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Short story: First-home buyers, by James Pasley

“Towards the end we spent our weekends at open homes”: a broken romance

“The whole city is becoming one big Wairau Park,” she said. She was right. She was being a snob, or at least trying to be a snob, but she was right.

“What’s the alternative?” I asked.

She was quiet for a while, then said, “What was here before.”

*

Towards the end we spent our weekends at open homes. While the rest of Auckland sat on motorways or watched kids from the sideline, we went looking for our future.

We started at the Bombay Hills and worked our way north. It lasted all of six months. We drove from house to house, peering through kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, asking agents who else was interested or what number the vendor would really accept. We had learned the capital value and listing price meant nothing, or if not nothing then merely a beacon from years gone by, years before the big boom and dusty aftermath.

“There’s no magic number,” more than one agent told us, but there always was.

We usually spent our mornings at my flat, eating and drinking, scrolling through listings on Trade Me. We looked for clusters of open homes in “affordable” suburbs like Māngere or Sunnynook, always heading a bit further north, but we never made a route or list so we often had to double back and spent longer on the roads than we should have.

Some days I got irritated by how much fuel and time we wasted, at the increased chance of a DUI. Still, we never got caught. I had been a courier for my dad for a few months (he was a genius; the guy knew the name of every street in Auckland) and had spent a couple of Valentine’s Days delivering bouquets for a florist ex-girlfriend, so I knew all of the back streets, all of the connections and quiet routes.

It was only as we left the last house of the day that I really started worrying. By then the wine was fading, and if it was late and if we hadn’t found “the one” I would get furious and shove Lucy away when she tried to get close. Then she would watch me silently drive all the way home. She knew how it unnerved me.

*

Our relationship was not perfect. There were long dull days, studying and working and quitting.

Our weekends were different but even when they started well we always had a comedown. At the time I thought that it was only natural. There was my driving: speeding down back roads, thumping over speed bumps, rolling through stop signs. Somehow we always made it and that made us feel huge. And who could forget all those first-home buyers who actually took us seriously, who looked at us with such concern? Were we the couple who were going to steal their dream this time?

We were a few years older than most, and while they were nervous to leave a good impression, we just wanted to be remembered. We did dumb stuff. If there were no parks on the road—some open homes brought desperate hordes and those hordes formed long lines—we’d drive up over the kerb and park on the grass, then walk right past the line, like we hadn’t seen them. We acted like we were a threat and they believed it.

Unfortunately she did too. She thought we were really looking. I don’t know if it was worse that she believed it or that I was responsible.

See, we began with a misunderstanding. I threw out a line, one of many, but this one caught and the thread pulled and lengthened, suddenly bearing an unreasonable amount of weight. On our second night together, while the TV flickered over our faces, she told me she had grown up renting, how the kitchens never had ovens or dishwashers, how that wasn’t going to be her future. She said it like it meant we couldn’t be together. She said it like she was looking for a provider and that provider wasn’t me. Overwhelmed by a sudden need for her and her disorientating brown eyes, I said I was good for it. I told her I would be the one who would make it happen.

“How?” she asked, looking around the apartment I shared with two others. I remember the way she pushed her hair back then as if she was reassessing.

“My grandma,” I said, “left me some money”.

I think I mentioned six figures, I don’t know. I can’t really remember anything except her offering to top me up for the first time that evening.

“That’s so nice,” she said.

If it makes any difference, Grandma had wanted to leave me some money. She told me that much as we ate refrigerated mandarins in the hospice carpark a couple of days before she died. It was just that right after she died my grandfather remarried the big-bosomed nurse who cared for Grandma on her way out, and left everything to her.

Purchasing had never been the point. To be honest, I don’t really know why we went. It almost started out as a joke, something to do on Saturday afternoons. But then we got into it. We kept going. I told myself it was to bear witness, but it wasn’t that simple. What I did know, what I knew in my heart, was that we belonged with the renters and that was unlikely to change. But Lucy had got confused (I had confused her) and she thought she could swap sides. Except it didn’t work that way. It hadn’t for the longest time.

*

The day I’m recalling was actually a Sunday. We rarely did Sundays and as hard as I try I can’t remember why we didn’t go out on the Saturday; or maybe we did—maybe we were just so sick of each other we decided to spend the whole weekend driving from house to unaffordable house.

I remember she was looking unusually pale. She had olive skin but she was all washed out. I had the shakes and I remember those shakes didn’t go away even after I gulped the first Bloody Mary. We lingered. We spent as long as we could at home, as if we were both hoping the other would say, “Let’s not,” but in the end routine took over.

“This one?” She said, sending me the link.

“No.”

“Or this one?”

“Hell no!”

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s not bother.”

When we got to the first house in Albany, everyone looked sceptical about something, or maybe they were just unhappy. All the couples walked slowly and shouted mournfully between rooms—”Cracks in the wall” or “Mould in the shower”. The agent grinned and bore it but no one was comfortable.

“I don’t even think it’s a doer-upper,” Lucy said miserably and my heart filled with an unexpected melancholy.

At about two, we showed up at our second open home. Long Bay. We had reached the edge of the city.

It took us a few minutes to find the little grey plaster box hidden between tasteless sprawling seventies and eighties builds, surrounded by high fences and a dozen transplanted palm trees. The fences and trees were meant to give privacy and evoke the Pacific but all they did was make it damp and dark, closed off. It looked like one of the neighbours’ outhouses or servants’ quarters.

“It’s worth more than a million,” I said.

To get to the front door you had to climb past a tiny standalone concrete garage.

“It’s too low,” she said. Her little head of shaggy hair looked odd so far above the garage roof.

“The Demio will fit,” I said.

“Better make sure.”

We had discovered the more willing you were to do bold things, the more the agent and everyone else accepted you. By the time we had parked in the garage, confirming that in fact the Demio could fit, two other couples were waiting in idle.

“I know you guys, don’t I?” the agent said after I had parked back on the road, tight against the kerb. I was admiring my park so I didn’t realise at first he was talking to us.

“Don’t I?” he said again.

He was standing in the doorway. He thought he was better than us.

“You were interested in Awaroa Street?”

“Hmm?” Lucy said, looking at me.

“The one in Sandringham,” I reminded her.

“That was so long ago.”

“It sold for $1.7 million,” the agent said.

He was giving me a bad vibe.

“Well, I’m going to check the garden,” I said.

I didn’t see Lucy for a while. Then she was beside me, flushed. “Why’d you leave me with him?”

“What happened?” I could tell something had by the way she was looking at me, her eyes narrowed.

“There’s no dishwasher,” she said. That was the first thing she checked at every house. Her future required a powerful dishwasher or there was no future. “I asked him about it and he got all agitated and tried to call me out. He basically called me a piece of shit, said he sees our type all the time.”

“What is our type?” I asked.

“Forget it. I just want to buy the place to make a point,” she said. She watched me when she said that and I couldn’t look at her.

Two women walked past us and I said loudly to her, “Anyway, it’s a leaker.”

But it wasn’t enough. She wanted to scream at me, I could tell. We’d been through this before but today I couldn’t bear it. I grabbed her and pulled her towards the road. The agent watched us go.

“See you again,” he called.

Lucy yelled back, “There’s no space for a fucking dishwasher!” and his face dropped. That might have been the greatest moment we had at an open home.

*

Maybe if we had called it a day there, things wouldn’t have ended the way they did.

Maybe we would have gone to bed and slept it off and started again the next weekend. I don’t know. I think I said we should go home, order dumplings and a couple of slices of cake and watch a movie. I think she refused. But for all I know it was the other way around and she had wanted to be alone with me and I couldn’t face her.

Maybe, because I had nothing left to say, I told her we had to keep going.

*

We pulled in at a house a few streets away after a looping detour. She was breathing normally again but I didn’t feel good about our chances of saving the afternoon. We had gone a little south too and I should have known that was a bad idea.

“She did leave you that money, right?”

“What?”

“Your granny.”

It was like she had finally decided to stop pretending.

“Do you think we should try somewhere else?” I said, looking at the agency name at the bottom of the For Sale sign.

She sighed. “Why?”

“It’s the same people as the last one. He might have called them.”

But we went inside. The agent was small and blonde and looked right through me while talking on her mobile. She smiled, then pointed at a logbook. I wrote down our first names but fake last names and fake numbers. I wanted to stick close to make sure the other guy wasn’t on the phone giving her a heads-up, but it sounded like she was talking her kid through an algebra problem.

Lucy disappeared. After a while I left the agent too and wandered through empty bedrooms and a cluttered kitchen until I found a conservatory out back. The sun beamed in. I lay back and stared at the back yard. The grass was freshly mown but it still looked scruffy. Everything looked scruffy to me that afternoon.

“Pretty nice, huh?” The agent said, standing at the end of the couch by my feet. She wanted me to feel bad about lying down but I refused.

“Yeah,” I said. “And yet …”

“It doesn’t fit? It was only recently added to the house. A really sad story. A young couple bought this place a few years back. All ready to start a family but then she got cancer. At the end all she wanted was a room filled with light.”

Her delivery was all wrong but it still made me think. I felt like I understood the wife. After one of our better days we would spend the evening discussing how we would improve the house and make it ours. We would paint, remove carpets, change tiles, knock down unnecessary walls and let the light in. It was always so bafflingly obvious and yet none of the owners ever made the changes. We knew they were necessary but no one else did and so we wondered if we were special, if we could see what no one else could see.

I tried not to think about the woman with cancer who must have lain there as I lay there, basking in the sun. I was finally relaxed, for the first time all weekend. I wondered if there was a way, if a bank would somehow give us a loan. Surely, I thought. They just want your money.

Then I heard Lucy laugh and my stomach clenched. She hadn’t laughed like that in weeks.

*

I found her with another couple looking at an ensuite, huddled together.

“This is …” she said and introduced me to a young, sensitive-looking woman and a guy our age or a bit older. He was balding, small and pale, bundled in an oversized leather jacket.

They were doing what we were doing, I saw that right away, but while we looked respectable, those two flaunted their lack of means like a slap in the face.

“Hi,” I said.

“Brother,” he said.

I listened to him list all of the ways they could bargain the seller down, all of the supposed flaws. He was unbearable. He loved the sound of his own voice. I wanted to get away but Lucy was enjoying him. She had a knack for finding losers.

“There’s a conservatory,” I said to Lucy.

She didn’t look at me. Twenty minutes ago I’d done my very best to avoid her eyes and now it was all I wanted.

“Lucy?”

She just said, “I’ll meet you there.”

I should have stayed in that ensuite, I should have made conversation until they got bored with us, but I left them and stumbled back down the stairs.

*

When I opened my eyes again the house was quiet. I was alone in the conservatory. Clouds covered the sun, then it was bright again.

I waited a while. I watched the back yard as if she might have been nearby inspecting the lawns. Then I got sick of pretending and walked out of the house.

I was sitting in the car when the agent came over. She knocked on the window. I wound it down, expecting her to say, “You deserve better” or “She went that way”, but all she did was hand me a flyer and say, “Auction is this Wednesday.”

*

I expected to find them drinking at the apartment but she wasn’t there. In actual fact she never came back. I waited around that night. I lay on the couch and didn’t sleep and when it was Monday and I had to go to work I left the key under the mat.

A few days later, when I hadn’t heard from her and I realised we had gone the length of the city and come away with nothing, I dropped her things at her mum’s and wished her well. I erased my Trade Me searches and stopped going. Cold turkey. I didn’t even think about it. I just stopped. Some couples go bowling or out to brunch. This was our thing and without her there was no longer any point.

Much later, when I walked past another line of hopeful buyers one day, I remembered those weekends, but they had become vague and unclear, troubling, like a humid afternoon before the clouds break. All I really remembered was her during the week while I pretended to study. I remembered how whenever she was down she used to turn on the dishwasher. It didn’t matter whether it was late at night or the middle of the day, whether it was full or empty—she turned it on because it was the only thing in all of the world that could calm her down. She turned it on because it sounded like rain.

“First home buyers” appears in Landfall 243, edited by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, $30), available in bookstores nationwide. Other writers in the latest issue of New Zealand’s greatest literary journal include Vincent O’Sullivan, Emma Neale, Erik Kennedy and Rebecca Hawkes.

Next week’s short story is by Mangakino writer Vaughan Rapatahana.

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