Ethan knew the day our moving truck was coming. Friday, September 5, exactly two weeks after his own move to Penn State. We spoke that morning around 6 a.m. He called, not to talk about the momentous fact that, in a matter of hours, his childhood home would no longer belong to us, but to gripe about having to be up so early for crew practice.
“This is just cruel,” he moaned.” All I can think about is when I’ll finally be able to lay down and take a nap.”
He called the following day too, my first in our shared home with Dan. This time it was to talk over the results of a recent quiz. I sat on the floor surrounded by boxes, my cell phone pressed to my ear.
“A B- is nothing to feel bad about,” I assured him. “The next one will go better now that you’ll know more of what to expect.”
“I guess,” he said, still sounding disheartened. I leaned against a carton marked Kitchen and recalled the evening during his sophomore year in high school when he turned to me at dinner and, apropos of nothing, asked, “So when I leave for college will you move in with Dan?”
“We’ve talked about it,” I’d answered carefully. “How did you know?”
Dan and I had, in fact, talked about it intently, for years, asking ourselves all kinds of questions. Should we uproot Ethan before he started high school? (Obviously we decided against it.) Remain in Dan’s town or move closer to his aging mother and step-father? (We chose to stay.) Live in Dan’s house or buy one we chose together? (We opted to live in the downstairs apartment of Dan’s two-family house, which had always held tenants, and create workspace above.)
“It just makes sense,” Ethan had said.
Now here it was, finally come to fruition. I wanted to tell Ethan how giddy Dan seemed when I arrived just ahead of the moving van, and to describe the comedy of errors as the crew attempted to fit the couch through the door. I wanted to mention how nice it felt to drift off to sleep to the sound of crickets instead of the sirens, car horns, and the loud banter of the bar crowd that had filled our nights in Hoboken. But I took Ethan’s lead and didn’t say any of this. I didn’t mention the move at all.
Whenever Ethan called, we discussed such things as crew races, class assignments, cafeteria food, and communal bathrooms. I felt honored that my 17-year-old reached out as often as he did, and I relished these talks. But I also hungered to break in with news of the new home front. Ethan never brought it up so I kept quiet. Being away at college was enough of an adjustment, I reasoned. In these first weeks of his new, relatively independent life, he clearly didn’t need a reminder that when he finally took a break and came home, it wouldn’t be to the home he’d always known.
Meanwhile, Dan and I were falling in love with our own new, relatively interdependent lives. We relished setting up house together and cooking with and for one another. Dan took to calling our downstairs apartment the cottage because he found it so cozy and inviting. Though he laughed at me for this, I took to calling our suburban town that sits just five miles southwest of Philadelphia the country because of our untamed yard, the evergreen that stands sentry over the neighbors’ driveway, and the creek I discovered a half a mile up the road. Train whistles punctuated the quiet at regular intervals from the station at the end of our block, a reminder that we could be in Center City in 15 minutes. We had orchestra concerts on our calendar, along with plays, and lectures from the remarkable Authors’ Series at the Free Library. Almost immediately upon moving in, I knew this was the right place for me at the right time in my life. Only when Ethan phoned would I question this. The timing must be all wrong if he couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge that we’d moved. His first year away at school brought all the change and uncertainly one kid should have to contend with.
Then, on the morning of my birthday, exactly two weeks after the move, Ethan called and asked how I planned to celebrate. I hesitated. This was the first question he’d asked me about myself since we parted, and my answer would highlight how much had changed.
“We’re having Mim and the two Daves over for dinner,” I told him, referring to Dan’s mom, step-dad, and brother.
“Cool. Have they seen the house since you moved in?”
I almost asked him to repeat the question. Instead, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
“Nope. This will be the first time. I’m excited for them to see what I’ve done with the place.” I paused. “I’m really excited for when you finally see it.”
Of course Ethan knew Dan’s house from years of visiting, but it had always been that—Dan’s house, a place we visited. He’d only ever been in the bachelor pad on the second floor. The first floor apartment, the cottage, was new to all of us, and I’d been working hard to make it homey and welcoming.
“I know, Mom. I’m looking forward to it too.”
Though Dan is blind, he often knows when I’m smiling. He says he can hear me do it. Now I wondered if Ethan could hear my grin through the phone. After we hung up, I wandered into the sunny room at the front of the apartment. I switched on the lamp beside Ethan’s bed, smoothed his quilt with my palm, and straightened the framed photo of Jimi Hendrix above his blond wooden dresser. This was the very dresser that had stood in his nursery back when he was still a cluster of cells rapidly dividing inside me. Then too, I’d putter around his room, readying it for him, trying to picture him in it, waiting for him to claim the home I made as his own.