I don’t remember how it started. It would be a summer night, or weekend winter morning, or Sunday afternoon anytime of year. The house would be in its usual quiet state, my mother napping upstairs and the dogs asleep on the couch. My dad would find me, reading in my room or in some other idle activity. He would ask, “Feel like going for a drive?” And always, I would.
While there was rarely an explicit destination, we always seemed to end up going to see the rich houses. There weren’t any in our little town of a thousand, but the closer you got to Madison the easier they were to find. We had a few go-to neighborhoods we liked best, with names like Glenwood or Eldenbrook or Goldenberry Acres. Most were suburb developments that had been tacked onto the edges of the city as afterthoughts, made up of houses that looked clean and cold. If we grew tired of these there were always more, further back into the hills, up larger smoother winding roads.
It was a funny thing to do, especially considering we weren’t poor at all—the house we lived in was big and white and sat at the edge of our small town, looking out at fields of corn that lit up in the sun; my parents had steady, well-paying jobs. Yet there was still a clear distinction between my pretty white home and these orderly neighborhoods, these extravagant mansions with driveways so long we had to admire most from afar.
My dad would inch along the pavement so we could both take in the grand, three-story or more estates, some with marble pillars, gargoyles, elaborate fountains, five-car garages. We would point out these details to each other, saying what we liked and didn’t, laughing at the stone baby statues or the strangely coiffed shrubs. “Look at how silly the big things are,” we would seem to say with our gestures; “We would never be so silly as that.”
Though we laughed, I never thought of this activity as malicious or sad. In my head that’s why my mother never came along—not because she would have necessarily been these things, but because it would be more painful than fun for her; she would become unhappy at seeing something without being able to hold it for her own. I tried not to blame her for this longing that sprung up in her fairly often—we couldn’t go swimming without her mentioning her desire for our own pool, or hear of a relative’s vacation without her expressing her kind-hearted envy. These desires bothered me more than they probably should have; after all, it’s not a crime to want. I only thought that she should be happier with all that we had, or at least pretend to be. Things weren’t going to drastically change, and we had plenty, so what was the use in lusting for more?
This is what I asked myself as we ambled through the quiet neighborhoods. My father and I didn’t want these houses–or so I thought—we only wanted to imagine being the people who lived in them, or the kind of people who lived in them, who had maids and landscapers and chandeliers and pools; people who were doctors or dentists or lawyers, who were just like us but somehow very different. In my mind these people wore suits regularly; they bought their cars from lots, shiny and unused. They took family vacations to Europe and filled their homes with the memories of the trips, smiling in Paris and smiling in Florence. When bills came in the mail they didn’t worry, because there was nothing to worry about.
Okay, yes, my father and I wanted these things. The real difference between us and my mother was that we knew we weren’t meant for that sort of life. This was a simple rule of the universe and I had learned it from my father on these drives early on. We could look, even touch, but there was an impassable sort of space between those buildings and us, a kind of life we could pretend to know but would never live inside of ourselves.
Neither of my parents finished college. Through their twenties they lived in shitty apartments and worked shitty jobs, in bars and bakeries and taking graveyard shifts. Eventually they fell into their careers as office people doing office things and met in a copy room. There was marriage, then me, then a tiny house in a tiny town and then my brother. Then, by some stroke of luck, a job for my father that paid him more than he ever thought he could earn with only a high school diploma. This allowed us to have mostly everything that we needed, including a bigger, prettier house on the edge of town.
And yet the rich houses called to us still. The ones that sat on the edge of Lake Mendota were my favorite; they were a little older, built into the hill of the shoreline, some with windows so huge you could see right through the first floor and out to the water. A few of these my father had been in many years ago, when he went to the big city high school and got invited to parties by star athletes and other rich kids. He never went into great detail about them, but I imagined the parties from movies—parents out of town, kegs tapped by football players, stereos blasting in low-lit rooms. And my dad, young and unaware of all his life to come, maybe sitting out by the water with some friends.
I loved to imagine twirling on those hardwood floors all alone, looking out at the blue, the sun coming in. From inside the car I wondered if the people who lived there ever got used to their view, if it ever seemed to them less spectacular than it seemed to me as we rode by and glanced briefly in. That was the only animosity I felt, if any—the worry that the residents couldn’t appreciate what they had as much as I would if it were mine.
The ritual continued all through my high school years. Often we would be on the way back from somewhere else, the grocery store or my grandma’s house, and decide to take the long way home. I knew most all of the neighborhoods by then, and had seen the houses in them many times. Still, we would inch along in the same slow way, inspecting the landscaping and catching glimpses of people in the windows. At one of the more extravagant houses he would sometimes stop the car completely for a moment.
“There’s where you’ll live after your best-selling novel makes millions,” he’d say, half joking, half not. The first time he said this it took me by surprise; out of nowhere he had broken his own rule of allowing himself to really believe in these houses as places for us. Now I see that he had only meant the rule for himself, and that, without knowing it, I had always been exempt. He saw a lifetime of potential waiting for me, a life in which I would belong in all the places he never did. All his stories of washing dishes in fancy hotel kitchens, of serving people with club memberships and endless bar tabs, came back to me at a new angle. From his angle.
But all I could do was laugh: at the stone lions guarding the driveway, at the likelihood of making any real money as a writer, and at the thought that I’d ever live in such a uselessly big house. I didn’t know a lot, yet, about what I wanted out of life. But I couldn’t imagine any scenario in which I ended up that close to where I started, alone or with some sort of family, looking out the window at the cars driving slowly by.
When I was old enough, I would go alone and look at them sometimes. I’d go when I wanted to escape my own life and imagine others for myself, lives in which I wasn’t me, but someone else entirely. I would drive in the same slow way, peering into the windows of lavish possibility. I would pass people walking with their dogs, or children, or alone, and imagine myself in their bodies, with their thoughts and worries and desires instead of mine, which were getting old and tedious.
I can still hear the radio playing in the background, still smell the coffee in my dad’s metal thermos and hear the stories he told me about the impressive adventures of his twenties. Going to see the rich houses was a normal tradition to us; it was treasured time spent together; it was once every month or every few. Then, after we had finally seen enough, he would turn the car around and we would go home.
Samantha Krause graduated in 2017 from Bennington College, where she studied creative writing and French. She is originally from near Madison, Wisconsin.
Image courtesy of Matt Jones via unsplash
Also published on Medium.