By Nicole Simonsen
Last night my husband filled out an application for a home loan while I scoured the forks, the sink, then attacked the coffee stain on the counter, so porous with age everything stains it. The idea of a house sparked, simultaneously, a singed hope and a wild, beating dread. I wanted to look over his shoulder, but I finally had to leave the room. I tried to lose myself in a book, but after two pages, the words remained scratch marks, practically hieroglyphics. I had been too busy listing the reasons why we shouldn’t buy a house, reasons that we’d already discussed, argued, fought over a dozen times. He wasn’t interested in hearing them again, but I could not stop myself from rehashing them, point and counterpoint, like a country duet.
There was my voice, high and clear: A house is a money pit.
And his answering call: A house is an investment.
Renters are free spirits, I call back. You can pick up and leave whenever you want.
Free spirit? You haven’t left the state in five years.
The word “mortgage” is French for “death pledge.”
Good thing this is America, then. His voice would be especially twangy on that line.
We’re too old for a mortgage. We won’t be able to retire until we’re seventy-five.
I love my job; I’m not going to retire anyway.
Here, my voice would crack. Renting is better for people like us.
People like us? You mean people like you.
And he’d be right. People like me. People with a foreclosure to their name.
I’m bad with money. I’m cursed. But I’d be singing to myself now because he would have left the room. You can’t argue with a curse, real or imagined.
And there, in my mind’s eye, is not one house, but two. The house I lost as an adult and the house I lost as a child.
The house I lost as an adult had two bedrooms, a small backyard, and no garage. Still, I loved that little house with its yellow siding and green trim. There was hardly any storage, not even a hall closet. And I hated the blinds that hung in almost all the rooms. Even the cats, who’d torn up every other set of curtains that I had ever owned, despised them and left them alone. But I loved the tree in the front yard with limbs low enough that I could lift my daughters into it. When they were old enough, I imagined calling them in for dinner and seeing only the bottoms of their bare feet, swinging back and forth.
I loved the bedroom the girls shared and its two large windows that filled the room with light as soon as the sun came up. But mostly I loved the sunroom. This was where we kept most of the girls’ toys—the Legos and little figurines that they played with while I read stretched out on the futon, basking in the room’s buttery light. When it wasn’t too hot, we ate at the small rectangular table and, through the windows, admired the patch of purple and white irises that had sprung up as if Van Gogh had visited in the night.
On our first night in the house in 2006, the girls tucked in their beds, my first husband and I sat in the backyard, our bare feet in the grass, and made plans. We would buy a small table with an umbrella and four chairs. We would plant tomatoes. We would harvest the plums and make jam to give away at Christmas. And we would find a way to coax the avocado tree, which had once born two avocados ten years ago, into bearing fruit again.
That little plot of dirt and grass and house was mine, my speck of Earth. I imagined that I could see it from space with a powerful telescope and wondered what its exact coordinates were. When I heard about Google Earth, the first place I searched for was my house on 61st Street. There on the computer screen, to my astonishment, was my little house, our red Jetta parked in the front, the hydrangeas in full bloom.
Almost immediately, I fantasized about the improvements we would make one day, after we refinanced and were both making more money. In a fantasy no one can stop you from being greedy and impractical, and so I decided that we’d build a second floor with two more bathrooms and three bedrooms so the girls wouldn’t have to share a room during their teenage years. Downstairs, I’d convert one of the bedrooms into a dining room and expand the tiny living room into the other bedroom. I actually thought about buying the house behind ours, with its huge backyard just so I could move the fence back. My parents could live in the other house, I reasoned.
An annoyingly rational voice pointed out the obvious. If you had all that money, why wouldn’t you just move to a bigger, better house? Isn’t that the American way? First you buy a starter home and then you discard it for a better home in a swankier neighborhood. But I didn’t want to toss it aside. And so I kept these thoughts to myself because I could never fully explain the loyalty I felt to that little house except that it had unshackled me from the homelessness I’d felt ever since I was thirteen and the bank took our house away.
We were never homeless. You shouldn’t exaggerate, I can hear my mother whispering fiercely over my shoulder. You make it sound like we were living out of a car, for God’s sake! And she’d be right. We never had to live out of a car, or on a park bench, or in a shelter. All my life I’ve been able to attach my name to an address, to exact coordinates, whatever they were. But the houses we lived in after we had to leave the house on Mulberry Lane never felt like ours. The first house we moved into belonged to my grandfather. A tiny place, it sat on a small plot of land he owned, miles from town. A simple trip to the grocery store meant fifty minutes of driving. The wind billowed down from the north for days at a time, rattling the tin storage sheds, whipping the Eucalyptus trees, and throwing dust in our eyes. Days like that we stayed inside. My sister and I shared a room because the third bedroom was a dangerous rat’s maze of boxes and bags that we never bothered to unpack. Once I went inside to look for a book and came out with a cut that required a trip to the emergency room and thirteen stitches.
At night, while my sister slept in the bottom bunk, I would run my fingertips across the ceiling and think about the family that now lived in our house on Mulberry Lane, about the girl who I was sure had moved into my room. I hated her. She was ugly, I decided, with a cartoonish wart at the end of her nose and bad teeth. But when I wanted to feel even sorrier for myself, I’d imagine her a much prettier version of myself, a popular girl, with a family that wouldn’t ever go bankrupt. I thought about her in the pool my parents had put in. I saw her eating dinner in our little kitchen nook, laughing and asking for seconds. Who were these people? How could I get rid of them? And more importantly, how could I earn enough money to buy the house back?
On the long bus ride home from school—my sister and I were always the last to be dropped off because we lived so far from town—I imagined our return in great detail. I would find a job at a neighboring ranch. I would muck stables, sheer sheep, weed the garden. I would do whatever was asked of me in lightning quick time. They would pay me in ten- and twenty-dollar bills, which I would keep hidden in a shoe box. Every week, I would add to the stash, not spending a single penny, until one day there would be enough and then I would present my parents the box of cash. I could picture their astonished faces. My mother would burst into tears. But my father? He would be quiet and thoughtful. “Nikki,” he would say, “Where did this money come from? Did you find it? If you did, then you must give it back.” Honor was important to him. Only after I proved to him that I’d earned every penny, would he envelop me in his arms, tousle my hair, and call me a “go-getter,” the highest compliment anyone could get from him. Then together all of us would return to Mulberry Lane in a Cadillac, flags trailing behind. We’d wave some important papers around, rout the imposters, and move back in. I mean, it would be biblical.
Years later, we moved back to town into a rented condominium, not the return I’d imagined. Though I’d long given up my dream of getting Mulberry Lane back, I would revisit my old fantasy from time to time. All I had to do was close my eyes and the image of my thirteen-year-old self materialized: a slightly pudgy girl with a brown ponytail and braces. Look, there I am shoveling manure into a wheel barrow. There’s me, in the dim bedroom light, adding another twenty dollar bill to my secret stash. These images were like old home movies, flickering and without sound, but as real as any true memory.
In 2005, I was living in an apartment along with my first husband and our two daughters in what was turning out to be a dangerous neighborhood. About a month after we moved in, two young men were shot and killed in the alley behind our building. No one was ever arrested. That summer, there were so many violent crimes and break-ins that the police department held a meeting to address community concerns. And then there was the apartment itself: tiny, dark, no place for the girls to go outside and play. We were surrounded by old Victorians and craftsman style bungalows. Looking at them on walks to the nearest park, eight blocks away, I felt an old desire begin to wake from its long hibernation. A house! I hadn’t allowed myself to think of one since the years I’d obsessed about Mulberry Lane.
But more potent than the Victorians and bungalows of our neighborhood was our yearly trip to Massachusetts to visit my husband’s mother, who still lived in his childhood home. The first few days of every trip, he would disappear for hours at a time into the basement or attic to drag out old records, toys, books—the memorabilia from his childhood. Sometimes we’d go through the photo albums and laugh at the evolution of his mother’s decorating style. “Remember that yellow sofa?” he’d say to her. “Oh God, I don’t know what I was thinking.” They’d laugh. Later, when he’d slid into one of his inevitable funks, I’d think, you don’t know how lucky you are. No matter where he was in the world, Dartmoor Drive would always be his. I wanted all that for my daughters, too, a place they might laugh at, but one they could always come home to even after they grew up. The house my parents were living in at that time was one they’d rented after I’d gone to college. I had no fond memories or attachments to the place.
A house, I began to think. A home. We didn’t have any money saved, but since when did that ever stop anyone from dreaming?
One Saturday afternoon as I was driving to the store, I saw a sign with a blue arrow and the words “Open House” in huge block letters. As if hypnotized, I followed it until I came to a little white house with a large front window and an orange tree by the driveway. I am a sucker for windows and fruit-bearing trees. Imagine the thrill of opening your door to oranges, lemons, and plums. I knocked on the door—I didn’t yet know you could just walk in. Ushering me inside, the real estate agent handed me a flier. I betrayed no sticker shock, what she called a mere $375,000 for a home that the original owner still lived in. “He’s sad to be leaving. He raised a family here,” she said, as if to explain the hefty price tag. I wandered through the rooms. There were yellowed pictures of the man’s children and grandchildren on every wall, his slippers at the foot of his bed, shirts folded neatly on a dresser. Nothing, it seemed, had been remodeled or updated. One bedroom had electric blue shag carpeting, the likes of which I had never seen. In the corner was his dead wife’s sewing machine and an aquarium full of dingy water and geriatric fish. The kitchen was strangest of all. There, right next to the old stove, were a washer and drier, three battered appliances lined up like old people in a soup kitchen line.
“Huh,” I said.
“All you have to do is put up a thin wall and folding doors and then you wouldn’t have to look at those appliances,” she said.
“Isn’t there a garage,” I asked, “where these could go?”
She told me that there was a detached garage, but it had no hookups.
“How old is the pool?” I asked. “When was the roof replaced?” I enjoyed asking questions. I was playing a role: prospective home buyer. And prospective home buyer is one step up from renter.
“Are you going to have another open house?” I asked. “I’d like my husband to see it.”
“Next Sunday,” she said, handing me her card.
On the way home, my head rang, my fingertips vibrated. I was a bell that had been struck… hard. We would rip out the blue carpet, paint the kitchen cabinets, put in hardwood floors. I had forgotten all about the price tag because this was a fantasy and in a fantasy you may ignore whatever you like. But the closer I got to our apartment, the more I realized there were a few things I couldn’t ignore. A fixer upper would be a hard sell. My husband was not interested in hammers and nails. Ripping out old carpet was not his idea of an adventure. Worse, he despised suburbia and although the house was only a six-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, I knew that he would count every minute against it.
Ultimately, those were aspects we could negotiate. What we couldn’t negotiate was the nature of home ownership itself. Like marriage, a house is a commitment and a choice. Choosing to live here means that you decided not to live there, and in my husband’s case, there was Boston, his ideal city. Renting made him a Californian by default, but buying would make him one by choice. It was like having to give up citizenship. It was a lot to ask.
Just keep an open mind, I told him on the following Sunday as we drove to the old man’s house. We stepped out of the car. It was an overcast, windy day and in that dull light, the magic was gone and the place looked depressing. Or maybe it was the way he stalked around the rooms, his hands shoved in his pockets. He did not bother to test the toilets or open the closets. I had not warned him about the blue carpeting and when we came to that room, he stopped cold.
“We’ll rip out the carpet,” I said. “I’ll bet there are hardwood floors underneath.”
He stared at me in disbelief, his eyebrows arched dramatically, the universal male expression for, “Woman, are you crazy?”
And then I thought about how I had married a man who had no skills as a handyman and even worse, had no desire to acquire those skills. It would not be like those home shows where the young couple buys a crumbling dump and through trial and error transforms it into a showcase. It would not be This Old House or The Ol’ Yankee Workshop, either. That was a fantasy I would have to shelve. No matter. I had retired many a fantasy over the years and there was always another one to take its place.
Over the next nine months, I walked through about fifty open houses with the line from the single’s website, “It can’t hurt to look,” ringing in my head. Open houses are like coffee dates. Quick. No pressure. Just a mutual scoping out, sizing up. Could we be compatible? Are you worth a pushup bra and heels? But the slogan, as it turns out, is wrong. It can hurt to look. You might see something you want so badly, you can’t sleep at night. What would it be like, you wonder, to wake up in that house and drink a cup of coffee in that nook and look out at the walnut tree arching over a luminous blue pool? Instead, you wake to claustrophobia in your rectangular apartment, the upstairs neighbor stomping overhead in what must be steel-toed moon boots. My God, you think in your darkest moments, I’m going to die here.
Every month the prices went up. There seemed to be no ceiling. Who would pay $300,000 for this dump, I would wonder, only to find out later that a bidding war had erupted. If we didn’t act now, we’d be priced out, I told him. We’d be shut out from the American Dream, renters forever. And when you come from a family of immigrants, the American Dream is no joke. It is, in fact, the very reason why you are here, so far from your ancestors, your culture, your language. Like so many Mexicans, my grandparents left their extended family behind to start anew in California, a place where they could work hard and scrape together enough money to buy a little house. Even my father, who came from Denmark in his twenties, was lured by the promise that anything was possible here. Not surprisingly, the first major purchase my parents made together was a house. To get the down payment, my dad sold his little twin-engine Cessna. While a plane can get you the exhilaration of freedom and an endless horizon, a house will get you its opposite: walls, fences, a roof, and a competing feeling—security.
The American Dream is especially potent for those of us in the habit of fantasizing, those of us addicted to picturing, with the precision of a drone strike, something bigger and better. And it is most potent for people who have lost something or never had it in the first place. My husband didn’t come from a family of immigrants. The American Dream was something one read about in a high school classroom, he along with his white, solidly middle-class peers. The American Dream, how quaint! How 1920s! How Gatsbyish! But say what you want about Gatsby and his ill-gotten gains, he knew how to lure Daisy: with the biggest house on the block.
Nine months after I’d followed that first open house sign, I wandered into the little house on 61st Street. It had a 1990s Santa Fe color scheme: bright purple, yellow, and green walls. It had hard wood floors and a little arched indentation in the wall, perfect for a tiny shrine. It was priced to sell at $335,000, the realtor told me, because the owners planned to retire in Mexico.
I called my husband, then Angel, our real estate agent. We met with a mortgage broker. Because we did not have the money for a down payment, we’d have to take out two loans, but that was not a problem. Everyone was doing it, he assured us. A month later, we signed on the dotted line in almost hundred different places and then the house was ours. Or, as my friend’s husband likes to tell her about their home, we didn’t own the house, we owned the idea of a house.
We bought two loveseats, three unfinished pine bookcases, which we primed and painted ourselves, a kitchen table and six matching chairs from a garage sale, a hutch, and a new computer desk. My mother-in-law, who helped us with the closing costs, bought us an electric lawn mower.
We had friends over. We met the neighbors. Our cats, for the first time ever, were allowed to go outside. They ruled the backyard like little sultans, basking in the sun and waiting for the girls to carry them back in.
And now, when I had a particularly difficult day at the high school where I worked, it was worth it because I was working for that home I’d always wanted. I was righting an old wrong. If anything marred the set up, it was that my parents didn’t share in this “return.” I often felt guilty that I’d bought the house while they still rented, as if I had disrupted the natural order of things, or overreached. Later, when it all fell apart, I would joke that I had been like Icarus and flew too close to the sun. But now, some years later, I realize that I was more like the father in that story, poor old Daedalus, pacing the confines of his prison, scanning the horizon, willing to risk everything just to get home.
What finally happened with the house was this: my husband quit his job and left. Oh, it was much more complicated than that, of course. The death of our marriage was slow and labored and painful and another story entirely. We needed two salaries to pay for the house and now, less than a year and a half after we’d signed the paperwork, I had only one. It was a matter of math, a simple equation, input and output. I could not, on my teacher’s salary, pay the mortgage, childcare, food, electricity, gas. What luxuries could we forego? What could I cut? What could I cut? Every time I ran the numbers, I was at least $1,800 in the red.
For two months, my mother-in-law made up the difference, but this was unsustainable. I called the bank. They told me to write a hardship letter. I sat at the computer late one night and wrote a rough draft. In all the years that I’d fantasized about a house, I’d never pictured a moment like this one and so it was like an out-of-body experience—look at that woman, chewing on her bottom lip, trying to find the words to explain why she can’t pay her mortgage… oh wait, that’s me! Only those who have ever written a hardship letter will know what it feels like to write one. You have to employ all of your writerly talents; you have to choose the right details. You have to be humble and trustworthy. Your story should provoke pity but not be pathetic. To this day I wonder if anyone ever read it or if it went into what I came to think of as the filing cabinet of hopeless cases.
Every day I heard more bad news about the housing bubble… the crash… the crisis. It didn’t matter what you called it: home values all over the country were plummeting, and Sacramento, with its wildly inflated home prices, was hit hard. Turn on the news and there were shots of decimated neighborhoods, the tell-tale signs of foreclosure blight—dark windows, brown lawns, and white for sale signs like lopsided crosses. On my way to work, if I could stomach it, I would listen to NPR’s stories about the crash, feeling implicated in every story, like a fugitive who sees her own wanted poster in the post office. One couple they interviewed said that it made no sense to pay more for their house than it was worth. It was a bad investment, and they were going to cut their losses and walk away. Walk away! The thought was inconceivable to me (cut), though wasn’t that what my husband had done? And what became of people who walked away? They became nomads, people trapped in limbo, practically ghosts.
I began to discuss the possibility of foreclosure with friends and with my parents, who had never wanted to talk about Mulberry Lane. So many people were in the same position, they pointed out, that I shouldn’t feel too ashamed. If half of the country is in foreclosure, then it feels more like a virus, something anyone could catch, rather than a moral disease like lung cancer or emphysema or cirrhosis, the end result of a disgusting habit, or moral depravity, or reckless ways.
But I had been reckless, I had to admit this to myself. I bought a house at the height of the market because I didn’t understand how these things work. I listened only to those people who said I should buy now before the prices went higher. I bought a house with a man who had been unhappy for years, who wanted to move back to Boston, his ideal city. And I bought a house because I was still, in part, that thirteen-year-old girl, rooted in the shadow of Mulberry Lane, who wanted her triumphant return.
I had two choices: a foreclosure or a short sale. A short sale was the responsible route, less of a stain. I called Angel, and a few days later there was a for sale sign in my yard. It was that simple.
Sometimes Angel would tell me she was bringing a prospective buyer over, so I’d have to invent urgent errands to drag the girls from their games. I made no attempt to put our personal things away, to streamline pictures, toys, the clutter of our lives. I hadn’t “staged” anything to make it sell faster because I didn’t want to sell it at all. This was my home; strangely I had become like the old man whose original house I had liked. If someone was going to profit off my misfortune, I wanted them to know it.
I found one buyer, but Countrywide sat on the offer for months and the buyer drifted away. I found another buyer. Once again, we faxed all the paperwork into the vast void of the Countrywide network. Nothing happened. When Angel and I called, we were told, after long waits, that the agent was working on it. The second buyer came and went. Then a third. What I really wanted was for Countrywide to reduce the principle balance to what the house was now actually worth. On my way to work, I argued with imaginary Countrywide agents. Either way, I’d say—a foreclosure or a short sale—the bank was going to take a hit. Why not resell it to me for what it was actually worth? Why not keep the owner in the house? A single mom with two kids, a teacher, a public servant, I would whine. Have pity! Banks, though, are not interested in pity. I had taken a risk on my American Dream, but I’d done it with other people’s money and there was nothing to be done now except take my beating and slink away.
And then Countrywide collapsed and Bank of America swooped in for the crumbs. I figured that bought me some time. It would take a while for the new people to sift through the mess Countrywide had left behind. In the meantime, the president announced a housing initiative, billions in aid for struggling homeowners. I applied, once again writing a hardship letter and pulling my bank statements and tax forms together. Six weeks later, their offer arrived via FedEx. I took the envelope into the sun room, into the buttery light I loved so much. This is it, I thought. I tore the tab and slid the papers onto the table. Fingers crossed like a gambler at a roulette table, I read the terms three times to make sure I understood. Their idea of helping me was to take the amount I hadn’t paid—more than $25,000—and add it to the principle balance, so that now I’d owe about $360,000. In return they’d lower the monthly payments by a measly $300. The house was worth somewhere around $200,000 was my guess, maybe even less.
I would have to walk away. The only questions now were when and to where?
Unlike the day we left Mulberry Lane, there was no one single day when I left 61st Street. Slowly, a little less than two years since the trouble started, I began to move my things into a house I rented with my new husband. After work, I’d swing by and take another carload. My dad helped me take several truckloads to the Goodwill. We never said anything about what it feels like to lose something as big as a house. But it was there between us, unspoken. “Okay, Nikki,” he’d say, clapping his hands, “Let’s get this show on the road.” Together we’d load up his truck and my car until they were full with the detritus from my failed American experiment. Maybe because my AP class was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I thought of the Joads. It wasn’t the same, of course. I didn’t have to pick peaches, I wasn’t sleeping in a barn, my children weren’t starving. But there were thousands of people like me, people who, at that very moment, were loading their belongings into a car and leaving home for good.
My visits to the house became infrequent, tinged with regret and loss like visiting a relative with advanced Alzheimer’s, someone so ravaged by disease they are not really there anymore. Not today, I’d think, tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But I could never make myself go. Though there were still some things left behind, junk and old toys mostly, I finally had to admit that I was not going back. Not then and not ever.
I had done the unthinkable. I had walked away.
Tonight there’s a house that my new husband wants me to look at on the computer. It’s listed at $565,000, slightly higher than the average listing price for a home in our college town. Here, a half a million dollars gets you four bedrooms, maybe, inefficient windows, old carpets, and forty-year-old countertops. And you are supposed to feel lucky to get in at that price because most four bedrooms top $600,000, easy. Who are these shiny, magical people, I keep asking, who can afford such extravagance?
“We are,” he tells me. “We are those magical people.”
He pulls up a slide show. It has a big window in the front, raised flower beds. Looking at the pictures, I wish I wore glasses. I wish there was a lens, some kind of protective barrier between my bare eyes and the simple, sweet house we are touring. When the slide show ends, he has to look up at me because I have not committed even to sitting down. I remain ready as ever to walk away.
But the look in his eyes! So full of hunger and longing, it roots me to his side. I want him to have it. I want her to have it too, my thirteen-year-old self.
He points to the money we have managed to save despite the fact that our rent is as high as a mortgage.
“Slow down, let’s think really this through,” I tell him. But really, I’m talking to her. She is chattering away about the mature wisteria vine, the patio, the spacious backyard where the kids could play.
“The prices are going up,” he says. “Interest rates, too. Now is the time.”
I know these arguments intimately. I practically invented them.
“Listen,” I tell them, “there are many advantages to renting.”
My husband just shakes his head. But that girl, my old self? She actually scowls. Forever adolescent, she crosses her arms, rolls her eyes. Two against one, unfair advantage, I think. I take her aside. You tried this once before, I hiss.
She fakes an exaggerated yawn. She’s isn’t buying any of my arguments and she is not interested in cautionary tales or literary allusions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gatsby died and Icarus too. So what?
The word mortgage is French for—
Oh stuff it, you old windbag. She turns her back to me and lustfully tours houses on the Zillow website.
She wants what she wants. A backyard, a lemon tree, a little room to write in, an open kitchen, high ceilings, natural light. Those greedy fantasies, again. She’s planning her return, with or without me.
NICOLE SIMONSEN teaches English at a public high school and for the Upward Bound program. She lives nearby in Davis, California, in house she bought last year with her husband. Her stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Brain, Child, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Talking Writing.