Posted on

The Fixer Upper, A Love Story

flickr / Rod Ramsey

This isolated and imperfect project house embodies some kind of emotional petri dish.

By Erica Karnes

“Do you want to throw a drop cloth down?” he propositions from the hallway. Donning a paint-stained dress I once wore to client meetings, I’m barefoot and sweating, perched haphazardly above an open can of primer, a roller in each hand.

“No thanks,” I call over my shoulder, “I don’t really spill when I’m painting.” Distracted by a corner of un-taped trim, I return to my task moments later, only to misjudge the weight of my paint-filled tray. A quarter gallon of “Twinkling Lights” spreads across the floor.

It’s only while cursing myself, wiping paint from my brow with the back of my wrist, that I notice the drop cloth under my feet — painstakingly spread by him during one of my many manic diversions. I hear him silently shuffle down the hallway, waiting for the “I told you so” that never comes.

Such is the cadence of our DIY fixer-upper dance. Lacking essentially all experience around homeownership, I charge forth, uninhibited and uneducated. What I lack in familiarity, I’m convinced I earn back via guttural enthusiasm. Drop cloths are for chumps — as is mundane research or project preparation of any kind. Why waste energy mentally anticipating the multiple levels of asbestos, or rot, or rat colonies that foster under the fridge, when the crowbar sits within reach, and one can simply “figure it out,” en route?

His tactics, however, lie somewhere between studying for the best and expecting the worst. While his physical movements often appear sluggish, his face cast in a dubious scowl, mentally he absorbs and retains every resource available. Restless, I pace the hallway yielding electric tools I have no idea how to operate. He patiently perches atop an unfinished chair, watching YouTube tutorials on painting linoleum in one hand while he reads consumer reviews of various floor putty from his laptop.

Our personalities couldn’t reside further apart along the compatibility spectrum. And yet this project house — isolated and imperfect, sporting cracked tiles and off-kilter support beams — embodies some kind of emotional petri dish, and has enabled our quirks to sprout into respective strengths.

“Wake up!” I hiss. “Do you hear that? Wake UP!” I’m shaking him by both shoulders as he jolts awake in bed. “What? What is it?!” he gasps.


We sit up. Silence. Dim moonlight cascades across the bedroom floor, offering the only source of visual assistance. We wait, sheets kicked to our feet. Suddenly, a loud grinding sound begins.

“It’s that fucking rat!” I whisper, furious and frantic. He says nothing, continues to listen. “We have to kill it. We have to do something! We have…” I’ve rolled out of bed, and am crouched on the floor, my ears pressed to the hardwood.

The chomping continues. As does my panicked rage.

“I wonder if it’s nesting,” he finally speaks.

“WHAT?!” I yelp. “Are you kidding me?!”

Deadpan, he shrugs “No.”

This continues for several minutes. The rat chomps. I crawl around swearing, looking for cracks in the walls or any evidence that either I could kill it, or it could kill me. By this point, he’s leaned back into the sheets. He watches me with an amused grin on his face.

“There’s nothing we can do right now,” he finally offers. “It’s in the walls. Or under the flooring. Whatever it’s doing, we can’t deal with it in this particular moment.”

Hunched over a slight seam in the floorboards, I look up. In that moment, I realize the ridiculousness of the situation. That ripping up flooring, under the white light of the moon, to declare war on a sole rodent that’s likely lived here longer than us veered dangerously closer to insanity than ambition. Resigned, I sighed and curled back into bed.

The next morning, as he started a fire and a fresh pot of coffee, I found him aggressively researching the nesting habits of rodents. He passed me some creamer for my coffee, proudly stating “I ordered some rat poison online. It got really great reviews.”

Perhaps it takes not just one seemingly unsolvable situation (stubborn rats that bypass poison for the innards of my dishwasher, for example), but an unending series of them — cracked walls, a resident family of otters, wonky plumbing, flooding floors, exposed mystery wires, etc. — to convince a compulsive, action-oriented, eternal half-asser such as myself to be slightly more detail oriented, or to convert a self-diagnosed perfectionist such as him into “a little less so.”

This isolated and imperfect project house embodies some kind of emotional petri dish, and has enabled our quirks to sprout into respective strengths. Click To Tweet

As he and this house stumbled into my life during the same fated weekend, our efforts together seem especially evocative. I had no plans for a partner, and no plans for property either. When, after a casual first date, we realized we’d both be visiting the same rural Pacific Northwest island at the same time — him to hunt for property with his father, me to build beach bonfires with local friends — we reconvened at its salty dive bar, and sipped scotch until the early hours of the morning on the boat he’d moored across the street.

The next day, while soaking up the sun from a friend’s back porch, I was informed they were planning on selling their secluded sanctuary. Combating both a slight hangover and new-crush stomach flips, I wandered their forested property, silently crunching numbers and whispering “what if…” to myself.

Needless to say, rather than the usual post-hookup text — “Last night was fun, let’s do it again soon” — I photo-bombed him with images of the heavily wooded lot, with some obscure message of “Last night was fun… I think I’m going to buy this house.”

He didn’t duck out at that moment; instead the whirlwind of newness took root simultaneously. Our love story was dotted with the anti-romance of loans and banks, insurance and inspections — but from under a cloud of charming mystique wherein we conjured up our country-life daydream. We’d raise babies and chickens, perfect our own crafts beside an ever-cracking fire, make love in the garden, forever protected from neighbors, society, pain, or disappointment. He’d chop wood shirtless and read all about sailing. I’d float about with some forever-glow of fertility, radiating wisdom and writing for “my soul” instead of for Silicon Valley. My hair would be fucking incredible too.

When, after months of logistics, the house was officially mine, we went out to celebrate and simply stared at each other, shocked and beaming. Flushed with the sheer adrenaline of possibility.


Sawdust sprays from the far end of the hallway. He works beside his father, a stouter, silver version of himself, to build custom door-frames for a slightly-tilted hallway. They mirror each other’s idiosyncrasies, frowning and focused, alternating stoic pulls of their unkempt beards. I’m painting again, this time the kitchen. This time, with a drop cloth spread under my feet. Various tools sputter and churn to a Rolling Stones playlist I’ve cranked full-volume, and a coiled trail of cords twist throughout the house, connecting each of our separate worlds by a multi-colored, utilitarian thread.

In this house that we fix — in this life that we build, we pay homage to the past while we anticipate the future. Chuckling together, we paint over the decade’s worth of pencil scratches that mark the heights of the previous owner’s children. We proudly discuss our own intended parenting tactics with a smug naiveté that can only come from the childless.

We bicker over décor. He feels that our space should be full of objects of meaning. Tokens from our pasts. Memorabilia full of ample potential stories for our ample potential grandbabies. Pieces should have a purpose. Knick knacks need a point.

In this house that we fix — in this life that we build, we pay homage to the past while we anticipate the future. Click To Tweet

I disagree, lining shelves with sparse relics of my childhood alongside free tchotchkes from the dump. Dog-eared books that I’ve read and reread throughout my entire life lean against insignificant literature that happens to feature an ornate, cool-looking cover.

We learn to balance incorporating things that meant something once, with things that might mean something some day. A rough-standing end table — yet another one of my free finds — acts as a placeholder, reserving the space for the antique chair his deceased mother rocked him to sleep in. While we’ll likely continue this tradition — cooing our own little ones to rest from a literal framework of nostalgia and nurturing — my guess is it will inevitably cradle a thrifty throw pillow. (One that matches my cheap area rug or Goodwill ceramics, of course.)

As the weeks pass, and projects evolve into even more projects, I watch his pedantry thin. The research never ceases, but his frustrated perma-frown slowly ebbs, and the slew of cursing that once capped any less-than-ideal outcome eventually morphs to a steadfast, “Good enough for now.”

I, on the other hand, never necessarily slow down. Rather, I begin to appreciate the adrenaline of channeling brute force or raw gusto into tasks that have already been roughly outlined, moderately understood, or proven to be non-life-threatening. I give him the time and space to ponder best practices and weigh options. He, in turn, redirects my eagerness towards “To Dos” that are already cued up, or worst case scenario, steps aside with a shrug and an eye-roll to let my stubborn flurry run its course.

And while the rat still occasionally scratches from beneath our floorboards, its nocturnal tap-dancing somehow seems less a call to arms — less a pressing project to immediately tackle, and more just a minor inconvenience and messy reality of a household already ripe with compromise. And promise.