A Place of One’s Own
When I was 14, I woke up one morning around 4am to hear my mother screaming and sobbing in the living room. I climbed out of bed and went out to find her on her knees with the phone pressed to her ear. For a little over a year, since my father left, she had been raising two teenagers, working her regular full-time job as a preschool teacher and then spending her nights, seven days a week, delivering newspapers.
On the weekends and holidays, my brother and I would crawl out of bed at 2am to help her, especially with the mammoth Sunday paper route, which took almost twice as long, even with my grandfather, my brother and myself helping.
We would pull into the parking lot of an abandoned Dairy Queen around 3 in the morning, where two of us would sit rolling endless stacks of newspapers and stuffing them into plastic sleeves, while the other two would take the rolled papers and deliver them around the neighborhood. The smell of newsprint still makes me queasy. I honestly don’t know how my mother did it seven days a week.
My mother went straight from her father’s house to her husband’s, and my father kept a tight rein on the finances, giving her a small weekly allowance for groceries but not allowing her to get otherwise involved. Once she was on her own, she was suddenly hit with all of the bills, the mortgage and the cost of keeping two teenagers fed and clothed. She had done everything she could to keep it all together, but she was behind on the mortgage and the lights were turned off from time to time.
As she knelt there on the living room floor that morning, I realized she was pleading with her boss at the paper job not to fire her. I never found out what her offence was — papers delivered to the wrong address or turning up late to pickup because she was barely getting any sleep at night. I would never know for sure what small inconvenience for someone who could afford to have a paper delivered every morning caused her to end up there on her knees. But seeing her there, her face streaked with tears, begging that man not to fire her, I reached the breaking point she didn’t have the luxury of having. I took the phone from her hands and hung it up.
“I can’t lose this job. We will lose the house,” she sobbed.
“Then we lose the house. We will figure it out. We will make it work. But you don’t beg. You don’t beg anyone for anything.”
We lost the house. We moved into a government subsidized apartment a few months later.
Ever since then, I haven’t lived in the same place for more than a couple of years.
When I graduated college, I didn’t have many specific plans for what I wanted to get out of life. I didn’t want to get married or have kids, although I didn’t entirely rule those things out, knowing things can change with time. I wanted to write. I wanted to travel. I wanted to not have to work a job I hated. And I wanted to have my own house, free and clear, by 40. Not a lease. Not a mortgage. Not something my partner owned half of. My own house that was mine that no one could take away from me. Something that no one could hold over my head — not a husband or a boss or a bank. It didn’t need to be big or fancy. It just needed to be mine.
With Busan in the picture, those plans slowly shifted. When you get married, of course, you’re focused on building a life together, and as a foreigner and non-native speaker of his language, I had a lot of building to do on my side of things to make things work. I diverted my resources toward learning the language and investing in a career that would make me happy here longterm. I started thinking about the house that we could have together. I forgot about that little house that would be all mine.
It would have been mildly psychotic, probably, to insist on that dream at that point. I can’t blame myself for that. But when the shit hit the fan and I was left on my own, freshly devoid of a full-time job, to hustle and cover all the bills on my own with no warning, my timeline folded over for just a second, and I felt the echo of that moment with my mother that pre-dawn morning reverberate through the air around me.
You don’t beg. You don’t beg anyone for anything.
So I followed my mother’s example and I got to work. I found good paying work that gave me enough time and freedom to pursue other work. I wrote scripts, organized radio show guests by day, taught English classes at night and translated books and articles on the weekends. I edited and wrote articles. I took everything that came my way. I saved everything I could until I had enough to open the bakery, and then I worked some more.
It’s funny how life circles around. I’m ready to buy that little house now, three years ahead of schedule. For tthe last two weeks, I lost myself in listings, making late-night, expensive phone calls to realtors back home. My hands shook and my eyes ached. I pored over county handbooks on building restrictions, researched septic systems, the difference between shallow dug and deep wells, the frost line, insulation, solar power systems, foundations. I learned about shoreline preservation policies. I tried to wrap my mind around the difference between five acres and ten. I lost hours of sleep. I placed, in the end, zero bids.
I’m scared shitless. I don’t feel qualified to make this decision. I keep looking around for the person whose permission I need to ask before I do this. The only one here is me.
But hell, I got this far.
The market is supposed to be best in fall. It’s the last week of October, so I’m trying not to panic. I’ve put a self-inflicted ban on house hunting past 8pm for my own sanity. I think about my mom a lot, and what she must have felt on that morning. How scared she must have felt and how alone, how unprepared. She was two years younger than I am now. I can hear her repeating my own words back to me: We will figure it out. We will make it work.
It probably won’t be perfect, but it will be mine.