So. I’m invited to this woman’s house over in one of those new, treeless McMansion developments. Her name is Gisa, and as she explains, it’s short for the Germanic Gisela meaning “to pledge” (why I even mention this will make sense later). The development, like all suburban upper-class new construction sprawl is a development I’ve passed many times before, but never felt privileged enough to enter—us middle class types know well enough to stay out of cul-de-sacs called things such as “The Sanctuary,” or “Le Grande,” figuring membership cards are required in order to lurk around. But, her son and my son go to preschool together and as she wanted her little Merlin to grow up with “the people, ” for whatever reason, she denied him a private education. I’d be in the parking lot of the school waiting for the closing bell and Gisa would always pull up with minutes to spare in this hideously grotesque conversion van with like, 20 doors on it. She never wore makeup and just moved here from Germany. I thought, yes! My kind of friend. Surely we have lots in common. So, she invites me over one afternoon. And as a mother who is incessantly looking for ways to occupy her kid, let alone herself, I took her up on the offer. Besides, I thought, it might be nice to bring a pie or something. If that conversion van is any indication of her newly acquired “status,” in this country, a pie will certainly be appreciated.
So, we head out, one Tuesday afternoon, me and my son, in my 2003 mini-van, driving a bit farther than our town’s comfort zone. According to my printed-out Mapquest directions (I don’t have a GPS) it’s the next left. I pull onto her street and one by one the houses get bigger and bigger and as they do, me and my mini-van seem to get smaller and smaller. Huge houses, then mansions, then estates. Her house is, of course, one of the biggest. I’m intimidated by the size let alone the two front doors. I didn’t know houses had two front doors. After about ten strenuous minutes of hoping that some previously learned, front-door etiquette comes back to me I end up choosing the door on the right. This one leads to the mud room for people who might have dirt on their feet (that’s us). We say our hellos and I hand her the pie, which she casually places atop the laundry machine and quickly redirects our small talk back to the fact that we need to take off our shoes.
A few awkward moments later, we go in. And even though I’m catching site of a three-story high cathedral ceiling, a fireplace with Texas longhorns above the mantle and not one living room but four, all I keep thinking of is the atrocity that I’m wearing sweatpants. My favorite line from Seinfeld re-runs streams through my brain when Jerry tells George that “wearing sweatpants in public is like telling the world you’ve given up.”
Oh well, I think. At least they’re not gathered with elastic at the ankles.
So as Gisa leads me around, from room to room, I secretly feel like a third class citizen from coach peeking into first class. But suddenly, I notice what I’d like to believe is a personality tick—Gisa, as it turns out, is hyper-neurotic about dust. In instances like these, you can only hope for such an obvious shortcoming. “See? See? Do you see the dust?” she says to me in her thick German accent upon entering each expanse of a room. Her finger courses over blond wood table tops. But there’s no dust. Literally. It’s as if there’s a plastic bubble free of all pathogens encircling the house and all its immune deficient inhabitants. I’ve never seen a cleaner place.
I think of my home. My little rancher. I have dust balls bigger than Arizona tumbleweeds. They roll around my floor like city trash caught up in a wind pocket, attacking me and my socks and my kids. I have the massive lint ball that hovers between the laundry room and the kitchen. There’s the clump of my husband’s chest hair under the baseboard heater in the bathroom. And there’s the ever-present motionless entity of dust and Fruit Loops that, fortunately, live under the sofa in the living room and cannot be detected by the untrained eye.
No, I say. I don’t see the dust.
As we make our way back to the kitchen, hovering over her granite bar and cherry wood cabinetry, I come to the bitter conclusion that this woman and I have nothing in common except maybe the van. I think: this is how envy gets a hold of people. This is what the Christians warn about, coveting thy neighbor’s goods. This is not “keeping up with the Joneses” because you’re not even one of them. Maybe you clean for them. But you’re certainly not a Jones.
I think how it takes massive amounts of confidence to be content within your own life when you are confronted with so much luxury and wealth. And despite the fact that every appliance in her house was shipped over from Germany, all her furniture too, that she’s got a sunken tub in the master bedroom with Andalusian tile and a fireplace the size of my living room, four walk-in closets, and a bathroom in all five bedrooms…despite all that, I think of my little life and I wonder how I can still feel quite proud of what I’ve got.
Very possibly, I think, it’s because I’ve got nothing. As a child growing up, we had nothing. My family came from nothing. My grandparents before them came from nothing. For generations we affectionately and proudly described ourselves as “peasant stock,” vindicating the obvious deficiency of worldly goods. Instead, we assigned value to immaterial things– our voices, our musical talents, our minds, our creativity, our humor and our closeness as a family. Those were the things that really mattered. Not all the “stuff.” Even my unconventional religious upbringing– a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality–taught me the importance of giving up all but a few necessities in order that we may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. So, it is at these moments, when I am faced with such abundance, that I recall the worth and value in that which cannot be seen, touched, shipped overseas or purchased with a Visa card.
Gisa and I notice how well the kids are getting along. And aside from the occasional assault upon the children she makes to not touch the white walls, she seems happy that Merlin has found a friend. I want to say that I imagine it’s quite lonely for the little guy being so far from him native country and family. I even want to tell her that her obsessive-compulsive fear of dust is merely a manifestation of Freudian guilt for having too much stuff. But I hold off. I don’t want to seem contemptuous.
“How about we come to your place later this afternoon? You can show me your house,” she says. And I choke on my Chai tea latte she just whipped up for me on her espresso maker from Norway.
I have a pizza box still sitting on the counter from the weekend, month-old oatmeal ground into the Berber, and the lingering smell of a diaper that was discarded three diapers ago is possibly still wafting out of the family room. I imagine little Merlin playing some middle-class version of blocks at my house, rolling around, as kids do, on the floor. It would take eons to pick the dustballs off his Karl Lagerfeld designer toddler wear.
“Well,” I manage to say, “I’ve been having problems with my Audi (I don’t have one). I simply must get it into the shop. And, to be quite honest,” I add, as I clear my throat, “my cleaning lady took the month off (don’t have one of those either). The place is a little messy.”
So much for pride in peasant stock.
She tries to be laid back about the fact that I might have a messy house. “You don’t have to clean on my account,” she says, but she flinches and quickly adds, “another time might be better.” Her name in German doesn’t so much mean “to” pledge, I think, as it means to keep a bottle of Pledge handy under any circumstance.
I coolly agree.
We head back into the mud room to put on our shoes and say our goodbyes. Tonight, she says, she and her husband will take a stroll through “their woods” (three acres worth). He’s a triathlon. An Ironman. A glass designer by day. Oh. I say. How nice. I’m headed over to Wal-Mart to buy a pizza cutter. Mine mysteriously disappeared (could have been the dust ball in the kitchen). We don’t have much more to say. Finally, she asks me, “you work out?” I know she’s referring to my sweatpants.