I can see it now for what it is: buying the house was a last, clumsy grab to preserve the love we knew was dripping away from us. It went well at first. But it has been a month since we moved in, and I can see the cracks starting to show again. I do like the house, though, and try not to look at it as a symbol of our desperation.
It is a stolid, drooping, rangy thing with peeled siding and an uneven stoop. A “high water bungalow,” we were told, designed so because it used to flood in our neighborhood. Back then water went everywhere in the city, coursing freely down the broad avenues and boulevards that border our little suburb. It is more contained now. Scarce, even. The house is high up, a remembrance of those days.
We painted the walls to make it ours, then wheeled in our expensive mattress and cheap metal bed frame. Most of our things were like that: better furniture peppered with cheap stuff we’d bought here and there and hadn’t destroyed with our various moves. The nicer pieces started to trickle in over the past few years, with both of us finally working full-time and generally arranging our lives in the fashion that was expected of us. I should have this sofa, because I am an adult, I tell myself. And this rug, it won’t embarrass me and it wasn’t a throwaway from a neighbor, like our last one. They are real: money has been spent to own them.
The trouble began soon after. The neighbors behind us are an odd assortment of people, who seem to live outdoors and never sleep. They were nice at first, but after initial introductions, clearly gleaned that we were not sympathetic to their lifestyle. They drink beer most mornings, with an infant in a crib outside. Sometimes I see the older son slapping his arm to bring up a vein.
I overhear snippets of loud arguments on the regular, things like,
“Whatever, Mom, I can plead guilty then, I don’t care!” and “Then who stole it? i know where you sleep, man. I could kill you easy.” This is typical talk between brothers (which I gathered they were). Their profanity-peppered speech is generally ominous and always angry.
We argue too. I know that. I don’t pretend we are perfect. We yell and I’ve thrown a glass and he’s punched a wall. At those times, which happen more frequently now, I look around to remind myself why I’m not like the neighbors with their anger. We have an expensive blender and organic vegetable garden and shelves of books. When we yell, we are articulate, and pointed. I have to tell myself this. I have to believe it matters.
I saw the old man digging the other night, in the middle of their tiny backyard, which doubles as an outdoor living room and contains tents and tables and bicycles and one sad, gangly tree. He dug furiously, then turned around rapidly in place. I tried to see over the fence what he was doing, and even pulled out the binoculars to see what drove him to dig so fast and singlemindedly. We keep binoculars in the kitchen now; I sometimes worry how that looks. We both use them–it isn’t just me. I couldn’t see anything, and the next time I look, their yard is dark.
“We should enclose the back porch later this year, when we have some money saved. It wouldn’t be that hard, I don’t think,” he says to me over dinner.
“Yes,” I say. “You’re right, if we just planned it out really well.”
He nods, and the conversation ends. That happens regularly now: bursts of words splash over us and dissipate just as quickly, as though they were never there. Our conversation darts around but always returns to the subject of our house, a neutral topic.
I am in the backyard today, watering plants and ripping out clover. I position myself close enough to the back fence, and stand still for a moment, in case there is something to hear.
“Dammit, Joe,” the old lady whines, “you’re driving me crazy with this. So help me, I’m gonna leave you one of these days.” She is cut off by the slamming of my back door as my husband calls out to me. I freeze where I am, wave at him, motion that I am listening. But it is too late. They are already quiet behind me.
We aren’t doing so well lately. There isn’t much to talk about, and the novelty of homeownership seems to be wearing off. I used to look at the land and think I own this. Now I look and think how it ties me to it, with signatures and money and sweat. It is heavy with these commitments, and I feel the weight pulling me, like the moon pulls the tide. Or maybe I just get restless sometimes. Maybe everyone feels this way.
I keep waiting for something to happen to the neighbors. Wait for the police to come and cart them away, or for them to finally get angry enough to kill each other. Can a life really be just that, yelling and drugs and sitting outside together, all day, every day? Mornings, I go to work. Evenings, I come home tired. I miss the part of the day they spend outside. They live out there as if they own the outdoors. They sit with the sun beating down on them, day after day. They let the rain soak into hanging clothes and dishes left outside, ignoring them. They don’t seem to care about the household demands that consume me, the endless tasks that chase me through the cramped rooms that now encompass my life. I have to remind myself that we are still better than they. We are better. We are.