After his grandfather died Graham lived in the house alone. The rumor was that the old guy kicked off and Graham didn’t notice it for a few days until it started to smell, but that isn’t true because Graham called me in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, which was where the old man died about three hours later. I was in Moscow then and the first thing I said was “I can’t talk long.” The two of them had never been close – the house was big enough that they barely saw each other – but I think somewhere in Graham was a feeling of responsibility. He wept bitterly on the phone. “This is going to cost both of us quite a bit,” I told him.
There were a lot of rumors. There was a tall, gray-painted wooden gate on the end of the driveway that fronted the street, and trash started collecting around it, and in the fall a pile of leaves six inches high, because no one ever went in or came out. This is what people told me, because I was in Russia then, but I knew Graham was walking his bike out through the woods the way he always used to and biking into town to buy cigarettes and drugs and groceries to bungee-cord to the shelf over the back wheel. The people who went into the house, those few who knew well enough to walk around the back through the woods over the flattened path where Graham walked his bike, said that, though it had always been run-down, it was worse now: hookah ashing all over the engraved cherry coffee table in the high-ceilinged living room, marinara sauce caked onto the counters and stovetop in the kitchen, shades drawn, cobwebs, dust, clothes strewn all over the floor. They said when no one was over, which was most of the time, Graham padded the dusty wood floors naked and mixed weird drinks and dropped acid or ate mushrooms and painted bizarre murals on the walls on the third floor, where no one was allowed. They said when people were over they would smoke the hookah and make ridiculous, ornate, multi-course meals and that Graham would lapse, for longer and longer periods each time, into these trances where he would just stare, mouth frozen in the act of chewing a fingernail, into space. I think, someone wrote insightfully via email I checked in a crowded café, humid with breath, as it snowed in St. Petersburg, Graham is retreating into his own head. Of course we had always known it was only a matter of time, but to hear it was finally happening was difficult to reconcile.
I was only home for a week before my flight to Cairo so I went up to see him in Pocantico Hills. The phone went unanswered, as I had expected it would. I parked on the back road and walked that tamped path through the woods where Graham walked his bike. The house was huge and stone and unkempt, ivy crawling, garden grown over the brick edging, jarring in its unkempt fecundity, grass past my ankles, wet with the previous night’s rain. I pounded on the back door for about three minutes shouting Graham’s name until he came to the door and unlocked the screen with great effort. He was shirtless, wearing only boxers I could tell he had picked up from the floor, pale, freckled skin flecked with splatters of blue and orange paint. Without speaking he hugged me very tightly. He smelled like sweat and cigarettes and pot and tequila. I rested one hand on the back of his head, flattening soft, unwashed red curls. “Hi pretty,” he said to me, with this thick, drunk New York drawl. “Hi, hi, hi.”
“There’s paint on you.”
“I’m painting. Do you want to see?” The hallway on the third floor was lined, end to end, with an elaborate mural, childlike and bright, of a beach, surf breaking bone-white against golden sand, sky, white wisps of cloud interspersed, meeting the sea at some point far out. It was as though we were standing on some long, thin peninsula, sea on either side as far as the eye could see. Graham had painted the floor to resemble golden sand though it was peeling and chipping in places to reveal the floorboards. “Come see the rooms,” Graham said, taking from the floor a fingerprinted wine glass of something clear, bubbles rising from the widening end of the stem.
There were four and each was a different place: the chateau de Chenonceau on the Loire in France, St. Peter’s in Rome, Piccadilly Circus in London. In the far room, the room where I used to sleep in a queen-size bed – when Graham’s parents, when they were still alive, believed I would save their son from whatever demons – and wait for Graham to sneak in, in the dead of night, and slide his hands beneath my nightgown and over my stomach and press his lips against my neck, I think we were fourteen, maybe thirteen, then, in that room, there was a poor rendering of the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, on the river in Saint Petersburg. “I looked it up on the internet,” Graham said, grinning, showing me the paint-smudged Google images printouts that sat in a neat pile on the floor in one corner. “It’s not done yet.”
I didn’t say anything for a while and Graham began touching up one of the onion domes. The stem of the wine glass extended from between his ring and middle fingers, clear and straight as an icicle. “Is there any significance? Or do you just paint whatever?”
“Places I want to go.” He took a few steps back then and stood beside me and bent and eyed the wall, twisted his head and eyed it again, turned his head on the side and eyed it again.
“Why don’t you come with me, then.” The strangest thing was I meant it then although I had never given it a second of thought and when I left I would wonder what I had been thinking. “I’m going to Cairo but we can figure out a flight to De Gaulle from there.”
Graham stood up straight. “I can’t leave.” He set the brush down and I followed him out into the hallway and looked out at the painted ocean, peeling to reveal faded, flowered wallpaper, and remembered with this jolt in me that Graham’s parents had drowned, six years ago, in a riptide off the Hamptons, and that Graham had run along the shore and watched them go, silently over the wind and the waves and the gulls, as they waved a wordless and passionate goodbye. You can’t live in such a tight space.
i wrote this last summer. my brother and i were driving home from tarrytown past the rockefeller estate. i really like the end of this story.