I’ve spent my adulthood escaping romantic entanglements. That’s how I always feel: tangled up, like a glassy-eyed perch caught in a net, smashed up against a big stinky tuna, wondering where the hell the ocean went. But this year, for reasons I’m sure you can guess, I went a bit stir-crazy. I craved change. A bit of pizzazz. Or at the very least, a project. So while casually claiming, “Oh, I just want to see what’s out there, I’m not seriously looking,” I found myself smack dab in the middle of a whirlwind engagement, a legit intent to commit. And it almost got me committed.
I still really don’t know how it happened. One minute I was trying to enjoy a bath in my apartment, distracted by the shortage of hot water and the hideous scars of a summer-long ceiling-leak saga. The next minute I was sneaking down a back alleyway to scope out a little house on a hill that was about to come on the market.
Maybe it’s a real catch!—I speculated—like a newly single man after an amicable divorce and a yearlong spiritual sabbatical. 2020 had been bad for everyone but this house, the rumor mill told me. The property had come through the other side of some long-overdue surgeries, including a facelift. It’d been working on strengthening its core, and had totally shifted its feng shui. It now had a sparkling new lease on life—and was even equipped to cook vegetables. Sexy. What if the wrong woman laid claim before I got there? A little window shopping wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
Through a sliding glass door into the kitchen, I could see, well … a lot. A handsome span of built-in white cabinets caught my ogling eye and flashed me a furtive smile. Dark chocolaty hardwood floors tempted my gaze allllll the way down the hall, revealing a wide-open living room drenched in seductive, late-afternoon light.
A bead of drool leaking from the corner of my mouth snapped me back to reality, and I took a step toward my car. Yeah, this place was up to no good, with its freshly painted velvety blue-grey exterior and red doors glowing like cinnamon candy—the kind that burns your tongue with a painful, satisfying sweetness and leaves behind a wet stain of its red-hot hue. The house was trying to seduce me. I had to get out of there before it offered me another drink.
I hit the gas and sped away before one of the neighbors called the police to report a Peeping Thomasina.
The next morning I tried to erase the brief but flirty encounter from my brain, but found my fingers doing strange and unfamiliar things, like dialing the number of a local bank to apply for a loan. You know. Just in case. To keep myself honest, that night I made a list of things I required from a house in order to buy it, a veritable scroll of demands that, if unmet, would get me off the hook and allow me to walk away scot-free back to my breezy-as-you-please rental. My rental. With bad wall paint I was not allowed to modify and poo-colored shag carpet I would somehow tolerate for another six years. Sh*t.
I made an appointment to see the little blue house on the hill. My offer was accepted by 5 p.m. the same day. Apparently, I was smitten.
The following month was a blur of hardcore adulting. In lieu of satin dresses and guest lists and registries, applications and bank statements and virtual dollars were whirring in all directions through digital space. Serious people with titles that frightened the living piss out of me were throwing around a lot of spine-chilling words like “private mortgage insurance,” “appraisal,” “abstract of title,” and the scariest word ever invented, “escrow.” Briefly lived moments of excitement for the big day were accompanied by terror-stricken late-night calls to my family and teary-eyed, soul-searching negotiations with the moon every night my heart pounded me awake at 2 a.m.
I felt like I had smashed the rack on a billiards table and solids and stripes were careening around at increasing speeds, threatening to jump the felted green walls of safety altogether. As the seconds until “closing” ticked by in slow motion on a deafening clock, my mind compulsively played out worst-case scenarios: What if my neighbors were meth dealers? What if the garage caved in on my car? What if I wasn’t able to sleep in that place? What if I never felt free again? What if, what if, what if? I tried to block out comments from the peanut gallery, like, “Yeah, once you buy a house, you basically become its slave,” or “I just forked over $10,000 to fix my roof.” My sister, far, far away on a cell phone, walked me back from the ledge over and over and over again.
When the little blue house on the hill passed its blood tests—er, home inspection—with flying colors, I celebrated for 15 whole minutes before panic returned to steal back the show. I couldn’t remember anymore why I was tying the knot. I wasn’t even sure I liked the place. I decided I didn’t want to see it again until it was all over, until papers were signed, keys were in hand, and I had lost the option of backing out. View it like an arranged marriage, I told myself, stubbornly willing myself to see it through. I distracted myself by obsessively doing other people’s yard work.
The morning of the final walk-through, the day of the scheduled closing, and what had come to feel like the signing away of my life, my dad drove over from across town to hold onto my arm and keep me from passing out as I marched, heart pounding, down the hallway, through all the rooms of a cold, empty house, and into the next chapter.
Though it was a bit late in the game for fault-finding, he snuck away to inspect the cavernous basement (dads love basements for some reason) while I surveyed the master bedroom. God, it looked so small all of a sudden, even without furniture. I swallowed hard. Would my whole life fit in here? Visions of Colorado came flashing into my head. The one that got away. Why am I buying a house in Iowa?
Dad called from the stairwell with an urgency in his voice that shook my knees. “Meredith? We’ve got water in the basement!” And he didn’t mean the utility sink. My realtor and I looked at each other wide-eyed and crept single file down into the belly of the beast.
Heavy rains all night had sent a tributary streaming across the basement floor, fingering in three directions along the lowest points of the uneven cement and pooling around the baseboards.
I took in the awful sight. WET BASEMENT. This was one of my deal breakers. This is it, I thought, I can get out of this now and never look back. It may have looked like I was standing in a puddle clutching my dad’s arm, but I was already out the door.
I longed for dry carpet. Dry, dusty, brown apartment carpet. My cozy bed in my cozy apartment bedroom. My lumpy bathroom ceiling, my cramped kitchen. Where was my home now?? Certainly not in this tiny, leaky house on the edge of town, I thought.
“I am not happy,” I said through gritted teeth to anyone listening.
Later that afternoon, with my confidence in tatters, my heart in shambles, and not even a whisper of will left to stomach the path forward, I sent a message to a friend, asking for prayers but hoping for guidance.
“A resolution needs to be made on paper, on the property, and also in my heart, which feels pretty shredded up right now,” I wrote. I felt like my fiancé had cheated on me, like he’d decided to sneak in one final fling before putting the ring on. I had been duped.
My friend replied, “Meredith, finding this out now is a gift. You get to see all the imperfections and decide if you are still in love. It’s what makes relationships real.”
Relationship?? I thought. Is that what this is?
The day after Thanksgiving, a bonafide basement specialist agreed to have a look, amidst an entire posse of concerned parties. Built like a house himself, he calmly walked from corner to corner to corner, inspecting every inch of the gutter system, the yard, and the foundation—both outside and in. Finally, upon my request, he got permission to cut away some of the paneling that obscured our view of the foundation at the exact location of seepage, tucked inside the creepy crawl space under the steps. He took a long look, then offered up his flashlight, inviting me to crouch down with him in the dark so I could see the monster in the closet with my own eyes.
I shone the light. No cracks, no gaps. Just a wall of reddish tile still sturdily stacked in the right order. We stood up together.
He recognized the worry in my face, heard the tremor in my words, and softened his voice for what felt like a heart to heart. Just him and me. The realtors and sellers and fathers faded away into the background. I looked over the top of my N95 mask into Basement Guy’s very kind eyes and hung on his every syllable. He whispered, “There is nothing about this foundation that has me worried. Nothing.” My heart began to slow its pace. “In the scheme of things, this really is an easy fix. You just need to regrade your yard a little so water is running away from your house, not toward it. A truckload of soil and a couple guys moving dirt around is all I expect it will take,” he said, offering his final two cents, with no skin in the game: “This really is a great little starter home.”
I instinctively reached up to touch the low basement ceiling, patting it with my hand. “Good house,” I said, finding both peace and affection in the place my fingers made contact.
With water leaking only from my eyes this time, I looked into the man’s clear blues, melted with him into a rare mid-pandemic hug, and said, “I do.”
The last month has been a journey of discovery as, of course, I’ve begun uncovering every thing about the place that drives me nuts. There is nary an outlet where I need one. The shower nozzle gets everything wet but me, and after regrading, the yard is now 93 percent mud. But I’m learning. Day by day and breath by breath, I am learning not to freak out when something goes awry, learning to be patient, kind even. I will address the things that bother me in due time. Or not. I get to decide.
Of course, I envy people who can delegate household fix-its with a “Honey-Do List.” I guess I’m the honey now? Or maybe I get to have a lot of honeys. My experimental mantra since November has been, “The right people show up to help me when I need it.” So far it’s been one thousand percent true.
In the meantime, I’m having way too much fun picking out rugs that feel good under my feet, hanging curtain rods for the first time in my life, and finding a home for everything I brought in. Especially me.
My house is 111 years old. In numerology, I’ve heard that’s as good a lineup of digits as they come if you’re looking for confirmation that “you’re in the right place at the right time.” Call me weird, but I keep noticing the clock at exactly 1:11. The angels have spoken. Sound the gong of love.
In my house, I get to soak in the delicious waters of my claw-foot bathtub, water finally deep enough and hot enough to make me say, “Oh my God, yesssssssss…” The old apartment tub never really did it for me. Enfolded in lavender bubbles and inhaling newly burned sage as it dances through the steam, I stare up at a clean, white bathroom ceiling.