July 16, 2015 § 3 Comments
In the spring, when we finally know for sure that Jeff got the job in New Jersey, we hire some realtors. We’ve lived in this house for 13 years, longer than I’ve lived in any other house, my kids’ whole childhood, and it seems strange to think that anyone else could live here. We claimed it as ours long ago with holes in the walls, worn floors, an aging paint job, an un-remodeled kitchen. “I don’t want to move,” Jack Henry says. “Me neither,” I say.
The realtors tell us we should re-finish the floors, paint the walls, install something called a vapor barrier under the house, lay carpet upstairs, “update” the kitchen, and spruce up the yard. Okay! We say, envisioning the bidding war which will surely come, the money we will use to move to a much more expensive area of the country. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. The painter, a sweet man named Leonardo (I kid you not) begins to dig though the work. He is punctual, methodical, dignified, and silent. Furniture must be moved, rooms must be cleared. We rush around, each night before Leonardo hits a room, rearranging and moving, removing the evidence of our lives. We rent a storage space because the floor guy, an Eastern European who has no time for humor, needs an empty house to do his work. We move everything out, including the dog, and move into a hotel. Floor guy is appalled to find that we will be moving back in after his masterpiece is finished. It is a masterpiece, by the way. The floors give off their own otherworldly golden light. Still, we can’t afford to stay in the hotel forever. I make everyone take off their shoes when they come in to see the improvements. We move a few mattresses back in, but not much else. Our lives move forward with work and school, but the house is in the way, or we are in its way. “Mom, I just need a surface to write on,” Jack Henry says. I tell him to use the kitchen counter until Elvis (again, his real name) and his crew show up to fix the kitchen. When they arrive the next day, they tear out the counters, so now, there are no surfaces for homework or cooking, and for one harrowing day when they change the sink, there is no water.
I blame Martha Stewart and HGTV for this torture. When we bought our first house, before Cole was born, there was no such thing as “staging.” It was clear that you bought a house to live in. There might be toiletries in the bathroom when you looked at a house. A kid might have left his socks on the floor. That was the good old days.
We are instructed to stay out of our house as much as possible. It won’t take long to sell, everyone tells us. We hear of houses that sold in hours, not days. We certainly do not expect weeks. Everyone is wrong. As soon as the house goes on the market, a heat wave hits. It is above 95 degrees for about two weeks straight. Maybe that is why it doesn’t sell in a day. No one can say. We dutifully eat out, make our beds first thing in the morning, wipe the sinks down every time we brush our teeth. Our 12-year-old dog, Annie, spends more time in the car than she ever has. As I drive around with my clothes in the trunk of my car and Annie in the back seat, head hanging out the window, I wonder what it is like to really have no place to go, not even a car. I vow to work with the homeless. I begin to fantasize about living in a messy house again.
My sister, Katie, comes to visit. “Your house used to have so much soul,” she says. Now, it is beautiful, but sterile, in a Southern Living photo shoot sort of way. We are at each other’s throats over things like leaving a cup in the sink. It is a model home, meant to help people imagine a perfect life, not meant to actually live in.
We visit New Jersey, and the house we have decided to rent. It is empty, but wonderfully wonky. It is not perfectly polished or staged. I can imagine my kids’ socks on the floor, an occasional glob of toothpaste in the sink. I can imagine making a messy meal in the kitchen and gathering with friends (at least my imaginary new friends) to enjoy it. By now we are aching to get to a place where we can relax, spread out, maybe even (gasp!) leave the dishes until morning. I guess we are selling the house our kids grew up in in all its glowing floor glory, but we are taking our messy lives with us. That, Martha, is a good thing.