When my house cracks, the front room will be the first to fall off. Its western walls meet at an acute angle, and the room juts unsupported into bottlebrush trees like the beak of a bird that has forgotten — mid-air — how to fly. Spider veins creep through the base of the walls where the front room hangs from the body of the house. We discover more of these thin cracks every winter — and only then, because the room lies dormant the rest of the year.
We refer to it as the front room, although it could be “the parlor” or “the sitting room.” But no one in Hawaii has parlors, just as no one wears shoes indoors. For the first few years after our house was completed in 1995, the room was empty. My mom complained about its trapezoidal windows, which couldn’t be fitted for shades from The Home Depot. Before we installed custom-made shutters, the front room let in sunlight and scrutiny without discrimination. Eyes could tour the entire house — mismatched placemats on the dining table, Food Network on the 42-inch TV, child-size fingerprints on the lower reaches of the slanted ceiling — and then see their own curious faces in the wood-framed mirror at the end of the hall. The mirror was a point of debate. Would it deflect good luck, or scare away the bad spirits that might wander through the windows?
In the barren front room, every step was amplified through the creaking floorboards, bounced off high, angular ceilings, and trembled through the walls. The racket scared us at first, then delighted us, and then we tired of it, learning to walk quietly with our weight suspended from imaginary puppet strings. With the help of my older sister, Lauren, I tried to tame the front room’s unfriendly, unlivable space. We tied rags to our feet and dragged each other in circles over the slippery wood paneling. And at night, we lay down and rolled around, trying to get the coolness of the floor to wrap all around our legs and arms.
When we began to feel the emptiness of the front room, we looked for objects to fill it. The Persian rug came first. Then a koa wood shelf, smelling gently of orange oil, for books that we don’t read: pages of blue-green parrotfish with yellow lipstick, dentistry manuals, Okinawan recipe books, and curiously (since we are neither Chinese nor philosophical), the Tao Te Ching. The front room grew out of its awkward childhood and acquired stuff. But even with the couches and the coffee table, we didn’t know what to do there.
We are not a musical family, but the front room is where we now store our instruments — two violins stifled by red velvet coverings and a viola buckling under a collapsing bridge. They are all Lauren and I have to show for 12 years of lessons. Even the calluses have faded, and when relatives ask us whether we still play, we shake our heads and uncurl our smooth fingers as evidence.
When I was in middle school, the front room also exhibited my dad’s handmade ukulele, cut from the same wood as that of his best friend, Steven Luke. My dad and Uncle Steven had signed up for a “uke” workshop together and learned, over a year, how to soak and bend wooden strips into curved molds, sand away splinters, match one grey pencil mark with its pair — how to lacquer, glue, and wait. On Friday nights, our families gathered on the Lukes’ patio among algae-speckled fish tanks and cockatiel cages while my dad and Uncle Steven drank beer, consulted diagrams, and talked more than they worked. But after Uncle Steven died unexpectedly, the ukulele disappeared, and we later learned that my dad had disassembled it. He said he had no use for an instrument he couldn’t play, but he had saved the wood. I think he was dealing with sadness in the same way he might handle a sputtering weed wacker — by taking it apart to find the broken motor. But this repair couldn’t ever be finished.
When my dad was planning our house, he spent hours with the architect, discussing the foundation of the structure, the height of the roof, the flow of the rooms. I was in kindergarten when the house was under construction. Every weekend my family drove to the site and parked behind the portable toilets. While we ate cheese pizza in the trunk of the station wagon, I would squint my eyes and peer through the gap between my thumb and forefinger, measuring the house’s growing girth in pinches. After dinner, Lauren and I would explore the steel skeleton, sticking our heads through the spaces where walls and windows would later stand.
By building on a hill, my dad tried to keep us safe. If a tsunami washed away Waikiki, we would stay dry on high ground, 800 feet above sea level. If a strange car passed through the community’s guard gate, we would have the license plate on camera from up above. To guard against intrusion by sea and strangers, we have retreated skywards. But living on a mountain ridge, we have become conscious of the edges of our world. Though far from perils of the world below, we all suffer from a chronic fear of falling. At age 21, I have never learned to ride a bike, inhibited by an irrational terror of plummeting off a cliff. In order to stay perched on this peak, we cling to an inhospitable mountain — but it has gravity on its side. The rain washes soil from one yard to the next, rolling houses downwards, drawn towards the ocean. When my house cracks, we will fall.
Last December, as we cleaned the house in preparation for the new year, my mom opened the front room’s shutters to let the space exhale the smell of old wood and sneeze out the sticky dust of violin rosin. We swept up white-tipped gecko droppings and examined the annual damage. The front room had sunk as the dining room steps receded, creating a gap for the pale-bellied lizards to wriggle into the intestines of our house. The front door was stuck shut, shaken out of alignment by the shifting earth. My dad snapped when my mom pointed out the cracks. He was frustrated that this was something he couldn’t fix, that there was some danger he couldn’t shield us from. “Everybody’s house is falling,” he said. “I can build you a new house, but I can’t make it stop.”
Perhaps in our minds, the front room has already fallen. Here, we store possessions too beautiful to use, but not too precious to lose. I hope that the heart of the home lies somewhere else, that when the front room breaks from the body, it won’t hurt.