I flew home in a cloud from Oxford two weeks before I was to begin my first year as a teacher and four months before our wedding. Judge surprised me and “popped the question” while I was studying in England, and so, naturally, all my energy had been placed on wedding planning for November. Who wants to secure an address when you can instead pick venues, florals and bridesmaid dresses? I had forgotten to find a place to live.
Athens, Georgia is a transient enough city to make me feel comfortable to peruse Craigslist in July for a place to live come August 1st. Ten minutes into searching on my iPhone on a trip to meet Judge’s family for the first time, I found an ad for a three-bedroom house with a dog-fence 15 minutes from my new school. This was my primary focus – a big dog fence for our dogs to run around unhindered while I learned to mother my new ninth graders. I knew that time would not be an unlimited resource this Fall. I was sold on the fence surrounding ten acres, and Judge simply asked, “How big is the kitchen?” I showed him a picture of the white cabinetry, large center island and stove and he said, “Go ahead and call and let’s tour the property.” Judge daydreamed of cooking late at night with his new teacher wife and I focused on dialing the right number in busy traffic.
I called the number on the Craigslist and a sweet piercing Carolina accent rang out from the speaker-phone. Ms. Isabelle Langtree sounded like my Charleston grandma, and I knew I could convince this lady to let us be the next responsible tenants of her home. After a thirty minute conversation which I could not quite seem to wrap up, I learned that the home for rent was her husband’s childhood home built by her father-in-law. I also learned that another couple had already toured the home and was planning to sign the lease. Not so sure if this was a sales- pitch- technique or genuine information, we told Isabelle we would tour the home on Friday the hour we returned from Tampa and we would most likely sign the lease that day after the tour. Judge is always stressed out by my flippant decisions and when I promised Isabelle to sign the dotted lines sight unseen, he looked at me horrified mouth open. I persuaded farther, “We will be very responsible tenants. We are good people who love to decorate and make a house a home. Since we are not students, we will probably live in that house as long as you want us.” Judge stared at me dumbfounded.
Estee Lauder Under the Golden Arch:
Sure enough, that Friday we saw the dog fence and big kitchen with our own two eyes. As Isabelle went on and on about the water heater, the dent in the bathtub cause by a prior “obese tenant,” the best way to clean wood floors after scuffed by irresponsible college kids, the fact we could NOT have a bonfires ever and she had “never seen an insect inside this home in her life,” Judge and I battled in whispers. I was sold and ready to nest. Judge was unsure and wanted a month to make a decision. He always wants more time.
I explained firmly to my fiancé, “We don’t have time. If we don’t sign today, we’ll lose the house. This might be the only house like this in all of Athens.”
Judge asked me, “Sweetie, where are we going to find the 840$ for the down payment today and the 840$ for the first-month rent next week?” That was a legitimate question. I ran out of my travel stipend completely two months into my stay in Oxford after I toured Rome with my best friend. Now, I regretted buying our host family’s four-course dinner in Rome. I had been living on Credit Cards since my return to the States and Judge just recently had a major back surgery.
Details, details, details. This is the dream. How could we give this up?
I put on my best little-girl, baby face and begged, “Could we use the money in savings?” Sure enough, on the minute drive from our almost-home to the Mcdonalds to sign the lease, Judge caved, feeling he had to indulge my whims.
Judge hates to be rushed more than anything, and I love to rush so our relational vibe going into Mcdonalds to “sign our life away” was a bit off. We also defiantly decided before we got out of the car, and because of our serious lack of cash, that we would only tell Isabelle about one of our dogs. We could handle a 150$ dog deposit but couldn’t stomach the 300$ at the moment. The problem is, we forgot to agree which dog of ours we were writing into the lease. Judge and I both passed on the Mcdonald’s line to even buy off the dollar menu.We sat down in a large both us four. It really felt like three, as Isabelle’s husband hardly talked. He just sat and smiled as the transaction took place.
Isabelle, mind you, was wearing a yellow blouse, tucked into yellow pants and was sporting yellow keds. She chose to wear her straw bonnet hat even inside of Mcdonalds. There was a bow around her short blond ponytail. Estee Lauder was smeared over her prim southern face. Her blue eyes shone bright like she still was Ms. Watermelon of South Carolina. We painstakingly went over every minuscule section and rule of the lease, things as basic as,
“You always need to write the date on your rent check every month. And when you send it to our home, you need to cover the check in the paper before placing it in the envelope, so that the mailman doesn’t see there is a check in the mail. Mailmen these days are becoming looser and looser with their morals. You’d be surprised…”
In December, when I forgot to send her the check, I actually lied to Isabelle and said I had sent it in the mail but some dirty mail sorter must have snatched it up, and she actually believed my lie.
In the comfortability of the fast food establishment, Isabelle confided in us through whispers that she posts her homes on Craigslist to “attract a certain type of tenant. You know the type of people that may look for a house on Craigslist? I have found if I decorate the rental homes in a certain way and “stage” my house with my decorating… I almost always get certain types of people who inquire about the house – people… who are like me.”
We started to detect her undertones. Judge and I held each other’s hands under the table uncomfortably. Isabelle told Judge and me that we reminded her of her marriage in it’s earlier stages when they were newly in love. When I talked to Isabelle on the phone I had forged an uncomfortable connection. In my desire to convince her to let us rent the house, I had created a commonality between us that I had to sustain.
Isabelle babbled on with vivid hand-motions, “Yes, this house used to lay on farmland, but now it’s dangerously close to North Avenue. We hope with the new Kroger and other shops opening up on this road, that the neighborhood is going to change back over. This area didn’t look like this at all thirty years ago, did it honey?”
Isabelle’s no-name husband just smiled and nodded. Judge and I swept our visceral reaction under the rug. We ignored the fact that Judge lived on North Avenue with our black friend, CJ, who would probably be frequenting our house, or that some of my favorite students from my student teaching year lived on North Avenue.
“ Don’t worry though, Katie, we have a fully functional security system from Ackerman and you should always set it before you leave.”
I tried to convince Isabelle to let us move in as soon as tomorrow, but she insisted that she had “a lot of work to do” over the next week. Isabelle explained frazzled that she had to move queen beds into the house, make curtains, push in an island and hang artwork all about. Isabelle bragged that she was an interior decorator in Suwanee and since she did so much work on the house throughout the year, she completely stages and takes pictures of the Hull House in between tenants.
Instantly, my mind began to turn. How could I convince Isabelle to leave behind all her décor after her staging? I knew Judge and I could not afford to pay a penny for decorations until after our wedding. This was the perfect fix. I pipe up with laughter, “Well if you want to leave any of that behind to the poor, newly married couple we would love it!” Isabelle’s eye’s sparkled, ‘What are your favorite color palettes?” I fumbled to answer her question, “I mean…. anything… really… what you love, I probably love. Earth tones, maybe?”
After we initialed every page of the lease, we arrived on the final page – the dog security deposit. “And what is the name of your furry friend?” Instantaneously Judge and I both answer, “Jet/Roxxy.” Isabelle looked at us confused. Judge interrupted quickly, “Yes, Roxxy, Roxxy is the name of our dog.” And I just nodded and smiled. We shook hands to finalize the deal. Somehow, we had passed the test and walked out with the lease in our hand.
The Midnight Park:
Throughout that week, Isabelle would send me pictures of the house newly staged in her style. She asked me if I wanted the wicker rockers in the living room and the artwork in the kitchen. Yes, yes, yes. Anything to fill the space, I replied. Isabelle’s daytime portfolio-building did not stop us from driving up to the Hull house late at night. Judge would turn the headlights off, recline his chair and ask me to come sit in his lap like we’d been doing for the last four years. We would roll down all the windows and experience the sounds of our future. We had waited since our Senior Year of college for this moment where we felt certain of our next step. I would let me head dangle out the driver seat window and stretch my toes to the passenger side. Under the moon, stretched out, I felt secure. No more long-distance, no more cramming into houses with five other roommates, no need to eat out every meal to find privacy. I wouldn’t just see Judge at night after work, but I would wake up to his safety. These midnight escapes were wrung with a new boldness in Judge. His hands held me without a doubt. This was to be our pleasure and secret space for longer than a date-night.
On the day we arrived to move into the house, Isabelle apologized for the empty spaces and explained her niece is starting her first year at Georgia and came to visit and asked for all the furniture. Isabelle had acquiesced to her family’s request. Blood over tenants, I suppose. All that was left were the curtains in the living room, dining room and master bedroom. Curtains that Isabelle had sewed and anchored into the wall herself. I swallowed and suppressed my reversion to the kitch country style. Red buttons were sewn on to the sky blue lapels of the dining room curtains and a paisley bright design adorned the top. They stood out bright and shining and made it near impossible to match any of my more natural, rustic things in with Isabelle’s bold statements. I just reminded myself to think like Judge, this was an economic blessing and I had no financial wiggle room to desire anything different.
In Judge’s kitchen, were a huge bouquet of flowers, dish-soap and dish-rags with a note welcoming us to our first home. I Instagrammed the sweet present from Isabelle. This was definitely not your typical landlord.
After we returned from our honeymoon, our Hull house was brimming with Macy’s and Target boxes full of domestic bliss. The restriction of being poor-newlyweds was lifted by my friends and families investments of rugs, pillows, and bedspreads. We were even gifted two rocking chairs to place on our front porch. Judge settled into the kitchen with all our new cookware and appliances. He painstakingly decided where to place the toaster oven, Keurig and spice rack. I certainly reaped the benefits of his breakfast and dinners growing in complexities with all his new culinary accessories. Judge usually woke before I and made me a breakfast complemented by a latte. He would wrap the breakfast in a napkin and place my gift on the mantel so I could grab it in a hurry as a I ran out the door every morning. On the especially dark and frigid morning, he would go outside and warm up my car. He knows the toll my 160 students had on my emotional state and was happy to take care of me when I needed to be taken care of most… in my first semester in a Title I school.
Judge brought in a large oak desk into the study and insisted it would be placed so he could look out over the yard. This was the one space Judge could defend his introvert time against his extrovert wife. His finance books were strewn about and his wood lathe was tucked in the corner. I often shuddered as I walked by the office covered in dog hair and clutter, but Judge learned just to shut the door. Saturday mornings became Judge’s coveted sanctuary. He would study the Stock Market for hours and dream up at least 3 new business models before I would stir from my comatose around eleven. When he would wake me with some form of caffeine, he would ask me the normal questions, “So if I created this app…. do you think it would be successful?” Judge was always planning and dreaming his way out of the Physical Therapy office and used every spare hour of the weekends to study.
I, on the other hand, used my Saturdays to detach from the realities of school. I slept, ate and binged on Netflix as much as possible. As Judge claimed the morning, I returned back to my night-time bathtub binges. Around 11 AM, I would wiggle out from under Judge’s arms and draw a bath. I didn’t need any large oak desk, I had my bath desk just large enough to hold my laptop and cellphone. Hot water. Cold water, a constant change in temperature fueled my lesson planning, prayers and journaling. In the tub, with the water constantly flowing, I found my sanity and my otherness apart from Judge.
Over Christmas Break, I went wild hanging art found in antique stores over every inch of the-beige walls – all the walls except those in the Dining Room and Master Bedroom. There Isabelle had marked her territory. How I longed to rip those curtains down, but, I lived in fear of Mrs Langtree’s neurosis.
Slowly, I began to bend different section of our Mcdonald Contract. For instance, Isabelle had placed three Red “Private Property, Do Not Trespass Signs” in our front yard. When expecting company I pulled out the signs from our front yard and hid them behind our house. Strangely, a week later, the red signs returned in the exact same position. I didn’t learn my lesson.
After we received our new queen bed and linen duvet, I tried my hand against the window treatments. The curtains in the bedroom had to be erased but they couldn’t be removed so I rolled the curtains up just revealing the curtain rod. At least then any guest who saw my room would know it was not my choice. Three days later, as Judge and I snuggled in for sleep, we looked up and realized the curtains had been unfurled. Isabelle had struck again and the curtains enthroned to rule the space.
Every night, in my bedroom, I would feel the tension between my Jordanian tapestry at my feet and the curtains at my head. They just didn’t match. In sheer frustration one night, I surrendered and hid a hundred dollars worth of new pillows from Pier 1 in my trunk. Middle Eastern Hanging lanterns were quickly moved to the front porch. A picture of me riding a camel in Petra was placed face down. I held up the white flag and decided I had to match Fran’s style and not my own.In the Spring, as I scoured Antique and hole- in- the- wall- stores, I unconsciously began to buy knick-knacks that matched the curtains. I knew my new color-palette would please Isabelle mint-greens, robin-egg blue, pale purples and deep indigo. And I was too proud to admit that our new Master Bedroom pleased me as well. I finally slept in peace.
Latinas on the Roof:
That is, until that fateful morning when we woke up to the sounds of an apocalyptic invasion. Jesus, his white horse, and all his angels had returned to earth and they were marching on our roof. It was fucking 6 am in the morning. Roxxy, our German shepherd freaked out and hurled bricks of howls onto the cacophony. It was a bit disconcerting when I looked out the window and saw a middle-aged man holding a ladder. I usually sleep naked and the sight of eight men in our yard announced sent me over the edge. I locked myself in our bathroom, closed the blinds and called Isabelle seething in fury,
“Ms. Langtree, there are eight men on my roof and it’s 6 AM in the morning.”
“Well, yes, Katie, we texted you that the roof needed to be repaired.”
“Isabelle, it’s 6 AM in the morning and there are eight men on our roof and you did not warn us they’d be here before the sun rose.”
“Well, of course, they have to start that early because if they started later they would be on a hot roof in the middle of the afternoon. The Mexican’s can’t work in the heat of mid-day, Katie.”
“Isabelle, I have never laid shingles on a roof, so I would have no idea that this would be a normal practice. This is not okay.”
“Well, yes, I’m sorry, Katie. Next time I’ll make sure to not text you but I’ll call you and let you know”
“Okay, I have to shower and get ready to teach. Goodbye”
From that day on, Judge was given the task of communicating with Isabelle. I no longer responded to her phone calls or texts.
Despite Isabelle’s neurosis, we learned to love the privacy of our 10 acres and finally felt at home with every inch of the Hull House decorated. When the school year ended, I threw a bash for all the other English teachers with a bonfire and moonshine to boot. Everyone enjoyed the privacy of the lot in which the teachers’ kids could explore our creek and we could carry on through the night with no worry of being an intrusion to any neighbors.
In May, Judge and I decided we needed a relaxing summer. We would endure Isabelle’s crazy in exchange for staying in our cozy home another year. I was beginning my doctorate in Education with an intensive course from 9 to 5 all June and had no desire to pack our lives in boxes. As I never talked to Isabelle anymore, Judge was the more hesitant one of us to remain in Isabelle’s world. He wanted to jump head-first into buying a home. He was sick of counting how many nail holes I had put on the wall, constantly reminding me I was about sixty holes over what is stipulated in the lease.
Judge listened to Isabelle’s tirade when she blamed us for not running the water when it was below freezing in our house. We certainly did run the water because she called every night to remind us. Still, the pipes in the laundry room burst and it must be our fault, not the fact that the laundry room is a cinder block exterior add-on that isn’t insulated. And it was Judge who called Isabelle and her husband after she had come to our home “to check the HVAC” and set the alarm when she left. When I returned from school, the house alarm sounded, and I had no idea what the alarm code was. Yes, Isabelle told us three of four times when we first moved in, but as we relied on our guard dogs, we never set the alarm and thus we never decoded it. I sat outside for two hours after Judge called Isabelle to admit our lack of vigilance with the security alarm. They arrived to decode the alarm with a smug look of judgment that we had never yet set the system so “dangerously close to North Avenue.”
I didn’t blame Judge that he didn’t want to re-sign the lease. However, I knew what I needed to make it through my second year of teaching. I needed an unhindered July.
When Judge texted Isabellle telling her we were “happy to stay another year,” the next day, Mr. and Mrs Langtree showed up out of the blue wanting me to sign the dotted line right then and there. Their urgency felt strange. Why had they driven all the way to Athens so quickly?
“O, and honey we have noticed that there is usually a second dog in the house, we have decided to not have you pay the dog deposit for him this year. What is his name?” Isabelle got out her pen to sign our secret to the new lease.
“Well, that’s our neighbor’s dog and he asks us to watch him when he’s out of town, which is quite frequently.”
I instantly regretted all the effort we had put into transporting Jet to CJ’s house all those times Isabelle had texted us she was coming to the house for this or that. Clearly, she had come many a time unannounced and had spotted our second pup.
I should have known in that moment that Isabelle had ulterior motives for the rushed signing of the dotted lines. Isabelle is never gracious, understanding or merciful.
After participating in my graduate class all day, I would usually crawl into our bed for two hours before Judge arrived home from work. One day, I was awakened from my nap by my dogs howling. I ignored their barking and tried to fall back to sleep. Suddenly, I received a phone call from Mr. Langtree,
“Hello Katie, we’re out here with some potential investors in the property. We called Judge and requested to tour the house but he never responded. Could we come in?”
I quickly threw on clothes and ran out the door with the dogs. As I was just barely awake from my nap, I managed to shake hands, not so cordially, with an Asian couple. I then zoomed away.
Little did I know that all my interior design touches on the Hull House, would help sell a property that was way overpriced and had been on the market for five years. Isabelle didn’t stage her house for new renters on Craiglist. She had been staging the house for potentials buyers.
Two weeks later we received a letter in the mail from the Langtrees,
Dear Katherine and Judge Johnson,
An investor has purchased the 285 Hull House property. Their names are Rick and Lily Nguyen. As stipulated in Section 4, Article 3 of the lease you signed June 9th, we have transferred the obligation of your lease as of this date. You are obligated to uphold the lease as your security deposit is now transferred to the new owners. You will be hearing from the new owners soon. Have a good summer [Yellow sun emoji].
I sent a text back,
“I talked to a real estate agent and she said the contract we signed with you is null when the property is bought by another owner. We need to a sign a new lease with the new owners and we need it in writing that the security deposit was transferred to the Nguyens. We have yet to hear from the new owners and we are wondering if we should find a new place to live. We want to stay here but have no guarantee we won’t get kicked out before the year is out. Please encourage the new owners to call us as soon as possible.”
Isabelle never responded. We called. Isabelle never picked up. Finally, Judge called her cell phone on a restricted number and she picked up. Clearly, Isabelle was startled that it was Judge who had called her and spoke in very elusive terms saying over and over again she couldn’t give us “any legal advice.” Judge frustratingly told her we didn’t want her legal advice, we just wanted to know if we should look for another place to live.
On July 31st, we received a new letter from the Nguyens. It was an official 60 day termination of the lease. However, because Isabelle had coerced us into signing the new lease we weren’t allowed to leave until August 31st and the Nguyens could squeeze two months of rent from us for July and August. Contractually, if we left in July we would still have to pay rent for all sixty days.
I would have to move the contents of our lives right in the middle of the Fall Semester.
Judge grew irritated and texted Isabelle our last correspondence,
“Hey, thanks for keeping us in the dark about getting kicked out of our house! I think you should consider some self-reflection. Have a great summer [Yellow sun emoji].”
In July, I posted on our church Facebook group that we were desperate for a place to live and needed to be somewhere in two weeks. Every home we toured in that whirlwind time seemed run down or smelled awful. Every place left in Athens to rent that was liveable had been snatched up by the college kids before they left town. It didn’t seem possible to live in an apartment complex with two big dogs, but we needed to be moved in before school started back August 1st.
Finally, our pastor’s wife sister in law had a friend who had just posted her condo for rent. It was a mile away from my high school and only three miles from campus. It had a small patio area with a fence for our dogs and a common side yard where we could let them out to go the bathroom. It was about half the size of the home where we were living but at least our dogs wouldn’t lose their minds.
We moved into the corner unit just happy to not be homeless. Since it was two bedroom, had no dining room and had a den the size of our old bathroom, we had to move half of our furniture into my grandparent’s basement in Elberton. Sadly for Judge, the kitchen was the size of a walk-in closet, but we just only brought to the house the pieces we loved and the things we needed.
Anyone can make any space cute, as long as they try. I learned the art of simplicity in a way I never understood before. Less really is more in a 1,000 square foot hobbit hole. We scaled down and monthly take things to Good-will. I only use and keep things I LOVE.. I’m going to write another post soon to say goodbye to our Hobbit Hole of three years. I learned so much and grew so much in this space.
Goodbye, Dennis Drive.