In terms of layout, the house was as bizarre as any I’d ever seen. Its hillside location meant that one entered through the top floor/garage, only to go down into the rest of the house. It had previously been rented out to multiple families at once, so the house had been broken up into self-contained sections. A door with a dead bolt would spring up in the middle of a hallway; there was not one, but two laundry rooms. Additionally, the previous owners had been unceremoniously evicted, and had taken the window provided by their 30-day notice to spray paint every mirror in the house with obscene phrases written in a drippy blood red. The writing was on the wall, literally.
The house would be the site of a different kind of education. This was fitting, as my official education was the reason we had moved. I had been accepted to a high school in Oakland that couldn’t be matched by any of the local schools in San Francisco. We decided to buy a fixer-upper near the school, move in, flip it and use the profits for my tuition. For this to work, we couldn’t pay for contractors. My father and I would be renovating and remodeling the entire house ourselves. He was an experienced builder who had tamed entire bungalow complexes by the time he was sixteen. I was his apprentice. The whole time, my parents told me not to worry about the upheaval, not to worry about my dad’s newly elongated commute, or my mom’s newly strained relationship with her friends, who used to be just down the block. My school and the house were all that mattered.
The rooms all had pockmarked ceilings that I swear to God changed in pattern every time you looked at them. The pockmarks also created a strange, vertigo-like effect where the ceilings appeared to pulsate slightly. When I woke up in the night, I had to remember not to open my eyes or I would spend hours half-awake and mesmerized by the ceiling’s seemingly organic movements.
The house was surrounded on all sides by a thin forest. Deer wandered through our yard in the early morning, eating everything in sight. The roses we had planted as one of our first projects lasted fewer than 24 hours. Squirrels loved the house for its wild, convoluted railings, which jutted out at odd, geometric angles, which for the squirrels made little highways. All day, every day, their scurrying could be heard. One early morning, my mother woke up to find two squirrels on our front porch. Their throats had been torn out by some wild animal. She waited for me to get up and take them to the garbage (my mother is squeamish), but by the time I was awake, the bodies were gone.
The entire east wing of the house, another self-contained unit, was filled with wall-to-wall carpeting and had a massive loft. Tearing up the carpet by hand, my parents and I were shocked to find that the only thing holding it to the floor was a series of small staples, another unorthodox home décor decision taken by the previous owners. I was supposed to climb the loft and take out the carpeting that had been stapled up there as well, but the platform groaned so ferociously that I instantly changed my mind. The whole house seemed to rumble in fury as I descended to the floor.
Some days after we began work on the house, a conversation with the neighbors revealed that the previous occupants had been a sex cult. I wish I was kidding. Suddenly the pervasive wall-to-wall shag carpeting took on an uncomfortable new significance. I started wearing shoes at all times and changing socks while sitting on my raised bed. My mother and I began waking up with our bodies covered in tiny red bumps. I became convinced that we had contacted an STD from the rug. Dad blamed gnats. Work, however, continued.
My great-grandfather, his wife and their family once walked into the New Mexico wilderness and built a house. The floors had been dirt and the walls barely resisted water. He would spend weeks at a time out in the plains, tending to his herd of sheep. He slept under the stars and hunted his food and once defended his family against a rabid coyote. This man had tamed nature and called it home. I imagined him, sepia-toned, gliding through this new house, frowning at what still remained to be done with the place. Qué lástima. Qué lástima.
After a few months in Oakland, we had stripped several rooms down to the studs. The dirty conditions and constant sweat made my face a mess of blackheads and acne. A downstairs television room was revealed to have no insulation, explaining its bizarre temperature differential with the rest of the house. The pipes in my parents’ upstairs bathroom were so rusted that running one’s hand along their surfaces left a thick red coating resembling war paint. I had torn my parents away from home, and the house I had led them to was in full-blown rebellion.
In Oakland, I lived in the only bedroom on the bottom floor. My room was massive. Truly, people came to my house and remarked on the sheer square footage of my room and its sheer square squareness. As one friend put it, “I’ve never seen a room so big, and so square.” They also commented on the tiny, mysterious door in the corner. Someday I would have to pass through it, but I preferred not to think about that. An extra large Home Depot rug covered the immediate area around my bed and desk, still leaving about three quarters of the wood floor uncovered. I had the closets of the type most people only dream about. Two of my room’s four walls were entirely hollow, closets hidden behind floor-to-ceiling sliding mirrors. I filled up about a third of one of them, another daily reminder of my inability to inhabit the house. Similarly, my minimalist taste in decoration resulted in swaths of endless negative space. The mirrors created an eerie parallelism in the already somewhat surreally empty and symmetrical room. I had to deliberately position myself away from them if I didn’t want to see my increasingly acne-scarred reflection at all times.
It had been six months since move-in, and we had been making progress on our renovations. Then it started to rain, and continued to do so for days. Since we needed the porches for work (you can’t cut a closet door down to size in the closet), our various projects ground to a halt. Worse, we were trapped in the house. The entire building seemed to constrict around us. The swirly ceilings became more insistently animate. The floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated almost every space cast the shadows of trickling raindrops across the rooms. Kaleidoscopic silhouettes played across the walls, as though the house was crying.
At some point during all this, we noticed that our various wooden decks were collecting a lot of standing water. As my mother and I, clad in full-body rain suits, swept the decks with push brooms, we could see that the wood had already started to rot. Pulling up some of the paneling to check the structural supports underneath, we could smell the decay before we saw it. One beam had a nest of maggots living in it. As they fell out of the wood like fresh popcorn I recoiled in horror. My great-grandfather had shot a rabid coyote on his front porch; baby insects made me scream. But eventually I noticed they weren’t moving. They had all drowned.
A week later, my mother was demolishing a patch of drywall in her bedroom when she hit a randomly placed bit of springy mesh embedded in the wall. Her hammer flew back into her forehead, knocking her to the floor and shooting a small, Pollock-ian spray of blood across the wall. She lay dazed for half an hour before my Dad found her.
I was not crazy. I was not overreacting. The house was trying to kill my family and I was the pied piper who had led them to die.
Soon the day I had avoided thinking about arrived. I had to squeeze my way through the tiny hatch in the corner of my room (I was the only one who fit) and into the neighboring open space. I would have preferred not to know what I was sleeping next to. Outfitting myself with a headlamp and toolbox, I kept telling myself that my task was easy, that it was just to check that the door hid nothing horrible, like mold or termites or a sex dungeon. Squeezing through the door, using my hands and knees to push myself into the open space, I felt dirt beneath my fingertips. The air tasted stale and the darkness felt cavernous. As my headlamp illuminated small shafts of air in the room, I saw a tree, surrounded on all sides by pitch black. It was a small tree, about my height, growing inside our house, next to my room. It was the heart of the house, the source of its life force. I had found the veins that made the ceilings move. I remembered the dead squirrels and my father’s commute and my acne and my mother’s head, bleeding, and my great-grandfather defending his home against the wild. I seized the tree by its roots, and tore it out of the ground. After that, the house stopped fighting us and I began to call it home.