In addition to the usual Christmas festivities, for the last week I've been spending a lot of time house-hunting. Not for myself--and I'm not sure whether to add "thank goodness" or "alas." My brother and sister-in-law are the ones looking forward to nice new quarters once they've made the tough decision about what to buy. I'm the support staff-- chauffeur, GPS programmer, and purveyor of local expertise. I try to keep the munchkins--my twin four-year-old nephews--from tracking mud into the seller's houses and undecorating their Christmas trees. I try to be helpful when asked questions like, "This is a lot smaller than the kitchen in the last house, isn't it?" I make sure none of the kitties get left behind--both boys have stuffed cats who must give their seal of approval to any potential new dwelling, but aren't very good at staying in the boys' hands once the excitement of exploring a new place kicks in.
I'm exhausted today--was it six houses we saw, or eight? Feels like a dozen. But I had a lot of fun. So did my mom, for that matter, who declared that this was a lot like doing Garden Week, without having to buy a ticket. Last time I looked, she was sitting in my rocking chair, poring over the brochures on the various houses we saw.
Me, I'm trying to figure out how to use the whole househunting ritual in my fiction. And it is a ritual, which is what saves you when you're six houses into an eight-house tour. (Or eight houses into a ten-house tour, or--you get the idea.)
You follow the realtor to the address, then pull up and confer about whether this one's worth touring. One or two we nixed without getting out of the car. If it looks promising, we let the twins out of their car seats, help Mom up the steps, and begin the tour.
First off, you figure out whether the owners are there. Nothing more embarrassing than poking through the whole downstairs, all the while saying things like, "Oh, my God, would you look at that wallpaper?" "It would look a lot less awful with some nice furniture" and "Is that a window treatment or a flock of mummified bats?"--only to find the owner (and presumably perpetrator) of the offending decor is upstairs listening.
Quite apart from the embarrassing possibility of insulting the people with whom you might eventually want to conduct business, it's a whole lot easier to start forming an emotional bond with an empty house than one whose present occupants are still underfoot, smiling helpfully and trying not to wince when a four-year-old careens too close to a breakable object.
The ritual then requires that you systematically inspect the whole house, assessing every room, including the inside of every closet and a reasonable percentage of the cabinetry. Comments like, "Oh, what a lovely sun-porch!" or "Nice big closets!" can be uttered at any time, but if the owners are lurking nearby, comments like "Is that a room or just a large closet?" should be suppressed.
And the whole time, you should work on keeping an earnest expression on your face, as if this was a rather grueling ordeal, or at least a tedious one. You absolutely should not show any sign that you're having a wonderful time snooping around other people's houses. Trying on other people's lives.
Do they really have tea on the sun-porch on sunny mornings, sitting at the wicker table and gazing across their back yard at the woods? Do they sit in those armchairs in the evenings, reading and toasting their feet in front of the fire? Do they take bubble baths in the soaking tub? Host elegant dinners in the dining room? Cook gourmet meals in the sparkling clean kitchen? Did they inherit those antiques or select them lovingly over years of scouring antique stores and flea markets?
Or did savvy sellers (or their realtors) stage the whole thing, bringing in elegant knickknacks and even whole rooms of furniture to show the house at its best? Was it just coincidence of the season that every third house we toured reeked of cinnamon, or is cinnamon-scented stovetop potpourri currently considered the classiest mood enhancement for potential buyers? When I was selling my old condo, my friend Tracey made me put half my books and most of my knickknacks in storage and ordered me to keep my kitchen spotless at all times. Since kitchen cleaning was not one of my strong points, I ate out for most of the two months it took to show the condo. I figured out all the cheap local places where, once I became known as a decent tipper, I could linger over a book and a constantly-refilled soda glass for hours and avoid all contact with the buyers who might be touring my apartment, opening my cabinets and shuddering over my closets. I found myself wondering--were these absent owners away for the holidays? Down the street having a leisurely meal at whatever local place they flee to when potential buyers are on the way? In a neighbor's house across the street, peering through the curtains?
Is it only imagination and the accident of similar or dissimilar tastes that make you start liking some of the owners, sight unseen, and wishing they'd come back so you could meet them, and shaking your head with a slight frown over others, and finding it difficult to warm to the idea of moving into the home they were leaving?
If it's a nice house--and the realtor wasn't taking us to a whole lot of duds--trying on other people's lives goes to another level. I start imagining myself drinking tea at that wicker table and gazing over the back yard. (Never mind that my style's more a Diet Coke by the computer checking email when I first get up.) I can see myself soaking in that tub, basking in that armchair (have to buy an armchair), and cooking and hosting those elegant dinners (do you suppose their cookbook collection conveys?
As we were driving home from the last house, it occurred to me that this is not that far from what we writers do for a living--studying the small, incidental details of life and using them to shape a story. Using a person's environment to reveal his character. Seeing an innocent setting or situation and starting to wonder "What if. . .?"
Of course, in case anyone who's currently selling a house in my neighborhood ever reads this, I hasten to add that I refrained from imagining any homicides in their houses. No bloodstains on the polished hardwood floors or recently shampooed carpet. No corpses concealed in the enviably large walk-in closets. No suspicious earthen mounds in the elegantly landscaped back yards. I was off-duty today.
Well. . . okay, there was this one house that had a wonderfully convenient laundry chute. . .