On one of our earliest dates Jeff drew his home restoration plans on a napkin, showing me how he planned to push out the back of the house to build a fourth bedroom, knock out the attic to add a master bath. Coyly I added I’d need a bigger closet in his room if I were ever to move in. He drew in the closet on his napkin. We’d only been dating a couple of months, but were giddy on the energy that only two people in their forties could have when they fall in love as desperately as teenagers, worse because we’d been looking for the perfect partner for twice as long.
Jeff lived in a fixer-upper in a nicer neighborhood than mine, my domicile bought impulsively when I moved to a new city to take a professorship. My house was cheap and vast and I lived in a quarter of it, listening to the rest squeak and groan around me, reminding me how empty it was, post-divorce.
His house had old wooden stairs that creaked, original doors with round, brass doorknobs, and smallish bathrooms that he’d started to renovate. It was partially finished, a hodgepodge of new baseboards and old, cracked tiles. It was also bursting with his two teenagers, shepherd mix, two cats, and him.
Some rooms were decorated by his ex-girlfriend, who’d left last year or last month, depending on the story, and whose rotting garden sat in the backyard. It was a wooden box of weeds, vegetables that had fallen into disrepair, herbs that stubbornly refused to die. She’d left other souvenirs: her daughter wrote her name on a closet door; in a dresser drawer I found her tank top, which I buried into the bottom of a wastebasket.
I didn’t hate the ex’s taste: brown and greens she’d try to insert into Jeff’s preferences of greys and blacks. Still, the house didn’t feel like home. “You need to find a place with your own energies if you want this to work,” my friend Lisa said. But Jeff came from moderate means, was supporting two children, paying alimony, and barely scraping by. He couldn’t afford to buy anything else, and I was tired of staying up nights, listening to my big house remind me that I didn’t have anyone else in it. My house, while much bigger, was in the wrong school district for the kids. I decided to be the bigger woman. I moved in.
Jeff’s children, Andy and Laurie, spilled into every corner of his home with their shoes, their laptops, their incessant noise. I tried to navigate around them, even asked their permission to stay the night.
Our nights and weekends were consumed with their yelps for homework help, dramatic monologues of evolving and devolving high school romances, and constant updates on Xbox games. I looked longingly at the half-finished shower stall in the bathroom that was supposed to be mine when it was finished; currently I was sharing the one working bathroom with the entire family. Still, I scraped their plates before loading the dishwasher, made jokes with them at the dinner table, caused the daughter to spray rice over the table because she still couldn’t control her mouth with her recently installed braces. The bathroom seemed trivial when Jeff’s kids sat on either side of me, forcing me to watch silly video after video on YouTube.
My three dogs, frantic and excited in their new environment, ran about lifting their legs on chair legs and bedspreads. Soon they were relegated to a downstairs maze of baby gates and crates. My pug sighed every night, giving me big bug eyes of despair as I locked him into his little jail before I went to bed. He was used to sleeping with me. I missed him too, but it was not my house.
Jeff’s ex-wife e-mailed me: I was the first girlfriend he’d had that didn’t try to take his attention off of his kids, she claimed. She had high hopes. I e-mailed back: I hoped we could all be friends. I was sure we could, if we tried. I kept quiet when his daughter would loop her arm through Jeff’s to draw him away from me, scooted over gamely when she pushed her bony bottom between us on the couch. I sat on the loveseat, with the dogs, where I couldn’t quite see the television, and smiled.
We moved a few more of my things to his house: a miniscule amount of clothes because his closet was so small, most of my books. Everything else stayed at the old house or was put into storage. I felt as though I was camping.
As I settled in, I wandered about his house, picturing it as my own: some sunny yellow walls, more colorful artwork, perhaps pictures of my family to include with his own. I washed his dishes and dumped out the overflowing wastebaskets. He fixed one of my toilet’s leaky pipes and helped me cover the pool for winter. We were in love.
On his kitchen table, I noticed an overdue water bill. I shook my head and smiled at my boyfriend’s forgetfulness. I wrote a check to cover the overdue amount, and put the bill in the mail.
“Nina,” the kids would call out. “Come watch South Park.”
“Guys,” I would say from my little office in the next room, “I’ve got papers to grade. Hold your pants on.”
“Nina. Hurry up.”
“You’re always one wall away from us,” Jeff would say. He was right; the living room was always noisy. I preferred the little library room next to it, where I could try to concentrate. “Come sit with us.”
“The whole family watches South Park,” Laurie sighed from the other room. “Our family loves South Park.”
I looked at the four-inch stack of papers, waiting for grading, on the coffee table in front of me. They didn’t understand that my work consumed hours of thinking, quiet time they would not give me.
“Guys, I could do with some quiet,” I said.
Andy stuck his head into the room. “Can I sit in here if I’m quiet?” The boy was a gangly, younger version of his father, equally charming and impossible to refuse.
I sighed, held up papers. “You have to be quiet, okay?”
He nodded, plopped down beside me, smiled a grin that I knew would steal hearts the way his father had stolen mine.
“Nina . . . Nina.”
“You should play this Xbox game with me. It’s really cool . . .”
Every morning, I picked up their discarded towels in the bathroom and hung them to dry. I made their beds, and Jeff’s and mine too. I did their laundry. They didn’t mind their messes; I did.
While sweeping under Jeff’s and my bed, I dislodged a discarded Valentine’s Day card, decorated with an antiqued sketch of lovebirds. I opened it. “I love our family,” it read. “Love, Hollie.” I thought of my abandoned house, where I did not want to go back. I’d already spoken to a Realtor. This was my family now. I put the card in the trash and kept cleaning.
The ex-girlfriend called: Could Laurie babysit? She left her little messages on her Facebook wall, keeping a finger on the family. I wondered about this woman, why she couldn’t leave us alone. Jeff shrugged, said he didn’t see the harm.
When we dropped his daughter off to babysit, Hollie came out in a sweater I recognized from a Victoria’s Secret clearance catalogue, a rust-colored, bohemian frock. I’d admired it then, and frowned when she waved at us, its loose sleeves gently swinging with her motions. She seemed free. We locked eyes for a moment. We knew each other, and didn’t.
I began to run low on money. I made Jeff lay out his finances. With his house payment, utilities, child support, and food, he had about $200 a month to spare, and that didn’t include house renovations. He still wanted to go out on the weekends. I thought about our expensive dates, and blanched when I realized what he left unpaid to take me out. I looked at my own finances, which gave me a bit more to play with: not much, until I could sell my house. I lowered its price, figuring a drop in its equity was worth helping the family I so desperately hoped to adopt. I cleaned faster.
Jeff stopped waiting for me to wake up; lovemaking was sporadic. I poked around Facebook while he goofed around outside with his cousin, waiting for my boyfriend to remember how fascinated he’d been with me when we’d met just those few short months before.
I noticed that Laurie’s page was busy. Once again, Hollie had commented on something trivial Laurie had written, offering parental advice. Something inside of me simmered; I already had to wait in line behind Laurie’s real parents in order to play family, and behind the needs of the house. Ex-girlfriends were not part of the already delicate equation. I snatched up my laptop.
“Good morning, Laurie,” I posted, “we love you.” I added a link to helpful grammatical strategies, where Jeff’s ex-girlfriend’s post had failed. I smirked when a mutual friend liked my post. I watched, and laughed, when his ex replied with anger, only to remove her remark and proofread it, to repost it with more kindness. There were still errors.
I put a finger to my lips and grinned when Jeff and his cousin came into the room. “I’m being petty,” I announced with glee. I pointed out her further problems with grammar. It was not kind, and the professor part of me who liked to be nice and helpful gave me a twinge of guilt. I’d just tried so hard.
Jeff put his arm around me. I belonged.
Winter came, snowing over the garden, its final bare stalks of growth sticking up, brown and stubborn, through a drift. The kids kept forgetting to latch the backyard gate, and my dogs ran away almost every morning, causing me to chase after them in the cold in my bathrobe, frightened of the busy traffic near Jeff’s house. I started to grumble.
Jeff stared at the television set at night as I tried to grade, and the kids tumbled and argued, trying to get his attention. I’d stop working to help them, then try to grade late into the morning. Jeff would grouse because I’d fall asleep on the couch. No one was cleaning.
My old house no longer seemed like an option, ominous with its abandonment in the bad part of town. The weather was desperate, my want for family even stronger for that. I dug in.
“Hey, Nina,” Andy called out as I put a fresh stack of laundry on his bedroom chair. My new name in the house was “Hey, Nina.” I heard it about 50 times a night.
“Dude, how do you live like this?” I said, picking up a depleted pudding container from the floor. “You’re going to give us bugs.” I pointed at his shoes. “Your feet stink. It’s late, kid. You need to go to bed.”
He lay down obediently on his futon. “Hey, Nina,” he said again. “Will you do something for me?”
I looked at the laundry, the food container in my head, his half-completed homework, which we’d worked on together for an hour. “Will I do something for you?”
“Yeah,” he looked down at his feet. “Will you tuck me in?”
Something in me softened. “Okay, kid,” I said, sitting down the pudding cup. I picked up his comforter. “Ready?”
He smiled and nodded, closing his eyes. I snapped the comforter in the air over him, all four corners floating over the bed, a trick I learned from my own mother. I watched the blanket fall gently over that six-foot, stinky-footed cherub of a teenager and loved him as much as I ever loved anyone.
“That good?” I asked. He smiled, nodded again. I smiled and nodded too.
Jeff had trouble getting the kids to school on time. “Maybe Nina can take the kids to school in her jammies,” his ex-wife texted. I was a professor. I didn’t drive around in my jammies.
It started with a tingling around our ankles. Jeff scratched; I stayed quiet. Fleas, we thought. We washed the pets, bombed the house, applied insect preventatives. It got worse.
Jeff did his research on the Internet, read accounts from excited people who wrote questionable blog posts. The house had mites, he determined.
Jeff told his boss, his family, our friends. We were infected. I felt unwelcome in their homes, as though spreading some sort of cooties we couldn’t understand.
We bought nit medicine. I shivered in the cold bathroom as Jeff spread the medicine up and down my legs, my body, into my scalp.
He asked me about sex. It began to feel like just one more thing. We caught those damn bugs at least two more times, tormented as they bit us as we tried to sleep. They seemed to be part of the house.
We drank. We took his mother’s anxiety pills. I looked so nervous all of the time, he said. I loved him, so much that I didn’t know where I began anymore. I traced the cement that held the bricks of the home together, and noted the cracks. The kitchen floor continued to sag. The home was broken.
Spring came. My house sold. I received a job offer back home. I hugged the kids, tried every morning to wake up before them to let my dogs out so I could close the gate in my bathrobe. I developed a routine where I balanced washing laundry between getting my own shower and working on grading and creating assignments. I gained weight and circles under my eyes.
I invited Jeff on a two-day vacation to a cheap cabin a couple hours away in Podunk, Oklahoma, all I could afford after helping him pay for his bills and groceries. Jeff’s ex-wife announced that she, too, would be going on vacation, to see her boyfriend in Florida, not far from where I received the job offer. I craved the sunshine. I saved for our little vacation and tried to be the bigger woman.
The cabin was abysmal.
On my birthday in April we fought. I’d given him money for the electric bill; he’d spent it but left the bill unpaid. I was down to my last $200 for the month. We fought some more. He left and went to the bar.
I walked around his house, where the renovations never began. The walls remained unpainted, ugly bare holes cut into walls where outlets should be. My pets followed me, nervous. The gaps in the kitchen floor were growing larger as the house continued to dip. I knew I’d forever be wearing the same half dozen outfits that I could fit into the little closet, trying to fit into the little gaps of his life where I might find a place. There was just so little room.
When I announced that I was leaving, Jeff tended to the garden, planting vegetables and stuff I didn’t want to stick around long enough to watch grow.
On my last days in the house we still joked together, ate our meals at the dinner table. It wasn’t a big deal that I was leaving after all; I wasn’t really a family member. When I allowed myself to feel, I would hide in the bathroom and cry, and then remember I was disposable.
When I was washing dishes for the last time, Laurie came up behind me. I put out my hand for her plate. She reached around my back and hugged me.
“We loved you, Nina,” she said. And fleeting though it was, for a moment I had family.