It wasn’t until my mother’s nasally, soon to be estranged cousin, who would shortly thereafter go on to achieve such worldly things as losing her mind and hair at the same time and finding love in a halfway house, pointed it out in her pinched-nose voice that I knew the real truth: the house that our family lived in was perhaps a chimera. Before then, I’d suspected nothing.
Sure, I’d known that it was lacking in many ways. The decor alone was a hostile takeover, its carpets the color of expired mustard starting to mold (undoubtedly the factory dregs), flimsy plastic doorknobs that might have been better suited to a dollhouse, and rough, cream and puke-like speckled curtains that my mother must have selected not only for their special, discounted price, but also possibly in a moment of unprecedented hysterical blindness. Not to mention its overall smallness, which also would have been better suited to a dollhouse.
“It’s not a real house,” the nuisance of a cousin had proclaimed out of nowhere, suddenly an authority on buildings and structures. A brief flash of hatred and irritation swept over my mother’s normally calm and placid face, placated only perhaps by a fleeting vision of the cousin being stoned to death.
My mother was speechless, what was there for her to deny? It was a veritable shack in comparison to the glamorous above and below ground homes that I coveted so deeply when they gleamed through the television set every pale waste of a rainy Sunday afternoon on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (Robin Leach’s deadpan voice haunts me to this day), but what regular home wasn’t? It was still, in spite of its limitations, a house.
Wasn’t it? After all, it certainly wasn’t an apartment- so what could it possibly be other than a house? My ten-year-old mind was forever after beleaguered by thoughts that I might be living in some kind of strange and rabid space, a non-house, without even knowing it. I wondered if it might grow fangs and tentacles when I wasn’t looking, metamorphosing into something else altogether.
Although our house was detached- a point that my mother emphasized to the irksome cousin in a vain attempt to prove its status as a real house- its exterior too was undeniably ugly. Certainly it was not the kind of house that a person would dream of: it lacked more than the bare essentials of rooms, and its dark brown chipped paint exterior did nothing to hide its lack of allure. And while not officially part of a housing complex, it was still about as far away from the white picket fence with perfectly manicured lawn ideal as you could hope to get. If you hoped for such things that is. Personally, I hoped for more, something along the lines of a four story home with an elevator and pool à la Madonna.
The cherry on top was the rundown nature of the neighborhood that our so-called house was situated in. Beneath the veneer of ill begotten, cookie cutter homes, it was a place where dreams came not to die, but to be buried, where hope was little more than a tooth that had long ago rotted and fallen out. This reality eluded me for a long, long time. Such is the occasional gift of being a child.
It was, in a moth eaten nutshell, the type of place where, when you saw a neighborhood watch sign, you’d think twice before going to ask someone for help. Instead you’d hedge your bets that you could outrun whatever it was you were fleeing. Every next door neighbor was a potential, if not active, serial killer. The neighborhood kids, insufferable and suffering because of their miscreant parents, were well on their way to being of the nascent criminal variety by the time they were twelve. Anyone was lucky to make it out alive.
In later years, I questioned my parents’ dubious choice of buying a house in that small, undesirable suburban neighborhood. “It’s all we could afford,” my mother would plead as though being cross-examined. But I was doubtful- with proper consideration and planning, a “real” house, in a “real” city might have been purchased instead. I, a penniless youth who was clueless about how most of life actually worked (and had little idea of the grotesque sideshow demands of capitalism), was all but certain of that.
And so with the advent of the grating cousin’s smug disdain, I became house obsessed. I longed for a real and proper house, or, really, any other house that I could find. Frantically I scoured the local real estate papers on the sly, searching in vain for somewhere, anywhere else that my parents might be able to afford. And I made what I hoped were subtle yet obvious hints to my mother that we desperately needed to move to a new house as soon as possible.
And there were so many of them out there! All we had to do was pick one, I was sure of it, and that would be that. I spotted for sale signs the way other people spot deer on the side of lonely, winding highways- that is, with a full, elated heart. If we couldn’t afford it, I would have been more than willing to quit school and start working as a way to contribute to the down payment. (Isn’t that what youngsters did in all the old books, work at an early age while tutoring themselves along the way?) Given half the chance, I’m sure I would have gladly sold my own uterus for a new house.
My mind would not relent in its demanding, expectant thoughts: a perfect house equaled a perfect life, there was no doubt about it. We just had to up and move. Surely we were one small step (porch? stoop? bay window? sunken living room) away from having everything. If we had a gleaming, magnificent home then, at last, it would all come together- my teeth would straighten themselves, I would have a gazillion friends to invite over for slumber parties every weekend night, my family could go on tropical vacations and bring back macadamia nuts to brag about like everyone else, and my clothes would not be of the ill-fitting and brightly mismatched variety, plucked as haphazardly as if we were running out of a burning K-Mart. In short, each and every problem I had would disappear. Finally, I could tap my heels three times.
Sadly, my mother could not or would not share my vision of this proposed new reality. Nor would she heed to the urgency of my pleas for us to move far, far away from this earthquake epicenter that she had also so very naively chosen for us to live in. (Back then, earthquake predictions were all the rage at school, and the non-science based forecasts scorched my heart with an everlasting fear of them.) My mother continued on with her life as though it was something altogether out of her hands. It was a life that I could not, would not grasp or understand until I was much older; then I had all the clarity and hindsight of a hunchback looking back on how her hunch formed.
Even though our house was ramshackle, apparently we were better off than some others. My bossy friend from fifth grade- or frenemy as it were, before such a thing had been properly identified- lived in a house similar to ours, and unabashedly confessed that her family had once lived in a trailer. This knowledge was a little too close for comfort for me. How was it possible that this seemingly normal girl, whose mom delivered slates of long john donuts for breakfast, who had convinced me, perennially growing, perpetually too tall, and hopelessly awkward me, to partake in dance routines in her living room to the strains of Madonna’s Rain, had lived in an actual trailer?
If it had happened to her, then surely it could happen to anyone. I could be next on the list of trailer park victims, my whole family of five and our pets squished into one not so long and not very wide rectangle. I dreaded the idea that we were skimming the edges of what I imagined to be utter poverty, which in actuality wasn’t far from the truth. Whispers of bankruptcy and unpaid bills loomed over my head, and I worried my child sized heart about words like foreclosure every single day. Living in a trailer would be the last straw, I decided. If that should happen, I would have no choice but to run away. The orphan life, full of trains and intrigue, seemed quite appealing.
Eventually my parents were abandoned in my fantasies of living elsewhere. As a teenager, I would have given anything to flee to my own private home, bequeathed to me, perhaps, by some rich, long-lost ancestor. I’d henceforth live it up in some accidental rags to riches story come true, my fantasies undoubtedly inspired by the premise of a failed 1980s sitcom or two. Wherever I went, I imagined, I would take my little sister with me, and we would survive on our wits alone, just like the young protagonists of almost everything I’d ever watched or read. If it could work out for fictional not-yet-grown characters, then surely it could work out for us, couldn’t it?
The fact was that I would have given anything not to live in our house anymore. As the years went on, I could only see it becoming more and more ugly, and more and more decrepit. Even my bedroom seemed to shrink in size, as I grew and grew and grew. I no longer fit inside the only space I had to call my own, in more ways than one. But then, what is the family house but a metaphorical container for teenage existential angst?
My mom lived in that house until she died. My whole life I wanted nothing more than to give her somewhere better to live, and yet I never had the means to. Like my parents before me, I fell prey to a lack of money and circumstance. What I wouldn’t have given to find a magnificent mansion, nestled somewhere on the ocean shore or perhaps in the hinterlands of Beverly Hills, for my mom and I to live in together. We could’ve had a hundred feral cats in our yard, and become a modern version of Little Edie and Big Edie.
Even now, as I drift like a vagabond from rental to shady rental, I dream of a perfect house. (Currently, that’s a one level rancher somewhere in the desert, resplendent with a majestic pool.) Even now it seems that a perfect house would equate to a perfect life; even now I am left craving what I’ve never had. What in this day and age I am all but guaranteed to never have. And anytime I see a for sale sign, my heart beats a little faster- I envision low prices, and do a little math in my head. In short, I wish, and pray, and hope. Not just for the present and the future, but also for the past.