by Jane Futcher
Looking for Land in All the Wrong Places!
We stood before a shingled shack that had been described in that day’s classifieds as a “see-to-believe creekside getaway near the Russian River, with guest cottage and private redwood grove.”
The creek, now barely a trickle, apparently ran through this house in the winter, which might explain why the entire structure listed to one side. The redwood grove was a single looming tree growing so close to the foundation that its roots had hoisted the garage six inches off the ground. We could almost hear the buzz of happy termites munching on the floor joists.
“Keep an open mind,” Erin whispered as we walked into the knotty pine hallway carpeted with an orange shag rug. We’d been together 10 years and a place in the country was the lift we thought our relationship needed. But this place was a downer. To the left was the kitchen, where dozens of teddy bears dressed in pink bikinis dangled from the ceiling. Dead ahead was a bathroom barely large enough for a family of small frogs.
“Fabulous, isn’t it?” A suntanned woman in a white kaftan appeared from nowhere, her eyes unnaturally blue and teeth so white they threatened to blind us. She waved her manicured fingernails vaguely in the direction of the creek, her gold charm bracelet jingling. “This was originally a summer cottage. Could use some TLC, but there’s so much you can do with it.”
“Except live in it,” I mumbled, sneaking a second look at those weird hanging things. “What’s with the teddy bears?”
“Wonderful, aren’t they?” swooned the agent. “The owner is an artist. Very creative.”
“It’s much smaller than we. . .” Erin opened a closet door before slamming it shut fast to keep a ski boot and a cast iron skillet from falling on her head.
It was happening again: real estate hell. Home prices were soaring, thanks, in part, to President Bill Clinton, who had just been summoned by the independent counsel to testify before a grand jury on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. We were bummed. All the country houses in our price range were a mess: They had dry rot or plumes of methane gas running underneath their foundations or were too close to the road to be safe for our dachshunds, Woody and Luna. This one fit right in. In a corner of the bedroom, the plaster was crumbling onto the head of a six- foot Hello Kitty doll. The paint peeling off the room’s only window reminded me of the blistering sunburns I used to get as a kid.
“Looks like that meth house we saw in Healdsburg,” Erin whispered, pulling me toward the front door.
“Look,” I yelled. Out the back door, three dark, hairy pigs were snorting through a pile of empty Pampers cartons by a corrugated metal shed.
“The guest cottage?” I said to the agent.
“Adorable, isn’t it? Oozing potential.” She winked at me. “I’ve got other listings. Are you the writer or the midwife?”
“My pager just went off.” Erin charged past her and out the front door. “I’ve got a client who’s seven centimeters.”
“You’re the midwife,” the agent called. “So marvelous. To bring new life into the world. Let me give you my card. If I see something. . .”
We roared out of the driveway before she could finish her sentence. Erin’s pager had, happily, not gone off, and moments later we were sipping organic two-percent decaf lattes at the
natural grocery store in the nearby town of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County.
“Don’t be discouraged.” Erin licked milk foam from her lips. “We’re just exploring our options. These outings are little adventures that give us special time together and a chance to see what’s out there. This is a lot more fun than watching the 49ers lose, don’t you think? Or fretting over one of your editorials.”
My stomach coiled. At that moment, someone, probably the county hospital’s CEO–a volatile, tenacious woman who taught “Body Sculpting by Margaret” at a local gym–was complaining to the publisher about my editorial in this morning’s paper. We had run a mildly worded piece suggesting that the hospital might want to look into the reasons why someone on the E.R. staff had waved away an ambulance carrying the victim of a fatal car crash.
I slugged down my latte, while wishing the clerk had spiked it with some caffeine and pondering whether Erin and I would ever find rural paradise. How far north would we have to go to find something we could afford? A midwife and a newspaper editorial writer couldn’t telecommute from Alaska, and neither of us was ready to quit our job.
“Can you drive home?” Erin rubbed her shoulder and gulped down some Advil. She’d been rear-ended twice in the past few months, and her neck and shoulder pains were aggravated by the pretzel positions required to coax babies through the birth canal. Her practice was booming, but the long nights, pain from the car accidents, and the traffic in the Bay Area were taking a toll.
“Erin?” We looked up to see a young woman with gold studs riveting her body from her eyebrows to her bellybutton. She wore a skimpy tank top, tie-dyed pajama bottoms and combat boots, and was now charging toward us, a small child running after her. “Is that you?”
“Hey,” Erin smiled, turning to me. “Uh-oh. What’s her name? She has a band, and her cat scratched my arm just as the baby crowned.”
“It is you, Erin.” The woman practically sat in Erin’s lap, suddenly remembering her barefoot toddler trailing behind her pushing a miniature shopping cart as raspberry yogurt dripped down his tiny coveralls. “Paprika, Sweetie. This is Erin, the woman who brought you into the world. Do you remember her, Pappy? Can you say hello? She was your midwife.”
Paprika glanced mutely at Erin, lurching past her to grab a rack of VW camper buses made of toasted marzipan. “Mine!” he yelled, toppling the case and ecstatically loading the marzipan Volkswagens into his cart. “Mine!”
“Silly Pappy,” smiled the woman, righting the case and turning back to Erin.
“How have you been, Tarragon?” Erin said, finally remembering the woman’s name.
“Got a new band,” she said, wiping yogurt off of Pappy’s mouth and pulling a chair over to our table. “I think this one is going somewhere.” As she effervesced about the Icelandic belly dancer that she and Paprika’s father, a flute player, had met and fallen in love with while hamster dancing on the Web, I wandered off to check the store’s sleep remedies. If I got more sleep, I told myself, these little encounters with unsuitable real estate listings and Erin’s former clients wouldn’t be so challenging.
At the checkout counter I noticed a copy of Country Life magazine, featuring color photos of graying Baby Boomers in jeans and fleeces, tool belts slung around their waists, hammering, plastering, and painting their rural dream houses from Nova Scotia to Las Cruces. I chewed my lip. Our country fantasy was nothing but a cliché. Everyone our age was hoping to get out of the rat race and live off the grid. Baby Boomers had made Frances Mayes a millionaire by mainlining Under the Tuscan Sun. Our whole generation had been doing this country- living thing since the Sixties, devouring tomes like The Whole Earth Catalog and Stalking the Wild Asparagus. If I hadn’t moved to New York in the Seventies to live in Greenwich Village, work at a publishing house and become a lesbian, I’d probably have joined a commune in Vermont, raised a few goats, and shivered through a winter before admitting that surviving in rural America isn’t all that easy.
I heard Erin laughing and looked up at her short hennaed hair, green blouse and open, freckled face. She and Tarragon were deep into the topic of love triangles, to the delight of several eavesdroppers. No wonder pregnant mothers loved Erin; her easy laugh, calm competence, and amused blue eyes were deeply reassuring. Plus, she had chutzpah; nursing degree in hand, she’d practiced home birth for nearly 20 years, safely catching nearly 1,000 babies while working in the trenches to rewrite state law so that lay midwives could practice home birth legally.
“Hey,” I said, pointing to my watch, “I thought you had a woman in labor.”
Erin rose. “Tarragon, it’s been great.”
Erin and I walked to the parking lot with Tarragon right behind us–Pappy asleep in her arms–ecstatically extolling the energizing properties of the flotation tank she and Pappy’s dad had been using to increase their Kama Sutra. Wistfully, I watched a storm of 10-speed cyclists whoosh through the intersection in their shiny black skintight suits, sucking their water bottles en route to the Zen Bookstore and the Middle Earth Bakery down the road. Erin and I had mountain bikes, but they’d been hanging from rafters in our garage collecting dust since Erin’s accidents. What was happening to us? Was 50 too old for strenuous physical activity? Were we too tired from our jobs and too stuck in our routines to zoom around anything?
I glanced at Tarragon, all young and exuberant and strong, holding that heavy kid in her arms. Did we really think we could chop wood or put in a vegetable garden if we couldn’t ride our bikes for an hour without tossing down Advil? Would we miss daily newspapers and movies and Castro Street and antiwar demonstrations and Costco if we moved away?
I wasn’t a laid-back California girl like Erin. I was the anxious type. I’d gone to an East Coast girls’ school, been a reluctant debutante, majored in English, moved to New York to work in publishing and stayed away from smoking pot at rock concerts or anywhere else because I got stuck in Edvard Munch’s “Scream” when I got stoned. The most offbeat thing I’d done in my life was become a lesbian, primarily because the alternative was jumping off a bridge.
Erin was born confident and happy near the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets. She’d danced her teens away to the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore and the Avalon, dropped acid with her boyfriend in Golden Gate Park and at 20 married a wandering Jew from the Bronx 10 years her senior at a wedding in the high desert of Northern New Mexico, presided over by their yoga teacher from the Punjab and attended by a band of chanting, cherubic hippies. She became a Sikh, thanks to her teacher, studied home birth midwifery, had two daughters at home in the ashram, and put herself through nursing school. She divorced her husband when she realized he was never going to get a job, and she embraced change gracefully. She watched more TV on the couch than I thought was good for her, and when I told her so, she glared at me, explaining that being up for days in a row bringing babies into the world was stressful and that I was judgmental and condescending. Sometimes I was.
Back in the parking lot, Erin had finally extracted herself from Tarragon with the help of Luna and Woody, our miniature long- haired dachshunds, who barked so viciously at the sight of
Paprika’s yogurt-covered hand reaching in to the car to pet them that he was now screaming more loudly than Tarragon could talk.
“Good dogs,” I said, patting their happy, licking faces as we headed south on Highway 101 to our house in Marin County. “She was a jolly sort,” I offered tentatively.
Erin laughed. “We should go hear her band sometime. Klezmer jazz, she says. She plays electric mandolin, he plays the flute and clarinet and the belly dancer plays trumpet and trombone.”
“Could be interesting,” I said, as our Magic Genie garage door opened, allowing us to cruise into our clean, termite-free, one- level Western-style tract house in the Northern Marin suburb of Novato. Maybe this was as much of a ranch as I needed. With Trader Joe’s enchiladas bubbling in the microwave, 60 Minutes on the tube and Masterpiece Theatre’s opera-loving sleuth, Inspector Morse, waiting for us, I stretched out on the couch and picked up the remote. Life in the ‘burbs, from where I sat–10 feet away from our 52-inch TV screen–seemed pretty darned good. Sure, traffic was horrible on Highway 101. And, yes, we had neighbors so close their little girls could count the bubbles swirling in our hot tub. So what if Erin’s job was mangling her shoulders and mine hurt my brain. We had a good life. We had two lovable, impossible, hardheaded dachshunds; close friends who lived nearby; jobs that engaged us, and miles of hiking trails right behind our house. I, for one, was willing to let my rural fantasies slip to that familiar mental junkyard where unrealized dreams quietly fade.
And then something happened.