A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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In 2019 Amy and I fly from Oregon to Kansas City to visit her family, and on the back porch of her parents’ home her father and I share a cigar. He asks me about real-estate prices in Portland and how much money I imagine we would need for a down payment. “Thirty grand?” he guesses. “Forty?” I do not immediately grasp what he is getting at. Portland real estate is a topic of interest for out-of-town family members, and Amy’s father is known for his conversational non sequiturs.
For example, earlier we were talking about politics — about swing states and health care and Trump, for whom we share a profound distaste — when my father-in-law suddenly noticed the gutters of a neighbor’s house overflowing with leaves, and he interrupted my impassioned defense of a functioning social safety net to point them out. “Look at that,” he said. “How do you just see your gutters like that and not do something about it?” He called for Carol, Amy’s mother, to come see, as if he’d just spotted a wildebeest on their cul-de-sac. Later, when Amy’s sister and her family came over for lunch, he pointed to the house and asked my brother-in-law what he saw.
“I don’t know, Dave,” my brother-in-law said. “What do I see?”
“The gutters!” exclaimed Amy’s father. “You ever see something like that?”
“Let me tell you why I’m asking,” he says to me now, back on the porch with the cigars, gutters forgotten. “We’re not getting any younger, Carol and I, and neither are you.” They’ve made investments. The economy has been good to them, and they’ve decided it makes sense to give Amy and her sisters part of their inheritance while they, Carol and Dave, are still alive to witness the fruits of their generosity. With no additional grandchildren to expect from us, their investment in our marriage will take the form of a down payment on a house.
As a child I remember hearing a story about a wandering monk and his begging bowl. The bowl he wrapped in a cloth, and the cloth he secured with chopsticks. These were his sole possessions, and each item was suffused with purpose. The bowl wasn’t just a bowl; it fed him. The cloth wasn’t just a cloth; it protected the bowl. This became my aspiration: to find my bowl and imbue it with meaning.
From an early age I’ve wanted to live in something mobile: an Airstream trailer or swank camper van. If I could, I would live in a bowl. But Amy wants a yard. She wants a flower garden and a vegetable garden and blossoming cherry trees.
A friend recently sent me an article: “Innovative Decision-Making Study Could Lead to Better Therapies for OCD,” the headline read.
“Does this sound like you?” she asked.
The article described a new study suggesting that obsessive-compulsive symptoms — described as “excessive information gathering (e.g., checking, reassurance-seeking), and uncertainty about possible, often catastrophic, future events” — were the result of a reduced ability to use the past to predict the future. Obsessives’ inability to remember positive outcomes to past situations makes them anxious about similar situations in the future.
I can remember positive outcomes. I just remember negative outcomes better. When the telephone rings, I immediately expect bad news: I’ve been laid off; my dad has cancer; they’re unable to find a heartbeat. Good news, when it comes, feels like a cosmic outlier or a mistake. My OCD is about trying to gird myself for when the bad news inevitably arrives. In my memory the distinction between emotional and physical chaos blurs until there’s little difference between Amy’s second miscarriage and the time I dropped a nearly full bottle of olive oil on the floor and it splattered underneath the oven — except for this: we can move to a new place with an oven that does not have oil still splattered underneath it, and in this new place I can endeavor to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
Amy and I sit down to make a list of what we each want in a house. Her list is normal length, and my list is empty.
Maybe it makes more sense to list what I don’t want, she suggests.
I don’t want a lot of rooms, or any stairs. I don’t want a lot of land or additional structures, like a shed or garage. I don’t want a fixer-upper. I’d rather not have a yard that requires maintenance. In fact, my dream home would be a single well-lit room, one sink, a toilet, four walls.
Amy tells me my dream home sounds like a prison cell.
“Do you even want to move?” she asks.
The first place we look at is a duplex in North Portland, so close to the speedway we can hear cars racing around the track from the front porch.
“I didn’t even know Portland had a racetrack,” says Amy. “And so close!”
Not accompanied by a real-estate agent, we unlock the front door by downloading an app and entering a six-digit code. The inside is as underwhelming as the outside: Brown carpet. One wall inexplicably painted Caribbean blue. The dust of several months’ vacancy settled into the grime on the kitchen appliances. It has an enclosed yard and a short commute and is within our price range, but it has all the charm of a Motel 6.
For the next house we call a realtor. His name is James, and he arrives five minutes late — because of the traffic, he explains: “I don’t usually come out this far.” He spends most of his time on his phone. The house is a considerably longer commute for both of us and not in the best neighborhood, but it’s just the right size and has a big front yard, an oak tree, and a refinished interior. The front door is large and heavy and painted yellow.
In the indeterminate amount of time we feel we should take before letting James know we’ve decided to buy it, I go outside to inspect the yard. The grass is long and untended, and the mailbox rests precariously on a rotting post. The chain-link fence has gaps in it. We’d have to fix that.
“What do you think?” Amy asks, smiling.
“What do you think?” I reply.
She nods enthusiastically.
“There’s a gap in the fence, though,” I say. “We’ll have to get that fixed. How much do you think it costs to repair a fence?”
We put in an offer at just under the asking price, per James’s recommendation. Then we go home, and he e-mails us the documents to sign, and we e-sign them and e-mail them back. In the offer James has included a clause that requires the owners to respond to our offer within twenty-four hours, which I appreciate. As interminably long as twenty-four hours can feel, at least it’s a fixed limit.
A lot of OCD is striving not to take anything for granted; cataloging and collating for any eventuality; having a place for everything and knowing where everything is because that means you still maintain some semblance of dominion. I don’t take for granted that the carpet is clean, so I vacuum it multiple times a day, but I do take for granted that Amy loves me, because she abides my daily vacuuming.
While we wait for a response to our offer, I obsess over the house’s most glaring faults — specifically, the mailbox. Long after Amy has fallen asleep, I’m on my phone, researching post-office requirements to replace a curbside mailbox with one mounted by the front door. I’ll need my local postmaster’s permission, so I’ll need to find out how to get in contact with my local postmaster. I spend another hour scrolling for house-mounted mailboxes with an escalating mania that threatens to keep me up all night.
In the morning I go to work, grateful for the distraction, but during my break I call the post office nearest the house and leave a message. What would they do if I moved the mailbox without permission? Maybe we could just inform our friends and family that all correspondence must be sent in a package larger than a standard mailbox, so the postal carrier has no choice but to leave it on the front porch.
Amy texts me during her lunch break: “Any word?”
I manage to wait until hour twenty-two to text James the same question and ask if we should offer more money. Did we make a mistake undercutting their asking price? Does a long wait usually mean good news or bad news? James confirms there’s no word. It might be just as well. I don’t have the patience to hunt down the postmaster’s permission, and there’s still the fence to contend with. I’m spinning out. I know I’m spinning out, but spinning out with an awareness of the spinning does not lessen the disorientation. In fact, it augments it, the way fixating on a single point while riding a merry-go-round further erodes your equilibrium. Amy is weathering my spinning out with grace and empathy and a lack of judgment that reassures me I can go deeper. I know I should be grateful. I know how lucky I am.
When James finally calls at hour twenty-four, I’m almost hoping they’ve declined our offer. The fucking mailbox business. The fucking fence. I’m remembering all those NPR stories during the recession about homeowners going underwater on their mortgages. I’m picturing dry rot, termites, water damage. This is how people go mad. This is how people forget what’s important and start smoking in the house again, because the worst-case scenario is the couch smells like tar, and the best-case is the whole place goes up in flames.
“I’m sorry I can’t call with better news,” says James.
Someone else put in another offer, and either it was higher than ours or the sellers liked them better. Either way, we didn’t get it. “I’m sorry,” James repeats, “but this is just the first house. There will be many more like it.”
Amy and I decide to give up on house hunting for now. It’s just too much. We’ll wait until the market improves and we can find a place we really love.
“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” Amy reminds me. “You never listen to me.”
The problem is my phone still has half a dozen different real-estate apps, which send daily e-mails about new houses on the market. The problem is that moving is unpleasant, and nothing produces more restlessness in me than the specter of future unpleasantness. The problem is the mold in our apartment’s bathroom. The problem is you can never fully clean up splattered olive oil from underneath an oven. On a warm day in June the heat activates the rancid oil to remind me, as if I’d ever forgotten.
Surreptitiously I start looking. For her own reasons Amy starts looking, too. Early in the morning, while she drinks her coffee, she bookmarks houses of interest. I know this because she’s still logged in to my account — a fact I keep to myself, even though she’s screwing up my algorithm. It’s good to see where our tastes align. She likes front doors with bold colors. She likes a lot of natural light and window-box planters and detached sheds and hardwood floors. I like tiny houses. Based on my search parameters I start getting e-mails advertising houseboats. I briefly imagine reinventing myself as a river dog. I don’t bookmark the houseboats.
Inevitably one of us comes across a listing that’s too good to keep from the other. It takes three days to find a house we’re both in love with — or, at least, one that checks a minimum of boxes. It’s shaped like a railcar, which gives the impression of mobility, and though the yard is large and overgrown, my opposition is weakened by anticipation of the joy it will bring Amy to tend it. The house is small and recently renovated, as blank a slate as we’re likely to find within our price range. Included in the pictures is a floor plan with measurements, and it might be this I find most appealing. Even before setting foot inside with my tape measure, I can determine where our furniture will go, what will fit and what won’t.
I’m also impatient. The idea of shopping for a home without a specific property to obsess over has caused my OCD to seep into previously cloistered elements of my day — specifically my job, where my coworkers have begun remarking on my organizing of the office supplies. I send Amy the link to the house even though I know she’s already bookmarked it. We e-mail James the listing and drive out to meet him several days later.
Tomorrow marks exactly one year since we moved into our new home, where we have been confined for the past five months due to the pandemic. We are thankful we still have jobs to go to. We remind ourselves every day how lucky we are to have our health and a home in which to be confined. Our good luck feels scary. Imagine if this had happened a year ago, and we were navigating the basement laundry room of our old apartment building with our neighbors, who almost certainly would have failed to wear masks.
A month into the pandemic I quit drinking, and I am overcome with so much manic, nervous energy that I can fall asleep only after I’ve worked myself to exhaustion. It feels unhealthy, but Amy’s proud of my sobriety. I get home from work and, over the course of two nights, caulk every trim and border, crack and crevice in the entire house. Even behind the water heater. Even the ceiling of the closet. I become obsessed with fixing things and drive to Home Depot considerably more often than the CDC recommends. While I work around the house, I listen to podcasts about politics and history, suddenly ravenous for stories of how societies collapse.
The house is smaller than our old apartment, hardly seven hundred square feet. But even with three cats and two dogs — one a large Labradoodle puppy who knocks around like a moose calf learning how her legs work — we don’t generally want for room, except in the galley kitchen. The space is so narrow you can’t fully open the refrigerator door, which means the crisper drawers will never know the joy of being filled with produce. It’s as narrow as an airplane aisle, and likewise resentment-inducing. And since the kitchen is the only passageway between the front and back of the house, as well as being the mess hall for all five animals, it forms a stubborn bottleneck, especially when we’re both late for work.
I wake up one morning anxious. I can’t say why exactly, but it might have something to do with the caravan of white supremacists who stormed the streets of Portland last week in their stupid pickup trucks, flying Trump flags and spraying racial-justice protesters with mace and paintballs. It might have something to do with the Patriot Prayer member who was shot and killed later that night by a protester, and the looming threat of escalation. It might have something to do with my guilt over not participating in the protests myself. I make excuses: The crowds. The tear gas. The pandemic. There’s no excuse.
And, of course, it might have something to do with the pandemic itself: the misanthropy it encourages in me, the Zoom calls I’ve ignored. Two weeks ago Amy and I spent the afternoon with friends for the first time in months, and I was dismayed to find myself unable to maintain even the most basic conversation. It was like my mouth was filled with marbles. There was so much to talk about, and there was nothing at all to talk about. The only sentiment I could articulate was despair. Since then, I’ve been loath to respond to text messages from friends and family, especially my mother, who seems intent on discussing the news.
The only way out is through, I tell myself. This all may be leading us toward some better future, the podcasts tell me. Like the Great Depression led to the New Deal. Like the Civil War led to emancipation. Like Harvey Weinstein led to #MeToo. That’s when I decide the color palette of our new home will be light gray and teal. Honeydew green and cedar were the palette of our old apartment, but our new home will be light gray and teal. This is an emotional decision for me because green has been my color since I moved to Portland, but it has to be done. I decide this unilaterally, without consulting Amy, and over the next week I surreptitiously go about replacing green accent pieces with teal: coffee cups, sofa cushions, our duvet cover. Of course Amy knows exactly what I’m doing. It’s not like one morning she reaches for a towel and doesn’t notice it isn’t green anymore.
“So I guess everything’s going to be blue now?” she says one morning in the cramped kitchen, both of us late for work.
“Teal, actually,” I admit. “More of a green-blue, like the ocean.”
For her birthday I buy Amy a bowl. Most of what she eats, she eats from bowls: Cheerios, cashews, crackers, granola. So it seems to me an especially thoughtful gift. It’s the kind of bowl I imagine a monk would use: ceramic, hand-thrown, matte glaze. Blue, of course. I don’t have to tell you how much time I spent looking for just the right bowl, and when it arrives, I think, This is it: the perfect bowl. I wash it in preparation for its first use. It’s a little heavy and can’t be run through the dishwasher, but Amy says it’s perfect. Maybe, I think.
Amy was the first person to whom I revealed the extent of my OCD — not just that I like to vacuum or that alphabetizing makes me happy, but the way I equate things of no importance with what matters most of all. Like one day I decide all the screws in the house need to be the same. Do you know how many screws there are in even the smallest house? And surrounding the house is a fence with four screws to a picket. And a deck and a shed and a front porch and, and, and . . . The only way out is through. When Amy’s parents remark on how nice it must be to have a husband who keeps things clean and organized, Amy doesn’t correct them, doesn’t let on what a hell it really is.
The day after our anniversary, as I pull up to the house, my phone buzzes with a county-wide evacuation alert. South of us, the towns of Detroit and Talent and Phoenix are gone, and the sky is ash. I used to live five miles from Talent. We used to stop in Detroit for gas on our way to go camping.
I let the dogs out of their crates, and they dash out the front door, then stop dead in their tracks. Something is wrong. The air is still. The governor is on the radio: “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
I start vacuuming.
It’s not until Amy gets home an hour later that we begin to outline what needs to be done: We need cat carriers to transport the cats. We need provisions for the animals. We need our medications. I am demonstrating how much we need our medications.
“Where did you put the cat carriers?” she asks.
“We don’t have any cat carriers,” I tell her.
“You threw them away, didn’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” I say. And I am so, so sorry. “I didn’t think we’d ever need them again.”
While Amy drives back into town to purchase cat carriers, she charges me with packing all the items she doesn’t need to pack herself: My clothes. Our computers. The photo album from our wedding day. I am humbled by her calm and poise. I check my phone again, and the critical evacuation zone is now less than three miles away. Wind gusts are forecast to continue throughout the night. I’m already packed, because I am always already packed. I throw our sleeping bags in the back of my car and feed the dogs. When Amy returns, I set to assembling the new cat carriers while she packs her things.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask.
She’s not mad, she says. She takes pictures of our valuables to show the insurance company. I take pictures of my closet, blue hangers missing blue shirts. I take pictures of my books, all identical in height. I take pictures of the symmetry of our glass storage jars. They fit so perfectly in the kitchen drawer. One morning, after fixating all night on how they rattled, I drove to Home Depot and bought a three-inch piece of plywood, which I stained and sanded until it fit, and then you could open the drawer as hard as you wanted — the glass jars stayed silent. I love that drawer.
This is what I’ve always been afraid of — not a fire, but hewing so close to a place that its destruction becomes my destruction. I picture myself sifting through the smoking, waterlogged ruins of my obsessions, so much soot turned to mud. If this comes to pass, we will eventually get our life back. Insurance will look at the photographs of all our possessions, decide their worth, and send us a check. And maybe sitting there with that insurance check and nothing else will be as close as I’ll ever get to being a monk with his bowl. Sheltered in a nondescript hotel room with our animals and a check with more zeros than we’ve ever seen and nothing else, Amy and I will face the prospect of starting over. We could rent a high-rise condo and divest ourselves of any physical legacy (my proposal) or sell everything and live out of our suitcases in Mexico or Honduras, where the dollar is strong (Amy’s). As soon as I consider this, a thousand other agonizing considerations bloom. She and I had to make a similar decision after the first miscarriage, and that decision resulted in a second miscarriage and then a third. The only lesson we seemed to have learned is that life is fraught and painful and messy.
Q: Why can’t the monk vacuum in corners?
A: Because he has no attachments.
If I were a monk, I could just wrap my bowl in cloth, secure it with chopsticks, and walk away. If it wasn’t for Amy and all our animals and the life we’ve built together, I would be tempted to do just that. What I’ve forgotten is that even more essential to the monk’s identity than the bowl is his solitude. His utilitarian possessions are in service to a higher purpose. I don’t have a higher purpose. I love Amy, who loves our yard. I love our animals, who love to run in the yard. I love the life we’ve built together. I don’t want to be alone. I’m a husband, not a monk. I take pictures of all our bowls in the kitchen cabinet — no chopsticks — so that, in the event that our house burns down, we can re-create it to the best of our ability.
When we’ve finished documenting everything in our home, we go to bed. It’s still early, but there’s nothing else to do. I keep the blinds in the bedroom open so I can see the orange glow if the fires get too close. The dogs are asleep. The cats are asleep. Amy and I are not asleep.
“I don’t want to lose our home,” she says.
“I don’t want to lose our home either,” I say.
“I like our home.”
“I like our home, too.”
The map of the evacuation zone on my phone hasn’t changed, but I keep refreshing the website so I’ll know the moment it does. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. I have packages due to arrive over the next several days: a puzzle to occupy my mind on the weekends, a book for Amy, a new teal shower curtain to replace our old green shower curtain. Does the post office still deliver to evacuated homes? Refresh. One of the cat carriers Amy purchased is different from the other two cat carriers, and that’s going to bother me. It’s probably because they were low on stock at the pet store, but I should ask Amy, just in case. Refresh. “Did they not have three of the same kind of cat carrier at the pet store?” I ask. Refresh.
Amy doesn’t answer. Amy’s asleep.
Jacob Aiello’s self-deprecating humor serves him well, and, yes, his wife is a saint [“Bowl, Large Cloth, Pair of Chopsticks,” May 2021]. As I laughed with Aiello about his neuroses, maybe I can laugh at my own, too, instead of feeling trapped by them.