Moving Right Along
“I WOULD JUST ask you to remember …” Jessica begins. I love when she talks like that. It is so congressional-hearing. So gazing-over-rimless-rectangular-glasses-perched-low-on-the-nose. So there-should-be-a-comma-followed-by-the-word-senator. I would just ask you to remember. Because Jessica works for the federal government, her occasional lapse into bureaucratese is, I suppose, unsurprising. But while I get a kick out of it, the governmentspeak alone isn’t what causes me such delight. It is also how her use of it dovetails so perfectly with her natural tendency to cloak her meaning while simultaneously making her agenda clear. A linguistic-judo master, she has a way of using the attacker’s verbal weight against him. He thinks he’s trapped her. Suddenly, he’s on the floor, looking up and wondering how that happened. He, by the way, would be me. “You would just ask me to remember?” I repeat her words, gently mocking the phrase while also luxuriating in it. “Yes,” she responds, heedless to my sport as she brushes her hair at the mirror one last time before work. “We constantly talk about the ones that got away.” She’s right, of course. We do. There was the one in Columbia Heights with the burgundy walls and the gleaming hardwood staircase and the special sound-system wiring. Just a tad too pricey. There was the one in the “flower streets” that had those massive dark-wood window frames you see only in movies. Too far from a subway line. There was the one with character seeping out of its drafty windows, the stately dowager right on Lincoln Park. Alas, too much the fixer-upper. They, and many others, are ghosts of house-hunts past. They haunt our decision making as we happen by one of them on our way to dinner or a movie. “Oh, remember that one?” one of us says. “Yeah,” the other says, exhaling ruefully. We’re about to get some new ghosts. For we are, again, looking at houses. This will be the fourth move in eight years. That’s not a record, certainly. But it’s more moving than most folks who aren’t military or relocating for a job or staying one step ahead of the law do. “Practice makes perfect,” Jessica says to me one afternoon as we follow an itinerary of military precision that she’s assembled for viewing open houses. I grumble. The day is scorching, our car’s air conditioner is broken, my shirt is sticking to the back of the seat, and everything is too expensive. They say it is a buyer’s market. Not here in Washington, D.C., it’s not. Here in the District, house prices just aren’t going up as fast as they once did. But they haven’t gone down. We troop through houses with wavy floors, tiny kitchens, bathrooms without doors. We go to one house, about 100 years old, that has a window air-conditioning unit in its master bedroom. This, despite the fact -- and I do mean fact, because I read the sheet and double-checked with the agent -- that the place has central air. Oh, it is also the place with the doorless bathroom. And the tiny kitchen. And the wavy floors. “I love this place,” I say as we walk around. I love its high ceilings, its long windows, its rich wood trim. It is the first of our new ghosts. Over a weekend of searching, we came to like the house with the high ceilings, hardwood floors, and long windows. The question was whether we liked it enough to make an offer. “I’m in no hurry,” I said. It was an odd thing for me to say, since I was the one who had championed the purchase in the first place. While Jessica liked the house, I was crazy about it. Now, here I was, backing away. And that is when she said it: “I would just ask you to remember the ones that got away.” It’s true. I should remember. Because remembering lets us dream. Buying a house isn’t about buying a house. It is about buying a mess of problems you can’t see disguised beneath what you want to see. Which is to say, buying a house is about who you think you are. We think we are cool. We think we go to the theater and walk to the market and buy vegetables every day. We think we live somebody else’s life, a beautiful-people life. The problem is, we’re not cool. We go to the movies and drive to the supermarket and buy boxes of dried spaghetti. We live our own life, an ordinary-people life. House hunting is nothing if not dreaming. The purchase of the house, that’s the reality. Jessica isn’t saying that we should buy this house. She is saying that I should consider what I want, what we want, who we like to think we are. And then buy something else. Metaphorically speaking, I am on the floor, looking up.
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