Louise couldn’t explain why, but she felt dissatisfied with her life. She had a decent job (though her working environment bordered on hostile, thanks to the dysfunctional family that owned the business), her marriage was good, her family was happy. Yet, when she assessed it all, the only conclusion she could come to was: “Is this all? Is this all my life will be?”

She parked her car, finally home after the 38-minute commute from work, and walked inside the apartment, kicking off her shoes at the front door. The apartment was empty – her husband would work until 10 p.m., most likely – and it smelled vaguely of microwaved pasta, no doubt Erik’s lunch. His dishes lay on the counter, red sauce congealed and drying on the white ceramic plate.

Louise sighed, pulled off her purse to drop it on the floor and carried the detritus of Erik’s meal to the sink. She turned on the faucet. The sound of rushing water was soothing, and she held a hand under the stream until water pooled on the precariously piled dishes.

She twisted off the tap, shook the drips of water off her hand, wiped it on a nearby dishtowel. Then she peeled off her work clothes, all of which were dirtied by the lingering smell of second-hand smoke, and shrugged into flannel pants.

With Erik gone and the apartment to herself, Louise settled in her habitual corner of the couch, her laptop open and waiting for exploration. With the evening stretching before her, she grabbed a bag of M&Ms and clicked open her browser.

What would happen, what would Erik say if she bought one-way plane tickets to Europe? He was a dual citizen with Germany, and she was close to dual citizenship, thanks to their marriage. They could sell everything – the cars, the hand-me-down furniture, the piles and piles of books lining the walls – and just leave. Find work abroad. Leave behind their small Midwest town with its rampant racism, single movie theater, blocks and blocks of cheap buffets and Taco Bells. They could escape the banality of day-to-day life in a place with a population of 75,000, run to the better-fitting cities of millions.

Louise sat back, immersed in her daydream. It would be glorious. Plus, with universal health care in Europe, they could finally start their family and not feel weighed down by bills, bills, bills.

A knock on the door shook her out of the reverie.

She scooched the laptop to the cushion next to her, unfolded her legs to unlock and open the door.

Erik walked through, dumped his briefcase and toed off his shoes. He grabbed Lousie, wrapped her in his customary warm embrace, kissed her cheek with a smack.


“Hey, what are you doing home?”

“Brought work with me,” Erik replied, gesturing to the briefcase lying flat on the non-descript, beige carpet of the rental.

“I thought it’d just be me tonight.”

“Nope. What are you working on?”

Erik walked to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator to pilfer its contents. He withdrew a half-empty plastic box of strawberries, then plucked them out, one-by-one, by the stem.

“I’m just looking at plane tickets,” Lousie said casually, watching for Erik’s response.

“Plane tickets for what?”

“Plane tickets to leave. To go to Germany.”

Erik sent her a look, one clearly magnifying his skepticism, reluctance.

“Why do you want to leave here? We’ve got jobs, cars. We’re going to move to a bigger city, we just need some experience first.”

Louise felt her optimism drain. The walls began closing in, her vision wavered and her hands shook.

“I can’t…I can’t keep doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“This! I’m not happy here!”

“No one is happy,” Erik said, strawberries muffling the words.

“Please, Erik. I’m serious. I need to get out of here. We can sell everything, have a fresh start. Have babies, maybe.”

Erik put the strawberries down, walked over to his wife. Hugged her, rubbed her back.

“We’ll go. Give it another six months.”

“That’s what you said six months ago!”

“I know, but we need the experience on our resumes. You can make it another six months.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Lousie said, her eyes welling up painfully as despair coursed through her.

“Yes, you can. I promise. Did you eat dinner yet?”


Louise settled back onto the couch, lifted the computer to her lap. Changed her search from Germany to the Virgin Islands. Changed the search from two tickets to one. Clicked “Reserve.”

She’d leave at the end of the week.



I always thought of them as being plastic, like full-sized versions of Barbie and Ken. They had that sheen, that glossiness about them. The blonde coiffed hair, the tanned-to-orange-perfection skin. They were tall and athletic, fashionably preppy. She wore sundresses and wedges, he wore chinos and loafers. I suspect, if she allowed it, he would wear one of those horribly tacky gold chains that some men think are so macho. Instead, he settled for a watch with a brown leather band; she had pearl necklaces with matching earrings.

Sometimes I wonder if they would have been better suited to a place like Connecticut, or a yacht moored off some chic European coast. As it was, they came to our small Midwestern town, new money in a no-money neighborhood. They were like J.Crew models setting up shop in “Field and Stream.” Cashmere among camo.

They bought the Hammerstein’s old place. A brick split level that had seen yellow, green and blue siding over the years, it was a comfortable house, a settled house, a house that said family. Pansies tucked into ceramic planters smiled cheerfully at passers-by, the lawn was lush and green. The tree out front was a refuge for neighborhood children barefoot and burned from the summer sun.

But then they moved in, shifting and pushing and manipulating that small plot of land. At first, I think the land pushed back. But they were meaner and tougher and smarter.

They removed that wonderful oak tree. It was like witnessing death, the scraping of dirt onto that rumbling machine, the groaning and creaking of roots as they were violently pulled up from their home. The horrific crash as it landed in the street, leaves shuddering as if uttering their last breath.

Then they leveled the house, destroying it completely before rebuilding a McMansion in its place. Because a five-bedroom colonial blends so well with modest houses from the ‘70s. I imagine they weren’t concerned with fitting in, or how their destruction would affect the neighbors. I don’t like to think it was selfishness on their part, bringing in their money and big-city ideas to a place that so valued family – and retro décor.  Maybe it was ignorance. And ambition.

They once told me that the house, the yard – the whole neighborhood, really – needed a facelift.

“Honestly, honey, you have no idea what kind of mediocrity there is in a place like this,” she said.

“Mediocrity? I don’t understand.”

“It’s just a lack of pride, of confidence in how things look, sweetie. What you look like on the outside says everything about who you are on the inside. It’s an investment in yourself and the future, and it all takes you one step further towards a more luxurious life. By the way, is there any shopping center nearby other than that pitiful strip mall on Grand? I would love to spruce up this place with some nice wicker furniture.”

Their renovations took over a year. A year of squealing drills, of heavy trucks that beeped and beeped and beeped as they backed up, of discarded paper cups and cigarette butts from workers. I don’t think I slept much that year. Collateral damage.

But when it was over, when the air settled, when they had won and the land had accepted defeat, they stood out on their new porch, arms around each other, smiling their pearly whites. For them, it was victory.

And they lived there, at 601 Harmon Street, for two years. Now the house stands alone, beautiful, but empty. A shell. Just like them.