House Hunters

Illustration by Karam Bajwa

Everyone loves a love story, right? Well, twenty-odd years after getting divorced, Walter and I bumped into each other in Whole Foods. Within six months, we were house hunting. Isn’t that something?

I certainly wasn’t searching for love on a windy October night in Toronto. Dating after fifty is like grocery shopping during the Apocalypse. Nobody’s having fun. Choices are limited. Everything is starting to stink or grow bitter, and it’s probably best to just die alone.

“Falling in love at my age would be a mistake,” I told my friends, and I meant it.

Plus, Walter had remarried and I’ve never been a home wrecker. Except I did! I wrecked that home. Shoot, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Full disclosure: I’m a Whole Foods addict. Guilty as charged! Stepping inside that store sets off fireworks inside of me. Literally, fireworks. Okay, not literally, but my spine stiffens. Endorphins tap-dance in my veins. My nose tingles with the organic aromas and my eyes bask in the produce section’s smorgasbord of colour. Oh, the delight of it all! Sometimes I lock eyes with other shoppers in the checkout line and we burst into giggles. These are my people. My tribe.

The night before Halloween, I went searching for raw manuka honey, turned down the baking aisle, and discovered Walter clutching a six-pack of cane-sugar soda (Whole Foods sells the best soft drinks you’ve ever tasted). Walter waved. I smiled. Then he smiled and I waved.       
There was a time, years ago, when we couldn’t make eye contact without hurling insults. Now Walter laughed at my jokes. Now I found his crankiness charming. We grabbed coffee at a Starbucks down the street, which led to dinner at this old Italian place in the Junction that we’d once loved, which led to him falling asleep naked in my bed, and I know what you’re wondering: did I feel bad for Angie, his new wife?

Honestly, no. Not one bit. To hell with Angie! He was my husband first, after all. To hear Walter tell it, Angie hated his jokes. She found his cardigans “repulsive” and, despite being a decade younger, insisted that he “grow up already.” Hmm, maybe that last one shouldn’t be in scare quotes. Anyway, they had no kids. He was infertile and, you won’t be surprised to learn, Angie always held it against him.

Oh, I could bore you with details of our whirlwind romance — certain things flow smoother with the wreckage of youth in your wake — but let’s fast-forward six months. I’d just turned fifty-three; Walter was nearly fifty-five. Neither of us wanted to get remarried. We were so close to our sunset years that we needed sunglasses. The most romantic thing imaginable would be sharing a home. So began the house hunt.

Walter, in the rush to separate from Angie, had foolishly agreed that she could keep their house on Queen West. My darling was generous to a fault! He had wizened with age. Sure, Walter was still the most impulsive and indecisive man I’d ever met, but only young brides and old bachelors expect perfection from their partners. It was heartening to know that my love continued to grow and evolve.

“I can move in with you,” Walter suggested one night in my bed.

“My apartment’s only a one-bedroom, but it’ll bring us closer.”

His forehead wrinkled into an adorable frown. “Or we could buy something new.”

“Absolutely! I’m game if you are.”

“Of course, real estate is expensive,” he said, deeply uncertain. “Maybe your place is the right idea after all.”

Ultimately, we decided to buy together. Start fresh. Purchase anew. We were people of simple tastes, Walter and I. A condo or townhouse would suffice. Walter is a senior sales manager with Microsoft, so wanted to stay near downtown. I only cared about natural light. The brighter the better! A home office was also essential, given the hours Walter worked. I secretly hoped for a bathtub so deep that I could disappear inside of it. (Side note: is there anything more soothing than soaking in a warm tub until your fingers have pickled and your toes turned into raisins?)

“Toronto’s housing market is very competitive,” warned our real estate agent Reuben. He had a strong jaw and an endless supply of linen summer suits. Reuben was also six-and-a-half feet tall, which made every room feel cramped. Never hire a giraffe for a realtor.

“I thought the new mortgage tests were cooling things,” said Walter.

“Comparatively, sure, but that just means no more bidding wars for shitholes.” Reuben smiled. “You don’t want a shithole, do you?”

Walter and I traded a look. No, we did not want a shithole. A non-shithole was definitely top of the list.

Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of HGTV. Give me a glass of Chablis, a bowl of pistachios, turn on a House Hunters International marathon and I’ll die of pleasure. House hunting is great fun on television. All inside jokes and sly smiles, debating pros and cons while sipping wine by the lake.

Our reality was the polar opposite. No fun. No wine. No lake.

To start with, Reuben was dreadful. Almost tragically inept. First, there was the height thing. Then, he showed us a condo with a toilet in the bedroom. Literally, I could’ve lain in bed and watched Walter’s bowels explode. Next, Reuben took us to Ajax to see a townhouse. Ajax! I’d rather buy a place on Baffin Island. The commute would be about the same.

Every listing that Reuben showed us was a “diamond in the rough,” an underpriced gem with “real potential” once someone showed it “a little bit of love.” Mind you, even these dumps had swarms of interested buyers, an endless parade of apple-cheeked yuppies with down payments gifted from parents only a few years older than us.

“It’s a tough market,” Reuben said when we complained. “Follow-up question: how flexible is your budget?”

By then, Walter had moved into my tiny one-bedroom. Forget being cozy. We couldn’t breathe, cough or fart without bumping into each other.

“Location is very important to us,” Walter said. “We could go a bit higher.”

I did not want to go higher. I wanted to get a new realtor, which is how we ended up with Kimberly.

To be fair, Kimberly was no Reuben. She could walk through doorways without ducking. She understood that Ajax is a sinkhole and stuck firmly to listings in the neighbourhoods that we liked.

Alas, Kimberly had a preschooler’s grasp of finances. When we told her our budget, she nodded solemnly, then showed us a condo with six bedrooms and a rooftop patio. When we repeated the budget, Kimberly wrote it down in red ink and circled the figure twice. A day later, we toured a Harbourfront penthouse being sold by a member of the Maple Leafs.

“This is the one, isn’t it?” Kimberly’s face was all smile. “I bet a dozen people could fit inside that marble shower.”

“Hopefully they’re all paying rent,” I replied.

“You’re not happy.” The smile crumpled. “But you asked for the ensuite of your dreams.”

“This isn’t a bathroom. It’s a runway.”

Her eyes watered. “I’ve let you down.”

“Hush, dear, these things happen,” Walter said, wrapping our realtor in a deeply inappropriate hug. “It really is a stunning suite.”

Poor Kimberly. I fear we broke her spirit. As the weeks dragged on, she grew increasingly skittish, tripping over herself to pre-emptively point out each listing’s flaws. This building has a litigious condo board, and that unit’s monthly fees are criminal. Ground-floor condos are statistically the most likely to be robbed. Top floor, the roof might collapse from the snow. This popcorn ceiling is disgusting, and see that hot-water tank? Surely on its last legs.

Eventually I asked, “Kimberly, are you trying to get rid of us?” 

“Of course not! I won’t let you down again.”

“And how long until we find something?”

“Worst-case scenario, some real gems get listed around Christmas.”

Christmas! I almost had a stroke. Patience has never been our strong suit. Back in 1986, Walter and I got married after three months of dating, and even that wait had felt unbearable. We were in love and couldn’t endure another wasted minute apart (cue the laughter from every married couple who ever lived). Silly, I know. The arrogance of youth.

When Walter and I divorced six years later, there was no blowout fight, no plate-smashing brawl. I simply returned from the grocery store one afternoon to find that he was gone. His closet was full of empty hangers. His golf clubs no longer gathered dust in the garage. There was no note, no forwarding address.

I’ll spare you the details of the ensuing hours. Picture all the usual theatrics: the frantic calls to friends, the tear-soaked pillowcase, the attempted missing-person report. All of it ended when a painfully handsome cop — a stiff sneeze could’ve swept the fine features off his face — knocked on my door and said that Walter was alive, healthy and living with Angie in Leslieville. 

When I’ve told people that story over the years, they always look as shocked as you do right now. They shake their heads and tsk-tsk. “How you must hate him,” they say.

Honestly, I was relieved. Walter snored like a beast. He’d always make plans without telling me. He never did laundry and had maxed out every credit card we owned. I hated his love of country music (twangy trash) and he hated the rambling way I tell stories (can you imagine?). 
I’ve always been a practical woman. Being married felt like strapping myself to the bow of a ship and praying it wouldn’t sink. The odds were not in our favour. (A therapist once accused me of being in denial. She called my relief a “coping mechanism” and said my anger was like a lion locked in a paper cage, which is a gorgeous image, but I’m more of a dog person and so never went back.)

Publicly, I assumed the role of the wounded spouse. The world expected no less. I ripped Walter to shreds in every conversation. I painted my cheeks with mascara tears. I gained weight, then lost it, and extracted my pound of flesh from the divorce settlement, earning enough to buy a cozy one-bedroom in the Annex.

As a society, we get so worked up over boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives — and for what? No tears ever corralled a runaway heart. Only time can do it, which is why Walter and I found each other in Whole Foods all those years later. Have I mentioned that Whole Foods is my favourite place on earth?

By August, Walter and I had viewed so many condos and townhouses that the listings blurred together. We made an offer on a two-bedroom, one-bath, and got outbid. Tried again, and were outbid once more. I started having recurring nightmares of being trapped with Kimberly and Reuben at an open house where a Lord of the Flies situation breaks out.

Then it happened: we found the condo of our dreams. Or, more accurately, we reached the point when I said, “Enough. We’re buying. It’s over.”

Did we love that our home was located north of the 401? Not at all. Was it ideal to have no overhead lights in the master bedroom? Hardly, but I could do my makeup by the window’s natural light. The lack of a reserve fund? Also disappointing, though we’d bond with our neighbours by complaining about the condo board. Small sacrifices in exchange for never having to view a real estate listing again.

I was giddy. Walter and my second act could now begin. Nothing could go wrong, right?
Alas, it turns out that we had no furniture. Correction: no furniture both of us approved of. Everything I owned was either too uncomfortable or too bohemian for Walter, who owned nothing after discovering that Angie interpreted keeping the house as meaning that she retained everything inside of it. (Truth be told: Walter accepted this interpretation without a whimper. At my place, he complained endlessly about the soft mattress and lumpy loveseat as though they were instruments of strange and unusual tortures. Yet my love happily ceded more supportive furniture options to cruel, tasteless Angie.)

“Restoration Hardware has gorgeous stuff,” Kimberly told us during the home inspection. “IKEA is cheap, but buying it will make you want to euthanize half the city.”

Walter and I agreed to meet at IKEA at noon. I arrived first and entertained myself by counting the number of visibly happy faces leaving the store. When none appeared, I grabbed a snack in the cafeteria. My snack turned into a full meal. Stuffed with salmon lasagna, I perused the IKEA catalogue, then flipped through it again. After the third read, I called Walter’s cell, only to learn that the number was no longer in service.

My body twitched. What I felt then was not relief. Blinding white rage surged through my fingers. I wanted to tear skin, break bones, smash teeth.

Of course, I’ve always been practical. I swallowed the rage and drove back to my apartment, which we’d been about to put up for sale. Finding it empty, I sat on the loveseat and drank Chardonnay, waiting for his call. When the phone didn’t ring, I called Angie. No answer. Eventually, hungry and out of ideas, I headed to Whole Foods.

There, in the produce section, I found Walter — with Kimberly — sliding a tray of lush strawberries into a grocery cart. As soon as she spotted me, Kimberly burst into tears.

“We were making the same mistake all over again,” Walter said to me. “Even Kimberly thought so.”

“You could have told me! You could’ve left a note!”

“You’re right. I’m terrible, but see how much better off you are?”

What happened next was pure instinct. Cross my heart, I don’t remember spitting in his face. I don’t recall snatching those glorious strawberries and hurling them at Walter’s back as I chased him, screaming, around the store. Had I any recollection of trying to shove Kimberly’s face into a French brie while demanding my commission back, I would be deeply ashamed. Violence is never an acceptable solution.

What I do remember is grabbing the bottle of aged olive oil. That was a mistake. It was a hand-pressed single varietal from Italy. Again, I abhor violence. He had it coming, but the principle remains.

The bottle missed Walter’s head, smashing with a bang on the tile floor. The store fell instantly silent. Passing customers gave me side-eyed stares of wonder. Spinning, I rushed towards the exit, but stopped halfway. The pink roses at Whole Foods are angelic, and they sell these cute little T-shirts made with non-GMO organic cotton that, swear to God, feel like being hugged by a cloud.

“I saw the whole fight,” the cashier said as he rang in my flowers. He had thinning hair and adorably chapped lips. Oversized glasses covered up a pair of playful brown eyes. “The real victim was the olive oil.”

Long story short, he asked me out for a coffee. That was one year ago today and now we’re in love! Isn’t it great? Funny how life works out. I’m moving into his place and selling this one.

Anyway, enjoy the open house, and let me know if you have any questions. We’re not using a realtor.

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