By Lavinia M. Hughes
Loretta Draper arrived home after a punishing commute of icy roads, witnessed accidents, and detours to a kitchen of chaos. The table was covered with the ruins of a pasta supper, tomato sauce dripped down the front of her white stove, and the sink was filled with greasy meatball pans. The poor cat, Missy Draper, was staring forlornly at her empty dish and mewing piteously. Coats festooned the backs of the kitchen chairs, and shoes were indecorously sprinkled throughout the floor of the war scene. The pasta supper had won.
She hung up her coat in the hall closet and went into the living room where her husband Derek was on his laptop and his two teenage daughters were lounging and scrolling through their phones.
“Derek, what’s with the mess in the kitchen?”
“Oh, hi, honey, I can’t talk now. I’m in the middle of a poker game. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
“Hey, Loretta. We left you some spaghetti,” said Melanie.
“We couldn’t finish it all, so we figured it’s easier for you to just help yourself, so we didn’t have to put it away,” said Becca, the other wicked stepsister.
“How long has it been out?” Loretta asked
“Couple hours,” said Becca.
“Have you ladies ever heard of food safety? I’m not eating meatballs that have been left unrefrigerated for two hours.”
“Hey, Loretta, aren’t you being kind of a bitch?” Derek chimed in, his face firmly glued to his monitor.
“Aren’t you people being kinda irresponsible? I’ve been working all day at that stupid liquor store, and then I come home to a disaster area.”
“Whatever,” Melanie shrugged and went back to her phone.
“So who’s going to clean up the mess?” asked Loretta, knowing there wasn’t going to be a surfeit of volunteers from this lot.
“And nobody could be bothered to feed Missy?” Loretta asked.
“She’s fine. She ate this morning,” said Derek.
“They eat twice a day!” shouted Loretta, who stomped into the kitchen and began loudly clearing the table, loading the dishwasher, and cleaning out the sink.
Shouts for her to be quiet about her angry cleanup only made her even angrier at her weak husband and spoiled stepdaughters.
Granted, when her own dad threw her out of the house when she was 19 so he and the new wife could “have their own space” Derek had rescued her from sleeping in her car. He was a regular customer at the liquor store where she was a cashier. She thought he was handsome in a hot dad kind of way, him being in his early 40s, while she was only 19. One thing led to another and before she knew it, she found herself married to him and moving into his modest 3-bedroom ranch house. She soon found out about his gambling addiction as he spent more time on his laptop than hanging out with her in the two years they’d been married.
When his ex-wife decided she “wanted to be free” to travel with her new husband, he ended up with custody of 14-year old Melanie and 15-year old Becca. So now, in addition to acting as scullery maid to Derek, who worked only part-time for the Department of Public Works, she had to deal with two teenage girls who were only a few years younger than she.
As she cleaned up the mess, resentfully and loudly, Loretta grumbled to herself, “I just want my own home. I want order. I want peace. I hate this place.” After she cleaned up, she grabbed her coat, purse, and keys and headed for the door.
“Where you going? Aren’t you gonna make dessert?” yelled Derek, still staring at his monitor.
Without answering, she left and drove to a nearby park, looked at the pond, so pretty in the full moonlight, and just cried and thought, “What’s my next step? I can’t stand these people. They’re lazy, thoughtless, and inconsiderate. I just want my own space. Like my dad and Derek’s ex demanded. Maybe they’re right. There’s nothing like your own space.”
Even though Derek was the sole owner of their house, Loretta made sure the mortgage was paid as well as other bills because she was the organized one in the household. One night when she got home from work, she sat down at her computer to check her bank balance in preparation for paying some bills. She expected there to be a few thousand dollars in the account, which would just cover everything that was due up to now.
In a panic, Loretta shouted into the living room “Derek! Didn’t we have $2,000 in the account?”
“What?” he shouted back, sounding confused, but really stalling for time before the yelling started.
“Did you take money out of the account? Because I didn’t.”
“Oh yeah, last weekend I went to Foxwoods. I was feeling lucky. Good for us, babe.”
“So you took the money that was earmarked for the mortgage to gamble? And did you win?”
“So what are we supposed to do this month? It’s your house!”
“I know a guy at work who owes me money. I’ll get it from him.”
Loretta put her head down on the desk. She didn’t know where to turn. Plans. Plans. That’s what she needed to do. Make plans. This was not working.
On one of her days off, she had gone to the supermarket to buy groceries. She painstakingly schlepped them inside from the car, with no help from the stepdaughters, as usual, even though she asked them for help with all the ineffectualness of a stepmother.
“Can’t stop scrolling long enough to help the one person who’s feeding you?” she yelled.
Then, to cap off her resentment of the two parasites, she noticed that they were each wearing her necklaces, the ones that her late mother had left her.
“Why are the two of you wearing my necklaces?”
“We thought they were pretty,” they said, not looking up from their phones.
“Take them off. Now! I want you to ask before borrowing things. They are the only things my mother left me.”
“Whatever.” They took off the necklaces and threw them onto the cluttered coffee table. “You don’t have to freak out over it,” said Melanie.
The next day at work, she busied herself putting prices on the new wine that just arrived, trying to forget her home situation. Her co-worker Pam asked her what was wrong. After an earful of trouble from Loretta, she asked “Are you thinking about a divorce?”
“Well, it has crossed my mind. I know it’s only been two years, but I gotta be honest. I don’t love Derek. And his daughters are ungrateful cows. I hate my life. I called a family meeting and made up a chore chart, told the girls I’d teach them how to cook, gave them the cleanliness lecture, but it fell on deaf ears. They’ve cleaned up the kitchen exactly once in the past few months.”
“Divorces aren’t cheap. My cousin is a divorce lawyer. A typical divorce costs thousands.”
“I do have some money saved. Our credit union here has been a lifesaver. I never told Derek, of course about that account. But I have a chunk of money saved already.”
“I don’t think liquor will ever go out of style, huh?”
“Exactly. We have job security.”
“You know, I just had another thought. My cousin may be able to refer you to someone who can get you divorced at a reasonable rate. He knows some just-out-of-law school attorneys who could help you.”
As the daily messes continued and the fights got louder, Loretta knew her instincts were correct about getting out. She got the information she needed from Pam and contacted the newly-minted lawyer, a young woman who seemed eager to help.
“Are you sure you are ready to go forward?” she asked Loretta after they had discussed her situation and finances.
“Yes. I’m done. I’m strong. I’m ready.”
“Are you planning to move out right away?”
“Honestly, I want to but I don’t know where to go. Where can I live for cheap?” asked Loretta.
“I have a friend who is a realtor. Here’s her card. Give Marla a call and she’ll help you find a place.
“Thanks, Counselor. I’m gonna call her right away.”
So except for feeding the cat, Loretta went on strike, tiptoeing over the clutter. She absented herself from the house because she couldn’t bear to be there. She didn’t think any of them even noticed. She worked more hours, saving her extra income until she could move. She saw no reason why she shouldn’t start looking for apartments now, so she called Marla.
Marla said she was tied up but gave her the addresses of a few places that had just become vacant. Loretta was free to contact the apartment manager and tour them herself.
The first apartment was in a skeevy neighborhood. Loretta parked her car on the street and approached the apartment. It was a rundown 3-decker that hadn’t seen paint since the Depression. A slatternly woman inexplicably wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter cold sat in the middle of the crumbling front steps, smoking a cigarette and narrowing her eyes at Loretta.
“Ya here to see the apartment?” she spat.
Just from the outside, the apartments were so grim, dirty, and depressing, that Loretta invoked her fight-or-flight instinct and mumbled “I just remembered I have to do something . . .” and without even going inside, she ran back to her car.
The second apartment wasn’t much better. It was on the 4th floor of an apartment building on a busy street. There was no storm door and the front door was wide open, letting out the heat. The apartment manager led her up old swaybacked stairs, the hand railings covered in dirt and filth. There was an odor of cooking cabbage, giving the place the character of a low-rent-hovel. Finally, they reached the 4th floor. It was a studio with an old mattress, shabby curtains making a poor attempt to dress up the filthy windows, and a kitchenette with appliances from another generation.
Loretta called Marla again and asked her if she had anything else available, describing the two apartment referrals disparagingly.
“I thought I’d have you look at those apartments because they’re cheap, but I know they’re not too homey, she said in typical overly optimistic realtor talk. Listen, there’s a new development of tiny homes called Harmony Homes. I’ll set up an appointment for you with Charlotte, the manager. You should be able to get in because you’re low income.”
Loretta smiled as she drove up the drive to Harmony Homes, a delightful, planned community of 50 tiny homes within walking distance of the pretty town square. The avenues were curved and flanked with shrubbery, which gave privacy to the tiny homes, none of which were over 400 square feet. They were all different styles, from modern to beachy to steampunk. Some were pastel colored with gingerbread trim, like the Oak Bluffs houses on Martha’s Vineyard. Loretta parked and walked to the office, excited and nervous about this new chapter in her life.
“Loretta? Hi, I’m glad you could meet with me.”
“Hi, Charlotte. Did Marla tell you about my situation?”
“Yes, she gave me a brief summary of things. You know, you are not unusual. This community is for people like you. We have college students whose parents couldn’t wait to sell the family homestead before they even graduated from college. We have divorced people who need a small place while they regroup. We have retirees who just want to downsize and be part of a community. This is a great place to move on with your life.”
“I love that all the houses are different. And my attorney said there was a rent-to-own possibility?”
“Yes, we think that’s a great thing for our new community. Gives some continuity and makes it a real neighborhood.”
“I saw the community center. That’s a nice thing.”
“Yes, we host parties, weddings, and have our monthly community meetings there. It’s a great space.”
“I’m dying to see what you have.”
“OK, we have three that are available right now. The first is an airstream trailer.” Charlotte and Loretta got into a golf cart, the standard village vehicle for staff.
The silver airstream trailer was retro in design and the inside was furnished with cherry red appliances. The overhead bins were a little tough to reach for diminutive Loretta. The bathroom was fully equipped and surprisingly large.
The next house was a beachy style with clapboards in a pale pastel yellow and dark blue front door. The walls were white beadboard with light oak hardwood floors. There was an L-shaped couch at one end facing a large flat TV mounted to the wall. A small dining table could accommodate four people, the kitchen was galley style with lots of counter space and a fun, aqua retro-style refrigerator. The bedroom was on the first floor. The bathroom was spacious. There were even closets. And the two lofts could be a storage area or a den. “Missy would love it here," thought Loretta.
The last house was very tiny at only 160 square feet, had the typical loft bedroom with a ladder, and was claustrophobic to Loretta’s eyes.
Charlotte seemed to really love her job, pointing out all the features and suggesting ways to customize the homes. “Well, Loretta, what do you think?”
They discussed the rental fees, and Loretta settled on the beachy house. She put the first and last month’s rent on her new debit card—the one connected to her secret credit union account—and wondered what to do next.
“Do you have a moving company yet?” asked Charlotte.
“Well, I don’t have that much stuff. Just a few pots and pans, my clothes, and my computer. That’s it. Oh, and my cat.”
“We have a moving department consisting of volunteers from the community. Why don’t I have them line up a van to help you move?”
“Are you sure?” asked Loretta, who had never been given much consideration by anyone in her short life.
“Yes, our volunteers are wonderful. That’s why we call this a community. It’s not just a place to crash. I’ll have you meet with Ken, and he’ll help you.”
“Ok, that’d be great. Thanks so much, Charlotte. I am excited to be here.”
“And we’re excited to have you!”
The next few days were a swirl of activity. The van showed up at Loretta’s house. She had already packed up her few belongings and took her good pots and pans as well. Derek and his daughters looked on idly and morosely as they watched this activity.
“What are we supposed to cook with?” asked Becca.
“Oh, you cook? That’s news to me. Listen, I wish you all luck, but it’s time for me to go. Derek, you’ll be getting the divorce papers soon. You should probably line up your own lawyer,” said Loretta.
“I don’t have money for a lawyer,” said Derek petulantly, looking down at his shoes.
“Maybe you should just gamble on representing yourself. Good luck with that. See what I did there?”
Loretta picked up Missy Draper and put her in a carrier for the trip to her new home.
As she entered the tiny home, she found a cozy corner for the purring cat, who seemed content and relaxed for once. She turned on the music channel and smiled as she heard With a Little Help from My Friends, silently thanking her lawyer, Marla, and Charlotte. She made a cup of tea, stationed herself on the couch, and opened a book enjoying the perfect quiet in this mini-paradise, home at last.
# END #