October 1, 2011 12:59 am

The Diary: Isabel Fonseca

The author returns to New York after 27 years in London, comparing her ‘provisional life’ with that of a homeless man and a gay couple

There’s a homeless man sleeping in my garden or “yard” as we say here in Brooklyn. Every morning he goes out (to work?) leaving his Yankees cap touchingly, or perhaps proprietarily, hanging on a corner of the scaffolding. Also left behind are those amber empties. Blue Moon’s his brand: fittingly for this increasingly self-conscious section of Brooklyn, it’s a “handcrafted” beer. (To go with the “artisanal” ice cream they favour round these parts.) Most days it looks as though there’s been a jolly mid-sized party the night before but I’m pretty sure it’s just him, easing his sorrows under the stars.

Still, and despite the piles of homeless dung (always in the hardest-to-hose places), I do sympathise with him. Because I’m homeless too. Our stories are entwined. We haven’t yet moved in. He’s sleeping at our place because we aren’t.

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I’ve slept in so many different beds that on a recent trip to Ikea I felt more at home than I had all summer. Maybe it’s just globalisation – the reliable sameness of Ikea the world over (the meatballs, those inviting domestic stage sets). Or it could be the location: no guide book will tell you but from the Red Hook Ikea, right on the water’s edge, you can catch the setting sun and, perhaps, the city’s best view of the Statue of Liberty.

Of course, I shouldn’t compare our nomadic summer with the homeless man’s lot. But I do feel closer to him than I would have before, because I have a new understanding of the provisional life, the suspended life (an ordered existence recklessly thrown into disarray), and think often of Matthew Arnold’s lines: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/ The other powerless to be born.”

For me, for now, the “dead” world is London. Three months ago we paid off our mortgage and flew back to New York, my hometown, 27 years after my initial outbound voyage to Heathrow. It wasn’t so well thought through, this mid-life upheaval, but it was undeniably the end of something and every aspect of it seemed soaked in significance.

A few days before departure, a 40ft container rolled to a halt outside our house in Regents Park Road (that place where our children grew nearly all the way up). This great, pre-rusted corrugated-steel sarcophagus crammed with all our belongings would sit atop a sea-going barge, fully exposed to rain and lashing salt winds.

Danny, Gary, Paul and Jon, a kind of movers’ old-boy band, completed three days of packing, wrapping and hourly tea-breaks (three sugars each) with biscuits (Jammie Dodgers or Hobnobs, please, not digestives, not them, not ever). On the fourth day, they loaded the container – with a forklift specially ordered to shift the pinball machine. And then someone, I think it was Danny, spotted it: a hole. Yes, there was a hole in our container, a hole the size of a bullet-wound. And so the entire shipment had to be unloaded, a new container found and fetched; the band played on till nearly midnight.

Much of that shipment consisted of books, 254 boxes of them, as well as crates of notebooks, diaries, jottings. For some reason I never worried about drowned furniture but, on and off through the summer, I kept imagining the water-bloated paperbacks, and the swirling, ruined sheets of lost writing: the entire library swilling in slow motion.

A straightforward anxiety dream, perhaps, but there was also something incredibly relaxing – while the shipment followed us to America – about having all our stuff literally at sea; there was nothing you had to do about any of it. And even if it never arrived, we would at least get the chance to start over for real.

Ted Kaplan and Henry Tobin know something of the provisional life. When they got together, also 27 years ago, they never dreamed they would one day marry. It was, as Henry said in the vows he wrote, one long engagement. The day finally came, thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage in New York on July 24. New York is the fifth and largest state to take this route (I no longer include California, which cancelled the legislation after about five months in 2008). So on a scorching September afternoon in Northport, Long Island, their beautiful garden somewhat tousled by hurricane Irene, Henry and Ted were married over the tinkling harbour by George Doll, village mayor and lobsterman. Ted is my lawyer and a friend; Henry is the town’s deputy mayor. Their big day spread the joy of all weddings: a triumph for love and, yes, a triumph over the provisional. Here we also witnessed a civilisational advance. It was like watching the inauguration of Barack Obama.

But just as there is in America a now-palpable feeling that Obama will not fulfil his promise, this new right isn’t nearly as good as it looks. In Britain, gay couples may not be able technically to describe themselves as “married” but a UK civil partnership at least guarantees full legal equality. Though Ted and Henry can share the thrill of filing a joint tax return in New York (thus making a saving), they must file separately for federal taxes, where their union is not recognised. Nor do they have the rights enjoyed by all American husbands and wives: to leave one another unlimited property without taxation. In other words, gay couples in America are still discriminated against, and so this local gain is mostly symbolic.

For what it’s worth, the American version manages, nevertheless, to be more upbeat: “so long as we both shall live,” Henry and Ted vowed. Compared with what my husband and I agreed, in Marylebone Road Register Office: “Until death us do part.”

After dark on September 11, I took my girls to Ground Zero to join the commemorations. Plangent bagpipes called to us as we emerged from the subway, drawing us nearer the epicentre of the attacks. In fact, we were headed for a nearby car park. A friend, the architect Gustavo Bonevardi, had invited us to view from the bottom up the Tribute in Light – an art installation that he, among others, designed and one that aims to “restore” the Manhattan skyline.

From this flat roof, every year on September 11, 88 searchlights (powered with biodiesel fuel from recycled cooking oil) shoot up into the night sky, projecting a ghostly reminder of the two towers, four miles high.

In these vaults of light, specks of dirt seemed to float and dance – like my drowned notebooks, and like all those floating sheets of office paper (how had I forgotten?) that continued to fall from the towers days and even weeks after 9/11. In fact, the “specks of dirt” that we see are migrating birds. Tribute in Light is monitored by the New York Audubon Society, an environmental group that intermittently calls for 20-minute blackouts. Every year in the city an estimated 90,000 birds collide with glowing buildings.

That night, after most people left the car park, we got to lie on our backs among the thrusting beams. It was like being inside a firework; like a storybook awakening – and no birds were killed by what were only phantom walls. The magical set-up would last for one night only. But we’ll always remember the time we lay on that rooftop in the dark, as if we ourselves were the source of all that power. Like those southbound geese and wrens and warblers and loons, we were spellbound, suspended for a few minutes from our own sort of homing.

‘Attachment’ by Isabel Fonseca is published in paperback by Vintage

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