Exploiting our Archives Week, Paternity Leave Edition: Walking Away with Nothing

Nathan Rabin's Happy Place (or rather, Nathan Rabin) is taking the week between Christmas and New Year's Off to prevent him from going insane (seriously, dude is on the edge! Writing about himself in the third person and everything). So the next week will be Exploiting the Archives week, where we'll be running some of our favorite pieces from the year that was.

My real-estate agent, like my literary agent, is candid and blunt almost to a fault. So I can’t say I was surprised by the terseness of his reply when I texted him, “So, just to be clear, after all of the closing fees and expenses, at the end of all that, I will walk away from selling my condo with nothing. Is that right?”

His answer followed a minute or so later. “Correct.” I appreciated the man’s honesty even if I had hoped for a more encouraging answer. It was the latest twist and turn in an emotional rollercoaster that began with a friend of our current tenants expressing a strong desire to buy, for 150,000 dollars, a condo I had purchased for 185,000 dollars (down fifteen grand from the original asking price) in 2010 with a head full of dreams and a brain swimming with misplaced optimism.

This was a home worthy of the woman who was to be my wife and the mother of my son. This was going to be the safe place where I could raise a family, the home I never had as the rootless son of a habitually unemployed dad and absent mother. Growing up desperately poor in a group home, I fantasized about a home I could call my own. I fetishized the idea of home, of belonging, of a place that’s all yours, that no one can take away. I’ve spent my life and career searching endlessly for a personal and professional home, and then finding and losing them. 

And when I struggled in my final years in Chicago, and I struggled a lot, it was largely to afford the mortgage and assessments on a house that may have been modest and working-class, but was nevertheless still substantially more than we could afford. That first year in particular I would look around sometimes and feel a pride in ownership that was particularly intense for me because I had grown up so poor, always with my nose pressed against the glass, a voyeur peering into the lives of other people, convinced that they all had lives infinitely preferable to my own. And now I had something. I had something that was mine. Something that I was going to hold onto until I couldn’t hold onto it anymore.  

It was a place to live and raise my family but it was also an investment. It was something of value, something solid, something dependable, something forged out of the sturdy material of concrete and glass, nails and wood. It was something I’d dreamed about as a child and worked furiously towards making a reality as an adult. I grew up thinking real estate was the soundest investment imaginable, one so fool-proof you almost can’t help but make money. I found out too late that this was just another lie adults tell children to make the world seem less terrible. 

Rough approximation of the condo when we left

Rough approximation of the condo when we left

Over time the condo became a burden as well as a source of pride. When I lost my job in late April, 2015, I could no longer afford to live in it, or to pay rent, really, so I moved to my in-laws’ basement for a 13 month stretch while I rebuilt my career and finances. My wife in particular was eager to sell, and when a woman expressed strong interest in buying the condo as is, we were overjoyed. 

We were even more excited when we mentioned the proposed buyer’s offer and our real estate agent chuckled gently before explaining that it was anywhere from fifteen to thirty thousand dollars less than comparable recent sales in the area. Holy shit! We had once again greatly undervalued ourselves! Maybe this beautiful, maddening mistress of a home was worth far more than we had imagined! 

For a brief idyll, we allowed ourselves to live in hope. If we sold for twenty or thirty grand more than the offer on the table, that fifteen or ten grand we’d make could change our lives. I could pay off my credit card bills once and for all. Maybe we could put a down payment on a cozy little home in Decatur, where we now live. My wife wouldn’t have to work seven days a week teaching and tutoring and baby-sitting while still finding time to be an amazing mother to our two and a half year son Declan. 

Our reverie was short lived. Two days later our real estate agent told us that he’d surveyed the properties and that it would cost a little more than twice what I had in my life savings to fix the place up properly, and even then, there was no guarantee that the place would sell. This made the choice easy. I could either walk away with nothing or risk losing a substantial amount of money on the property later on. Of course, I could also conceivably make money on the property, but that seemed unlikely for reasons beyond our inveterate pessimism and terrible track record with all things related to money. 

Twenty thousand dollars could have changed our lives. The zero dollars in walk-away money currently on the table would change nothing, except that now when the wife worried about money, I would no longer be able to say that at least we had real estate in Chicago. 

I’m not sure whether it makes it more or less painful to think of the condo in Chicago as a living, breathing, animistic being, a home for a family or families instead of just a cold, dead assemblage of concrete and glass.

I hope that other babies are born where we used to live, babies who bring joy and light into the world the way Declan has. I want the place to remain a home, not just a house. I want it to be a safe haven, a happy place, a warm respite from a cold and brutal world and a sometimes cold and brutal city. 

I tell myself that I’m not walking away from this with nothing. Monetarily, that may be true but money only tells part of the story. For five years, it was a good, dependable home for myself and my soulmate. It was where my son was conceived and where he spent the happy first year of his life. It was where we came home after getting a crazy little Yorkie puppy named Ghostace who would enrich our lives in ways we never could have imagined and provided a taste of the soul-deep spiritual satisfaction that parenthood would bring.

Now it’s time for another family to make memories in that physical and spiritual place, hopefully of the happy variety. The cycle of life goes on. It’s time to let go. Let go of the pain, let go of the ego, let go of that fierce attachment to a physical place that represents a psychological ideal I’ve longed for all my life. 

Because the truth is I still have a home. It’s not a physical place, it’s in the hearts of my wife and my son and my dog. And that will remain true whether we ever own property again or not. 

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