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Happiness is an Open House

A homeowner finds a new lease on life by taking on boarders.

Paula found happiness in her open house

I stood at the kitchen counter staring at the newspaper classifieds, specifically the “Seeking Housing” section.

It shook me seeing all those people looking for a place to live. I glanced around my kitchen, out the window at the California sun shining on my garden.

If I didn’t find a roommate, if I didn’t find some way to start bringing a little money in, I was going to lose this house I loved so much. The next time I turned to the “Seeking Housing” section, I might find myself there.

Roommate. The word stuck in my throat. The last thing I wanted was a roommate, not now, not ever. I was 53, never married. Almost a decade before, my parents had died. They’d been my best friends. Since then my life had been very quiet and I liked it that way.

I was a private person. I didn’t want anyone tracking dirt onto my floors, leaving dishes in my sink. I liked coming home from work, fixing dinner and watching TV with a fire in the fireplace. I didn’t want to share that. I didn’t want to share my house. Period.

I’d bought it brand-new five years before. It had two stories, four bedrooms with an Italianate balcony in front and stucco walls the color of café au lait.

Inside, the floors were dark maple hardwood, the kitchen countertops were quartz and there was a fireplace in the TV room. Everything was furnished exactly the way I liked.

I had my dogs, Daisy and Tara. Neighbors who were friendly but didn’t pry too much. And, until the bottom dropped out of southern California real estate, I had my purchasing agent job at a construction company.

That’s why I was looking at the classifieds. The housing bubble had burst and my company had cut way back. My last day there had been several months before on December 15—my fifty-third birthday. I thought I’d find a new job quickly. I didn’t. Now bills piled up, including my latest mortgage statement. Every day headlines screamed that word foreclosure. Was my house next?

I concentrated on the paper. I tried to imagine bringing someone into the house. Already I’d taken a stab at renting the whole thing out and temporarily moving into a cheaper apartment. What a disaster!

The man who’d responded to my ad had sounded great. He was all set to move, promised to pay three months rent up front. Then he kept putting off requests for references. Could he pay less up front? he asked. I drove by the address on his rental application. The house was shabby, the lawn unmown. I backed out of the deal, feeling scared.

I was out of options. Heart in my throat, I called the paper and placed my own room-for-rent ad.

Calls poured in. One day I picked up the phone and heard a soft-spoken voice on the line. “I’m Jo­anne,” an older-sounding woman said. “Your house sounds lovely and I confess I love dogs. Could I make an appointment to visit?” She didn’t sound too strange, so I said yes.

A short time later another woman called. “I’m Patricia,” she said. “I saw you have dogs. I have one of my own, a Border collie, Sydney. If you wouldn’t mind another pet, your house sounds ideal.” How bad could a dog owner be? If Daisy and Tara got along with Sydney they’d all have playmates.

“Okay,” I said.

Joanne and Patricia visited on a Saturday. I didn’t worry about the house or the dogs—everything was spotless and I knew Daisy and Tara would be friendly.

What I didn’t know was what the women would be like. Messy? Neat? Loud? Quiet? They said they loved dogs, but what if they didn’t love my dogs? All my apprehension welled up. Why did I have to do this? Why did I lose my job? Why me? I closed my eyes. Lord, I can’t picture how this will work. Show me the silver lining.

Joanne arrived first. Right away she bent down and offered a hand to Daisy and Tara to sniff. In moments she was scratching both behind the ears and telling them what beautiful dogs they were. She was calm and kind, exactly the sort of person dogs like.

She told me her story. She was in her early seventies, never married, living on a pension. Recently she’d been priced out of her longtime Orange County apartment.

“I’m looking for someplace quiet,” she said. “To be honest, I’m kind of a homebody. I’d love to find a place where I could settle for a while.”

Listening to her talk, I couldn’t help imagining myself in her shoes. Retired, a fixed income, nowhere to go. It felt strange seeing life through another person’s eyes. But good too, knowing I wasn’t the only one who struggled.

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Patricia arrived and I immediately noticed Sydney was a handsome dog. He seemed tired. “He has cancer,” Patricia said, obviously trying not to let her emotions show. “It’s been hard finding a place that takes pets.”

The dogs gave each other experimental sniffs. They wagged their tails. I realized that despite my fears these women did not seem like unreasonable roommates. I reminded myself about the mortgage.

“What do you think?” I asked. Joanne and Patricia said they’d take the rooms.

They moved in a week later. My house was already furnished so they put most of their things in storage. Joanne, who had trouble with stairs, took the downstairs bedroom.

That evening I made all of us peach margaritas and we toasted our new arrangement. I proposed a few rules. Respect each other’s privacy. Empty the dishwasher when it’s full. Don’t take someone else’s laundry from the washing machine. I tried not to sound too neurotic about messes even though I was already eyeing the floor for scuff marks.

The next morning I bounded out of bed and had almost left my bedroom when I remembered—put on a bathrobe, Paula! No more waltzing around in my pajamas.

Muttering, I put on the robe and went downstairs. I neared Joanne’s room. Huh? Daisy and Tara were flopped right in front of her door. They saw me and thumped their tails. The door opened and they leaped up, licking Joanne. I laughed. “I guess someone’s popular!”

Joanne laughed too. “It’s been ages since I’ve had dogs. Yours are just so cute.”

That evening I went to the kitchen to fix my dinner. Joanne was there, using the microwave. “Hi,” I said.

“Okay if I eat and watch TV?” she asked. I looked into the TV room. There was a fire in the fireplace.

“Sure,” I said. Joanne went in and sat down. I followed. The Biggest Loser was on. “You like this show?” I ventured.

“I love it!” said Joanne. We talked about the contestants. Before I knew it the show was over. We changed the channel and watched something else. I looked at the clock. Two hours had passed. We’d talked on and off the whole time.

“Good night,” said Joanne after doing her dishes.

“Good night,” I said. I glanced at the counter. It was spotless.

A week went by. Two weeks. A month. Sydney died suddenly and Patricia decided to move out. She missed Sydney and found a place of her own she could afford. I began searching for a new roommate.

A few weeks later, I landed a job. It was temporary, a little more than half my previous salary and more than an hour’s drive away. I took it. The income more than made up for the loss of Patricia. I did some calculations, wondering if I could go back to living on my own.

My first day back at work I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to get ready and make the drive before traffic became impossible. It was hard dragging myself out of bed, especially after months of no schedule. The day was stressful, so many new things, so many new people. I drove home with the setting sun behind me. I got off the freeway and wound through the foothills. I pulled into my driveway. It was dusk.

Lights were on inside. For a second I had the odd sensation of looking at the wrong house. Lights had never been on when I came home before. But of course it was my house.

Joanne was there, probably just starting her dinner. Tara and Daisy were no doubt at her feet. Maybe she’d lit a fire in the fireplace. Maybe she already had the TV on. Maybe she was waiting for me. Maybe, I thought, living all by yourself was overrated. It would be good to have someone to talk to.

I felt warm and happy at that moment. It didn’t matter how much money I ended up making at this new job. It didn’t matter if I could afford to live alone. Joanne could stay as long as she liked. Desperate not to lose my house, I’d asked God for a silver lining. Well, I’d gotten to keep the house, but I’d gotten something else too, something much more valuable. I headed inside.

My quiet life, it seemed, was over. I’d grown to like it that way.

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