I run a writers’ retreat in a nineteenth-century farmhouse on the James River in Norwood, Virgina. My quarters are at the rear of the three-story house and consist of a large country kitchen with a woodstove, a mudroom, and a staircase leading up to my bedroom and small office.
On the morning of February 7th I pick up my sixteen-year-old nephew at the Charlottesville airport. I spot him waiting at the baggage. He has grown taller since I saw him last. A lean boyish body and freckled nose, his light brown hair in a Westside cut. A skateboard in his red duffle.
“Jimmy!” I call out.
He gives me a wary and disheartened glance.
The day before, a policeman caught him, a runaway, and returned him to his home in Santa Monica. Desperate, his mom texted me. He needed time to cool down. Could he come stay with me for two weeks? That same night his mom and dad bought him a ticket on the red-eye to Virginia.
On the hour drive back to the retreat, I explain the sleeping arrangements to Jimmy. When all the rooms are occupied with writers, he will sleep in the kitchen on the sofa bed. When the room next to my office is unoccupied, he may sleep there, but when the place is full, he’ll move back to the kitchen.
The first few days, he sleeps in the sofa bed and burns through my entire internet gigs, Snap-Chatting and downloading a season of The Bachelor. It takes me two days to figure out how to change passwords; I ban him from Wi-Fi.
He steals my phone. I fumble with the lock. My thumbprint never works. He figures out my code. He lets me in on his secret: moms always use the birthdates of their children. Thank you, very much, you clever boy.
After two weeks he refuses to return home or talk to his mom. I don’t know what else to do but suggest that he do a semester in the county high school. He’ll be gone all day and able to use broadband. I can make it, I tell myself.
March 15th. The country wakes to the coronavirus plague. Shut-down and stay-at-home decrees and suddenly it’s just Jimmy and me, all day and night, trapped in a rambling old house among pastures and pines.
He self-medicates, binging on TV. I unplug the TV, jerk out the extension outlets and race up the stairs and shove the equipment to the back of the closet. Our TV tussles may last two or three days. I find myself grabbing cords and sputtering lines like, “When you talk to me like that, you lose TV time.”
Plugging, unplugging, plugging. A pathetic pas de deux.
And when I somehow finally ‘win,’ he retreats to his room. And above my head the most fearful pounding erupts. He’s flinging himself against the floor, the mattress, the overstuffed chair and ottoman. Where has he gone in his imaginary world? Is he a Marvel Comic superhero banishing his foes throughout the galaxies?
He roams through the house like a snake slithering through rooms, up the back stairs, down the front stairs, eavesdropping on my phone calls.
“You’re talking about me to your friends. Don’t talk about me!”
“Telling stories about my life is the way I survived childhood.” I can hear the defensive tone in my voice. It’s as if I am the child caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
At the end of March, a relentless spring storm, and the river floods its banks, the muddy current terrifying and swift. He says he’ll jump in and swim.
“Don’t you dare. You’ll get swept all the way to Richmond.”
He flips his bangs. “I don’t care if I die young. At least I’ll not end up like you—a creepy aunt in a dusty old house writing her memoir.”
Lest the reader think I was hurt, on the contrary, there was something complimentary about his use of the word creepy. I must impress him as oddly eccentric. I lean forward and place both hands on the table. “If you’re not careful, boy, I’ll put you in it.”
Our skirmishes intensify.
2 a.m. I’m below his bedroom window. I don’t have a flashlight because I don’t want him to know I’m spying on him and listening for the hum of his AC that I ordered him to turn off. What’s become of me? I am creeping around in my nightgown at two in the morning. Slinking through the garden in the dark, I can hear the chorus of frogs down in the river bottoms, shrilling and peeping and I am creeping in pitch-black night like the creeping woman in The Yellow Wallpaper.
April 28th. He announces he wants to call his mom and dad; he wants to go home and be with his family again. When he ran away and lived five days ‘on the streets’ in Santa Monica it had not been enough, as his mother had hoped, to convince him to return home. But stranded in the gulag of Norwood, Virginia during the plague has wrought a change of teenage plans if not of a teenage heart. It would make a better story if the plague really did change his heart. That he’d want to return because he had reflected on his life in a sixteen-year-old soul searching way, and maybe he has unbeknownst to me, but for now living in a writers’ retreat with an aunt writing her memoir is spooky enough to send him home.
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