It has been nearly ten years since I lived there, but I still glance at it every time I drive by. Despite living only a few miles away, my travels usually take me around my old house. It must be months since I have seen it. I am certain the windows were not boarded up the last time I looked.
This new discovery inspires a detour from the route I am taking. I pull into an abandoned shopping center on the left and circle back. Even though the intersection where the house is situated is busy, the road running in front is less traveled. It would have had great visibility as advertisement for the in-home childcare center I had intended for this house. The neighborhood has been improved as well. The high retaining walls bordering the front yard, and those of the surrounding houses, have been painted with brightly colored and cheerful designs; multi-colored sunflowers in front of my one-time yard.
Traffic streams up and down the busy cross street and patrons to the next-door Walgreens pop in and out of the parking lot below the raised property. All noise shuts out as I turn into the driveway. I forgot how steep it was. I feel nervous that my little Taurus won’t be able to scale the grade as the tires grip the concrete and a bottle or can crunches under the wheel.
At first I sit and stare, taking in the shambles as my engine idles. The light blue it once was had been painted cream shortly after it had been resold as a foreclosure. I don’t know how many times the house has changed hands since then. After we moved, I had noticed children’s playthings in the front yard. A couple years ago, my ex-husband had sent me a real estate listing showing trashed interior pictures of the house that was then on the market again. He said it had been used as a makeshift tattoo parlor at some point. Now it is a skeleton.
I am enveloped by curiosity and memories as I open my car door with a creak. The termination of my radio adds to the sense of isolation. People are no more than a few hundred yards away, yet no one exists with me in this place. No one else knows what this house means to me.
The hip-high dry grass tickles my legs as I climb the three steps into the yard and the five steps to the porch. A stenciled board screwed to the front door reads “NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE ARRESTED. CALL 311 FOR INFORMATION”. It says the premises are monitored by video surveillance, but I don’t see any cameras. I always felt elevated from the world when I stood in this yard, watching the world drive by. The neighborhood could have been better, but my ex-husband had been regularly entertained watching police lights flash at the gas station across the street. From up here all that had felt far away. All that existed here were dreams.
The fence to the backyard is gone or leaning against the adjoining fence. The detached garage gapes at me through the opening, its tan plywood board grinning over the unlevel and overgrown brick patio. Someone left their large screen television back here, along with piles of clothing and garbage surrounding the back porch and strewn into the yard. The explorer in me wonders if there is anything salvageable, but I don’t bother. Something about the M&Ms wrapper and the Pure Leaf Unsweetened Tea bottle abandoned here are off putting. Those are things I like. They don’t belong in this heap of insult to this house.
I never spent much time in this backyard. We had planned to put up a playground for the preschool I had intended to open. The pieces of wood we got for free had lain in the back for months until we realized we would not be needing them after all. The sidewalk along the garage is overgrown now. Somewhere under there is where I buried my pet frog.
We bought the house before we got married; not to cohabitate, but to open a business. Childcare was my life, and circumstances had left me without a job and with the freedom to pursue running my own business. My then-fiance had offered to help me buy a house to this end. This had been the house.
In hindsight, it wasn’t ideal. The payments were too high for our budget, the ceiling was too low in the living space and, most of all, our relationship was unstable. Under my dad’s prompting, I’d had second thoughts, but my fiance had encouraged me that we could do this, and so we did.
I bend in half to peer into the one window not boarded. I wish I could kneel on the ground to look inside but broken glass is in the way. I think this is going to be the front downstairs bedroom, the one I had imagined would become a nursery someday, but it is actually the laundry room. A picture flashes into my mind of myself in work clothes rolling sealant onto the cement floor after we pulled up the rotting linoleum. I can see an abandoned washer and dryer and a dresser that I think was there when we moved in. The ceiling is raggedly hanging down and I wonder if this is why the house is pseudo-condemned. Our first adventure in homeownership involved upstairs bathtub pipes leaking into the laundry room. Maybe they had finally burst. A pungent odor emits from the broken window. I have smelled it before in other houses, must mixed with body odor and other filth.
I imagine the layout of the house, remembering how it felt to have the air blowing through the open windows, the brilliance of the laminate floor upstairs and the soft new carpet downstairs, which always clogged up the vacuum cleaner. I had put my heart into painting the kitchen pink, sponge painting the dining room, neutralizing the living room, where I pictured my little students spending their time. The upstairs bedrooms had become the home center and the block center. We filled it with everything my teacher’s heart could desire, many items coming for cheap or for free. Our furniture was all handed down from family, except for the perfect brown rug I bought for that living room. Everything was ready for us to finish licensing. We just needed lower windows for emergency purposes, and then we would be set.
Then we got married.
I had waited my life for this. I had read the books, gone to the classes. Everything I had ever wanted revolved around being a wife and a mother. Even opening a daycare in home was a means to an end – the ability to raise my own children someday. The house was supposed to pay for itself so we could start a family. The house was the realization of a dream.
We were brave enough to pursue the house and the preschool, but I was not brave enough to admit that life is not a dream. I guess I meant well. I wanted to be patient, to put in the hard work. We had hard conversations and if we came to an impasse, I chose to try harder. I knew it would take time and that marriages required effort. Maybe that was my effort to be brave when it would have taken more courage to clean up the mess I had made.
I peek around the side of the house which had been a dog run when we lived there. I had considered creating some kind of circle around the house for childcare pick up and drop off. Now it looks like a catch-all for junk. More clothes. A picnic table I think was here when we lived here. A collection of wood nailed together to look like a deck or something. I don’t recognize where that might have come from.
As I make my way back to the car, I tick off each window. They are all broken. The upper bedrooms on top, the tiny bathroom in the middle. The first boarded window on the bottom is the other laundry room window, the second was the make-shift master bedroom.
For the week leading up to the wedding, I had banished my fiance from going in there, hiding my work behind the accordion door which closed with a magnet. I was pleased with the reveal on our wedding night. Blue and purple sheer fabric hung from the ceiling, complimenting the purple duvet. That night was relaxed and peaceful; pleasant, though not what I would have expected out of a wedding night. Comfort without passion, plus the satin sheets kept making all the blankets slide off the bed. I think of this memory with fondness, though there is also a sense of sadness. I thought there would be more.
It didn’t take long to realize that this was no fairy tale. It is one thing to say that marriage is work, it is another to realize what that work feels like. Pretty soon I gave up. I made wrong choices. I knew I had so much, and yet I thought it would be different. Where were the newlywed feelings? Why wasn’t he doing what I thought a husband should do? Why wasn’t I the wife I thought wives should be?
I return to my car, thinking I will leave, but spontaneously decide to bring out my camera. I have just returned from a road trip where I enjoyed photographing abandoned buildings, and here I have found one in my own backyard — literally.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the house is in shambles. The lives that lived in that house ended up there, too. I take responsibility for it. I know it takes two to make a relationship, but the decisions were mine to make, and I quit. I quit the preschool, I quit the marriage. He tried, but he never understood me. I didn’t really understand either, at the time. He was a good man from beginning until this day, treating me kindly and fairly, even through the pain I caused. He tried to give me so much, and it never seemed like enough. I am grateful we have since had the peaceful closure I knew I needed, though it took a lot of my own soul searching and several years of waiting for his forgiveness. I had needed to be forgiven, though I didn’t deserve it. I had also needed to realize the damage I was capable of.
This house was the beginning of a dream, but also the end. It was a realization that the dreams I had could never be, if only for the fact that I was never the person I thought I should be. The time for that has passed now. Even if I someday become the wife and mother I envisioned – a goal I no longer want, and don’t expect to achieve – I will still carry this house with me, and the memories that go with it. I can never have the perfect love story because I already have this one. It was also the beginning of a realization that I am not the person I thought I was.
These pictures of this broken house will stand next to the ones I have of the house of ten years ago. I wonder if the next owner will tear it down. Maybe that is okay. Maybe, like the person I was, it needs to be demolished and rebuilt. Maybe the house that once was belongs to those memories and that time. If we can just leave all that behind and move forward with something new, beauty will be in there somewhere.
I start my engine and exhale slowly, backing down the driveway into the world where I live now.