It’s a macabre love ritual, this Tour of Homes horror I subject myself to each year. Laurel’s birthday was last Saturday, as it is every summer solstice. I made the traditional poppy seed cake, and I made the traditional butter cream frosting: 2/3 of a stick of butter and a full pound of powdered sugar—I never fully realized what a nutritional nightmare cakes are until I started making Laurel’s birthday offering. It’s the husbandly effort that counts, not the aesthetics of the result, for the cake ended up with a strangely collapsed center, for unknown reasons that I like to think have more to do with the vagaries of our oven than my minimalist cooking skills.
As if this wasn’t enough birthday excitement, after the cake was done I loaded the dog and Laurel in the family Volvo, and we headed off to sample the Salem Tour of Homes. I go to the Tour of Homes with Laurel full knowing what horrors I will experience; I go as an act of love, an experiential birthday gift, offering myself up as a sacrifice to the gods of 21st century home design whom Laurel worships much more than me. We mostly skip the lower-priced homes, which means less than $350,000 or so. This assures that Laurel will be able to play out her role to the fullest, the role of Woman Martyred at the Altar of a 1973 House, Destined Never to Enjoy the Blessings of Modern Life.
“Look,” she says at the first house (and the second, and the third, and the fourth), “every kitchen these days has those thick countertops, while we just have a thin sheet of formica.” “OK,” I reply in as submissive a tone as I can muster, “you’re right. We have horribly out-of-date countertops.” Then Laurel turns to the appliances. “That dishwasher is one of those super-quiet models. Ditto the refrigerator. I can’t stand how noisy ours are.” “You’re right. We have horribly noisy appliances.”
Upstairs we tread, me the appropriate three humble shuffling steps behind, eager and ready to agree with whatever the Wife says next about our decrepit house. “Oh! Oh!! My god! Oh, my God!!” (there is more than a little architectural eroticism in this Tour of Homes). “That walk-in closet! What I would give…what I would give for it.” (I’m thinking, me; the dog; her first-born child, if she had had one) “I’ve got to keep my stuff in three separate closets. I’ve got to move my summer and winter stuff back and forth every year. Everyone has a walk-in closet except us, everyone.” “Yes,” I say, “You’re right. We have horribly small closets.”
And so it goes. With the showers that are so much grander than ours, and have a seat besides. With the jet-equipped bathtubs that put our vintage model to shame. With the washers and dryers that have sophisticated cleaning controls akin to an Boeing 747 instrument panel. With the three-car garages that you can actually put a car (or two, or three) in, as contrasted to our carport, and garage filled to overflowing with everything but an automobile. With the woodwork that doesn’t have the scratches and imperfections our 30 year old walls and ceiling display. Throughout the Tour, I occupy myself by keeping a running total of the cost of all the Absolutely Necessary Improvements that Laurel is telling me we must plan for to keep our house minimally livable. When the total exceeds our net worth, I mentally clear the register and start a new tab, figuring that any number subtracted from zero is imaginary and not to be taken too seriously.
Eventually 6 pm rolls around, closing hour for the Tour of Homes. We drive home, Laurel clutching a pile of home improvement brochures she has picked up during our touring. We turn into our driveway. And Laurel says, as she does every year, “This is the most beautiful setting of any home we saw today, and also the most beautiful yard.” And I say, “You’re right. We have a wonderful house.” We walk inside. Laurel puts the brochures down on our horribly thin vinyl countertop. I wait until she is out of the room, and hide the brochures in my office. We bake a frozen pizza in our old-fashioned oven. We eat a collapsed cake with terribly rich butter cream frosting. We’re home. The horror is over. Until next year. Or until Laurel finds the brochures.