My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
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.
For days after we sold our house, I felt uneasy. It felt like the house was still somehow attached to me like a phantom limb—heavy and itchy and restless—and I had to remind myself constantly that it was none of my concern anymore. I didn’t have to worry about shoveling the snow in the driveway or fixing the leaky window in the dining room, and I no longer had to grumble about the cold, creaky wooden floors.
We bought our house eight years ago, just weeks before the housing market collapsed. I don’t think it was love at first sight, but more like comfort at first sight. We could see ourselves living there, hidden among the trees of our wild backyard. We could imagine our furniture in the living room, our pots in the kitchen, our bed upstairs, a crib in the second bedroom. Our small family—not yet in existence—would fit in this small house neatly, comfortably.
Right before we signed the papers to buy the house, we ran into its owner, a middle-aged woman who inherited it from her mother. She lived there with a huge, white dog whose fur we’d keep finding in the most unusual places even years later. “This place really needs a young family,” she told us, waving towards the gray house behind her. I had never owned a house, but I knew what she meant. I knew that this was the place where it was all going to happen—where we would become a family, where we would settle down and be happy.
And it was mostly true. We were mostly happy, mostly settled. We battled with the wild raspberry bushes in the yard, with the ice leaking through the old roof, the paint chipping off the shingles. But the place was ours and I was surprised by how much that mattered to me and comforted me. I felt anchored, secure.
Then we decided to move to another state for a new job. The house was on the market for what seemed like decades, various strangers walking through our rooms critiquing everything from the ceilings, to the size of the kitchen, to its location. I felt insulted and protective of our little nest but also a bit resentful of its stubbornness. Why couldn’t it just let us go? Yet when we finally received an offer on the day the moving truck arrived to pack up our boxes, I felt no relief, no joy. The financial burden was lifted, the responsibility gone, the worry relieved.
Our tether gone, we were free to go. And yet…
I walked through the empty rooms one last time the day of the closing. I only cried when I got to my little boy’s room where he and I spent so much time awake in the middle of the night. I was taking the little boy with me obviously—he was sitting in the car outside—but I felt like a part of me was left behind among the soft yellow walls and the baby blue closet, and the view of the yard.
I grew up in a large, cold, crumbling apartment in the center of Budapest. At one point my uncle, his wife, and their new baby lived with me, my brother, my parents, and my grandfather. There was nothing unusual about this—a lot of my friends lived with their extended families. Once my uncle and his family moved out, my brother and I no longer had to share the tiniest bedroom and my parents did not have to use the living room as their bedroom. These changes felt like huge luxuries, and my brother and I reveled in our new furniture in our bigger—still shared—bedroom. Our desks faced each other and we passed notes and giggled as we did our homework each evening.
My mother grew up in this apartment, rented from the local government. At one point each floor had just one apartment that was later chopped up into three. We lived on the third floor, in one of the larger places. The rooms had tall ceilings and windows and big, double doors. The bathroom was heated only by a gas heater on the wall, so whoever was the unlucky first person in the bathroom in the morning had to turn it on and wait for the temperature to become bearable for a shower. The kitchen was heated only by the oven so we always had to dress in layers for meals in the winter.
During the political changes in Hungary in the 1990s, our apartment building became sort of a no-man’s-land. The government no longer cared for it, but the occupants didn’t own their apartments yet, so maintenance was non-existent and the building declined slowly, paint chip by paint chip. I remember giving this explanation to many visitors before they figured out a polite way to ask about the state of hallways, the elevator, the courtyard.
My parents purchased our apartment after my grandfather’s death. That was the first time that my family owned real estate. Now at least the crumbling walls belonged to us.
When my parents moved to the U.S. a few years later, they first rented out the apartment then put it up for sale. It’s still on the market, along with dozens of similar apartments on our street. I think about it often—I think about buying it, renovating it, living there in some other life, finding comfort in the familiar neighborhood. But the place is a burden on my parents right now, and I wish for them to be rid of it. I wish I could be certain that selling it will feel like a relief—a lifetime of history and stuff packed up, thrown out, passed on to a stranger who can start there anew.
“Is there anything you want out of your grandmother’s apartment?” my father asked a few months ago as he was distributing her belongings among his cousins and other relatives. She died the year before and, by the time I arrived to Hungary for her funeral and saw her apartment for the first time after her death, her clothes were already donated, including what I wanted the most: her red, flowery scarf and her big fur winter hat.
It seemed silly at the time to make a fuss about this—and it still does because I know that what I truly, really want can’t be mine: the smell of Wiener Schnitzel wafting from her apartment into the hallway on Sundays; the scent of freshly ironed linens as she opened a cabinet to pick a tablecloth for lunch; the tap-tapping of her slippers as she walked back and forth to the kitchen down a long, skinny hallway; the clinking of her china on the table; the gurgling of her ancient coffee pot; the cold air that swooshed into the apartment when she opened the balcony door to retrieve the fruit salad that she kept cold out there.
I couldn’t pack up any of these things.
Her apartment in Budapest sold almost the same day as my house in Maine. My parents traveled there to sign the closing papers, and I watched them unpack their suitcases just a few days later when they returned to Maine to their small, rental condo: Ten bottles of homemade jam, a metal key hook, a couple of framed drawings, books, a ceramic trivet, a decorative plate that used to hang in the kitchen.
Lately I think a lot about these three pieces of real estate and about how they came, went, and yet somehow always stayed in my life. Are the walls they held around me just that? Does the weight of owning these walls matter? Do they just hold our stuff, or are they places where our life collects, that place where babies come home from the hospital, where dinner is cooked, where parties are held, where nothing or everything happens? Is there freedom to be had by not being attached to these structures, or does their absence weigh heavier?
I like our new—rented—apartment. It’s modern and much bigger than our little house was. Groundkeepers shovel the snow, salt the driveway, fix clogged pipes. Our furniture gets lost in the big rooms and under the tall ceilings. It’s easy to live here, detached from history, from responsibility, from what comes next.
But I miss the weight, the burden tying me firmly to one place to call home.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a recent transplant to Connecticut. She works in publishing and blogs at www.zsofiwrites.com.
I was deep into middle age and so was my childhood home: 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut. It had been forty-nine years since my parents had bought this house, and it had not held up well.
But neither have I. I take several pills a day for maladies like high blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. No pill helped me to sleep in the days before we cleaned out 1735. Dad had been dead for a decade, and it was time to move my mother out.
My sister Carol, my brother John, and I each took a couple of rooms to empty. I volunteered to go through the master bedroom. I wanted to be alone with the detritus of my parents’ lives. Alongside the cancelled checks and the thumb-smeared Polaroids from the seventies was my master’s degree thesis that I wrote in the late 1980s—a collection of short stories called The Ninety Day Wonder in honor of my father’s service during the Second World War. John said he saw Dad read my thesis cover to cover in one sitting, crying as he turned the pages. The book was dedicated to him.
By the time 1735 sold, my mother had erased any traces of my father. The house was teeming from years of hoarding. She hung on to tests that she administered when she was a Spanish teacher in the seventies and eighties. She saved every single greeting card anyone sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes— clothes disintegrating from age. Then there was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in.
Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died, the house was still habitable. Then the heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed.
That final time we cleaned out 1735, my mother was in a rehab facility, and we made the most of her absence. Two months earlier, she’d spent her last night in the house. She had called me in a panic that she was feeling very unwell. Although I live in Boston, I made the call for an ambulance to take her to a hospital in Hartford. My mother will tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that summoning an ambulance saved her life.
Here is what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further: During her extended stay in the hospital, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut rather than one in Massachusetts near Carol and me because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.
“I brought these,” Carol said waving boxes of masks and latex gloves. These were the same gloves that had to be worn to take blood or give a shot. These were the same gloves my father’s aides snapped on to toilet him, to wipe his drool. These were the same gloves we had to wear at 1735 where a family of raccoons recently lived in the chimney. These were the same gloves we were glad to have on when we found mouse droppings or the mice themselves.
These were the masks that made us look like mad surgeons or hygienic bank robbers. These were the masks I saw people wearing in the freezing, flu-ridden streets of Boston. These were the masks we wore our last days at 1735 to inhale less mold and dust.
I used to dream of the day I would watch a wrecking ball smash into 1735 Asylum Avenue. I thought that watching the house collapse would be satisfying, cathartic. I would take pictures upon the first impact. I would cheer. I would cry. I would dance on the edge of the house’s open grave. But that’s not what happened. We sold 1735 in less than a week to a builder who intended to take the place down to its studs and renovate the unhappiness imbedded in its walls. “An open plan,” he said. No more dark corners of sadness and dust mites. The house would be turned to face the sunlight and the side street. 1735 Asylum Avenue would vanish as a house and then as an address.
It turns out that selling 1735 unmoored me. It set me adrift without an ancestral home to go back to. We had cut a deal with the builder that we would take out personal items and leave the rest for him to deal with. Leave the green-swirled sofa stuffed with old circulars under the cushions. Leave the hi-fi missing the first A of “Magnavox.” Leave the dining room table with the warped leaves, the table I sat under when I was a little girl as my parents fought their way through another year of marriage. We left the chipped, cow-jumping-over-the moon-lamp that dimly lit the bedroom that I shared with Carol.
I left love letters written by bad boys and pleading letters that I wrote and never sent to those bad boys. Bad karma to move that stuff. I looked for a packet of poems that a nice boy wrote for me the summer after I graduated college. He was the sophomore who loved me—the senior girl who had a boyfriend I was afraid to leave. I gave him a chapbook of poems by a poet I thought was profound at the time. I can’t remember the name of the poet nor could I find the nice boy’s poems to me. I just know those poems were once mine, and now they would become part of the ash and rubble as 1735 Asylum was reincarnated.
I left the rotary phone in the den where it had been for almost half a century. The phone wheezed when the wheel spun and 523-0765 was rubbed off of the circle in the center. After all these years, it turns out, my mother was still renting from the phone company.
We were disappointed that Mom couldn’t take the phone number to the assisted living in the town over.
“What about just keeping 0765? I can deal with a different prefix,” I said.
“Taken,” said John who was in charge of getting the new phone number.
My siblings and I salvaged what we could and went back to the hotel to toast to our exhaustion. We barely lifted our glasses of the default Pinot Grigio we ordered in mediocre restaurants.
“Are you going to miss the place?” I asked Carol.
“Too much happened there,” she said.
She meant that my parents had papered the place with emotions that ranged from my mother’s mania to my father’s depression. But for the longest time, 1735 also represented permanence to me. It was the address on my driver’s license for the nine years that I lived in New York City.
Like houses that have been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great parties, the hi-fi blasting, where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba libres. There was my wedding gown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.
My mother romanticized the home she made with her husband, and for better or for worse, she wanted to stay until death did part her from 1735. We must have appeared to be the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul the pails out every Sunday night or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.
Visiting 1735 over the years, we often choked on agitation and the dust that accumulated as thickly as the plush carpeting that once covered the floors. For the last ten years we begged, we fought, we threatened Mom, and still she sat immobile in the chair my father had spent his last days and nights in the den—the chair that ejected him so he could go from recliner to wheelchair in one jerky motion.
Then I had an epiphany. Of course the idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already left her first home in Cuba forever. My siblings and I were forcing my mother into another exile. We had already scattered from 1735 and left most of its dower contents in place. Like my grandparents who walked away from twenty-five years of silver and jewelry and dishes in Old Havana—“with only the clothes on their backs and their toothbrushes,” was my mother’s description—we shut the door on a house in West Hartford that was full of furniture and clothes and things we could not bear to dig deeper into.
We, too, had exiled ourselves from Asylum Avenue forever.
In the hospital, my mother screamed that she wanted to be buried seis pulgadas in the backyard. But we had bought a double plot when my father died. My mother would be six feet under the ground next to my father. And after 1735 had passed on, the furniture and the clothes went to the backyard to die. The builder promised that everything would be disposed of efficiently and quickly. I assumed that meant there would be some dignity in the process.
Instead, 1735 was stripped bare and its furnishings laid in the front and back yards for random people to pick over. They came with pickup trucks, U-Hauls, and minivans and took away my parents’ bedroom set. The living and dining room furniture were parceled to strangers. I hoped my bedroom set went to a little girl who would feel like a princess with a white and gold etched headboard. I didn’t see any of this myself, but I heard about the scene from one of my mother’s former aides, who got giddier as she told the story.
“It was like looting,” said the aide. “And they even took the clothes no matter how scrappy they were.”
Other families seem to have physical objects, talismans of sorts, to evoke their history. I pointedly remember that we had nothing from Cuba except some creased black and white photographs. If I, the child of exiles who went from country to country with little more than the clothes on their backs had known, I would have taken those things before they were outside for the world to grab.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and O Magazine. She is at work on a memoir titled 1735 Asylum Avenue: A Family Memoir.