Max lived at home. He was a junior at a small liberal arts school in the city on 68th Street, near Central Park. It had no dorms. Students commuted to school. Every single one of them. Walking down Madison or Park from high rises on the East Side or taking taxis or cross-town buses or subway trains from different parts of the city.
A few, like Max, lived outside the city, in slow moving suburbs with driveways, no sidewalks, lots of grass and azalea bushes, and golden retrievers that wandered along streets with names like Oak Lane or Spruce Street, until it was time for dinner.
He lived in a house with his parents.
A house they bought in the mid-fifties. A house built on what he thought must have once been a farm since all the houses were new and looked alike and the land was flat and the only trees that grew in the neighborhood were small maples the builder planted along the roads and which one day were expected to grow to be thick-trunked and tall with branches full of leaves arching over and shading the streets like in a Doris Day movie.
But when Max looked out of the window from his bedroom on the second floor with the windows facing the street, the trees look puny. Like tiny fake trees in a diorama or in a scene you’d make around a model train set which looked real only if you lay your head down on the green-painted plywood table so that you could watch the locomotive coming toward you around the curve with the faint puffs of smoke coming out of the smoke stack and the piston rods driving wheels with a clicking sound on the track joints like real trains and the smell of the electric engine inside it as it passed by your face.
His father had built the bedroom for him in the unfinished attic. He worked at night after dinner and on the weekends, framing the room with fresh-cut two-by-fours, and nailing the sheetrock against them along the walls and up on the ceiling joists and then laying tiles on the subfloor. He did the wiring and the outlets. He plastered and sanded and painted.
Max hated the room. The color of the walls. The door that didn’t lock. The built-in drawers that stuck. The lone light in the center of the ceiling. No chair to sit on. The empty feeling he had sitting on the bed, flipping the pages of Introduction to General Biology, the floor strewn with clothes he had worn and dropped where he taken them off, the dust in the corners.
He hated living in the house with his parents. The isolation he felt. The scrutiny. The questioning. They way they had of making every conversation seem like an inquest of some sort. ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Where are you going?’
The way words were twisted like the frayed prickly wire wound around the little hooks on the back of a thick picture frame. He hated himself for hating it all.
He looked once for another place to live. One closer to the school. In the city. A place of his own where he could read and study. Come and go when he wanted to. A place where he had his own key and the door would lock and where he could keep his things.
The place he found was on Nagle Avenue up near Dykman Street and the number 2 train. It was advertised in the counseling center. A rooming house. He took the paper down.
The woman who owned the place showed him the room. She walked up the stairs ahead of him. Her large wide hips swayed. Her legs struck each step hard. She smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and unwashed feet. She said he could share the kitchen on the first floor with the others. He needed to bring his own dishes and towels. Clean up after himself.
She tried the door to the bathroom down the hall from his room and someone said, “I’m in here.”
In the room, there was a bed by the window facing the side alley. A chair and a table with a lamp with a pull chain. A wooden dresser. A waste basket.
He told her he would take it.
She left him to get the paperwork. She said it was one hundred a month. She needed one month up front in cash today. No checks. No trouble.
He sat on the bed, put his book bag on the floor and looked around the room. The screen in the window. The brick wall across the alley. City noises.
Before she came back, before she saw him, he picked up his bag, walked into the hall and closed the door. He walked down the stairs and out onto the street.
In his pocket was a token for the subway and the only three dollars he owned. He had no bank account. No job. He had an exam in the morning.
He walked up Nagle Avenue past the rows of two-story brick buildings. Past trashcans at the sidewalk edge. Past parked cars with the brown dust of time and the city on them.
He took a seat on the uptown number 2 and then transferred to the bus up through the Bronx and past Mount Vernon.
To the room on the second floor that his father built with his own hands, with the grey-blue walls, and the door that did not lock, and the bathroom down the hall with little pink tiles on the floor that he hated but did not have to share with anyone.