Home Without An Expiration Date
May 13, 2012 1 Comment
I am the Queen of Cheap Rent, but on Friday I’m buying a house. Because I want to. Because I can. Because, I realized recently, I’ve moved every one or two years (sometimes more than once a year) for the last fourteen years.
This isn’t a new impulse–over the years there were times when I wanted a house, or could have purchased one. But those impulses were usually driven by my dissatisfaction with a crappy apartment, and I was always somewhere I knew I would leave, or wanted to leave. Now I’ve found a place where I’m comfortable, not too far from my family, and can see the building blocks of a happy life in reach. So I am packing up my things, and next Monday movers will come to carry my belongings out of my little apartment in the sky. As I pack, I’m thinking about all the places I lived before.
#1 A dorm I don’t remember the name of, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
I probably don’t remember the name because I’ve blocked it out. I chose my college because I didn’t want too big of a bill, but I didn’t want to be close enough that I had to live at home. After moving all my things into the room, my parents were about to get in the van and drive home when my Mom grabbed me and howled. “Rachel!” She sobbed into my shoulder until I pushed her into the van, amused at her emotional breakdown. Didn’t she know what this day signified? That I was standing on the brink of the rest of my life, and the rest of my life was awesome?
I shared my room with a sophomore who informed me she’d had two roommates the prior year, then had the room to herself for months. That should have been my red flag, but I was naive. This girl showered once a week, every Saturday night, then worked an eight-hour shift at Taco Bell on Sunday. She watched TV constantly, and even watched videotaped shows on VHS during commercial breaks of shows she watched live. When I moved out on Halloween weekend, it felt like I’d been there for eternity. In the fresh air of my new room, all my stuff smelled. I spent the afternoon in the laundry room washing the stench out of my comforter and all my clothes.
#2 Meredith Hall, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
This was right across the street. The rooms were smaller, the food was better, and almost everyone was a freshman. I had chosen my new roommate based on the fact that she smiled and talked and the room was clean and charmingly decorated. Red flag #2: if someone says “I’m a nice person,” they’re not. I spent the rest of the year living an episode of Gossip Girl against my will.
#3 Antioch House, West Lafayette, IN
This was a house owned by the Catholic church on campus. After the first year of college, I was more than ready to move home and go to a commuter school, but my parents convinced me to try this out. I had plenty of space and nice roommates. We were the last set of girls to live in the house, because, according to the pastor of the church, “Girls are too much trouble.” Thus I can thank the Catholic Church for simultaneously saving my undergraduate education and reducing me and my friends to a problem to be brushed aside and forgotten.
#4 Apartment on Sheetz St. West Lafayette, IN
Junior year I lived with a couple of my Antioch House roomies in an apartment. I volunteered to take the room with the washer and dryer in order to save on rent, and insisted that I didn’t mind it at all. I was awakened by a squeaking bed in the apartment above precisely at 9am every Saturday and 11pm every Wednesday, in addition to unscheduled episodes throughout the week. A friend from class came over to hang out one Friday night and looked up in horror when the squeaking commenced. “What is that?” she asked. “Oh, that’s just my neighbor on her exercise trampoline.” I’d made up a little story to tell myself so I wouldn’t go completely insane from listening to these people boink like bunnies. Finally, one Saturday morning in March, I’d had it. I rolled over and pounded the wall once, so hard I left a bruise on the side of my hand. The squeaking stopped. If I’d known I would have done that much sooner.
#5 Apartment on Neil Armstrong Drive. West Lafayette, IN
My roommate Julie and I found this spacious one-bedroom off campus. We made the living room her bedroom and the dining room the living room. The plan was to live cheaply first semester and have the place all to myself second semester. Instead, a friend from class, Misti, moved in when Julie left. This apartment had a lovely view of a nature preserve. It was quiet and I had good roommates. It was an oasis after three years of shitty living arrangements. Misti and I threw a graduation party in the clubhouse. A month later, I packed up my Corolla and drove away in tears.
#6 Rock Rose Court, Indianapolis
I spent a year back with my family while I saved money and applied to grad school. It was not so fun after having a taste of independence, but now I look back fondly. Because of the large age difference between me and my youngest sister, there are only five years in the history of our family that all six of of lived together in the same house. This was one of them. For me, it was a year of anticipation.
#7 Hackberry Place, Tuscaloosa, AL
At the end of summer we packed up the van once again and I trekked to my new home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hackberry Place was a little cul-de-sac of concrete-block apartment buildings. The rent was dirt cheap and many of my classmates lived there as well. I tried to pay less attention to the roaches and the landlord’s utter refusal to fix anything that was broken, and more attention to the nice things, like the pretty glass doorknobs and the ceiling fan from Target my friend John installed for me. The only heat/AC came from a wall unit in the bedroom, so I often left the front and back door open in order to get the air circulating. There was no screen doors, of course, so occasionally a stray cat would wander in. I stayed for two years.
#8 The Strode Cabin, Tuscaloosa, AL
This cabin is on the grounds of a twenty-seven acre estate donated to the University of Alabama English department by Hudson Strode, a professor who sold a lot of books in the mid-twentieth century. The cabin itself was nothing to get excited about–one room, a bathroom, a kitchen–but the grounds were lovely and the main house was an odd, uncurated museum of decay. Sometimes the house was occupied by visiting professors; other times it was empty for me to use as I wished. I lived in the cabin for two years. I rode out Hurricane Katrina with a book and a bottle of wine, huddled on the bathroom floor, wishing I’d gone to stay at a friend’s. I invited friends over for New Year’s Eve 2006, and I don’t think there will ever be another NYE that fun. After two years, I graduated. I had my twenty-seventh birthday party in the house that May. At the time, I didn’t know if I would stay in Tuscaloosa for another year or not–I was hatching a plan to use the money from my summer job to move to Chicago. Regardless of my uncertainty, the party was the perfect send-off and the culmination of four years of community. Three weeks later, my friend Sarah helped me pack boxes to store in the living room of the house. My Mom was in the hospital, on the verge of death at age forty-seven. I rushed to see her before I left for three weeks of teaching in Rhode Island.
#9 Ballyshannon Street, Indianapolis
My Mom was tough and she survived. But she would have to have chemo and radiation, so I postponed the Chicago plan and moved with my family into their new house. I was there about four weeks before I started getting antsy. I drove to Tuscaloosa to get my stuff, came home and searched the ads for a part-time job. I ended up with a full-time job, offered a week before school started, teaching at a university ninety minutes away. The boxes went back in the car. I found a place to live over the weekend.
#10 Sugarbush, Muncie, IN
Without a doubt, this was my most spacious apartment of all time. I didn’t have much of anything so it seemed very empty. It was a five-minute drive from my building on campus. There were trees and when the leaves fell off the trees I had a pretty view of a man-made lake. The neighbors above me played games I referred to as “Apartment Bowling” and “Throw an 8-Year-Old on the Floor.” One person would let her enormous dog run down the stairs on an extendable leash. The sound was as crazy-making as the boinking bunnies of junior year.
I stayed in this apartment for almost two years. For the first year, I would go back home every other weekend to take my mom to chemo. I would often go weeks at a time without speaking to anyone who wasn’t a student or a family member. I was so shocked and consumed by my mother’s illness that it was useless to try to make new friends. My home and my life were a vacuum.
The second year was better. I made some friends. I did not renew my lease.
#11 Lisa’s House, Muncie, IN
My friend Lisa was teaching in Australia that summer, so I stored all my stuff in her garage and house sat. It was a sweet little three-bedroom ranch. I mowed the lawn and dreamed of homeownership. I sat in on a summer English class and tried to find a new job somewhere else. I learned that I’d been passed over for a high school teaching job in favor of one of my own college professors. I despaired.
#12 North Street, Muncie, IN
North Street is a charming little brick road near campus where professors live. Except for the last couple blocks, where I lived with the undergraduates and rednecks. I rented half a house, thinking that would save me from the perils of living in a complex. My parents came to help me move. My Dad and I did the heavy lifting while my mother, weak but stubborn, pushed lighter things to the edge of the moving van. My new neighbor, who lived with his girlfriend, knocked on my door three times in the first two days, and kept me up at night with the war-rumbles of his video games. There was an enormous pit bull chained to the house next door. My Mom declared that my sister was not allowed to visit me.
The day after I moved in, I drove to campus to hand in my employment contract. My inner voice was screaming at me not to do it. But I thought of my little apartment, my twelve-month lease. How else would I pay for it? There was no other job for me in this town.
I loved my one-mile walk to work. One mile in the other direction was a quaint downtown, with one good coffee shop and a couple good bars. In the winter, I left every three weekends for yoga teacher training in Chicago. School ended in May. I spent June sending job applications, put my stuff in storage, and flew off to summer teaching in California.
#13 East Broadway, Louisville, KY
I’d always regretted not doing AmeriCorps when I was younger, and in August I found myself in Louisville, looking for a place to rent with my little stipend. I met a soon-to-be coworker and we tried to find a place to share. It didn’t work out. After three days of searching, I had an appointment to look at a little attic apartment. It was Friday at 5:00. If this is not the one, I vowed, I’m not moving here.
It was the one. On the day I moved in, I declared this my last rental. “When I move out of this apartment it will be because I am buying property.” I pictured myself still here in six or seven years. Not ideal. Not the worst.
I had money woes but I felt so free. I loved and was proud of the work I was doing. My little apartment in the sky was at the nexus of the best parts of town. I was finally used to my Mom having cancer. I hoped she could visit to see my new place. She’d given up on chemo a few months prior, but I believed she could make it a couple more years.
I was wrong about that. Six months after I moved in, she died. Her dad died that winter too. Again, I lived in a vacuum. But this vacuum was different. I needed rest. I needed quiet. But while impending loss led me to desperation, loss behind me led to hope. Trees blossomed outside my window. I could only think of the future, of potential. I could only think how lucky I was to be alive.
Months passed and I thought about what I wanted. Sometimes it’s windy and my apartment sways. Sometimes I am awakened by squirrels running across the roof, mere feet from my face. Birds nest right outside my window and chirp so loudly that I think they’ve gotten into the building.
This is the last apartment on my list, because what I want is to be on the ground. In a week, I’m moving to a home that doesn’t have an expiration date. I bought furniture for the porch. I will have space for my mom’s loom, which I vaguely know how to use. I am going to grow tomatoes and zucchini in the yard. It’s painful to know that my mom will never be there with me, but I learned from her last years how precious it is to be alive, that there’s no reason to wait when there’s something you want. I get carried away thinking about renovation plans and what I’ll plant in the yard, and I stop myself. I never do all the things I plan. And the best things that happen are always the ones I never imagined.