We were looking for houses.
There are activities, I’ve learned, which seem to encourage and enhance bonding more closely with another person, and there are activities that actually work against that. Cooking is a good example of the former; teaching someone how to drive a car the latter. Wallpapering can be a divisive activity. House hunting is very bonding.
We didn’t have much time to find a house if we wanted to move into it before the school term began. Luckily, Rancho Cucamonga was a fast-growing city with a plethora of houses and apartments and condos and townhouses being built. There was a booming market for housing and many new ones of all sorts were on the market. Signs on properties in large letters screaming ‘quick escrows’ and ‘fast move-ins’ were common.
I’d talked to my dad. His opinion was a more expensive, larger, newer house would appreciate more rapidly and to a greater degree than a smaller, older house. Likewise, we should be looking in good neighborhoods with good schools and top-of-the-line shopping areas rather than seedier but cheaper neighborhoods.
This was mid-2018. Housing prices were high. They’d been climbing steadily, year by year for what seemed to be forever. The only blip had come with a small price dip in 2010, but it was a tiny drop, and in the following years there had never been another decline. So that meant a new house or an older one would come dearly now, but one could fairly reasonably assume the same place would cost a buyer even more five years down the pike.
Dad had thought it best for us to look at new or relatively new houses. I wasn’t sure that he thought he’d maximize his appreciation that way; the nagging thought persisted that he simply wanted Robin and me to be in a new house because he wanted the best for us. As it was his dollar being spent, though, and his generosity on display, we spent most of our time looking at new houses.
New, never-lived-in houses can be awfully attractive. We saw a lot of them. They ranged in price because of size and location, but most of what we walked through were priced between $650,00 and $950,000. Very average for the market. The same houses would have cost 20% more if they were closer to downtown L.A., where owners would have a shorter drive time getting to work. I found Robin had a very selective eye. He found things to carp about that I hadn’t noticed.
“Look at the high ceilings in the entryway,” he said to me, looking up and not at me. “All that second-floor space that could have been used is forfeited by all this empty space, which is here just to make an impression on whoever walks in the front door.”
Stuff like that. I’d just been awed by the cathedral-like look of the place. But he noticed, too, how the bathrooms were inconveniently located, even though there were four of them.
We’d been looking for four days and getting a little jaded when we found one that appealed to both of us. As might be expected, when you find that, you also find a higher price tag. Why is that? I don’t think I’ll ever know.
This house was a single-story residence of 2,500-plus square feet, plenty big enough for the two of us. Too big, maybe. I hadn’t tried vacuuming all of it yet. But it was laid out beautifully, one room transitioning naturally into the next. The kitchen was much larger than the ones in many of the houses we’d seen. Perhaps modern architects expected working moms to want to eat out or maybe order out often, but either way, spend very little time cooking. This house had a kitchen that was probably twice the size of others we’d seen. It had marble counters, beautiful cupboards with lights underneath to illuminate the counters below, drawers that would self-close with just a slight push to get them started. The appliances were built-in and included a dishwasher, a 19-cubic foot refrigerator, and surprisingly, two high-wattage microwave ovens, along with a six-burner stovetop and two ovens. There was also a breakfast nook that would be fine for most of the informal meals Robin and I would be eating.
It had four bedrooms, or more specifically, three bedrooms and one much smaller space that was listed as a bedroom but would make a much better pint-sized office. What would be our three bedrooms all had sliding glass doors that led to an enormous patio that stretched across the back of the house and separated it from the pool.
Yes, there was a pool. About half the homes we’d looked at had one. This one, perhaps due to the patio running along one side of it and the lawn behind it with flower beds between, had a more welcoming appearance, like it hadn’t been added as an afterthought but had been intended to be there all along.
We wandered through, our real-estate lady jabbering away as she always did. She seemed to find silence uncomfortable. I’d learned to tune her out. Every now and then I’d glance at Robin and often found he was glancing at me at the same time. Usually with an enigmatic half-smile on his face. It made me wonder what he was thinking. Maybe about how his life was suddenly so different from what it had been? Maybe about being happy for a change?
It was time for lunch after that showing, and the lady wanted to take us to a restaurant she said was fantastic and not far away. She knew a couple of live ones when she had them in her grasp and didn’t want us separated from her. I told her I had an appointment that afternoon and we were done for the day, but I’d call her tomorrow when I knew what my schedule was going to be. She reluctantly left us to our own devices.
“What’d you think of that one?” Robin asked, barely having the patience to let her walk out of hearing range.
I could tell from his eagerness he really liked the house. Well, I did, too, but as much as I liked gently teasing him, he’d started doing the same to me, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity now available to tweak him a bit.
“Well, the closet in the small bedroom was almost nonexistent, and the thick carpet would mean I couldn’t have casters on my desk chair. I like to be able to roll around. You know, back and forth from the printer and file cabinet to the desk. And the vinyl tile in the kitchen? That sort of off-mauve color blending with puce just didn’t do it for me. Puke soup.”
Robin gave me the eye. I’d been speaking in a tone of voice that was as normal and uninflected as I could make it, but Robin was smart, really smart, and he picked up on things quickly. I needed to look away. He could read my expressions as clearly as my tone of voice. No way could I let him read my eyes.
“Off-mauve,” he repeated, sarcasm dripping from the word. “You mean that neutral beige with gold highlights that goes well with the counters? And if you’re going to use that small room as an office, which you’re implying, why would you need a closet? The smaller the closet is, the more office space you have, space to do office things in.” He giggled, but rushed on before I could interpose any argument. “And the rug? What would it cost to replace it with tile? As small as that room is, maybe $200? And I’ll bet you could get the builder to pay for that just to get a quick sale. Or maybe the Realtor would. Her commission could take a $200 hit and still be the size of a Texas all-you-can-eat barbecue.”
“I take it you liked it, then?” I asked neutrally.
“You don’t have to sound smug. I can tell you liked it, too. Another plus is that this is close to the high school where you’ll be teaching, as close any house we’ve seen, and so it’s probably in that school’s catchment area. Buy this house and I’ll probably end up going to your school, which would be great for me.”
There were three high schools in Rancho: Rancho Cucamonga, Los Osos and Etiwanda High School. The first was the oldest and academically the highest-ranked of the schools, and it was the one that had hired me. It had over 3,000 students, and from everything I’d been able to learn, was an excellent school. I was looking forward to teaching there, and from what I’d read and heard, I thought it should be a very good school for Robin to attend.
As I’ve said more than once, Robin was very smart, and his perspicacity allowed him to read me like a book. He could tell I liked the house, just as I could with him. We’d both found it a great choice. And we knew the other did, too. As I’d said: we were bonding.
It was also one of the quick-escrow places we’d looked at, and my dad had the up-front money sent that day with the proviso that we could begin moving in immediately. Well, immediately while the carpet in my new office was being replaced with joint-less ceramic tile at no cost to the incipient homeowner.
I was excited. I’d be starting my new job soon and was impatiently looking forward to that. I know students can tell when a teacher is brand new, and it’s quite natural for them to try to take advantage of that by giving him or her a hard time or using their wiles to get favored status. Frequently, this makes the new teacher defensive and prickly and fall back on forced strict discipline in the classroom. I didn’t want to do that. What I hoped was, by being honest with them, by allowing a certain degree of laxity but not allowing them to cross the line, by being self-deprecating to an acceptable extent, and mostly by showing a good sense of humor and fairness, I’d bond with them. I thought that to be possible. Maybe I had a large case of the naives. I’d soon find out.
We moved into the new house. I told Robin to select his bedroom. I wanted to see if he’d choose the master bedroom. It was the largest of the four—well, three-and had an en suite bathroom. Some teens would have snapped that up in a nanosecond. The ballsy ones. The insensitive ones. Robin was anything but that; he chose the one farthest from the master, closest to the pool. He’d loosened up, but his basic personality hadn’t changed. He was still quiet and a bit timid in new situations and mostly looked at me to set the tone of anything we were doing. The fact he did occasionally tease me was a surprise. It showed an inchoate confidence I didn’t see from him often.
I wanted him to open up more, but after a lifetime of learning how to protect himself, I knew the little time we’d had together was nowhere near enough. I was very careful not to criticize him about anything. I had to couch corrections in very positive language. But I could do that. I was growing to like him very much indeed, and if that meant catering to what he needed, I did that happily.
I did want to please him. So, I kept wondering what I could do for him as we moved into our new home and new life that would set the tone for that. He already had a lot of new clothes. My mom had seen to that. She’d even bought him a bathing suit, telling him at the time he’d never know till it happened when he’d be invited to a pool party now that he was living in SoCal, and he’d need the suit sooner or later. He also was being fed well now. He worked on meals with me in the kitchen at our apartment and would soon be doing that in our new house, too. He had all the books he’d brought from his former life. He’d need more, but a new book wasn’t what I had in mind right then. I wanted something more spectacular than that. But what?
And then I thought up the perfect housewarming gift.
I locked the door to the apartment one last time. “I never had time to really think of this place as home,” I remarked.
Robin was already ahead of me, heading for the car. He had a last box of the stuff we were bringing with us in his hands, just like I had. We both set them in the back seat, and I pulled out onto the street. “We have one stop to make on the way,” I said.
“You’ll see. I decided you needed a housewarming gift for your first real home. I don’t consider the house you lived in back East as a real home. You survived there, that’s all. You’re going to live and grow up in this one.”
“I didn’t get you anything.” He said it defensively. But then, that was Robin.
“No need to. I didn’t need to do this, either. I just wanted to.”
We drove awhile, heading east on the I-210, and exited in Fontana. I put the address in my GPS and followed the directions. We drove north and arrived at a house on the outskirts of town. It was an older place that I expected at one point had been a farmhouse. I parked in the driveway and opened the door. Robin, looking at me curiously, got out, too.
We were met with some raucous barking which continued as the front door opened and a gray-haired woman came out, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Mr. Perry?” she asked, a smile on her face.
“That’s right. And this is Robin. He’ll be taking ownership.”
She looked at Robin. “Come with me, then,” she said and turned and walked to the driveway and headed toward the back of the property.
Robin gave me a look, and I said, “Better follow her.”
I joined him as the woman led us to where the barking was coming from. There was a tall, expansive, chain-link enclosure, and inside was a large, black dog. There were also four black puppies.
The large dog was doing the barking. She was standing at the gate into the enclosure. She stopped barking and wagged her tail when the woman opened the gate.
The dog came out and was petted and cooed over by the woman. Then she turned to Robin. “Have you ever chosen a puppy before?” she asked.
Robin looked startled, gave me a glance which got him a smile in return, then to the lady said, “No. Never.”
She chuckled. “Let me give you some advice then. Some people choose the runt of the litter because it’s usually shy and retiring and they think it’ll be the quietest and will love them the most and make the best pet. That’s usually not the best choice. What makes the best pet is often the most boisterous, most friendly, least shy one. Up to you, of course. But come here and go inside and get to know the puppies.”
Robin looked at me with an unspoken question, and I said, “Yeah. You’re getting a dog.”
He looked befuddled, like he was had no idea what he was doing or what was happening, but, like a robot, he did as asked and walked up to the gate. He looked at the woman and asked, “Is it safe? I mean, will she—?” He stopped and pointed to the large dog.
The woman smiled. “She’ll be fine. Go ahead.”
Robin entered the enclosure. The woman shut the door and said, “Sit down on the ground.” Robin did, and the puppies were soon all over him, licking and chewing on bits of his clothing and him, rolling over each other in their eagerness, and pretty soon Robin was laughing like I’d never seen him laugh with tears rolling down his cheeks.
I felt a warm glow in my stomach. This was the right thing to do.
He played with them a bit, obviously enjoying himself, then looked at me, one pup in his arms, another on the ground tugging mightily at his pant cuff and growling like he was the fiercest thing in creation and was going to show that cuff who was boss around here.
“How am I supposed to choose?” Robin asked, sounding bewildered. “They’re all so cute!”
“We can only get one. Two and they’d run the house if they even let us come in. Only one, and it’s your choice.” I guess that wasn’t entirely helpful, but this wasn’t life or death. It was Robin picking a puppy. Making a decision.
He played with them little longer, tug of war with some chew toys in the pen, petted them all, and finally, looking at me, said, “This one.” It just happened to be the one he was holding against his chest that was licking his neck and trying to wriggle higher.
“Good choice,” the lady said. I imagined she always said that.
I paid her an exorbitant amount, but it was the same price I’d seen advertised by other private breeders, so I guessed it was okay.
The dog slept all the way to the new house in Robin’s lap.
“Do you know what kind of dog she is?” I asked Robin as we were nearing our house.
“No. I’ve never had a dog and don’t know much about them. I always
wished . . .” his voice tapered off and he might have sighed. I spoke up
before he could retreat into himself.
“It’s a black Lab. A Labrador retriever. Purebred. We’ll get papers with her. Register her. That means if you ever want to breed her, you can charge the moon and two stars for her puppies like that lady’s doing. Or not. Your dog, your choice. But Labs are retrievers. They love playing ball. You throw it, they go get it and bring it back to you. You need to train her to drop it at your feet or you’ll be playing tug of war after every retrieval. Labs are also water dogs. Get used to having a companion in the pool when you go swimming.
“She’ll need lots of training, but that’s part of the pleasure of having a dog. Every boy needs a dog. Teaches him about responsibility and discipline. You might be a teenager now, but it’s never too late to get a dog.
“I’d recommend getting a book from the library or the bookstore. Read up on what to expect and how to train and take care of her.”
“How big will she get?”
“You saw her mother. She was about average size for the breed. Around 55 or 60 pounds, give or take, I’d guess. Feed her too much, she’ll get heavier. One characteristic of the breed is that they love to eat.”
He got distracted by the dog waking up, yawning hugely, then climbing up Robin’s chest, trying to reach his face. She seemed to love licking that. “What should I name her?” he asked me between giggles.
“Again, your choice, Robin.”
“You’re making me choose a lot of stuff!” he said, trying to sound provoked and missing by a mile.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I agreed. “I’ll have to stop that, start making all your choices for you again. You liked how that worked before.”
“Okay, okay, don’t rub it in. It’s just a lot all at once.”
“Good. You’re getting used to choosing for yourself. You’ll be doing it the rest of your life.”
I pulled into our driveway and Robin clamored out of the car carrying the puppy. I watched him use his key on the front door and walk in, leaving the door open for me. I just sat in the car for a moment. A house. A kid. A dog. Me.
A family. For me. Might be a little sooner than I’d expected—and with no mate in
sight—but that’s how life works at times. You have to roll with the punches. These
didn’t feel much like punches, though. More like gifts.
School was to start next week. I’d gotten Robin’s transcript and taken it with him to Ranco Cucamonga High and gotten him registered. He’d been nervous just driving up to the school, even though there were no kids around. He hadn’t had a good time in middle school. He was different from the other students in the way he dressed and carried himself, and his obvious timidity also set him apart. Getting all A’s sealed the deal; these are not the agents of popularity in middle school.
I decided to try to help him work on this. I wanted him to be comfortable going to this school. After all, this was where he was to spend the next four years of his life.
“How’d you like to make some changes in yourself so you might fit in a little better at school?” I asked him over breakfast. “I like you just fine the way you are, but I know you’re worried about school, how the other kids will react around you, so I thought perhaps you’d like a few suggestions of things that might make it easier for you to fit in.”
He looked up from his quiche, gauging my expression. Such a statement I’d just made could be running the gamut from me trying to be helpful to leading to criticism, either joking or scathing. I smiled back, hoping that would suffice.
“What do you mean?” he finally asked.
“I think there are things about yourself you don’t especially like. We all have those. I wish I were a bit heavier, more substantial looking. I’m not, but being a bit skinny certainly qualifies as something I don’t like about myself. There are other things, too. You’d be very unusual if you didn’t have anything like that yourself.”
“Well . . .” I could see he wasn’t comfortable talking about this. I certainly couldn’t start listing his faults. I really didn’t see anything seriously faulty about him. But I did see things other kids might want to tease him about, things other kids would notice. It was up to him to mention them, though.
I figured I’d said enough. I’d opened the door. If he didn’t want to walk through it, I wasn’t about to press the point. So we finished the meal in silence: I read the L.A.Times and he did something or other with his phone. Teenagers and their phones. I think if you transported one of our teens back to when these devices weren’t in every pocket in every high school in the country, they’d be totally lost.
He approached me that afternoon while I was planting flowers in our strip of flowerbeds alongside the pool. This was a new house and some landscaping had been done, but only a few flowers planted. I was remedying that.
“What did you think I should change?” he asked, after standing silent and watching me dig holes and drop a little fertilizer in each. The puppy had seen a patch of sun on the grass and thought it would make a perfect bed. She slept a lot, which was good as she liked a lot of attention while awake.
“I don’t want you to think I’m being critical of you at all, and I’m afraid if I try to come up with things, that’ll be your reaction. What I’d prefer would be you to tell me what worries you have about going to school. Then we can talk about those.”
He knelt down next to me, picked up an extra trowel from the garden tools I’d laid out, and started digging holes of his own, spacing them out the same way I’d already begun. Maybe he thought it would be easier to talk this way, not looking at each other.
“Well, when I first meet people, especially a group of them, I’m really shy, and unfortunately it shows. I don’t know what I can do about that. I can’t suddenly stop being shy.”
“Yeah, that’s tough. No, just stopping being shy would be almost impossible for anyone. And if you tried to brazen it out and act all outgoing and engaging, it wouldn’t be you, and I think the worst thing you can do in high school is pretend to be someone you’re not. It’s hard work to maintain a facade, and you always get found out in the end. That can be miserable.”
He didn’t say anything, just dug another hole, and I realized agreeing with him wasn’t very helpful. So I tried again. “A lot of kids are shy, Robin. You have to do the best you can with it. One important thing is, when meeting a single person or a group, smile. That smile tells them a lot. Another thing is posture. Anyone can read a defensive posture versus an open one. So stand straight; don’t turn sideways to them; don’t cross your arms in front of you in a self-protective manner; meet their eyes. That’s important. That shows you’re not a wimp and would welcome the chance to get to know them. That puts them at ease, too.
“It’s possible doing those things will be difficult, but they’re not beyond you. You can do them. Your shyness probably comes from your lack of self-confidence. Before you came here, you had no reason to have any confidence in anything but your schoolwork. You’re much better now. You already stand straighter, you look me in the eye when we speak most of the time, and you seem happier. Kids who look happy are the kind other kids want to get to know.”
He kept digging, not responding, so I did the same. When we’d dug all the holes needed, I began putting the blooms I’d bought into the holes. He filled them with loose dirt. When we were done and I was collecting the tools, he said, “I’ll try. Actually, I like that you’ve given me things to try. I didn’t know any of that. I wouldn’t have done it on my own. Now, I won’t be as nervous because I’ll be thinking of doing those things when meeting people. Thanks.”
While I picked up the trowels and fertilizer and plastic trays that had held the seedlings and took them to the small shed that was there for lawn tools and supplies, Robin went into the house. I came back and found the puppy had awakened and was staring at the house where Robin had just gone. That meant she’d been left behind. I couldn’t help but notice her eyes. She had the saddest look in them. I doubt any dog can do sad as well as a Lab. She’d already bonded with Robin, and he’d just walked away from her. Sad.
That look reminded me of another I’d seen recently. It took only a moment to remember where. I’d seen eyes just as sad on that boy on the plane.