The realtor keeps calling the place an investment. The houses are new and shiny, like paper cutouts, and the trees along the side of the road are feeble, flimsy things, providing barely any dappled shade. Supposedly, the houses will be worth more when the trees are bigger. The houses abruptly end where the road dies, where dreams of new housing developments all but blossom from the field. This is where we will expand, the realtor nearly says. Instead, she plugs your work address into her phone and gives you an estimate for your commute. “Not bad at all. We’re just west of downtown.”
Manifest destiny, you remember, the expansion westward of the American pioneers. You wonder what they would have thought about the people at the open house, about the settlement of McMansions dotting the previously unmarred rolling hills (“The country lifestyle, but not too far to commute!” the realtor says). There was nothing similar between the hard lives of any pre-industrial society and the people who buy these houses. Air conditioning and All Wheel Drive and the convenience of an interstate exit. You feel suddenly sickened that you are one of them. You glance around, but no one at the open house seems to have noticed the moment of doubt in your existence. Not even your wife, Layla, who is more interested in the kitchen countertops. You don’t blame her; you never blame her. Besides, they are nice countertops.
“Just imagine, grandchildren playing in the backyard.” The realtor spreads her hands wide, showing off the view from the living room windows. It’s much larger than the patch of land behind your townhouse.
You look past the spindly trees and see into the neighbor’s house, also uninhabited. You don’t realize it, but you sigh.
Layla notices. She looks back at you, a frown forming on her lips. She wears mauve lipstick, subtle and boring. You remember when she used to wear red, bright as cherries. The realtor is wearing red lipstick, but it doesn’t look sexy. It looks like warpaint, like blood. You glance at your wife again, but she is pulling out drawers on the kitchen island. She has a hand on the top of her belly. Even though there is no bump, with this gesture, everyone can tell that she’s pregnant. It is a cross-cultural phenomena, an archetype across all humankind. The pregnant mother, her hand on her rounding stomach.
You look out the window again, trying to focus on the neat green sod rather than the line where it cuts off and becomes yellow prairie grass. You try to picture yourself chasing your future child, but, in your head, the child doesn’t quite exist. It’s just you, running in fumbling circles, crouched low like some kind of goblin. You imagine a playground, but it’s empty, the swings moving eerily in the wind like they do in horror movies.
Layla loves the house. She touches every surface, every wall, her fingers trailing across doorways, along windowsills. You can tell that she loves it before she flashes you that smile in the master bathroom, a smile that says something about the massive jacuzzi tub that the realtor could never advertise. You smile back at your wife, and you hope it looks genuine.
You make an offer on the house. You aren’t happy about it but Layla is, and that’s what’s important. You have to keep reminding yourself of that when you sign papers and pay fees and write checks. Layla begins decorating immediately, but your townhome furniture doesn’t fill the vastness of the house and its sprawling spaces. How many children were you expected to have? Eight? It feels that way, walking into bedroom after bedroom. You pick one for your office, though you don’t really work from home. It is a room at the front of the house, where you can look out the windows and spy on the neighbors, who also just moved in. They already have a kid, a little girl who wears dresses but hasn’t learned to be embarrassed. You watch, time after time, when, playing in the front lawn, she flashes her cartoon covered underwear. Her dad scolds her, but she doesn’t listen.
Your office becomes your personal sanctuary. Nothing comes in but you, and you make messes that never get cleaned. Even Layla respects the sanctity of the space. She waits at the doorway, one hand on her belly, and asks for you to come to dinner, not daring to venture into the din of papers and computer monitors and whatever looks like “work.” You take her hand and descend the stairs to the kitchen. You eat together at the island bar, though you have both a dining room and a “breakfast nook” off the kitchen. The realtor was the one who called it a breakfast nook, but it is on the wrong side of the house for breakfast. It sits on the west side, and instead of collecting the bright morning light, it never seems alive until sunset, when the sun over the undeveloped hills turned the whole kitchen the colors of salmon and lavender and tangerine.
At the end of the day, you and Layla sit outside on the raw wood deck, the last of the sunset bursting turquoise, a few stars beginning to shine. You sip a glass of red wine. Layla hates red wine. She drinks ice water, which tinkles against the glass. She got it from the fridge, but you think of the pioneers again, dragging buckets out of a well, boiling it to burn off the bacteria. They didn’t have fridges, so they wouldn’t have had ice either, you rationalize. You never thought about it before, that the settlers didn’t have ice.
Layla tells you about her day and you tell her about yours. No, you say, the commute isn’t so bad. Not bad at all.
GRETA HAYER — Greta received her MFA at the University of New Orleans and has work appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Booth, Maudlin House, Cossmass Infinites, and Flint Hills Review. She received a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Wooster, where she studied fairy tales and medieval medicine. Her column, “In Search of the Dream World,” can be found at Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and their three alien cats.
Art by LUIS GARCIA ROMERO — Luis is a writer and graphic artist. His story “Ballad of the Wren” won first place in Flash Fiction Magazine and was a Pushcart nomination. He is the graphics manager for Longleaf Review. Find his mini-stories on Instagram @ministorywriter and his tweets @Luis_G_Romero.