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How to jinx yourself

September 13, 2010

Stumble serendipitously across someone with a small adorable cottage who wants to swap it for a large, ramshackle house.  Discuss your mutual situations at length on the telephone; it is a match made in heaven.  Invite would-be houseswapper over to look at your place as if it is no big deal, conveniently forgetting that you have been living like a refugee for days, that school is about to commence, and that you have your mother and stepfather on the way.

Panic.  Call back.  Change plans.  Write overly apologetic email, hit send, smack forehead with palm.  You, my friend, have absolutely zero real-estate game.

Two weeks later, awaken at four a.m. in a lather of panic.  You promised to get back in touch with house-swapper “once things calmed down”, you stupid git.  Curse.  Locate laptop; invite houseswapper over tomorrow, which is really today.  Lie awake until six, fretting.

Oversleep.  Your inbox, when you get around to checking, has a nice cheerful email from houseswapper, who would be delighted to visit at the time you suggested.

Which is now two and a half hours away.

Do not, however, begin to clean in an organized fashion.  Ignore areas of high traffic and colossal mess, such as kitchen; instead, fixate on ridiculous places no one sees, such as the windowsill inside the shower on the second floor, the farthest corner of your office closet, the top bunk of your younger son’s bed.

Decide to shower.  Decide to eat.  Decide to sweep the deck outside.  Decide to pursue pointless errands with zero urgency.  Work from the bottom of your to-do list toward the top.

Do not look at your watch.  The houseswapper will be here when she gets here.  Everyone has been telling you to relax, right?  So relax!

Relax so hard you spill club soda all over the coffee table while putting your feet up.

Call consoling-windows friend.  Order her to appear at your doorstep in exactly one hour,  so you’ll be sure to have all your cleaning finished by then. Bite nails.  Stare at ceiling. Fall asleep.

Consoling-windows friend arrives and bursts out laughing. You are not amused.  Inform consoling-windows friend that she now has approximately twenty minutes before houseswapper’s arrival–just how does she propose to turn living room into a thing of beauty?  While she calmly arranges disaster area into a series of neatly stacked piles of disaster, hyperventilate.  Bang shins on open dishwasher, bump head on cabinet, smash fingers. Run outside in bare feet looking for cones and/or ROAD CLOSED signs forgotten by last week’s water-main repairmen (a detour would buy some time); alas, none remain.

Houseswapper is early and parks consoling-windows friend into driveway.  Stand out front like an idiot, still barefoot, while she backs out and re-parks.  Wave sad goodbye to consoling-windows friend.

Commence grand tour.  Feel obligated to show houseswapper all the many underappreciated features of your house, without drawing breath.  Houseswapper appreciates porch, murmurs politely about picture window with built-in windowseat, professes admiration for laundry room and deck.  By the time you get to the second floor, however, her attention is waning.  “Oh, dear,” she says, coming to the guest bedroom’s famously sloping floors.  Your tone, as you explain that the sloping floors are absolutely nothing to worry about, and certainly not a sign of structural disintegrity, is perhaps a bit shrill.

The houseswapper is not terribly impressed by your closets.

“Maybe you should stay here, with two growing boys,” the houseswapper says upon reaching the third floor.  You point out the wavy glass in the beautiful old Palladian windows, the lovely floors, the light.  “You need this space,” she says.  “My house is much too small.”  Oh, but you love small houses, you insist. And your boys aren’t really growing all that fast.  Why, just the other day the pediatrician pointed out that both are WAY behind the curve for their age.  By the time they hit puberty, they’ll probably be in college!  Not to worry!  Notice that houseswapper is blinking a bit more often than seems normal.  Desperately, point out the pretty little greenhouse window where your older son keeps his cactus collection.  Before he moved downstairs, you say, his bed was right underneath; every night, he’d fall asleep counting stars through the copper beech branches.  Tell houseswapper he used to say it felt like sleeping in a treehouse.  Notice your voice is a little shaky.  Also notice pile of trash you’d meant to remove, right in the center of your bedroom floor.  Apologize.  Pick it up.  Drop bits of paper, detritus.  Houseswapper gives you a pitying look, smiles kindly, and begins to extricate herself.

Fight urge to throw your arms around her knees and force her to appreciate the yard before she leaves.

Stand forlornly in the driveway, still holding bits and pieces of trash, as she gets into her car.  “Don’t think of us as customers, per se, though we’ll call you if anything changes,” she says, rolling down her window.  “Besides, I really think our house is much too small for all of you.”  Protest feebly. As she drives away, younger son, swaggering home from school, appears at end of block.  When he sees you, he grins hugely and breaks into a run. “Hi, Mom,” he pants.  “I beat the bus. Why are you holding all that gross stuff?”

Follow son inside, fix snack, sit glumly at table while he chatters about his first week of third grade.  He was conceived here, brought back here the day he was born. It’s the only house you’ve ever lived in together. Neither he nor his brother particularly wants to move.  Your consoling-windows friend does not want you to move.  Your mother does not want you to move.  You would pay each of them a couple thousand bucks, gladly, if it meant somehow you’d be able to move.

Realize that you thought it had been a decade since you moved in, but it has, in fact, only been nine years.  Which is still an eternity, but a slightly smaller one.  Maybe you’ve got to go for the nice round number, put in one more year before you’re allowed to cut bait. Every house sells eventually, right?  It’s a lovely house, a lovely town. Wonder what, exactly, will happen to you if no one ever buys it.  Two years and not a single offer.  “Mom, what’s the matter?” asks your son.  Nothing, nothing, you say.  Want to go read on the porch?

Your son took his first steps on the porch.  You sat on the porch with him in your arms the very evening he was born, laughing with your consoling-windows friend, her sons and husband, and the rest of your family, including your sweet old dog, now dead.  On warm summer nights, reading on the porch, you often hear owls, or foxes, or faint, distant trains.  Once, your ex-husband threw a glass at you there.  It bounced anticlimactically on the floor without breaking, and you turned and left the house, letting the screen slam behind you, walking blindly down the street and all over town for an hour or so, thinking of nothing, seeing nothing.

Now your son grabs his snack and his Lloyd Alexander book and chirps, “Read on the porch? Of course!” And–because you haven’t even looked at the paper today, after all–you do.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 10:27 am

    Oh, lovely. And heartbreaking. And bitter-sweet, just like the season.

  2. September 13, 2010 12:38 pm

    It was wise of the blinking one to get into her getaway vehicle before she delivered the “per se” stinger. I’d per se her.

  3. A Friend of the Blog permalink
    September 13, 2010 3:08 pm

    Okay, this is even more than usually brilliant. It’s just fucking, fucking brilliant– pacing, tension between humor and pathos, resolution, all of it. Brava!

  4. September 13, 2010 7:01 pm

    Agreeing wholeheartedly with the people above.

  5. September 13, 2010 7:04 pm

    Oh, so sorry to hear that it didn’t work out.

    If it helps at all, this is beautifully written. (I know, it might not help…).

  6. minoti permalink
    September 13, 2010 11:50 pm

    you really do write beautifully. almost makes me want the house not to sell so we can get more pieces from you like this one! i loved loved loved the part where your young son sees you and bursts into a smile – saying he beat the bus! so very sweet.
    heartrending, yet, funny at the same time. here’s to your wishes coming true!

  7. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    September 14, 2010 11:09 pm

    Now I’m so damned conflicted about the house I don’t know what to do. I feel very protective of it, what with all the rejection it has suffered, poor house. Maybe it’s time to refinance and stay put for a few more years. If, that is, I’m brave enough to face the math required to figure it all out…

  8. September 15, 2010 6:07 am

    Oh, yes. Beautiful and evocative, and also, I rather like the sound of your house, despair inducing though I understand it is.

    See, I have this but with a whole COUNTRY. Sigh.

  9. Take 5 permalink
    September 16, 2010 1:07 am

    It’s the reading on the porch that got to me. 3910 miles (that’s 6290 km) away and I’m crying about this.

  10. September 16, 2010 7:52 pm

    The ending of this piece reminds me of the very best, most satisfying kinds of both poetry and fiction. It wraps things up, in a way–at least to the point where the reader can walk away feeling a bit of satisfaction, but not so much that, as with a formulaic sitcom, s/he is left with the sense of cloying, too-neat finality. The doubts, troubles, nagging memories and concerns for the future of the preceding paragraphs still linger, but for a moment we feel as though we can let them alone and focus on the simple zen-like pleasure of the very final sentence. The feeling the reader gets mirrors the narrator’s experience.

    It’s all so very meta.

    That said, I wish I had a small, charming cottage to trade you, but all I can offer is a large, drafty Victorian duplex. You don’t want this; the paint is chipping everywhere, the roof needs to be repaired one of these years. Plus our tenants/neighbors have three young children under the age of 3, and also enjoy playing the piano, which they do poorly and plunkily. Also they only know one song. And it’s on-street parking.

    You’ll find a taker for your ramshackle house–and when you do, he or she or they will be the perfect family to take it in hand, appreciate its foibles, and appreciate even more the memories it holds.

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