The apartment was part of an old farmhouse, divided into four different apartments, at 17A Wantage Ave. Having been together for about five years, we craved independence — to us, $850 per month was a small price to pay to play ‘House,’ so we signed the lease. The walls were thin and hardly insulated, the windows single-pane. We didn’t know at the time that propane heat burns twice as fast as oil, and that insulation is relatively important during harsh New Jersey winters. Ready to Columbus our way into the New World of adulthood, we shopped and shopped, furnishing our new home, painting and remodeling, making it ours.
As the summer turned to fall, the crisp air filtered through our apartment. I miss that the most — cleaning the house on sunny October days, opening all the windows and feeling the fresh air purify everything it touched. Little did I know that in another month, we’d be biting each other’s heads off, arguing over the standard of living: PUT A SWEATSHIRT ON! Sean howled. LET ME TURN UP THE HEAT TO SIXTY-FIVE, I’d screech. We’d then walk outside together to the propane tank, open the top, and see that we were in the Red Zone already: only 20% of the tank left until the next delivery in a month, and we had only kept the thermostat at fifty-five tops. (Now, we realize there was something wrong with this tank, but at the time, we had no idea.) I pouted, layering on a sweatshirt on top of long john’s, and we made up by forced snuggling to keep warm through body heat (even though we were still mad at each other for reasons beyond either of our control).
But we managed. We went out and bought space heaters, because we were sold on the marketing scheme of “Energy Efficient.” Freezing and impulsive, we bought three. One for the bedroom, one tower for the living room, and one that looked like a wood-burning stove (I still miss turning that one on, sitting in the dark living room, watching the fake flames flicker in the darkness as we snuggled). It was finally kind of warm, at least warm enough to not need the long john’s.
And then we got the electric bill. It was a gorgeous winter day — the kind with bright blue skies, freezing cold but dry so it felt refreshing, so I walked the little way down the road to our PO Box in my Uggs, black leggings, and my winter coat, loving the independence of our newfound adulthood and the beauty of the day. I encountered the cute old people of Branchville that lived there all their lives, watched them mosey from Jim’s Luncheonette to the barber shop and elsewhere, and bumped into Mr. Kymer — for all of my life, Mr. Kymer never aged, but always looked about 82. He was a kind, quiet soul that didn’t need to say much, but stood for a lot. He owned the campground on the road I grew up on and lived set far back from the road across from our house. As kids, my sister and I sometimes set up lemonade stands at the end of our driveway, a thankless job on a country road where only a few cars an hour passed by us, leaving us in the dust of the gravel, but we hoped to lure people driving by with our fantastic Just Add Water lemonade. About 90% of the time, Mr. Kymer was our only customer. He’d pull down the hill of his driveway about thirty times a day as he went back and forth between his house and the campground, and whenever we had our enterprise set up, he stopped at least half of the time — the first few times he stopped, he’d give us $5 each time for our $1 lemonade, and then as the day progressed and he tired of lemonade and his wallet got thinner, he’d start paying the asking price, and we were thrilled regardless. As we passed each other in town that day, we smiled and said hello, and my heart filled with content at the simplicity of this life — this life where Mr. Kymer had lived all of his days, and watched the little girl across the street grow up into a now-woman, and I wondered what that must be like for him to watch the world grow up around him. I looked around my small town that I’d known for all of my life and I saw the beauty in how none of it ever changed; I knew my small town was a time capsule and I knew life was happening outside of it (and within it, in a different way) and while I loved my roots, I yearned to know what was beyond the zone of my optimal comfort.
As I walked into the post office, I smiled and said hello to Mr. Nelson, the dad of a boy I went to school with and had known since we were four. I walked up to our box and pulled out our bills. I opened the JCP&L first and my sunny day turned to shock and awe and confusion and despair. The numbers 9-2-1 stood in that order in the “Pay This Amount” box next to a dollar sign. There were no decimals. If the frigid winter air wasn’t going to chill us to the bone, the decimation of our bank account was determined to.
We carried on. One way or another we figured out a way to pay it. We didn’t do it with a smile, but it was paid. We kept the bill; still have it in our memory box to this day.
In the midst of figuring out where life would be taking us, we discussed many different paths to take. Our families were concerned about Sean staying in construction, because we both have relatives who are tradesmen, and after about twenty years of taking a daily beating on the job from physical labor, the body just don’t work so good no more. And if a guy isn’t union, he can kiss retirement goodbye. So, the families were worried. They suggested things like becoming a fireman or a cop. I could tell that neither really excited Sean all that much; he’s so spatial and creative. At least with carpentry, he could do finish work and be creative in that sense… but those other two careers didn’t leave much room for my artist of a husband, and I wasn’t crazy about him running into burning buildings or facing off with bad guys. My uncle John had been a cop and I remember one story in particular about a guy that he arrested that ended up serving three years in state prison, and when he got out, he went back to Morristown, found my uncle, and said, “Hey, Officer Douglas, you remember me?” and my uncle, all 6’7 of him, looked at him and thought oh shit. He saw that the guy had spent every waking moment in prison working out, and said that if he too hadn’t kept up at the gym, he would’ve been dead. So, the guy approached my uncle, a circle formed around them, and the guy attacked. My uncle somehow managed to hit his radio for backup and keep up with the guy for the fight until backup arrived.
Call me crazy, but that wasn’t a life I wanted for my soon-to-be husband.
Sean’s uncle, who was also a cop, said he’d prefer to see Sean as a fireman. Great schedule, nice retirement. It was a step, and Sean took some of those steps. He signed up for fire school through the volunteer fire department of our town and was gone a couple nights per week learning about being a fireman and going through fire simulations. He learned a lot, earned a bunch of certificates, and made some friends. During that time he was at class at night, sometimes I’d sit out on our front porch with our neighbor Ashley, drink wine, and have a girl night.
We had just began to trust Bosco, our now one-year-old Golden Retriever mix, around the house here and there. He was still a pup, just over a year old, so we started slowly. I let him have the run of the house when I sat on the porch, because I figured I could hear if he got into anything. I was wrong, and I learned quickly that Bosco is quite passive aggressive in nature.
It was around nine o’clock. I finished up my glass of Yellow Tail chardonnay with Ashley and made my way back into the house. It was quiet; too quiet. Bosco wasn’t in the living room. He wasn’t in the dining room. I walked into the kitchen…. and he wasn’t there either. Except, there was a three foot by three foot hole in the linoleum in the center of the kitchen. I stood in the doorway, jaw dropped, eyes wide, just as the headlights of Sean’s Scion TC lit up the garage, which I could see through the back door of our kitchen. Bosco very softly jumped off of the bed and stood in the doorway as well, ears back, head hung low, watching me from the top of his eyes in shame. “Your daddy is going to lose his shit,” I said to a very ashamed Bosco. He heard Sean’s footsteps come up to the back door and with that, he slowly turned around and crawled under the bed, with his ass and back legs hanging out.
That weekend, Sean patched the floor with some linoleum he found in the basement, only to have Bosco find the seam less than a week later and rip it right back up. So, $250 later, we installed Pergo floors.
We stayed at that apartment for only a year, but then it was time to move on. We found a townhouse in Newton for $1200 per month, and it had natural gas heat… which cost $50 per month and I could turn it up to EIGHTY DEGREES! I was in heaven, and Sean sweat his tooshy off. I kept it so hot, in fact, that one day, returning home from work, I walked in the house and found our Christmas Tree’s needles in a pile on the floor, surrounding our tree, leaving nothing but naked twigs holding our ornaments. We bought a fake tree that night — I wasn’t about to let a real tree with all of its ‘Christmas Spirit’ ruin my indoor tropical living conditions.
The condo was three stories with cathedral ceilings and a garage which Sean converted into a workshop. We actually had a laundry room and didn’t have to do laundry at my parents house anymore.
We stayed there for just under two years before Hawaii came a’knockin’.