I believe my home has a heart. One that beats in sync with the rest of its residents. And I bet yours does, too. When you’re sitting at your desk, tapping your feet, rushing through a menial task, you can feel the hasty pace of hard work in the air. It creeps onto your skin and rushes into you. When it’s ten o’clock post meridian, and you’ve finally made it to bed on time, you can feel the air at rest.
This is a story about a home with two hearts – one that beats in the backyard, and another in the living room. If you traveled from one heart to the other on that fateful Saturday night, you’d have been on two planets.
In the backyard, twenty people are crammed onto a white porch in the suburbs of Great Neck, a town once known as “West Egg,” a mile away from the Long Island Sound. Some lean over the painted wooden edges and look out into the long, dark backyard. Others stand in circles and chat, counting on each other for warmth in the evening chill of a New York winter. The porch has a wooden countertop built into one side, and a table rests on the other. There are virgin drinks on the countertop and snacks on the table. Water, lemonade, soda, potato chips, tortilla chips, guacamole, bread pudding, crackers, and an assortment of chocolates – all purchased from Costco, just yesterday morning.
A wooden staircase leads from the porch into the open space of the backyard. First, there is a patio, made of rough stone tiles squared and separated by the moss growing between them. A few people stand on the patio, cramped: a barbecue grill serving as a makeshift fire pit stands awkwardly in the middle, surrounded by plastic chairs and blocking the path. Sometimes, the chairs are full of guests. They sit around the fire and lean in as close as possible, just until they feel their hands begin to burn. Soon, the guests return to the porch to grab a snack or pour a drink, and the patio grows crowded and empty all at once, with its chairs and its fire flickering in the grill.
Beyond the patio, and deeper into the backyard, there are two more makeshift fire pits, two more circles of chairs. The first circle is well-lit. In addition to the flame at the center, it is illuminated by the light from the porch. A string of red light bulbs on a wire stretch from an electrical outlet on the porch all the way to a nearby tree, shading the first circle in a warm glow. Just a few yards away, the second circle sits beyond the lights’ reach. The lone firepit in its center provides the only antidote to the surrounding darkness.
Despite their differing circumstances, each fire pit shares the beauty of orange strokes dancing in the night. They dance and dance and dance, moved by the direction of the wind. They dance to the conversations of the guests, to the laughter, a tango, and to the gestures, a waltz. They hear and see and touch the excitement in the air. They shrink, and they grow. They chase a guest’s hand away when she comes too close, but they also draw her in.
Fire speaks to the guests in ashes, launched into the air and latched onto sweaters, coats, gloves, and scarves. The entire backyard smells like ash. Even the water, lemonade, soda, potato chips, tortilla chips, guacamole, bread pudding, crackers, and assortment of chocolates smell like ash. Even the chairs emanate ash. But the guests don’t know it. They can’t recognize the scent, since they are within it. The backyard’s heart beats to the rhythm of the smell of the ashes, a rhythm of excitement and intimacy and touch. The same rhythm of music you might listen to at home, attempting to transport yourself to this very backyard. The ashes come from the flames of life and represent the residue of celebration.
In the backyard, there is a birthday party. A brother and a sister. He is almost three years older than she, born on January 7, 2001. She is almost three years younger than he, born on January 6, 2004. They are two years and three-hundred sixty-four days apart. They celebrate their birthdays together in the backyard because why not? And because, “We couldn’t cram everyone inside during the pandemic!” And because, “Over time, it’s become a tradition.”
What better place to celebrate than the backyard? It is spacious, with different sections for different guests with different preferences. Maybe some like the dark. Maybe others like the crowd. Maybe one just likes the lemonade.
All like – no, all love – the heart of the backyard. Resting their hands on the white wooden countertop on the porch, tracing their fingers between its cracks, too gently to splinter their skin. They love the trees in the dark, which are rough to the touch, yet kind. They love the divine joy of the jumping ashes, which speak to them and hug them through the night. They love the coastal chill, which whispers something beautiful into their ears. There is something in the air. It is life, it is joy, and it cheers on their celebration in the backyard. No matter where they wander, the guests are never alone. They return home happily reeking of ashes.
A guest who wanders up the porch staircase and through the crowd and into the house finally realizes how that the strong scent of the ashes is hugging him. He sniffs his shoulder and pulls his nose away in shock. The floor is smooth and yellow now – not the grass of the backyard or the rough tiles of the patio or the white painted wood of the porch. There is a refrigerator, a cluttered counter, and an overcrowded sink. The countertops are flooded with leftover party delicacies. They are all packaged in boxes and plastic bags, a glorious pile of goodies too disorganized to show to the guests. He is now behind the scenes, witnessing what feeds the backyard’s beating heart and composes its rhythm.
The kitchen has no particular heart. The guest knows he is in the wrong place. He was sent to pass through the kitchen and into the living room, to visit the brother and sister’s father, who did not join the celebration.
The guest moseys on into the next room, where the father is sitting, beyond the piles of snacks and drinks and dishes and trash. The clutter is gone, and so are the crowds of the backyard. The trees and the disparate lights and the excitement and life.
In the living room, three beige couches almost form a rectangle, but with one missing side. They face inwards towards a Persian rug. The rug exhales a calm air, with its elaborate design of deep red floral patterns and carefully woven fringes and knots. In the old country, the guest and the father would have sat on the rug. But here, there is no room; a brown granite coffee table with thick black legs swallows the center. In reality, the couches don’t face the rug but rather the table. The rug rests disappointedly in its shadow.
If the guest chooses, he may recline the couch by pressing a button. Somehow he knows not to. He feels it in the air of the living room, in the pace of the walls and the solemnity of the rug. He feels that the table is an interruption, and he knows not to interrupt any more than he already has. So he sits upright on the beige couch, perpendicular to the couch upon which the hosts’ father sits. The father is leaning back, slouched into himself with his hands in his lap. His knees may or may not be pressing against the coffee table. His feet certainly are.
The air in the room is that of a private shiva, a ritual Jewish mourning period. The bereaved sit at home for seven, or sheva, days, usually on a chair that is distinctly close to the ground, demonstrating the mourner’s departure from normalcy. People visit the home, friends and family and coworkers and acquaintances, and speak with the sufferer.
The mirrors in the home are covered by sheets. It is a peculiar sight to the guest, and he is cautious not to touch and contaminate them with his lively leftover ashes. He is cautious to move as little as possible on the couch, not to squirm or gesticulate or stretch as he did in the backyard. He looks across the wall to an old picture of the sister, the hostess, when she was twelve. The frame is white, and she is wearing a pink shirt with only one shoulder and white pants. She is outside somewhere, at a park with a view of the ocean, maybe even a dock. Her hair is straight and brown, but he knows that her real hair is curly. Though she is nineteen now, her old picture is the guest’s center of gravity. It reminds him of the heartbeat waiting for him in the backyard, of the impermanence of grief. He cannot sit with her father forever.
Shifting his gaze back to the mourner, the guest listens closely to his story. He glances at the bookshelf beside the picture on the wall. The brown wooden bookcase almost reaches the ceiling, certainly too tall for most men to touch the top. He sees math textbooks and historical literature and philosophy and personal notes. The books are no different from the mourner; they tell a certain story.
So he listens closely to the mourner as though he is reading his very favorite book, not “favorite” in the shallow sense of the term, but “favorite” in the sense of a book that shifts his very heartbeat. Minutes pass in the living room, and nothing changes. The mirrors stay covered. The bookshelf stays full. The couch stays beige. The rug stays ancestral. The coffee table stays disruptive. And the mourner stays sad, telling the same infinite story of his late mother. He is part of the furniture now; he is part of the heartbeat.