What We'll Call Home
You’ve seen us. Them. You’ve said to your sugar, What the hell do they think they’re doing? You’re on your stoop, your porch, your lanai, your whatever—and as we pass by you scrunch forward, down to car-window height. I’m gonna say something, you say, handing your honey the hose. Can’t have people just driving around like that, all slow and everything, rubbernecking. Can I help you? you ask. You shake your head as we speed away. Freaks.
But you’re just going to have to deal with it. We’re not burglars or pedophiles, missionaries or Hari Krishnas. We’re looking for a place to live. We need a home and we need one now.
It’s the middle of July already, and it’s a desert wasteland here in Salt Lake City. For eight days running it’s been over a hundred degrees and the blacktop roads have begun to liquefy—not to mention this three-year drought that a thousand inches of rain won’t fix. The air is so hot and brittle it feels as though my skin might shatter, and beyond that the lease on our apartment is up in six weeks and we just can’t rent again. Jenae and I have been together for six years and have lived in nearly as many apartments. And it’s not that Utah is exactly what we imagine when we say we want a place to call home, but it’ll have to do for now. Still, we have no mover, no moving date, no home loan for that matter, and no home upon which we can make an offer.
It is not, however, for a lack of looking. Since May, Jenae (sounds like Renee with a J, as she says) and I have picked up every homebuyers’ guide in the grocery store, studied each realty website till our eyes bled, and cased favorable neighborhoods so methodically we could put them back together from memory were they ever to fall apart. Then again, we’ve been driving around in Jenae’s VW Beetle, a yellow poppy waving like a drag queen from the dashboard vase; we are a threat only to good sense, fundamentalists, and long-legged passengers.
Having rented apartments for so long, we usually lived near other renters. We met in Boston, where everybody we knew—rich or poor, young or old—lived in apartments, even if they owned them. In the West, and especially Utah, practically everyone we know owns her own house. Fellow waiters, writers, graduate students . . . everybody. Having just moved there, it made us feel like pariahs. It wasn’t only how we paid for the roof above us, it was who we were and what we did to our communities: we were renters. An easy mark for the missionaries, for that matter.
When looking for an apartment, we had sought convenience, proximity to bars and grocery stores, off-street parking, soundproofing against the klezmer music that wafted around our invariably bohemian neighborhoods, a backyard for the beer-can bowling, a porch for the rocking chairs, and a nice corner for the spittoon. We didn’t have to worry about the neighborhood, the neighbors, not even the place itself. It would have been like worrying about the feng shui of a bus station bathroom stall. An apartment is utilitarian and temporary. Go ahead, dance with that glass of red wine, smoke those cigars, fry up some catfish, juggle those skunks. You don’t live here. You just rent.
To buy a house—or at least to look in earnest for one—is to admit to yourself that you think you’re ready. At the very least, that you should be ready. Time to suck it up and recognize that there’s relatively little pride to be had in the fact that your downstairs neighbors are as careful as they promise about cleaning their guns or that you managed to keep a ficus alive from Halloween until Thanksgiving, whereupon it shrugged all its leaves ceremonially to the floor. You’re married, you’re getting older, and your parents are looking more and more like the grandparents they are pestering you to make them. It’s getting embarrassing. Your pathetic renter’s mailbox—the one with three former tenants’ names crossed out—is stuffed with your friends’ baby-shower invitations. Just a few months ago, right after my grandmother died, five different people mentioned the word “ultrasound” to me on the same
There’s something dreadful, however, about buying a house. You have to be willing to say to yourself, There go my freewheeling days of touring the Arctic on a kite-powered bobsled. So much for starting up that punk-rock band that was finally going to answer The Clash’s call. If I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, it’s going to be with a Baby Bjorn or not at all. K2 and Kathmandu will have to take a bid on somebody else’s death wish. I’m getting old. Forty might be the new thirty, but nobody who’s twenty thinks so. It was time to grow up and settle down.
And, adulthood had just coldcocked us. First my adoptive dad died. Then Gram. Then Jenae’s grandfather. These losses were devastating in their own ways, but Gram—her death was utterly unacceptable. All bets were off after that. Our best couple-friends were getting divorced. Doctors detected a strange mass in my mother’s abdomen, and, not to be upstaged, my grandfather started having trouble with—among a raft of other things—his colon. It all seemed to be happening at the same time, on the same day, every hour on the hour.
Between the birth announcements and the death certificates, we couldn’t tell up from down. Even the simplest facts and dates became obscured, irrelevant. All we knew was that everyone but us was dying, getting divorced, or having a kid, and we were stuck with our hands in our pockets waiting for the band to start. Life and death were coming for us, and we could either dig in, settle down, and try to defend the home front, or agree to shake hands and walk quietly away from the line and go our separate ways.
True, Utah seemed the oddest of places for us to be buying a house, but I was in a graduate program at the university and Jenae had recently landed a good job at a theater downtown, and since Gram had died, there was nothing to pull us back to the Midwest. Gram had been fading rapidly with Alzheimer’s when I was admitted to the program, but she was perfectly clear when she threatened me if I quit school to move home. “Don’t you dare,” she said, clamping down on my hand like a pipefitter. “So help me God, I’ll kill you myself.”
I didn’t want to stay in Utah, but I knew Gram could hold her liquor as well as she could throw a punch, and I just couldn’t let her down. If we left Utah and the grad program I was in, it all would have been wasted and I’d be waiting tables full time. The long and the short of it was I was her only grandchild and she wanted me to make something of myself. That drive and her daughter’s life were all she held on for all those years. After she died, it was time to act.