I went to a talk once about a group of immigrants in France who, even if they’ve lived there for a lifetime, never really settle because they believe that, one day, they will return home. This “myth of the return” means that they never learn the language or own property or buy furniture. They live with a very temporary sense of the present, always waiting to start their real lives in some elusive future. There is neither the need nor the inclination to plan or to adapt. Meanwhile, life goes on, as it does, and their children are French-born and speak French and go to French schools. And no one ever returns “home.”
We, too, have been living with a similar myth, it’s just that our one is called the “myth of moving out.” We’ve been moving out since we got here. When we first rented this apartment, way back in 2005, I’m sure we presumed we would be moving again within a year. But we never did. With each subsequent year that rolled around, we thought this will be the year we move. But we never did. This didn’t stop us from thinking that actually, we were going to move—any day now.
And so we sat in our psychological waiting room, fantasizing about how we’d like to have our living quarters arranged, some day. Meanwhile, we refused to change a thing but kicked the ugly landlord furniture as we side-stepped our way around the various mounds of stuff in our living room; slammed the really stupid mirrored medicine cabinet in the bathroom yet again because it’s too shallow to actually hold any toiletries or medicines and is mounted in such a way that we can’t check our reflections without going on tiptoes but whenever we straighten up after brushing our teeth, it’s always there; gave the “artwork” in the bedroom passive-aggressive dirty looks while thinking of ways to further deepen our hatred of the colour magnolia.
Before, when we thought we were moving, this sort of violence towards inanimate objects helped fuel our resolve to succeed in the house-hunting game. It even helped us start the whole moving process when we last thought we were definitely moving in the form of Operation Move, Part 1: The Big Clear Out. We cleared out wardrobes, cleaned the oven, gathered packing supplies. We were careful not to go too far and pack any boxes, as we were superstitious, but we did draw up floor plans and I daydreamed for hours about various shades of white and we talked endlessly about how we were going to Ikea-ify the shit out of the new place. Oh, it was going to be an Ikea wet dream by the time we were done. And then it all fell through and Operation Move got put on hold. Like the half-finished building sites of the Celtic Tiger, our apartment was left abandoned, stuck in a state of what might have been: empty boxes behind the couch, bags of charity-shop donations in the hall, baby equipment left in the middle of the sitting-room floor because there was nowhere else to put it. And we carried on kicking and slamming.
We lived in this dusty limbo for several months because there was a chance, as always, that we might be moving soon. So, back we went to viewings and making offers. Since our last round of house-hunting, the market had changed, again. This time round, there was even less stock available and people were now putting offers in above the asking price, effectively pricing us out before we even got a chance to bid. I began to think of alternative plans, each one more desperate than the next; Joseph started sending me listings that led me to believe that he was losing it. The clock tick ticked on our long-awaited mortgage approval. The pressure mounted until one day, after viewing the lovely property, below, we cracked and had a massive row. Like a fire, it burned through all the disappointments and expectations and false hope we’d held onto for so long and what we were left with was this simple truth: it’s just not happening. We decided to call the whole house-hunt off. This decision left us with our rented apartment, the one we had been trying to leave all this time except now we weren’t leaving anymore. We decided to move in.
We revisited Operation Move, Part 1, except this time, we were determined to complete it. We had to, we were moving! It was a daunting and overwhelming task. I combined all the various lists I’d made before under the heading “Shit got to go somewhere” in an Excel worksheet, a page dedicated to each “room” in our apartment. We started with the floor as one of my biggest ambitions in life was to be able to walk in a straight line from roughly one end of a room to the other. This meant tackling the baby equipment. Ugh, baby equipment. A lot of it is extremely useful for exactly three months, at most, and then it becomes an insulting form of useless but if you go to get rid of it, you feel like you’re making some sort of awful family-planning decision. We don’t have an attic to house this sort of sentimentality, however, so out it went to be sold or donated, my internal dialogue all the while saying things like “Oh, remember this?! Remember tiny baby Boone drooling all over it? Remember the time he thought the squeaky nose on this smiley face rattle was a nipple?” And on and on.
Once the floor was partially cleared, we moved our way up to every press, drawer, and closet in the place. Fortunately, Boone had already been helping us with this process ever since he’d started crawling. He’s really talented at unearthing stuff—of no use to us, yet potentially very dangerous to him—like those earbuds that come “free” with iPods and mobiles, coins from countries we’ll likely not revisit, old tubes of sunscreen way past the point of effectiveness but still harmful if digested. He’s also very talented at taking the things we need and use on a daily basis and putting them in places like the bin or, his favourite of late, the toilet. For the latter, he’ll quick-as-lightning flush the very useful item down and then cackle in delight. Sometimes, we’re lucky and the item moves on down the pipes but then there’s other times when my wide-toothed comb, say, gets only partially flushed and ends up lodged at a very awkward angle, creating a toilet dam, which in turn prevents us from flushing toilet paper ever again, or at least not until we get around to getting a plumber in.
To that end, most of our junk drawers had been cleared of junk. However, there was plenty still out of Boone’s reach and/or interest that we had to go through—like those archived boxes of paperwork from the Baton Rouge years in the hallway closet. It was difficult raking through our lives as they appeared on paper over the last eight years in our current office, but it was gruelling to go through the Baton Rouge boxes. There are probably many reasons for this. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that those years are what’s known as “formative,” you know, those delicate post-college, early-twenties years when you emigrate and get married and have nothing. Or maybe it’s because, having sold or donated everything else we owned, those boxes of utility bills were the only things we had left. I can remember bringing those boxes to the shipping place and telling the clerk to put them on the boat, the real slow boat. When everything had been all duck-taped and bubble-wrapped up, they told me how much it was going to cost; I can’t remember the exact figure because I’m fairly sure that I momentarily lost consciousness with the shock, but it was somewhere in the region of five to eight hundred dollars. I paid it, though, because applying for a Green Card had made me nothing if not paranoid about keeping paperwork (they really are watching, as it turns out). It’s a good thing, too, because those utility bills came in handy exactly once, when Joseph had to prove that he really had existed between the years of 1999 and 2005 for his Irish citizenship application. One bill—not every bill—from each of our previous addresses sufficed but I’m choosing not to reflect on that because it makes me too sad.
The clear out took on a rhythm as we nightly opened drawers on rubbish and memories. At the beginning of the night, we’d start out all fervent and ruthless (get rid of it! throw it out!) but then all the forced interaction with the past would begin to wear on us and decision fatigue would set it and our previously rigid records management system would get a bit slack (maybe we should keep this? ah, go on). I began to understand the odd assortment of things that were left behind in those dead granny houses we used to view. We also began to notice that there was something cosy about the tediousness of it all—with each box of shredded paperwork or bag of clothes we got rid of (not to mention ugly ornament we’d only ever kept out of a sense of guilt), our apartment began to feel like home.
Soon, it was time for Operation Move, Part 1, Phase 2: The Deep Clean. We had never done a really deep clean before, not even before Boone’s arrival because my nesting hormones manifested themselves in the form of filing old bank statements, which was both a) crazy and b) completely unnecessary. Besides, we were moving, any day now, so why bother washing the windows or fixing the freezer door so that the freezer didn’t freeze over and make the fridge a slimy, puddly, unrefrigerated mess? Sure, we cleaned, but we cleaned around the dirt; we’d hoover the middle of the floor knowing full well that fluffy dust and other “debris” awaited us under the couch and in neglected corners, we’d wipe down the kitchen counter but know that there was a significant amount of grime just above eye-level. Our apartment was beginning to resemble those previously rented apartments we had viewed on the house hunt. Technically clean but not the type of clean that says “I love you.” There’s a scene in Amongst Women by John McGahern where the children wake up to find that everything looks clean and cared for, like it had all been wiped down with a damp cloth. I wanted our apartment to be like that. So, off I went with my damp cloth and cleaned, left to right, top to bottom. It felt like madness (probably because it was), like when we have a flight the following day and stay up beyond a reasonable hour, packing and cleaning into the pre-dawn hours. The next day, my muscles ached.
The madness and the muscle ache were worth it. Now that everything has been wiped down, it is a different colour. The walls are still magnolia but they are no longer dust-dull magnolia. The furniture is still ugly but is no longer splashed by Boone’s attempts at self-feeding or artistic self-expression. Every door to every press closes properly. Somehow, the hall closets being cleared out makes the hallway itself feel more spacious. Everything in the fridge is now a reassuring degree of refrigerated. All of the knobs on all of the appliances turn with ease. I feel like breaking into this song every five minutes. It’s glorious!
I think a big part of our house hunt was the search for permanence. We wanted to have a place we could call home, a place where Boone could grow up. But this is our home, Boone is growing up here. It took us eight years but we’ve finally moved in. And there’s a space in the hall that’s crying out for a beautiful painting, something of our choosing to enjoy here, now in this temporary of temporary places.