Above: Glimpses of a historic house in Kingston, New York, rented on Airbnb by the author.
Before I was a novelist, I was a wedding planner. The two professions have more in common than one might think (ability to solve problems, manage multiple storylines) – except for human interaction. Wedding planning is pretty social, while novel writing is inherently lonely. Which is no small part of why I changed my profession in the first place. Despite the mantle of an extrovert, underneath I’m pure Greta Garbo. I want to be alone. And that was never truer than in the summer of 2020, when I rented a beautiful historic home in downtown Kingston, New York.
The onset of the pandemic found me without a permanent residence and with a deadline. In March, while earning my MFA in Iowa, I returned to New York for a quick visit to celebrate the sale of my first novel. Three months and a case of COVID-19 later, I was quarantining with my best friend, her husband, and their toddler in their Brooklyn apartment. Soon the proximity and endless sounds of sirens made reviewing my novel there untenable. I decided to head north.
I grew up in a charmless house in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. It had three stories, a brick facade, and a dingy hallway with linoleum flooring leading, railroad-style, to rooms covered in dated wallpaper. Yes, we were poor, but the truth is that the style is free. There were no excuses. Chic just wasn’t about anyone in my house but me. I have always attached great importance to the aesthetics of my environment. I think for this reason my adult homes tend to be comfortable.
My friends, unconcerned with my penchant for solitude, have made my apartments the center of our social gatherings. I believe that a home is where memories are made, so the backdrop should be beautiful. I wanted to create memories that summer, even if it was just the memory of the room I was in when I was writing a particular sentence.
Which brings me to my rental house. Having stayed in dozens of Airbnbs during my two careers, I know what separates cream from milk. They’re not nice towels or mini shampoos (although those help). A good rental should be ambitious: it should make you want to live there. Creating this kind of atmosphere requires taste, which the owners of this house clearly had in spades.
The 200-year-old wooden residence is on a quiet, cobbled street. The interior is deceptively spacious. There’s a sunny kitchen that’s proudly stuck in time, with mid-century cabinets painted a cheerful mint green and an antique table that just wants people to linger around it. The second floor landing has a window seat so quaint it compels you to sit down and read. In these rooms, magazines and board games abound. And then there was the Gray Room, painted from ceiling plinths to recessed sockets in Farrow & Ball’s perfect shade of gray, Dimpse. This was anchored by a massive gray section and a stack of scented wood for the fireplace. There was nothing else to do in this room but listen to records, write and dream by the fireplace. It was perfect.
So perfect that I couldn’t help but imagine that everyone I loved was enjoying it too. The invitations were vague at first, swayed vaguely at the end of a call: “You should come up and see the house.” After all, I had a novel to write! But the house was just too dreamy and the life outside just too dark. I had to share it. I had to make memories with people in addition to the ones I made up on the page.
Week after week, a different cohort from my “bubble” made the trip. By day, the rooms became offices, noisy with zooms and calls and the sound of my typing. But at night the house was filled with dance parties. We took turns DJing with the record player, ate pizza on the back patio, and played board games in this beautiful gray room. Every space in this house – so specific, so vibrant – has helped to firmly anchor my memories of each visit.
This summer, with my second novel due out soon, I rented the place again. Foolishly, I had attributed the trend of congregating upstate to a pandemic quirk, something my friends and I did instead of having any other choices. I texted our group chat to mention that I would be going back upstate and of course on schedule with so much writing to do. Immediately came the responses: the Dibs were called to calendar dates and rooms; plans were made for picnics on the river and visits to farmers markets; requests came in to visit bars and restaurants that we had discovered two summers before. Ah, well: Greta Garbo, I’m not.
Xochitl Gonzalez is from Brooklyn and the author of Olga dies dreaming.
This essay originally appeared in the summer 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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