Lou and I closed on the sale of our marital home earlier this month. This is a relief inasmuch as we no longer have a joint property to worry about, but it’s no special bonus. The transaction was a short sale, meaning we had to get the bank to accept less money than we owed, because we tried and failed to sell the house for our break-even price.
The short sale will be a black mark on both of our credit scores, but for me (I can’t speak for Lou), I’m just glad to have the house out of my hands. In the 15+ months since I moved out of that house, I’ve spent no small amount of energy fretting over all the questions connected with who would live there, who could afford to live there, who could maintain the place, and what we would do when the answer to the above turned out to be “neither of us.”
Now it’s done. The mortgage we expected to tie our names together for 30 years is no more. We picked this place out together after looking at some absurd number of houses–close to 30–when we first moved back to my hometown about 5 years ago. It was never my dream house, but I liked it well enough. It was Ace’s first home; it’s the first home Poppy remembers having. We had chickens there, and birthday parties. Marathon viewings of Mad Men. Too few nights when we went to bed at the same time.
Now another couple will claim the deed, move into that space, and raise their family.
And in a baffling series of coincidences, I know that couple. Or at least, I know the husband. Or, I knew him. Years ago.
It’s “Pius.” Frickin’ Pius, about whom I wrote my post God’s Gonna Kill You: A Love Story.
I realized it was him when my real estate agent emailed me his offer in September. There was his name, electronically signed, because he doesn’t live here. For a second, I didn’t accept that it was him; it had to be someone else with the same name. (Side note: his name is not really Pius but something far more common, with a less-common surname.) But when I saw the offer-maker’s address, in the same out-of-state area where I knew Pius to be living, I figured it had to be him. I mean, I was pretty sure. The odds were too slim that it could be someone else with the same name, living in the same area, with family ties that might prompt him to put in offers on property in our same not-that-big hometown.
And how weird was that? I mean, I run into his dad from time to time and hear what Pius is up to, but it’s been a few years, and it’s been many more years since I saw or spoke to Pius himself. And he’s Pius. He’s the would-be priest who was my would-be boyfriend in secret that one summer. He’s a funny story I tell, replete with angst, divine wrath, parables, and chastity. He’s a symbol of the conservative teenage Catholic traditionalist I used to be. And while he did not ultimately become the Latin-Mass-saying, cassock-and-biretta-wearing, incense-burning, uber-traditional Catholic priest he had planned to that one summer, it appears he did follow the uber-traditional Catholic family trajectory that I had planned to that one summer.
And he’s moving back to our hometown with his wife and family, and he’s buying the house I bought when I moved back to our hometown with my husband and family.
And I, meanwhile, having left my husband, have committed the worst sin that could possibly be committed by someone on an uber-traditional Catholic family trajectory. (A close second was marrying Lou, who is not a self-proclaimed Christian of any kind, to begin with.) My divorce is the very reason that house was available for sale.
And what does that all mean? About my life and my choices? About right and wrong and God’s will and responsibility?
These were the things I thought to myself as I drove to the title company on closing day to sign the final papers that would finish up the sale.
The real estate agent and the title company’s notary and I chit-chatted in between signatures on the stack of documents. They each told me about their divorces and their ex-husbands’ relationships with their children afterwards. Divorce can be a very ugly picture. No one goes into marriage hoping to hit that trajectory.
When it came time for me to give up my key, I realized I wasn’t sure which of two copper-colored keys on my keychain was the right one. So since the buyers wouldn’t be signing documents until the next day, meaning that Lou and I still owned the house for a few more hours, I said I would drive over to the house to try out the keys.
On this drive, I thought about the house. I thought about how when we bought it, I didn’t love it, but it was a sensible home in a good school district, and we’d been house-hunting for months, and Lou was desperate to make a decision. I thought about all the ideas we’d had to make the house more ours: paint and kitchen renos, bathroom redesigns and new windows, French doors to replace the perpetually-jamming sliding doors. I thought about how we never did any of that stuff. Still, it was our home. It was the place where our children slept–or didn’t sleep!–through their baby and toddler years. It was the place we filled with furniture and baby toys; on whose walls we hung pictures; whose rooms we left messy often but sometimes scrubbed to a shine to impress guests or just to enjoy for ourselves.
I thought about how houses symbolize the families that live in them. Lou himself said that our house represented, in his mind, his success in life, including in his career and in our marriage. I think a lot of people think that way. So as the two of us, one at a time, vacated the house of our individual possessions and favored jointly-owned items, the metaphor of disintegration became obvious.
I thought I might cry when I got there. I hadn’t seen the house since Lou moved out for good, and I told myself I’d try out the keys, take a good look around, and allow myself a cathartic cry if that’s what I needed.
But when I pulled into the driveway, there was a commercially labeled pickup truck parked there. A contractor? Something to do with inspections or utilities?
I parked and walked around to the backdoor in the carport. And the man I saw emerging from that door… was Pius’s dad!
He recognized me immediately and said, “Hello! What are you doing here?” He looked very puzzled.
“This is my house!” I said with a smile. “For a little while longer, anyway.”
“Oh,” he said, clearly questioning whether he had indeed recognized me at all. “I thought you were someone I know.”
“I am,” I said. “It’s me! I guess… Pius is buying my house, huh?”
And then Pius’s mom came out of the house.
What followed were some of the strangest moments of my life. We stood in the carport and established the facts: this was my house, and Pius was buying it, and he was moving back to town with his family–four children!–and he and his wife looked at some absurd number of houses–like, 30–before they settled on this one. And Pius’s parents looked at houses with Pius and his wife, and in fact, they’d met Lou and Poppy and Ace when they looked at mine. And Pius would be moving his family down after the new year, but until then, his parents planned to clean and paint and make other preparations for their arrival.
Pius’s parents were so excited to learn that the house Pius was buying was mine. An auspicious sign for them? As far as I know, they never knew about the super-secret romance, so in their memory, I’m some kid who came over a lot one summer and went to church a bunch with their son (who was always far more conservative and traditional than his parents).
I walked through the house with them and looked in all the cabinets and closets to make sure everything of ours had been removed. Pius’s dad remarked that Lou had done a really good job of cleaning the place up, which surprised him since Lou is a man. Pius’s mom told me my children were cute. I gave them all the helpful tips about the house I could think of: how the refrigerator is only a couple of years old, and the subfloor in the hall squeaks because Lou replaced part of it and always meant to tighten it down but never got around to it, and there’s an access door to the attic hidden behind the drop ceiling in the office. I told them how the neighbors were nice and had two kids in high school. I told them what the neighbors had told us about the pool that used to be in the yard, how it went into disrepair and then was damaged in a hurricane. How workers came and broke the concrete down and filled in the pool with sand. I always had trouble trying to grow grass in the front yard because the earth is packed down hard and very sandy from the pile of sand that sat there awaiting its use as pool filler.
And then, Pius’s dad actually called Pius and put me on the phone with him.
It was… awkward, but not unpleasant. He sounds just like he did the last time I talked to him, probably 15 years ago. I was like, “So. Four kids now, huh?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a very… full life.”
Before we said goodbye, I said I’d probably see him at Target, because that’s how it works in this town.
Then I said goodbye to his parents and gave them hugs. They encouraged me to come by, especially at Christmas, and said, “You know where we live!”
And then I left. I left, and I didn’t cry. I hadn’t cried. I didn’t feel sad. I felt pretty good.
This is good. It’s a good house. Pius and his family will enjoy it. Maybe they’ll have chickens. Maybe they’ll get the grass to grow. Maybe they’ll put down wood floors like we had said we wanted to. The yard has lots of space for kids to run around and play. The house is just a short drive from his parents’ house, and I’m sure they are just enamored of all those grandchildren. I’m sure after all these years away, Pius is glad to be coming home where he and his kids can enjoy his parents and sisters. There’s a huge picture window in the front room that’s perfect for the Christmas tree I’m sure they’ll have next year.
I don’t know what it all means, but it does seem auspicious, and maybe not only for Pius and his family. Maybe for me and my family, too.
Maybe it means that things work. Life works. Things fit. When our symbols stop fitting us, we can take them off and go find others. Like hermit crabs. Someone else will come across a symbol we discarded, and finding a perfect fit, move right in.
Sometimes you realize your biretta isn’t really the look you want for yourself. Sometimes the grass really is greener somewhere else because it just won’t grow on the hard, sandy soil where you’ve been futilely throwing seeds.
Sometimes a black mark on your credit score is like a black ring in the trunk of a tree from a year there was a fire or an insect infestation. It’s a spot on a timeline that life, in time, covers over. Eventually, the char and decay are absorbed, unseen, and forgotten.
Sometimes your thumb looks for a ring on your finger and finds nothing but still-dented skin. You feel your finger tingle, like a phantom ring burning that divot into your flesh. When it stops burning, it conceals itself, and you forget for a time that it haunted you.
A hermit crab is not its shell. It did not grow the shell, and it is attached to the shell only as much as it embraces it. And my house is not my success in life. My rings do not define my love. The things that define me are not immediately recognizable. They are more mine that way. They may be known to others only as much as I reveal them, as much as I choose to make myself open.