A lost house, a lost life

A blogger's words took me back to that rainy day when everything began to fall apart.

Published October 15, 2005 2:00PM (EDT)

It was a Wednesday morning in fall when I found the blog. I was in our front room, writing, raising my head periodically to look out the window. Sometimes, it felt like I'd been doing this all my adult life: sitting on a sun porch in front of a computer, gazing at trees that were leafy or blazing with color or skeletal against the sky.

The children had left for school. Ordinarily, I would have been at my office downtown, running from one staff meeting to the next, marking galleys, dashing out to Starbucks; but I'd had some minor surgery the week before and was working from home. Thanks to this convalescence, I had three chapters of a new novel nearly done. But my magazine editor was expecting an article the following day, so it was time to switch gears. I put away the fiction, checked my e-mail, poured another cup of coffee, and planned to get down to business ... right after I Googled myself.

It was a habit I'd developed when my first novel came out. Reviews would appear, people would cite the book in articles, and I would never know. Days or weeks later someone would say, "How did you like that piece in the Chicago Tribune?" and I'd run home to hunt for it. Now, I ran an Internet search every week or so and if the number of hits was dramatically higher than the last time, I'd look through to see what was new.

There was a minor bump this morning, from 3,200 to 3,670 -- something like that. I almost didn't check, knowing that I really should be writing a restaurant review instead, and that most of the hits would be identical: discount booksellers and notes made by librarians who'd added a single copy of my novel to their stacks. I made a deal with myself that I'd go through the first three pages only, then open my notes and begin on the review. It was toward the end of the third Web page that I ran into an entry titled simply "The Bug."

I clicked on the link, and there appeared a photograph of the front steps leading to a brick house. I recognized it immediately. A decade ago -- when I was married and in my 20s, the mother of three little children -- I had lived there. This was my first sun porch facing a wide sunlit street, the place where I'd begun writing.

Most of us buy our homes or move into our apartments and never again see or hear from, or about, the prior owners, the text underneath the photo began. What followed was a description of the remnants of various owners this writer had found in his 90-year-old home. At the end of the list: and, in our sunroom, pencil scribblings from one of the three children that used to live here. I scanned down the page. In Paragraph 2, the author mentioned having picked up the newspaper one day only to run across an article about "a debut novel by Ann Bauer." He included some very flattering quotes and a thumbnail sketch of my book, then the words: When I read this I was shocked: we bought our house from Ann Bauer and her husband in 1997. The pencil scribblings are theirs.

I read the entire entry with a voyeur's fascination. This was my own life, but it wasn't. It was my life from the perspective of a stranger -- one who felt bizarrely compelled to blog about it.

After a summary of the way the house sale between us had come about -- the fact that he and his wife had looked at our home, loved it, and bid to buy it even before it officially hit the market; a subsequent dispute over the deal that "ultimately ended in [their] favor"; and a portrait of me as the terse, stern wife of a gentle man that was accurate enough to make me squirm -- he set the scene for moving day.

When J- and I moved in, there was a pouring rain that seemed to augur bad luck. ... But move in we did, just as the Bauers worked hard to remove their last possessions and hurry to get out as we hauled our wet boxes inside.

Now it was I who sat, shocked, drinking my coffee and recalling in painful detail a day I'd worked hard to forget. A day I had, in fact, erased with fiction -- creating in my first novel a family with the good sense (at least) to stay in their beloved, worn and slightly tilted 1920s-era home.

The blog entry was beautifully written, for the most part; I wasn't entirely surprised to find that its author was himself an aspiring novelist. He mentioned that the article had referred to me as a single mom and speculated without malice on the cause of my divorce from "Mr. Bauer," a man whom he remembered as decent and kind. He admitted to feeling a mixture of admiration and envy for the fact that I am now a published author, while he continues to toil fruitlessly in the house where I once lived.

And he confessed, too, that he wondered sometimes if his writer's block could be the karmic result of having taken that house from a family that was, as he put it, "in the midst of hard times."

In 1997, my older son, Andrew, was 9 years old. He had been a sweet, golden baby and a somewhat taciturn toddler. At nearly 4, he had disappeared into an autistic trance -- it happened in an instant, as if I'd become distracted for a moment and someone had snatched him out of his own body while I wasn't looking. I spent years afterward in a frenzy of terror and perpetual movement, seeking out new therapies to help him, reading to him...anything that might turn the key and release him from wherever he'd gone.

In the parking lot of a school down the street from the blogger's house, I taught Andrew to ride a bicycle. He was 6 years old. That, too, was a day of gray skies and, eventually, a cold, driving rain. I was wild that he learn, certain the activity of "cross-patterning" -- moving his legs in circles, one and then the next -- would help cure him. When the storm began in earnest, my husband came to the school to retrieve us; he found Andrew crying, me hoarse from having yelled again and again: "Pedal! You've almost got it. Just keep pedaling!!" Jim took us both by the shoulders and led us home, wrapped us in blankets, then went back for the bike.

By 8, Andrew had emerged about halfway. He was sleeping soundly for the first time in years. He could bicycle, write his name, and answer simple questions. But he remained aloof, distant, different. Early in spring of '97, I took a new tack. He needed space, I decided. And nature. We were living on the sleepy edge of Minneapolis, in a neighborhood where people tended to stay in their homes for 30 years; there was no vibrancy here, nothing new to stimulate him. While the boys were in school, my 2-year-old daughter and I began riding around in the leather opulence of a real estate agent's Lincoln, looking at houses.

It was March when I found one that seemed perfect. A sprawling four-bedroom ranch, it sat on the edge of a marsh and had, I imagined, at least 200 species of animals and insects in the backyard alone. What's more, it was in a school district renowned for its work with autistic children. I told my husband I wanted to buy it and he agreed, sight unseen. "You should look at it," I insisted. And though he was exhausted after a day spent driving from copy shop to copy shop, peddling paper and ink, making small talk though it was not his nature, he did. But his opinion seemed completely unaffected by a tour of the house and grounds and his words remained the same: "If you think it's the right thing to do, we'll do it."

Jim was a carpenter when I met him. But by the time child No. 2 arrived, we'd both glimpsed the lean life ahead of us if he continued working for an hourly wage. There were two choices: He could get a better-paying job, or I could go to work. When Andrew was diagnosed, all thoughts of the latter disappeared; I would be needed at home, to organize his schedule and research new approaches to autism, implement diets, go to doctor appointments, monitor homework, and meet with teachers to discuss his "individualized education plan." Jim took a sales job and began wearing a sport shirt and tie. I started a small business writing from home, earning around $500 a month -- grocery money.

When the house on the marsh presented itself, it seemed like the next logical step. My parents lived in a large home in the suburbs, Jim's in an even larger home on the posh outskirts of a small city. Growing up as a family seemed to require this move. And so, just as the Bug-man described, we put our little house on the market and found it was such a hot commodity -- a fairly well-maintained older home in a nice neighborhood near Minneapolis -- there were people calling even as the listing hit the MLS. The blogger and his wife were the first in, as the result of some favor brokered between our agent and theirs. They bid within hours and the deal was sealed with a single showing.

Then Jim lost his job.

It was a few weeks after the contracts were signed -- both for our house and for the upgrade I'd selected. My swarthy husband came home with a face nearly as pale as his crisp, white shirt. "They're closing the Minneapolis office at the end of the week," he told me. And we both sat, stunned, looking furtively at the phone.

Eventually, it was I who called the realtor to ask what our options were. We could get out of the purchase without difficulty, he said; in fact, we had to. We no longer qualified to buy something new. But our current house? I asked. "That's a done deal," he said. "You sold non-contingent. It's theirs."

The man of the leather-upholstered Lincoln seemed magnificently unimpressed with our predicament: You lose a job, you find another, his attitude seemed to transmit. You go broke, you get back up again. Just hold on and wait for the next big score. He was a player. My husband wasn't. The truth was Jim had loathed his job from the very beginning. He missed working with his hands and hated wearing a tie. For a brief time, he seemed relieved, even as we were preparing to be homeless. Then the panic set in.

Call the deal off! I wanted to scream at our real estate agent. Tell these people what happened. We have three children, one with autism. They're a childless couple living in an apartment with nothing to lose, they'll understand!

And I did say something of the sort. Calmly, I hope. I offered to give the couple back their earnest money and then some. To pay their rent for a couple months in compensation. I asked our agent to make the case, and he claimed that he did.

"They're not going for it," he said, and shrugged. "Can't blame them. Legally, the house is theirs. And they want it."

I asked for a couple months -- months during which we would pay their expenses. If we could just delay the closing, I was sure Jim and I could figure something out. But again, the answer was an unconditional no. They had given notice on their apartment, I was told, and it had been rented to someone else. Yes, there probably was another unit available in their building, but they didn't want to go through the hassle of moving twice. The closing would take place on schedule. We were to be out of the house on the agreed-upon date or they would take legal action.

To the end, I kept believing there would be an 11th-hour reprieve. Even as we packed, I was listening for the phone, hoping the couple would call to say, "We've been thinking it over. We just can't do this to you. Let's work something out." But that call never came. And on that very wet day in late April, we moved most of what we owned into storage and took off in our minivan, with the things we used daily -- a coffeepot, dictionary, socks, a small portable TV -- piled haphazardly in back. Our plan was to hunker down for a few weeks in the empty house of a friend of a relative who would charge us extortion-level rent. After that, we had no idea.

When I look back, two days stand out in my memory. One was the day I first realized my son had vanished. There had been signs for a week or so: He'd begun whining instead of speaking, and holding his hand in front of his eyes -- palm close to his face, fingers flapping -- in an odd and completely new way. But there was a moment, standing in the kitchen, staring down at him, that I saw, really saw, and felt an icy shudder begin at my feet and rise up my legs until I had to reach out and lean on the counter in order to keep from falling down.

The other was the day we left that house. Who knows what might have happened if we had stayed? If that call had come and the husband and wife had come over and we'd all drunk coffee and talked and worked out a compromise and hugged one another and become friends ... Our lives could have taken an easier course, or a harder one. It could have changed everything; it could have changed nothing.

One thing I've always suspected, though, is that my marriage might have survived -- or at least been prolonged -- if we had stayed in that house.

Shortly after we closed and drove off, installed ourselves in the overpriced rental and began looking frantically for jobs, my husband -- nine years sober -- began drinking again. He was moderate about it at first. And it didn't seem like a bad thing: a glass of cheap wine in the evening to take the edge off. This was our quiet time together and I was, stupidly, all for it, believing he'd beaten his demons long ago.

But, of course, I was entirely wrong. He blamed himself for the loss of our home. He was seething with guilt. And as was his habit, hard-wired from the time he was a teen, he salved his feelings of shame and frustration with alcohol.

What actually happened next is a jumble inside my head -- in small part due to the passage of time, but mostly because I have since written a story for which I mined all these incidents, then shaped and twisted and reimagined them until the fiction I dreamed up all but replaced the memories of who we were.

I know there was a lost summer, during which we stayed in a variety of places. Then there was a broken-down house that we bought so Jim could fix it up and resell it at a profit, which he did. We lived in that house while he was working on it, and our kids were able to have a semi-normal school year. But inside our family, something had broken.

Jim continued to drink. I became fiercely independent, driven and angry. A year and a half after leaving our home, we finally were back on our feet, financially. So we forged ahead: I went to grad school and we bought a house nearly as big as the one on the pond. Jim took another sales job, on the condition he would do it for only a couple years, in order to get me through the degree program. After that, it would be my turn to support us.

He lasted exactly six months.

That debut novel to which the blog writer referred chronicled this: the end of a marriage between two people who truly love each other, the outcome of a series of bad and unlucky choices, the missteps you wish you could take back seconds after they happen. Instead of the loss of a house and a marriage undone largely by alcoholism, I imagined a couple whose mistakes were more exotic: a transaction with bad cops, a Faustian-style bargain, a risky unorthodox "cure" for their autistic son. Still, our experiences informed the emotions behind everything I wrote. And it's likely there never would have been such a book had we not gone through what we did.

Three years after leaving our house, Jim and I separated. I studied and wrote. He drank. After a failed tour of rehab, he reached a bottom so low he decided it was better for our children not to see him. Torn between fury and concern for the man who had been my husband for 13 years, I agreed. We divorced; he moved to Louisiana and I went to Providence, R.I. For six months once, I didn't hear from him at all and I thought he might be dead. But we never completely came apart.

Once, when I needed help, I called his cellphone and he sold everything he owned to fly out to Rhode Island. Then, shortly after I moved back to Minnesota two years ago, he e-mailed from a YMCA in South Dakota where he'd landed after his latest attempt to dry out, asking about the children and offering to send money. When I responded, saying Andrew -- now a teenager, long emerged from his autistic fugue and recovered from that chaotic year of wandering -- had grown beyond me and needed his father, Jim found a way to come home.

For some reason, I wrote to the blogger who occupies my old house and told him a brief, sanitized version of this story. I said that the move had, indeed, been hard on us but that Jim and I had managed, somehow, to remain the best of friends. Then I told him he was a fine writer and wished him the best of luck with his novel. I don't know why I did it, exactly. Maybe it was because he'd admitted, after all these years, that he and his wife might have done the wrong thing. And I felt strangely empowered.

He responded right away: a long message full of details about his life, the anxiety that had plagued him, the work that was very slow getting off the ground. He repeated his apology about the circumstances of our house deal: I hope we didn't seem crass in any way. For years I kept wondering if we hadn't somehow jinxed this place.

He'd been reading my essays -- in the magazine and online -- and had ordered my book from the library, he wrote sheepishly, because he could not afford to buy it. But he was happy to hear that "Mr. Bauer" and I were on good terms; it was good for kids, he attested from his own childhood experience, if their divorced parents were amicable.

Then he asked if I would like to visit him and see the house.

Reading this, the last sentence in his message to me, I caught my breath. Gone was the serene maturity with which I'd handled this odd encounter. Suddenly, I was angry. Who was he to invite me back into my own home for a visit? I read over the message, differently, seeing that it was peppered with references to his nearly finished manuscript. And I became meanly suspicious: here was a man who thought, after everything that had happened, that I might be of use to him! Clearly, he wanted me to visit so he could mine me for details about publishing and get a list of my contacts in New York.

Thankfully, I waited to respond. I walked away from the computer, went to a post-surgical doctor appointment, picked up my younger son from school, conducted a few interviews, then drove home to look over the blogger's message again. This time, there was no hint of the exploitation I'd read into it before -- only a sad, articulate, kind man who sat alone, struggling to write, as I often do.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Around 5:30 that afternoon, I was lying on the living room couch when the door opened and Jim walked in, just as he used to do, a decade ago. Since my surgery, he'd been coming over after work to help the children with dinner, check their homework, and do the heavier cleaning. He'd also hemmed a pair of my pants and darned a hole in my cashmere sweater, both of which he dropped into my lap before going into the kitchen to pour me a glass of wine.

Sober three years this time, he still looks most vulnerable to me when he is doing this. He insists it doesn't bother him -- that I shouldn't get up, reach for a glass, lift the bottle -- but sometimes, I wonder.

When he came back, I accepted the glass and gestured for him to sit next to me. He scowled. He wasn't much for talking, even back when we were married. This is one of his least favorite things about spending the evenings with us -- my desire to hash over the day. He perched on the edge of the sofa, a few inches from my bare feet, elbows planted on his thighs.

He looks completely different from the man he was in 1997. Back then he was dark-haired and clean-shaven but for a neat mustache. Now, he wears his thinning hair in a long ponytail. His beard is entirely gray. He is back to working with his hands and does not bother anymore trying to get the paint and chemicals and oil stains out of his clothes. He had on a ripped T-shirt and a pair of camouflage pants flecked with dried globs of something yellow.

I'd begun to hurt and had taken a pain pill earlier. Between that and the wine, the afternoon, sunny and warm for September, slowly started to soften. I arched my back and pointed my toes. Jim and I weren't touching -- we rarely do -- but I could feel him, within inches of my feet. "I have to tell you about this thing I read this morning," I said.

He looked at me. Then he sat back, and I began.

By Ann Bauer

Ann Bauer is the author of three novels, including "Forgiveness 4 You," which the Overlook Press published this month. Follow her @annbauerwriter


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