Family, Home

Good Stay

It’s our first day back at work and the neighbors are complaining. Out on the balcony, the lady from next door smokes as she watches the snow. She greets me with a friendly “Good morning.”

Then, “Oh, by the way…”

First comes an excruciating description of the 8-hour howling marathon. Then her recommendations: bitter apple, a towel with my scent, a plastic crate, a muzzle. She and her husband work from home. They listened to it all day, she tells me. ALL DAY. “Hours,” she says. “We could hear her all the way outside. She didn’t stop.”

I apologize and thank her. Then I stand there listening. I need to stay on her good side, if that’s even possible. Nodding, agreeing, I’m not sure what to say. Finally, I tell her I just don’t want to give Noodle up, which is the same as giving up on her.

Most of the neighborhood has heard about Noodle’s history. What we know is bad enough. What we don’t know is probably worse. From initial snatching by the smugglers through her arrival in our home, she’s endured at least six separations. Those are just the ones we can count. Add a measure of abuse followed by an overseas migration, and anxiety is a given. Aggression would not be a surprise. Even so, after all she’s been through, this tormented creature has managed to hold on to all the traits that most endear dogs to humans: groveling, nuzzling, cuddling, sitting. She gazes through glimmering eyes when we read on the couch and quivers with joy when we return from the store. She has not so much as nipped at Bug despite the horseplay he requires of her (“Mom, look! Conga, conga, conGA!”)

The codes run deep. They work. Bug is madly in love with her.

Also, she has crippling anxiety.

My finances are limited, and what little I have comes from a job at an office. I had foolishly assumed that the two-week winter break would be a sufficient adjustment period. Unlike my work-from-home neighbors, I can’t stay all day to train this pooch through months of desensitization. I live in a condominium instead of the country cottage, so ignoring the problem isn’t an option.

As ever, life is generous with its opportunities for growth. This is yet another reminder that I’m not all alone in a world on the brink of crashing down around me. The neighbors are, thanks to all things holy, dog lovers. Also, my superhero mother has offered to stop in for a mid-day walk. Being a member of Noodle’s pack, her presence is a comfort and a godsend for one hour of the day.

Even so, it doesn’t erase the four hours of howling on either side of her visit. I’m no fool. Neighbor-dog-love has its limits. Somehow I’ve got to hold down my job, take care of my son, and placate the neighbors all while keeping this dog from impaling herself on the busted bars of her crate.

I’m trying hard to La-La-La plug my ears against the little voice telling me this one of the the top five worst decisions of my life.

Is there a convincing argument for putting so much at risk and for this neurotic, sweet girl?

Why does anyone make these sacrifices? No one gives out awards for adopting abused dogs. Accolades are similarly nonexistent for all other do-gooders, from library volunteers to vegetarians. Maybe some folks trust the promise of delayed rewards. While the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be reserving a place at the head table for me, faith is generally missing from my list of motivators. Beyond that, altruism is irrational at best. It rarely leads to financial payoff, professional success, fame, leisure, an advanced degree or a smaller dress size. In fact, of the many ways to squander personal resources for some greater good, dog ownership is a guaranteed drain. The costs of food and care are just the beginning. Sleep takes a hit. Those extra hours at work needed to get ahead? Lost, along with evening classes and weekend conferences. And forget about tagging along for happy hour.

So why do it?

Because ___________________. Pick your platitude. Because you care. Because if you don’t, who will? Maybe because maybe you want to add to the sum total of kindness in the world, or because you hope someone would do the same for you.

Because duty. Because love.

Maybe all altruism is selfish. Being good feels good. A little hit of dopamine accompanies an action in sync with a value, especially when it leads to some small improvement. Or a big, sloppy kiss.

In my rather cold calculation, sticking by this dog is service to my son. After all, his status as an only child confers benefits and costs that a pet can complement and correct, respectively. My boy is king of the castle here. He chooses a great many of our activities and habits. His preferences certainly aren’t equal to mine, otherwise there would be no school, broccoli, or bedtime. That said, his vote counts more than it might if a sibling or second parent weighed in. This superior position may seem grand, but it costs him in social skills. My son has a long way to go to master compassion and consideration. A dog — especially one with a troubled history — is a good teacher. No quantity of playdates comes close to the humbling experience of sharing a home with a fellow being. Having a dog means more than sharing the back seat when running errands. It means waking every day to the awareness of someone else who matters.

Bug’s elevated rank also leaves him as his own and only best companion. At eight years old, he still tells me he’d rather live at his other house because there, he shares a room with his dad. He doesn’t like sleeping alone. On those mellow weekends when we spend more time at home than running all over creation, Bug sometimes wanders aimlessly, at a loss for how to entertain himself. He’s tired of Mama but he wants to engage with someone or something. This kind of quiet, TV-free existence is good for him, true. It’s on-the-job training in resourcefulness, creativity, and the innovative potential of boredom.

Also, it makes loneliness routine.

Not so great a norm to set for a kid who’s been handed two genetic suitcases packed with depression.

Noodle is Bug’s guide. She is also his buddy. Bug adores and curses her in much the same way a sibling might. He plays with her, gets irritated with her, wants her close, wants her gone. He always comes back to her though, learning all the while to temper his reactions and be a good companion. He’ll screw up (as will I), but she’ll probably survive. Noodle nudges Bug — and me, if I’m honest — up and out of ourselves. More than just waking us to the world, she engages us in a lasting and full relationship with a fellow earthling.

I’m sure the crazy dog people will skin me alive when they find out my motives for adopting are anything other than pure love. Alas, I’ve never been known for purity except in contrast, so Noodle and all her champions will just have to put up with my labyrinthine rationale.

Anyway, she’s home now. She can make do with this imperfect family.

Tomorrow, I’ll move the crate to my bedroom and shut all the doors, hoping the extra layer of drywall will muffle her cries. I’ll give the bitter apple and towel a try. I’m not sold on the muzzle. If we’re lucky, the neighbors will indulge us as Noodle’s little brain works out that there’s nothing on the other side of that door she needs.

This is it. She’s not going anywhere.

Neither are we.



Breaking In

First, it is a hilt and sword. It grows into a lady in a hat and then a pig head on a pike. A dragon emerges. Now it is a stingray caged within the outlines of the aquarium tank surrounding it.

Its beginning falls on the two-month anniversary of our moving in. The ink is dry on the mortgage. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the ceiling.

The leak grows bigger every day. Brown stains find the joists and then the seams in the drywall. It is reaching out into the living room. I pop upstairs to tell the neighbor above me. We haven’t met yet but he lets me step into his entryway to so I can point out the suspected source near the front of the kitchen. “It’s coming from behind your dishwasher. Or maybe the line to it from the sink.” I trace the area below with my toe.

He is non-committal. “We’ve had problems like this before.”  Continue reading “Breaking In”

Determination, Home

Built on Sand

The previous owner left a purple chair. It is a nest of eggplant velvet. The back cushion is missing but Bug’s Eric Carle butterfly pillow has just enough puff and color to belong. It fits as if made for the space.
It’s in good company.
I am worthy of all I choose to hold. His whisper tucks itself in around my neck. This phrase is where he trains his mind, he tells me.
“I’m stealing that,” I say.
“It’s yours.”
When I stepped in for the first time with my realtor, the click was almost audible as tumblers fell into alignment. The yes took only as long as one turn through the back rooms. Making a dazed rotation in the sunlit center of the space, I let the rightness breach my defenses. “This is my place,” I told her. “This is it.” It was barely a choice. It was a match, plain and simple. The condo was made for me and me for it. My awareness of this was as close to instantaneous as you can get.
Seven months. The current was strong yet cut with riptides of doubt. When they gripped me, I flailed before remembering to turn and swim parallel to the shore. Keep land in sight even if from a frightening distance.
Now, Legos are strewn like shells across the floor by the sliding glass door. Bug has come and gone, leaving the echo of his stride banging through the narrow hallway. He has already determined the configuration of his room and told me that the spot chosen for my office will also be his spot for playing. He walks over and touches a wall almost the color of oxidized copper. “Here,” he says, “this will be for my toys.”
“Okay,” I say. “That place is yours.”
The first five homes where Bug lived belonged to someone else. We moved before we could even imagine them as our own and so it never occurred to us to claim a doorjamb for his growth chart. Whether or not a record exists, he has clearly inched his way up and out of infancy. The measure of those years is evident on his frame. His shins and forehead bear scars. Giant’s teeth push out into an elven mouth. Spindle legs straddle a bike and push off with feet that jam up against shoes just purchased but already outgrown. Six years have layered themselves upon him like bands inside a clamshell. Invisible when living but there nonetheless, lines mark age as tides ebb and flow tossing the creature inside from deep to reef as it grows.
We have been pulling for so long. Now we run aground and wobble ashore. This blanket, this patch, this beach. Ours. From now and right here, we are fixed (as much as anyone can ever make such a claim). We do not have to wait for a sense of permanence to scratch a furrow and sign our names. When he is next here, we will take a pencil and choose the place. Six-almost-seven will be the hash of our commencement.
The dog and I stay alone the first night after closing. In the morning, I bob up into inky half-sleep knowing exactly where I am. None of the disorientation that accompanies travel greets me. These new walls are already mine. The hum of I-66 outside the window is as steady as the surf. Hearing me stir, the pooch tip-taps in from wherever she spent the night. All the rooms are empty. All the floors are hers for the taking. She collapses with a grunt on the carpet near the foot of my pallet of blankets. I have to go to work but cannot make myself get up. Light creeps across the white ceiling. The leftover black curtains will surely need replacing. Muffled footsteps from upstairs hint at the proximity of community. I swim in awakening. This is my home.
I am worthy of all I choose to hold.
The night before, my Mister came to welcome me. Under the small halo of light from a candle on the mantle, we sat on the bare bamboo floor with our legs in a Celtic knot. He exhaled and traced one arm across the golden dark. “Look at what you did.” Then he framed my face with his hands and a gust of wonder bent his seagrass gaze to me. “This is yours.”
Now, I rub sleep from my eyes and pad into the living room, opening curtains along the way. I curl into the embrace of the purple chair. The word finds its way into my belly as if I’m hearing it for the first time. It expands in there, quivering like a muscle bearing unaccustomed weight. Surging like sea against cliff. Warming like light.

Change, Home

Closing Open

Over happy hour wine at the Lebanese restaurant, they tell me the first thing to do is change the locks. One of these men I have known for two decades. The other, barely half a year. Astride stools on either side of me at the bar, they hold me in the safe grip of their mirth. One says that he paid an antiquated locksmith neighbor do a crap job he had to replace as soon as the guy divorced and moved off the street. The other tells of nervously checking and re-checking doors during the early weeks. They are eons ahead of me. They have mice in the compost and weeds overtaking their lawns.
Mine is balcony looking west over I-66. Picnic tables, neighbors, noise, light. Plenty of sun for a zinnia. Maybe too much for basil.
My phone is on the bar next to a glass of pinot grigio. Every so often, it pings with another text from the realtor. Someone needs a letter signed. Funds must be wired to an address in Falls Church. We close in on a date.
I hug the old friend goodbye. He is heading back north in a day or two. My new fella and I walk to his car holding hands and bubbling with residual laughter. We pass a building that was not there a year ago. It is now a glinting, black-rimmed fixture on the landscape. Under our feet rumble trains on the orange line. New stairwells shoulder their way up from platforms that had no room for such change. Someone writes over the old blueprints in red pencil. The adaptation becomes a concept and eventually, a given.
Tonight, the to-do list has not kept pace with the fading light. Thunder bowls in dusk’s outermost lane. A strike, a muffled cheer. The second floor of the house where I live with my parents is just a degree shy of stifling. My bed is scattered with the folded remains of a trip to Florida. A suitcase gapes open, its zippers hanging limp and hungry. A heap of clothes is tossing around in the dryer. I wait for them to be finished before I decide. The choices are paralyzing. Some will be put away but some will go back into the suitcase. We just returned yesterday. Tomorrow, one carload goes to the new place. My son’s swimsuit still smells of salt. I shake sand from the perfect coral whorl of a conch shell.
Papers in stacks all around the bedroom floor need staples, folders, labels. I dig up one blank spiral notebook with pockets. It is no match for the task ahead but it will do for tomorrow. I tuck it into a bag with my checkbook and ID.
Now, the wine on my bedside table is cut with sparkling juice. I call it sangria and remember the last day in our Clearwater Beach hotel when I drank a better version while parked at a computer digging copies of old cancelled checks from 2012 accounts and squinting at the lines of a HUD-1 approval. My son was teaching himself to swim outside, arms flailing and neck bent too far above the surface as he huffed and puffed the width of the pool. My mother kept an eye on him so I could take care of landing us a home. Our own home.
Later, as we ate fried shrimp and grouper at Crabby Bill’s, I picked up a red ping on the phone and grinned quietly to myself. A few covert keystrokes sent first word skimming across miles to the man who had asked me to let him know the second I knew. Then, a slug of ice water. I looked at my mother and son over the ship-deck décor, its fish nets and battered wood. “Final approval just came through. We’re closing Thursday.”
Bug considered this news. “What does that mean?”
“It means the bank finally said okay. On Thursday, I’ll sign all the papers and buy the house.”
His face shined open into a huge grin. “Can I stay there with you?”
I laughed. “Of course, Buddy! It’ll be our house. We’ll live there together.”
“When can I see?” He asked.
“Yeah,” echoed my mother. “When can I see?”
“Friday. As soon as I pick Bug up from day camp on Friday, we’ll go straight over.”
As for the first day? That one is mine.
Now, I roll up a blanket, a candle, a coffee mug, a plate. The dryer downstairs is finishing up with a couple of spare towels. The car is stuffed and Home Depot closes in an hour. I need to buy new locks tonight before I go punch the heavy bag with the man who keeps his porch light on for me.
Closing is at 10:00 tomorrow morning. Electricity will be on mid-day. By the time dusk arrives, I’ll be dancing in the lowering western sun behind a door whose keys are in my hands alone.


Home Run

Seventy-five days of radio silence. Not a word. Nada.
My realtor and I spoke exactly once during that time. Right around the New Year, I started to panic. “Is there anything I should be doing?”
“Nothing at all. The bank has the documents.” She paused. “There are no guarantees here. We won’t stop looking at other properties. You should your eyes open.”
Short sales are an exercise in forbearance. Trust, too. Both have been running thin. How long can the mind and muscles wait at the starting line in a state of perpetual readiness, stretching and gulping air? Every day, inventory in my price range shrinks. Every day, prices in the area go up. The market sizzles and the bank is silent. Where’s that starting gun? Is it minutes? Hours? Or did the race move over to some other track without me realizing it?
As for my realtor’s advice to keep my eyes open (as if they could be any other way), no properties popping up in MLS over the past two and a half months have come close to the fit of the one I chose. The one that chose me. What if one had? It’s a high-stakes gamble. Moving on another place would mean pulling the plug on this one.
My place. The one that is a bit too much and a bit too little but still exactly right for Bug and me. The day before Thanksgiving, the offer came together. Here is the story.
Seventy-five days later, the counter-offer landed.
We are off and running! The bank’s new plan is palatable to me. They upped the overall price of the place in exchange for a ridiculously expensive special assessment I can’t afford ($6900! For staircases!) A few other tweaks and details accompanied the counter. My realtor has my okay. She sent the acceptance back over this morning.
Next, inspection. Appraisal. HOA documents. Shifting money. Any bump could send us tumbling. Nothing is certain, except this: we’re covering ground. A home is on the horizon. We haven’t closed yet but we are closing in.


Happy 100 Days: 42

People kept telling me I would walk into a place and say, “Yes. This is it. This is where I live.” They told me to envision it, to let myself want it. It sounded like a bunch of mystical hoo-hah to me. I’m a practical girl, and my job was to weigh the various pros and cons of each property. This was not supposed to be a gut-level decision. It was rational. I was to consider commute time, neighborhood safety, condo involvement, how much rehab I could manage, and what I could make work on my meager budget.
Today, I saw the light. I stepped over the threshold and felt my knees go weak.
After a couple of months and a couple dozen places, I know now what they meant. I have never before had such a rush of rightness. Even the townhouse in faraway land whose sweet opportunity I chose to pull a few weeks back because of the distance was still just a shrug-your-shoulders “Nice.” I kinda liked it. I could have made it a homey place. I had a warm feeling about it, sort of like having a pleasant conversation with a stranger at a bar and maybe being happy to see him there again next time, but never really wanting to give him your number.
This? Oh, man. This is love.
This condo complex less than a quarter mile from Tee’s house. Bug and I could walk over to his daddy’s on any given day. It is in his current school district, only 2 miles walking/biking/busing distance from the metro, a hop over to I-66, and a block away from a park. The front door entry is on the first floor but because of the construction on a slight hill, the balcony is up a level. I won’t have to schlep groceries up stairs yet my deck stuff is also safe.
Inside, is everything and more. Spacious kitchen with new appliances and cabinets, bamboo floors, huge dining area, nooks for an office and a den, a fireplace, two bedrooms, a view of the complex’s picnic area. . .
All of this is at a price I can just about afford.
My realtor and I jumped on the freeway and roared back to her office to subject ourselves to the torture of contract writing. We decided that getting in the night before Thanksgiving would give me a leg up on the competition (those slackers, all so busy stuffing turkeys and missing their chance!) The property is a short sale requiring twice as many documents and three times as many decisions, so we were working well past closing time. After several liters of ink, all the papers were printed and signed, and I had made my offer!
We headed out into the dark evening, both of us a little dizzy from the afternoon’s turn of events.
Events could go any number of ways, of course. The seller could reject the offer, her bank could require more for the short sale, my bank could appraise lower, the inspection could reveal martians living in the ductwork. I know all of the maybes here.
What I also know is that it is possible to find exactly what I want.
All my friends said it might exist. I thought they were Pollyannas. I am so glad they encouraged me to let go of my scarcity mindset and hold out for abundance. I don’t have to go home with the fella just because he’s nice enough. I can keep my heart open for the real deal.
What a joyous Thanksgiving. I hope the seller (a mom-to-be, I hear) is as thankful to discover this offer in her inbox in the morning as I am to send it her way.
Maybe next year, I’ll be stuffing a turkey my own self in my very own home.
Imagine that!