My good friend Sam spent the summer getting his real estate license.
It was the first time it had occurred to me that people my age could do that. Real estate agents are vague figureheads on yard signs to me, paper dolls with voluminous hairstyles and alliterative names like celebrities. As for buying houses — the idea seems immediately unapproachable. I mean this mostly because I just watched American Beauty and have in my mind the endless commercial scroll of neighborhood homes; montages of white-lipped suburban sprawl. I mean this because I did not grow up in a neighborhood — not the kind, anyway, with stone entrances out of Jane Austen novels like Park or Village and Woods — and I feel foreign and unpatriotic for it. These are the days, of course, when the housing market is the villain in the headlines. Like it or not, it’s a market we’ll soon be encountering. Or at least, what’s left of it.
Nostalgia is a strange beast — a preemptive, presumptuous charlatan in turns; unspinning and respinning the truth of my own memory. I’m moving today into a different home; a green one with cold ceramic floors like a beach house. I sit now on a floor surrounded by moving boxes (romantic) and black garbage bags (less romantic) and already, the least attractive habits of the current house are beginning to fade away. It is a tiny, porchless house on a hilltop with penciled marks on the doorframe to mark the heights of the past eight years of college students (except for the mark that says James K. Polk, 1815 that appeared one day — that’s not true) and spices in the cabinet from god-knows-when. But everything begins to be less flawed. The constant dirt and my constant lack of responsibility with cereal bowls are already mere folk tales. How the red fan had to be angled two feet away from my bed because there was no air-conditioning; how every morning this summer I woke up sweaty and tangled in the thin yellow roses of my bed sheets. Or also, the protracted pause before stepping into my house late at night: flicking on the kitchen light to find bugs scattering like underage kids when the cops show up.
Instead, the sweet parts rise to the surface: lying in bed looking out the window. So many nights spent straining to smell the giant, cat-faced hydrangeas across the street and listening to the loud choir of cicadas, the thin rattle of a bike coming down the hill or, as with the other night, when I woke up and moved the linen aside: a boy in a backwards baseball cap flying down the hill on the back of a grocery cart. The throaty whistle of the nearby train in the morning, the four-stacked beehive and how great it felt to grow tomatoes for those brief two weeks. But that was before I neglected to tie the adolescent plants up and, bloated with leaves, they blew down with a quick June storm. Now (because it felt too depressing to throw them away) they are left even more depressing, sprawled like old, sad dogs on the driveway. And I still don’t want to throw them away.
The short genealogy of houses represent transience, but also my — our, my friends, my classmates, whoever fits this description — collective attempts to fill them with the second-hand furniture of longevity.
The past few years were spent signing our first leases and making our first expensive mistakes with late utility bills and doing awkward dances around the one postaged-size bathroom in the house. We are learning. Slowly, each of our small, cheap houses began to adapt parts of our personalities: the pink door, the bookshelves filled with children’s books and the boy house with the red-dressed 1980s country music star smiling from above the couch. There are bedrooms with whole walls of New Yorker cartoons that are primarily about cats in offices and there are porches, lots of them, cluttered with bikes. Streets and streets of pastel mill-houses lined like medicine bottles.
And then, the houses grow into themselves and supplement my college memories like the supporting characters in movies (the sarcastic neighbor; the aunt who always gets tipsy at weddings). There is the sagging refrigerators and the dryer that sat in somebody’s bedroom. Most of the furniture, because it was from our cousin’s basement or found sitting on a curb, is hideous and objectionably floral. But we sit on the rooftops and on the kitchen floor eating pie out of the tin. We have good intentions with landscaping, but more often than not the pansies spread wild and onerous around our feet.
Renters, we move in and out of houses like unsatisfied ghosts.
There are few things these days that could bind us to a house — undergraduate years certainly don’t, but neither does grad school or that waitressing job or the relationship you cannot admit that you are not sure about. On the rare occasion I meet someone my age that has lived in a house for more than a year I feel as if they are members of some select adult club I can barely imagine joining.
But this is a superficial description; this is merely an attempt to describe the physical appearance of memories. This is the architecture of nostalgia; the awnings and peaks and gables. This is only the timber and the plywood and what I wish were hewn wood floors. Alas, the memories are duplex carpets the color of washed-out seashells.
These are not words collected for the deeper things that touched those places — the conversation we had on that porch (moths, drunk from leftover beer bottles, careening around) or the fight sitting on that bed and the words that tore as easily as magazine paper. The people I should or shouldn’t have kissed in the kitchen. The person I could or couldn’t have been. You know what I mean. This isn’t about either regret or congratulation. This is a tribute backward and a tribute forward.
Nostalgia for the present is very much in vogue these days — even more so than nostalgia for the past. But this is not a nostalgia for something lost or not presently appreciated; this is a head-nod toward the temporal houses we’ve lived in and meandering years with so many more temporal places left to call home. I live in a place named uncertainty, and it’s kind of endearing. There have been worse homes and better homes. There will be worse homes and better homes (hopefully, with fewer duplex carpets). It has been good. When we get lonely, we make a pot of rice and invite over the person next door. This is ephemerality but in the meanwhile, forever — which is why there are sometimes nails in the walls of rented bedrooms. And still, there exists whole blueprints of kitchen floors yet to sprawl on and well-lit friendships whose doors we have not yet knocked upon.
How nice. There remains a long stretch of unknocked doors, a whole streetscape of possibility.