“You moved here from Massachusetts?” The maintenance man’s eyes widened. “What do you think of it here?”
“I love it, but it’s harder than we thought to afford the rent on this place. We’re in the middle of buying a home off-island.”
“You know you’re only paying for the name here, right?” He grinned at me from the wall he was sawing into. Water had seeped through a window, rotting away the wood until it was gone. It looked fine, but smelled terrible after a good rain. “Everyone likes to say they live on the island. The other schools in the area are good, too, you know. The houses here look fancy but aren’t built much better than they are anywhere else. I spend a lot of time here fixing the same problems. Window dressing; that’s what you’re paying for.”
I thought about what he said and was inclined to agree. We love our beautiful neighborhood and our friendly neighbors, but on the other side of the river, 2.5 miles away is a nice brick house that has our freshly-signed names on the deed. It’s about the same size and age as the home we’re renting, but $100,000 cheaper and with no HOA fees! That means: no amazing community pools and beautiful sections of golf course woven artfully throughout the neighborhood. It also means: no small fortune going to the Home Owner’s Association, whose lackeys are constantly breathing down our necks. I swear, we keep our yard looking as nice as everyone else’s (most of the time), but we got onto the HOA’s radar. It feels like they’re watching us like hawks. I rather like yard work, but knowing someone is going to judge my efforts sucks the joy right out of it.
Our new house is a good size, in a pleasant neighborhood with a respectable, smaller school, but it isn’t elegant. Not a bit. It’s a good, sensible home that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. That makes me a little sad. I like walking around our current neighborhood with the immaculate yards and pristine ponds, and coming back to our rented house with its stately, tall ceilings. The ceiling is so high, we’d need to buy a gadget on a long stick to change our lightbulbs. An ordinary stepladder isn’t going to cut it. I also like that my book group meets at the country club, where we are served wine and the women’s restroom is decorated in Kate Spade. I don’t golf and rarely dine there, but it makes me feel vaguely important to have a country club in my neighborhood. To be honest, though, elegance isn’t all it is cracked up to be, especially when it’s of the suburban cookie cutter variety. I have gotten so lost driving around the island, where all the houses look similar and all the street names sound the same: Does my friend live on Waterbridge Court, or Bridgewater Court? (Oddly, neither of those streets have a bridge anywhere in or near them). Inside these perfect homes, however, I do know my way around. Our neighbor across the street boasts the exact same floor plan as we do, and the others are pretty similar. I never need to ask where the bathroom is when I’m a guest in someone else’s home.
The high ceilings of my rented home are impressive, but don’t lend themselves to cosiness. Even with rooms full of furniture, our voices echo. It isn’t at all nice to hear your tantruming child echo. Our new house has sensible ceilings, which my husband is very happy about. My inner snob, however, is not. I always wanted my own McMansion, and now that I’m in one, I’m reluctant to leave so soon. It’s stupid and I feel like an entitled prig for feeling this way, especially in light of the fact that so many people have lost their homes in the California wildfires, but there you have it.
I’ll miss looking out my bedroom window every morning to see the ducks and geese sailing proudly along the waterway behind our house. Our new house won’t have this view, but it will have a much more private feeling with a tall wooden fence and an above-ground pool.
I can probably keep attending book club meetings and can easily walk around Fleming Island whenever I feel like it. I’m only moving 2.5 miles away, for crying out loud. I know we’ll be so much more comfortable in a home that we own. Living in a rental makes me nervous that my kids will somehow manage to destroy it before our lease is up. Still, I can’t help but feel a teensy bit sad that living on my picture-perfect island didn’t work out. Even if much of it is window dressing.