A Stranger in My Own Home

A Stranger in My Own Home

When your house is being remodeled, it can feel like the workmen are the residents and you're the visitor

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When we signed the contract to remodel our North Potomac home, I expected things like cooking on a rent-a-burner, lunchtimes looking at countertops and a daily battle with dust. But now, three weeks into this three-month endeavor, I’ve discovered things I never anticipated; like how much I could feel like a stranger in my own home, that I would become highly motivated to learn more Spanish, and-the thing I really hadn’t considered when I gave carte blanche permission to use whatever bathroom was closest-that there is rarely a toilet seat down in this house.

With a husband, two sons and a rotating bunch of six to 10 men in the house, I am the only person here who wears a bra. My weekdays now begin with the arrival of men in trucks. We open the garage door, and they come in like the cavalry. Dropcloths are laid down, plastic is hung and the saw starts humming in the garage. I say, “good morning,” answer any questions, then clean up the dishes in our soon to be dismantled kitchen and try to stay out of the way.

The problem is I work from home. And now this is their workplace, too, a workplace full of tools, Baja Fresh food, water bottles and the camaraderie they’ve grown accustomed to: discussing movies, their work, what kind of lunch Leo (the man in charge here) might want for his birthday, and laughing-at what, I’m not sure. More than half of the dialogue is in Spanish, only bits and pieces of which I understand. I debate whether to leave my Spanish/English dictionary lying around so they can never be sure how much I know.

I used to be productive working from home. The only sound was the background music I played. Not anymore. While I’m up in my second-floor office, an editor calls about an assignment just as a power tool makes its “zzt zzt” sound. I duck into the bathroom and sit on the edge of the tub with the phone in one ear and a finger pressed to the other.

When I’m finished, I sit down at my desk again and type to a cacophony of nail guns, hammering, grunting (what in God’s name are they doing down there?), chatting, and someone singing along (in a pretty good voice) to the chorus of Macho Man. It sounds like there is a fiesta going on in their part of the house. And I am clearly the odd man-make that woman-out.

I try hard not to listen, but I’ve come to realize that there is no one more distractible than a writer on deadline.

What are they talking about? I think someone just said “loco”-what’s crazy? And what was that sound? It must be the window being taken out below me. Why is it so quiet all of a sudden?

I put my headphones on to concentrate and catch myself singing along a few minutes later.

Damn, I’ve got to stop doing that. Oh! I forgot to tell them about that cable jack.

What was I writing about again?

OK. Time to pack up the laptop and go to Barnes & Noble again to work.

When my husband works from home, he seems far less unnerved. At first, I assume it is because his home office is located above our garage and not directly on top of the action. Then I realize there is something about the male bonding that’s available right here at home that he enjoys. He occasionally orders pizza with pineapple for everyone, then hangs out in the kitchen and talks about things like what size TV is best (why is it that men equate bigger with better?), the pros and cons of surround sound, how to fix a draft that is coming through an improperly hung front door, and, I think I overheard once, the indecisiveness of women.

I wanted to barge into that testosterone-infused room and make a case for myself, for all women, but there were at least six men in there, and I didn’t have a quick-witted comeback at the moment. This made me even less likely to venture in during the next pizza lunch. I’ll stick to making them cookies. There is no one here who speaks my “language,” no one to chat with about the weekend, or the kids, or about the perplexing part of this assignment that I am working on.

I will say that the men are very helpful anytime I ask for advice on trim and stone. And if they see me carrying anything, whether it’s a box of stone samples or an armful of roller shades, they’ll take it from me and ask where it needs to go. I have to admit, this part of having them here is nice. And then one afternoon, a couple of weeks into this process, I had an opportunity to get to know one of the guys a bit. My kindergartner, Colin, and I were walking up the driveway with cupcakes as Fenix was closing up the house for the day. Colin offered him a cupcake. Fenix said, “Thank you.” I told Colin to say “de nada.”

Fenix asked where I was from. I inquired the same and learned that he was from El Salvador and that his brothers live here, too. He asked what I do for work. I asked how long he has worked with this company. We talked about families and music and dancing and when I went into the house that night, it felt more like home…at least for a little while.

At three weeks in (and woefully behind on an upcoming deadline), I discover one more thing I didn’t expect in this process- a cure for writer’s block. These last few nights I’ve begun a new routine. After the workers all leave, I unzip the plastic doorway Leo created to separate the dusty side of the house from ours. Then I stand amid the dangling wires and half-built walls and study their work in progress. As I look around, I see rooms full of clutter and chaos. It is hard to imagine that this place will ever look good again, with the exception of the fireplace surround that the mason, Billy, is creating stone by stone. That is coming out beautifully. He is taking the same care with that wall that a painter would take with a canvas. Later I head upstairs with the boys and lie down on my older son’s bed to read with him. His is the first room done. I scan the newly wainscoted walls and admire the perfect symmetry of the corners. What Leo and the others have meticulously measured, cut and put up now looks gorgeous in gleaming white paint.

This room was a mess just a couple of weeks ago, kind of like my office now, with files strewn and one project in such a bad state that I’m worried it will never turn out well. Then I realize that these guys are in a business not much different than mine, only they accept-actually expect-disarray to be part of the creative process. They create with wood. I create with words. I can learn something from them. Their work reminds me that constructing anything can be a challenging and messy endeavor, but that usually, with enough ingenuity and perseverance, something beautiful emerges (at least that is the plan here for our first floor). Checking out the progress of their work each evening has inspired me to be more patient with my own. There is something familiar here in my house: construction’s version of a rough draft. Maybe I’m not such a stranger here after all.

Christine Koubek is a North Potomac based writer and author. She is happy to report that her home renovation is now complete and turned out beautifully.

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