What if

We are visiting cousins in Philadelphia. The girls are staying at their house and we are in a guest house five minutes away, in what is truly, doubly, a railroad flat: a long narrow flat of rooms all off a single, long corridor which overlooks the tracks of the commuter line.

This is like the apartment we would have had if we had stayed in the town where we went to college, my husband remarks as we are unpacking the car. Or if you had gone to Iowa for grad school and I had gone with you.

´╗┐´╗┐Suddenly, we are just two people, with a dog, unpacking our car and moving our stuff into this little apartment in a college neighborhood. A young guy from across the street, plaid shorts, big curly hair with, I kid you not, bongo drums in his trunk, says hello. The little boy from across the street wants to pet the dog.

The neighbors seem friendly. I think we’re going to like living here.

What if we didn’t have children? What if one or both of us had ended up being a professor and this was how we had lived until one of us had gotten tenure and then we bought a small house a few minutes farther from campus. Hopefully this had happened by now.

The apartment reminds us immediately of the apartment of one of our English professors, where our writing class met and where we attended parties with other English majors. We sat on cushions on the floor. There were these same kinds of lamps. There were scatter rugs and tippy floors. He had really nice rugs, actually, from his summer travels, and a record collection. We listened to something new, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, one night. He loaned me Wagner records when I had a paper for another class that dealt with Jung and The Ring Cycle. You could pull a book off the shelf, Nabokov, Merrill, and discover a new realm of literature. O college.

We could be him. That would be us now. Or it would have been us ten years ago.

A friend has just posted a collection of pictures from college on her Facebook page and my husband and I look at them together in the guest house, with its sturdy china and its friendly, jumbly kitchen where we would have made tea for people, big mugs of herbal tea after someone cooked something for dinner… what did we know how to cook then? Come on over. We’re making pancakes, fondue, tacos, pasta with Prego sauce, banana bread, something from the Moosewood Cookbook or the Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

Bad 80s hair and Cosby sweaters. Time on our hands.

It was different then, my husband says. We only used computers if we had a paper to write or if we were playing that computer game. (Dark Castle.)

Yeah, I said, and if you wanted to know what people were doing, you walked out to find them.

You could spend a whole night walking around with your pack of friends looking for the right party. Which was how I spent my 20th reunion, ambling around the College Center with a group as we tried to create middle-aged mischief.

This is why you should not bring your children to reunions. They do not need to know this about you.

I tagged one of our friends in the photos and sent her a message, sharing with her our thoughts about life lived off-screen. She had discovered a few years ago that her teenage son was texting, with one hand in his pocket, during church. She predicts that when he is college they will still walk around in packs, but texting each other. Phone calls, she tells me, are uncool, for emergencies, usually from moms. Emergencies are uncool.

Or what if we didn’t get tenure? And we had just moved yet again. We would be two people, standing in front of a little house thinking, Maybe this place was the one. Maybe this time it would work out the way we had always hoped it would.

In Dark Castle, you are a knight on a quest faced with a long corridor with several doors. Each holds a different fate. Sometimes the knight would be hit in the head, which caused him to be disoriented, to wobble and go whuh-uh, whuh-uh. My husband and two of his housemates would play this game for hours on an Apple II computer. The sound effects became a running joke for us. The knight’s quest, all the door opening, the options, the knight’s temporary and disabling befuddlement, the attempts to work out the pattern, some kind of system for making progress, was not a bad metaphor for the mental state of us as college upperclassmen.

Being in this flat is like opening a door to a life we left a long time ago, whose texture and delineation, once so familiar, we had almost forgotten. A door we had not chosen, and that even shut still makes you wonder, What if…


One Reply to “What if”

  1. My girls are at sleepaway camp for three whole weeks. I am having a very long “what if” experience (what if no kids). But in my case, it is in the same setting (no small, artsy apartments to ignite a whole road-not-taken fantasy). Still, I am eating Turkish leftovers for breakfast — yum — and getting reacquainted with James (the healing powers of which are not to be underestimated).


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