I remember asking a few questions to every person the day of the fire. The first was, “How do I tell my almost 4 year old that I burnt down our house and that her dog is dead?” The other question was always, “I don’t know what to do, what happens next?”
That second question received different answers depending on who I asked. Firemen said I shouldn’t go in in the house, it wasn’t stable and that I should call my insurance company. The Red Cross hugged us, with looks of concern and sadness that said to me, “We’ve seen this too many times.” They gave us a booklet of steps. The Fire Chief, or maybe it was the Fire Inspector also gave us a book of next steps. I remember him handing it to me, still shaken, with tear stained cheeks, standing in my front lawn while the firemen put away their hoses, and tools and ladders. Water and foam was still cascading down my driveway and pooling at the end of it, in the street. I remember staring at it for a moment, holding the brochure in my hand. “Mam?” I looked at him square in the face, as if torn from a trance, “I don’t know what happens next, does someone just come and tear it down? Will what is left be here tomorrow? I don’t know what happens.”
“Mam, you’ll need to talk to your insurance company.”
“Apparently we already did, my husband called our agent before you all arrived.”
“Good, they’ll tell you what happens next.”
He didn’t really answer my question. I turned away from him as a man was putting up “CAUTION DO NOT CROSS FIRE LINE” tape around my home, weaving it between our many pine trees. Or maybe it’s “FIRE LINE CAUTION DO NOT CROSS”. There’s not really any punctuation, and the phrase just repeats so there’s really no way to truly be certain.
We talked to our insurance agent a few more times that day. He is an incredible man who wrote us a very good home owner’s policy when he didn’t really have to. I mean, I’m still scared shitless about all the money we’re going to spend in the next year, trying to rebuild our house, trying to replace everything we lost
With all my camera equipment, and computers and all the things we’d collected over our last 8 years together it amounts to much more than we had coverage for as far as contents is concerned. Often thinking about it will throw me right into a full on panic attack. I’d thought about getting some kind of additional coverage for years, but you always think, “no that’s X more a month and we could pay off student loans with that, plus nothing catastrophic will ever happen to us.”
I’d played out a lot of catastrophic events in my head, flood, hurricane, tornado. I’d never played out fire. Not once.
I talked to our agent Ken the next morning.
“Ken, we stayed in a hotel. I don’t know what we do.”
He has a kind southern voice.
“Chris I’m really sorry this is happening to you guys, but you have displacement coverage, that means Farmers will put you up in a furnished rent house or apartment until your house is fixed.”
“Yes, they should be calling you on Monday to start the ball rolling.”
Monday morning I got a call from a woman at Farmers, who put me in contact with another woman at a company that handles….displaced families. Trisha called me and we chatted for a long time. I told her my story and even though she’s somewhere up north I could tell she was trying to hug me through the phone. She is loving and kind and wonderful and if she lived here in Houston I would take her out for margaritas and I am certain that we would be good friends.
“So Chris, I’m going to start sending you some rental properties in the area of your house. I’ll only send you properties that are approved by your insurance company, but once I send them you need to contact the agent and go see them and let me know what you think ok?”
Trisha called me on Wednesday. “I have a property for you to look at, but (insert long pause) it has a pool, is that going to be a problem?”
I burst out laughing.
When we first moved back to Houston, after a failed business attempt in Dallas and with only 6 months of marriage under our belts (much of which was pretty rocky), after not being employed and then being employed and then living with my mom, step dad, step grandfather and brother for months and saving everything we could, we started looking at buying a house.
There’s a thing here in Houston, it’s often much cheaper to buy then to rent. We started looking at the end of 2009, the housing market had officially crashed, the government was bailing out lenders and it was a buyers market if you could get a loan. I think we skirted through approvals just before lending got tight because we certainly didn’t make much, but we had good credit.
I grew up just north of the Heights in Houston and went to high school in Montrose. In my earlier years the Heights wasn’t the safest neighborhood, certainly had the “inner city” feel. By the time I was in my teens it was starting to see it’s first glimpse of revitalization. The Heights area has culture, arts, great food, and history; all the hipster things before they were hipster I suppose.
By the time I left Houston for college, revitalization was in full swing and one summer I came home and a friend wanted to go hang out on Washington Avenue. I looked at him like he was nuts, “so we can get shot?” He laughed at me. Apparently in my 3 years away Washington had turned from super sketchy to one of the more happening places around the city.
“Bill I want to live in the Heights, or at least near the loop.” (For those who don’t know, “the loop” is the 610 loop, one of 3 freeways that loop the city. People who live in the loop or right near it are often referred to as “inner-loopers”, it’s a thing.)
I remember searching tirelessly for something that would fit within our tiny budget that was in my home area. I found a property at one point, right at the top of our budget, right around 15th street. It was a small lot, with a literal shack on it. I showed the listing to my mom and she immediately burst into laughter, the kind that makes you cough a lot because it’s so intense. I couldn’t figure out why she was laughing.
“Christina, you’re hilarious.”
“Mom, I don’t know why you’re laughing.”
“Christina, that has got to be a joke.”
“No mom, seriously, that’s what we can afford in this area.”
After looking at several very run down homes in the area, all which were at the top of our budget, it became very apparent that we weren’t going to be inner-loopers.
I remember Bill sitting me down very seriously, “Babe, I know how badly you want to live in the Heights area. We just cannot afford anything here. Please lets look at the suburbs, we could get so much more for our money.”
“But I hate the suburbs.”
“Babe I know, but we can’t afford anything else. Please.”
He was pleading, and deep down, even though I hated it, I knew he was right.
“Ok, but on one condition, I want a pool.”
So many people tried to talk me out of the pool idea. It costs so much money. It’s so much work. It’s dangerous for children. But if I had to live in the burbs I wanted a pool.
At the time we started our suburban search I was working as the marketing director for a photography studio way down in Sugar Land, a suburb on the southwest side of Houston. My coworkers tried to convince me daily to buy in that area, but I truly hated it.
We looked at some homes in Katy, which is west of Houston. They were all new builds, they felt hollow and sad and cold. I remembered having to drive in traffic to pick up my step brother from Katy, and quickly nixed the area.
We were going to a church in Spring, the northwest side of Houston suburbia. We were getting more and more involved there and spending a lot of time and building relationships. Growing up I had friends that lived out that way and always had fond memories of the area. There were parts that had history and character, unlike anything I’d seen in Katy. So we decided to focus there.
We looked at dozens of houses. God bless our realtor Sam because I was SUPER picky. Then we found a house, and after walking through the whole thing, and I said I liked it, Bill and Sam looked at each other and hugged because it was the first time I’d said I’d liked any of them.
It was in an older neighborhood and had mature trees. It was open floor plan, two story with plenty of space to grow and have a little portrait studio /office in the formal living and dining area. AND it had a pool and bonus a pool house which I was totally convinced we could fix up and rent out for additional income (my mom had cable and I’d watched a lot of HGTV during this time).
We went to look at it a second time, this time we took my mom. My mom is that person who needs to know all the things. She’s an investigator, she seeks out information. It’s part of who she is. So, when we went to see the house for a second time, she brought a flashlight. She went in the attic and on the roof. She inspected every wall, every corner, every crevice. The house wasn’t perfect, it needed updating and paint and maybe a little TLC, but it felt good.
“It needs work, but it looks good, all except here at the fireplace.”
We looked and it seemed like the fireplace brick was pulling away from the wall.
“It’s probably not structural, just superficial, we just won’t use the fireplace for a while.” This was the house, it had everything, I was going to defend it.
Bill, Sam and I stood on the front yard developing a game plan for putting in an offer. We shook hands, and then mom called us over from the side of the house, “Hey guys…you need to see this.”
We walked around the corner and saw it. There was a 2-3” crack all the way up the brick, it looked like the house was splitting down the middle. My heart sank. Foundation problems. This was not the house. I cried that night.
We eventually did find the house it was the one that burned down three weeks ago. It didn’t have a pool, but it was ours.
I told Trisha this whole story.
“You’re going to get your house with a pool,” she said.
Shortly after we saw the first house she mentioned with the pool, it wasn’t anything super special, she called us with another house.
“I found another one, it’s actually in your neighborhood and it does have a pool.” I could hear her smiling as she said this. “Call the realtor on it and set up a viewing.”
She told me the street, it was the street that dead ends on our street. I tried to picture the map of our neighborhood in my head. I gasped.
“Bill, I think I know this house.”
“What do you mean?”
I didn’t answer because I was pulling out my phone to look it up on a map. The map didn’t tell me what I needed to know so I pulled up the neighborhood map on Nextdoor.
“BILL IT BACKS UP TO NICK AND LAUREN’S HOUSE! It’s that house with the pool that we always see the reflections of on the top of the house and talk about how we want to swim there!!”
Lauren and Nick are amazing wonderful people who we love dearly and who’s son will one day marry our daughter, at least according to Issa. They’re best friends and have played together since they were around 7 months.
“Bill, Issa is going to freak out.”
I texted Lauren and we saw the house.
“Trisha, we filled out the application. That house backs up to my daughter’s best friend’s house as well as other friends of ours.”
Trisha was elated, because seriously, we’re going to be close friends after all of this is over.
“So if we get the house, what do we do about furniture?”
“I set up a rental for you, furniture, plates, dishes, all of it.”
“Oh, ok, so do I pick the stuff up or do we need movers?”
“No, they come in and set it up. They’ll do everything, they’ll even make your beds with linens before you leave.”
I laughed right in Trisha’s face.
As some point Trisha called me to confirm how many beds we needed and in what sizes. “Since you had three rooms before the insurance company will furnish 3 rooms for you. So queen beds?”
“Ok great. Three queen beds, three dressers, three night stands, three lamps…well four of the lamps and night stands really because you get two of each for the master. Is that ok?”
I could tell she’d done this before. “Um yes.”
“Ok and table, setting for four?”
“Can we do a larger table, we like…liked to entertain?”
“Sure, we’ll do six, ok and TVs, couch, tables, lamps, do you want a love seat or two chairs?”
I tried to remember what we had. It was two chairs, but I thought hell why not mix it up.
“Let’s go loveseat. And we really don’t need a TV in the bedroom, we didn’t have one before.”
“Ok, no problem, and so all that and the housewares package.”
“Oh yeah, you know, like towels, small appliances, pots, pans, forks.”
“Ok, so I’ll put all this in and call you when I have a delivery time.”
I hung up the phone and looked at Bill. “Bill, they’re going to furnish the house and people move all the things in, that’s so weird.”
The day of move in we sat on the livingroom floor of our empty rent house and watched as a nice man named John carefully unpacked dishes, glasses, wine glasses, salt and pepper shakers, vegetable peeler and more and gently put everything away. Two other men were trying to move mattresses up the stairs into the bedrooms.
We both just sat there, laughing hysterically in disbelief.
“Mam, sir, can we talk to you for a moment?” We got up off the floor and moved into the entryway. “We’re really sorry, but we can’t seem to get this last boxspring up the stairs. The other ones fold, this one doesn’t.”
I didn’t know what to tell them. I just stared at the box spring and then at the stairs and then back at the box spring.
“We’re going to have to come back another day with the folding kind. We’re very very sorry.”
All through this experience people have apologized to us like the news they are delivering is the worst news in the world and it is personally them to blame. From the man who tried to save my dog to these folks here with the boxspring, each of them has given an apology like they expect us to blame them. I think what they don’t realize is, short from losing each other, we’ve already had the worst news we could have. We’ve already experienced a great loss. A box spring not fitting and having to wait on one that will, that pales in comparison.
“Don’t even worry about it, there’s two beds up there, we’ll be totally fine.”
“Are you sure? We’re very sorry.”
“Yes definitely, it’s really ok.”
We walked back in the living room, which now had another two guys unwrapping a couch in it. John was still in the kitchen putting away silverware.
I kept looking at Bill saying, “This is so weird.”
About two hours later they had put all the furniture in its place. There was a tiny bottle of dish soap and a single dishwasher tab on the edge of the sink. The table was set with placemats, glasses, silverware and plates. They’d brought toilet paper and folded the edges over into little triangles. The showers had curtains, and all the beds were made. Hand towels were folded into little fans in the bathrooms and small hotel soaps were in each dish.
“Mam, I just wanted to go over the list of what we’ve left here for you.” John’s counterpart from the housewares company called me over.
“So here’s everything, and I just wanted to personally let you know I left extra master bathroom towels in the master closet, just in case you’re searching for them.”
I looked over the list and then I looked at her. “Thank you for doing all of this.”
“Mam, you’ve gone through something really terrible, we’re just here to try to make this part as easy as possible. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”
Bill and I went to get food and sat at our rental table with my mom and ate. I dug through the bag for a fork.
“Oh I guess I could use this one,” I grabbed the fork off the nicely staged table.
“My rental fork.”
We’ve been staying with my mom for the last three weeks. It’s the closest thing to home we have right now. My daughter is comfortable and we feel loved here and there are things that are familiar. My mom is here, and when I start to spiral and the panic attacks come on in full swing it takes both her and Bill to pull me out of them.
We have a house, a rental house. It has furniture, rental furniture. None of it is our’s, none of it feels like home. But it’s there, waiting for us when we’re ready to take that step towards our new normal, whatever that is.