Going Home

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“A 20% down payment on a $600,000 house is $120,000.  You’ll need that plus another $20,000 to cover closing costs at minimum to get started.”

Back in India that amount of money would have bought a palace and even elsewhere in the US it would have bought a mansion, but here in the Bay Area it would buy only a modest 3 bedroom in a not-too-bad part of Oakland.  The numbers were so big they might as well be imaginary.   At more than a year’s gross salary just to get started, it was an almost impossible number to raise.  His programmer’s instinct kicked in and Ajay immediately started breaking down the numbers into smaller pieces.  $12,000 for the new motorcycle he had wanted since his bike had died – riding BART into the city every day had tripled the length of his commute.  $15k for a used minivan to get the kids to their soccer games and violin lessons.  Another $6,000 or so to take the whole family to India to visit his grandparents – after all they weren’t getting any younger and he wanted his children to have memories of them and of the village where he grew up.  Those costs had seemed insurmountable on their own but even all together they were only a third of what he’d need to raise here.  All of that and he hadn’t even scratched the surface of this phenomenal figure.  Still, his family needed a place to live and rent isn’t all that much cheaper than a mortgage once you get the down payment out of the way.  Why throw money down a hole? And Pita, his father, had always wanted the family to own land in America.

He and Vedika had saved everything they could for years but still barely scratched the surface of what they needed.  They both worked full time, lived frugally, almost never went out to restaurants or took vacations.  They’d managed to scrape together almost $20,000 over the course of the last 4 years – only to watch housing prices soar, dip temporarily almost into the range where they could  afford something, and then take off again with hardly a pause.  They had made several bids last year only to see all three houses get snatched up with cash offers from property management companies that promptly turned them into rentals.  When their offer for the last one fell through he and Vedika had been so disappointed they sat together and cried.  Their son, John (they’d given him an Anglo name to try and help him fit in) was 5 and had been so frightened to see his parents cry he’d joined in as well.  They kissed his tears away and let him sleep in their bed, the three of them holding each other tight like refugees on a life raft lost at sea.

Last month Ajay’s father had died, his mother had died of an illness years before and he was an only child.  He had been a good father, stern but fair; but they had never been close.  By the time Ajay was a teenager they were more like housemates than family.  He’d hardly discussed his money troubles, only a dutiful nod that “yes father, I am still saving.  We will buy land as soon as we can afford it.”  Pitā was old, but not that old so the death was a shock.  As far as anyone knew he was in good health.  Ajay was doubly shocked to receive a check for $150,000 from an insurance company – apparently his father had signed up for the policy just months prior.  He must have known somehow that it was coming.  And so the money appeared out of the blue, a message of love from the father he had hardly known.  He was alternately moved to tears, overjoyed, relieved, and ashamed at himself for feeling such emotions instead of the grief everyone expected.

The bank manager was impatient, drumming his fingers on his clipboard.  Mister Sampat, did you hear me?  There’s no point even looking unless you are ready to make a bid, the market is moving far to fast.  Do you have your down payment ready?

Yes, the money is all here.  It was a gift from my father.

Alright, I’ll need a signed and notarized letter saying that it was a gift and he will not be expecting repayment…

No, I’m sorry.  You don’t understand, he’s dead.  It was his life insurance money.

The man was caught of guard and stammered “Oh I’m, I’m sorry for your loss.”

It is alright, there’s no reason to apologize.  I will send you all the papers tonight.

A week later they made their first bid on a home, two weeks later they found out it had been accepted.  They kept waiting to give notice to their landlord in case something went wrong and the deal fell through, but all went as planned and a month later he had the keys.  He gave notice the same day.  As he and Vedika loaded up all their things into the moving truck John started to cry and asked “where are they taking our things Pitā?  Where are we going?”

Ajay picked up his little boy, the light of his world, and held him close.  “Dry your tears my son,  today we go home for the first time.”

If you were a painting

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A blank canvass is both exhilarating and terrifying for an artist.  Just think about it – greatness and mediocrity weighed in the balance, an infinite number of images and ideas, all exist in that blank canvass as potential.  Not fact, not even fiction, but potential.  Making that first mark is the most dangerous thing a person can do because from that moment the range of the possible becomes constrained by what is.  And every successive mark further constrains what can be, until the canvass is full, all possibilities stripped away and only bare fact remaining.  From this perspective, the act of creation is the most destructive thing a person can be involved in.

It sounded good, but Tim still thought it was bullshit.  The canvas mounted on the wall in front of him was blank, and despite the best efforts of the artist’s blurb to convince him that displaying a blank canvass was an act of artistic heroism akin to rescuing a puppy from a burning building, he found it impossible to take the “work” seriously.

Gina, however, was enthralled.  Or at least a bit more open minded.

It could be worse, some guys had girlfriends who dragged them to the mall on endless shopping trips.  By contrast the museum was cheap, Gina didn’t beg him to buy the paintings for her, and he never had to reassure her that the sculptures didn’t make her look fat.  If he was totally honest he even enjoyed a lot of the work.  Not this big strip of nothing of course, but a lot of the work was pretty cool.  His favorites were the modernist peices with their bold colors.  Sure they didn’t look like anything, but they didn’t need to; they were intended to represent emotion and not physical objects.  So while he wasn’t always sure which emotion it was the artist had intended (what color is love anyway?), he liked the way they made him feel.

He was startled when she grabbed him from behind, skinny arms flung around him in a big bear hug.

“I love the Monet’s!”  Her tone was jubilant.  “Thanks so much for agreeing to come with me to see them while they’re here.  I know impressionism isn’t your favorite but the museum only has them on loan for a few more days.”

He had left her in the classic art a few minutes prior to go explore on his own and hadn’t realized she’d caught up with him.

“Oh, I don’t mind.”  He gave her a broad grin.  “It’s not that I dislike impressionism, it’s just that a blurry painting seems counter-intuitive.  If I want to see the world as a Monet painting all I need to do is take off my glasses.”

It was an old joke, one he’d made before but she still dutifully chuckled along with him and gave him a look that made him feel like the wittiest guy in the room.    She reached up and took his glasses down off his nose.

“So, how do I look as a work of art?”  Her smile was coy and he didn’t need 20/20 vision to see the sparkle in her eye.

“If you were a painting I would take you home and hang you above my bed so I’d see you every night before I went to sleep and every morning first thing when I woke up. ”  It sounded like a line, but he meant it sincerely.

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Ooonh

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Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!

The heavy repetitive sound of synth bass came thundering through the floor and try as he might Charles could not tune it out.  Earplugs didn’t help, he could still feel the vibrations in the pit of his stomach churning the cheap chinese food he’d eaten earlier that night into a nauseous boil.  It was 3am and there was absolutely no way he was going to sleep.

He put some water on to make tea, hoping it would help settle his stomach.  The gas burners of his rickety stove didn’t light on their own so he had to use a lighter and a strip of paper from the stack of old newspapers he kept by the stove for exactly that purpose to get the burner going.  He’d moved into this rathole of an apartment barely a week before and the remnants of his former life were strewn about the place, mostly still in boxes.  As the bass pounded on, he ruefully remembered asking the landlord about the bar downstairs and how loud it got – Charles was a light sleeper and had to work mornings.  The old man had assured him that the bar was very mellow and not loud at all.  Lacking any other good alternatives in his price range and needing a place to be as soon as possible, Charles signed the lease.  He got his keys and moved in the next day.

That night, the pounding started.

Charles was not a violent or angry person by nature, in fact if you asked his ex wife Jeanine he was the most spineless useless loser to walk gods green earth.  Jeanine was bipolar and abusive.  Charles was codependant and figured she was probably right about him – or at least she had been right.  Right up until he walked in on her sleeping with their neighbor.  She yelled and screamed and said it was his fault and that if he had been a man she wouldn’t have had to look elsewhere.  As ever, Charles stayed calm.  He didn’t yell or hit her back when she started pounding on him, he simply picked up his car keys and went to the grocery store to ask for whatever used boxes they could spare.  He came home, packed a few things he couldn’t bear to leave behind while she sat in the corner and cried and cursed at him (now exhausted and on the downswing of her bipolar episode).  He did not say goodbye, didn’t look back.  What was there to see?

When he emerged from the house he could see the neighbors peaking through the blinds, wondering what the fuss had been about.  He nodded to them once, put the boxes his car, and started driving.  He couldn’t feel yet, it was too much.  So instead he went into programmer mode and started identifying problems to solve.  Driving from the ‘burbs his commute was terrible so he figured fixing that was the first order of business as a newly single man.  He drove into the city, got fast food, called in to work to say he was sick and wouldn’t be in tomorrow, and slept in his car that night.  That was last Thursday.  He spent Friday and Saturday looking for apartments and (lacking any savings to speak of to use towards a deposit – Jeanine had emptied all their joint accounts within an hour of his leaving) had ended up here.

The memory was still raw and that damn synth bass kicking him in the gut meant he couldn’t relax and let it go.  He couldn’t even think.

Charles grabbed his coat, keys, phone, and wallet and headed out for a walk.

The night air was cold, January had put a sharp chill in the air and he could see his breath.  After the stuffy stifling closeness of the apartment though it felt good.  He walked to the end of the block and couldn’t bear to turn around and go back.  He kept walking.  Despite the cold it had been a remarkably dry winter, the river was far below its normal winter depth and there was a homeless family camped under it – a father and daughter judging from the bald head out of one bag and the mop of curls out of the smaller bag that lay next to it.  “I could have it a lot worse” he thought, walking past them and up the winding pedestrian walkway that led up and over the bridge.  The thought was not particularly comforting.

He made his way slowly to the top of the hill and sat down, back against a tree and looking out at the bay.  From here, the world looked peaceful – almost serene.  He leaned back and exhaled slowly, not relishing the thought of returning to the thunderous noise of his apartment and the bar below it.

Dawn broke slowly over the city and the light woke him up not long after.  Charles hadn’t intended to fall asleep and his fingers were frostbitten from staying out all night, but his exhaustion had taken him unwittingly.  He slowly climbed to his feet, limbs creaking and sore, and made his way back slowly to his apartment, still half asleep.

The smouldering wreckage waiting for him when he finally got there startled him wide awake.  The whole building from the bar on up was gutted beyond repair.  He asked the cop who was taping the area off what had happened.

Fire brigade says the fire started in one of the apartments, looks like some jerk went for a walk and left the stove on.   Thank god no one was hurt!

Charles nodded numbly and stumbled away.  He had literally nothing but the clothes on his back – Jeanine had cleaned him out completely and everything he’d valued enough to take with him when he left was in that apartment.  And of course he didn’t have renters insurance.  As he stood there looking at the smouldering wreckage of his life he realized he was laughing like an idiot, the sound halfway between a sob and a guffaw.  He sat down on the sidewalk, head in his hands, and laughed and cried and then laughed some more until his body hurt.

A short walk and a cafe supplied pancakes thanks to the power of credit cards – the account he’d opened up the last time he almost walked out and never gotten around to telling Jeanine about or closing.  As he sat there eating he pulled his phone out of his pocket.  He couldn’t live on credit forever and he needed a place to stay until he could get on his feet again.  He flipped through his contacts thinking about who he could call – the breakup would mean that most of his friends would have divided loyalties.  Finally, he landed on his old college room mate – they’d’ kept in touch on Facebook but hadn’t spent much time in the years since graduation because their girlfriends didn’t get along.  He tapped the ‘Call’ button and waited while it rang.

Hey John, yeah it’s Charles.  Listen man, I know it’s been a while but I need a favor…