A Place for Fire

From The Paris Review:

We were still in Colorado when we booked a first appointment with a realtor in Rhode Island. In the hour before our video call, my husband suggested we make a list of must-have and nice-to-have features in a house. He wrote “3 BR” in the must-have column on a page in his notebook, because we each wanted our own office, then leaned back in his chair. “Built-in bookshelves would be nice,” he said. We’ve always wanted built-in bookshelves. We didn’t yet know we were going to run out of space in the shipping container we’d rented and would have to throw out all the shelves we owned. “A fireplace,” he added thoughtfully. I went into my strident mode, a part of my bad personality that for some reason I cannot change. “A fireplace isn’t optional!” I said, taking the pen and writing “fireplace” in the must-have column. “I’m not going to buy a house without a fireplace.”

We’d spent eleven years in Denver, all in the same apartment, not because we liked the apartment so much, but because every year, when our lease renewal came up, we never felt much like moving. We had moved out there from Boston with eighty or ninety boxes of books, and we didn’t want to pack them up again. We kept hitting that snooze button. Finally John convinced me to move back to New England—he was born in Connecticut, and he never stopped missing it, the trees and the stone walls and all that. What pushed us over was the housing market, which was more reasonable in Providence than in Denver. John kept showing me listings for adorable Colonials with mortgage payments not much higher than our rent. They looked cozy, and I thought I could be happy in New England if we had a little house to settle down in—one last move for us and for the books—if we could cozy up together on a couch and read by the fire.

We drove across the country at the end of March 2022, arriving in John’s hometown in early April—an old mill town in Southeastern Connecticut, an hour from Providence. Our plan was to stay with his mother for a few months. This had a dual purpose. We’d save money on rent and recoup the costs of moving while we looked for a permanent place to live. We could also help Linda with some things around the house, and keep her company—John’s father had died the previous fall. We felt useful, helping her clean out the basement, which had flooded the previous summer, and manage the yard, and so did she—on nights when we had to work late, Linda made dinner.

It’s strange to return. I lived in Boston in my twenties, and now I’m in my forties. One weekend in April we visited friends in Cambridge, then stopped in Harvard Square to buy Linda a Mother’s Day present. There was still a bitter chill in the wind that morning, and as we drove around looking for a spot to leave the car, we kept passing places where I remembered being cold. Once I slipped on some ice coming out of a bar on Mass Ave. It must have been 2007. There was frozen, jagged snow all over the sidewalks, and I tore my jeans and scraped up my knees and the palms of my hands. A couple days later I got food poisoning—it was particularly miserable, vomiting while down on my wounded knees.

During the spring and into summer, whenever anybody asked me how the house hunt was going, I’d make the same unfunny joke. We’re facing two problems, I’d say, and they’re related. The places we like, we can’t afford, and the places we can afford, we don’t like. During the nine or so months between our decision to move and the actual move, housing prices had gone up something like 25 percent. We had told our realtor the absolute top of our range. A week or so later, he asked for a reminder of that figure, quoting back a number fifty thousand dollars higher than the one we’d given him. I didn’t know how to respond. The places in our price range lacked our must-have features, to say nothing of nice ones. I felt like a fool.

When I was twelve or so, my parents converted their wood-burning fireplace to gas. The idea was that it would be so much easier to light and extinguish that we’d use it more often. But the fireplace lost almost all of its appeal. It no longer gave off any real heat, and it didn’t smell delicious—it didn’t smell like anything—and worst of all, it didn’t crackle. I love the sound of a wood fire, and I got through many a winter in that Denver apartment by burning a special kind of candle with a crackling wooden wick, and by playing ASMR white noise videos on YouTube with names like “Cozy Reading Nook Ambience” and, my favorite, “Crackling Campfire on the Windy Tundra of Norway.” My family’s new gas fireplace offered no drama. As Jun’ichirō Tanizaki once wrote of electric heaters, “without the red glow of the coals, the whole mood of winter is lost.” After the conversion we only lit a fire once a year, on Christmas, and in a perfunctory fashion. In Providence, I thought we might have to settle for a gas fireplace. But most houses we looked at had no fireplace at all. And with interest rates increasing, we couldn’t afford those houses either.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

1 thought on “A Place for Fire”

  1. The places in our price range lacked our must-have features, to say nothing of nice ones.

    Living in the real world sucks, doesn’t it.

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