At Home in the South End

Between the family we’re born into and the one we forge for ourselves, there’s a special layer of friends made on the road. There’s no telling when relationships will spring up between the bricks… unexpected pockets of home that arise when we’re far from it.

Forced to navigate for the cabbie, I felt a touch of East Coast impatience flare when I first arrived in Boston. I gave him the address and he responded in thickly accented English, “Which way you wanna go?”

It was humid and I just wanted to get there. In under five minutes, the muggy air had already loosened waves in my straightened hair. “I don’t know… it’s my first trip here. The fastest way, I guess.” He asked me to repeat the address.

“Claremont Park? I don’t know this street.”

“It’s in the South End.”

He shrugged and I pulled out my phone, thinking that if this had happened a decade ago, we would have had to stop for directions. My hand hovered, waiting for the pulsing blue dot to reveal our location. I pinched my fingertips closed and apart as the map rendered on-screen and a red pin dropped atop my destination.

“It looks like we can go down Tremont and take a right on Worcester. After we cross Columbus, Worcester becomes Claremont Park,” I called through the plastic partition.

“Take a right on what?”

I sighed and repeated, Wor-cess-ter. “The major intersection is Columbus and Massachusetts Avenue.”

“Oh, you mean Wooster near Mass Ave. Okay, now I know.” I smirked at my own uppity-ness and the fact that having a smart phone apparently didn’t mean that I was.

He dropped me off in front of Maya’s house where I pushed the buzzer at the top of the steep stone stairs running up from the street. In the pause before she answered, I surveyed the brownstone walk-ups around me, each with a different colored door, fresh flowers and bay windows jutting out on the corners. The South End’s red bricked sidewalks looked like the kind of urban neighborhood that I’ve always dreamed of living in.

Maya, my airbnb hostess, buzzed me in through the tall outer door and opened the inner glass door. We hugged hello, like I had been away for years. “Welcome, Gabriela!” she beamed, stepping back to get a look at me.

There is a difference between a house and a home; from the first glance, I knew that Maya’s was the latter.

I left my shoes on the Oriental rug and followed her up one curling flight of carpeted stairs to the landing where her rooms were, then up another, my fingertips skimming the polished wood of the bannister. I took in a feast of sights along the way: every nook and ledge held hundreds of stories –statuettes, candle holders, short stacks of new and old books, mementos from all over the world. Amongst them, a menagerie of humans, animals and deities in glass, wood, metal, fiber and stone — none of it matching but all of it belonging together.

As we discussed my trip, I was awed by the decor of her living room: an heirloom bench seat with carved wooden arms, lushly upholstered in green velvet, and a polished dining table with plush molded chairs, like the kind found in fine restaurants that require coats and neckties.

The third floor of her home called to mind a classic East Coast movie set: delicate glass lamps, a large breakfront full of china and crystal and giant carved wood mirrors, all in mint condition. It was the kind of furniture that my family doesn’t own — the kind that’s handed down from generation to generation.

After a sip of water, she welcomed me into the rest of my new world: the bathroom we would share with a glass-enclosed jacuzzi tub, and the dangerously overstuffed refrigerator that flooded my heart with affection. She took me up one last flight — an open wooden staircase that led to the penthouse bedroom, warm and stuffy under the skylight. Inside: blue sky, yellow walls and windows framed in white; outside: puffy clouds, a rooftop garden watched over by Buddha, and a skyline view of the Pru and Hancock Tower.

Maya brought up extra hangers while I settled in, asking if there was anything else I needed. She touched both of my shoulders lightly and said again how glad she was that I was there. As she stepped downstairs, I thought, This is what it’s like to feel safe.

After I unpacked, we had a short visit and I took her in: her height, her brown hair swept back in a girlish pony tail, her sharp eyes, her full laugh. I looked over the contents of her refrigerator door covered in abstract poetry, photos of her 5-year-old granddaughter, comics clipped from magazines and funny magnets that I might have on my own fridge.

Somehow, I had found a member of my tribe — or maybe I belonged to hers.

The next day, Maya and I texted back and forth and stayed up late to talk about life and love. It was an adjustment to live with someone again, if only for a week — to know that Maya was waiting for me, to announce my presence or departure and respond to hers, and to share the details of my day. At first, I was surprised by our rituals, hesitant even, but I soon enjoyed the projection of my own voice in the hall: “Bye Maya, see ya in a few hours!”

She called down, “Have a great day, doll. Call me if you need anything,” and I thought: This is what it feels like to belong. Maybe this is what a real family feels like. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it — by how much it didn’t cramp my style.

As I pulled the outer door closed behind me, I wondered how many other rituals had gone missing from my life without my having realized it, or perhaps were never there. I wondered what it meant that I have drifted out on my own, partly by nature and but also by circumstance.

That night, I met Will for dinner at Toro on Tremont Street, a friend of a friend, who felt like a long-lost brother. We bonded over a shared love of bacon-wrapped dates and grilled corn slathered with butter and aioli, talking for hours about architecture and graphic design, Nashville where his family lives and I just visited, and his experience of Boston, going from drinks to dinner to night caps past 1 a.m. As we hugged goodnight, two strangers far from our original homes, I considered the state of my ever-expanding tribe. It seemed that Boston held not just my country’s forefathers, but my spiritual kin who I might never have met without the drive of this book behind me.

Upon hearing me rustling in the bathroom the following morning, Maya called over from her room –“Hi, sweetie!”– with the kind of delight at my presence that sent a flash running from my brain to my toes. If the sensation was made of words, it would said something like, safe-warm-happy-yum.

I opened the bathroom door a few inches, hoping that she wouldn’t mind me prancing about in my skirt and bra top while I got ready. I had done it mostly to defray the steam that thwarted my hair-straightening efforts. After I shut off the blow dryer, she stepped into the hallway and paused outside her door, leaning against the wall. “How was your dinner? Did you have fun?”

I snorted, the little fingers of an amaretto hangover tapping on my forehead. “Last night I forgot that I wasn’t 25 anymore; this morning, I remembered.” She laughed and we shared our plans for the day through the door as I finished my hair and makeup. I was getting ready to meet Jesse, an urban planner, for a historic architectural walk downtown; she was headed to a holiday gathering.

As I scampered upstairs to finish dressing, I realized the other reason I had opened that door: twenty-two years after her death, I still missed my mother. Though she had never visited in Boston, it felt like part of her resided in Maya’s house.

Once fully dressed, I stepped lightly downstairs with my bag and sunglasses, pausing on the landing to tell Maya that I was off. She emerged to say goodbye, gushing, “Doll, that color is stunning on you!” Her breath caught for a moment, like she might add something as I squirmed with delight and shyness. Instead, she gave me a squeeze and wished me a good Memorial Day, telling me that she’d be back late.

Neither of us mentioned it until the end of my stay, but my simple opening of the bathroom door was an offering; the start of our conversation through it was her acceptance.

Some tribes communicate in songs or words; ours, it seemed, spoke with symbols.

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