“This place is just like me in some ways,” I told the lady. “It’s pretty impressive when you first walk inside, but it gets more and more chaotic and unfinished the further you get into it.”
She laughed. She already knew what I meant.
The house was an unassuming tract home on an unassuming street in an unassuming Phoenix suburb. The soon-to-be former owners were in the construction trade. They had used their access to “discount” building materials and their skills to gradually turn that simple ’70s FHA ranch house into something resembling a mansion — at least in various spots.
As I entered through the tiled courtyard I first noticed the finely textured walls in muted earthtone faux-finish. The master suite had a giant glass-enclosed shower and separate tub. All corners and coves of the walls in the front of the house had been radiused out, giving the impression of mass and quality. There was recessed lighting. There was crown moulding, expensive ceiling fans, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator that was worth more than my car.
But . . .
There was no flooring. Paint stains accented the bare, unfinished concrete. There was no landscape in the backyard. There was no hardware in the second bath. Half of the kitchen was powered from an extension cord taped to the concrete–one that tended to trip me when I cooked.
Everything about the place spoke of great plans made to take on the world, only to at some point turn into one giant “fuck it”. And that almost literally described the situation that allowed me to live there. The departing residents had borrowed heavily against the home. When the construction and renovation business hit the skids in 2009, they tried putting the place on the market for what it was owed on it, which was about twice the cost of any house around it.
So they rented a seagoing freight container, parked it in the driveway, and were gradually filling it with their belongings for shipment to their new digs Costa Rica. They would let the house go into foreclosure. They were saying “fuck it” in a very big way.
But then so had I. Or rather, I was being called to do so.
Separation orders for my divorce had come through that summer. Custody would be shared, but the orders effectively meant I had to move back to Arizona from Colorado. The great Rocky Mountain experiment had ended, with indeterminate results. I found a place in Phoenix I could rent from month-to-month for very little while I was sorting out what to do next. It was the half-a-house.
And so sometime in August of 2010 I found myself sitting on a thrift-store sofa in the middle of that family’s best-laid-plans-gone-awry and started thinking of how that house was my life writ large. It was half-a-house, with some showy elements meant to impress the owners and the occasional visitor, while other parts were left dangerous or barely habitable. It was over-improved. And in the backyard where they had started to dig a basement, it was literally undermined.
Panic overcame me. A deep, dark depression set in. For days at a time — when I didn’t have to look after my son –I couldn’t get out of bed. I would break down when trying to decide whether or not to buy towels. I would walk to my car and back into the house several times intending to go somewhere before deciding just to lie down and cry instead. It wasn’t just living in the house that did it: It was the cumulative effects of years of denial, anger, fear, stress, and agony, most of which centered on my responsibilities around being a parent, and the debt I felt I owed my son. He was an innocent bystander I had brought into this trainwreck of a life, and trainwreck of a relationship.
A month later my son–who was not quite 4 at the time–sat down on that thrift-store sofa. He patted the cushion next to him. He was inviting me to sit down for a talk. It was so cute. I thought he wanted to talk about fun stuff we’d be doing, or what he wanted for his birthday. Even in my depths he could still make me smile. I was ready for a childish little chat.
As he looked at me, a serious expression came over his features. He patted me on the knee and waved his finger. In as deep a tone of seriousness that a small 3-year-old could muster, he said “Sad papa. No sad papa. Only happy papa. Only happy papa!”
Then he nodded and smiled reassuringly.
And at that, the circle was complete. I found I needed to release almost everything. I had to say goodbye to the foundations of my previous values. I had to say goodbye to everything I was trying and failing to keep together at my 70-hour a week job. I had to forget to my notions of normality, my resistance to indulging my own sense of wonder, my resistance to my joy in freedom. I had to let it all go.
I had to finally say “fuck it” so I could move on. The half-a-house had inspired the half-a-man to let go so he could become whole. I had to let go of the half I was still holding on to. My son had helped by essentially telling me “If you keep this up you’re going to fuck me up for the rest of my life. So stop.”
My kid saved my life that day.
By late October we moved out. I found a two-bedroom condo in the middle of town. It’s unassuming as well, but comfortable and complete. It’s not trying to be anything it isn’t. It never did.