At the top of the house, I’m already turning to stone. But silver blazes through all the windows on the bay. How can I not get up? Still, making coffee I think, drink it in the white curtained gauzy bed, hide away from the many windows on both sides of this room—hide even from the sun.
It’s brewing, one window open, sun on the blue, and all I think is morning. My next to last Sunday here. Hear the tide coming in and open the screen door, climb a few stairs to the deck. On this strip of land surrounded by so much water, we almost seem to float. Street quiet, and a man stops to stare at me in my just-woken-braless-in-old-bright-blue-shirt state. Contacts not in, but I can see him: slim dark hair glasses staring at me as I take a photo of the bay in case I forget what beauty I had. As I seemed to be already forgetting as I stood before it.
The man waves his arm like a surprising oar in my morning. I raise my hand, arm, surprised he can see me. Startled before to be seen up here simply because I thought I was too high, small. ”Hello,” I think he says, and I’m surprised again that he’d wish to speak to me. All the little birds flying in the garden. ”I’m doing the cover of a book on Hans Hoffman whose house this is.” There’s something lovely in his voice, as if he carries what he’s seen in his tone. As if he has paintings inside.
“I know,” I say, though how would I know such a thing. I mean, I know my borrowed loft, a large attic, was Hoffman’s painting studio. Perhaps he thinks I’m the mad woman in the attic—my hair is everywhere.
“May I take a picture of the house?” He’s almost leaning his chest into the green hedge fencing the front yard, except for the brick walk lined with sunflowers more than five-feet tall. Like bright sunny people with yellow petaled hair lined up to greet you. Lead you to the Doric columns. An abstract expressionist, Hoffman’s paintings beat with color—the sunflower yellow, my blue shirt are in his “Pastorale” from 1958 with a block of purple I could eat.
It’s his “Maiden Dance” from 1964 burst apart with thin rust that I can’t turn away from, all the white space in between. “The whole world comes to us,” Hoffman said, “in the mystic realm of color.” He bought this house built in the early 1800s in 1945. In a photo, he and his wife, Miz stand by the hedge below me, smiling. Array of small windows in the loft at the top of the house where I sit most days, looking through glass at the sea.
When I was five years old, Hoffman died. I try to see him walking the floor, behind me at the kitchen table. The loft is one big room—34 of my feet long, window to window, and 24 across. White painted beams over kitchen and bedroom. Wide floor planks golden, like the beginning of a fire. At night, for the first time in years, I hear the ocean when the tide rises. It’s all I can do not to walk into that darkness to meet it. Almost October, water cold.
“It’s not mine,” I say to the man on the sidewalk. Morning still so quiet, I don’t even have to yell—our voices carry. “But, yes.”
”That’s quite a picture with you in it,” he says backing up across the street to get the whole house in the frame. I’m not sure where to look. At him, the camera? Smile? I’m shocked again to be seen and with such kindness—am I crying? Wipe my eyes, lean on the gray wood railing. I choose the sea. So now an image exists of Hans Hoffman and me—his house in any case, but in the record of his life, I now appear.
Here where Hans Hoffman may have also stepped out of his painting studio to climb the deck, old widow’s walk, to lean and look out at the bay and boats to see this world come in.
Kelle Groom’s memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a Library Journal Best Memoir, Oprah O Magazine selection, and Oxford American Editor’s Pick. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Five Kingdoms, and her work has appeared in Agni, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. A 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow in Prose, Groom is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe. Currently the James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence for Spring 2014, she has recently completed her fourth poetry collection, Letter from Aphrodite, and is at work on a second memoir and a new collection of poems, The Yellow Field.