When we first moved into the studio, now twelve and a half years ago, the studio we would live in for eight and a half years, the first thing I bought was a speckled blue ceramic vase with a round curved rim. My husband viewed it with the automatic suspicion he accords all things secondhand. But I loved my Goodwill vase from the very beginning.
I’d cleaned our closet before the move. With virtuous aggression (which is my mode of closet-cleaning) I expelled items I did not use or like enough to warrant possession. Feeling generous and efficient I filled several brown paper grocery bags and we had driven to the thrift store at the corner. I dropped the donation bags off at the door, and walked in. There is something endlessly fascinating to me about secondhand stores, filled as they are with irresistible fragments of lives that are not one’s own. I found it on a bottom shelf in the back: a china blue vase with black speckles. Someone had made this vase with their own hands. It had one-of-a-kind-ness stamped all over it. I loved it without reservation. A little sticker on the bottom said $3.
I carried it to the cash register like a hard earned trophy. If a vase counts as furniture, this was the first piece of furniture we bought for our new place. Even before we had a dining table, or chairs, a bookcase or a lamp, we had a china blue vase for flowers. My husband smiled at my joy. “ It’s nice,” he said, “ Make sure you wash it well – or actually,” he corrected himself as he often did in the early years of our marriage [less so in these later years when we have grown into gleeful ‘bargain buddies’], when asking me to do something domestic, “ I’ll wash it.” And he did. Three times with disinfectant soap.
Our studio fits us the way your mother tongue fits your mouth. Naturally. And in a way that predates thought. It fills me with wonder and dread sometimes — the thought that we were very on the verge of living elsewhere. We had looked at several different places. A little cottage south of us, that sounded so quaint in the ad and in reality was a vaguely depressing structure in the middle of a cement driveway, the only redeeming feature about it, a beautiful redwood tree by the front door (if I could have taken her with me I would have). Then there was a little unit in a building off of a busy throughway, an old man named Merino, who looked like a cobbler or puppeteer from an ancient fishing village, showed us around. It was a creaky and oddly-angled place full of charm and inconvenience. There was the rather bizarre little apartment built above a single family home. The landlord was Persian, motherly and disorganized. The man who’d been renting from her had seashells and skulls all over the place. Also a gas mask that hung from the ceiling of his bedroom that was filled with different kinds of fur. We averted our eyes and left in a hurry. Then there was the one bedroom place embedded in a hive of apartment complexes. It backed up to a hillside, and the rooms overlooked parking garages. There was a pleated wall you could pull out, accordion style to turn one room into two. It was down the road from a beautiful knot of walking trails. For this reason alone we almost took it.
During my husband’s lunch break we sat in the car outside the leasing office. The manager, a lady with dyed blonde hair and a cigarette-scratched voice had told us not to dally because this place was a gem and would be ‘snapped up in no time’. We didn’t get out of the car. Something held us back. We did not love this apartment. Let’s let it go we said, and with nervous conviction, we’ll find a different place. That afternoon I called up the number listed next to an ad for a studio in the hills. The woman who answered the phone said it was only big enough for one person. Oh, I said, I’m looking for a place for two people, but thank you. And I put down the phone. A few minutes later she called back — “Who’s the second person?” she asked. “My husband.” “Well in that case it might work,” she said, “if you like each other.” We made an appointment to see it that evening.
It was winter, and already dark by the time we drove up, passing as we did, a curious structure at the intersection. A little round tower complete with a pointy shingled roof, and a curved blue door. We didn’t know then, that this unmistakable landmark would become an integral part of the directions we would send all our future guests. “Look for a little lost tower that looks like it wandered out of a fairytale…and turn left there.”
When we pulled up to the house, one of the landlords was sweeping leaves on one of the driveways. He is pleasant-faced, crinkly-eyed and full of a deep affection for this building he now owns a third of (after the sudden demise of a fourth partner).
How to describe the house as it was then? An old, massive whitewashed Spanish style home perched on the edge of the hill. It is the second oldest house in this small town, where Jack London once had a summer job at the laundromat down the street. Built by an eccentric millionaire as a summer home, it was later converted into a series of smaller units. As a result it now has three different driveways carved into three different levels of the hill.
There are two wooden decks — the lower one half-heartedly cordoned off adjacent to a three car carport, past which there is an open door way, that leads to a glass door. We alk through and are standing in a corridor. There are two tall potted plants along the walls. Three glass paned doors with full length burgundy curtains behind the glass. The landlord stops in front of the second one, turns the knob and walks in. We follow and are immediately in another narrow hallway at the end of which is an arched open doorway, and beyond that I see a room at the far end of which are two windows side by side. I quickly make my way to the windows and look out over a glorious expanse of the hills by night, dotted with flickering lights. My breath catches. “This is it,” I say to my husband, urgently, fervently. “Shhh,” he says with a smile and a warning lift of his eyebrows. Many times over the years he will replay this moment for dinner guests who are charmed by the simplicity and beauty of our small space with its big view, “Shhhh,” I said to her, “Don’t ruin my bargaining advantage!” I always smile as he tells this story. Because he is not, as this story makes him out to be, the world’s best bargainer. He is far too soft-hearted and generous for that. But I have let him tell the story his way for so long now that to edit it at this stage would almost seem like a lie.
He needed no convincing that this was our home — it was settled the instant he was shown the curious raised room that is a cross between a cupboard and a coat closet in the hallway — you have to hoist yourself into it. A carpeted space tall enough to stand up in — and large enough for two people sit cross-legged in together. “Our meditation cell,” he whispered.
Technically this is not a studio because it has a separate kitchen. It is joined to the main room by way of a very short corridor on one side of which is the door to the small and perfect bathroom, it’s window too overlooks the hills. We are high up enough and half hidden by trees such that curtains are unnecessary. As we look out there is no one to look in. The shower stall gleams, there are recessed lights and above the mirror three bright bulbs. The kitchen makes me want to whirl around and dance. It is unexpectedly capacious and has been newly remodeled. Honey colored cabinets, granite countertops, a wide, deep stainless steel sink and a window, that like every other window in this beautiful home, looks out over the hills. I am in love. So much that it hurts a little. I can see us living here in this cozy space that is tinier than any home any one in my family or my husband’s lives in. I can see us living here so clearly that it feels like we already do. Is it possible that places can find people?
Through the window we can see the graceful white dome of the Greek Orthodox Church at the bottom of the hill. When the bells begin to peal, turning the moment sonorous, holy, I take it as a sign. The heavens have spoken. This will be our home. The next morning we signed the lease. That afternoon I bought a speckled china blue vase.