My mom wakes me Sunday morning from my borrowed bed by dangling my one pair of dress shoes a foot above my head. We’re leaving in fifteen minutes, she sings, insistent and excited.
With only a fraction of her urgency, I rise, rub sleep from my eyes, open my suitcase, pull out my wrinkled dress, clumsily change, and walk groggily down the stairs toward my grandparents’ kitchen.
Any other day of the week, my grandparents’ home feels more like the interstate, with all of us passing through and occasionally bottlenecking at the bathroom. But on Sundays, there’s a palpable energy radiating from my parents. In the kitchen, my mom and dad good-heartedly argue about whether they should add a deck or a screened-in back porch to the house in the Plum Creek subdivision—a house we do not yet own. A house whose threshold we have never crossed. A house we know only from the pictures in the colorful, glossy real estate magazine. A house we will tour today.
My brother speaks up, his mouth full of sugary cereal. How much is it?
A deck? my mother asks as my father launches into how a screened-in porch is more cost-effective than a deck, and will add more to the home’s resale value.
The house, my thirteen-year-old brother interjects with an expert eye-roll and the sigh of a disgruntled clerical worker. How much is the house?
Looking back, I can see how frustrating it must have been for my brother to hear my parents discussing incidental issues about another home they had yet to own. At the time, though, I found him frustrating. I didn’t understand what I perceived as his need to bring my mom down. The ups were few; the downs, difficult for all of us. And my brother seemed to hate us all. But my parents and I rationalized: he was a teenager; he hated everything.
We are living with my father’s parents because my mom’s cancer treatments have put my parents even more into debt than they were in before she got sick. In a few months, we will move out, into another two-bedroom apartment, get kicked out again, and spend two nights in our car while my parents work up the nerve to crawl back to my grandparents, as my dad puts it. My parents have done a pretty good job of framing each of our moves not as getting kicked out of another apartment or house but as a new opportunity, a chance to spend some quality time with our grandparents, a chance to minimize our stuff, to see how the other half lives, to test our closeness as a family. Before taking up residence with my grandparents this time, we lived on Pralle Lane. It was the first apartment complex we lived in that had a pool. It was also only about a quarter mile from a movie theater that consistently left the exit doors unlocked. My parents turned leaving this apartment into a game. The first one to stuff his/her belongings into a big, black garbage bag and get in the car won. The fact that it was three in the morning was just an added obstacle in the game.
No one pays the asking price, my mom assures him. She has recently come to view herself as an expert, because her cancer, according to her, has afforded her the unique opportunity to study for the real estate pre-exam—an exam she plans to take once she sells enough Avon to pay the test-taking fee. The asking price is just a starting point, she says, professorially. Then she turns to me. What color do you want your room to be? Any color you want. The sky’s the limit.
The four of us pile into the car that still runs, washed yesterday by my Girl Scout troop, the water spots still visible up close, the new car smell clearing our sinuses before clogging them back up. Even at nine or ten, the irony isn’t lost on me that our old cars are always saturated with new car smell. My dad doesn’t spring for two-ply toilet tissue, name-brand crackers, or warranties, ever, but he happily pays the extra dollar at car washes for a tester-size tube of new car smell. He uses every drop, spreading it over every seat, every inch of upholstery, even refilling the empty tiny glass tube with water and pouring that into the trunk. For weeks after, every time we get in the car, our noses run, and our heads feel light and our stomachs queasy, the sensation made more extreme by the unfortunate reality that my dad seldom drives cars in which the windows roll down.
We pass liquor stores and gun shops, Quick Stops and discount stores, until we see two-story homes and swing sets, garages and rose gardens.
Her breath fogging the window, my mother exclaims, That’s the one! My father stops the car abruptly. The house is modest, but we all see it as spectacular. A three-bedroom, ranch-style home, white with plum trim and a plum porch, with a bright white porch swing, hanging baskets filled with yellow flowers, and an autumn wreath hanging on the cherry wood door. In the yard to the right, there’s a father playing catch with his son. The house to the left is still being finished. It has not yet been painted, and the grass in the front yard is just beginning to sprout. Before we leave, my parents will consider the risks of moving into a house with an unknown next-door neighbor, and this will be the reason we ultimately decide to keep looking.
I’m staying in the car, my brother announces. He has a Rubik’s Cube and the funnies on his lap.
My dad looks at my brother in the rearview mirror, unbuckles his seatbelt, and then turns around to address him more squarely. I don’t recall either of my parents ever wearing their seatbelts anytime other than when we are house hunting. During these excursions, we are a different family. The kind of family that eats dinner at the same time at the same table, goes on hikes together, plays board games, cares for each other when they’re sick as opposed to quarantining the ailing one. My dad says, Do what you want, but my brother and I both know that is not at all what he means. My brother opens his car door, and we are officially all in this together.
My father waits for me outside my door, grabs my hand, and leads me to the porch. My father—a blue-collar worker, a soccer coach, an athlete—is not typically an affectionate man. He’s not a hugger, he’s not fond of I love you, and he is known to refer to children as sticky. And yet, on Sundays, he holds my hand. It feels cold and strange. My generic Mary Janes clack upon the impeccably stained wood of the plum porch. My brother stands up straighter. Mother checks her face in her compact. After she rings the doorbell, she fixes my brother’s collar, fluffs the tulle of my dress.
The door opens in a flourish. A woman in a pantsuit has been expecting us. She introduces herself as Susan, ushers us in, tells me she loves my dress. We cross the threshold. We are greeted with the smells of pumpkin spice candles and coffee. There are more throw pillows on the sofa than I’ve ever seen. There’s a fire in the fireplace. The blinds are all open, allowing the sun to pour in through the windows. For a few moments, my parents and I abandon our borrowed lives, forget our suitcases and bathroom shifts, and believe this could be our home, our life. We imagine: distributing Christmas gifts near the fire, holiday cards lining the mantle; pulling the Thanksgiving turkey out of the stainless steel oven and placing it on the beautiful silver platter already sitting conveniently atop the stove; blowing out birthday candles in the formal dining room; taking a bath in the Jacuzzi tub after a long Monday. This is what’s supposed to happen. This is the purpose of show-house furniture—perfect, matching, as it moves from one property to the next. We are smitten.
Still, my father has learned not to appear too eager—something I have realized as an adult that he passed on to me. My father begins his inspection of the home, slow and tentative, testing faucets, opening the fridge, turning on the garbage disposal, asking about furnaces and ventilation, sometimes murmuring, pleased, other times muttering under his breath. Mother and I tear through the house quickly, opening closet doors, touching the carpet, running our fingers over the blinds, racing to show each other our favorite aspects of the home. My brother stands in the foyer, his arms crossed.
After walking through the home twice, figuring out where the TV will go in the living room, and using her feet to measure whether or not the bedrooms are of suitable size, Mother takes the communion of shortbread cookies and coffee poured into Styrofoam cups and engages in generic conversation with Susan: Indeed, a gorgeous day outside. My father joins them, and they spend some time discussing local schools, the pros and cons of satellite dishes, the trash pickup, sod, and neighbors. My brother rejects the offerings and retires to the porch, where he sits intent and alone, skipping rocks on concrete. Meanwhile, I move to the biggest bedroom, lured by the show-house furniture: a matching desk, dresser, and bunk bed, with a stuffed unicorn sitting on the purple comforter of the bottom bunk. I imagine that it will all stay—the comforter, the bunk beds, the unicorn. The wall across from my future bed, now empty with the exception of a framed poster with a rainbow on it and the phrase Follow Your Dreams scrawled just underneath, will be filled with bookshelves. In front of the bookshelves will be a purple beanbag chair. I make plans. There I will sit and read and write. There I will hang my Boyz II Men poster. Here I will have sleepovers. Here I will be home.
Mother comes in to check on me, tells me she’s asked Susan about the furniture, tells me it’s all for sale, that all of it, even the unicorn, will be mine. And I believe her.
Even now, I often find myself still swept up in my parents’ hopefulness. I continue to discuss home renovations and overseas vacations with them. I find myself getting excited as we discuss my future number-one bestseller (even though I’m not currently writing a novel) and what I plan to do regarding film rights and merchandising. In fact, I recently found myself assuring my husband (as I do mid-semester, every semester) that I think next semester is going to be far more manageable for me. To this, he responded that he believes it’s my penchant for optimism that has enabled me to put myself through school, sometimes working four jobs at once; to make it through health issues, including a blood clot at twenty-five; to move past loved ones gone; to be the first person in my family to go to college; to get a master’s; to get a PhD; to continue to work on my scholarship and my writing; to forgive my parents for their transgressions; and to continue to be there for them despite their struggles with money and addiction. Unfortunately, my parents’ eternal optimism was not passed on to my brother. I am always hopeful, thinking that things will get better; my brother, hopeless, knows things will get worse.
But at Plum Creek, my parents tell Susan we’ll be back with a pre-approval letter from the bank within the week. Susan reminds us that she can’t hold the house for us without a solid offer. In the same breath, she tells us how good we look in the home. We agree.
We rejoin my brother outside and pile into the car that still runs, washed yesterday by my Girl Scout troop, the water spots still visible up close. Before he starts the car, my father says to my brother, Francis Howell North High School has the best soccer team in the state. We’ll need to establish residency before June so you can try out.
My brother is silent.
This first half of my week is pretty busy, my unemployed mother says, but I should have time to get to the bank by the end of the week. Certainly by next week.
We all take a moment to become accustomed to the new car smell.
I’m not sure how I feel about having to get a pre-approval letter, my mother says as we pull out of the driveway.
As we pass rose gardens, garages, swing sets, and two-story homes, she adds, I bet if we had pulled into the driveway in a Rolls–Royce, she wouldn’t have asked for a pre-approval letter.
By the time we are passing Quick Stops and discount stores, gun shops and liquor stores, my parents are silent. My mom’s head is down. My dad turns up the radio.
Let’s rock-paper-scissors for the big room, I suggest to my brother.
What’s the point? he asks, staring blankly out the window.