Shutting Down the House
Sometimes, there are no guys shouting out things in French, no unusual jeans or creepy ex-husbands trying to seem like good guys. Sometimes, there is just a big empty house.
Danger Girl called me earlier this week to see if I would babysit her while she gathered the last of her stuff from the house she used to live in. Her French boyfriend couldn't make it. I was her last hope. "I can't do this alone," she said. "I just need some moral support." Yesterday, I met her at the house.
This house, which is soon to be for sale, is beautiful. Located in the inner Sunset, it's 80-something years old and huge. 2700 square feet, with gorgeous original wood details throughout. They plan to market it at $1.6 million. But it's also dark, and it's heavy, because its contains within its walls the recent memories of a family that fell apart.
We didn't have to get much, just a few things. I basically followed Danger Girl around, carrying what I could, then stuffing things into the trunk of her Jetta. My real job was to nod in the affirmative when she pointed out all of the vindictive things her ex-husband has done, to wince appropriately when she finds his new girlfriend's clothes in one of the dresser drawers, and to thank my lucky stars to have unlimited access to my Jawa as she goes through her daughter and son's things, trying to keep it together as she divides everything up: "I bought her this, it comes to my house; he bought her that, it stays here."
You know, I see this every week. In addition to seeing dead people's houses, it's normal to run across a few divorce sales each week. You'll see a beautifully staged house upstairs and a garage full of the rise and fall of a family -- cribs, toys, golf clubs, clothes, tools -- all of the things that can be argued over when a couple calls it quits.
Somewhere in the city, Danger Girl's ex-husband is at a meeting. Back at his house, we're heading up a ladder to the attic. I stand at the base, holding the ladder steady as Danger Girl climbs. She's lost a bunch of weight and was skinny to begin with, and as we've walked through the house, she's sometimes broken into an involuntary shudder. "I can't take this," she says, "I feel like I'm going to vomit."
When she reaches the top of the ladder, she looks into the attic. "Oh, my God," she says, and starts to cry. Things start raining down on me as she tosses them -- three fuzzy blankets, some stack of children's books, a small pair of shoes.
Eventually, Danger Girl descends the ladder. There is a large pile of children's items on the bed. We both regard it ruefully. "Do you still want to get back together with him?" I ask.
"No way. I can't imagine it. I'm just sad for my kids."
I once saw a picture of the fire that followed the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In it, a row of apartments in the Marina burned. The part that surprised me, though, was that the unburned buildings were just standing there as if nothing was wrong. They should have been cringing, or trying to get away, or something. That's the way it looks to see the ex-husband's things hanging in closets, the remaining pictures on the refrigerator, the schedule from their daughter's school. All these things are there, as if everything is still normal.
But it's not normal. For one, Danger Girl is now absent from any picture on the refrigerator. In her place is a picture of the ex-husband sitting somewhere on a rock, holding a dog. And his things are in every closet, even the ones that used to be full of her things. And a few, as we noticed earlier, are full of his new girlfriend's things.
And there are boxes. He's been doing work on the house, getting it ready to sell. He's been painting and packing and cleaning. Soon the stagers will come and fill the house with new, unused furniture, and generic art, photos of people Danger Girl and her ex-husband have never met. It will look like a Pottery Barn landed on top of the house, all the better to move the focus from who has lived there to who will live there.
A new family will move into the house. They will bring with them children, hope and big plans for the future, just as Danger Girl and her ex did when they moved in a few years ago. The house will get another chance to start its life over as a home.
Danger Girl's ex-husband, a man who always has a plan that's better than your plan, is going to "rent for a year, and then buy." Danger Girl herself will try to hang onto the house I sold her back in November. "I'm just starting to feel like I actually live there," she says, just in time to probably have to sell it and move into an apartment herself.
Homes get second and third chances. They can reinvent themselves. Paint and sandpaper can work miracles. Here's to hoping it can work that way for people, too.