first children’s book awaited its fate on a desk across the river in the offices of HarperCollins, and I had just started graduate school in librarianship. The building we moved into was populated, almost exclusively, by young professionals who worked long hours in Manhattan. Not one child shared our address, though sometime during our first year, my upstairs neighbor had a baby girl. She and her husband stayed for the first few months of their daughter’s life, then moved to the suburbs. The couple that bought their apartment had a baby around the time I graduated. I was pregnant with Ethan by then, and not long after he was born, that other burgeoning family also left for greener lawns.
“Does it say somewhere in the bylaws that only one child can live in this building at a time?” I asked Richard.
“That does seem to be the pattern,” he agreed.
It would be some years before the one-child spell finally broke. Meanwhile, that one child moved through the many milestones of growing up. When Ethan crawled, he hit the floor with loud slaps I’m certain our downstairs neighbors could hear. When he raised himself up and took his first steps, he turned to me with an impish grin, as if to say, “I bet you had no idea I could do this!” And before he could form actual words he stood for a good five minutes and orated in his own private language as my dad listened with patience and awe.
For Ethan’s second birthday we hung large sheets of black paper all through our large kitchen and provided our guests with buckets of chalk. We did this so none of them would notice that we’d closed Ethan’s toys off in his bedroom because he didn’t want anyone touching them. On his fifth birthday, his friends all came in their Halloween costumes, though it was still early in October. On his ninth, groups of boys sat around the kitchen table glancing at their splayed Yu-Gi-Oh cards with the seriousness of poker players. When Ethan turned twelve, he and I stared with the wonder of first-time parents as our new puppy gingerly sniffed her way through each room. Recently, a few months past my boy’s seventeenth birthday, he came home to the gift of a fat packet from Penn State and nearly leapt with joy.
This last, of course, means he’s leaving, come September. When he does I’m leaving too, to finally live with Dan, my long-distance love of nearly a decade, in his quiet town of tree-lined streets outside of Philadelphia. Now, as Ethan and I crowd into the elevator together with an apologetic moving man, an upturned loveseat, and several boxes marked with the names of rooms, I’m struck by the fact that, very soon, this will be us. Our belongings boxed and labeled, everything ahead of us untried, new, and heartbreakingly separate.
It’s true that Ethan will be less than two hundred miles away in State College, Pennsylvania. It’s also true that he’ll have his own room to come home to in the house I’ll share with Dan. Nonetheless, I’m already feeling the pull of nostalgia and the song that has taken residence in my mind, the chorus playing in a torturous loop, is R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
“Have a nice day, guys,” the moving man calls as the door slides closed between us.
“You too,” Ethan and I say in unison.
Ethan waits a beat, then whispers. “That guy smells just like my grandpa.”
Startled, I turn to him. Richard’s father died long before Ethan was born, and my parents both passed away twelve years ago when Ethan was only five.
“At first I thought I was smelling pizza,” he goes on. “You know, because grandpa always brought home slices from Seven Star?”
I nod, amazed that this is still so vivid to him. Every week my dad would come to help me with household projects and spend the afternoon with us. For lunch, he’d walk over to his favorite pizza parlor and bring back three slices, each the size of a quarter pie.
“But it wasn’t pizza I smelled,” Ethan continues as we let ourselves into the apartment. “It just made me think of pizza. He smelled like my grandpa.”
Our dog Cindy dances around us. I click on her leash and head back out. As always happens on someone’s moving day there’s a long wait for the elevator. When it finally comes, the boxes and furniture, along with the man, are gone but there’s a scent in the air I somehow hadn’t noticed before. Lightly sweet and absolutely distinctive, it’s my dad’s aftershave. I haven’t smelled it in a dozen years and I didn’t pay much attention to it then. But here it is, unmistakable and his, and Ethan recognized it instantly.
Downstairs in the lobby, the man is working with another, picking up crates and piling them closer to the elevator. I linger a moment and consider asking what brand of aftershave he’s wearing, but I’m afraid it will sound like a pickup line. Instead I take Cindy outside and let her pee, then rush back in before the scent in the elevator dissipates.
All that evening I think about my dad. The impression he left on five-year-old Ethan. How much I relied on him. The last time I made a major life change, moving here in ’93, my ever-practical dad was around to keep me grounded. Did you fill out a change-of-address form? Contact the gas company? Ask around about apartment insurance yet? He’d rattle off these questions and I’d answer, “Yes, Dad,” rolling my eyes with the unearned confidence that only someone with parents looking out for them can claim.
Now I’m making big decisions that involve major changes in Ethan’s life and mine. All of them are positive and exciting. Still, it’s scary to bring them to fruition without my dad here coaching me and backing me up.
I wish there was a way to know if he knows how well Ethan is doing. Is he aware of Ethan’s good grades and high test scores? Does he know his grandson has grown up to be thoughtful and compassionate?
“He’s given us a lot to kvell over, Dad,” I say aloud.
And in that moment I can almost hear an answer. I know, O. I’m here. After all this time, even the little guy can sense me.
And will you be there, too, I wonder, in the new places we’ll call home? But even as the question occurs to me I know the answer. Where he lives now is inside of me, and inside that amazing young man who’s asleep in his childhood bedroom down the hall.