A Place to Call Home, by Gabriela Pura-Suarez

“Imagine living here,” Connie, our real estate agent, says as she swings her arm towards a ranch-style house Zillow describes as “modern but charming.” She is leading us down the side, gingerly stepping on a stone pathway, careful with her high heels between the rocks. We brush past white glossy abelia shrubs, Indian hawthorns, and blood-orange hibiscus bushes. White orchids tied to palm tree trunks greet us like Hawaiian lei.

“The owner of the house has a green thumb,” Connie smiles at me over her shoulder. “She did all the landscaping herself. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

“It’s heaven.” The words leave my mouth before I can stop myself. Sure enough, from the corner of my eye I see Steve’s neck snap in my direction. Stop doing that, he glares.

He complains that I always blurt things out, that I should think before I speak. He says that unless I play it cool when we look at houses, I will make it harder for him to negotiate on a good price. Not that we’ve seen anything we like, and we have looked at over twenty homes in the past nine months. But we have to decide on something, soon, because just last week we accepted an offer on our house.

A breeze blows through the leaves over my head, soothingly. I swallow hard and try to forget about the fight I just had with Steve in the car. His old friend, Mark, is in town for a convention in Fort Lauderdale, and they went out late last night. Steve said they had dinner at the hotel, talked and drank too much and that was why they lost track of time, but what kind of married man comes home at four o’clock in the morning smelling of perfume and alcohol? It doesn’t help that Mark is divorced and that I know all his wild stories, the same ones that put the dents in his marriage. In the end, it was his gambling addiction that sent his wife packing.

This isn’t the first time Steve came home this late, either. His family owns a restaurant and some nights, after closing, he goes out for drinks with his staff. He says that he has to do stuff like that, that it’s part of his job to be social with the people he works with, but I think he’s sleeping around. When I asked him about it, he said I was stupid for thinking a crazy thing like that.

It’s not even noon and the sun is bearing down on me like a bully. We go through a weather-beaten metal gate and the backyard opens before us, washed in sunlight that filters through oak tree branches. Shadows flicker over a sparkling blue pool lined with coral rocks. There’s a breeze coming off the bay which is about a mile away. I turn my face towards it, and take a deep breath of that ocean air and I’m instantly reminded of the beach and all the fun times I had when I was younger: coconut scented tanning lotion, me in a bikini, sand scraping against my burnt skin.

I think that if I really wanted to I could find proof that Steve is sleeping around. I could look through his credit card statements, check his emails, his phone, or go through his Facebook account. He has 831 friends. Who the hell has that many friends? I barely have 54.

Connie, our agent, waits for me to catch up to her then leans in and says: “The house is bigger than what you wanted, but I say it’s always better to have more space, right Vivian?” She nudges me with her elbow as if expecting me to nod in some sort of sisterly way, but the reality is that we don’t have that much in common. For one thing, she has a job. Women who stay home don’t want a big house to clean every day.

Up until a couple of years ago I worked, too, at the restaurant with Steve, but it got to be too much–all that time together, having to deal with our marriage and work problems without ever catching a break.

“Remind me again, Connie, how many bedrooms are there?” Steve stands next to me.

“Three, just like you wanted,” she says, and blots her forehead with a crumpled tissue.

“Good,” my husband nods. “And what was it you said on the phone I’d like about this place?”

Connie points to the back porch that stretches the length of the house. It’s huge – bigger than our first place, that small efficiency in Pompano Beach that Steve and I rented after we got married. I count twelve chairs surrounding a long teak table, and off to the right is a bar with four high stools, a swing-out television, and a shiny three-tier gas grill.

“Imagine entertaining here,” she says as she hustles ahead.

I know Steve is already picturing himself “entertaining,” surrounded by our friends, mixing drinks, getting drunk, his big family taking over. I have a great relationship with his folks, especially his mother. From the beginning, she took me under her wing, taught me how to cook, and showed me how to keep house. When Steve and I fought, she always took my side, and she gave me great advice on relationships and life. I got on better with her than with my own mother.

Lately, she’s been acting strange, though, giving me the cold shoulder. Not too long ago she accused me of trying to cause trouble because I had told Steve he ought to consider doing his own thing, maybe look for a regular, nine-to-five, job.

When we began looking at houses, I told Connie that I wanted a house that had something special and unique. “What do you mean?” she asked. “A house with a place or room that I could claim as my own sanctuary,” I said to her. I gave her such little direction because I didn’t know what I wanted either, but she must have understood me because she’s grinning at me now and pointing to the prettiest spot I’ve ever seen. The wisteria hangs low here, but you can’t miss the cocoon-like hammock swing. It has a fat cushion, and I am tempted to kick off my shoes and curl-up inside with a good book.

“Well?” Her eyes crinkle into half moons. “Isn’t this the greatest backyard you two have ever seen?”

It’s almost too much to take in all at once. The back porch has French windows that make me think of large, framed portals with access into another world. As we get closer, I can see white walls and white furniture inside, and my spirits lift. This feeling continues after we step inside. Everything is clean lines, minimal color. Clean. Clean. Clean.

“I hate it,” Steve says. “It’s too open, and people can see inside. We’re going to have to get shutters to block out the sun coming in and heating up the house. It will be expensive.”

Both Connie and I gasp.

“You’re crazy,” I tell him. “This is such a spectacular view. Why would you want to block out all this natural light?”

He glares at me.

I’ve done it again, haven’t I? I can read my husband like a book. If he’d lost his voice tomorrow and he’d want to tell me that I said or did something stupid, all he’d have to do is give me that look. Words I can fight, but I don’t know how to argue with glares besides glaring back or looking down.

The kitchen floor is poured cement, gray. The counters are shiny and bare, not a single appliance in sight. There’s a stainless double sink, and a hand-held faucet with a coil that resembles a giant question mark. I mistake the white stove for an oversized tray and even after I touch it, I’m still unconvinced that it’s an appliance.

Over my shoulder, I hear Steve muttering about our current, top-of-the line, Viking gas range. This kitchen is a far departure from the traditional one we have now where everything is wood, even the refrigerator doors, and the faucet is polished brass.

I stand next to the island which is the same white shiny laminate as the rest of the cabinets except that it has a huge slab of granite on top, dark, like a black hole emerging out of all that whiteness. Emerald Pearl. I recognize the stone right away. I had wanted to use it in our kitchen but it clashed with our walnut stained cabinets which Steve’s mother had picked out. She gave us the money for the down payment on our house so she had a lot of say about what we could buy.

It looks perfect here, though, as if the owners dove into the deepest waters of the ocean and carried back a piece of the sea and placed it on the counter to harden, then they polished the shells embedded there with the back of their sleeves until it gave off electric sparks whenever you walked by. Right now, the sunlight is having a party on that countertop. I want to belly flop on it.

“Imagine cooking in here,” Connie says.

Steve tucks his hands into his armpits. “It’s too industrial.”

I look at him trying to gauge if he’s deliberately being petulant or if he truly hates it. He ignores my stare as he walks past me, his chin in the air, rolling left to right on that solid neck of his. I am reminded of those metal detectors used on the beach to search for treasure.

It was my idea to move. I told him we needed a change and to my surprise, he agreed. We’ve lived in the same house for ten years and it feels stale, maybe because we argue all the time. I’m convinced that the walls are mildewed from our heated breaths. Lately we argue about how we argue. We curse a lot, and that’s not good. Dr. Phil says that couples shouldn’t do that; that calling each other names and hitting below the belt will make us lose respect for one another.

I can see how that could happen.

We step into the family room, and Steve guides me along by placing his hand on my back. I jump, as if singed by his touch. The material of my dress clings to my skin from the beads of sweat that collected there, making me homesick for something.

The floor here is dark wood, almost black, and the furniture is a circular white leather sofa, with two lounge chairs facing a fireplace. A large, flat screen TV hangs above it and directly over the sofa is a projector. I notice a slit in the ceiling above the television. Connie flips a switch and a screen comes down.

“Imagine watching movies in this room,” she says.

“Nice,” my husband says as he pats the leather sofa. “I can definitely see us watching a movie here, falling asleep.” Then he looks at me and winks.

I can’t remember the last time we fell asleep on a sofa, let alone in each other’s arms. I suppose we did that a lot when we dated. We started so young, you see. I was eighteen and he was twenty. We’d be at my dad’s house, watching television, sometimes fooling around, and often enough we’d fall asleep. It used to drive my father crazy, stumbling on us while on his way to work, wrapped in each other’s arms. Even back then Steve put in long hours at the restaurant.

Connie’s heels click on the white quartz floor as she continues into a spacious foyer. We follow close behind. The entrance to the house is two-steps up, and the solid double doors are arched with black iron handles. There are hallways on each side, like two arms reaching out to us.

“Imagine walking in and seeing this,” Connie does a half-spin.

Above our heads is a polished chrome chandelier with small lights that reminds me of an upside-down Christmas tree, and the only piece of furniture in this room is a beautiful, black lacquered grand piano. It’s covered with photographs, all in matching silver frames. I can’t help but look at the faces smiling at me and I want to smile back at them, truly I do, but everybody is so goddamn happy, my head spins. There is so much life before me – weddings and parties, vacations at the beach, on the boat, in Europe, one in Machu Picchu, skiing with family and friends; and there are births, first steps, baptisms, and college graduations. I want to look at each picture and give it its due process: smile and move on, but Steve is nudging me, tells me to keep going. “Come on, Viv,” he says.

I wonder which of our photographs I’d put on display here. There’s our wedding photograph, of course, at the banquet hall that his parents paid for because mine couldn’t afford it. I remember it was on the second floor of a strip mall in Hallandale. We went to the Bahamas for our honeymoon, so there’s a photograph of us having drinks at the hotel bar, overlooking the beach. We haven’t had another vacation since, though we talk about going to Europe all the time.

We did go to New York, once, to attend a friend’s wedding. Steve left his younger brother in charge that week while we tried to make a mini-vacation out of it. He had to go back after one day because there was a bad storm and the restaurant flooded. I stayed behind, alone, and managed just fine.

Connie points to the right. “All the bedrooms are together on one side, perfect for a family with little ones.” Then she looks at me and freezes.

“We don’t have children,” I remind her for the third time.

Steve clears his throat and brushes past me, disappearing down the hall.

Connie continues to look at me with an expression that tells me that she’s sorry she’s forgotten, but I’m in a foul mood so I give it to her: “I’ve had six miscarriages, two failed IVFs, and a stillborn son.” I run my hand over my stomach and feel the scar through my dress. I am tempted to show it to her.

She squirms, uncomfortable, and I walk away, satisfied, but only for a brief moment because I’m quickly overcome with guilt. I shouldn’t have said that. I should have let it go.

The first two bedrooms are spacious with plenty of closet space, and they share a Jack and Jill bathroom. I figure one of the rooms could be a gym; either that, or it could be an office. I’m thinking of going back to school and taking classes in psychology. I think I’d like that – make my own hours, and charge lots of money for other people to talk about their problems while I listened for a change.

I suppose the other room will do fine when our families visit. Steve’s got a sister in Arizona who’d joined some sort of commune and has six children. My brother is up north, in Boston, and he’s got two kids and a normal wife. Maybe they will visit us now, and not feel so awkward around us anymore. See, they will say, Steve and Vivian have this beautiful house with white walls and white furniture. We can’t have that with our kids around.

“Wow,” I hear my husband gasp from what I gather to be the master bedroom. I make my way there and when I enter, I see the thing that has made Steve break his own rule.

It’s at the end of the room, where the master bedroom spills into a bathroom that is just spectacular. Huge pocket doors separate the two rooms, and in the center of the bathroom, which is the size of a studio, is a white porcelain claw tub. Connie flips a switch and water cascades from the ceiling, like some sort of heavenly spa. I imagine angels flipping their wings above our heads.

But it’s the glass-enclosed shower that is making my Steve whimper. It has various sized heads sticking out of two walls, and a RainSky fixture in the ceiling.

I can picture him standing there, his flab body pulverized by water shooting at him from all directions, pummeling away layers of stress. Years of dealing with late, rude, demanding, drama-filled employees and uptight customers, kitchen fires, food inspectors, hurricanes, recession, inflation, farmer strikes, natural and unnatural disasters. Pounded. Pounded. Pounded. All that worry down the drain. Afterwards, he’ll emerge pink-fleshed and ready for another day, and for an hour or so he’ll smell like soap and not fried onions.

We come to the end of the tour, to the two-car garage. Again, Connie flips a switch and the empty room is suddenly filled with the sound of metal grinding as the garage door is slowly pulled open on a track mounted to the ceiling. We’re instantly flooded in sunlight, so blinding that I have to shield my eyes. Our cars come into view, parked where we’d left them, under the porte-cochère, dripping in crimson bougainvilleas.

Next to me, I hear Connie tease my husband: “Imagine your Corvette here, Steve.”

“We’ll finally have space for both of our cars,” he leans into me. “And I’ll even have room for my tool chest and golf bag.”

I nod in acknowledgement. He’s always wanted a three-car garage.

“You are the first to see this house,” Connie says with an air of secrecy as she brushes past us. “It just hit the market, and it’s priced to sell. I was told that the sellers are anxious to move out.”

“It’s nice,” Steve concedes. “But what’s their big rush?”

“Oh,” Connie flips her hand in the air and chuckles lightly. “Their kids are all grown up and out of the house, and the husband just retired. He and his wife just bought a condo in Mallorca, Spain.” Then Connie smiles and looks at me. “Imagine that,” she says.

So I do.

I imagine living in this house with Steve for ten years or so, and then selling it one day and going off with him to Spain or even the Caribbean, and I find that I can’t do it. I can’t even imagine us living here for one day, and this house is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, and I’m pretty sure neither would Steve. Maybe that tray-like stove in the kitchen, but that’s about it.

“I have to tell you, Connie,” Steve takes a deep breath and holds it for a few beats. “This home is at the top of our list.”

I let out a loud snicker. We don’t have a list, I want to yell, no desires, no kids, no fun memories, no dreams.

He sees my face. “You want to keep looking?” he asks.

I shake my head. I am startled by a noise and when I turn, I see fallen bougainvilleas leaves being nudged by a light breeze, a few of them rolling to my feet. I stare outside, unable to look away. For a moment I think I hear waves breaking on the beach. There seems to be so much life out there, such peace.

Next thing I know, I step into the sunlight. I walk into the shade and then I’m in the car, turning it on. With a push of a button I open the windows. A cross breeze shuffles the stack of listings resting on the dashboard and they scatter to the floor. When I get on I-95, I’m hopeful they’ll blow away.

***

Gabriela Pura-Suarez lives in Miami, FL, with her husband and three kids. When she’s not writing or working at the Miami Book Fair International, she is packing and unpacking. Three moves in four years, and after countless open houses and showings, she is considering writing a Dexter-inspired fictional story about Miami house hunting involving greedy buyers and realtors, permit agents, and squatters.

me

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