December 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The jolt

By |2018-03-21T20:02:39+01:00August 27th, 2016|"American Girl"|
My little fire escape suits me just fine.

t comes around every summer like clockwork. There’s a pang in my chest when I hear the words, “We’ll be away this weekend.” It comes from a colleague or friend with a country home, whether at the beach in the Hamptons or in the rolling Catskill mountains north of the city.

I imagine they spend their afternoons lying in the sand reading a book or enjoying dinners al fresco under a shady tree, their bare feet in cool grass. Me, I’ll be in the city, sitting on my fire escape.

I used to think that if you’re left in the city with no place to go, you’re a loser. Losers tend to tell themselves that they’re actually winners. They have the greatest city in the world all to themselves. Everyone has left and it’s quiet. Of course it’s filled with tourists, but somehow that doesn’t count. Deep down they know the truth.

Many years ago, after spending the July 4th holiday in my sweltering apartment and watching the fireworks from the roof of the building, I resolved to change my fate. I wanted to be one of those leaving early on Friday for my country home. I was resourceful and I would find a way. Next year, things would be different.

I set my sights on acquiring a small house no more than two hours away from the city. The first problem was money. I had no cash for a down payment and based on my calculations I could afford only a modest monthly payment on whatever I bought.

My saving grace was my apartment and low interest rates. By refinancing, I could add to the loan amount, which would cover my down payment. It would take some finagling, but it was doable.

But was there anything I could actually afford?

I asked friends, hoping they knew of some secret, as-yet undiscovered spot. I was sent to scour Sullivan County, an area in upstate New York. I was told there were sweet little towns hugging the Delaware River that were still affordable. The river held unlimited opportunities for kayaking and rafting, which was perfect for my outdoor yearnings. I lit up at the thought of it.

By spring of the following year, I was ready. I had my down payment and several homes I was eager to visit. A friend who owned a home on the river offered me his place for an overnight stay. I was thrilled. My country escape was finally within reach.

The panoramic views of homes pictured on real estate websites are meant to deceive. And when I saw the houses I had craved in Brooklyn, I was aghast. Bright turquoise bathrooms and rooms lined in dated brown paneling. Rusted swing sets and broken appliances left to rot in the yard. They all needed overhauls. I was despondent. There was a good reason they were affordable.

I looked forward to the respite of my friends’ home on the river. The house was charming with big windows overlooking the easy flow of the Delaware. Magically, the moon was rising. He’d left me cold beer in the fridge and I popped the top on a bottle. I built a fire in the large stone hearth and sat on the couch with my feet up. Wow. This is what it would be like, I thought.

But then, something hit me.

Only two words came to mind. Now what? Yes. Now what?

I was in a cabin alone with no one around and nothing to do. A shock ran through my body strong enough to jolt me upright. I had to get the heck out of there.

I downed the beer, put out the fire, and went straight to bed. The morning could not come fast enough. And when it did, I drove straight back to the city without looking back.

Now, when I hear my friends say, “We’ll be away for the weekend,” the pang still hits me. Somehow it hasn’t left. Nor has the odd feeling that I’m some kind of loser to be wandering around Brooklyn on a lovely summer Saturday.

But then I recall the rural jolt and the disquieting drive back to the city on that early spring morning. It’s just the reminder I need.

Summer in the city may be for losers, but I’ll take it. My little fire escape suits me just fine.

About the Author:

Madeline Klosterman wrote the "American Girl" column from 2008 through 2019.