Write On!

Settling Unsettled

In Uncategorized on June 7, 2012 at 4:35 pm

by Tara Wiley

The chaos of renovation held Louisa prisoner that summer. Demolition, dust, hammer, nail. Workers covered in sweat, speaking with such thick dialects she could understand only every third word. Day in and day out, the pressures of minute decisions weighed on her:  which hardwood? What finish? Cabinet configuration? Closet here or no? She lost her excitement in these dealings within a couple of weeks. Perhaps if she agreed to live off site instead of being kept in all this – but she would not indulge herself any more in regrets.

The former owner transformed the 1920s bungalow into a duplex when his wife passed on and he no longer needed the additional space. She and John had rented one side for a year while he finished law school. Now it was time to find a place they could grow into as a young family. The landlord suddenly passed away, and his daughter placed the entire house up for sale just as John took the bar exam. They snatched it up for a song, planning to restore the lovely place to its builder’s original intent.

She didn’t have anything against the bungalow, really. She loved the arched doorways and thick walls. She adored the tiny mosaic tiles in the bathroom, even as she spent hours trying to keep them clean. Yet she fought to find delight in making this house her permanent home.

Louisa flipped through the builder’s supply magazine on her lap. Today’s decision: faucets. She peered at an understated fixture with just a nod to the right era of the house. Closing her eyes, she pictured her hands placed under that chrome faucet, water pouring over her fingers swollen with pregnancy, then later, her children’s fingers after playing in the dirt while she gardened. She lurched to her feet, the magazine fluttering to the brickwork of the entryway where she stood. The walls behind her seemed to loom in a bit closer.

When Louisa met John, he was full of ideas that fit her bohemian tendencies. They were all ready to join the Peace Corps until they realized they could not travel together without being married, and then, the possibilities were few and far between, and not really what they wanted. So John thought maybe he would change the world by defending the defenseless. He enrolled in law school.

It took some getting used to, this change of plans, but Louisa soon found outlets for her own wanderlust. She worked in Chinatown. She shopped in the small Indian shops downtown and ate at the Mediterranean restaurants speckled throughout Evanston, places owned by recent immigrants from the Middle East with thick mysterious accents.

She knew Chicago was a city large enough to offer her a new experience at every turn. She knew John would make enough money at the firm, once his student loans were paid off so they could travel as they wanted to one day. She supported his longings for pro bono work to be a large part of his efforts, and was glad they were buying less house than they could afford so money could be spent in other more charitable ways. Restoring this bungalow was simply a step towards a promising future.

Each step deepened her fear. Settling down proved an unsettling prospect.

The bungalow fought with the builders. Renovations were not easy when dealing with nearly a century of construction and reconstruction. Begrudgingly, the bungalow yielded to the workers’ ploys. The newer walls put up by the previous landlord were simple enough to demolish. It was the surprises that kept them all on their toes – wiring not up to code, load bearing beams sagging and needing to be replaced.

Louisa stood on the broad covered front porch discussing such things with the contractor when a small Hispanic worker burst from the house to join them. He wiped sweat from his brow with a filthy bandana in small, jerky movements while gesturing wildly and yammering in unintelligible Spanglish that somehow the contractor was able to decipher.

“A room? Between the two units? Show us!” The contractor motioned for Louisa to follow him as he walked into the dusty hallways where the two sides of the bungalow had once been separated. Three fourths of the way down, the small worker gestured towards a door covered in sheetrock dust from the wall that used to be up against it.

“You didn’t know this was here?” Louisa asked the contractor.

“No, I knew there were a few square feet unaccounted for in the plans, but I guess I assumed we would just find plumbing or something. You never know in these old houses. They all have stories. Here, you do the honors.” He pushed the door open and Louisa stepped inside, walking directly through a cobweb. She immediately stepped back, wiping her face with the sleeve of her blouse.

“I need a flashlight, I suppose – “ The grinning Hispanic, almost leaning against her in his own peculiar excitement, quickly furnished one from a pocket, and armed with this small light source, Louisa stepped into a secret room filled with story.

Though Louisa was no photographer, she did know what a darkroom looked like. Shallow pans lined a worktable along one side of the narrow room. The other side held hanging lines with strips of negatives so brittle they looked as though a single touch might shatter them. Pinned photos lined the walls, a distinct pattern of couples obviously oblivious to the photographer. Most images captured romantic embraces. Others brought into focus a handoff between two people, usually with one looking quite nefarious, the other quite benign and out of place.

Louisa looked around for a moment, remembering the landlord. He had long since retired – now she wondered what from. Perhaps a private investigator? Why did he close this room in, making it inaccessible, but not remove it or its contents? It was as though the landlord had a different life he couldn’t quite leave behind but didn’t want to revisit either. Louisa paused at the doorway, lost in thought.  A deep breath, a step back, a determined chin set.

“Tear it down. We’ll use the extra square footage in the nursery. But keep the photos and negatives. Maybe a relative will want them.”

She walked back to the porch, picked up the magazine with faucet options. She found one she could see her children’s hands under. She sank into the porch swing, letting her legs sway beneath her, chose a smile. She breathed deeply. Next decision: countertops.

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