Recently I started writing a new novel, based largely on the time I spent renovating a dilapidated house in Adams Morgan, a somewhat trendy neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. I was 27, recently married to a foreign editor at the Washington Post. Jane—her name in the novel—was a lovely woman from Tennessee who sang like Loretta Lynn and played the autoharp. She was a decade older than me, which I found exotic, and I was (and still am) French, a nationality for which she had a predilection.
Jane and I bought the house. Adventures followed. There was a never-ending parade of odd and unusual people who traipsed in and out of our lives, spent a day or a month or a year at the house, and then vanished. One or two came to bad ends. One or two were thieves, or amiable con men, or misplaced souls who did not quite know where they were, but seemed to thrive in the chaotic surrounding. We welcomed everyone, including stern Marxist Germans, French hipsters collecting old blues albums, women of doubtful pasts, itinerant musicians, and at least one amateur dope smuggler who left town late in the night just a step or two ahead of large, unhappy clients.
Friends lived in the house as well. It was a large place with multiple bedrooms and one operating bathroom. There were welcomed animals, too—three cats, a nervous dog, a largish iguana that vanished one day and was never found—and creatures less favored—huge rats, hordes of mice, tribes of squirrels that in the winter made the top floor their home, and many, many bugs.
There were delightful neighbors who became lifelong friends, and other beings, less desirable. Jane and I originally thought the renovations would take twelve, perhaps eighteen months. We were laughingly, ludicrously wrong.
The marriage ended some six years after the wedding, with the house still unfinished. Jane stayed, I did not. We lost touch, partially, then totally. She eventually moved to Asia, then to France where she met and married another Frenchman. For quite a while, I did not know if she was alive or dead. Then a mutual friend gave her my number and she called me. It took five minutes for me to realize my former wife had been struck by dementia. She no longer sang, or played the autoharp, or made much sense. I am not sure she knew who she was talking with, though at one point she mentioned a bluegrass band with which both she and I had played. The halting conversation left me saddened.
The house on Belmont Road remains a stately edifice. It is four stories tall and, I believe, in the last decades has been divided into five or six condo units. I saw recently that it had been appraised in 2013 at $1.7 million, which is pretty decent appreciation on the $28,000 Jane and I paid for it.
The time I spent at the house on Belmont Road remains the happiest and most tragic period of my life. I have barely begun writing and I am already struggling.
I thought to protect myself from painful memories by using an omniscient voice with here and there a page or two of first-person conjectures. It didn’t work. People whose literary judgment I trust persuaded me to start over and stick to first-person storytelling. It’s difficult. I don’t know how to write myself as a character. I fear that by doing so I will either inflate or minimize my role in the events, and it’s important to me that I do neither, that I stick as close to the truth as I can.
On the other hand, I could save myself heartache and discomfort by simply fictionalizing everything. It’s tempting.
Then again, a truism of writing is that fact always outdoes fiction. Looking back on Belmont Road elicits a sense of unrealism. Did I really do that? Did all these people actually exist? Yes, and yes.
This is going to get interesting.