I lived here for a year. One year. I came in July, which goes against every piece of moving advice if you’re looking for it. It was sticky, hard to breathe, helped none by the dark hardwood floors and walls of our new-old house, three stories up, with only our knees and tired backs to carry the weight of every trunk, pack, and over-stuffed cardboard box. It was a long day.
My partner and I spent the first night in sleeping bags rolled out on the sloping living room floor. The air didn’t move, but we slept like lions. That first night can tell you a lot, can tell you if you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve wasted your time. This night felt good. What a relief.
We woke up around 8:30 and didn’t stop moving until that night, desperate to settle in and let our minds ponder other things. I don’t know what we did for dinner; I don’t know if we had a shower liner or a working television. My memory’s like fogged glass now - one of the many casualties of COVID - but every move looks about the same anyway: throw out, schedule, clean out that space you always avoided, panic, sweat, argue with your significant other, lay down on your couch in an otherwise empty living room and convince yourself it was all worth it.
The house was crooked, aching like an old man bent over a river unable to take a drink. Towards the end, one of my daily nightmares was coming home after a long day to find the kitchen and balcony had slid off - where the fridge was, just open air (and a clear view into the neighbor’s living room). There were birds in the attic, squirrels, too, for a minute, that kept us up all winter long with their coos and scratching. By March, they were gone, and replaced by several hundred horse-sized flies. How we missed the scratching then... There was a marvelous, lovely tree full of leaves that swayed behind the bookcase. It sounded like water when it moved. One morning, we woke up to the sound of them chopping it down. Whap! - it struck the pavement. It felt so wrong.
Aside from us, there was a couple whom we saw the night we moved in and never again, and a woman with cats on the first floor. She, too, wasn’t home for more than three days that year, so the house was quiet. There was the front porch. A Nap Cubby converted into a Podcast Room converted into an alternative office converted into Nap Cubby 2.0. The yellow room. The balcony, where our friends liked to sit and drink their coffee. We spent every waking moment here, for a year. Any other time, I would have rejoiced - this place is so big, so bright, especially in the early morning - but it didn’t keep us from feeling confined, and terribly, horribly bored. The late-night drum beats, the lame drag-racing down suburban streets that would set every baby in a one block radius off at once - that all weighed on my head, and it kept me from sleeping too soundly, especially as lonely winter turned belly up to inevitable spring.
That isn’t Buffalo’s fault, just a side effect of living in a place with too many people during a pandemic when there isn’t much to do. It’s a good city. It takes a lot for me to say that because I’ve somewhat come to resent it. It’s a tiny large town, incestuous, madly in love with itself, terribly naive and ignorant to the rest of the world mostly by choice. In a moment of rage at our isolation, I referred to it as a desolate Canadian bus stop, which isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it is a narrow description. My partner is from here. It shows in the way he greets people, also in his idealism. The people here are grounded optimists, a stark contrast to the city I was before, and one that hasn’t entirely sold me. They seem neighborly to each other and, otherwise, disinterested. The young people, though, I never spent enough time with to get to know, so that’s all conjecture.
Most of my views on native Buffalonians came from here. It’s an indistinguishable brick building tucked between a sleepy cul-de-sac and a river, brown, flocked with deer. I started working as a part-time wellness leader at the assisted living facility in September of the year that moved quickly and also not at all, well-suited for the people inside. They had all cropped up here, in houses like mine, on streets like this. They had all gone to the same high-school, years apart, and married into each other’s families. They were deeply American, which is to say they held distinguished xenophobic views of the Irish and Italians but held names like McLaughlinh and Rossi. They were also hard-working: even now, ten years into retirement, many of them didn’t know how to sit still.
Here I would find people I connected to keenly, despite the 70+ year age difference. Unlike my own grandparents - who had been rather unforthcoming with details of their past - these folks wanted, desperately, someone to listen to their stories. For many of them, it was a last-ditch effort to pass on their ideas to another person. The elderly’s relationship with death is similar to our own relationship with car insurance: the bill’s always coming; pay it and keep moving. They were curious, forgetful, and all of them loyal to their grandchildren.
It was a strange place to be at twenty-three, and then twenty-four.
This is where I met Betty - or, more truthfully, where Betty met me. She pointed me out, almost demanded to know what my name was and what I was all about. She was wearing a pink velvet jumpsuit and cat-eye glasses.
“What’s your name?”
I told her.
“I like you. I like the way you do things.” she said.
“I like you too, Betty.”
She was a girl scout leader for fifty years (she liked to remind me) and collected everything from ribbons to flowers. During a brisk, mid-October walk, donned in three layers and a yellow rain jacket, she pointed out leaves she wanted to take home. It was my job to fetch them. Once I nearly slipped and tumbled down the embankment which would have spit me out to the freezing river. She belly-laughed so hard, she fell back onto a bench and huffed her inhaler.
I could do this forever, I told her. She sighed and said she hadn’t been outside since May.
“Feels good.” The wind tousled her gray hair like an old friend. She was beautiful, right in her place.
Shortly thereafter, my shift ended. I had to return her, even though, if we had it our way, we would’ve frolicked into the woods and lived like the witches we were. I clocked out and put an arm around her shoulder, promising I’d see her tomorrow.
“Bye, kid. Thanks for everything.” She said it like she knew this was the last day we’d have together.
Days later, we were in lockdown, suffering from a terrible outbreak of COVID-19 that would last through the winter. Shifts were limited to standing in doorways in full PPE asking if snacks could be fetched. We looked like Martians watering potato plants. It was pathetic. Most residents didn’t even acknowledge our knocks, going so far as to lock their doors to avoid facing the awful truth. Betty, on the other hand, got a kick out of it.
“You got any rum, Buzz?”
“I’ll tip you if you’ve got rum.”
“I don’t drink rum at work, Betty.”
“Mm. You’re sure you’re Irish?”
She laughed at her own joke and then coughed on her own laugh. Her roommate rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath. Betty didn’t pay her any mind.
Working at a nursing home, death is a constant looming bird crowing its arrival every morning. It’s not a secret I and the nurses keep to ourselves - we can all see it out there on the eaves. So-and-so didn’t sleep much last night. It’s a whisper in the hall, a flickering light over the pool table. We’re just waiting for his son to call. It’s what we’re here for, so there’s no dread attached; it’s no terrible awful thing, not some unholy misfortune. We are the valet staff, the lobby-boys in the final bed and breakfast. I like to think of it that way.
Betty died in December. I wish we had more time.
Spring covers Buffalo like a warm cotton sheet. You forget how many people live here until they pour out of their houses like fire ants, invigorated by the sun and the rain and the brimming of boats on the lake. You can’t get away. Everything is suddenly very, very alive.
When I told the residents I was moving again, this time to California, they nodded and congratulated me to be polite. If I prodded, they’d tell me not to go. Once you leave, you never come back. I’ve heard that a lot these last few months. I wonder if it’s true. Buffalo feels like a place where a slightly different version of myself could be very happy, but for this iteration, I feel I’ve arrived ten years and two kids too early.
From here, you can see the cherry tops of downtown cut flat against the sky, the full trees like paint-brushes breaking up the pavement, the slices of yellow park, the flickering News sign. It all swirls together until the edge of town where the fields run suddenly empty. Drive past that and you’ll realize you’re on an island floating in the middle of the Great American Sea, woo! Maybe that’s why it feels so isolated, so utterly strange and watchful. Maybe that’s COVID. Maybe it’s me. Buffalo has a hard time letting you in and letting you go. We are the same in this way.
I lived here for a year. One year. My partner is from here, and it shows in everything that he is: friendly, sharp in that distinctly eastern way, wheels always spinning, hand outreached in enthusiastic compromise, gray sky, clouds full of ice, frigid rivers, dusty meadows.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but it was home for a while. For a while, she was everything.