As readers of this series are probably aware, most of my ideas about homeownership are pretty theoretical. Admittedly, thinking about houses makes my brain turn a bit mushy — on bad days I can be downright whimsical. And like any mush-brained sentimentalist, I hate gumming up the works with harsh nuggets of reality. So I spent months reflecting and theorizing, pleasantly preoccupied by a cocktail of feelings and wallpaper catalogs. The real, physical implications of our decision didn’t hit me until we received a moving date from the title company. I was at the rental house when I heard the news and suddenly reality was all around me; it was crowded on tables, shoved into desk drawers, and stacked on shelves. The rental house was full of those pesky nuggets of reality and every last one of them needed to be moved.
During the escrow period I had a lot of time to think about the house we were buying, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom place with marvelous doorknobs and an interior paint job that relied heavily on maroon accent walls. As my impatience sloughed into stir-craziness, I determined that the time for theories and feelings was over; it was the hour of preparation and strategy. I started packing with militant flair, labeling each box with a black marker and stacking them in special strategic piles in the garage. Giddy with false optimism and itemized checklists, I spent my evenings feeling prepared and drawing incredibly out-of-scale layout scenarios on dozens of graph paper tablets.
Of course, setting a moving date created a set of challenges that threatened even the staunchest of graph paper tablets. I’d been successful in my early labeling efforts (though we ended up with a lot of boxes that read, “winter clothes, some heavy shit, a CD?”) but I was quickly running out of room in my imagined layouts. Our new house was small, just under 750 square feet, with a one-car garage and only one hall closet. Our rental, on the other hand, was an astounding 1,100 square feet and each foot was stuffed to the brim with knickknacks and paperback novels. By my crude math, that discrepancy meant that I needed to rid myself of approximately 350 square feet of junk before the move.
I hesitate to paint myself as a fair-weather micromanager, but the question of culling knickknacks was almost enough to trigger a sentimentalist relapse. My first instinct was to pile all of my belongings in the living room and evaluate them based on affection and whether I could imagine them in the new place. Obviously I liked all of my knickknacks; a knickknack that you don’t like is just a creepy statue. The question was whether I liked each of them enough to share 750 square feet with them and whether buying a house required some kind of new-house-new-epoch purging ritual. I elected to build up some momentum before I undertook the thinning of my belongings.
I committed myself to the logistics of the move — demurely measuring, making painfully logical decisions, and explaining to my almost-ex-neighbors in the politest tones that it wasn’t up to me but that I would do my best to ensure that it wouldn’t be more young people moving in. I wrapped glasses in newspaper and transferred bills, researched and bought a refrigerator. The old green recliner with the velvety finish disappeared in that magical way that things disappear when you describe them vaguely on Craigslist’s “Free” section. Remembering the ominous creaking of my desk the last time I shoved it into my backseat, I decided to spring for the U-Haul. I was taking on more than $100,000 in debt. Another $0.69 per mile was just a drop in the bucket.
Moving day came too quickly and with it the disasters that always occur when you move, starting with the timely explosion of the sprinkler system at the rental house and closing with the disconcerting puttering of the air conditioner on the new house. I panicked, proving once and for all that months of sustained panic doesn’t dilute the real thing, as everything unraveled majestically: the locksmith didn’t show up, the subletter on the rental fell through, and all of those helpful relatives who’d never bothered to visit but seemed so keen to help us move were late, despite the by-the-minute timeline I emailed them.
And so it happened that on the first night in our first house I felt tired, sunburned, and disappointed. In some ways careful planning is almost as dangerous as sentimental whimsy; each creates a careful image of the way you want things to be and a large corresponding capacity for disappointment. Neither is particularly accurate. A zealot of micromanaging and whimsy by turns, I can attest that there are some transitions that you can’t soften with graph paper or a heaping tolerance for delusion.
I never did get around to deciding how many knickknacks constituted 350 square feet. All of my assorted junk — down to the porcelain dogs and wooden statue of Abe Lincoln — were shoved, last minute, into unlabeled boxes, their importance dwarfed by the sudden realization that there was no way I could be trusted to drive the U-Haul. And despite the conclusions of crude math and sentimentality, there was room for all of those knickknacks in the new house; they’re sitting in unlabeled boxes in my living room, fitting comfortably if imperfectly between the couch and the wall. The remarkable thing isn’t that they fit or that I have allowed relics of my “old” renter’s life to bleed into my new abode — it’s that I have a living room, and house, to put them in.