The Big House
This is such a sensitive subject. These days, you can talk about people's medical problems, their colons and their prostate glands and their breasts; you can talk about their kids' disabilities, Jacob's ADD and Britney's ADHD, and the twins' various leanings on the autistic spectrum; you can talk about people's sexual preferences and their parents' alcoholism and their battles with depression, bulimia and/or anorexia; and you can know all about who molested whom.
But this? No, you just can't talk about this.
Imagine. There you are, in the grocery store. And here comes an acquaintance. An almost-friend. You haven't seen her in maybe five years. She's so nice. You wish you had had time to really foster that friendship, and so does she. You're sorry. She's sorry. You decide to get together. She invites you and your family over for dinner. She says, "We moved," and gives you the new address.
Now, you vaguely remember hearing, those five years ago, that she and her husband were thinking of building a house. You vaguely remember talk. The last time you visited them, in the "old house," you ate watermelon on the back porch and felt comfortable enough to spit seeds into the grass.
So now here you are, with your family, following the Mapquest directions you printed out. You're going down a long, winding road thinking, "This can't be right." Soon the road swoops toward the heavens, and, as you climb into the clearing the sky opens up, there it is, on the top of a hill: One Enormous House.
A palace. A castle. One vast hunk of house. All by itself it sits, no trees yet, no landscaping. Just a house made of stone, solid and grand, high gables, a turret, arched windows swallowing the sun.
"They live in an apartment?" your second-grader says.
"No, that's a house," you say. "That's one house."
You see your friend standing out there, in the driveway, waving her arms. Compared with the house she looks like a little weed. You pull into the driveway, and you mentally rehearse all of the things you cannot say, chief among which is:
"Good God, how much money do you people make?"
It changes everything, of course. Finding out that your friend is stinkingly, and stunningly, rich changes everything about the relationship you have, or thought you had. Finding out that a friend has colon cancer might change things, too, as might finding out that her kid has ADD, or that she was molested as a teenager, or that the reason for her bulimia stems from her father's absenteeism on account of her mother's alcoholism on account of never being able to acknowledge she was gay. But you can talk about those things. People on talk shows talk about those things. People write memoirs declaring those things, and then the memoirs are turned into major motion pictures. Friends have learned to confess and tell all and embrace and support and move on.
If there is a social taboo left it is only in this category:
Good God, how much money do you people make? Do you know how much money your brother makes? Your sister? Your co-worker? Your hairdresser? Your banker? Your neighbor? Would you ask? Of course not. Because some things are just too personal. There are almost none of those somethings left, but there is this one. Good God! So there you are, greeting the friend you thought you sort of knew and saying, "Wow!" which only seems polite. You don't know what else to say because of course there is this elephant in the front yard. "Well, wait a second here, you people didn't seem stinkin' rich five years ago. You were normal. What happened?" This is all you want to say, and this is what she knows you want to say, and yet nothing like this can be said because some things are simply too personal.
You suspect there will be no watermelon spitting going on tonight and feel disappointed. You miss the homey feel of the old house. A palace without trees hardly cries out in welcome. You don't like this stupid, big house, you think, even as you become aware of your own hot jealousy.
You're standing by your car, and you wish you had a nicer car. You wish you'd gone through a carwash. You hope your friend can't see the french fries mashed into the rear seat. You wish you could crawl away and hide.
"Well, come on in!" she says. And then, as if in apology, "This house is actually a lot smaller inside than it looks." You realize that she's looking at you for some kind of forgiveness. She still wants you to like her. You still want her to like you. People who reveal suffering are so much easier to embrace than people who reveal riches. Should this really be so tricky?
At dinner, poolside, you eat shrimp cocktail while calypso music comes out of a fake rock near your foot. You talk politics and religion and mental disease, but no one says a word about money; you decline to make mention of the fact that there is no way, no way in this world, that you can ever invite these people over to your place.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.