I’m not sure when I started telling my husband bedtime stories to get us in the mood, but the why is clear: We had begun looking at each other at the end of the day with the erotic gaze of two poached animals. After checking off our entire list items for the day, we had become just one last to-do.
Fact: The last thing on your list never gets done.
“Should we?” I asked Adam.
“I don’t know—do you want to?” he said.
The truth is, I didn’t. Adam might tell me he is game nearly a hundred percent of the time, but there was something weighing on us. The feeling was: not yet, or maybe, not here. The room. This room! It was infected with everything left from the day. It was like someone had stuffed the last twenty-four hours in a canister and had set it off like a bug bomb in our bedroom.
“It’s this place,” I said. “It’s haunted by the specters of our godforsaken lives!”
We stared at the ceiling for a while.
“What if we weren’t here,” I suggested. “What if we pretended we were… somewhere else?”
“Are you going to go all Fifty Shades on me?” he asked.
I hadn’t actually read the book, though I got what he was implying. “That reminds me… I have never even asked you what your fantasy is.”
We both looked around the room. We looked at each other.
“I’m kind of happy with how we do things,” Adam said.
“I don’t have any problem with how we do things, either, you know.”
“Maybe if we had better furniture?”
“What if we just pretended we were someplace else?”
And that’s when the solution became clear to me: I was in search of a Calgon Moment. I’m a travel writer by trade. You know the girl—itchy feet, heart on fire. But I’ve got the whole shebang—kids, husband, house. Sometimes it’s just not possible to wander, so in that moment, in the space between checking off lists and connecting with my husband, I decided we that we would wander through stories.
Adam was game. And so on one of these days, these one-day-in-a-million-same-days, I started in on the spot with what would be the first in a long line of stories created to whisk us away to somewhere else.
“Okay, we’re in Munich,” I started in. “We’re at Café Rischart, that little place on Marienplatz that makes the tiramisu so thick and high it looks like a building. I’m the new apprentice baker. I’m whipping the zabaglione for the tiramisu on my first day alone in the bakery. But oh, look, there you are. You’re a busboy. You are sweeping the front of the store before it opens. It’s wintertime so there is a light flurry of snowflakes falling outside. The smell of coffee and cream is in the air. You’re watching me whip the fluffy cream layer as you sweep, back-and-forth. But then, I drop an egg! It falls to the floor and cracks. You walk towards me to help me clean it up and you flip the switch by the door, setting off the animatronic elves in the front window.”
At that point, he laughed.
We were there. Or rather, we weren’t there—at least, not in that room haunted with the ghosts of the day.
But would it work again?
Over the next couple of months, Adam and I met at tea ceremonies in Japan, at a terrarium bar where we reached into the same glass globe of air plants. We become those people who have stood in the electricity of proximity while waiting for an hour outside a trendy brunch spot. We both wax on about the just-melted cheese atop the huevos rancheros and the silken avocados until yes, there we are stepping out of line and heading somewhere, and fast. We’ve been solo travelers on a cruise ship, a rain-soaked logger and a soup chef, two lost people at a meditation retreat, a wedding dress designer and the girl who’s just about to marry the wrong guy, a mover with one last box to carry me over the threshold, two people who at a shelter trying to adopt the same cat.
Any writer worth her ilk will tell you there is fun to be had in placing characters in a new setting and watching them do the unexpected — that if Flaubert had set Madame Bovary loose in Marseille, she might not have ended up drinking that bottle of arsenic. But while the settings always change, some elements are always the same: The two of us meet cute somewhere far, far away and interact until that point where we look at each other and it’s become the inevitable.
We are going to have sex.
There is no stopping it because this story can’t end any other way.
“We are in the grocery store, and we’re both carrying those shopping baskets because we live alone. We’re looking at cereal. I can’t find the Rice Krispies. You look at me, and I’m just about to cry because I had a bad day at work where I’m sure the guy I share my office with is trying to destroy me. You’ve got pine nuts and fresh fronds of basil in your basket and were headed to the pasta aisle when you saw me there in my shirt, slightly askew because the buttons were off by one. You say, ‘General Mills, I think that’s over there, on the bottom row,’ and you bend down and pull it off the shelf for me. Kneeling, you hand it to me and say, ‘I love Rice Krispies, too.’ We put our groceries in one of our carts and ditch the other one.”
Isn’t this what we really have to overcome in the long-term relationships: to meet again and experience the thrill of what it felt like to be the only high line-item priority to another person, the only truly necessary thing on the list?
I’m getting better in the telling as I concoct more stories for us. The stories get easier to relate, the situations more specific, our jobs and pasts more complex. I always throw something in there to make Adam laugh—I give him some creative manscaping, or I’m wearing platform shoes with aquariums in the heels a la I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and my heel fish is depressed and, surprise! Adam’s the only fish expert in the city who can help. I pick places I know would make him happy: two solo hikers in an old-growth forest, a man and a woman who showed up at the same show on the wrong night. Two people lost without a map who have to rely on their more animal instincts to find their way out of the city.
But most of the time I am picking settings just for me. I am a harried office worker joining the laptop brigade over a latte, he’s a sailor just in from his ship, tying knots to make a handle for the cold brew station at my favorite coffee shop.
“I can sense you there beside me. What are you doing? You’ve got the black rope in one hand and are affixing it to the top of a ten-inch-long cylinder of wood with a line of thin duct tape. It’s long and about one-inch wide, smoothed by hand. I type away, and you are weaving the rope in and out in a braid around the long, thick handle of wood. I’m watching you but trying not to seem as if I am. You’re about a third of a way down the wood now. Occasionally you whip a thread of paracord to the left and it lands on the soft skin of my right inner thigh. You don’t even notice, and I don’t tell you, but it keeps happening. Thwap. I’m typing, typing away as the barista steams milk for my latte and there’s this guttural swirling sound moving from a low grumble to a high-pitched scream. My fingers are typing faster now, though a few minutes later I can’t even say what I’ve written since all that I can sense is the light flick of paracord hitting my thigh. Thwap. You’re close to the bottom of the handle, now. Thwap. You’re almost finished with it. Thwap. You tie off a knot at the end and then look up at me.”
EMILY GROSVENOR is an independent journalist and essayist based in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at www.pioneerperfume.com, and you can follower on Twitter @emilygrosvenor.
To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.
To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.
You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.
As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.
Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.
In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.
It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.
After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.
One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion, swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle knock tear knead soft moan all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.
More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.
The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.
One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.
Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.
That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.
NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.
On my first night living alone, I found myself in a room containing only a bed, a nightstand, and a single Tiffany-style lamp—the only thing I requested as inheritance from my aunt who passed away just over a year before.
It was Wednesday. Monday I had been in court petitioning an end to our marriage. Tuesday I had closed on a house. It was late at night and the next day my sister and parents would be coming up from Salt Lake and St. George to my little townhome in West Haven, Utah, to spend Thanksgiving with me. There would be no turkey cooking in my oven that year, but I was thankful they came all the way to spend it with me.
I’d received the keys to my house just hours before, and I stayed up late that night prepping the walls of my new bedroom with blue tape, getting ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a dark brown color named “Bay Colt” from the Martha Stewart line of colors. It was a comfortable color, grounded, and it would contrast perfectly with my new heavy, red bedspread that I had my eye on buying in the next couple of days. I painted accent walls that included the wall behind my bed. A healthy, rich soil color was perfect as a place to replant myself. Besides, the designer Vera Wang, three-hundred-dollar bedspread would be my way of being seductively mischievous (if only for myself!).
Just two days before, I sat in a courtroom with Jim, two bailiffs, the court stenographer, our lawyer, and the judge. All the gallery seats behind us were empty. Once the proceeding started, life’s reality began to settle in and the tears were uncontrollably escaping, enough that the bailiff brought me a box of tissues. I tasted the saline as the tears dripped past my lips. I had to swear the truth, the whole truth, and I had to convince the judge to grant an annulment to a marriage that could have/should have been annulled four years prior. Though Jim didn’t have to go under oath, he was there and nodded in agreement at the implications of an unconsummated marriage. The judgment was final. It was as if Jim and I were never married.
I never understood the phrase as if you were never married. That’s what our lawyer said an annulment legally meant. How can someone say that a marriage didn’t happen? I experienced it. I was there. It existed to me. Legally, however, it never happened.
Remarkably, I never felt like a failure. Even on that day in my empty bedroom, I was exhausted and relieved. It was finally over. I had done everything I could think of to save my marriage—twice. We’d consulted with therapists (good and bad), physicians, energy healers, and clergy, but none could give us an answer or a cure.
I never gave up until I knew we were done. It was over when the truth that he didn’t even want to want me finally resonated with me. If Jim did not want to want me, then there was no practitioner or prayer that could change his desire. So what was the purpose of discussing big purchases or planning future trips? What else could we get out of this relationship besides frustrated companionship? Those years felt like pedaling a bike on a treadmill, working so hard to go nowhere. There was no progression. If anything, I wished I had caught on sooner that this was a doomed marriage from the start.
We followed our belief to stay chaste before we were married. For a long time, I thought that if I hadn’t been so strict in practicing my religion, I would have known. When we dated, he often told me he was uncomfortable with my forwardness. I thought I was the one whose sexual perspective was skewed due to a handsy ex-boyfriend. After we were married, I felt justified to find a way to ease the frustration outside of the marriage. I could have cheated on him and felt I could defend my actions, but I’m thankful I never strayed. Ironically, there were times I hoped that he would cheat on me so I would be angry enough to call it quits and feel justified to call off a God-sanctioned marriage. Other times, I would entertain the thought of getting him drunk and taking advantage of his stupor. Damn our religion. No sex outside of marriage and no drinking.
After so many years of silence, never telling anyone outside a professional few, I finally opened up. No more secrets from society. My mom lost a lot of her hair trying to take in what I told her. When it grew back in, it wouldn’t hold the color as it did before. She had been caught up in our myth of perfection. Opening up also meant answering a lot of questions. Answering questions about that marriage has always been complicated. To those casual friends or acquaintances I would simply answer the question of “what happened?” with “It just didn’t work”—only sometimes divulging the secret pun on the word “it.” “It just didn’t work” and it didn’t. Others that got more detail would ask, “Is he gay?” or “Was it pornography?” Having been his wife, I could honestly answer “no” to each of those. I wished I had the answer as to why it didn’t work.
That day in my new bedroom was the beginning of my new life. I was McKel Nobody and I could be me and love me and want to be me. And, although I was surviving the trauma of an upturned life, I was going to be selfish for once.
After I moved in, I had a point of realization: this was my house, and I had complete, creative control. There was no compromising, no rationalizing, no male opinion, no collaboration of details. I was going for it. The color: Brazilian Blush. The room: my home office.
I then found a can of bright white, semi-gloss paint that I had used to paint floorboards in another house. I dabbed paint onto a small sponge and pat it onto a stencil of a butterfly. Instead of following straight lines as the stencil intended, I rotated each butterfly, one at a time. I worked myself around the room. I even hid a couple behind the door knowing I would be one of a select few who would get the secret.
By the end, I had a room full of butterflies gliding over my desk and around the black bookcases filled with books, over and around the window and above the closet. The idea of one butterfly being alone made me sad, so each butterfly was paired off with a companion or in families. “Well,” I thought, “only this one can fly alone.” So I let one independent butterfly have her space to prove that she could make it.
About a year into our marriage, Jim finally sat me down to explain what he saw was going on. We sat in our 1975 split-level home that we bought a month before we were married. It had fake hardwood floors that were installed incorrectly by the previous owners.
“I, uh,” he staggered to get the words. “I’ve been praying a lot about us.”
My breath slowed.
“I’ve known I’ve needed to tell you for a while, but…” He stopped again. I thought we had a relationship where we could share anything, but his delay of telling me something made me uncomfortably aware that this wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.
He then proceeded to tell me in the most logically constructed way that he could. “I am not physically attracted to you.”
This is where friends would say, “Well, why did he marry you?!” But it would be a few more years before I would ask that question and when I did, he replied, “I didn’t want to be shallow.” At this time, though, my mind processed everything slowly, methodically. I needed to obtain every bit of information I could to make a valid judgment.
“I am not physically attracted to you.” Maybe I needed it repeated because the first one didn’t take. “I see girls on campus that dress immodestly, and I instantly get excited,” he confessed. “I don’t get excited with you.”
I sat there, honestly not knowing what to make of the information he was telling me.
“I think it has something to do with chemistry. We don’t have any chemistry.”
Chemistry. Sex is sex. What does chemistry have to do with it? Besides, isn’t compatibility more important in a relationship than chemistry?
He sat there relieved, grateful that he was finally freed from the weight of his confession. I sat there heavy, burdened and wondering when the tears would start. They didn’t for another twelve hours.
“Well, what do we do now?”
Jim was the one that suggested going to a therapist. When we arrived, we met with a tall, thin man who seemed as if he rode his bike to work and wasn’t willing to make mid-morning appointments because it interrupted his morning ritual. I had no idea how to find a therapist that could help us, especially when we weren’t asking for referrals from friends. I found him on an internet search on a whim. His name wasn’t worth remembering.
“So, tell me what’s going on?” he asked us.
The two of us sat closely on the couch, our arms crossing as we held on to the other’s thigh. Jim explained our situation due to lack of chemistry, that thing that couples have that makes you bubble inside and want to jump on each other. “We don’t have chemistry,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex with my wife.” It never got easier to hear, although at the time I was thankful that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.
The therapist smiled as if Jim had made a joke. “You don’t need chemistry.” He then continued with a question to Jim, “What do you not find attractive about her?”
Jim squirmed, “Nothing. I think she’s beautiful.” If he thought I was beautiful, why did we have a problem?
“There is nothing you would change about her to make her attractive to you?” He asked again as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of him.
Ironically, I was hoping he would state something, anything—give this therapist some meat to work with! “No. Nothing,” he admitted again.
I sensed the therapist and I had the same idea; he needed more than just crumbs, “What do you find attractive in a woman?”
“Well, I like redheads,” he stammered.
At this point, the therapist turned to me and asked, “Have you tried dying your hair red?”
Apparently he thought that a year’s worth of sexual incompetency would be remedied by a ten-dollar bottle of L’Oreal. “No,” I said, though secretly wondering if it would work—if only for a second.
It was becoming painfully clear that all the therapist saw were two overweight virgins who got married and now couldn’t figure out how sex worked. “We’re asking for help, not to be your entertainment,” I wanted to say but didn’t. We scheduled two more appointments with that man.
After that, we had a handful of therapists before I settled on one for myself. Her name was Tam, and she was there during my transition from as-if-it-never-happened to single. As I was preparing for my new house, she was the only one that didn’t think I was silly for losing sleep over wall colors and furniture placement. “This is all part of your process for coping,” she said. “You are focusing on your future, and that’s good.” If she had visited me in my house and saw the boldness I expressed in that blushing pink room, she would have been proud.
Although that room was my home office, I referred to it as my Alice in Wonderland room. I spent the following weeks and months finding trinkets and sayings that would fit into the theme. I handcrafted phrases such as “Why, this clock is exactly two days slow!” and “Off with your head!” and placed them on my bookshelves. Displayed on the far wall first seen when you walk were three black frames each holding a word in the phase “Whoo are you” and a fourth frame holding the tailing question mark. There was a time that Alice didn’t know who she was either. Throughout the following months, I added a ceramic tea set, a large Mad-Hatter hat, ceramic mushrooms, a black, old-fashioned alarm clock and a caterpillar on a mushroom.
My fascination with Alice in Wonderland started one year before when Jim and I went to see the new Tim Burton movie in the theatre. Two months before the film’s opening, I found myself forty pounds overweight (trying to fill my emptiness) with back, hip, and neck problems that caused serious discomfort and lots of chiropractic bills. That night at the theatre I was two months into my progressive goals of losing weight and obtaining therapy for myself and not for him (or us). Perhaps that is why I was so open to receive the messages of the film and why the Mad Hatter’s line to Alice—“You have lost your muchness”—resonated with me. Alice couldn’t remember who she was.
Two weeks later, friends and family from both sides descended on our house to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. And since I was born in 1980, what better way to celebrate than by a 1980s theme? Guests arrived in leg warmers, side ponytails of crimped hair, blue eye shadow, brightly colored mixed-matched socks, jelly shoes, upturned shirt collars, and the macho style single earrings that would make George Michael proud. My brother wore his letterman’s jacket from high school that was a little tighter than he remembered. Jim wore a thick, black glamour rock wig and a Goonies t-shirt. People were smiling. I was smiling. The smell of freshly grilled hamburgers hung in the air as my family presented me with a cake with six-inch long candles jetting out of it.
Before the smoke from the extinguished candles reached my nose, I remember thinking, “This year will either be the best year of my life or the worst.” Things would either begin to work or they wouldn’t. I knew a change was coming. I had thought this during the weeks leading up to the dreaded thirtieth birthday, and I added it to my broken-record thought collection which already included the lyrics of the song “I Want You to Want Me” from the band Cheap Trick. That song had been on repeat for over a year already. No one knew about my thought collection. Surrounded by people that truly loved me, I knew that they couldn’t hear my thoughts just as I knew that they couldn’t see the gaping hole hidden behind my new “Everyone loves an ’80’s girl” tee-shirt. McKel had lost her muchness.
The pinkness of that butterfly-filled Alice in Wonderland room proved that I hadn’t quite lost everything. I had made a place for myself. I was still undecided if my thirtieth year was the best or the worst year of my life. It was certainly one of the hardest but deciding to leave that marriage was a relief. For the first time in years, I felt like I could finally progress, even on my own.
As the months followed, I finished painting my house—except one room. It was the third bedroom, between the Alice in Wonderland room and the second bathroom. My L-shaped couch was wall-to-wall without an inch to spare. I dubbed this room the “makeout room,” mainly as a joke. Having been married to a man who couldn’t perform and wouldn’t accept me (and a lousy kisser, at that), I figured, as the phrase goes, “If I build it, they will come.” Pun intended. It must have worked because once, while making out with a guy, the man suddenly jumped up, said, “I’ve got to go,” and ran out of my house. I never got an explanation.
That house served its purpose well through the seventeen months that I lived there. I healed in that house. I started grad school and did my homework while in that house. My husband, Daniel, and I found chemistry in that house while we were dating.
I met Daniel six months after moving in. He was from Brigham City, thirty minutes north of West Haven, and the thought that I almost bought a house closer to Salt Lake made me wince with what-ifs:
“What if I had bought a house farther away from you? We may not have met!”
“I would have found you,” he replied.
Nearly a year after Daniel and I started dating, we were married. And while preserving the sacredness of my marriage with him, I will confess that it is blissfully normal and that it works.
McKEL JENSEN is a newbie to the world of published personal essays. She has worked behind the scenes in the non-fiction book publishing industry and currently works as a technical writer/editor for a large manufacturing company in Utah. She has recently received her MA in English from Weber State University, where she was selected to be commencement speaker for her graduating class. She lives in northern Utah with her wonderful husband and ever-curious son.
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.