by ASHER RUBIN
Charlie is a gentle soul. He has a successful software company that sells programs to doctors. He’s an engineering type. He’s happily married and the father of two teenagers. The key to his home life is simple: when his wife speaks, he obeys. His principal objective in life is to avoid confrontation. His credo is, “Yes, dear.” He is fond of the story about the two guys who are discussing their wives: One says, “Well, in my house I make all the major decisions.” The other asks, “Really, well, what does your wife decide?” The first one says, “She decides where we will live, whether we should buy a new house, what religion the kids will be brought up in, what kind of car we will buy—those sorts of things.” The other guy says, “Wait a minute; I thought you said you make all the major decisions. What do you decide?” The first guy responds, “I decide whether we will stay in Iraq, whether we’ll send another probe to Mars, how to redress the trade imbalance—things like that.”
Charlie’s wife, Sylvia, has decided they have to buy a second home. All of her friends have condos in Vail or a home in Seaside. It’s a matter of being able to face her friends in the nail salons and on the nonprofit boards on which she serves. It’s a matter of keeping her social head up. When her friends ask her where she and Charlie go in the middle of the winter it would simply not do to respond, “To our family room.”
Reviving certain age-old wiles (wiles Charlie had despaired he would ever experience again) and employing relentless nagging and some surprisingly good dinners, Sylvia brings Charlie part-way around. He agrees to think about it. While punishing himself on the treadmill at his club, he mentions the concept to his friend Hal, who says, “Charlie, are you nuts? Let’s say you buy a house in Seaside. You will have to pay taxes, insurance, mortgage, a gardener, cleaning person, utilities, garbage and water. You will have to spend a bundle to furnish it. For the amount of time you will be able to spend there, you will be paying roughly $3,500 a night. The fact is if you don’t buy a place, you could go down there 20 times a year and stay at the best hotels and eat in the finest restaurants and still come out so far ahead you could buy a new Benz every year.”
Overcoming his normal cowardice, Charlie summons up courage and presents this powerful argument to Sylvia. She remains calm. “Charlie, just because Hal has been in the real-estate business all his life doesn’t mean he knows what’s good for us. And remember, you are living with me, not Hal. Now I want you to do some reconnaissance, make a few trips. I think you should contact real estate agents in places like Vail, Aspen, Bay St. Louis and Destin.” So much for the economic argument. Charlie mutters feebly, ”While I’m at it, why don’t I also check out Tuscany and Provence?”
The first home Charlie is shown in Bay St. Louis has charm, but Charlie wonders why it has been on the market for nine years. He looks over the fence to a nearby highway and sees a sign that says, “Truck route.” An 18-wheeler barrels on by and the house vibrates. The agent smiles wanly and says the owners are motivated to sell. Who wouldn’t be? The agent shows Charlie a home in a large development. He visits the golf course and is told there are 2,500 homeowners who have access to the course which means you can get on once every other year—during the offseason.
Charlie even drives to Destin. He notices that new condos are springing up all over the place. The agent tells him that insurance against hurricanes would cost more than the unit he was considering. In addition, whenever the humidity ever gets below 80 percent, local authorities panic and call in FEMA.
Charlie finally sees a lovely home in Aspen. Sylvia flies over and gives her approval. She tells Charlie to handle the negotiations, but warns that if he doesn’t get the house she will change her name to Lysistrata. Pressure? What pressure? Charlie’s agent, concerned about his commission, says Charlie shouldn’t come in under the asking price by more than $1.80. Charlie and the owners go back and forth and finally there is agreement and Charlie and Sylvia become the proud owners of a second home and a mortgage large enough to rebuild Iraq.
Now the real fun begins. The house is completely empty, a big empty shell. Sylvia sees this as a vast canvas on which she can hardly wait to paint. Charlie sees it as a blitzkrieg on his maturing certificates of deposit. Sylvia seems to have a new purpose in life: to resuscitate the lagging furniture industry in the contiguous 48. She has heard of an interior decorator who must be fabulously talented because she charges more than Sylvia’s plastic surgeon. Charlie had hoped they could visit flea markets and consignment stores and sort of make it up as they went along. Maybe buy a couch from the Salvation Army and have it re-covered. Maybe find a bargain through the want ads. “Exquisite 18th-century dining set. Used once by Marie Antoinette. Mahogany table, 10 chairs, sideboard, plus original letters from the organizers of the French Revolution. $98. Will deliver.” Sylvia responds to Charlie’s suggestion with her usual, “Charlie, you’re losing it.”
Midge, the designer, arrives in a new Jag. Bad sign. She is wearing lots of jewelry and glitters when she walks. Lots of eye makeup. She is obviously high maintenance and someone is going to have to pay for her continued upkeep. Are you there, Charlie? She walks through the empty shell saying, “Paint, window treatments, lots of rugs. Big, bold art on the walls. Plushy, sink-in chairs. Ottomans. Steel end tables. Lamps with oblong shades.” She uses words like taupe, ochre and mauve. Sylvia is all excited, Charlie less so. But as long as Sylvia is happy, he’ll sign the checks and try to sell a helluva lot more software to doctors.
The house is finally furnished. Charlie will never be able to retire. Now the question is, what use do they make of the house? Will they be able to rent it out during the offseason? During the winter, how often will they get over? Hopefully, the kids will want to come with their buddies so there will still be a nesting place.
Suddenly, Charlie and Sylvia start hearing from relatives who are thinking about spending a few days “in the Aspen area.” Very subtle. Charlie is a soft touch and pretty soon they have to schedule their stays around the visits of friends and relatives. One of their friends did offer to pay for cleaning. That was nice.
At the meeting of the board of Help Eradicate Litter (HEL), a girlfriend asks Sylvia if she is going anywhere to get away from the wet weather. Sylvia replies insouciantly, “We’re going down to our place in the mountains.” Sylvia is happy, so Charlie is happy. •
Asher Rubin and his wife own a place in the desert. She pays the bills and he plays the golf. After golf, Asher is required to wear sandals and Tommy Bahama outfits. They make him look faintly comical. He spends most of his desert visits barbecuing burgers for his kids and their pals.