Owning My Shit
It took two years and 130 houses to find the one. It was my first house and I considered my options carefully. I didn’t rush in. Instead, I rushed to the bathroom.
It was always the kitchen that made my stomach seize. This one was the same as all the others: an industrial-sized refrigerator, dark brown cabinetry, marble countertops, and an island as big as Manhattan.
“This is a spectacular renovation,” my wife, Victoria, said. She was right. The kitchen was straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. The bathroom was pristine and all beige. It had Grohe fixtures (no American Standard). There was a candle burning because certain smells sell houses; they evoke an image of home. But that candle had nothing on me.
I walked out with my head down and Victoria knew we couldn’t live there. She was humiliated because I took so long in the bathroom, but worse, she thought I was afraid to commit. To her. But that wasn’t it; we were planning our wedding and already had two kids together. She was right though, I was afraid to commit to something.
I grew up in a six-bedroom house on five acres of land in the suburbs of Miami. Our house was different than any in the neighborhood, than any I’d ever seen. It was built in the sixties out of dark wood and white brick. It was modern and also funky. As you drove up, it looked like a nontraditional, 70s-style church, stretched out wide with three towers, the one in the middle, the highest. The inside was sunny and cool with red brick floors. The back was lined with sliding glass doors and every room had a skylight. Art hung on the brick walls and bookcases were built in. There was no beige.
In the summer, my brother and I built obstacle courses and played kickball with the neighborhood kids using the trees as bases. We spent hours doing cannonballs into the pool.
At 18, I left for the University of Pennsylvania. In my dorm room, I hung a purple batik calendar I’d made using a bed sheet. My bed was red, pink and purple—a patchwork quilt my mom had made.
Like everybody else, I spent the first few years going to frat parties and to Smokey Joes, a bar on campus. But senior year, I joined the PSA, the Progressive Student Alliance. There were 30 of us—30 progressive students out of 10,000 undergrads. We hung out at one member’s off-campus apartment, which was also an art studio, and made posters protesting military recruitment on campus or the gag rule, which restricted access to abortion.
My PSA friends didn’t look like typical Penn students—big haired Jewish girls in leggings and oversized sweatshirts. We wore colored tights under boxer shorts, men’s suit vests, and clogs; anything we could find at the thrift store for a dollar. When I went home for Winter break in boxers and a men’s suit jacket, my dad was like: What the hell? I was going for different.
After graduation most of my Penn friends went to Wall Street or law school. I went to the East Village and came out as a lesbian. Then I went west, like the cliché, to become who I thought I really was.
In California, I rented a 600-square-foot bungalow in Venice, the down-to-earth neighborhood amid superficial Los Angeles. In Venice, no house was the same: Victorians stood next to Mid-Century Moderns next to A-frames. There were canals and hidden walkways. There were gardens with cacti and homegrown kale. Lanterns hung from trees. You could smell the jasmine that laced the fences. You could walk to the corner to buy coffee at the shop called Abbot’s Habit. There were no Starbucks.
A community center offered free financial literacy classes in Spanish and free yoga classes in English. The director, Melvin, an old black man, sat watch out front all day.
My bungalow had exposed wood beams on the ceiling. The kitchen was separated from the living room by an island covered in Mexican tile the color of chili peppers. I always kept the front door open. The sun came in and so did my neighbors.
There in my bungalow, I fought for the underdog. I founded Bike Out—mountain biking expeditions for queer youth. I called myself queer.
One day, I told Melvin about Bike Out. He gave me a high five and told me his son was gay. I asked if I could set up shop in the Community Center and he showed me to my new office.
I worked at the Community Center for five years. Then, just before I turned 35, I bought sperm to have a baby. Sperm went for $250 a shot. I bought ten shots, just to be safe. Then days away from motherhood, I left Bike Out, to be a mom and also a writer.
I bought a giant, quarter-sawn-oak, roll top desk at a salvage yard. It had a hole built in for an inkwell, so I bought a quill. The desk was so big, I had to pay someone to saw the legs off to get it into my house, and then screw them back on. I was sure great works had been created at that desk before me. And there in my bungalow, I wrote a book, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy.
I believed in naming my intentions and putting them into the universe so I called myself an artist. My friends did too. We were all working on a book or a play or a one-person show as a way to get to our authentic selves. We titled them things like: No One Else but Me; I Am Who I Am; and Me, a Freak.
When my baby turned two and I turned 37, I moved back to Miami because I missed my mom. I came home and rented a three-bedroom, one bath cottage burrowed beneath the trees in Coconut Grove. Growing up, Coconut Grove was the spot for artists; the neighborhood where blacks, whites, Latinos, Jews, gays, straights, rich and poor people lived side by side. I thought Coconut Grove was the Venice of South Florida.
A year later, I met Victoria and she moved in with Tashi and me. We got a little crowded, especially if two of us had to go at the same time, so, I set up a camping toilet in the brush in the backyard, but when Sebastian was born, we knew the one bathroom cottage wouldn’t work for four.
Victoria works in Coral Gables as a financial planner. She wanted to live near her job. She also wanted an address that conveys success. So we looked for a house in Coral Gables—a tree-lined neighborhood with fancy houses carefully monitored by an historic conservation board. Eight volunteers sit behind a giant desk made of fine wood and hear testimony and then grant or deny approval for single hung windows versus casement. They enforce the rules: no facades brighter than salmon, no wood fences, no trucks parked in the driveway overnight.
Coral Gables is where rich Cubans settled in the 50s and 60s. Before the Cubans, its reputation was WASPy. Back then, the private country club had no Jewish or black members. During the last presidential election, there were three Trump signs for every Clinton.
I had diarrhea in the 18th house, the 47th, and the 76th. After the 112th house, Victoria was tired. Annoyed. She said, “What’s wrong with this one?”
I said, “It’s too fancy. The kitchen is a giant boob job.”
We didn’t speak as we drove down LeJeune Road to Grand Avenue and into the Grove. The head shop was still there, but the art galleries had been pushed out by The Gap, Hooters and Starbucks. We drove up Tigertail Avenue and into our neighborhood, the North Grove.
We passed the house on Trapp Avenue—a California bungalow painted yellow with original wood floors and old-fashioned crank windows. It wasn’t for sale, but a few months before, I had knocked on the door to see if they’d sell. They suggested a price 20% higher per square foot than any of the houses in Coral Gables. All the houses we looked at in Coconut Grove appeared more down-to-earth, but were a lot more expensive.
“Let’s buy it,” I said.
Victoria said, “Do you really want to pay more to look poor?”
“I want to live in Coconut Grove.”
Victoria said, “You want to live on Sesame Street. Sesame doesn’t exist.”
We turned onto our block on Kirk Street. There was a minivan in every driveway. We passed the house on the corner where the one black woman lived, the house with the artist, the one with the Cuban couple. But everyone else in our neighborhood was white. For Miami, a city with a population that’s predominantly Latino, Coconut Grove looked like Des Moines, Iowa. The only diversity was segregated into the black section about a mile away around Grand Avenue. Maybe Coconut Grove wasn’t what I thought.
If I really looked, maybe Venice, California wasn’t what I thought it was either. There, mostly black people lived north of California Avenue, while mostly white people lived south.
Were Venice and Coconut Grove pretend, downscale neighborhoods? Did Sesame Street only exist on TV?
We pulled in to our driveway. Victoria slammed the door of her Lexus hybrid. The car had been our compromise. When the steering column froze on my Prius, Victoria insisted I get a minivan. I said, “If I’m going to look like a PTA mom, at least you should look like someone who cares about the environment.”
We stood at the door. I said, “But Coral Gables isn’t me.”
She said, “Who are you?”
We caught eyes. Then I followed her eyes down to where my purse lay on my hip. It was a fair-trade patchwork bag from Nepal.
I’m not from Nepal. I have never been to Nepal. I bought the bag at the Coconut Grove Farmer’s Market, which Victoria reminds me every time we go, is grossly over priced. She says a $4 tomato is for rich people willing to pay anything for something labeled organic. She says, there’s a farmer somewhere laughing his head off.
Victoria said, “You think you’re so different. Different is a style too. You’re posturing just as much as anyone else.”
I looked down at the hand-stitched peace sign on my purse and thought about how all of my friends in Venice and Coconut Grove had this exact same bag.
I was afraid to commit to a manicured home and neighborhood because isn’t a home a reflection of who you are? The houses in Coral Gables look snobby and fake. Coral Gables is not the way I want to be viewed by others; not the way I view myself.
But if I care about authenticity, I need to be true about who I really am. I was shaped by an eccentric house, but it wasn’t shabby. Later, I lived in a tiny Venice bungalow, but in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. I could afford it because I had money my family made in real estate. I had enough to hire a nanny who cared for my baby, so I had time to write a book.
Throughout the house hunt, Victoria said I was disgusting for stinking up all those bathrooms; she called me out for being a poser; but she stuck with me. In the end we committed to a big, expensive house in Coral Gables, but one we could both live in.
When we saw the one on Caligula Avenue, we knew. The street name alone says freak. The house is different than the others on the block. It’s different than any in the neighborhood.
It was built in 1925 and looks like an oversized gingerbread house. It’s painted yellow. On the inside, it has the original terra-cotta tile on the first floor and Florida pine on the second. It has four bedrooms with a garage that opens up with two double carriage-house doors. The entire living room wall is covered with a built-in bookcase. The yard is unkempt and big enough for kickball with the kids. There’s a key-lime tree and a giant mango tree for bases.
I didn’t see the bathroom on my first visit, but the kitchen had tile countertops, an old refrigerator covered with magnets and family pictures, and cabinets that were a little off-kilter. It felt like me.
Andrea Askowitz is the author of My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Rumpus, HuffPost, Manifest-Station, Brain, Child, Mutha, and AEON, and have aired on NPR and PBS. Andrea co-hosts the podcast Writing Class Radio. She just finished a collection of linked essays. You can follow her @andreaaskowitz and @wrtgclassradio.com, or visit www.writingclasssradio.com.