Helen’s house was not like any Hamptons houses I’d heard about or imagined. It wasn’t on or even a close walk to the nearest beach and it wasn’t gleaming white or spread out over several acres. It did have a pool in the back, but getting to it required a downhill walk through overgrown weeds and branches that hadn’t been cleared out since the prior fall. And given the upkeep of Helen’s yard, I wasn’t entirely confident in the cleanliness of the pool — so I opted not to go for a swim.
The first time I went to Helen’s house it was 1am and I was drunk. I had gone out to dinner with Joe, the guy I was dating and then met our friends for drinks. As Joe and I got out of his car and tip-toed toward the house, I did my best to whisper, “Is Helen still awake?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes. She probably stayed up because she’s nosy and wants to meet you.”
I couldn’t really blame her. If I was an 80-something living out in the middle of nowhere, I’d want to meet the random girl staying with my 33 year old male roommate, too.
Helen’s house was about a two hour ride from the Jitney stop where I waited on 44th and Lexington. Joe lived in there because he was an MFA student and she charged him little to no rent (I’m still not clear on the exact financial situation) and he took care of her and her house when she was back in Brooklyn during the winter. He dropped this bit of information on me during our first date when I was too giddy and full of wine to appreciate the ramifications of a statement like, “I live with an 84 year old widow and a 62 year old divorcee.”
Whatever! You are the handsomest guy I’ve ever seen in real life and you’re a writer and you drove all the way from Southampton to the East Village to take me out to dinner and tell me I’m beautiful. For all I care, you could live with a pack of lions.
A lion she was not. But Helen could be fierce.
I visited Helen’s house a total of 9 times, 4 when she was there and 5 when she had already gone back to the city for the winter. It smelled in a way that I’ve mentally categorized as “old people” – a combination of the moth ball scent of my grandfather’s country house mixed with the aroma of soup that permeated my grandparents’ apartment complex in Queens. It was decorated with artwork likely done by very famous people, since Helen was both 1) wealthy and 2) had been, according to Joe, an active part of Hamptons’ art scene back when she was more mobile. There were shelves of books and family photos scattered, and pictures that Helen’s two grandsons had drawn and painted when they were younger. Helen remained mostly in her bedroom towards the back of the house, yelling at the television (and occasionally Joe), but there was a remote-control electronic chair affixed to the steps leading upstairs (where she evidently never went anyway.) Joe’s friend Jacki and I once took turns going up and down the stairs via the Easy Climber until he found us and said, “I will fucking kill you both if you break Helen’s chair.”
Helen had her own bathroom, of course, but the one I used across the hall from Joe’s room had a shelf that was clearly marked HELEN’S SHELF in Sharpie and a post it with explicit instructions on flushing the toilet. Helen also had to two fat white cats whose litter box she had placed right outside this bathroom – a clear sign that “Helen shits in one part of the house; Joe, any guests and the cats shit in this part.” Certain rooms in Helen’s house were off limits, like one of the upstairs bedrooms and the only bathroom that was finished. The first time I woke up hungover in Joe’s room desperate for a glass of water, he poured some from the Brita pitcher he kept on his desk.
“Why isn’t that in the fridge?” I asked. I don’t find room temperature water especially refreshing.
Joe made a face. “I don’t want to have to see Helen every time I refill it.”
I wanted Helen to like me, if for no other reason than the fact that I want most people to like me, and because I was dating her surrogate grandson of sorts. There was one instance where I felt Helen and I made real progress, as we sat on the wraparound porch and chatted as Joe and her daughter Anne cleared some branches from the overgrown yard. Helen asked me about living in Hoboken and my job in publishing, and told me about her life in New York several decades earlier. I felt a tangible bond forming.
Then, after several seconds of silence, she looked at me and said, “Weren’t you two supposed to go out to lunch? Aren’t you hungry?”
“Um. Yes, a little,” I admitted.
“JOETOPHER!” She bellowed. “Your girlfriend is starving!”
Clearly, Helen was done with me.
I offered to bring Helen back something and she requested a bowl of clam chowder. “That place has the best,” she informed me. “Get it, you’ll see.”
I DID order the chowder, per her instructions, and made sure that we remembered to get hers on the way out. Joe dropped me at the Jitney and when I texted to tell him I was home I also asked whether Helen liked her soup.
We got the wrong size came his reply.
Helen’s house became less inviting as fall turned into winter, and so did Joe. Beautiful summer sunsets turned into constant fog. The house seemed cold and dark all the time because Joe didn’t want to pay a high heating or electricity bill. Instead of feeling excited to be on my way to Helen’s house, I woke up on Sunday mornings counting the hours until I could leave.
I departed Helen’s house for the last time in November of 2013 moments after Joe and I broke up. He explained to me, as we sat in the bigger bedroom he had moved to after Helen fled the Hamptons for the season, that he needed to finish his novel and he didn’t have time for a relationship. (He has not yet finished his novel.) The following summer, Helen informed Joe that she no longer wished to have him as a housemate and gave him one month to find another place.
I wonder if she is still alone, or has found another roommate, or has left the house altogether. But good luck to any new inhabitant who wants to put his toothbrush and pills on HELEN’S SHELF.