Part One – The Hunt
I have just started "shacking up" with The Boyfriend, Pete. This might not be a huge deal, except for the fact I'm not the only one sharing space with my beloved. My first loves and numero uno priorities, Fiona and Finley, are, by necessity, shacking, too.
This detour is a deviation from plan - a shifting of traffic cones and guard rails in life's construction zone. I started second-guessing our world tour schedule two weeks after the kids started primary school. "What if we stay in New Zealand a bit longer?" I thought. "What if the kids got to finish the school year here?" Be careful with "what ifs." What-plus-if can roll you down roads you failed to notice on your map. They're small, squiggly secondary streets marked in a thin black line. Roads only locals travel.
During the time I was busy "what-iffing" rather than packing and boarding a plane back to Spokane, two major events collided:
-I fell in love with a Kiwi (a human male, not the bird or the fruit, although I quite like Kiwi fruit)
-The flat mate decided to sell her house to return to the States. This meant the kids and I needed a new place to live.
In reality, Amy's home was available to us until November. Our arrangement, which started in March, had worked well – we paid (low) rent, shared kid-sitting and cooking, and Amy was gracious with the use of her stuff. But selling a home, or living in one that's on the market, gets stressful. The four walls, fixtures and fittings suddenly become property of the Prospective Buyer, or PB. The PB owns the space. One of my friends said she lived in a home for sale shortly after arriving in New Zealand from South Africa. "It was awful," she said. "Especially with kids, trying to keep the place tidy was a nightmare. The realtor would call and say someone wanted to see the house in an hour." Suddenly, 2,000 square feet becomes a tight squeeze for you and your two darling mess-makers. The kids are unpacking Legos, dolls, plastic food, tables, chairs and sleeping bags faster than you can re-pack and put them away. It was time leave the American Embassy with its dark brown polished wood floors, granite counter tops and multiple heat pumps. Time to fly. Only we're not flying. Not yet. I set aside the fact I have a perfectly good, affordable five-bedroom home in Spokane with central heating and instead searched for a rental in New Zealand with less space and no heat.
I did what I normally do when faced with major change: Panicked. I was desperate to FIND SOMETHING, anything. NOW. I completed applications with two realty companies and visited more than a half-dozen homes and apartments. The one I was certain I could make work was a three-bedroom, one-bath "bach" (holiday home) about a block from the kids' school. It was a classic Kiwi bach: rustic, with its bare light bulbs, miniature bathroom sink containing separate taps for cold and scalding water; decades-old bathtub encircled by a shower curtain; beds overturned on their sides, stripped bare, devoid of cover or character. We'd have to move out December 18th so the owners could live there for one month during the Christmas holidays.
The place had its pluses, though: Besides its perfect location near school and the beach, the kitchen was open to the lounge (living room) and the back yard was spacious enough for Finley to kick a soccer ball. At $1300 per month, it was a relative bargain in pricey Mount Maunganui.
In fact, two days after viewing the bach, I text-messaged the property manager (who stood to collect a tidy $320 from me for unlocking the house, standing inside for five minutes and answering my question: "Does the place have heat?" with a laugh and the answer, "No, this is New Zealand!") Crikey. Of course not. I asked whether I could bring a friend through to give me a second opinion.
While awaiting a response from the platinum-haired, tattooed young realtor, I accompanied Finley and his class on a field trip to the public library. We walked past the house I was almost certain we'd get. Finn said loudly, "Hey, that's our new house!" I told him, "No, Finn. We're looking to rent it for a little while, and I'm not sure we have it." Another parent on the trip said, "I know Steve, the owner of the home. Real nice guy. He's a farmer in the Coromandel who loves surfing. I bet you could rent through him directly. I can contact him if you like after we get back from the library." Perfect, I thought. Skip the middle man (or woman) and deal directly with the source. I'd already started mentally shifting into the house, placing the kids in a room off the kitchen, finding a shade for that bare light bulb in my room, buying a proper drip coffee machine (something I hadn't had for a very long time).
Five minutes after returning from the field trip, I received the following text message: "Sorry, but I spoke to Steve and the house was just rented. I'll keep my eyes open for something else." I was gutted. That was our house. Our own beach shack, if only for three months.
I still had options, including another near-school prospect that resulted from my notice in the school newsletter: The school secretary had e-mailed, saying she'd just received a call from someone who wanted to rent her home on Valley Road. I called the homeowner, Jo, straight away. She said, "It has three bedrooms and one bathroom. It's fully furnished. It's been our family beach home and the kids are older and not as interested in spending time there as they used to be. We're going to rent it out for the first time." However, my heart sank when Jo told me she was about to turn over the home to a property manager. One more step in the process. An extra week's rent down the drain. I told Jo I'd like to see the home. "Our daughter's having a party there this weekend. Maybe next week," Jo said.
I called the next week to learn there had been a "key crisis." Jo's daughter had sent the property manager the wrong key. It would be another day or two before the manager could get in, assess the home and deliver a rental price. This was getting, um, ridiculous. Still, I persisted. I'd walked around the home, and while I couldn't see inside, I could tell from outside it was tidy and cared for. Who needed that other bach, anyways? We would rent the Valley home. I call Jo again. She tells me the realtor has not returned her call, so she doesn't have any answers for me. I try again the next day. Still no luck. "Listen," I say. "I don't want to bother you, but I've already lost one house because I waited too long. Do you want me to deal directly with the property manager?" Jo says no, she still wants a say in the process. She might have a price next week. Shaking, I click off the phone. Not working. This is just not working.
I drive to an international women's lunch, a monthly gathering which rotates among member's homes. I can't host at the moment because I don't have a place to call my own. I eat salad and bread, a smidgen of pasta, several slices of apple. I politely decline an Italian woman's offer of red wine. "Oh, I'd love to," I say. "But I can't today." I could really use that wine. I talk with a German woman who's become disillusioned with New Zealand. She doesn't think her son's high school is up to the standard it would be in her home country. She says she's paying high taxes in Germany as a result of being here. She's cleaning rooms at a motel because she couldn't find a customer service job and was bored sitting at home. Then, there's the young Persian woman who's broken up with her Kiwi partner. She, too, is disgruntled. Mercifully, I find an Australian woman of Sri Lankan origin who's relatively happy with her adopted country and has found security with her Kiwi husband and two children. "Like any relationship, it's not perfect, but we are good together. My family keeps me really grounded." My crack hypothesis about living anywhere is as follows: If you're part of a stable, happy relationship, the place you call home is at least tolerable. If your relationship is broken or has died, just about anywhere else looks better.
I flee the immigrant bitch session early because I told Finley I'd visit school to watch him do Kapa Haka (Maori dance). When I arrive, instead of "Ka Mate ka mate kora, kora," I'm treated to a performance of the school choir, the Singing Stars. Half the school crowds into a small auditorium.Kids sardine themselves into narrow rows on the floor. I'm one of the lucky folks sitting on a chair along the windows. Parents weren't invited to this event, because there's not enough space. I'm here purely by chance.
The performers wear Afros, red and green glittery bow ties, white shirts and jeans. They open with Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling" and perform the Jackson Five's "A-B-C." One of Fiona's friends loses her Afro while dipping her head. She smiles and keeps dancing. A boy whose name is announced as Antonio sings Michael Jackson's song, "Ben." Only the way he pronounces "Ben," it sounds like "Bin." That can't be our Spanish friends' son, can it? His Kiwi accent is so strong, there's no way it could be him. I learn that night it was, in fact, the Spanish kid. After a year in NZ, his Kiwi is stronger than many Kiwi's Kiwi.
The kids sing James Taylor's, "You've Got a Friend," one of the songs Fiona's kindergarten class sang for their Christmas program the year Sean was in hospital. My head was so scattered during that period, I mixed up the time, missing most of Fi's show, arriving what I thought was 10 minutes early, at 10:20. The performance had started at 10:00 and ended at 10:30. Fi's teacher had the children sing "You've Got a Friend," one extra time so I could hear it. Fiona was in tears after the show. I left Mullen Road Elementary, sat in my mini-van outside the Starbuck's on 57th Street, and sobbed. I called Sean in his hospital room and cried so hard, I was gasping for breath. He consoled me, saying, "I think this is about more than missing Fiona's program." Of course, he was right. I was having an extreme stress reaction as a result of juggling a critically ill husband, two small children, part-time work, a home and social engagements (which I needed to retain some sense of normalcy). The extreme stress reaction was not unlike what I was about to experience at my next stop in NZ...
I left the Mount's school program with 45 minutes to kill before having to shuttle the kids home. Maybe I could grab a quiet cup of tea at The Boyfriend's and sit alone. Pete shared a large rental home with four flat mates and their friends. Normally, it's deserted during the day. But when I arrive at 2:15 that Friday, three cars are parked outside. I enter, anyways. I hear people downstairs, upstairs. Duh, they live here. I quickly leave and park at one of my favorite beach spots. It's the same place the kids and I had our pictures taken several months ago. I think about the smiles we wore then, and the tears I shed now. I'm giving the ocean more salt. My phone beeps – it's a text message from my flat mate, telling me someone's coming to see the house tomorrow. This sends me over the edge. All indications I have at this moment are: We have no place to call home. We have no place to call home. We have no place... The Pacific laps up a few more of my tears. I haven't been this stressed since Sean was in hospital. Why? I wipe away evidence of my sadness and collect the kids from school.
For once, Fiona and Finley leave the school grounds the first time I ask. Finley's always kicking the soccer ball "just one more time" with Jeandre and Kiira. Fiona's always scheming for a play date at Ashely or Bree's. No more soccer, and no play dates today, because we're going to swim lessons. I stop by the store to grab a coffee and a paper. The 40-something bald guy making my latte says hi as if he knows me. He looks familiar, but I can't quite place him. "I'm sorry," I say. "I can't remember where I know you from." He smiles and says, "You don't remember our lunch together?" He pauses, laughs, then says, "No, I used to work at the meat counter at Pak 'N Save." Of course. The guy was always friendly, and his appearance in a new store is a reminder of the interconnectedness of The Mount. The same people keep popping up, time and again. It reminds me of life in Spokane. We were woven together like a spiderweb. My strand was never far from other strands.
While at the kids' swim lessons, I scan ads in the local paper for rental homes. I see one possibility in Papamoa. I text the owner, who invites me to see the home the next day.
I bring the kids back to Amy's and call the owner of the Valley house, the one near Fi and Finn's school, for the 4th or 5th time. She still hasn't heard from the property manager, and oh, by the way, someone else is interested in the home, too. A lump rises in my throat. Not working. It's just not working. I call The Boyfriend. "I don't know what to do about the housing crisis," I say. "I lost the Oceanview house, and the Valley owner's stringing me along, and I have an appointment to see another house tomorrow..." I start to break apart on the phone after Pete asks if everything's okay. I can feel my face going red. Pete gives me the name and number of the owner of another property, an apartment on Marine Parade: 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $1520 per month. It's unfurnished. Pete assures me that between his stuff and stuff we can buy cheaply online, we can tackle the furniture issue. Then he says, "It'll be alright. It sounds like you need a good cuddle." I'm piling on now, and tell him, "But there's no where we can curl up alone. I have flat mates. You have flat mates. There's no where..." Now, I'm blubbering. I need a tissue.
The Boyfriend and I have a date tonight. I drive to his house, where I fling my arms around him the moment I slam the car door. I inhale - deeply, as if his scent – a mixture of Hugo Boss cologne, deodorant and soap - will revive me. My racing heart starts to slow. "It'll be alright, eh?" Pete says.
We drive past the Marine Parade apartment, located near downtown on a swank road of million dollar properties. Balconies straddle both sides of the three-story cement building. They likely have a beautiful ocean view. But one side also faces another apartment or condo under construction. It's draped in white plastic. You must cross a busy street to reach the beach. I couldn't just send the kids outside to play. Cross Marine Parade off the list.
Several days later, Pete gets a call from the manager of the Quest apartments near downtown Mount on the main road. It's busy, but there's a pool, and it's furnished. The third floor unit is spacious, with an open kitchen and lounge (living room). It looks clean and new. It also faces the McDonald's parking lot. The smell of french fries wafts up, as if to say, "Your kids will ask to visit every day." The windows are double-glazed to muffle sounds from the drive-through window. $1800 a month to live beside the Golden Arches. Cross Quest off the list.
I return to the Internet, searching for the elusive, affordable, short-term furnished rental. I perform several sobering drive-bys. Triplex on Ngatai: minuscule. Basement unit on Pitau: depressing. Triplex on Oceanbeach: grotty. Cross them all off the list.
Friday, the day of The Meltdown, we meet our Spanish friends, Antonio and Elena, for drinks and tapas at a bar in downtown Mount. They're the same couple who offered to let the kids and I live with them while we searched for a rental. We laugh and nearly shout over the bar's din. We drink white wine and eat shrimp, bread and cheese. Our friends have an easy manner, and love living in New Zealand. Their warmth and generosity are reminders of who and what are good here.
Two hours later, Pete and I stand in the soft sand of the beach, staring at stars before turning into our 17-year-old selves, who make out in the moonlight. This is why I'm alive, I think. This is why I'm here.
[to be cont'd...]
[to be cont'd...]