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Essay Philadelphia by Julia Rose Roberts
Words by Julia Rose Roberts
Image by Christine Stoddard
Police and personnel of ambiguous office shepherded the tenants of the apartment building across the street into the auditorium of the empty high school. We sat for hours that collapsed into hours, closing our eyes, playing cards, struggling to find chatter frivolous enough to fill the minutes until someone told us whether we could go back to the building, which was burning down.
Rebecca and I had moved in two weeks prior, to an apartment previously occupied by Calvin, a friend I’d dated and still cared way too much for, and by June, a reserved and artistically gifted woman I hadn’t gotten to know well but deeply admired. The former left us a large framed photograph of himself in a plaid suit holding a croquet mallet that I wasn’t thrilled to inherit, and a warped bumper pool table which I was overly excited to inherit (I’d soon discover it was essentially too misshapen to play pool on). He also hadn’t removed his bedframe, which he’d built himself out of salvaged doors. The piece was impossibly heavy and difficult to deconstruct, but Beth from downstairs and I managed it in an afternoon of sweating and cursing and occasionally just hitting the thing haphazardly with a hammer.
I moved into the building during a blizzard. My possessions included an antique dresser previously owned by my mother that I’d coveted since childhood (it still smelled vaguely of the mysterious floral scent of a perfume she didn’t wear anymore), a stuffed tiger my father had given me when I was a baby that I still slept with once in a while, a number of musical instruments (including a Guild acoustic guitar that had belonged to my godfather), and my mother’s 35 mm camera with a number of lenses, which had only been entrusted to me just before the move. My misanthropic cat Domino moved with me.
The new apartment meant the end of living with Rebecca in a hellish place run by a slumlord we had had to threaten with legal action so we could get out of our lease early. A number of Calvin and June’s friends called the building home, and I wanted to continue getting to know them and thereby make more of a home for myself in a city that seemed to fight me at every turn. My memories of the building prior to the move were saturated with a kind of magic that was ordinary in their group of friends, and that—as a recently independent college graduate—I very much wanted to be ordinary in my adult life, too: e.g., Calvin picking the lock on the door to the roof so we could drink beer under the stars (I’d also inherited his lock-picking kit, though I never learned to use it).
I don’t remember when we were told that we couldn’t go back to the building. I know that some of the tenants didn’t have much money, and others didn’t have places to go, and I know that I heard cries and objections and complaints, the sounds of people in mourning. I don’t remember them, and I can’t describe them. Something froze in me there.
In my one vivid memory from that time I am sitting in the café of the IKEA in South Philadelphia. I’ve just eaten a meal of Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and gravy, with a glass of tart lingonberry juice. I’ve spoken to both my mother and employer on the phone since sitting down. At this juncture it’s been a week or two since the fire, and my employer has just gently let me know that he should not excuse my taking time off work anymore. I am ostensibly at IKEA to pick up bedding, although the errand is not urgent, and in truth I don’t know what I’m doing there. I find myself captivated by the SS United States, a monumental ship docked directly across from the wall of windows I’m sitting next to, a ship I know is empty and no longer in use: an impressive and hollow-boned creature. I stay there for a long time, staring at the ship perched on the icy water, feeling akin to it, though I can’t explain why.
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