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Hippy families are all alike. Whoever said that probably meant it as a criticism, but living at Thorndon Two made me appreciate all the stuff we had in common. It was important to know that the same habits of sharing and support linked the pod that was me, Arvind, and Frith to all the other family-sized pods in the woods around us. It was important because sometimes things in our own pod were not happy. There were arguments, and bickering. A big fight would make us talk about going to family counselling. Mostly, though, there was always the basic sense that we’d be okay. We’d figure things out in the end. Except then the Goodwins came along.
Arvind was the one who found them. He was looking through the classifieds for possible house swaps in the city. A family we were close to had recently transferred to Thorndon Lofts, and their twin boys were among Frith’s closest friends. He missed them a lot. We’d promised to visit, and although we could have bunked in the Lofts, we thought it might be nice to stay somewhere closer to all the sights. When the ad from the Goodwins appeared in the Thorny Vine, we had no hesitations. This is what it said:
Blessed be! We are offering a weeklong stay in our beautiful two bedroom postwar apartment in the Museum district. We’re a family of five, outgrowing our city space and thinking about a forever home. We decided to look into cohousing after the last pandemic, and our research tells us the Thorn Community would be a good fit. Patrick, 42, is an ordained Pagan priest. His day job is in software solutions. Heidi, 39, is a certified Cornelius technique instructor and a member of the Wellbeing Alliance. Our kids are Caliban, 7, Nero, 4, and new baby Music. The older ones are big fans of the ThornTube channel, especially Thornbots and Friends. They are excited about spending a week in the company of real live Thornkids. We (Patrick and Heidi) are intrigued by the idea of Easy Living for Difficult People! Just so excited to find out what that means by spending time in the community.
In the About You section, it said:
You are a family of three or four at a rural Thorn Group site. You’re pining for a big city adventure. You have a residence with at least two bedrooms and some run around space. You’re willing to trade it for a weeklong stay in our luxurious city pad.
The photographs of their apartment showed an amazing view, like something out of a superhero movie, computer-designed office blocks towering among old brick buildings with conical water towers, the New Channel glistening behind. And the apartment! The living room was big and spacious. The kitchen had a stainless-steel refrigerator and scrubbed wooden countertops. It had a grey and white chessboard floor.
This is sweet, Arvind said. I’m going to send them links to the show.
He was referring to an unscripted reality show on ThornTube. A home improvement show. Our pod, a converted barn, had been featured on it a couple of years before. We did the entire renovation ourselves, with a Green Futures grant. Frith was maybe eight or nine when they did the shoot. You can probably still find it online. There’s a tour of the interior, with the open plan work-live area and the sleeping lofts above, and also a ton of shots showing the view from the deck. The place looks amazing. The Goodwins watched the show and immediately wrote back: we’re hooked!
The night before we left for the city, I baked chewy sweet raisin pie. Arvind seemed relaxed, considering that we were going on vacation. Frith on the other hand seemed distressed. Finally he asked, What if those city kids…is it okay if I hide my Rubik’s cubes?
Go ahead, we told him, and after he went to bed we went around and did a last minute tidy ourselves. I told Arvind I thought the Goodwins were going to enjoy browsing our library. Not only was there a bookcase full of Penguin Classics, there was my herbalist and herbarium collection, surely of interest to a pagan priest.
I hope they won’t need this, he said, picking up a copy of Parenting Your Intense Child and putting it back on the shelf.
The Goodwins lived on the 19th floor of a building with a doorman. It took five minutes of fumbling to unlock the door. On a console table just inside we saw a bottle of wine and a European chocolate bar with a note that said, Welcome!
We didn’t leave them a note, Frith said.
Arvind said, We left them the raisin pie.
Frith read the note aloud: Feel free to use any counter for food prep except for the butcher block inset. It is a custom build and is waiting for its second oiling. Also, we only use organic coffee beans in our grinder.
It’s a good thing we don’t drink coffee, I said.
Frith opened the chocolate and broke off a piece. We watched his face light up.
Let’s see what else they have, Arvind said. He stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge. From the shelf in the door he pulled a large ceramic jug with another note on it, which he handed to me. It said: Brewed by the Urban Mead Collective! Pagan blest! Help yourselves!
I found a couple of glasses, and we poured the mead and sipped. I made a face and so did Frith, after demanding a tiny sip of the sickly liquid. Arvind chugged it, then drained my glass, then poured another one for himself. I opened the wine.
The living room was glass from floor to ceiling along one of the walls. We absorbed the view in silence. The sun was going down, and again I was reminded of a movie. Something about the scene made it feel like a scale model, the light playing off the polygon buildings, the tall cranes beyond in silhouette. Any minute now a giant monster was going to run in and knock everything down.
It doesn’t look real, said Frith, slipping his hand into mine.
As Arvind pointed out landmarks I walked around the place, looking at the Goodwins’ stuff. I was curious to see how an urban pagan family integrated spiritual awareness into their daily life. I’d tried to bring meditation and solstice rituals into our household, but Arvind was largely oblivious. He treated the devotional offerings I left on the altar as snacks. When I asked him about puja stuff from his childhood he said it mattered about as much to him as Episcopalianism does to me.
The Goodwins’ apartment contained only a few signs of their pagan faith. I saw a druid’s crown with triskelion disks hanging among the baseball hats in the hall closet, but I didn’t see an altar anywhere. The only pagan artifact on display was a round ceramic plaque on the living room wall, glazed in a spiral design.
That’s a nice touch, Arvind said, pointing out how the plaque was positioned on a track and could be moved every day so that the sunset always illuminated it directly. He moved it an inch, into the light, and it began to glow, making everything else in the room seem dark.
As we observed the moment, my mind wandered to our own home and the view from the deck at sunset. Most likely, the Goodwins were sitting in the camp chairs, enjoying a beer right now. Perhaps they were saying, This is it. The simple life. But as I was imagining this scene, I was also very aware of how long it had been since I was inside a private apartment, and I couldn’t help comparing their lives and ours.
Arvind was noticing the differences, too. When he went to refill his mead, he pointed out to me that all their food was marked with a barcode and a label that said Urban Food Ethics.
How much does this shit cost? No wonder they want to try cohousing.
They could actually grow their own food if they moved to Thorndon Two, said Frith.
Hearing this, Arvind and I exchanged glances. Ever since Kenn and Samm moved to the city, Frith had been complaining about country life. Maybe being in the city was helping him see that Thorndon Two wasn’t so bad.
We toured the rest of the apartment, taking wine, mead, and chocolate along. In the study, Patrick Goodwin’s diploma in Computer Science hung on the wall beside his certificate of membership in the Health Care Systems Software Council. In the master bedroom, the walls displayed the Goodwins’ marriage license along with wedding photos, pregnancy photos, and a carved wooden fertility idol, all belly and breasts. Frith said it looked like the head of an octopus, and I could see what he meant – the breasts were the bulging eyes.
The kids’ bedroom was next. There were two twin beds, and on the wall above each one hung a school photo and a framed birth certificate.
You need certification to be in this family, Arvind said. He drained his mead, then took the wineglass from my hand.
There was one thing about the kids’ room that stood out: all the Lego models on display. Each one was a perfect tableau, complete with people. Lego people at an airport. At a sports stadium. Lego people camping in the woods. Lego people doing dangerous stuff in the Mission Impossible content universe.
Frith stared, transfixed by the level of detail. But how did they make these, he wanted to know. They look so perfect.
I glanced at Arvind. Yours, he said.
A moment I’d been dreading had finally arrived, a moment we’d postponed too long. I crouched down to Frith’s level, feeling like I was confessing to a crime.
Okay, I said. Lego actually comes in kits.
Frith’s eyes widened. I told him that these kits are very expensive because they are specially designed and that they come with instructions for building the spaceship or the sports stadium or whatever it is in the picture on the box.
It’s called licensed content, said Arvind.
Frith frowned. I wondered if he was thinking of our Lego collection, a dusty jumble carried home from the yearly toy swap in a pellet fuel bag.
Can we get a kit of Lego, he asked, his tone indicating that he expected the answer to be no.
In silence we inspected each of the bright model worlds on the shelves in the Goodwin kids’ room. Frith pointed out details in the architecture and in the Lego people’s wardrobes.
They all have different masks, he said. Looking closer, I could see that the campers were wearing tiny face masks bearing hashtagged slogans: #BravePeace #GetTestedNow #SaveLongIsland.
Let’s unpack, said Arvind.
Frith wanted to look at some content on his tablet, so we sent him to use the Wi-Fi in the study. Arvind and I sat on the Chesterfield bench in the master bathroom.
I have a bad feeling, he whispered.
With the empty wineglass, he pointed at the chromium bathroom fixtures, the toiletry serums, the soft lighting at the mirror. I knew he was thinking about our plank floor bathroom at home. I pictured the mineral stain below the mismatched faucets and the musty bath toys stashed beneath the tub. The spiders. The cat box.
We heard Frith calling to us, saying that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. He appeared at the bathroom door, his brown eyes wide.
Can we go get pizza? Can you text Kenn and Samm?
The call came as we were on our way to meet the others for dinner. We were hustling along because, like country rubes, we’d started out in the wrong direction and were going to be late. Arvind fished his phone out of his pockets and looked at the screen. It’s Goodwin, he said. The three of us came to a halt.
Well we had the cleaning crew in right before we left.
A long pause.
What kind of smell?
Frith wanted to talk to me, but I put my finger to my lips and we stood together listening. Arvind was trying to say something, but Patrick Goodwin kept pouring complaints into his ear. I began wondering what was making a smell. Was it the compost bin? I’d washed it out. The cat box? Scooped. The clothes in the laundry area? There were no clothes in the laundry area! I’d been up early that very morning, washing and drying fitted sheets and duvet covers.
But as it turned out, that hadn’t been good enough. Arvind told me that the Goodwins had expected a top sheet as well as a duvet. It’s the bare minimum, Patrick had said to Arvind. The Goodwins had also been very unhappy to discover leftover food sitting out.
What leftover food? I asked.
Maybe they meant the raisin pie, said Frith.
But that was supposed to be for them! Don’t tell me they threw it out? I stared at Arvind. He told me that the Goodwins had also objected to the dishes drying in the dish rack. They thought we should have put them away.
Oh, and he said that the bathroom was filthy and disgusting. And, yes, he did call the place a shithole. As Arvind said this, he was on his phone texting the others, telling them we were not going to make it for dinner. We’d been asked to leave the Goodwin apartment immediately.
Let me guess, someone forgot their phone, said the doorman when we reappeared at the Goodwins’ building. Arvind just smiled and pushed the elevator button. Back in the apartment, I heated up one of the Goodwins’ ethical frozen pizzas for Frith.
They can’t expect us to trek all the way back without feeding our child, I said to Arvind.
As Frith ate, we drank the rest of the wine and mead. Then Arvind switched the marriage certificate in the bedroom with the diploma in the study. Frith swapped the hairpieces and masks on all the Lego people. I washed the dishes. The train was too expensive, so we waited for the bus.
When at last we were on our way, jolting along the unmended city roads, I looked out of the window and thought about the Goodwins. Were they somewhere in the oncoming traffic, heading towards us? If they were, no doubt they were discussing us, disappointed that our home in real life was not like the one on the screen, anticipating all the ways we’d defiled their world.
They left barely a trace in our home. There were four sprigs of dental floss and six used Q-tips in the bathroom bin. I guess they had taken the baby’s soiled diapers with them. Or maybe it was already toilet trained. Arvind fished a half-eaten apple from the kitchen garbage and put it in the compost. Frith checked on his Rubik’s cubes and reported that they were undisturbed. I felt lost and wandered about, looking at our things. I realised that I was looking with Goodwin eyes. I saw grossness that had become invisible to us in our daily living: the flaking surface of the nonstick frying pan, the rusting bread knife. I saw a shrivelled, half-filled, retinol capsule, left over from a bad case of warts. It had been sitting on Frith’s bedside table for months, gathering oily dust. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? I also looked at my books and saw how stained they were, the cracked spines worn.
That night at dinner, Arvind pointed out that we hadn’t fought at all during our brief outing to the city. A few days later, he would even suggest that the Goodwins had been a positive experience in our life, because they had brought us together. But I knew he didn’t believe it. He could see as well as I that the experience had done something to Frith. It was like he was seeing our life through permanent Goodwin eyes. In the months following the trip, he withdrew to the sleeping loft and spent his free time watching ThornTube or playing Thornblox. When we tried to inquire about things like homework he would get angry and destroy stuff. You couldn’t talk to him.
I made an appointment with family counselling, and although it never felt as if we were getting at the actual issues, our interaction style improved. The counsellor suggested that we create a designated set of family communication objects and that we use them when emotions prevent us from using good words.
At first we thought it was a silly idea. In a defiant spirit, Arvind selected as our objects the contents of a practical joke kit someone had given Frith. But the technique did make it easier to say what we needed to say. When you handed someone the vampire teeth it meant, I need to talk about something serious. The fake vomit with its orange lumps said, I’m mad at you or I’m scared of you. To apologise to someone, or to admit a mistake, you offered them the snake popping out of the can of nuts. To say I love you, you used the rubber finger. When Frith began to rage and throw things, we’d retreat to the sleeping loft, leaving the fake vomit on the ladder so he’d have to see it when he finally decided to come to bed. These stupid little gag items were the only things that seemed to bring him back.
It might have been all right, we might have worked things out. But things were changing in the Thorn Group around that time. The European communities were revising their policies to allow children aged 11 and older to enter temporary separation programs, essentially switching to a different family for a year or two. A lot of communities over here followed suit, including Thorndon Two. Of course it was a huge debate. The kids loved to talk about it – it was the new cool way to threaten your parents. Still, it came as a surprise when, shortly before he turned 11, Frith announced that he wanted to give separation a try.
In his separation statement, Frith explained that he wanted to see what it was like to have siblings and to live in the city. He’d been talking to Kenn and Samm online, and they’d mentioned a Thorndon Lofts family who were interested in hosting a separee. When Frith handed us this avowal, he gave us the vampire teeth to say he was serious and the fake can of nuts to say he was sorry.
Arvind argued with me when I said we should at least talk about Frith’s proposal. He was resolutely against the whole separation thing. I went out and got a brand new Lego kit as a family gift, thinking we could get into some dialogue as we put it together. But neither of them wanted to talk, and the kit remained unassembled. In the end we went to separation counselling. They told us that no individual person is at fault when a family transitions. If you want to make it work, you must abandon all the blame. But when Arvind left, only months after Frith, who else was I going to blame but myself?
I heard yesterday that Frith ran away from his new family, ran off with a troupe of new age nomads who’d been camping next door to Thorndon Lofts. A girl was involved. Arvind called this morning to tell me, his curt tone implying that we should have anticipated something like this. Or I should have. The audio quality was good, and I could hear children playing a sing song game behind him. After we hung up I tried to stay where I was, to sit with the feeling that Arvind is surrounded by children while I remain alone, but I could not sit with the thought that Frith had disappeared. Who were these nomads? Where had they gone? Would he try to contact me? Would he contact Arvind? I called Thorndon Lofts, but the mods were being very cagey. Yes, it looked as if Frith was travelling with some itinerant content creators. They called themselves Scythians. Most likely they were moving on to a different halting site within the city limits. Yes, the mods were sure they would find him. As soon as he turned on his phone, they’d know his location.
Well as it turns out, they didn’t find him. They’re probably worried, but for now I’m just going to ignore the calls and texts. He’s up in the sleeping loft with the Scythian girl, both of them exhausted after travelling all this way. I couldn’t believe it at first. I was watering plants on the deck, trying to keep occupied, when I heard Frith calling my name. I thought I was losing my mind but there he was, standing down below me.
Oh hello, I said, casual because shocked.
He introduced the girl, Lira, and told me they’d liberated two electric Thornbikes from the Thorndon Lofts herd and ridden them all the way from the city. Even though I’d seen him a few months prior, he seemed to have grown taller. The girl was tall herself, and when her eyes met mine, I saw that they were very blue.
Well come in, I told them. We had a cup of tea and chatted – it was so oddly normal, as if they’d just dropped in after worship, that we all began to laugh. I told Lira that my sister’s PhD research had involved examining Scythian mummies. Real Scythians I said, and then no doubt made it worse by apologising. She laughed and said don’t worry about it. A very composed young woman. I wonder how she is with Frith. I guess I’ll see when they wake up. I left the rubber finger on the nightstand beside his bed.
About Anna McCarthy
Anna McCarthy teaches Cinema Studies at NYU and edits Social Text Online. Her fiction has appeared in The London Reader and online in the journal Short Fiction.