Maggie was back home again. For the first few days, it felt as unreal as a childhood dream. She'd pull her tan Gremlin into the driveway and think, can I really be here?

This was the Hackensack house, the little crackerbox palace her mother had moved the family into after she divorced Maggie's Dad. She'd told Maggie and her brother they would only live there a few months until she married Raymond, a Chrysler dealer from Teterboro. Raymond was always flipping ten-dollar bills around and taking the family to fancy steakhouses, and for a brief time the kids believed he'd be moving them to a beautiful neighborhood in North Jersey. After the wedding they found out Raymond had no money at all, just a wallet with a quick trigger and a thing for juicy steaks. By the time Maggie was fifteen Raymond was in trouble with the law for dubious dealings with suppliers. His reaction was to become a born-again Christian, and Maggie was transferred to a Baptist high school where you could get in trouble for wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt or leather sandals on your feet. She got in trouble every day for a few months, and on her sixteenth birthday became a high school dropout.

At eighteen she moved in with a rock and roll drummer from Red Bank. On weekends he and his beer-drinking buddies put on tuxedos and re-invented themselves as a wedding band. He looked great in a tuxedo and Maggie yearned to see herself in a white gown. He ignored her most of the time, preferring to cruise the Jersey Shore with his friends every night. Maggie spent her nights at home writing poems and drawing pictures and her days working the counter at Sherlock's Books in the Secaucus Plaza Mall. She gave herself the equivalent of a college education there, reading Rimbaud and Sam Shepard and Colin Wilson, and her obsessive interest in books attracted the attention of Edward, her shy, thin, tweed-and-bowtie-wearing 42-year-old boss. He asked her on a date and she couldn't think of a good enough reason to say no. Soon he asked her to marry him. It seemed like a kooky enough thing to do. It got her boyfriend to notice her for a change. Of course there was the minor detail that she was now married to Edward.

Now Maggie was twenty-four and divorced, and she was back living at home. Her past was a neat circle now: one guy she loved and didn't marry, one guy she married and didn't love. It made sense.

When Maggie had walked into the house the first time she'd walked right up to her old bedroom, where she found her brother Bill sitting there amid Van Halen posters and NASCAR scoresheets. She moved into Bill's old room and softened the boyish aura with candles and crystals and blue incandescent lights.

She began to spend entire days in this blue-neon candle-flame oasis. She only ventured out when the house was perfectly still, late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes she'd run into the kitchen in the middle of the day to throw a Lean Cuisine into the microwave, and run back just as fast.

Two days a week she took a belly-dancing class in Englewood Cliffs.

She worked as a bartender at Sparky's, a dive in Hoboken. Her old friend Alexandra had gotten her the job. Alexandra and Maggie had been in touch since ninth grade when Maggie transferred from the normal high school to the Baptist one. Since then their lives had followed perfectly opposite patterns. Alexandra graduated from a good college and still had never been in a relationship with a guy that lasted more than a month. She was too repressed and angry and intellectual to make most men feel comfortable, but now at the age of twenty-four she was trying to re-invent herself as a rock-and-roll girl. She worshipped Maggie because Maggie had tattoos and knew how to ride a motorcycle. Maggie, meanwhile, was trying to re-invent herself as an intellectual.

But they were both just Jersey Girls. They shopped in Paramus and planned luxurious trips to Manhattan. They never went on these trips. Instead they watched the Cosby Show and Family Ties together and drifted on weekend nights into dance clubs. They went to Spies near the Meadowlands, where clean-cut kids danced to songs by the Thompson Twins and Pet Shop Boys. They'd let silly boys ask them to dance and sometimes went on pointless dates with these boys, which they'd laugh about together over the phone the next morning.

They both dreamed about leaving, and neither knew where else to go. It's hard being a Jersey Girl: sometimes Bruce Springsteen sings a song for you, but if you have any ambitions beyond that you need a good imagination.

At work Maggie and Alexandra carried on more than fifty separate conversations in parallel, updating each one incrementally, two or three sentences at a time, as they passed each other on the floor of Sparky's. "I can't believe it, my mother actually thinks Jon Bon Jovi is cute," Alexandra would say as she scooped peanuts into a bowl from under the bar. Minutes later Maggie would take a drink order from her and say, "I think he is too."

Or Maggie would hand Alexandra a tray of mixed drinks and say, "I think I'm starting to understand Kierkegaard."

"Good. Did you know Kierkegaard means Churchyard in Danish?"

"Really? Wow, that seems appropriate!" And they'd be off again.

Or at the end of the night they'd turn up chairs together. "How's the belly dancing going?"

"It's fun!" Maggie would say.

"I'm so sick of Jazzercize."

Their life had meaning, even if they could not have known what the meaning was. They were happy, even though they would not have believed that this was true. They lived in a state of possibility. They basked in the luxury of floating.

This is a portrait of Maggie, my wife, the moment before we met.

Next ...

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher