It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.
- George Carlin
Steve's car was busted, so I drove. We got there first and parked in front. Eric drove past us, trying to find parking further down the street.
To their credit, it looked like the pictures. A blue and white split-level sitting on a hill, the driveway snaking down to meet the road.
"Not bad," I said.
Eric was shaking his head before he came in earshot.
"Thumbs down before any of us step inside... that's a record," muttered Steve.
"Absolutely not," said Eric as he closed the distance to us.
"Why?" I asked.
"It's too far."
"What? It's right near the highway..."
"Which would be fine if there was never any traffic or construction ever. Come on, I'm at the edge of a lame commute as it is."
He had a point, but I didn't want to waste the trip.
"Can we at least check it out?" asked Steve. "I can't do anything tomorrow until nine, so that leaves Wednesday at the earliest."
"Sure. If my rent is four hundred dollars a month or it has a hot tub, I'll consider it."
It didn't. To be fair, the ground floor and deck were nice. What wasn't nice was the lack of storage space, tiny rooms, and unidentifiable smell. We told the owner we'd get back to him, and peaced out.
"...all hardwood on this floor, downstairs is tile."
"So there's no upstairs?" asked Steve.
The owner, a shorter man wearing a Harley Davidson shirt and worn jeans, shook his head.
"Nope, plenty of space in the basement though. Two bedrooms and a guest room down there, laundry room has a pegboard and a workbench."
I chimed in. "I thought you said there were 3 bedrooms?"
"Yup, third one's over here."
He opened the door to a small, dimly lit room. Eric eyed it suspiciously.
"It's the smallest, so really it should be the guest room."
"Oh, ok." I said.
Steve and I shared a skeptical look, falling in behind the owner as the tour continued into the kitchen.
"You got a gas range -"
This was punctuated by Steve giving me a thumbs-up.
"- the fridge is older but still works. I'll put a microwave in here before y'all move in."
I poked my head in the freezer.
"Does the icemaker work?"
The owner shook his head.
"It stopped making ice a few weeks ago."
"Probably the water line or filter," said Eric.
"Tell ya what, if it's important to you, get it looked at and I'll foot the bill."
"Deal," said Eric.
"Feel free to look around, I'll be up here if you have any questions."
We thanked the man for his time, and drove down the block in silence. I tried not to whisper, even though we had four houses and a sealed car between us.
"So what'd you think?" I asked. "The basement was a little sketchy but..."
Eric grunted. "Take 'a little' out of that. I bet there are bodies under the hideous tile."
"You sure?" I asked. "Lye is harder to trace."
That got him to smile. "I swear I saw him on Cops."
"The price wasn't bad..." said Steve.
"Yeah, but the back yard is a mess, though," I replied.
"Did you see that tent-thing?" said Eric.
"Oh, the kennel?"
"Even worse. What the hell was in there, wargs?"
Huh?" asked Steve.
"Wargs," said Eric. "Evil, intelligent wolves. Goblins ride 'em around. Try and keep up."
Steve stuck his tongue out in response.
I fiddled with the AC, trying to get that perfect medium between keeping cool and it smelling like refigerant (and probably mold).
"I mean, there are worse places..."
"I can deal with the tile, and the steep steps, though I know I'll fall down them drunk at some point," countered Eric.
"We could put pillows at the bottom?" Steve sniggered.
Eric chuckled. "I'd rather not have a deathtrap."
"So... crap yard, crap parking, weird old walls & ceiling. Did you see the hole in the bathroom?" I asked.
"The taped-over one? Eric put his fist through it."
"That's a lie," he said. "I pressed on it, gingerly. I'm OK with location, though."
"Same," I said.
"Eh," said Steve. "It's shady, the backyard sucks, and the layout is weird."
"I think we move on, guys," I said.
"Next," said Eric.
"Gentlemen, let's review," I said, claiming the empty seat facing the couch. "We're down to fifteen days. Every lead we've had has ended in disappointment, lies, or tons of bullshit hoops we can't jump through."
Eric grunted in agreement.
"I think we should check apartments around here," I continued. "A three-bedroom wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, and -"
Steve cut me off. "Ugh, no."
"I don't get it, man. What's your objection?"
"Let's see..." he started, pulling down fingers as he spoke. "We wouldn't have a yard, have tons of judging neighbors, not a lot of space, probably no deck, no parking..."
"Back up a second," said Eric. "You won't know any of that until we at least see some."
"Already did," said Steve, self-satisfaction creeping into his tone.
"When?" I asked. "You worked every day this week."
"A year ago, when I first looked at moving out. They're all the same around here, and they all suck."
Eric rolled his eyes. Steve didn't see or ignored him.
"If they were all so terrible, no one would actually live in them," said Eric.
Steve was undeterred. "Besides, all those places have credit checks."
"We've seen what, six places already?" I said. "And haven't been impressed with any of them. We need to be less picky."
Steve sighed. "I just want room to sit on a deck, have a drink, maybe invite folks over for a barbecue..."
"All that sounds nice, but 'roof over our head' comes first," I said. "Let's see how this week goes. I found another four."
Eric nodded. "I emailed the three you guys liked. And I have an automatic search set up. Three or four bedrooms, townhouse, or single-family home in our price range near enough to work for us, it emails me."
"Good stuff," I said. "Ok, meeting adjourned. We keep looking, and jump on anything that looks solid. Right?"
The guys nodded.
After Steve left, I opened the fridge and stared in, counting the number of beers. Our landlord has a habit of taking a 'freebie' every time he stops by. You laugh, but do the math on one 'freebie' every few days for two years. "This is such bullshit."
"Can you toss me one?" asked Eric. "And what is?"
I nodded and lobbed a can. "This whole thing. It's like pulling teeth, every time."
"Steve's arboreal fixation?"
"True, but not what I meant." I closed the fridge and leaned against the worn fake-wood counter. "Having to search. Having to move every year, every other year, whatever. And when I do move, it doesn't make a difference. Rent eats a whole paycheck wherever I go. 'Living wage' my ass."
"Amen. My insurance wrecks me every month."
"Car or health?" I asked.
"Yes. If you count repairs on the car, I've spent more than it's worth ten times over. To think I looked forward to getting out of school and being an adult. What a fuckin' crock."
"It's loans for me." I finished my beer and started another.
"As for Steve, we give him a week," I said. "After that, we fill out apartment applications."
"You think he'll go for it?"
I shrugged as I took a drink. "He goes for it or we do."
Eric half-whispered, like he was afraid Steve would hear him. "You want to abandon him?"
"I know he means well, I know he's younger, I know this would be his first big-boy place and he wants it just right. But he isn't taking the hint. We may not have a choice."
"If it does come to it, are you with me?" I asked.
He smiled. "Yeah. I don't want to live with some random Craigslist jagoff."
Steve was (as ever) at work, so Eric and I looked at the millionth townhouse.
"Not bad," Eric pronounced as I got out of the car.
"Good location, price is right, the neighbors probably won't try to murder us..."
He nodded and headed up the L-shaped steps to the front door. The house was detached from its neighbor's, but only by a few feet, probably for noise dampening than anything else. He pressed the button and a low, gong-like sound played somewhere inside the house.
A woman about my mom's age pulled the door open and pushed the glass door out until it locked in place. She was wearing a polo shirt and jeans, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Somehow, it struck me as a very conscious effort to dress down.
"Karen?" I asked.
She nodded. "Hello, come on in."
She extended a hand and we made introductions.
"I thought there were three of you?"
"There are," I said. "Steve couldn't make it tonight."
"Is it ok if we take some pictures and video?" asked Eric.
Karen regarded the phone with suspicion for a moment.
"Just so Steve gets a clear idea. He'll want to see it in person at some point, and we'll all sign... whatever, if we're interested."
She nodded. "Not a problem."
The place was way nicer than we expected. The pictures on the CL post looked like a model, so we were skeptical, but it was pretty accurate. The beige carpet was thick enough to muffle sound, but not ridiculous 1970s shag thick.
As soon as we stepped down into the basement, Karen waved a hand dismissively at the pile of clothes off to one side. "All of this will be gone, the rooms are unfurnished. I'll have the carpet cleaned and some of the walls repainted before anyone moves in."
"How about repairs?" I asked
"If it's something small, like spackle or replacing a fixture, I hope you'll handle it."
"And if the HVAC starts pumping water under the carpet?" asked Eric.
Karen raised an eyebrow.
"I had a bad experience at my last place," he said.
"If something that serious happens, notify me. Call unless it's too late, then just email. If it's an emergency, take care of it and I'll deduct it from the rent."
"How are the neighbors?" I asked.
"Quiet, for the most part. The Rourkes live next door and are very nice. I don't know many of the other neighbors, I live about an hour away."
"Would we have to take care of all that?" asked Eric, staring out the sliding door at the backyard.
"Oh come on, that's a three-beer job, tops," I said.
Karen smiled. "You would, but there's an electric mower in storage down here. Don't leave it outside when it rains or gets too cold and it'll work."
"So what do you think?" I asked after she was out of earshot.
"I think it's our first choice."
"Yeah, it was way nicer than the others. You grabbed an application, right?"
Eric shook his head. "She ran out. I asked her to email us one. I'll get the video ready tonight and bug Steve to get his ass over as soon as he can. "
"Kidnap him if you have to. We gotta move quickly."
We gathered round Eric's PC to watch the footage.
"Christ, I hate how my voice sounds on tape," he said.
Steve didn't say anything while it played, just looked pensive.
"So?" I asked.
Steve bit his lip in thought. "Kitchen looks nice, yard looks great. Are there neighbors behind the house?"
"Nope," I said. "It's up against the tree-line."
"Perfect," he said. "Is there an application?"
"Sitting in the printer," said Eric. "If we fill it out tonight I can fax it at work tomorrow."
"Deal," I said. "I'll get us pizza and beer."
We were watching Netflix downstairs, trying to focus on anything but our impending doom, when my phone made the unread-email 'swoosh'. I unlocked it, looking through the messages. Spam, spam, spam, a reminder on LinkedIn from someone I hate, and a notice that my loan is overdue. As always. One problem at a time, right? I highlighted six messages and clicked 'delete,' scrolling a seventh up. I started to read, and my heart sank.
"Is it Karen?" asked Eric.
I motioned the guys closer.
"Dear Stephen, Eric, and Ryan," it started. "I have accepted another tenant for my townhouse. You three seemed very pleasant and responsible, but I would prefer a two-year lease."
"Mother-fuck!" spat Eric.
"We need to find them and kill them!" said Steve.
I slammed my fist into the coffee table hard enough to make the remotes jump.
"This is not what I signed up for!"
"Easy dude, in a few years it'll be -" started Eric.
"Be what?" I spat back. "Better? My degree will finally unleash its power and take me away from all this? It's been hibernating? My loan won't eat me alive?"
"Why didn't your folks pay for it?" chimed in Steve.
I had to take a moment before answering. "Dad doesn't give a shit and Mom is still paying for all the custody garbage. I guess. I didn't ask."
"What does Sallie Mae want?"
"$220 a month until the sun goes dark."
"No kidding. Is it worth it? Is my degree worth sixty thousand plus interest?"
Eric looked lost.
"Yeah, it has to be, right? That's what the loan documents say."
"Not what I meant. Could that sixty thousand have been used on something else that would have benefited me more?"
"Stocks? A savings account? A car not held together with superglue and wishful thinking? Investing in a startup? Founding my own company?"
"What would your company do?" asked Steve.
"You're getting caught up in specifics. What I mean is, the loan is borrowed money. It's taken out on the theory that I'll be able to pay it off, in part because of the education. And that's a lie."
"But you need a degree," said Steve.
"I don't. I sit in an office all day and proofread. Tenth grade education required, tops. A motivated high school senior could do it."
"Steve, did you look into that one place with the affordable housing?"
"Yeah. We make too much."
"What if you didn't put me on the application?" Eric asked.
"Then we make too little."
"So we're too rich to qualify, but too poor to live on our own," I said. "Awesome. How much is regular rent there?"
Steve shook his head. "It's not worth it. There's no balcony, thin walls, no parking, and shady neighbors."
"Ok. Let's keep looking at apartments."
Steve muttered, "But I want a yard."
"Then I'll buy you a fucking potted plant!" I snarled. "Jesus H Christ, we're a week away from living in a cardboard box -"
"Six days," Eric chimed.
"Six fucking days, and you want to talk gardening? Never mind that a yard takes time and effort. Who's going to do it? Not me, I work full-time."
"I don't want to be in an apartment," repeated Steve.
"Not at all? Period? Or do you not want to be in a shitty apartment, because I agree with that sentiment."
Eric nodded. "Dude, none of the stuff you like is dumb, it's just not what we can do right now. If we don't get something real soon, we'll be out on the street. I don't want to throw all my shit in storage and crash on Brian's couch."
"Brian has a spare couch?" I asked.
"I don't know, I don't want to find out."
I took a breath. "Steve, I'm sorry. Us getting pissed at each other isn't productive."
He nodded, but kept quiet.
"I think the mystical land of Tir Na Nog is out of our price range," I continued. "If we jump on this right now, we can find a decent apartment and not have to make a series of awful choices. And if it makes you feel any better, I'll buy you one of those little windowsill gardens."
Steve breathed out, his shoulders slumped maybe just a little, but said nothing.
"Yeah. Deal." Compromise reached.
We sat in silence for a moment.
"This is so stupid," I said.
"We have to look for a place, dude," said Eric.
"That's what I mean. Why is this a problem? There are places to live, we have money. Why is this such a pain in the ass? Why do we have to move every year? Why does it eat more than half of our paychecks? Why can't I pay my student loan and rent and food and car insurance, and whatever else comes up? What did the education get me?"
Steve grinned. "You're well-rounded and can have scintillating conversations like this?"
"Very funny. But you know what I'm getting at. I told you guys about Rich, right?"
Eric furrowed his brow. "I think so."
"He studied Medieval and Renaissance Lit, and I have no doubt he'll become more and more obscure until he folds up into a dusty shelf somewhere. He loves that stuff... but will it help him?"
"Help him with what?" said Steve.
"Be successful? Be secure, by whatever measure we would find acceptable?"
"Yeah dude, he'll be able to get a job teaching," said Eric.
"You said 'able,' not 'guaranteed.' It's safe to assume he's not the only one interested in those jobs. Is it one-to-one? Is there a dire shortage of Medieval Lit professors? Or is there a pretty good chance that he won't be able to use his degree to pay it back?"
The guys were silent.
"You go in for a job, and they give you a number, say thirty thousand dollars a year," I said. "Your brain hears 'thousand' and since it's a big-boy job and you've escaped customer service, you're giddy. You have no idea that you can be miserable on thirty k a year."
"I wish I made thirty K a year," said Steve. "I don't even have a degree. Folks couldn't afford it and they didn't want to crush me with huge loans."
"So you work fifty hours a week to save up for one?" I asked.
"All of this is wrong," I said. "It's broken, somehow. We should know enough. The degree shouldn't be worthless."
"I don't know about you, but I drank a lot in undergrad," said Eric.
"True, but you went to class. You wrote, read, explained, absorbed, and yeah, hit on a bunch of girls, but the other stuff came first. You graduate... and are told the very things you spent all that time and money on, the things your family invested in, are worthless. After graduating, you need experience you can't get. No one is willing to take a chance on you. So why did we go? Why does Steve feel he needs to go?"
"It's the only way to get ahead?" said Steve.
Something tugged at the corner of my lip. Whether it was a sneer or a smile, I couldn't say. "Close. We're told it's the only way. But the three of us know that's a lie."
"I don't know if we're the best examples of -" said Steve.
"- Jake can't move out because he's taking care of his mom. Chris lives in a broom closet and hates himself. I can keep going..."
Eric chimed in. "Brian owns a house."
"Which his investor dad helped him buy!" I shot back. "Brian's a nice guy, but an exception in this case."
"Yeah, I guess he does have a safety net. Must be nice."
"I don't," said Steve.
"Exactly," I said. "If your plan is 'don't fuck up,' that's not a real answer. If your bills, food, gas, and rent come to exactly what you make, you're not OK. You're waiting for a curveball."
"I ask my folks for money sometimes," said Eric. "I hate doing it, but..."
"It makes you feel small, doesn't it? Like a child. Like you messed up."
Steve laughed, a small snort of breath.
"What?" I asked.
"Just thinking," he said. "When I was little, I had this idea of what being an adult, with a capital 'A,' meant. On some birthday, maybe twenty-one or thirty, I don't know, one of those grim, far-off years, a guy shows up and gives you boring clothes, a car, and the deed to a house. Probably an adult job too. You can't smile, you can't have any fun, and... I don't know, I got the feeling that you could do something bad enough to have the house taken away, you could sell it and buy a better one, you could get a different car but everyone got one at a certain age."
"Christ, that sounds awful," said Eric. "Yuppie Logan's Run."
"In some ways," he said. "But in that setup, you're provided for. You had a... a... guarantee, a plan, y'know?"
"Word," said Eric.
"I wish we had a guarantee," I muttered. I looked down at the laminate flooring, and thought about that loan looming over me.
I thought about how most of my friends had to make a series of unpleasant choices. Study hard for twelve years so you can get into a 'good school,' then study for another four. Be responsible, go to work on time, get paid, throw most of it at your bills... and get screwed over regardless.
We sat in silence for a while until Steve pushed himself up from a slouch.
"Back to work, right?"
Eric stared at him.
"You said it yourself," said Steve. "We have to find a place."
"Yeah," I muttered. "Yeah, we do."
With a sigh, I cracked open my laptop, and started going through the usual suspects. Padjumper, Craigslist, Apartments.com, Find-me-a-domicile-before-I-live-in-a-damn-box.org.
A few tabs in, something caught my eye. I beckoned the guys over.
"Hey, this looks good."
"What does?" asked Steve.
"Scooch. Let me see the floor plan," said Eric, muscling a beige pillow out of the way to lean in.
"It's by the beltway... fuck it, I'm in."
I laughed in spite of our desperation.
"You didn't even see the floor plan."
He smiled, and sunk back into the couch.
"At this point, if it has a floor, running water, and Wi-Fi, I'm sold."
"Utilities included, two parking spots per apartment plus ample street, gym, pool, and shopping center in walking distance..."
"What's Yelp say?" asked Steve.
"4.2 out of five for twenty people."
"Solid," he said.
"Yeah. The price is right, and they have one open..."
I trailed off while waiting for the page to load.
"...on the fifth."
"Do it," said Steve.
"What's the deposit?" asked Eric.
"Five hundred dollars."
"Not quite," I replied. "Add in the one-time amenities fee and it's... eight hundred."
"Do it!" shouted Steve and Eric.
I held out my hand for a fist-bump as I pressed 'Apply.'
With any luck, we'll be good for another year.