Drawing on Inspiration

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WHEN I was 12 going on 20, and mashing stacks of black jelly bracelets up my arms, painting my fingernails a frosty blue and wearing my hot-pink-and-black tiger print tank top five out of seven days of the week, I fell in love. Hard. With John Taylor, the base player for the band Duran Duran.

In those days, I lived with my older brother, father and mother in a small house in the Maine woods that my parents had helped build (though they never quite finished: we had plywood floors, plastic casing around our windows that peeled from the edges where the Sheetrock and glass met, and doors that didn’t quite touch the jambs).

In my imagination, this affair I was having with John Taylor through the mediums of Teen Beat, Teen magazine and Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40,” which I recorded on cassettes every Saturday morning, was the biggest thing going in my life.

My friend Val and I fell in love together. She chose the blond Daryl Hall, as I remember it, from Hall and Oates. On the weekends, when Val regularly slept over, we would lie quietly in the dark in my blue spindle bed, the tall pines outside my window rustling in the wind. And though neither of us was asleep yet, we would dream about our love lives. We’d be quiet for five minutes or so and then say, “I just had the best dream,” and we would recount our fantasies.

Soon, we tired of something as ephemeral as mere dreams, and we started making blueprints for the houses we were sure to live in one day with our beloveds. Each blueprint was drawn with blue marker (we took the blue part of the word quite literally) on white, lined paper.

Because we didn’t have enough room on one page for the palaces we would one day inhabit, we had to dedicate a page to each floor. So, for instance, my first floor might have an enormous foyer (pronounced, always, as FOY-yay, because it was that fancy), a dining room the size of most ground floors, a kitchen with enough space for our staff (obviously we’d have servants — after all, John Taylor lived in England) and at least one bathroom, if not more.

I had a thing about bathrooms, because in our small house, there was only one, and it was upstairs and across the hall from my brother’s room, which gave him better access. It was in the bathroom that I created my look, smearing aloe vera on my hair as gel because my mother wouldn’t buy me the real stuff, and plundering her makeup basket, applying little rectangles of orangey Almay blush to my cheekbones and her black/brown mascara to my eyelashes.

Every house I dreamed up also had a tennis court, a Jacuzzi, a pool and sometimes even a sauna. Val and I did not easily tire of this exercise, although every blueprint had pretty much the same components. We drew and redrew, as if by drawing we could make our dream houses come true.

My ambitions to one day become Mrs. Taylor (and get a mansion to live in as part of the deal) were not just relegated to weekend activities with Val. When I had creative-writing homework for English class, I would fashion long poems, sweatily pressed into unlined paper with a Bic ballpoint pen, about John Taylor’s windswept locks of hair and steamy eyes.

Now that I teach writing to graduate students, I’m impressed that my sixth-grade teacher actually took these efforts seriously enough to discuss the merits of my writing, rather than the ridiculousness of the topic.

Eventually, I began to turn my attention to boys my brother’s age, showing up at his high school baseball games wearing a midriff shirt and purple eye shadow painted up to my eyebrows. My blueprints subsequently became houses I’d one day live in with Johnny or Chris or Jeff, teammates whom my brother had to tell repeatedly to stop gawking at his little sister and keep their eyes on the ball, for Pete’s sake. My poor brother. He was trying to play baseball, about which he was fiercely competitive, and control, from the pitcher’s mound, the inevitable and burgeoning sexuality of his preteen sister.

And then something changed. I was still making blueprints, but they became something else entirely. Now, using fancy markers in teals, reds and yellows, I started making plans for the house I wanted to live in with my family. My parents’ marriage was strained in those years, and something in me figured that if we had a location change — a bigger house with more than one bathroom, a separate guest bedroom where one of them could cool off, a structure where there was more silence and privacy — then somehow our family would not be in danger of falling apart.

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We never did get the larger house. My parents divorced, and I’m not sure a different framework would have saved us.

TWENTY years later, in 2007, I was in my early 30s and getting married. By then, it seemed preordained that sometime soon, I’d have a house I could call my own — with a white picket fence, even, if I wanted one. I figured that sooner rather than later I’d get to make a place into some version, albeit scaled-down, of my dream blueprint.

And then the economy wobbled. And then it slid. A year and a half later, I had a new baby and my husband, Dan, and I were broke, unemployed and moving in with my mom, back into the same small house where I grew up. Day-by-day survival was our focus, and the nest we made for ourselves in the back of that little house in Maine was our sanctuary.

Today we rent a two-bedroom apartment in Portland, Me., and our son is 3. The economy is, we’re told, slowly recovering, though it may take years. We have one tiny closet and one bathroom. Our shared office is a small nook piled with papers and books and cordoned off with a baby gate.

From our living room window we can see the downtown skyline. From our son’s room, if we crane our necks, we can see the ocean and out to Mackworth Island. We have no white picket fence, no rolling lawn, no tennis courts, pool or Jacuzzi. (Duran Duran, however, is still going strong.)

The other day, skimming through a short-story collection, I found myself pausing to reread Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” It’s about a blind man, Robert, who visits a couple in Connecticut. The narrator, the husband, is uncomfortable with Robert’s blindness. He’s also uncomfortable because Robert has had a long and intimate friendship with his wife.

By the end of the story, the wife has fallen asleep on the couch, her bathrobe splayed open (but it’s not like the blind guy can tell), and Robert is holding on to the narrator’s hand while he draws a cathedral on a piece of brown paper bag. As the narrator draws “flying buttresses,” “windows with arches” and “great doors,” something inside him releases and he is suddenly freed — just by drawing those majestic architectural forms — from the banality of his life and his petty prejudices.

Reading that story, I was transported back to those Saturday afternoons with Val, lying on the floor with our blue markers and notebook paper strewn this way and that, “The Reflex” by Duran Duran streaming out of my old gray boombox covered with stickers (“The reflex is an only child/he’s waiting in the park/The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark/And watching over lucky clover/Isn’t that bizarre?”) as we made those floor plans for dream houses full of as many bathrooms as a preteen girl could need, and plush bedrooms in which we imagined doing things we didn’t yet understand. And I had to laugh at the strange arc of life.

Here I am, 25 years later, no closer to those plans than I was then. But somehow I don’t care anymore. What I have is just fine. In dreams begin responsibilities, or something like that, right?

Courtesy The New York Times