above: Glimpses of a historic home in Kingston, New York, that the author rented on Airbnb.
Before I became a novelist, I was a wedding planner. The two professions have more in common than one might think (problem solving abilities, dealing with many plots) – except for human interaction. Wedding planning is quite social, while writing novels is at its core. And that’s no small part of why they switch careers in the first place. Although I wear an extrovert’s coat, underneath I am the pure Greta Garbo. I want to be alone. And that was no truer than it was by the summer of 2020, when I rented a gorgeous, historic home in downtown Kingston, New York.
The early epidemic found me without permanent residency and with a deadline. In March, while doing my MFA from Iowa, I was coming home to New York City for a quick visit to celebrate the sale of my first novel. Three months later and one case of COVID-19, I was self-isolating with my best friend, her husband, and their young child in their Brooklyn apartment. Before long, the close distances and endless siren sounds made reviewing my novel there untenable. I decided to head up North State.
I grew up in a no-glamor house in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. It was three storeys, brick facade, and a narrow corridor with linoleum floor leading to rooms covered in old wallpaper, railroad style. Yes, we were poor, but the truth is the style is free. There was no excuse. Style has never been a concern for anyone in my house – except for me. I have always taken a keen interest in the aesthetics of my surroundings. I think because of this, my adult home tends to be comfortable.
My friends – with little regard for my tendency towards solitude – have turned my apartments into the center of our social encounters. I think home is where memories are made, and therefore the backdrop should be beautiful. I wanted to make memories of that summer, even if it was just a memory of the room I was in at the moment I wrote a certain sentence.
Which brings me to my rented house. Having stayed, during my career, at dozens of Airbnbs, I know what separates cream from milk. It’s not cute towels or a little shampoo (although it does help). A great rental should be aspirational: it should make you wish you could live there. Creating this kind of atmosphere required the flair that the owners of this house clearly had.
The 200-year-old wooden residence is located on a quiet cobbled street. The inside is deceptively spacious. There’s a sun-kissed kitchen proudly stuck in time, with mid-century cabinets painted a cheery mint green and an antique table you just want people around. The second floor has a window seat so beautiful that it requires you to sit and read in it. Magazines and board games abound in these rooms. Then there was the gray room, painted from baseboard to ceiling to recessed light sockets in the perfect shade of gray from Farrow & Ball, Dimpse. This is anchored by huge gray sectors and scented wood pile for the fireplace. There was nothing to do in that room but listen to the recordings, write, and dream by the fireplace. It was perfect.
So perfect that I couldn’t stop imagining everyone I loved enjoying it too. The invitations were vague at first, hanging loosely at the end of the call: “You must go up to see the house.” After all, I had a novel to write! But the house was simply too dreamy and life outside was too dark. I had to participate in it. I had to make some memories with people other than the ones I made up on the page.
Week after week, a different group of my “bubbles” will make the trip. By day, the rooms would be offices, loud with Zooms, calls and my voice as I type away. But at night, the house was filled with dance parties. We took turns playing the DJ with the turntable, eating pizza in the backyard, and perplexing board games in that lovely gray room. Every space in that house—so defined and vibrant—helped solidify my memories of each visit.
This summer, with my second novel due soon, I’ve rented the place again. Foolishly, I had attributed the tendency to congregate in the northern regions as an epidemic whim, something my friends and I did rather than having other options. I texted our group chat to mention that I’m going back to the state and of course on deadline with a lot of writing to do. Responses came immediately: molasses was called into calendar appointments and bedrooms; Plans are made for river picnics and visits to farmers’ markets; Orders arrived to visit the bars and restaurants we discovered two summers ago. Ah, well: Greta Garbo, I’m not.
Xochitl Gonzalez is a Brooklyn native and author Olga dies in a dream.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. Subscription
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