*Names in this have been pseudonymized
Tommy’s house was an 1800s farm cottage, and it was perfect for me: kitschy but authentic, drafty but quilt-stocked. It had mounds of dead flies in the windowsills and artwork from Arthur Miller’s old home on the walls. But its humility wasn’t completely without rules: Walking barefoot assuredly blackened the soles of your feet, venturing to the basement almost guaranteed stepping on a wayward nail, and using the bathroom unveiled any gossip or upset stomach to those in the kitchen (by way of a rather unfortunately placed vent).
I moved to Tommy’s house the second day of September on my pandemic-induced gap year. In exchange for room and board, I worked on his dairy farm for five hours a day—mucking, milking, making persuasive arguments to extend the calves’ lives. He kept only sauerkraut and curdled yogurt in the fridge, lentils and pasta in the pantry. At family dinner late the first night, Tommy told me he had been complicit in a murder in college, having hid the bloody T-shirt in the attic. That first night, he drank an entire jug of wine, and I prepared myself to be murdered. The next morning while he moved hay, I looked through every box in his closet for incriminating evidence. I found pictures of his family and crafts from his childhood, and he quickly gained my trust.
As time passed, I began to wake up before the morning chores to supply neighbors with scones, fritters, and breads. For this, Tommy gave me the nickname “Minnesota Mama,” and I loved it. My mom always said that I had the tendency to “stir the pot” growing up, and this nickname did just that. It was weird and inappropriate—he, a 31 year old bachelor with a drinking problem (not to mention my boss and makeshift landlord), and I, a 20 year old girl with my first boyfriend and taste of sex—but it made me feel special. For me, “Mama” not only validated my ability to make a killer scone but also carried undeniable sex appeal. It showed me that Tommy, like me, loves to skirt the line—or more accurately, has no idea the location of said line.
Outside Tommy’s house sat a gardening shed, once used by local school boys but more recently home to tools, drywall dust, and rat feces. Tommy tasked me with demolishing the shed during my first week, so each morning after making and eating scones, I spent hours helping him pry, sweep, and smash until we laid the last board in the dumpster. In the first few days of the demolition, we came across planks of wood on which the school boys had written phrases like “sex is cool” and “sex is violent.” I deviated from stirring the pot and avoided making any jokes. I reminded myself I was living with a man I did not know and whom I was already becoming far too close with—asking about his Hinge dates, calling the tent in the backyard his “sex tent,” reminding him to buy condoms at Stop & Shop (to be fair, this one was out of genuine concern for his sexual and reproductive health). He did not engage with these boys’ phrases, either, and we resumed our work.
I arrived at Tommy’s house in my boyfriend’s car. For the sake of confidentiality (and because this is what we actually called him), we will refer to him as the Prince. I mean this nickname in all sincerity because I, for the first time, had fallen in love. The Prince sang with vibrato, brought scrambled eggs with crunchy sea salt to me in bed, and whispered Italian love letters in my ear as I fell asleep. He showed his love through Big Romantic Gestures like sunrise picnics with homemade blueberry muffins, and his house was filled with tea cups from Vienna. He made playlists of Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen and maintained a dedicated sourdough starter feeding regimen. I jokingly called him “a parent’s wet dream,” but I knew the elegance of “The Prince” suited him far better.
After the Prince dropped me off and returned to Yale, I made Tommy’s house my own, getting to know it down to its guts. I ripped out wooden planks to reinsulate the attic, emerging with generations of dust smeared across my face (and probably black lung, too). I reorganized the kitchen, sorting pasta and lentils onto different shelves. I gave up showering, having no one to impress and a constant list of chores. Mostly, I got to know Tommy. Jesting at his Italian heritage, I put on my thickest Italian grandmother accent while passing him ingredients like MOZZARELLA!!! PARMIGIANO!!! A-FETUCCINI!!!! during family dinners. I read his tarot cards, and he read mine. I badgered him to secure the farm’s lease, which he had not yet been granted after almost a year of backbreaking work and financial instability. I harpooned my way into his love life, giving unsolicited takes like “you like the safety of the farm, and you’re scared of love’s instability.” I crossed boundaries of polite conversation, and he did too, telling me to talk slower, to stop worrying about my appearance, to be kinder when speaking of other people’s insecurities. We became friends all while I reveled in my role as “temporary milkmaid waiting for the Prince to return.”
It was in Tommy’s house that my world broke several times over. The night the Prince visited the farm halfway through my stay, he ignored everything we had been taught at our fancy Ivy League school about consent and communication. The next morning as I made peach cake, this time in sleepless hurt instead of cocky “Minnesota Mama” swagger, he dug his grave. Pressing espresso grounds into the Moka, back turned to me, he rattled off one-liners like “you should have pushed me off,” “sex is always on the table,” “I was just missing you.” It’s these lines whose lingering shock sting far worse than the assault. I couldn’t eat or drink. Instead, I pulled on my mucking boots and walked him to his car.
Two days later, the Prince drove back to the farm and I broke up with him in a broken but assured voice as he argued his side of the story over and over, astounded by my inability to forgive his humanness. His astonishment then became anger, pressing me on how I could accuse him of something so horrible and why I would let myself be in a relationship with someone capable of such terrible acts. He finally told me how much he loved me, and I hated how much I felt it back, how easily I could ignore his insistence on “different interpretations” and just kiss him if I let myself, how low my pain tolerance was in the context of love. After three more days, I got a phone call from my mom telling me her cancer had returned. For several days after that, I shuffled around the house pulling on loose flannels, unable to stay warm despite the surplus of quilts. As I cried over a skillet of caramelizing onions, Tommy counseled me — “It’ll be fine. Your mom’s a strong lady, and you are, too. Now pass the MOZZARELLA!!!!” I needed this kind of farmer frankness and gentle roasting, and Tommy knew it.
Tommy is not a violent or pessimistic man. In fact, he puts my childish optimism to shame. He calls his house a “broken bird sanctuary,” open to those lost looking for a second chance and founded on a principled belief in human good. He takes no action to distance himself from his other “freaks,” which include shroom dealers, alcoholic farmers, and heartbroken hippies, probably because he, too, seeks redemption for past mistakes. But when he found out why the Prince and I broke up during yet another family dinner, I watched his optimism shatter for the first time. Speaking our language, Tommy turned to wit and sarcasm. He began referring to the dumpster for the shed as the prince. He started pointing out all of the Prince’s red flags — his surprise that a farmer reads Italian theorists, his inability to wake up for morning chores, his pointed jokes at the neighbor with a disability — whereas before, smoking rolled cigarettes with the Prince on the porch, Tommy had praised his charisma, conversation skills, and mastery of Italian. In all fairness, Tommy’s loyalty was aided in that he was casually falling in love with me (and I with him). From then on, drinking coffee before sunrise, we developed a repertoire of inside jokes and gratitude for the caring jests we exchanged. “Minnesota Mama” lost its flirtatious danger and swelled with tenderness.
Several days before I left, I was in a frenzy, calling Covid testing sites. I would leave for acting school in France if I could get a negative test less than 72 hours before takeoff. As I copied and pasted paragraphs from the French consulate into Google Translate, I heard shouts as Tommy sprinted from the barn. He yanked me onto the porch as a semi-truck hauled the prince, this time the dumpster, onto its back and out of the driveway. We cheered and clapped and waved our middle fingers, joking away my confusion of longing for the now-impossible simplicity of loving the Prince. And then Tommy turned to me without a shred of his typical pot-stirring. “It’s out of our house. ‘Sex is violent’ was written on the walls, and now its out of our house.’” I stopped clapping and grabbed his arm, jolted by the forgotten memory of what I had deemed an awkward and untouchable moment. I had no canned joke, no boundary-pushing witty response. I could only give him a squeeze on the arm and damp eyes in return.
When I first got to Tommy’s house, he told me the farm heals people. I didn’t go to be healed, and I didn’t leave feeling like I had been either. But I did leave Tommy’s house having developed an appreciation for the process of healing, only possible in a safe haven like his. Tommy’s house provided me tangible simplicity to counteract the exhaustion of my mental motion. It gave me room to experience love so close to betrayal and heartbreak, to cry about my mom at family dinner and then make up Italian-ifed lyrics to Leikeli’s Money, to experience un-sentimental kindness and to yell about the dangers of smoking and not voting. Tommy’s house allowed me to catch my breath with a new kind of simple love—unshowered, exhausted, and prideless. And Tommy’s house gave me a chance to crush a little on a witty and surprisingly hot Italian farmer whom I miss dearly from France.