Ella moved to Berkeley while I was working part-time as a secretary at Tiburon College. She’d wanted to relocate to the Bay Area for years, but anxiety about finding a job and an apartment kept holding her back. I finally convinced her to leap before she looked, then had a hard time persuading her not to snatch up the first shabby apartment she checked out, she thought everything was so quaint, even in the worst part of town.
Through a friend I heard about an apartment in an upscale neighborhood that was about to come on the rental market—so we clambered up the fire escape one morning and peered in the windows to scope it out. Then when Ella was down in L.A. finishing up some business and it suddenly became available, I made an emergency call to her to grab the next flight back.
The apartment was dilapidated, but had a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace (though the mortar was crumbling), hardwood floors that were warped in gentle waves, old-fashioned fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, which I’d always been partial to, and a living room window that faced a vacant lot with a coast live oak, where squirrels cavorted and jays squabbled—just the kind of fixer-upper I’d always had a hankering for myself. I only wished that I’d had the money to lay down.
Though I’d planned to spend only a month or two at Ella’s after my breakup with Ross—more about that later—I wound up staying…er…longer. When I arrived, she still had towers of books stacked on the floor—so dusty now you couldn’t read the titles—from when she’d moved in three years earlier. I convinced her that she could fit a tall bookcase in the corner by the table, then engineered a kitchen counter out of plywood and contact paper—supported by the old stove and a standing cabinet—so she actually had space to attempt a recipe without half the ingredients winding up on the floor. Next I went out and bought colorful plates and place mats to set a festive table…and we were off and running.
Well, the sun put in an appearance for a change—this has been the soggiest winter ever—and I still had to leave the oven on all morning and take two hot baths to remain thawed. Actually, I’ve been averaging two or three baths a day for weeks now; I expect I’ve already shrunk several inches. Meanwhile, the clanking continues below as work on the busted boiler progresses (I trust).
Incidentally, while I was simmering in the tub, I counted five rips in Ella’s shower curtain, stuck my finger through one of them, and had to curb an impulse to rip it bigger in order to convince her it really is time to buy that pretty striped shower curtain we saw at Hinks Department Store.
I bought six-foot sheets of cardboard from a local art store and built full-scale mock-ups of desks, dining tables, and wall units to determine the optimal size and shape for each, given the limited space, and piece by piece Ella replaced her motley assemblage of flea market furniture with handsome Danish modern. We had to wait nearly a year for a wall unit to arrive from Denmark—the shipment kept being postponed—and when it was finally delivered, we were aghast to see how dingy it made the yellowing walls look by contrast (it was white) so, of course, we had to paint the living room.
Needless to say, the whole project was fraught with aggravations. Like the sofabed Ella had custom-made that arrived with a gash in one of the cushions. Over the next nine months she reordered the cushions four times. The second set looked like the seamstress had needed a Breathalyzer test, the way the seams meandered, the third had a flaw—a dark band—running through the fabric, the fourth was too small—loveseat size—the fifth was fine except for some dirt smudges the store manager tried to get off with cleaning solution and a green rag—which stained the cushions green. So Ella finally settled on the gashed originals, just turned them over.
In the meantime, as I was finding out, the apartment had its hazards. One day I leaned on the French door in the kitchen with my hand—and it went right through, the panes giving way because the wooden struts were so rotten. Then the freezer door of the old refrigerator was—still is—irreparably broken, and more than once it has dropped on my head with a resounding thwack when I was reaching down for something in the vegetable bin, causing me to see a few stars. Also, the front door is supported by only one hinge, so you have to lift the door to open and close it. Oh, and later, after stowing my drawing portfolios in the basement, I discovered, to my dismay, that the resident termites had a taste for art; they’d chewed my sketches to tatters.
Nevertheless, we managed to create a space that was livable for two people. We’d been best friends, despite the 500 miles between us, for fifteen years. With the absence of men in our lives, we became each other’s family, the sisters neither of us had had.