I bought a house at 19. My dad insisted it was a good investment and helped me with the $3,000 down payment. In the mid-90’s you could build a brand new three-bedroom house with a two-car garage on a half an acre for $68,000 with a 5% interest rate. My house payment was $550; I split it with my boyfriend at the time. We spent the next two years spending every disposable dime accumulating stuff: a washer and dryer, trashcans, hoses, a guest bed, a tree for the yard. We furnished creatively with yard sale finds, hand-me-downs from grandparents and splurged on two bright blue barrel chairs and a zebra striped rug from Ikea. We saved months for a new TV. Evenings and weekends were spent taming that half-acre into a lawn, which then required weekly mowing and endless sprinkler moving, I hoed the old, dry ground for flower beds, and planted and weeded, and tended the rose bushes. We assembled a bench for the front porch and installed an old brown fridge in the garage for overflow beer.
But, less than a year into the new house, our relationship was pretty much over. I had grown to hate my lazy, alcoholic slob of a boyfriend; he thought I was a nag and a shrew, which was probably true, too. We didn’t break up though, mostly because of the stuff. I was working full-time, and a full-time college student. Clint worked nights. I knew we would both have to find a new place and then find the time to split up the stuff which would inevitably lead to bickering which would take more time. Neither of us had the time or the will, frankly, to deal with all that. So, our stuff was the anchor that kept us tied. After four years, though, I finally had had enough.
Instead of splitting up the stuff, I just let him have everything. The barrel chairs, the TV, the mid-century modern couch that had belonged to my grandfather. When we sold the house, the beer fridge was his problem, and the garage full of yard tools, the computer desk that had to be disassembled, and the zebra rug. I packed up my clothes, took only the things that I had owned prior to our co-house, like family pictures, and my dog.
I did this mostly because I wanted a clean break. I didn’t want “our” crap around when there was no longer an “us,” I didn’t want to be reminded of him, of our space, our things, or the stink of our bad relationship tainting up my future space.
Also, I was moving in with another guy and he had his own house with his own stuff, and there wasn’t much room for additional stuff.
Nik lived in a small two-bedroom house built in 1911. He had purchased the house because of its proximity to his work and for the two freestanding shops at the rear of the property. Nik was a printer, a scholar, an artist, and the shops housed his substantial collection of antique printing presses, a Ludlow typograph machine and the support materials and tools needed to maintain and run an authentic letterpress studio. The house was less important to him, but it provided storage for the remainder of his collections: books, books, vintage clothing, records, papermaking and bookbinding supplies. His furniture and appliances were circa pre-WWII. Blood red velvet couches stuffed with horsehair, low brass lamps, splintery wooden chairs, a wind-up phonograph. His fridge looked like a little igloo and inside it was a shoebox-sized space that served as the freezer. As you might imagine, my low blonde furniture and cheeky rug wouldn’t have fit, anyway.
I insisted on modernity in moderation. Gradually, we upsized the fridge to a double door model with an ice maker, splurged on a washer dryer set, expanded our music collection to include CD’s and bought a TV compatible with a VCR. The creaky old brass bed remained, the piles of ancient tomes were confident in their immobility and hand painted ties still brightened the ever dim, one bulb closet.
We ripped up carpet. Tore down wood paneling. Patiently spackled holes and painted the lath and plaster walls; flat paint, soft colors to call less attention to the flaws. The toilet, we reseated it with a giant yellow ring of wax. In the summer, in the yard, we toiled and tilled, dug and planted – 50 year old heirloom rosebushes, trees at 10 ft. tall, required thoughtful yet drastic surgery – 50 year old grapevines, up the side of the tree, down the fence, up the flag pole – were Idahoan kudzu – persistent, invasive, mildly alarming. The homemade sprinkler system was always on the fritz. The neighborhood feral cats vigorously procreated and pissed in unwelcome locales, like under the house. Our furnace, temperamental, in turns violently blasting and then whistle whimpering with a damp nasal exhale.
And then I decided to go to graduate school in Indiana. In August I rented a room in a stranger’s house in Bloomington and took only what would fit in the trunk of my 1984 BMW. Nik stayed in Idaho to tie up loose ends, like selling the house and moving the shops to storage. It was a huge job and he worked tirelessly; it took until Christmas to sell the house, and at a loss. He lived with my parents until Spring Break when I flew home and we packed up the biggest Penske we could find.
By the time we got to Indiana, 3 days later, I felt suffocated by all that stuff. I had grown accustomed to the freedom of a garbage bag full of clothes; I’d spent nearly 9 months focused on friends and school, discovering a new place, becoming myself as an individual sans a yard, a washing machine, a record collection. For the first time in my life I was a person without things and I dreaded unpacking the boxes of dishes, the old lamps, the dusty books. I wanted to go forth, unencumbered by someone else’s things, even my things. Nik and I broke up. His stuff went back in the truck.
I was alone for the first time in my life. Just me and my stuff. I collected carefully, useful, beautiful things. I bought artwork, a good mattress, a new couch made from ice blue organic cotton. My coffee mugs all matched, so did my sheets.
And then I met Tim. And he had a nice place, with nice stuff, but he wanted to play house and shop for major appliances together at Best Buy and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready.
And then I met Bryce. And his gigantic mess of stuff. And that was a mess.
And then I met Ken. And he drowned all my things in the desert until there was nothing left and I had to move back home with my parents.
It always seems to boil down to the stuff.
Today I have a tiny purple-grey house with a green door, arched doorways and a big fenced yard that gets mowed by the landlord. It’s just big enough for me and my two little dogs. I got a couch off Craigslist and two chairs from my grandma, a TV for my birthday. My sheets match and so do the mugs, also, please use a coaster. I like to keep it “just so.” I like the sunshine in my front window, and the raspberry bushes in the back yard. I like the pillows on my bed, in the winter, two with flannel pillowcases, two without. I like the books arranged by color and the thermostat set to 67 degrees. Almost always there’s a vase of fresh flowers on the dining table, and always there’s a bottle of wine in the fridge.
A year ago, I met Rocco.
He owns a house a few miles away. About two months into dating he asked me to move in and I said no. Clearly, all too often I’ve moved in with a boyfriend (I’ve cohabitated with 4) and it hasn’t worked out. Except it has, in that I never should have been with any of those guys any longer than I was or maybe at all. I wanted to give our relationship room enough to breathe and grow without being complicated by all our stuff.
Rocco’s house is a bachelor pad. The furniture is mostly brown. There is a very large TV. The dishes are mismatched and there is an entire cupboard dedicated to plastic storage containers and the lids that do not fit them. There are beard trimmings around the bathroom sink and a great deal of loose change and old mail. The king sized bed has a memory foam top and high-thread count sheets, but something about it makes me feel lost. I can’t seem to get the pillows right and I’m always too cold or too hot. Every time I try and get comfy on the couch there’s a dog elbowing me in the side and I get a cramp in my neck from the overstuff pillow jut. There is little to no natural light, the blinds are always closed, so it feels like a cave. A man cave.
Now, before you get all judgey about my being judgey and high-maintenance, you should know that my knickknacks under bell jars make Rocco nervous. He finds the bouquet ridiculous and wasteful. The angle and the softness of the bed give him acid reflux and because my bedroom is small, someone has to have the wall side, which is annoying, also, it’s too small being only a queen size. He finds the couch uncomfortable and the fact that there is no dishwasher AND no microwave is practically a deal breaker. I keep the house much too warm for his taste. He would rather I keep the drapes closed, especially when he’d like to be walking around in his underwear in the morning while drinking his coffee.
After a year, we find ourselves spending less and less time together. There is an occasional night at the other’s house, but there are dogs to consider, and schedules that require a good night’s sleep. More often then not we retreat to our own comfort zones, our own pillows, our own couches, the contents of our fridges and our preferred toothpaste. I used to think, “home is where the heart is,” but now it seems “home is where my stuff is, and not his.” Maybe that’s how I’ve always felt, only I never admitted it. I love Rocco, but I don’t love his stuff. I’m pretty sure he feels the same way.
And so we find ourselves at an impasse, a stalemate of stuff. Because it always seems to boil down to the stuff.