Cindy and her husband, Paul, had finally built adequate equity in their starter home and saved enough beyond that to make a residential move up. Their current home wasn’t bad. It was hardly more than a bungalow, but was in a nice neighborhood with good schools for the kids they hadn’t got around to having. Six years, two promotions each, and a dogged budget limited to only minimal luxuries finally allowed them to begin looking at newer, bigger houses in some of the up-and-coming neighborhoods that their more successful friends and acquaintances called home. They’d accepted a standing offer on their own place from a work colleague of Paul’s; he and his wife were renting and in no rush to move in, so Paul and Cindy could take their time finding the right place to buy. Paul was guardedly hopeful about the prospect, while Cindy was outwardly delighted and privately even more thrilled. She often eased out of bed in the middle of the night and booted up her laptop to research new houses that may have recently come on the market in their most desired locales; she wanted to stay on top of things.
It took two months of looking before they put down their first offer on a newer three-bedroom on a quiet cul-de-sac that backed up against a popular greenbelt. Walking distance to
funky restaurants and shops. A free summer concert series in a nearby park. Lots of bike lanes. It was a stretch for them financially, but they ended up taking a chance and submitting the offer anyway. When it was rejected, they had no wriggle room for a counter.
“Oh, well,” Paul told Cindy. “Guess it wasn’t meant to be. Que sera, sera.”
“Whatever that means.” Cindy spun the stem of her glass. They were sitting on their back patio drinking wine while Paul bar-b-qued skewers for dinner. Cindy had couscous warming in the oven.
Paul used tongs to turn the skewers and lowered the lid. “Truth is, that offer made me a little nervous anyway.”
“Everyone in our shoes says that.” Cindy pointed at him with her glass. “And everyone says you just have to bite the bullet and you’ll find a way to work things out in the end.”
Paul shrugged. “Just wasn’t meant to be.” He watched smoke creep out through the grill’s vents. “Something else will turn up soon…something better.”
“Mr. Optimistic,” Cindy mumbled.
He grinned, reached his glass towards hers, and said, “Here’s to the next one.”
She met his gaze and barely tapped his glass, her expression impassive. He took a swallow of wine and watched her sigh.
“Drink,” Paul told her. “Or else it’s bad luck.”
“Gosh, we wouldn’t want that.” Cindy shook her head, her eyes narrowing, but took a dismissive sip of wine.
As soon as their local newspaper came out each Wednesday, Cindy scoured the open house listings. She arranged for them to start looking with a new real estate agent without ending the relationship with their first. Two days a week, Cindy worked remotely from home, and she began taking longer and longer lunch breaks on those afternoons to drive the streets in the neighborhoods they aspired to most so she wouldn’t miss any new “for sale by owner” signs. She pestered friends and colleagues for leads on listings that hadn’t yet come on the market.
During the next six months, they put down four more offers, countered several times on a couple, and missed out on each. Interest rates had become historically low, the cycle had swung to a sellers’ market, and a sudden out-of-state influx of buyers further exacerbated competition. Paul remained even-tempered about things, but Cindy’s frustration only intensified over time. It seemed to him that she was either simmering with anger or all but exhausted, with increasing measures of both. He often found her awake in bed next to him in the middle of the night staring up into the darkness. When he did, he’d wrap his arms around her, tip her on her side, and gently rub her back the way she’d always liked; sometimes it helped her drift off, but more often, he fell back asleep himself before there was any change at all in the stiff countenance she offered in return.
Things seemed to come to a head for Cindy when the second couple they were close friends with had offers accepted in neighborhoods they’d been searching in. The sobering truth,
as Paul tried to point out to her, was that these offers were for properties well beyond their means, but that did nothing to assuage Cindy’s angst. To try to ease it, he took to bringing her breakfast in bed with the newspaper on Sunday mornings.
“Sweetie,” Paul said after sitting the tray down across her lap on one of those occasions. “Our time for that new house will come. We’re not even thirty yet. We just have to be patient.” He kissed her forehead.
“Sure,” she scowled. “You’re absolutely right.”
He watched her rifle though the newspaper until she came to the real estate section. When she snapped that open, he slowly retraced his steps back into the kitchen. He took his own breakfast off the tray he’d planned on taking into their bedroom so he could prop himself next to her and brought it instead into the living room where he found a sports recap show to watch on television while he ate alone.
A couple of hours later, Paul asked Cindy if she wanted to go for a jog with him, something they’d done regularly together for most of their marriage. She said no, but told him to have fun. As he was leaving, she reminded him of the listings they’d arranged to see with one of their agents early that afternoon. Then she walked slowly around their empty home, still dressed in her robe and slippers, making another mental list of things that had begun irritating her about it: the narrow hallways, the lack of bedroom closet space, the outdated kitchen appliances, the color of the walls they were doing nothing about because of their plans to relocate, the mess of leaves from the magnolia tree along the front walk. Afterwards, she sat down hard on the edge of the living room sofa and found herself biting the inside of her cheek. It took her several minutes to notice Paul’s coffee cup where he’d left it on the end table. She shook her head and pulled a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Then she snatched up the cup, carried it into the kitchen, poured out its dregs, and positioned it in the center of the sink where she hoped he’d find it and realize the journey it had taken to get there.
The first house they toured that afternoon sparked no interest, but the second was unexpectedly astonishing. It was a pocket listing their agent had just been told about and was being sold by an elderly widow who didn’t want a lot of what she called “looky-loo” traffic trapsing through her house. She’d lived there for almost fifty years until her husband’s recent death, but the upkeep had become too much for her alone, and now she wanted to move into a senior living apartment near a sister. Even though the house was old, it was in pristine condition, recently repainted inside and out, with double hung windows, gleaming hardwood floors, several sets of French doors, crown molding throughout, and decks on three sides overlooking private, mature landscaping. It sat on a quiet street of similar homes with trees at the curb so aged and sprawling that their tall, bushy branches almost touched in the middle. The widow and her husband had never had children, so wear and tear on the place was practically nil. And it was well within their price range; the selling agent said that he’d suggested a higher asking price to the widow but that she insisted on finding a quick sale to the right buyer so she could begin relocating. Frankly, the agent told them in a lowered voice, he thought her real reason was the place held too many memories of her deceased husband that she was anxious to leave behind.
Cindy’s awe grew exponentially with every step through the first floor, so before they even reached the second, she was pinching Paul on the soft skin under his arm with excited urgency. The agents had gone off together ahead of them.
“Ouch,” Paul hissed. He knocked away her probing fingers. “Okay, okay, I get it. It’s pretty darn nice.”
“Oh, Paul, it’s perfect.” Cindy whispered and moved closer beside him onto the landing. “Perfect. I don’t need to see another thing.”
But the bedrooms were even better. The two smaller ones had cushioned window benches like the one she used to read on growing up as a little girl, and the master bedroom featured a fireplace and a sizable balcony rimmed with sweet-smelling jasmine. Two wooden Adirondack chairs on it seemed to call her to settle there and listen to the hidden birdsong.
Back downstairs, Cindy busied herself looking at photographs on the living room fireplace mantel while the seller’s agent gave details about how recently the water heater and furnace had been replaced. The photos were all framed and showed the same couple together in various poses throughout the years. They began in faded black-and-white with a bride and groom at the open doors of a brick church and concluded with the two of them standing arm and arm in backyard shadows wearing gardening clothes holding hedge clippers and a rake. Cindy figured the couple in the last photo were in their mid-seventies and was struck by the quiet gentleness in both of their expressions in each picture.
She waited until they’d pulled away from the curb in their agent’s car to explode with their need to make an immediate offer. Both the agent and Paul turned around from the front seat chuckling at her exuberance.
“All right,” the agent said. “We can certainly do that. Glad you liked it.”
“Loved it,” Cindy told him. “Absolutely loved everything about it. Everything.”
“Okay, okay.” Paul made a calming gesture with his hands, then turned to the agent. “So, what do you think it will take to get the place. Full ask?”
The agent shrugged and cocked his head. “That would be my advice. I don’t think it will last long, even as a pocket listing.”
“Done!” Cindy almost shouted. “Do it. Make the offer.”
The agent was chuckling again. “All right, good. Let me drop the two of you off, then I’ll go take care of it.”
When they got home, Paul had to drive over to his office for a while, so Cindy tried to find things to keep her busy and her mind off the widow’s house. She cleaned windows that didn’t really need it. She swept the front walk, then channel surfed on the television. She cleaned up files to delete and spam on her laptop. Then about four o’clock, an idea suddenly struck her. She got out stationery and wrote the widow a note. In it, she explained that she and Paul were a young couple who’d just seen her house and had put an offer on it. She went on to say how much they admired all the little things about the house, how well it was kept, the long and special history the widow and her husband had so clearly fashioned there, and how she and Paul hoped to continue that same sort of care and love together as they built a history of their own in it. A shared legacy, Cindy called it…she hesitated, then added “lasting and profound”.
Without further thought, she sealed the note in an envelope, wrote the widow’s name on the front, and drove over to the house. She studied its exterior for several moments, not wanting to be seen, then got out of the car. She slipped the envelope into the mailbox at the end of the driveway, then quickly got back behind the wheel. Before leaving, she glanced at the house again. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw an elderly woman’s face peeking out from behind an edge of curtain at the living room window, and a strange mixture of warmth and anxiousness filled her. She forced herself not to speed as she drove away.
Their real estate agent called that next evening as Paul and Cindy were preparing dinner in the kitchen. Paul answered his cell phone on speaker without checking caller I.D.
“Hey there, you two,” their agent said. They both froze at the kitchen counter where Paul was chopping carrots and Cindy was rinsing lettuce at the sink. “Well, just wanted to let you know that you’re the proud owners of a beautiful new home. Congratulations.”
Cindy gave a yelp and leaped into Paul’s arms. She jumped up and down, hugging him, and shouting, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Their agent’s voice came next after another chuckle. “Just so you know, the owner got three other full price offers yesterday, and one was actually several thousand over asking. But I guess it was that note you left that made the difference. At least that’s what the owner’s agent told me.”
Cindy pulled away from Paul and stared at him with wide eyes. She shook her head, then began to cry and laugh at the same time. She pulled him back into another embrace and whispered in his ear, “I’m so happy. I’m so, so happy.”
They closed escrow quickly and moved in six weeks later. The house had been professionally cleaned after the widow moved out, and she’d left them a bowl of floating gardenias from the garden on the kitchen island. Cindy inhaled their fragrance, beamed at Paul, then began directing the movers as to where she wanted their furniture and belongings placed. She labored over the unpacking and arrangement of their things, trying to augment as much as possible the flawless beauty of the place. She stopped often to admire something new that had escaped her during their first visit: the classic bathroom tiles, the fluted glass handles on the French doors, the height of the master bedroom ceiling, the creosote-soaked bases on the deck pilings, a bird bath tucked under a spray of bougainvillea, stones lying here and there in the gardens engraved with words like “Trust” and “Grace” and “Remember”. She sometimes found Paul watching her from afar during these reveries, his lips creased into a small smile.
It took her a full week for her to get everything settled, as well as new items purchased and placed strategically where necessary before Cindy felt satisfied. They had friends over often afterwards to show the place off: for dinner, for drinks, for brunch, to pick up cuttings from their succulents, for any excuse she could think of really. Then the two of them finally settled into a personable rhythm that approached regularity and normalcy. Still, Cindy looked forward with anticipation to the days she could stay home to work remotely; for the first few weeks, she took frequent breaks on those days to wander through the rooms, hallways, and yard, stopping here and there to run her fingertip across an immaculate window sill, to watch tiny wrens splash at the birdbath, to wipe a smudge off the stainless-steel refrigerator, to rearrange items on a shelf, to pinch a furtive weed from a garden bed, to smooth a throw over the back of a couch or easy chair. In those moments, she shook her head often with what bordered on disbelief at her good fortune, a feeling of silent contentment wrapped around her like a silk cloak.
A full season had almost passed with fall beginning to whisper into summer’s tendrils before Cindy even began to allow for the occasional scattering of laundry to collect on top of the washer. In gradual succession, a few dishes remained unwashed from time to time on the kitchen counter, a stack of magazines sometimes grew crooked on the coffee table, a few of her clothes began to mingle out of order in her bedroom closet. Not long afterwards, their toothbrushes migrated from a hidden corner in the bathroom cabinet to a more accessible cup next to the sink, and she began not to care so much when Paul left his running shoes to air out on the front step or relocated the garbage cans next to the garage where they could be seen from the street instead of their original latticed cubby space inside the back gate. Her fingertip ran less frequently across window sills; fewer smudges were wiped off the stainless-steel. She noticed lighting fixtures that would not have been her first choice and the pantry shelving was limited at best; the water pressure wasn’t ideal. These developments occurred incrementally over time with little or no outright realization on Cindy’s part aside from a vague absence of the fresh buoyancy that had so recently dominated her soul, its confines now not in shadow, but somehow less sundrenched than before.
However, when they were home together, the smiles that were Paul’s regular greeting to her continued unabated. She’d found that he’d begun humming soon after they purchased the house, something she couldn’t remember him doing beforehand and that seemed to have become a sort of habit. He kissed and hugged her regularly for no special reason. And he initiated their lovemaking more often, it seemed to her, with a release that seemed filled as much with relief as passion. But none of this was really disconcerting; nothing niggled at her with clear unpleasantness. If its shiny wrapping had somehow been discarded or forgotten, the gift itself still held for Cindy its heft, its solid value.
One late afternoon just after the leaves had begun to turn on the trees, Paul surprised her with an embrace from behind while she was watering African violets on the kitchen island. Outside, the sun had just begun to creep below the treetops and its golden glow bathed the kitchen and the wide hallway beyond it opening into the living room.
He nuzzled the back of her neck, then rested his head on her shoulder and said, “Look at this place. How lucky are we?”
“Very.” Cindy allowed a sigh to escape her.
“You’re damn right we are.” He gave her a squeeze. “And all because of that note you left for the widow. What did you say in it, anyway?”
“I don’t remember.” One of her hands was clasped over his on her waist, and the watering can dangled from the other. “I don’t even remember.”
“Well, thank you for whatever it was. For bringing us this joy.” He gave her another squeeze. “You still feel that way, don’t you?”
“Of course,” she heard herself say. She rubbed his hand as she stared at the empty spot on the island where the widow had left them the floating gardenias.
A couple of weeks later, Cindy took an afternoon break while working alone at home. A stretch of Indian summer had begun, so she walked outside to cool off into the shade at the rear of their property where she heard splashing over the fence in their neighbor’s backyard. She stopped and peered through the shrubbery and a narrow gap in the fence and saw their neighbor, Amy, a woman a few years older than her, swimming laps in a pool. Cindy had never seen the pool before or heard anyone using it. In her black one-piece, the woman swam slowly, almost languidly, the water shimmering blue around her against the surrounding octaves of greenery. It looked to Cindy so peaceful, the woman’s movements graceful and contented, that her own fingertips instinctively raised to her lips. The only sound was of the woman’s steady strokes and the small, even puffs of air that came as she turned her head up and down in the water. Several burgundy lounge chairs perched at various angles on the flagstones bordering the pool, a thick, ivory towel draped half-hazardly over the edge of one.
Cindy whispered, “Beautiful.”
She shook her head, then turned and looked at their own backyard, studying its expanse of empty grass, thinking.
Cindy made a peach cobbler for dessert that evening: Paul’s favorite. She refilled his wine glass and waited until he was well into his cobbler, humming with satisfaction, before she said, “Did you know Amy and Dick have an in-ground pool out back?”
He looked at her blankly, chewing, and shook his head.
“Well, they do. I saw her swimming in it this afternoon. Swimming laps. Back and forth.” She waved her hand. “It was lovely.”
Paul swallowed, took a sip of wine, and said, “No kidding.”
“It’s not a big pool. Just a normal residential size, I suppose.” Cindy took a small sip from her own glass. “You know their backyard isn’t any larger than ours. A pool like that would easily fit between our deck and the back roses. Easily. I did some mental measurements. No problem.”
Paul set down his fork on the edge of his plate, reached the cloth napkin up from his lap, and dabbed at his lips with it. He folded it carefully on the table, then said, “And you’re thinking that’s something we should maybe consider for ourselves?”
“Well, think about how wonderful that would be. Lounging there, taking a dip whenever we liked, the exercise. We’re not using that grass for anything anyway. It’s just sitting there.”
“Yes.” She leaned forward, her heart quickening. “And we still have all that money we’d saved for the purchase of the house with the price we got. Just sitting there, too, waiting to be spent on something that would bring us…I don’t know…”
Cindy felt herself blinking. “Well, yes, I suppose so. Happiness, yes, why not?”
She nodded. Paul did the same, but more slowly. The jingle of an ice cream truck approached from a neighboring street.
Paul smiled as it grew closer. “Hear that melody?” he said. “Remember when you were a kid chasing the ice cream truck with a couple of quarters your parents gave you squeezed tight in your sweaty little fist?”
She stiffened. “Sure, I do.”
Paul shook his head. “I remember how happy that used to make me. I’d be over the moon. You remember feeling like that, too?”
“Of course,” Cindy said. “Who doesn’t?”
She sat back frowning. The ice cream truck’s jingle grew stronger, passed the corner a few houses up the block, then slowly dissipated. The evening was falling towards gloaming, but still held its unexpected warmth. The ice cream truck’s jingle died away completely, and then it was quiet. Candles between them flickered, throwing shadows across the tablecloth, making it hard for them to read one another’s expressions with anything close to certainty.