I had been back in Australia a scant few days, and already I found myself in a different city. Always, recently, a different city. Suitcase after suitcase, moving rolls of clothing from one bag to the next, and back again.
It looked like I was running from something, but it felt like I was in a sinking boat, and every bucket of water I bailed out the bottom of this pathetic dinghy just flooded right back in.
When I wasn’t trying to keep myself afloat, I found myself desperately trying to reassure others that everything was okay, that we would all be fine. Don’t worry, loves, the future takes care of itself. Stop, breathe, have hope. All will be well. I was saying it through mouthfuls of water, and they were not convinced.
In the midst of all this, the constant ping of my phone from worried friends and family, all with arms outstretched and made of kindness. Their kindness took a single form, seven words:
“So, have you found a place yet?”
I have spent a great deal of my life thinking about my next house.
I move at least annually. It used to be more frequent than that, but I’ve settled some in recent years. Every time, there is a sense of urgency. There is also something else, an undercurrent of desperation, a certainty that I need something now, lest I end up the dangerous kind of homeless.
It’s a fear that eats at me.
So house-hunting always ends the same way. I search for a home, and I find something serviceable, within budget, modest. I apply, I invariably get it – I have an impeccable rental record and once upon a time I had an income, too – and then I settle into my next home. Only it never is that, but rather one too many compromises, made in a frenzy of worry and uncertainty.
I refused to do that this time. I made a list, careful, printed neatly in the back of my diary. Necessary space, features, locations. A kind of prayer, not to any god of housing but rather to whichever one will give me enough entitlement to stick to my list. To find a home. Somewhere I won’t want to leave in six months or twelve.
Friends send me options, a deluge of links, and kindly point out that being too rigid is the reason I don’t have anywhere yet. They’re not wrong. But I have never had this before, the luxury of time, the luxury to search for something right. I’ve always made right from scraps of fabric, plastic flowers and stain remover. A frenzy of scrubbing, followed by carefully draped scarves.
On the day I was in my sinking boat, I was actually riding in the car of a friend new enough that they still want to say the right thing, but through no fault of their own, usually don’t. I shoved my phone in my pocket; the flashing notification light was making me antsy, almost literally: I could feel them in my throat.
The friend opened their mouth, and the ants crawled up my throat, because I could see it coming:
“So, have you found a place yet?”
Solenopsis invicta burst out of me with impressive force. Sorry, ecosystem.
When I was seventeen and couch-surfing, a good friend asked me to come and stay with her while she was house-sitting. I arrived on the doorstep, my small handbag stocked with everything I would need for a week – indeed, with everything I considered mine at all – and a week later I left, knowing for the first time what jealousy was.
Tucked away in an area I’d grown up in was a paradise of polished wooden floorboards, high ceilings, an airy breeziness which belied the sandstone cottage exterior and its modest double-hung windows. The kitchen was old, the bathroom dark, but that only added to its perfection, because above all, it was a place that seemed to fit its occupants. It was a home. One with running hot water and no carpets thick with aeons of dust, to boot.
This jealousy has followed me for years now. It is always unfamiliar in its intensity. I rarely care about other people’s jobs or hobbies or travel or partners, but somehow one house plant greedily drinking in sunlight from a well-placed window and I’m fit to be tied.
There is a bald middle-class aspiration to my jealousy of everyone else’s houses. I am transparently fixated on the kind of Anglo-Australian gentrification that extends a pre-war bungalow with a tasteful open plan kitchen at the rear, finished with a wall of windows that looks out over the easy-to-maintain lawn. Someone’s forgotten gumboots at the back of a closet. A board game you haven’t seen for five years under the sink.
I add the house plant to the checklist I carry with me everywhere, carved into my being, for one day.
Whenever a friend asks me if they should do something big, I ask them what they’re scared of. What is, really, the worst that can happen? The absolute biggest, baddest, scariest, most horriblest thing in the whole wide world that could happen as a result of this decision?
Then I ask, so what would you do about it?
Never in my life has the answer been nothing. Not for anyone, and certainly not for me.
And the worst that can happen this time? We find home, but we’re wrong, and we have to look again. And really, is that the worst? Or is it just – expected? Almost certain? The nature of being a human who can’t walk into someone’s house without coveting that old mirror with all the coppery blotches around the rim that hangs over their mantelpiece?
Because in house-hunting, as in all things, all those nights I slept rough, as people say with more pity than utility, well all those nights mean nothing. I saw a guy at four inspections this week, hair perfectly coiffed, designer sunglasses carefully chosen. When he took them off, his eyes were just as filled with frustration as mine. He saw me, raised his eyebrows in recognition. Sorry you’re still here. I saluted, carelessly. It is the fucking worst. Also there’s rising damp in the hall, so you know. He turned his head to look. For fuck’s sake.
The hunt is on.