For my birthday, my husband bought me a house. I like to mention this nonchalantly to strangers because I think it makes us sound like the type of people who might own a yacht or take exotic vacations. But the reality is that my seven-year-old truck has two large dents from camping trips and we buy Two-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s.
I will also admit that we waited for the housing market to take a dive before purchasing our first home — or rather, my husband waited. He is the type of person who had his future mapped out by the age of six. Every day, he sets his wristwatch to alert him to his ten o’clock bedtime so that he will get exactly eight hours of shut-eye each and every night. That’s just how he rolls. Aaron does not make rash decisions, ever. When 900 square feet was going for half a mil in San Diego, he never considered becoming a homeowner.
I knew the moment we saw our house that it would belong to us, despite its old-lady mauve-y pink color and the weeds growing out of the rain gutters. It looked like us. It was on a cul-de-sac lined with trees. The sound of lawn mowers was coupled with children’s laughter. I could picture our kids setting up a lemonade stand in our driveway or riding their bicycles to school with the rest of the neighborhood kids.
Other people looked at the house that day. There was a middle-aged man in a baseball cap holding his wife’s chubby hand. Their sedan was parked haphazardly on the street, its rear window crowded with neatly arranged stuffed animals. Dozens of little black eyes stared at the road. The wife was unimpressed by the decades-old kitchen, but I overheard her say she saw “promise in the floor plan.”
There was a young couple with a newborn. The woman spoke loudly to her petite bleached blonde agent while balancing in one arm an oversized infant carrier with her sleeping baby bundled up inside. She spoke matter-of-factly about the offer they planned to make on the house. Her husband sat outside on the curb, smoking a cigarette. I felt anxious, worried that our home would end up in the hands of a smoker or a hoarder. The walls would yellow, or worse, the rooms would be overcrowded with stuffed animals, straight from QVC. That just wouldn’t do.
When we got in our car, I told Aaron that I wanted to die in that house at an old age, peacefully in my sleep, with my dog-eared copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House resting in my lap. I, of course, would be in the middle bedroom, the one at the top of the stairs that has the clearest view of Mount Helix. Aaron let out a slow and heavy sigh because he could tell that I was already envisioning where we would place our furniture.
“Just don’t fall in love with it yet,” he warned.
I could tell by the way he said it, in that long drawn-out way, that he was in love with it, too, and trying his hardest to mask his excitement.
I tend to get my hopes up. What my husband refers to as insane expectations I like to think of as optimism. We are a good balance of rational and irrational. I tell myself that it makes our life together exciting, not messy.
On our drive back to our rental in Tierrasanta, Aaron reminded me of the Ronald McDonald house incident. Six years ago we bought a $200 raffle ticket for our dream home. Aaron did it for the cause. He was sucked in by the photos of bald children with IVs running like spider webs across their arms. He wanted them to see Justin Bieber in concert or parade around Disneyland in princess costumes like other American children. He wanted their dreams to come true, while I wanted to live in a mansion. So we bought a ticket.
The home was in Rancho Bernardo, in a neighborhood where everything looked identical — the winding streets, the strip malls, the well-tended flower beds, the oversized silver SUVs parked in just about every driveway. It wasn’t us, but I didn’t care. I was drawn in by the home’s glossy wood floors and the staged little-girl bedroom dripping in butterflies, all pale pinks and purples. I could see myself in the master suite’s bubbling sauna with a glass of wine while rereading East of Eden after a rough day. I envisioned a life of potlucks, carpools, and block parties.
On the day of the raffle, after we toured the house, I was certain that we would win. I felt it was divine providence that led us to purchase a ticket. I was in disbelief when the winning name called out wasn’t ours. The people who won didn’t even show up that day. I wanted to punch them for robbing me of a life filled with pretty things.
On the car ride home, Aaron methodically processed the heartbreak: “Do you really think our furniture from craigslist would have looked okay in that house?” We both laughed hard, and I attempted to get over it.
When we first set foot in the old-lady mauve house, we had been actively looking to buy a home for two years. We had placed five offers on other houses. Our first was a townhome in Ocean Beach, less than a mile from the water. It had a community pool and fitness room frequented by thirtysomething professionals in tracksuits and dry-weave sweatshirts. The home was attached to the house next door. It would be a tight squeeze for our five-person household.
Aaron loved it immediately. He pictured family surf sessions and wet suits drying on our back porch. I didn’t love it, but I pretended to because Aaron was enamored with the idea of us being a beach family.
When our realtor took us to see the inside, the family who owned it was home. They were trying to unload it before the bank took it back. We were greeted at the door by their crotch-sniffing golden retriever. There was colorful artwork on the walls and a peaceful Zen decor. The husband told us that they had gone into debt due to a homeowner association nightmare having to do with mold issues in five townhouses on his side of the street. Through gritted teeth, he added, “Through no fault of our own, it cost all of us a fortune. Our mortgage doubled because of it. We can’t afford this place anymore.” At the end of the month, they would be moving into an apartment in Point Loma.
I felt awkward poking around their house. We were like the kind of people who cross a picket line. A teenage daughter was in her bedroom when we walked in. She rolled her eyes. Band posters decorated her walls, and a lilac-colored floral comforter spread across her antique-style bed. Dirty laundry littered the wood floor.
I felt uncomfortable about making an offer, but Aaron was in love. So we did. We offered $400,000. We were outbid. Five months later, we offered $410,000 on a nicer model across the street that had granite countertops and two spa-inspired bathrooms. Once again, we were outbid. It seemed Aaron’s beach-living dream would be out of our reach.
A short while later, we found a house in Santee whose backyard bordered Mission Trails Regional Park. It had a swimming pool, a white picket fence, and a fresh coat of pale blue paint. It was the nicest home on the street. Unknown to us at the time, a pedophile resided one block over. I saw his photo on the Megan’s Law website — two days after our offer was rejected.
We placed a modest offer of $360,000 on a home in La Mesa that was on the top of a hill near SDSU. This place had windows everywhere. When the daylight streamed in, everything shimmered. I envisioned elaborate sunset dinner parties with fascinating people. But the structure had serious foundation issues. If we had sneezed, that puppy might’ve crumbled to the ground. It was beautiful, though Aaron didn’t love it. He was hesitant to make an offer, but against his better judgment, he did it for me.
Each rejection crushed me. By the time we finally purchased our home, our realtor had gone through a midlife crisis. His salt-and-pepper hair, once dignified, was now jet-black. He’d whitened his teeth and bought a cherry red Mustang.
Aaron, the practical male, was horrified. “You should tell him how bad it looks,” he hissed. “You’re a woman. You can get away with it.”
But here’s the thing about the mauve house: for the first time, both Aaron and I adored the same place. It reminded us of home. Aaron saw his childhood in its shade tree; I remembered mine in its family-friendly cul-de-sac. It was oddly familiar to both of us. It reminded us of the first few years spent as Midwesterners in California, back when I used to make dinners from the glossy pages of cookbooks and still took a polite tone with Aaron, even when I was grumpy. When we were newly married, we lived less than a mile from this house in a small apartment at the base of Mount Helix. We used to breeze down Bancroft Drive, turn left on Lemon Avenue, and head toward La Mesa Boulevard, going up and down on the winding back roads near downtown La Mesa. Along the way, we would pick out houses we liked.
Eleven years later, to our surprise, we owned one of them.
A week after placing our offer, on my 32nd birthday, we learn that we will be the proud owners of our first home.
Two months after we move in, my brother drives down from San Francisco to stay with us. He is in need of a Tijuana dentist. He has lost a tooth, an incisor, smack-dab in the middle of his smile. He resembles a bluegrass banjo player, the kind who should be sitting on a porch with a bottle of whisky somewhere in Alabama. In San Francisco, he was quoted $1500 to replace the tooth with a bridge. In TJ, it will be $450. It’s an excellent excuse to see our new place while taking advantage of our proximity to the Mexican border.
I’m planting succulents out front while chatting with the man across the street, the one with the BMW and the new backyard swimming pool, when my brother arrives after a 12-hour drive. Roger pulls into the driveway in his dusty Honda Civic, his curly brown hair in his eyes and his clothes wrinkled from the drive. I introduce him to our neighbor, who stares at the gaping hole in Roger’s smile. I consider explaining that my brother normally has all his teeth and is town to see a Tijuana dentist, but I’m not sure if that will make it better. So I let it go.
Two months later, for my father-in-law’s birthday, my husband and his brother take him to a Padres game. In celebration of his 63rd year, my husband’s dad gets inebriated. He is too drunk to drive home. Aaron offers to take him to our place so he can sleep it off. When they get home our kids are playing with the neighbor kids in our backyard. They are trying out the new swing we have just tied around a thick branch on our shade tree. My father-in-law staggers outside. He begins pushing the kids with such force that their skinny legs bump against the highest branches in the tree. I am certain that some poor kid is seconds away from breaking a leg.
I shoot Aaron a dirty look. “Make him go inside,” I whisper.
Ten minutes later, my father-in-law passes out on the dog bed in the living room. The kids come inside for Popsicles and giggle at the sight of him and his loud snores. It is 4:00 p.m.
I pretend he is a narcoleptic, but Andrew, my 12-year-old son, isn’t fooled. “He’s drunk,” Andrew announces. “He loves beer!”
My husband nudges his dad and sends him to our oldest son’s room. While I am cooking dinner, Andrew and our ten-year-old neighbor sneak downstairs to draw a curlicue mustache in black marker on my father-in-law’s face. My one hope is that our ten-year-old neighbor doesn’t say anything to his parents.
“Your dad is a mess,” I tell Aaron.
“Hey, your brother met our neighbor toothless.”
My husband has a point.
The next morning, when my father-in-law wakes up, I don’t mention the faux mustache on his face. He will have to cross the border on his drive back to his Rosarito home looking like that. I get a chuckle, imagining the Mexican customs agents pulling him over for his odd appearance.
Sometimes I feel as if our neighbors are silently judging us. They see the weeds in my flower bed and that my house is still pale pink. In our backyard, you can see our neighbors’ playhouse, a red-and-black pirate ship that rises above the trees and looks like a theme-park attraction. It has a drawbridge, working sink, and mini-fridge. The day we moved in, they gave us a tour of their backyard: a pond with a train that circles around the bubbling water; a saltwater pool with matching hot tub; an outdoor shower and dressing room for outside entertaining, so that guests don’t have to go inside with wet feet. They have a large-screen TV hanging in their outdoor den.
Meanwhile, we just want to replace the rusted backyard fence that keeps our senile dog from crapping in other people’s yards. Aaron would like to restucco our house in tan with white and red accents and install new garage doors, but we can’t afford those changes yet. A pool is nowhere near our immediate future.
In July, after spending an ordinate amount of money on new vinyl windows to replace the aluminum-framed originals, we go to a Padres game with our next-door neighbors. We drink $10 beers from plastic cups while they apologize for purchasing nosebleed tickets for us.
“Honestly,” I tell the wife, “these are the best seats I have ever had for a baseball game. We are usually way up there.” I point to the farthest regions of the stadium. Aaron shoots me a wounded look.
During the seventh-inning stretch, the husband leans in and asks what’s next on our home-improvement list.
The neighbor wife pipes up. “You should do the kitchen. It’s where, I’m sure, you spend the most time as a family. Have you seen ours? We redid it ten years ago.”
Aaron and I have discussed the kitchen already. We have considered repainting the faux wood cabinets in a bright white, but that’s about all we can do to update it. A remodel is out of our budget.
“You’re going to paint your house, right? It’s an easy fix,” the husband tells Aaron. “All you need to do is buy a case of beer and get some friends together. It’ll take you a weekend, tops.”
I can tell without looking at him that my husband’s face is turning red. Aaron would never allow his friends to paint our house. When we purchased our windows, he spent months researching. He had five different companies come to our home before deciding. We spent an obscene amount of time touring window showrooms so that he could figure out what he wanted. I thought I was going to lose my mind.
After our third consecutive weekend of window-shopping, I told him, “Can we just pick something out and get on with our lives!”
The reality of our situation is that there is no money left for our fixer-upper. We drained it on popcorn-ceiling removal, a tree service to eradicate the graveyard of tree stumps and dying palm trees from our front yard, a bedroom set, and the new windows. We will have to live with the 1980s kitchen cabinets and Formica countertops. We will be greeted by the mauve pink color upon our return home and the ugly gate will stay — for now, anyway.
On the car ride after the game, Aaron is quiet. I can tell he is annoyed.
“You realize that you are amazing,” I tell him. “Out of all the families on our street you are the only person doing it alone. Everyone else has two incomes coming in. Look at what you have accomplished. You have a beautiful house in San Diego, and you did that by yourself.”
He softens a little before adding, “But you are going to get a job, right?”
Now that all three of our kids are in school full days, I am supposed to be working, but I’m not. I know it’s not fair to Aaron. Every morning I drop off the kids at school and come back home. I attempt to fill my days with some sort of purpose. I send out my résumé. I rearrange furniture, mop our linoleum floors, weed the garden of the pesky pepper tree seedlings that pop up. I hike to the tip-top of Cowles Mountain. All of it makes me feel inadequate, as if I should be somewhere else by now.
I browse the job section on craigslist. A marijuana dispensary is hiring a receptionist, but that person “must be open-minded.” A businessman in Del Mar is looking for a personal assistant but needs a full-body photo along with a résumé and cover letter. A plastic surgeon’s office is in need of a social media expert. A busy law office needs a secretary.
I am none of those people.
I haven’t had a real job in nearly ten years. On my résumé are jobs I had between the ages of 15 and 19: a salesgirl at the MAC cosmetics counter at Nordstrom in Overland Park, Kansas; a salesgirl at Macy’s during the holiday season; a hostess at Perkins; a cashier at Marshall Fields; a bagger at a supermarket in the suburbs of Chicago; and a kitchen staffer at a home for elderly nuns across the road from my Catholic high school.
I have zero qualifications. The prospect of seeking a job makes me feel silly, like the person with a really bad perm in a roomful of well-dressed La Jollans. I don’t know what to do with my life. Who would hire me?
I confess to one of the moms at the kids’ school, “I need to figure out what to do with my life.”
“Get a job at a coffee shop?” she offers.
The honeymoon phase of homeownership has passed. For months, Aaron and I have been in the mood for bickering. We don’t talk to each other for two days, thanks to the vivid red fire extinguisher he mounts on the wall in our kitchen. I tell him it looks stupid.
“That is supposed to go in the pantry or a closet, not hang on the wall,” I tell him. My tone: bitchy.
“You’ll thank me when there is a fire,” he spits back.
For an entire week, I collect the dirty socks he has thrown on our living room floor. On Friday morning I dump them on his side of the bed. In frustration, I blurt, “Do you see how many of them there are? This is what you do every single night! Who do you think picks them up!”
He gives me a look that says, “You have lost your mind!”
Nearly every morning I find a passive-aggressive Post-it note on the coffeemaker: “I have only one pair of underwear left. PLEASE DO SOME LAUNDRY!” “Please water the garden. Everything is dying!”
We have been spending weeks silently hating one another. Our cold-shoulder treatment has been going on for far too long when we finally address the issue.
It’s one of the Fridays that Aaron has off, and he mentions how nice it must be to putter around the house all day.
“Are you mad that I don’t have a job?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “It just seems like you have a lot of expectations for someone who isn’t working.”
“I do not!”
“It seems like you are never satisfied!”
At this point, we are both yelling.
“You’re the one who isn’t satisfied,” I snap. “You have always said that you want me to stay home and raise the kids, so why are you making me feel bad about it now!”
“Why do you care so much what our neighbors think of us?”
“I could ask you the same question!”
There is more yelling and door-slamming. At some point, I say something about becoming a stripper. The thought of me topless and covered with glitter makes us both crack up.
The argument ends in a fit of laughter.
Yet both of us carry some unresolved anger. That night, when I am attempting to fall asleep, Aaron says, “I feel like we are changing, like this house has changed us.”
“The thing about us is that we have always embraced our dysfunction,” he says earnestly. “Let’s not pretend to be people that we are not. The house will get there. We should just enjoy it for now. ”
“I know.” The bad feelings from our earlier argument disappear.
“But you are going to get a job, right?” ■