It was all mine. I didn't have roommates. My boyfriend had a key and was there often enough helping me take care of the building that the tenants thought he was the landlord. They thought that about him, not me, though I signed their leases, took their money, planted the flowers, helped to exterminate the apartments, handled their emergencies, tried to fix the industrial-sized boiler with a wrench and a blowtorch that one time. There was a liquor store and a payday loan store on the corner but there was also a bank and a bus line that took me to the green line or the blue line, however I felt that day, though I almost always walked, give or take the weather. The floors in the living room were beautiful but so lopsided my bookcases sloped sideways. The kitchen had counters but few cabinets and we danced in that kitchen since we were too broke to go to clubs. I would sit on the back stoop and watch the backside of the Madison street businesses. I could see men, always men, taking out garbage, shoveling snow, making deliveries. I didn't have legal cable but we spliced the wires that had been left behind and I got a few channels, because back then, that was possible. At 24 I broke my own heart and it was in that apartment that I had to learn to begin dating again, not having done it since 17. I kicked a man out of that place when he didn't want to use a condom, and that's one of the clearest memories I have of my first place of my own: me sitting on the couch in my bathrobe eating leftover popcorn, watching him incredulously walk out the door. I held parties there, albeit small ones. I tried to make friends with my neighbors as white people always did on TV, but I found that wasn't for me. When I left that apartment, my youth stayed behind.
I made $27,000 a year and was putting myself through grad school at night after working all day. Buying a condo didn't make sense, but I had saved enough money to do it, having no debt outside of $98/month in student loans back when interest rates were 7.5%. I found a mistake in the closing documents and wouldn't sign the papers until one of the largest financial institutions in the country gave in following my obstinate refusal to budge, and I was on their blacklist for years. I knew too much about the process. It was a second floor walkup, which means it was the third floor because this is Chicago and we downplay our struggles. When I had gallbladder surgery, my boyfriend at the time came over and walked down flights of stairs to help me with the laundry. There were two butler's pantries in the otherwise tiny kitchen and if I could have, I would have taken them with me to every place that came after. The condo had a shotgun layout, the only place I've lived as an adult that did not have a circular floor pattern. The building was vintage and I had no A/C, washer and drier, second bathroom or parking space. I eventually had a car while living there but I commuted by train and walked almost a mile home at 10 pm on weeknights after grad school classes ended. I rented a garage space a few blocks away and had to walk through dark alleys alone just to get home. I was an adult woman in that apartment, learning to have new boyfriends or lovers, throwing larger parties, refinancing and getting rid of my PMI. I didn't so much as paint in that place, and I made $50k on it by the time I walked out the door three and a half years later. I didn't walk alone; my fiancé came with me. He had moved in when we were 28, 7 months after we met, after we kissed for the first time in that shotgun hallway while he held some of my homemade banana bread in his hand. It was in the larger of the two bedrooms in that place--when I thought it might be better to leave him because he was being such a jerk--that he handed me a pearl ring he had hidden in his pajama pocket and said "I'm sorry, Kate, but I still want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me anyway?" That was one of many things I did anyway.
A few weeks after we closed, I turned 29, but 28 is precise and true. We negotiated the deal from Puerto Rico, where I had been sent for a conference, and my fiancé came along for fun. The house was an absolute mess in a neighborhood I had never heard of, on the far south side of the city. It was dark and dusty and the beds weren't even made. But there was ivy crawling cautiously up the red brick, beautiful windows, pine trees in the front, a huge expanse of back yard, a woodburning fireplace, and even a magnolia tree. We learned later that the couple who lived there had raised their family with the couple next door, and the husbands one day decided to "surprise" the wives with news of new construction built in the far south suburbs, and the couple who lived in our house almost got divorced, thus explaining why it looked like they weren't trying to sell the place, because she wasn't. It was 2004 and we paid too much and lost money on it in the end but not as badly as others did. When we came home from our wedding, it was still afternoon, and we opened the gifts we hadn't registered for in the living room of the first home we owned together. The day before the wedding, our car was broken into in our driveway. Both of our children came home from the hospital to that house. I designed and managed the rebuild of that kitchen and for that reason I sometimes miss it. We installed a new roof, windows, wiring. There was a steam shower in the basement, and towards the end of our time there, I sat on a stool next to that shower while my husband shaved my head with a bic and a can of barbasol. I became a mother there and with that I met other mothers. I will always remember lying on the couch in that house, pregnant with my son, trying to stay awake for the 2008 election results, and failing. When the phone rang and roused me from sleep, I knew before hearing who had called that he had won, that we would always be able to say that we lived on the south side of Chicago when President Obama was elected, just a handful of miles from where the first black President had once lived. But with hope comes the reminder of struggle and pain. I had cancer in that house--my world split from being the promise of young motherhood and the height of my career to something else entirely. With that, I couldn't feel much nostalgia for a place that held birth but also the possibility of death, new life but also the reminder of suffering. When we left, we didn't, because we couldn't sell. We became landlords, and I was crazy for suggesting we buy the next house in the first place, but we just jumped, and did it.
What can I say? My husband might never forgive me for making us leave. We bought it out of foreclosure, and two of our old houses could fit inside. There were three full sized ovens in the kitchen once he had them installed. We built a second floor laundry room next to the expansive landing large enough for furniture of its own. There were so many windows there were windows in closets, inside the chimney, windows so huge I couldn't even lift them. The space...the space! The sledding hill in the front yard. The library in the hall, the attic that was so far removed from everything else we couldn't hear our children scream at each other. The front porch was screened in and was almost half a city block long. My husband removed snow from the 125 foot winding driveway with a shovel. We could watch the sun rise and set from the third floor, above all of the other buildings in the area. We had a breakfast room and, for the first time, a garage. We held parties for almost 100 people and somewhere down the line, we became known for those parties, which still surprises me. Our porch was a gathering place. We got married there, again--right there in our yard, with the sloping hill of an aisle and a place for every guest. Our children will remember that house as the beautiful one, the one that was a magical place to be a kid, the one with hiding places and enough room in the front yard to go long for a perfect spiral. But utopia doesn't exist, and death crept in there too, as I recovered from an amputation there and struggled through cancer again, and maybe even worse, chemo again. We turned 40 in that house when I wasn't sure if that was possible for me. When we left, my husband cried, my children cried, and I thought I would miss it forever, but I was wrong. I didn't cry and I didn't regret it, even if the rest of the family held it against me. It was a beautiful place to be alone in, to steal away from the world, but the world was always there, and we had to go.
This house is what we were looking for when we left 28 and stumbled upon 35. It is the same in many respects, but with an extra bedroom, a half bath on the main floor, a one car garage, central air and a playroom in the basement. There's a Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs, a bay window in my office, a beautiful yard in a town where those are hard to come by, red cabinets in the kitchen, an open front porch, and way too many problems to fix. It's too small I suppose and we haven't had our first party yet. My mother lives less than a mile away and our kids love the neighborhood and school to distraction. There are no more children to be born, no more milestones of our own to claim, at least not any that don't seem impossibly distant (like our 20 year anniversary or me turning 50. can you imagine? me? 50?). The coming milestones are all theirs: middle school and high school and turning 13 or 16, learning to drive, falling in love, finding themselves. We are so grown here we have nowhere else to go. The house is a house, not a symbol of itself. I find myself hoping I don't have cancer again, period, not hoping I don't have cancer here. My hope is that we are given the chance to leave this place on our own terms, as we have done before, because the kids are done with school and we don't need to be here anymore. I hope we leave together, because we have made it as a couple, because I have made it as a person.
I have moved us again and again and in truth it has been me, I have pushed us in and out of houses. If any of these walls could talk I cannot imagine what they would say, but I will say this: thank you, and I will always remember you and love you and the way you held us and let us go.
Happy new year, everyone. May you always feel at home.