Congratulations, The Best Is Over!
This Is Wudder
The appeal of the building was that it had an infinity pool and that it was situated next to the Jones Falls, a bucolic eighteen-mile stream that runs through Baltimore along I-83. Those were the things they were selling. The apartments were handsomely designed, carved out of the shell of an old sailcloth factory that later made model trains and dolls that were at least 40 percent haunted. It was an award-winning green-energy building that had preserved many of the original features, like huge wooden beams that crisscrossed throughout the floors. There was a “common room” in the middle of the third floor that had a computer workstation, a big TV, and a few couches for gathering.
“Imagine yourself watching the Super Bowl here while drinking a nice cold beer!” the leasing agent declared to me and my husband, David, when our tour reached the common room. And then she just stared at me as I desperately tried to force my brain to generate any of those images. “There’s also a gym you can use anytime, day or night,” she said.
“Please,” I replied, “I’m having an aneurysm.”
The selling points, however, were the pool, which was only about the size of two picnic tables but apparently went on infinitely, and the Falls, which attracted herons and geese and provided a peaceful view augmented by the dulcet sounds of highway traffic.
“I could be happy here,” I said to David, which is a deranged kind of promise but also just a statement of fact. It was 2017 and we were currently living in Philadelphia, where, as a matter of fact, I was incredibly happy. I hadn’t lived in Baltimore for going on thirteen years at that point. I’d hightailed it to New York for college, but after dropping out, I crash-landed back at my parents’ house. Those years in Baltimore had been hard. I waited tables at a comedy club humorlessly, I came out to myself and the world in lurching fits and starts, I accidentally got myself canceled writing for a local college’s newspaper. The usual catastrophic coming-of-age.
At the time, HBO was shooting the television series The Wire in my parents’ redlined neighborhood, which felt simultaneously glamorous and demoralizing. I put a placard outside my bedroom window that read “filming location for a modern American tragedy.” My parents had gone to great lengths to create a world of possibility in our house when I was growing up, but the outside world of the neighborhood was resolutely without hope. Abandoned by avaricious landlords and the elected officials supposedly representing it, the neighborhood may have been defined onscreen by the pervasive influence of drugs and violence, but the real story was of a people who were never afforded any options. While living there after college, I struggled to craft a better narrative for myself, let alone the city. Was such a thing even possible for me—a Black college dropout, a gay man whose conservative religious upbringing promised damnation, a failure?
Moving away had given me the chance to write another narrative, but it had also calcified my complicated feelings about my hometown into an active grudge. Callously, I used to quip, “I don’t want to move back to Baltimore even to be buried.” And while it feels silly to have a feud with a city for what are, largely, personal problems, quirks of temperament, and crises I created on my own with the help of structural oppression, I did frequently write emails to the mayor of Baltimore with the subject line “APOLOGIZE!”
But the mayor had yet to write back as I stood in a refurbished factory-turned-luxury-apartment building. I looked from my husband to the realtor to the sparkling water by the highway and considered starting a new chapter in a story I thought was finished. It is possible that I’ll be happy. Here.
I’d moved to Philadelphia on a whim that turned out to be a good idea in retrospect, which is the only way I plan. The first couple of years were just as hard as Baltimore in my early twenties had been, because, shockingly, riding two hours up I-95 did not bippity-boppity-boo me into some radically different person. But through trial and error, through pushing my boundaries, through the bippity-boppity of the passage of time, I found my people, and through them, I found a self that I liked.
Over the course of a decade and change, I had slowly and magically built a community, found artistic success, and met David, which are all promises they make to you in the Philadelphia constitution. The city motto is “Whiz Wit a Spouse,” I believe. But by the summer after our wedding, we were at a turning point. I’d been laid off from a job at a university but had been lucky enough to have my freelance job writing an online humor column for ELLE turn into a full-time gig. My career was stable but completely remote. David, meanwhile, had graduated from therapy school (like school to be a therapist, not that thing I do where I sign up for a writing workshop and just talk about my problems the whole time). He’d earned his second master’s, his first being in divinity, but was having trouble finding a job as a pastor, which was his passion and his calling.
Pastors in the Presbyterian church have an internal job-search site where they upload a document called a Pastoral Information Form, or a PIF. The PIF gives details about your work history and training, as well as your interests, strengths, and biographical details. It’s a little less Indeed than it is OkCupid, playing matchmaker between pastors and worshipping communities, the latter of which also fill out their own forms for open positions. In practice, it’s like that one dating site where only women can make the first move. Pastors can submit their PIFs to open job positions, but the churches must initiate the interview process. (Okay, I know the way I’m describing this has you thinking, Yeah, that’s how jobs work, but I assure you it’s like dating. Each party is trying to make a commitment that will last years. Each party is trying to suss out something ineffable and far larger than themselves. Each party is placing their heart in the hands of the other. And it all starts with this little form.)
David had updated his PIF regularly and would come to me with news of potential churches in the area, but none of them were a match. They were good dates, but it wasn’t love. I’d sit in our Philly apartment listening to him process the anxiousness of waiting to hear back from churches, feeling like Samantha on Sex and the City listening to Miranda talk about dates with anyone who wasn’t Steve. I’d swirl my martini and lean forward saucily, saying things like “Honey, tell that church to get off the cross, we need the wood. Is this helpful? I’m almost certain it’s not. Anyway, I support you. Wow, this is much stronger than I intended it to be. How did they get their jobs done on that show? Having a martini on a weeknight after the age of twenty-five is a death sentence! I’m going to bed.”
It was an anxious time. We needed two incomes and, more important, David needed to work. He needed to fulfill his purpose in life. He needed to fall in love with a church.
So he was excited when a small, social-justice-focused congregation in a wooded area responded to his PIF. And he was elated when they invited him down to give a guest sermon, the pastoral dating equivalent of meeting the parents. And he was thrilled when they asked him to make it Facebook official, David and this little church in suburban Maryland, just outside of Baltimore, my former home.
There was no future that we considered where David wouldn’t take the job. It just didn’t make sense to turn it down simply because I had a toxic relationship with an entire metropolitan area. Like, get some help, Eric! The upside was, of course, that I had parents, one brother, and a sister-in-law in Baltimore and we’d get to see them more. The downside was that Baltimore was where all the ghosts of the unhappy person I used to be still lived.
“You’re going to love your life here,” the realtor promised us in the factory apartments.
“We’ll take it,” I replied. “But if you’re wrong, prepare to receive an email from me. I will cc the mayor.”
The factory was originally one long, rectangular, intermittently haunted building with a corridor of large dormer windows running down the middle of the roof. They were calling the wide space between the windows a clerestory now and had chopped up the building such that the clerestory was the top level of the fourth floor’s apartments, with the bottom level having no windows at all. You opened the front door of the apartment to complete darkness, which led to a laundry room and a bathroom and the two bedrooms at the back. A staircase brought you to the kitchen/dining area on the clerestory level, which had floor-to-ceiling windows along its two longest walls. The clerestory was an open space with a wall of appliances and cabinets, the omnipresence of the sun, and the biggest, most gorgeous reclaimed-wood kitchen island I have ever seen.
Now here I can be happy, I thought.