Home Sweet Home

Roger and Marie had argued many times over whether they had a right – and by right they were referring to a moral right – to apply for the housing lotteries.  Sure they were bona fide city residents with a combined income well below the paltry mandated level. Roger argued that those facts alone entitled them to apply for below-market rate units in the new luxury buildings crowding the waterfront. He was sure that theirs was an open and shut case. But pensive Marie wondered if there was something unseemly about healthy young college graduates laying claim to this type of apartment when there were truly poor people in town. Their disagreements on this topic were so frequent that they had a predictable, ritualized quality.

“Look at our student loans,” Roger would wail, referring to the $160,000 he and Marie jointly owed to banks for their Rutgers educations. “We are still working off the interest. We won’t even get to the principal for another year. I’d say we’re as disadvantaged as anyone in this town. “

“But wouldn’t we be taking it away from someone who needs it even more than we do?” Marie would reason in response. “And the reason we don’t make much money is that we chose to live as artists. We could get jobs with good pay if we wanted to. We’re the fake poors. I think those apartments are for the real poors.”

“Nothing fake about our poverty,” Roger would groan. “Nothing fake about our ramen noodle   dinners night after goddamn night.”

He generally neglected to say, although it was seldom far from his thoughts, that it was a significant hardship for a 6’ 3” man to have to hunch down all the time to fit in a low-ceilinged basement apartment. His wife, who in some ways resembled him with her brown hair and eyes, was a full foot shorter than Roger. 

“Maybe you just don’t like to think of us as being poor so you’ve convinced yourself we are living a life of luxury here in your aunt’s puny basement,” he would wail. “And, by the way, the developers got handsome tax breaks and get to charge ridiculously high rents in all the other apartments.”

“I don’t care about developers,” Marie would sigh. “I care about the people we would be taking decent housing away from.”

“Well don’t worry too much,” Roger would say, ending the conversation. “We haven’t taken anything away from anyone. We haven’t won a single lottery yet and the way that things are going it looks like we never will.”

But one fine day they did win and handsomely, too. The news, in the form of a letter from the Volpe Brothers Building Co., arrived while Roger was alone at home. He opened it and let out a shriek. Although he was alone, he bellowed “About fucking time!”

According to the letter, there was a one-bedroom rental apartment reserved for Roger and Marie in a soon-to-be-completed building along the Hudson River. Roger was certain that the time would zip by now that they were bound for better things. Until the apartment was ready he and Marie would continue eking out their lives in the basement of the dilapidated home owned by his wife’s widowed aunt, also named Marie.

At the time Marie was in the communal studio they shared with a group of other young experimental artists, toiling away at one of her series of ten over-sized collage-style paintings incorporating bits of discarded potato skins. Roger had begun to lose interest in painting and was growing bored with the other experimental artists in their Jersey City collective as well. But he didn’t have the heart to tell Marie he thought her potato skins series was like something a first-year art student would think was clever. Lately he had begun spending most of his time at home when he wasn’t working part-time at a nearby gas station.

Despite his joy, Roger was quite nervous about how to break the news to his wife, given their many fights over housing lotteries. Marie was altruistic to a fault, but she had a practical side too.  Roger couldn’t believe she truly wanted to spend the rest of her life in a cramped former storage area. And yet she often spoke as if her fondest wish was to do exactly that.

Roger had applied for the apartment in secret to avoid another argument. He had done this many times before and actually found it fun to have a secret pastime. His favorite ruse was to claim that he was going out for a jog by the water when he really intended to submit applications. But, with the arrival of the developers’ letter, his strange little hobby was coming to an end. And he would have to steel himself because his wife, along with her other objections, would also be furious about his deception.

When Marie returned home from her day of painting she noticed that her husband was in an exuberant mood. She asked if there was anything she should know but Roger demurred. His plan was to wait until their regular Sunday meal with Aunt Marie and her other tenant, a young construction worker named Lou who lived in the attic. Normally Roger dreaded these lengthy late lunches overflowing with Polish specialties with dotty, long-winded Aunt Marie and the handsome but silent Lou. But in this case he figured that the presence of these extra parties would make it easier for him to break his stunning news to his wife. As Roger saw it, If Aunt Marie and Lou liked the idea of the waterfront apartment there would be extra pressure on his wife to move there. Of course he knew that this strategy was pretty sneaky too.

Now that he no longer painted much Roger had lots of time to plot his moves. In his advance calculations, he considered that Lou was someone familiar with the ins and outs of local new construction. A construction worker could be counted on to extoll the charms of the city’s new wave of luxury condos. But Aunt Marie’s stance was more difficult to predict. Certainly she would want what was best for the young couple. But Roger also knew she was likely to side with her niece. There had always been something distastefully conspiratorial in his wife’s relationship with her aunt. The two Maries sometimes behaved as if they were not allowed to disagree on anything. Roger concluded that Aunt Marie was most likely to form a united front with young Marie. He and Lou would form the opposing camp.   

When Sunday arrived Aunt Marie as usual laid out a feast in her small dining room which looked as if nothing had changed for fifty long years. She had inherited the house and its 1970s style furnishings from her parents a decade earlier and maintained it as a kind of creepy museum of her parents’ lives. There were pictures of her deceased parents – the grandparents of his wife – on just about every available surface. There were even framed copies of the late couple’s marriage certificate and a faded newspaper wedding announcement displayed above a small fake fireplace. Strangely, there were no photos of Aunt Marie or her own late husband. And there were no photos of Roger and Marie. With her dyed blond Farah Fawcett-style hairstyle and polyester outfits Aunt Marie looked as if she too had just time-traveled from the 1970s. The time warp quality of the house and the unsettling weirdness of its owner were just two of the many reasons Roger was so eager to move.

At the fateful lunch the boarder Lou wasted no time in helping himself to the abundant delicacies. In fact that was what Lou always did. Roger had once wondered why the young man bothered with these peculiar gatherings with his other worldly landlady and her artsy young relatives. But for more than a year Lou had been showing up to these late lunches every Sunday without fail and eating as if it were his last meal. And on this particular Sunday Roger was, for the first time, glad to see him.

“I have great news,” Roger announced all of a sudden in the middle of lunch, causing the others to turn to stare quizzically at him.

“You do?” his wife responded.

“Yes, I got a letter from the Volpe Brothers Construction Co. this past week,” Roger said.

“Oh, I have done some jobs for them,” Lou said.

“I thought that you might have,” Roger responded, showering Lou with a toothy smile.

“Why would they write to you?” Aunt Marie asked.

Nervous as he was Roger could not find the words to explain what had prompted the surprising correspondence. So he produced the letter from his back pocket and handed it to Aunt Marie who read it aloud as her stunned niece tried to look over her shoulder.

“…. have been selected for a new one bedroom apartment at 74 ½ Hudson Street at a monthly rent of $975…”Aunt Marie read to the group before stopping. “Wow. Nine hundred and seventy-five dollars a month! How fantastic. And it sounds as if you might have a river view as well.”

“I had no idea you were still applying to lotteries, much less winning them,” Marie said. She was speaking in the controlled tone she always used when she wanted to mask her anger.

“I’ve been so busy that I must have forgotten,” Roger responded. 

“I guess you have plenty of time to skulk around and do God knows what now that you no longer paint much.”

“Lou, did you work on that building?” Roger asked, ignoring his wife’s remark.

“I know the place and it’s a real mess.” Lou said. “I worked on it. We were under non-stop pressure to finish early.  And it shows. The whole place might collapse unless the developers luck out.”

“I see,” said Roger, taken aback by his “ally’s” harsh critique of 74 ½ Hudson Street. “Well you can’t beat the rent.”

“Actually we have beaten the rent,” Marie piped in. “Aunt Marie only charges us $600 a month to live here. It’s a steal.”

“Well now, I always knew that this place was just a stop gap for you two…” Aunt Marie began. “No one expects you to spend your entire lives in my old basement.”

“Exactly!” Roger triumphed.

“Listen, this old house in well-built,” Lou interjected. “I have seen a lot worse construction at 74 ½ Hudson Street.”

“That can’t be true!” Roger said heatedly.

“It is true!” young Marie said. “These days ‘new construction’ is a fancy name for bad construction, just like gentrification is a nice way of saying community destruction.”

“There is no community that is being destroyed by 74 ½ Hudson Street,” Roger shot back. “It is being built on unoccupied land.”

“That’s not land,” Lou snorted, “It’s land fill. And that’s the biggest problem. It’s not built on solid ground.”  

“Well we could discuss it forever, but why don’t we go see it?” asked Aunt Marie, who Roger noticed was being much fairer to him than he had expected.

Lou demurred. But Roger seized on Aunt Marie’s offer, ignoring his disgruntled wife and scampering towards the front door. Marie trudged out behind him while announcing in an icy monotone that in agreeing to examine the new building she in no sense was agreeing to live there.

Once behind the wheel Aunt Marie, who generally was noted for her meandering driving style, drove her aged Ford to 74 ½ Hudson Street as if she were a NASCAR driver high on speed. At one point the front wheels emitted an audible screech. Her niece gasped as she was nearly thrown against the window in the back seat.

“Oh sorry, dear,” Aunt Marie said.

Every so often Roger, who was seated in the front seat next to Aunt Marie, turned around and caught sight of his resentful wife glowering like a prisoner in a police transport vehicle. He found himself wondering if Aunt Marie had developed an interest in real estate speculation. That might explain why she was in an uncharacteristic frenzy of impatience to see the new building. Or was it possible that she was eager for them to vacate the basement because their rent was less than half of what she could charge new tenants? Whatever had taken hold of her, this reckless driver was not the gentle, vaguely delusional woman he had thought he knew so well.

Roger too was very eager to see the building and nearly jumped out of the old Ford the minute Aunt Marie halted the engine. He could not help but contrast the dilapidated old car with the gleaming new tower in front of him. Aunt Marie’s rickety Ford represented the sad, obsolete world of worn-out objects and delayed gratifications that he and Marie could soon be exiting. The gleaming tower, of course, symbolized their glamorous future – or at least the future that could be theirs if Marie ever overcame her foolish resistance to housing lotteries.

A beaming young blond real estate saleswoman in a green dress stood on the sidewalk in front of 741/2 Hudson Street.  She initially mistook Roger and the two Maries for another family.

“You must be the Wiltons,” she said with a hint of relief. “I have the keys to the penthouse, so we can go right up.”

“Sorry, but we’re Roger and Marie Clausen and this is out aunt Marie Kopec,” Roger explained. “We just won one of the inexpensive apartments in the housing lottery. And we’re hoping to get a look at the interior.”

“Well I actually have the keys to those apartments with me today, too,” said the saleswoman whose name was Lois. “And I can show it to you quickly if you like because I doubt the Wiltons – who are more than an hour late – are really going to show up. This happens all the time. It’s weird.”

Although she had nothing apparent to gain from it, Lois threw herself into showing Roger and the two Maries some of the units set aside for lottery winners. She started with a first floor unit described in florid language in the marketing materials as a “hidden gem of a garden apartment.” However, Lois cautioned that the ground floor unit was also noisy. According to her, it would be far better to live in one of the third-floor units which boasted river views.

Once inside one of the higher units Roger and Aunt Marie swooned at the views, as well as the handsome bathroom with its granite fixtures, running through the apartment like excited children. And the bedroom! Aunt Marie was barely able to contain herself at the sight of the spacious his- and hers-closets which she pronounced a “dream come true,” sounding like a real estate ad writer herself.

“A dream come true?” Marie muttered sarcastically. “I guess so if you have nothing better to dream about than closets…”

“I don’t!” Aunt Marie responded with a laugh. “And you shouldn’t either.”

“You know,” Lois said. “Usually it’s the wife who gets excited about closets and bathroom fixtures and river views. If I didn’t know better I would think Roger was married to Mrs. Kopec. “

“That’s because they might make a better pair,” Marie told her. “I’ve never understood why people waste so much time trying to move to bigger and supposedly better places. There is a lot to be said for being happy with little.”

Lois didn’t look like someone who had become a real estate saleswoman to praise the joys of making do with little.

“I should go check if the Wiltons ever turned up,” Lois said, leaving Roger and the two Maries to their own devices inside the apartment. 

When the trio returned home they found Lou, who somehow had managed to lock himself out, standing in front of Aunt Marie’s house.

“What did you think?” Lou asked.

“It was sterile,” Marie said with a sneer.

“That’s not true,” her aunt countered. “How often can you get a brand-new place with a breath-taking view of the river? If you ask me, they’re fools if they don’t take it.”

“Well, from what I saw when I worked on it – they would be fools if they took it!” said Lou.

Roger stayed out of the conversation. He had learned through trial and error that a direct confrontation with Marie generally back-fired. She excelled at debating and holding her ground. In fact mounting a clever verbal counterattack energized her. He needed to think of an approach that would not lead to another of their endless circular arguments.

Several days later Roger returned home a bit early from his shift at the gas station. Marie was once more at the studio toiling away on one of her potato skins paintings. He was startled when an argument broke out above him in the main part of the house. From what he could hear Aunt Marie and Lou were shrieking at each other like mongooses in a death match.

“I want you out of my house – right now!”

“You can’t just throw me out. I have a lease. And I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Like hell!”

“It’s all in your head!”

“I saw what I saw! And I’m not going to argue with you anymore. It’s my house. Leave my niece alone and leave by tonight, you disgusting bastard!

So! Alone in the cramped basement apartment Roger did not and could not move. He sat frozen on an old rattan chair and stared into space, taking in the unthinkable conversation between Aunt Marie and Lou.  A never-imagined world was coming into his view.  And in that world Marie and Lou had been conducting a seamy love affair, or maybe just having sex – in Aunt Marie’s house no less – out of his sights. But now it was blindingly obvious.  

Roger was not just mortified. He felt badly diminished, as if he were the odd man out in his own life, a mere onlooker. He considered that it hadn’t been enough for Lou to help himself to all of Aunt Marie’s delicacies. He had decided to help himself to young Marie as well. No wonder Aunt Marie was pushing her niece to move.

And Marie – with her delicate sensitivity to the sufferings of the poor! – had lied about her reasons for not wanting to move. What had she really been doing during all those hours she supposedly spent in the studio making ridiculous art?  And why had he thought he had to hide his efforts to find them a better place to live when she was hiding something truly hurtful? 

Roger felt nauseous, but could not even throw up. His mind and body were in lockdown mode. Everything had changed. And for the moment he had no idea what to do other than to go outside and get some air. But even in the depths of emotional pain he instinctively understood that there must be some way to turn Marie’s creepy secret to his own advantage. He was buying time. Among other things, he needed to ponder whether it was advantageous to him for the rest of the household to know that he finally knew what they had been concealing. He let himself out as quietly as possible so that Aunt Marie and Lou would not know he had been downstairs listening to their shouting match.

Once he began walking Roger was unable to stop. Walking had always been a form of therapy for him, but today it was more like a compulsion. He wasn’t moving his feet; they were moving themselves. He wandered all the way down to the waterfront and found himself, not entirely by accident, standing in front of 74 ½ Hudson Street. The tower seemed to be almost glistening with reflected light from other nearby high rises. Roger sighed. He had never seen a building quite so beautiful. There was a moving van parked in front of the building and a young couple seemed to be moving in. Watching the happy pair cavorting on the sidewalk he felt that he was observing the shimmering life that could still be his.  And it was much too good to pass up.

No, Roger was not giving up. Not on the charmed life that awaited him and Marie at 741/2 Hudson Street. He figured all that out during the hour it took to amble back to Aunt Marie’s house. As he neared the house he caught sight of Lou driving away in his car, presumably for the last time. Roger was certain that a rank opportunist like Lou, now that he was expelled from the house, would quickly forget both Marie Clausen and Marie Kopec.  Lou was now a solved, if very distasteful, problem.    

When Roger entered the tiny basement apartment Marie sprang at him, planting an enormous kiss on his dejected-looking face and asking how he was feeling. Was she feeling guilty? He ignored the question and fell into silent mode. Silence always tortured his loquacious wife. Today it was a necessary tactic. He needed to make it impossible for Marie to figure out if he was onto her shenanigans. He would let all her unanswered questions hang menacingly in the air. Marie’s debating skills were of no use now. He was calling the shots.

After a week of grave-like silence – save for some indistinct mumblings in his sleep – Roger resumed speaking with his wife on a selective basis.  But this consisted mainly of murmuring “yes” or “no” to her questions. He didn’t volunteer any information or ask any questions. He also avoided any sort of physical contact with her. Having sex with her would have forced him to think about her having sex with creepy Lou. It also would have been tactically unwise. Preserving his distance much better served his aim of bending Marie to his will.  

He also was curious if Marie would volunteer an explanation of what had been going on in the house behind his back. But none was ever offered and he was not surprised. His wife always had to be right about everything and self-examination and remorse were not among her habits. But one day she did offer the concession he had been pining for, prompting Roger to resume his prior intimacy with her.

“Do you think we should put up some of my potato skin paintings in our new apartment?” she asked.

“Of course!”

Unfortunately, when Roger and Marie finally moved into their new apartment at 741/2 Hudson, the enormous potato skin paintings looked out-of-place hanging on the sleek white walls. Roger wondered if it had been wise of him to agree to give these clunky and kitschy artifacts such prominent placement in their glossy new home. Not only were the paintings hard to look at, they reeked of the old life he had worked so hard to leave behind. He worried that having to look at these paintings every day would moor him to the sad phase of his life spent in Aunt Marie’s strange house. And the paintings somehow also conjured up the presence of treacherous Lou, the boarder with endless appetites.

But Roger didn’t voice these worries to Marie because letting her imagine that her life was still defined by experimental painting provided him with a bit of useful camouflage. And he would need plenty of cover and subterfuge as he pursued his next goal: explaining to his wife that he had accepted a job on Wall Street as an analyst trainee, a late capitalist undertaking that surely that would disgust virtuous Marie. The arguments to come would be thunderous! But first he needed to make sure of his game plan. 


Leslie Wines is a journalist, fiction writer and teacher intrigued by languages, spirituality and economics (in no special order). Leslie is the author of the book Rumi: A Spiritual Biography, a life of the great Medieval Persian poet Jalalu'ddin Rumi. Her employers have included several wire services, including United Press International, MarketWatch and the Associated Press and her financial work has appeared in print and online editions of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. A resident of New Jersey, Leslie holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and The New School. She is very happy that her story Home Sweet Home is appearing in Litro!

Leslie Wines is a journalist, fiction writer and teacher intrigued by languages, spirituality and economics (in no special order). Leslie is the author of the book Rumi: A Spiritual Biography, a life of the great Medieval Persian poet Jalalu'ddin Rumi. Her employers have included several wire services, including United Press International, MarketWatch and the Associated Press and her financial work has appeared in print and online editions of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. A resident of New Jersey, Leslie holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and The New School. She is very happy that her story Home Sweet Home is appearing in Litro!

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