Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I banged the garbage can against an outside wall, and a piece of stucco about the size of a sheet of paper came ever so slightly loose. When I touched it, it fell gently into my palm. It was as if the house were giving me a lock of its hair, or perhaps coughing up phlegm. I was concerned, but it also happened that I was really busy that day. I just couldn’t get into it with the stucco, not right then anyway. Also, I was coming up on my five-year anniversary of owning the house, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in five years, it’s this: if a piece of your house falls off and you don’t know what to do with it, throwing it in the trash and forgetting about it is a perfectly viable option. And it so happened that the trash can was right there. Once upon a time I would have made a beeline to the yellow pages to look up “stucco replacement,” but I’ve come a long way since then.
So has the house. I bought it in 2004, and as I write this, it’s supposedly worth $100,000 less than what I paid for it. By the time you read this, it will probably be worth even less than that. I try not to care because if I cared too much, or even thought about it too much, I’d go insane. I’ve spent enough time here being insane, believe me. I was insane when I bought the place, and I went even more insane afterward. Then again, the whole world was high a few years ago. The whole world, or at least the whole country, was buying real estate and melting it down to liquid form and then injecting it into veins. For my part, it’s tempting to say I succumbed to peer pressure, but it was really much more complicated than that. There is no object of desire quite like a house. Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: “Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.”
I’m writing this book in homage to that sentiment, which is to say I’m telling the story of a very imperfect life lived among very imperfect houses.
A large part of that story, of course, involves the house that is now falling apart in my hands, the gist of which is basically this: In 2004, I was among the nearly six million Americans who purchased real estate. Like roughly a quarter of them, I was a single woman (single men don’t buy houses nearly as often), and I was making the leap for the first time. Again, this was a time when the real estate market had reached a frenzy that surpassed even the tech boom of the mid-1990s. It was scarcely possible back then to attend a party or even get your teeth cleaned without falling into a conversation about real estate: its significance, its desirability, its increasing aura of unattainability. My dental hygienist, for example, had robust opinions about reverse mortgages.
Like many of my friends and neighbors, I attended so many open houses and made such a complete study of the Multiple Listing Service that the homes on the market seemed like human beings. We discussed the quirks and prices of these properties as though we were gossiping about our neighbors. At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001. As in those chilling days, we could literally speak of nothing else. People who had never put a thought toward home ownership were being seduced by record-low interest rates and “creative” financing plans. People who’d happily owned their homes for years were doubling and tripling their equity and suddenly realizing they could cash out or trade up. If the jolt of the fall of 2001 had rocked our sense of safety to the nub, the real estate craze that followed a few years later gave us a reason to wager that the very notion of security, at least the kind made of four walls and a roof, was something that could be purchased, often without good credit or a down payment.
As caught up in all this static as I was, none of these factors had much to do with the reason I depleted most of my savings to buy a nine-hundred-square-foot bungalow for more than four times the money my parents had paid for the two-story, four-bedroom house I grew up in. At the time, I might have said otherwise. I probably insisted (I say “probably” since, as with all major life decisions, the relevant details tend to get lost in the mix; I do, however, remember the outfit I was wearing—a tank top with a strange and rather awful floralpatterned skirt—when I signed the escrow papers) that I was making an investment, that I was “putting my money in the safest place,” that I was tired of dealing with landlords. All of that was true, but it was only years later that I could see there was something else going on entirely. I bought the house because I was thirty-four years old, had been self-employed most of my adult life, had never been married, was childless, had no boyfriend nor any appealing prospects in that department, and was hungry to the point of weakness for something that would root me to the earth.
Of course, that’s as good a list as any of reasons not to buy a house. Freelance writers haven’t historically been the best risks for mortgage lenders, and the absence of a romantic life, be it by choice, circumstance, or a narcissistic refusal to participate in Internet dating (which I suppose counted as a choice), doesn’t on the surface seem relevant to the acquisition of property. But most people have a hard time separating the self from the home, and I was no exception. More than just shelter for ourselves and for our loved ones, more than just “the biggest purchase you’ll ever make,” a house is a repository for every piece of baggage we’ve ever carried. Our homes protect us from the outside world, show off our taste, and accommodate our stuff. Perhaps above all, they prove to ourselves and to the world that we’ve really and truly moved out of our childhood bedrooms.
But what do we do when a house makes life impossible? What if it threatens to destroy us? What do we do when the market tanks, the hillside collapses, the sub-prime mortgage comes home to roost, or we’re just too tired to keep working the extra jobs and overtime now required to afford what used to be a staple of middle-class life? Do we stick it out? Do we cash out? Do we return to the life of a renter, with its aura of tapestry-covered, grad-student-style impermanence? Does selling your house mean losing your independence or gaining it? Does giving it up mean giving up on yourself?
Mercifully, I’m not losing my house to the bank. I have an old-fashioned thirty-year mortgage, and I make my payment every month. And despite the stucco incident, the property has hardly fallen into disrepair. It’s true that at times home ownership has felt like a bigger burden than I imagined even in my most nail-biting pre-purchase moments. It’s true that the money I’ve spent on plumbers and electricians and roofers and tree trimmers might ultimately have been put to better use on Hawaiian vacations while I remained an innocent renter. But the truth is that it wouldn’t have really mattered. The cash would have slipped through my fingers anyway. Over the years, I’ve put preposterous amounts of energy and money into the places I’ve lived, even rentals. I’ve also put preposterous amounts into moving, storage, lost security deposits, and gas money for drives halfway across the country and back as I tried to figure out exactly where and how I wanted to live and whether my fitful bursts of house lust would ever translate into something approximating “settling down.”
But this book is not just the story of the house I bought. It’s also not just the story of other houses I tried to buy or of the disorienting yet sometimes hilarious effects of having a mother who seemed to rearrange the furniture more often than she changed her clothes. And while I could easily embark on a blow-by-blow of repairs and improvements and zombielike trips to Home Depot, while I could rehash every detail of faulty wiring or of ornery workmen or rats that feasted on the orange tree in the backyard, I’m going to try to keep a lid on that particular pot. That’s the standard stuff of home-buying stories, and having now devoured more home repair manuals and sybaritic shelter magazines than the sum total of my college reading, I’ve come to think it’s about as interesting as people recounting their dreams over the breakfast table.
Instead, this is the story of what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live. It’s than committing to a partner or doing my job or even the ostensibly obvious fact that the sun would rise and set regardless of whether my name was on a mortgage. And though I can’t presume to be able to shed new light on what, in precredit-crunch days, possessed vast numbers of Americans to ignore all logic and purchase houses they couldn’t begin to afford, I do think we were all touched by the same strain of crazy. I may make my payments, but I suspect there isn’t a terribly wide gulf between people whose houses have been repossessed and people who, like me, simply seem possessed by whatever version of grown-up life we were hoping to play out by playing house. This is the story of my lifelong game of house.
The first house I ever had fantasies about was a wood-and-glass octagon occupied by an imaginary person whose name I’d decided was Malcolm Apricot Dingo. The way I remember it, the house (which was real) looked more like a giant lemonade pitcher than a place where people might actually live. It sat on a weedy plot of land on a winding street, a tall, barrel-like structure that at certain times of day and given a certain arrangement of the window shades provided a view all the way through to the backyard. I was six years old, and this was a source of unending delight; the house made me feel as if I had X-ray vision, as if I were bionic.
Twice a day, my mother drove me past this house on our twenty-minute drive to and from my school. The commute had been made necessary by our recent move to a new neighborhood and my mother’s last-minute decision, amid my begging and tears, to allow me to attend first grade at the same school where I’d attended kindergarten. The summer before, my parents had bought their first house, a yellow brick bungalow in a state of nearly unfathomable decay, and for all of my mother’s enthusiasm about the new neighborhood she hadn’t taken the final step of forcing me to attend school in the proper district. In retrospect, this deferment of the inevitable seems by turns tender and useless. I’d transfer to my zone-appropriate school the following year. The year after that, we’d pack our belongings in a rented Ryder truck and move seventeen hundred miles to yet another town and another school, where I’d stay for three years before another local move necessitated another clumsy navigation through a brine of strangers.
But in the year of the octagonal house, in those ten months when I passed it twice daily, each time announcing to my mother (I have an explicit memory of this, though she only vaguely recalls it) that Malcolm Apricot Dingo was watching us from behind the glass of what I was sure was his second-floor study, that having glanced up momentarily from his very important work he was waving to us, and that it was only polite that we wave back, I knew nothing of the gut-rattling chaos of being the new kid in school. I knew nothing of eating lunch alone while gamely pretending to read a book, of the indelibly bad impression that can be made from wearing the wrong clothes on the first day of school, of trying to forge friendships with people who’ve had the same best friend since before even the last time you were the new kid.
I also had little territorial frame of reference other than the lush, heat-stroked hill country of Austin, Texas, where we’d moved when I was three and where we’d stay until I was nearly nine. Though I was born in Palo Alto, California, and had trace memories of suburban Chicago, where my family had done a six-month stint when I was a toddler, the bulk of my early childhood was pure Texan. I had a drawl; I said “y’all” and “ahs cream” and assumed that everyone else in the world did, too. I also assumed that every summer day everywhere topped out at 108 degrees and that all cockroaches were the size of turtles and that armadillos were a common form of roadkill. My brother, who was four years younger than I, had been born in Austin in 1974, making him a native Texan. The retired couple who lived next door and whose college-aged children I worshipped were like surrogate grandparents. The city was also home to my friends, my babysitters, my school, my cat—in other words, everything that mattered. I was blond and perpetually tanned and pocked with bites from Texas mosquitoes.
I also happened to have an almost alarming fixation on Little House on the Prairie (first the TV show and, as soon as I could read, the books). I wore a sunbonnet passed down from my maternal great-grandmother, kept my hair in braids like Laura Ingalls, and occasionally called my parents Ma and Pa. When the bonnet wore down to a rag, my mother got out her sewing machine, which she often used to make our clothes, and whipped up a new one. At my request, she also helped me put my mattress on top of two box springs and leaned a stepladder against it, thereby mimicking the loft-bed setup of the Ingalls girls. In the yellow brick bungalow, where my mother built an elevated wooden play structure among the pecan trees in the backyard, I wore my bonnet along with an odd, scratchy calico skirt (a garment that could only have existed in the mid-1970s) and reenacted all manner of scenes from the books and TV episodes: the barn burning down, the dog getting lost, the whole family nearly dying from scarlet fever.
One day, my mother came to me and said that we would be moving away to New Jersey. I remember sobbing in her arms but also taking comfort in her promise that there would be snow in the new place. Since there was snow in the Little House on the Prairie books, I figured we were moving closer to the frontier. When she told me there’d be a real wood-burning fireplace in the new house, I imagined us using it for cooking corn bread.
Ridgewood, New Jersey, was no frontier, just a leafy village of perfectly clipped lawns abutting perfectly maintained houses. Mothers there did not sew clothes, much less build backyard play structures. In fact, they appeared not to do much of anything except play tennis, a discovery that seemed to turn my mother, who’d spent her Austin days attending Equal Rights Amendment rallies in peasant skirts, into an unhappy person almost overnight. Ironically, it was she who’d spearheaded the plan to move to Ridgewood. When my father, who’d been teaching music at the University of Texas, decided he wanted to live the life not of an academic but, rather, of a freelance composer (for commercial jingles, then hopefully for film and television) in New York, my mother had repeated the thing she’d apparently said shortly before they wed: “This marriage is about your career.” She then sought relocation advice from our neighbors/surrogate grandparents, who, as it happened, had lived much of their lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“It’s a little pricier,” they’d said. “But it’s the best.”
“I like it here,” I said.
“Of course you do,” my mother told me. “But if we stayed here, we wouldn’t get to live in a new house!”