One of the more unfortunate things I inherited from my ex was the desire for homeownership. In the early heady weeks of the relationship, as we stayed up all night in inexhaustible confession, he described at length his yearning for a home after he had split from his family, how he had traveled far and wide to find the house of his dreams, how much personal charm it had taken to nail the negotiation. What was more, it was set in a prime location in an up-and-coming city that would guarantee a return on his investment. It gave him a profound sense of security he had been seeking all his life, he said. As it happened, I had just gotten a copy of A Room of One’s Own, and in between listening to him rhapsodize about the house he wanted to contain me in, I learned of Virginia Woolf’s inheritance and her bid to obtain a room of her own with a lock on the door.
At the time I was coming to the end of a decade spent roaming around the globe, never staying put in a city for more than a year or so. I lived out of one or two suitcases at a time, did not care about accumulating too many belongings, let alone arranging them in one place. Whenever I was asked about settling down, my vision of the future never turned up more than a blank haze. The here and now, always so colorful and indefatigable and never boring, seemed a lot more immediate, and my frequent moves were much an exercise in making myself feel at home wherever I was.
Now I suddenly felt tired. The tentacles of a desire for a permanent home had finally found my little orbit and were fast growing roots: perhaps the allure of private property is just too contagious to fend off, or I was simply getting older. It felt as if a whole new world had opened up to me—so this was how normal, saner people lived. When the pandemic broke out, I moved in, and his home became mine, too.
Later I split from the ex for reasons that might or might not have had to do with this home, and moved into my childhood bedroom for the first time as an adult. It had been over a decade since I spent a significant amount of time there; it was a temporary arrangement while I waited for a visa for my next stop. The shimmering city.
As the weeks stretched into months, I dreamed of the new city I would call home, ringed with tamed nature and tranquil shorelines by the ocean. The ex and I had imagined making a home there by the sea: he aspired to build it with his own hands, while all I wanted was a room facing the waves. Now, with or without a man, I would do it. I would move all the boxes of my belongings that were presently piled up around me in my childhood bedroom, unburden their dusty heaps into new shelves and new rooms, and pronounce myself no longer adrift. For once, I could almost see it.
In the city of my childhood bedroom land is fabulously scarce, and house prices routinely top world charts. For the majority of the population homeownership was a foregone impossibility; they either stayed to pay rents that demanded over half of their salaries, or moved away somewhere more affordable.
But to those for whom real estate was remotely within reach, it was an obsession, and there was no lack of people happy to proselytize the prospect of owning a home. It was an asset class, they told me. A failsafe investment in this city where, the unrest and the recent exodus notwithstanding, the demand for housing is endless. Besides, if you are going to pay rent anyway, why not contribute to a nest egg of your own?
They held forth on favorable districts, mortgage rates, annual yields. Among those who had managed to “get on the bus,” as they called it, none lived in the apartments under their names; they were renting them out to finance the more spacious properties where they actually lived. They told me what a good deal real estate in my new shimmering city would be.
I met up with W, another ex, for the first time in years. I’m working full time again now, I told him. Something steady that would pay the bills. The goal is to save enough so that one day I can focus on the things that really matter. Like writing, maybe.
He peered at me as if he were incredulous that a person like me could exist. If you want to no longer work for money, he said slowly — disbelieving that he still had to drill some common sense into me after all these years — you have to make your money work for you. He was still bouncing around like me, but he too had recently bought a house, where his parents now lived. For the rest of the conversation he echoed everyone I had grown up with: put your money away in a safe investment, let it grow.
“We don’t have to privilege accumulation over distribution,” writes Eula Biss in Having and Being Had. “But that is the rule that governs our everyday lives—our work and our play.” She, too, had bought a house with her husband once her employment situation was sufficiently permanent. When a friend of hers visited, the first reaction had been: Two artists can have all this?
I arrived in the shimmering city with only one suitcase; the idea was to ship my boxes over once I had found somewhere to “settle down.”
What kind of life did I want to make here? The burden of adjusting to the shimmering city quickly dimmed my vision of the humble cabin by the shore—getting by while barely speaking the language was grinding enough without having to tend for a house on my own. Besides, it had been as much the ex’s dream as it was mine, and I was eager to cast it off, start anew. I was back to the drawing board, the blank haze.
In Real Estate, Deborah Levy’s living autobiography, she continually revised her ideas of the house she wanted to live in, cataloging her portfolio of “unreal estate” that she would leave behind when she died. When her adult daughters moved out and she was finally free to embark on a new life on her own, her imagination went rampant, trying a fixture here, a backdrop there for size, eventually settling on a vision: “my villa with its pomegranate tree, mimosa trees, its fireplace in the shape of an ostrich egg and the river and rowing boat called Sister Rosetta.” It comforted me to know she was approaching sixty and still plotting her residence; I was only pushing thirty.
On weekend trips and excursions I joined in whenever friends ogled at the real estate listings by train stations, fawning over the advertised amenities, the price tags. I had never planned my finances in any way that related to a loan or a mortgage, and had no inkling what constituted a good price—the figures were all astronomical to a point of abstraction. But as the real estate agents stationed on every street corner of my childhood would whisper: It can’t hurt to take a look.
So I got in touch with agents, scheduling parcels of time and space to size out my fantasies. If I stumbled at imagining my future, perhaps a little theater of solid concrete would help.
My fantasy materialized in the form of Mr. Y, a bulky man wearing an ill-tailored suit and the smile of a cuddly bear. He belonged to my people and was dedicated to helping us acquire real estate in this promising land; Y was a local name he had taken on to assimilate when he had moved to the shimmering city ten years ago. He picked me up on a Saturday morning in a seven-seater Volvo.
As he wound us up and down the main throughways of the city, he briefed me on the state of the local housing market. Properties were very affordable compared to where we were from, he confirmed; in a culture where everything is held to be ephemeral, the locals tended to favor renting over buying — although this was changing. Prices had soared in the last few years. Mortgage terms were highly favorable as long as you had a long-term work visa. And once the tourists came back, the rental demand would be stellar. Business was booming, he said; they were giving tours over video calls, closing sales in cash. They could arrange everything for me, from contracting the mortgage to renting out the property, a seamless package. He offered to show me a few bachelor pads, minuscule studios popular among salarymen — the real estate company’s bread and butter.
No, no, slow down, I tried to tell him. I’m not looking to invest or get returns on my money. I’m looking for somewhere for myself.
It took him a moment to process this.
“Sure, let’s show you some places you can rent out for a while, then move in whenever you’d like,” he said, swerving. “Good places to park your investment.”
It took a few weeks for me to agree with Mr. Y on some parameters. Really all I knew was that I wanted a space to write by the window, preferably with a view of some trees. I tried to translate my haze into real estate speak: Lots of natural light. Separate bedroom, not a studio. Close to a park if possible. He showed up again in the shining Volvo, steering me across bridges and rivers, away from the bustling city center. We stepped into a narrow elevator and I took a deep breath, giving myself permission to dream. Mr. Y fumbled with the keys, twisted, and gently pushed the door open.
While Mr. Y waded around the unfurnished apartment, reciting factoids about the neighborhood, I ran my eyes over the space and pleaded with my imagination to take flight. The living area was ample enough for two delineated areas and an open kitchen — it would easily fit a writing desk. There were a few jagged edges on the perimeter of the space, perfect for an esoteric book rack. Deep squares where the bathtub and the washing machine would be — yes, a domestic life. And there was a separate bedroom with its own balcony. I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the future, perhaps in six months’ time. All the stuff I would fill these blank virgin spaces with, waking every morning to the azure splash of the sky and a mass of waving green, the debris I would leave behind through the course of each day. Friends gathered around the bar, clad in sweaters and socks in regal colors, sipping from blood-red wine glasses, crashing on the narrow (forest green?) couch I would place by the brick wall. It was no ocean, but it could be enough.
Afterwards I took leave of Mr. Y and his Volvo and walked two blocks to the park. As I lowered myself under a tree, a steaming mealbox in my hands, the scene of a perfect spring day unfolded in high definition on the wide grassy plain in front of me. Little children, impeccably well-behaved, the edges of their identical bucket hats undulating just so, chased each other around the field, butterfly catchers clutched in their hands, their chubby cheeks pinched with laughter. Their mothers, dressed head to toe in muted linen tailored perfectly to their porcelain figures, sat on checkered blankets, carefully peeling the lids off containers of strawberries and finger sandwiches. The noonday sun sent down a smattering of golden rays, blessing the whole scene with an otherworldly luminescence.
It was all so idyllic, so picturesque, straight out of hundreds of movies that have been made about this shimmering city. I was not sure whether I could play a bit part in this movie, or how.
Most things are less predictable than the seemingly inexorable rise of the housing market, and before my honeymoon period could expire I wasshipped off to yet another city, one that had become known as a refuge for wealthy young foreigners during the pandemic. With two weeks’ notice and no clear idea how long I was going to stay, I packed my sole suitcase and boarded a 16-hour flight to the other side of the world. As the aircraft descended, the lights of the vast metropolis flickered on in patches through a screen of smog, emitting a warm glow: the luminous city.
I moved into an apartment I had booked last-minute on a popular home rental platform. It came with wooden cabinets and beds and low wooden furniture characteristic of another era; my landlord’s grandmother had lived here before she died. There was a spare guest room and a spacious kitchen with gas stoves — luxuries that I could ill afford in the shimmering city. And it had wide screen windows that looked out to a green oasis. I unpacked my meager belongings, moved a spindly dressing table to the window for writing, and heaped my books upon the coffee table. The overall effect was rather lived-in, if a little spare. When a friend came to visit, she gasped: this is how I want to set up my own place when I grow up.
The sun rose outside my window punctually every morning, stirring me from sleep. I took long walks to work and during the weekends, learning the species of bougainvillea and jacaranda and rose, the puppies pattering along dilapidated houses. Day and night construction workers on the block hammered and maneuvered and sanded, sending dust into the air — a sure sign of progress. Occasionally I would turn onto a block where the chatter, and the laminated restaurant menus, were not in the local tongue but in English. In the evenings, with my windows open, there was always the scent of home cooking, the mournful wail of a street vendor trailing past. When my key got stuck in the door, multiple neighbors came up the stairs to offer help.
The elderly ladies and gentlemen who inhabited my building always greeted me warmly, despite presupposing I might not be able to speak their language. The first few questions soon became predictable: Where are you from? How much are you being charged for rent? Do you live alone? Behind their charming demeanor I could not tell if they pitied me for being on my own, were in awe that I alone could take up this much space, or were shocked at how much I paid to do so. I wondered what would become of their properties when it was time for them, too, to go.
Three months in, an earthquake shook the city, the power went out, and the refrigerator ceased to function. As the technician took the contraption apart, my landlord leaned on a door frame and spoke to me about the luminous city. She had been born and raised in the next neighborhood over, she told me, one even prettier and more refined than the one we were standing in.
“But everything has changed so much especially during the pandemic,” she said, widening her eyes over her embroidered cloth mask. “The foreigners all came, buildings are being redone, restaurants are turning over, and now no one can afford to live here.”
What a frankness to this city, where the guilty readily confess to their own crimes.
On the way to the laundromat I spotted an ornate building on the corner, all curved cornices and neoclassical pillars, but immaculately maintained, brand new. A large vinyl poster unfurled over one window announced there were apartments on sale.
The architect on duty told me about the building as he whisked me up the industrial-chic stairs: the façade was a preserved heritage site from over a century ago, everything else was custom-made. Over half of the units were owned by local-foreigner couples.
Then, as if on cue, he segued into the financial virtues of the neighborhood. On account of its heritage and its proneness to earthquakes, construction was limited, and yet demand — especially from foreign buyers — was booming. Unlike the outskirts of the city where tall gated communities were springing up like mushrooms, this was a great investment, he told me. His eyes reminded me of those worn by the best salesmen, earnest but really just hungry.
I explained I was looking for something for myself, that I lived alone. Not missing a beat, he told me matter-of-factly: “Well, you know, you could always stay for five to ten years, then swap up.”
I looked around the cavernous space we had stepped into. It was replete with polished whitewood floors, clean ceramic bathroomware, state-of-the-art oven, an enormous walk-in closet that could easily be a children’s room. Soaring ceilings, a balcony that looked out onto an internal courtyard. There were double windows that, according to the architect, were meant to keep out the noise from the street; the view looked out to a street corner I passed by every day and loved, where two aproned ladies ran a breakfast stall, steam rising from their coal-fired pan. I wondered why it was the last apartment in the building yet to sell.
It asked for almost exactly the same price as the apartment by the park I had seen in the shimmering city, but was three times as big—too big a container for me to unspool my fantasies. Sensing as much, the agent quickly offered me another site that was being built a few streets over, another restored building, smaller apartments, about to go on presale, available to move in one year later.
Afterwards I retired to a bakery nearby for coffee. It was a beautiful day, a warm autumn sun beating down through the trees, and a gaggle of children were playing on the sidewalk. A family of preschoolers sprawled on the ground, rubbing chalk into a spreading constellation of flowers and iridescent patterns. A monkey-like seven-year-old selling sticker tattoos with a made-up chant, climbing up window sills, leaping down again. A toddler with golden hair and thick blue tights and cotton booties learning how to ride a scooter for the first time. The breeze rustled through the branches hanging over the street, brushing them against the old rusty cars perpetually parked in front of the restaurant.
So idyllic, so picturesque; we were blocks away from where an Oscar-winning movie was filmed. It was a childhood I never had, in the city where real estate was too precious to be ceded for children’s play. I remembered that my father never invested his money: he believed investing was money made without generating any real value to society, he told me when I was camping out of my childhood bedroom. But he could afford not to—he owned an apartment he had spent decades paying off, one whose price was now eye-watering without his caring, where he would live for the rest of his life. He is also the most careful, risk-averse person I know.
I pretended to read my book while I eavesdropped on the parents’ conversation. They were all foreigners hailing from different countries, and now they conversed in the adopted language of their new home. They chatted about how long they had been here, the ages of their kids, the schools they attended.
Then the subject turned to work. “I work for Uber,” one of them said, not without pride.
Over drinks that evening I was introduced to someone who had once visited the city of my childhood bedroom, an artist. So sophisticated and so advanced, I love it, he told me. But there is so much money and so much scarcity, every decision is based on efficiency, return, investment. I watched him move his rough, calloused hands as he spoke, the mullet bouncing down his scalp.
Yes, I said, sinking into the little metal table between us. I mentioned nothing of the real estate viewing.
Is it that important to own space, to claim the solidity of brick and concrete? Is it just another acquired need manufactured by a marketing machine? Or is the point simply in the accumulation of value against the decline of paper money? My late grandmother had always hawked at my uncle to own property of his own, my mother mentioned once. This was before real estate soared to stratospheric levels and became irreversibly financialised; she simply believed in the security of having a roof over one’s head. He never heeded her advice, and after she passed away he moved his young family to another country, started over.
Biss had finally admitted to her husband that she wanted a house after much dilly-dallying. “I wanted to paint the kitchen Moir Gold and I wanted to plant a garden in the back yard,” she says. “I wanted to make something mine. What I wanted, more than anything, was the illusion of permanence the house provided. The solid foundation, the bricks that wouldn’t blow away, the sense of security. That was a fantasy, I knew, but it felt real.”
I looked up photos of the last earthquake in the luminous city, the devastation it had wrought on my neighborhood. Square plots collapsed into themselves in piles of rubble; elegant stone columns were reduced to the state of Roman ruins in a day’s work. An entire floor of a dusk-red residential building crumpled into nothing more than a crevice, toppling the floors above it, the pristine white railings of their balconies sticking into the air. I had passed by some of these sites multiple times, oblivious. Over a hundred people had been killed. Quake threatens to cause flight from the luminous city’s hip neighborhoods, the New York Times headline read; the story quoted the owner of the seafood restaurant down the street from me, saying, “The people are weighing fear against defending their assets.”
The shimmering city is even more earthquake-prone, and earlier in the year the city of my childhood bedroom had experienced its first tremor in decades.
At the end of Real Estate, Levy concedes that she was gradually losing grip of her unreal estate—that perhaps the desire for a home was the point, what gave a few years of her life meaning. “It’s enough to work long hours to pay the bills and rent a house in the sun and to not steer your high horse off the cliff on a Tuesday,” she writes. “In every phase of living we do not have to conform to the way our life has been written for us, especially by those who are less imaginative than ourselves.”
If I had to be honest, the idea of constructing a home to my own specifications—designing, selecting, shipping, renovating, wiring, painting, reconstructing—sounded like a lot of hard work; just thinking about it was exhausting. It also sounded rather expensive. And after all that fuss, there was maintenance; Woolf had had a housekeeper. What was wrong with trying to make yourself at home in a given space? Hadn’t I always made do and been perfectly happy?
Once Woolf got her inheritance and a room of her own, she noted: “No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness.”
Perhaps this sense of self-sufficiency was all I was after. But the idea of a forever house felt like a trap, especially when I had no idea how much longer I wanted to stay put for.
I reconsidered the kind of space I wanted to live in. Besides natural light, a balcony would also be nice. Ideally the kitchen should not make me feel as if I were always knocking things over, and there would be a spare room so friends could visit and keep me company. Wooden furniture, probably wooden flooring—the whole color scheme would be wood, cream, and shades of green.
It sounded just like where I currently lived.
I messaged my landlord to tell her I wanted to extend my lease.
Evelyn Fok was born and raised in Hong Kong. She has since lived in the US, India, China, Spain, the UK, and Japan. Her writing was most recently published in Electric Literature and Spittoon. She is currently based in Mexico City.
Ashley Gilland is a writer, musician, and multimedia artist from Missouri. Her work is published in Dishsoap Quarterly, Haven Speculative, Patchwork Lit Mag, and The Waxed Lemon, among others. When not writing poetry and philosophical flash fiction, she also loves composing music and embroidering mixed media art projects. Find her newest EP, Clover Days, on Spotify and Bandcamp, her art on Instagram and Etsy (@pocketsnailart), and her tweets at @earlgreysnail.