Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Closing Time

I knew I would marry my husband the moment I met him on a dance floor in South Padre Island, Texas.  It was an inconvenient realization; I was a senior in college, on spring break with my girlfriends, and in a satisfactory relationship with a good guy at home.  But when this stranger in pink began singing “Summer Nights” to me as if he were John Travolta himself, our future nuptials were a foregone conclusion. 

“I like you!  Where do you go to school?” I shouted over the cast of Grease’s urging to “Tell me more, tell me more…”

“I go to school with you,” he replied.

“Tell me everything you know about C.B.C.,” I demanded of a friend the following morning as we sat dangling our sun-ripened legs in the hotel pool. 

“I think he’s from Long Island,” she began.

“Long Island?” I repeated, crinkling my nose. 

At the time my knowledge of Long Island consisted of the following: The Great Gatsby, Joey Buttafouco, Long Island iced teas. 

“Well, is he staying in Philly after graduation?”

“No.  I think he accepted a job in New York.”

This was getting more complicated.  As a native Philadelphian already enrolled at a Philadelphia law school for the fall, I had aspirations of eventually becoming the District Attorney and owning a big, historic home on the Main Line.  For this inevitable marriage to work, I would have to persuade C.B.C. to return to Pennsylvania someday.

For the three years that I attended law school, C.B.C. and I carried on a long-distance relationship.  Every two weeks, either I would board a train to visit his dingy first apartment above a Turkish restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, or he would commute to the Main Line, where I shared a spacious, neutral-smelling two-bedroom apartment with a good friend from college. 

On the weekends we spent in Pennsylvania, we’d follow the same routine every Sunday: 10 a.m. mass at St. Matthias and brunch at Hymie’s followed by a winding walk through the neighborhoods of Merion, Narberth, and Bala Cynwyd.  As we walked, we’d admire and discuss the many magnificent homes lining the sidewalks: Stone farmhouses, exquisite Tudors, and- my personal favorites- brick colonials. 

“I can’t even imagine how much money it takes to own one of theses homes,” I’d say.

“We’ll do it someday,” he’d reply.

“Own a home in Pennsylvania?” I’d ask, hopefully.

“No. But someday we’ll own a home.”


“I don’t know.  Maybe Long Island.”

I’d crinkle my nose.  The breadth of my knowledge of Long Island had expanded since dating C.B.C.; I now knew that it was also heavily congested. 

“But Long Island isn’t home,” I’d protest.  “Long Island doesn’t have good soft pretzels, and Tasty Kakes, and Wawa.”

“Everything you love about Philadelphia has to do with food,” my husband would observe.

“No.  I also like how everyone on the Main Line puts electric candles in their windows year-round.”

Putting white candles in the window is an old Pennsylvania-Dutch custom.  As far as I had seen, it was not observed on Long Island.

“We’ll put candles in our windows,” C.B.C. would assure me.

The worst part about Sundays was driving C.B.C. to Suburban Station so he could catch a train back to New York.  I’d cry as I took I-76 back to my apartment.  One night, while I was struggling to get through some case law reading, C.B.C. sent me the lyrics to the Coldplay song, “Swallowed in the Sea.”

The streets you’re walking on,
A thousand houses long,
Well that’s where I belong,
And you belong with me. 

“This song reminds me of you,” he said.  “I promise you some day we will live in the same state, the same city, the same house.”

A year after I graduated from law school, C.B.C. and I married, as I’d predicted, and moved to New York City.  I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to life in a new city, and how quickly it felt like home to me.  Within weeks I was fearlessly navigating the subway, taking solo runs through Central Park, and carping on slow-moving tourists like a true New Yorker.  I forgot all about living in Pennsylvania (though I still missed Wawa) and living in a traditional home.  But after Minnow was born, the desire for a grassy yard, a formal dining room, and little white candles in the windows began to resurface. 

Our home search began in earnest in 2011, when Minnow was about six months old.  We found a beautiful town on Long Island with paved sidewalks, tall trees, and excellent schools.  It reminded me of the Main Line, so we decided to concentrate our search there.  Almost immediately we made an offer on a center-hall colonial, which the owners accepted.  The house was charming, but not perfect.  It had aluminum siding, which my husband didn’t like; only one full bathroom, which I didn’t like; and a sagging roof, which our inspector didn’t like.  After the homeowners refused to split the cost to replace the roof, we were forced to walk away from the deal.  I was devastated.  Our daughter’s toys and accessories were prevailing over the rapidly dwindling space in our one-bedroom apartment, and we needed a solution.

We relocated to a two-bedroom apartment in Bronxville and signed an 18-month lease to give us time to continue the search for our dream starter home.  We downloaded the Trulia, Zillow, and New York Times Real Estate apps to give us a head’s up on the housing market.   We attended open houses almost every weekend.

In July of last year we saw a whitewashed brick colonial on a manicured street in our preferred town.   It looked exactly like the homes I used to draw as a child: Square body, triangular roof, chimney, symmetrical windows, attached garage.  It was breathtaking but, unfortunately, its appeal ended at the curb.  The interior was wrapped from floor to ceiling in bold, botanical-print wallpapers.  The carpets were fit for a cat, and no one else.  The kitchen cabinets, painted sky blue, were original to the house and dated back to the 1930s. 

It was absolutely perfect and I knew, as much as I knew about my husband the first time we met: It would be mine someday.

“I don’t see it,” my husband said after we left the open house.  “It needs a lot of work.”

“So did you,” I quipped.

We didn’t make an offer on the house and it sat on the market for several months.  The homeowners bumped the price down a few times, but it didn’t sell.  Each time the price was reduced I would inform my husband, and each time he would voice his doubts.  One day in late November the house was no longer listed for sale on any of my real estate apps.  I was, again, devastated.  I called the seller’s agent and she gave me some encouraging news: The owners had decided to take the house off the market during the holidays, but intended on relisting it after Christmas.

The weekend after Christmas we walked through the white brick house for a second time.  This time my husband was more open to the idea of living there because this time I had a special ally: Peanut.  She’s coming, and she needs a bedroom!  We made an offer on January 2nd.  Our offer was accepted on January 4th.  We signed a sales contract on January 13th.  The dream of owning a home appeared to be within reach.

And then, for lack of a better term, a lot of shit went down.  Our home inspection revealed that the house was missing several roof shingles, presumably from Super Storm Sandy, and exhibited evidence of termite damage in the basement.  The sellers, at first, refused to fix either problem.  Then it took them six weeks to sign the sales contract because they didn’t want to represent that all of the appliances were in working condition ("an ambiguous phrase," they said) and wanted us to agree that they could leave “any an all personal property on the premises after closing and title [would] automatically pass from sellers to buyers.”  (That’s a literal line from the original contract.  If you had seen the state of their garage and basement, you would understand why we couldn’t sign off on that.) 

Then the 86-year-old seller husband had an emergency appendectomy, from which he had to recover in the hospital for six weeks.

Then we were constructively evicted from our apartment, and moved in with my in-laws. 

Then the sellers (again) asked me if we would mind if they left their pool table in the basement.  (We minded).

It took over four months, but on Monday, the guy I met on spring break and I became the owners of our very first home:

As we walked through the house after closing, my husband stopped at the living room window and began scanning the wall below it.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He pointed to an outlet to the left of the window.  “And that’s where you’ll plug in your candle,” he said.

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