It was this: a rusty U-Haul truck smelling of dog breath and vinyl. Six, seven years ago, maybe more? Ken and I were somewhere near Arizona, moving our hearts and our dish towels from Los Angeles to his Midwestern hometown. My father-in-law was sick, we’d learned two weeks prior. We’d need to come home soon.
Over pretzels and Coke, with Teitur on repeat, we chatted about our years on the west coast. The people we met, the jobs we loved, the jobs we hated. We recapped the adventures behind and the ones ahead, mountainous and pink on the horizon.
We should buy a fixer-upper, Ken mused, mostly to himself. I’d wrongly assumed he was envisioning a mild renovation, the kind where you tile a backsplash and switch out shag carpet for hardwood floors. Design stuff, I’d thought. Easy peasy.
We dropped the conversation and then picked it up a few more times over the years, a wet towel on the floor. But we were busy, and preoccupied. His father was dying, and we could do nothing but eat cheese souffles.
But one day, in the fall, we hung the towel. We bought a house that had been foreclosed, neglected, left behind. The first memory I have of that home was the state of the kitchen. It had been left untouched for three years, but there were still remnants of daily life: open checkbooks on the counter, a rusted pan on the stove. Vitamins in an open cabinet to the left of the missing fridge.
Where had they gone? Where were they living? How long had they been without their vitamins?
Ken researched mold remediation methods, donned a Hazmat suit and re-leveled floors. I brought burgers in the evenings and we’d sit on the subfloor surrounded by ketchup packets and plastic forks as we surveyed our lilting feelings. This is amazing, we’d say, only on most days, we’d meant to use a word more like terrifying, or overwhelming, or never going to be finished.
It was this for nearly a year. The calloused hands, the burgers, the wood shavings.
And then, a business trip. We’d sold the renovation project to HGTV.com and I flew to New York for a few meetings. Landing in JFK, a message from Ken. “We’re going to have to take out some walls. Are you OK with that?”
Here is a break in the story, for context. I am impatient. I ruin breakfast weekly from keeping the burner too high, wrongly assuming more heat will deliver a quicker meal. It never works. The eggs always burn.
And so, I call him back, and I say as gently as possible, some version of yes, yes, do what you need to do to finish this renovation, and fast.
The eggs always burn.
Two weeks later, I pull into our rickety driveway, the one with the dumpster that towers outside, a lawn ornament we were forever apologizing to the neighbors for. And I see this: the front window open, and wall studs from one end of the home, through the kitchen, past the sunroom and to the backyard. I am standing in the front window and I can see the backyard.
There are no walls.
The eggs always burn.
I cry, of course. I cry because I am impatient, and because my father-in-law is dying, and because New York was lovely and glistened in the hot July sun, and because we have no walls.
And Ken met me at the door, and he is incredible, you must know, and he says some version of this:
Walls come down for a reason. Sometimes they’re damaged; other times they’re just unnecessary because they don’t fit into the bigger plan. So we get to put the walls wherever we want now. We get to build our space around ourselves and our dreams. We get to make it a home, just for us.
And it was the right thing to hear in that moment, and it was the right thing to hear again at his father’s funeral later that year, or when I became pregnant with Bee, or when I’d need to turn down more glistening hot July sun opportunities to make space for a home, just for us.
My entire life – our entire lives – were lived around boundaries, built around walls. And they have come down for a reason. We have removed them, or they have removed themselves, or a higher power has removed them for us and we’re left staring into the front window, and we can see the backyard, and we cry at the space, the emptiness, the void.
But today, as I write this, we have walls. They’re where they belong, in different places, defining new areas. Professionally and personally, I’ve torn down a few existing walls that didn’t quite fit and have constructed new ones.
We have walls.
There are open checkbooks on the counter, a rusted pan on the stove. Vitamins in an open cabinet to the left of the fridge.
The eggs always burn.
And all is just as it should be.