She claimed it was something in the walls. “Something smells off,” my mom told me over the phone, “when I step into your room.”
Far away from Southern California and nestled in the tower of Pierson College in New Haven, the image of my childhood bedroom broadcasts itself onto the cluttered walls of my dorm room. I can see the lime green walls, a fuchsia lava lamp, roses from my grandmother’s funeral strung in a garland above my hamper. The other furniture in my room rises from the low-pile carpet: a dresser with Victorian embellishments we found at a consignment store; a tiny desk from Big Lots; and my bed, with its sturdy, rounded frame and swirly latticework, evocative of an art nouveau staircase. The threat posed by a pile of clean laundry prepared to topple off the edge of my bed pulls me out of the mirage.
“Off how?” I asked.
My mother has a kind of superstitious precision that frightens me. If she senses something is off, it usually is. Not long ago, after we had purchased another set of drawers from the Salvation Army to go in her room, she began smelling cigarette smoke everywhere we went. Convinced it was tied to the drawers, she searched them ruthlessly and discovered a frail Social Security card issued in the 1930s tucked beneath a paper liner. The smell immediately dissipated.
“Let’s hope it’s not what I think it is,” she declared.
A few weeks later, she heard something heavy clang against concrete, and found a battered, foldable table, which had held the cake at the first birthday party for me and my twin sister Hanna, broken on the floor of the garage. Behind where the table had been stored for almost 20 years, an ugly bruise clung to the wall shared with my room on the other side. The mark had the charred appearance of a burn and the contours of a stain. It appeared to be black mold.
My mother told me this as she picked me up from the airport, where I had seen only a handful of people, donning masks, at the start of my spring break. She was wearing her blue scrubs for work, and adjusting the low, blonde ponytail at the nape of her neck.
“You can’t sleep in your room tonight. There’s mold in the garage, and your bed is falling apart,” she said as we veered onto the I-105 East. I couldn’t understand what she meant by this until I opened the door to my room and saw all but one of the slats splayed out under my bed, like a defeated pile of firewood.
We had purchased this bed frame from a young couple on Craigslist from several cities over. They lived in a single-story house with a lawn lined in dandelions, ripe with wishes.
The bed originally belonged to this woman’s mother. Carrying it in pieces to our car made me acutely aware of its immense weight, as it must have been solid iron. There was a layer of flat white paint that had chipped away, rendering it almost speckled, and gold accented bars stretched in vertical lines to meet curvilinear flourishes at both ends of the bed.
Only after we had purchased it did it become apparent that the bed was not a standard size. My mother had an idea: go to Home Depot, find a piece of plywood and cut some slats of wood, and stack the plywood over the series of slats to create a makeshift platform for the mattress. Occasionally, the slats would shift, but correcting them was relatively easy. The situation that greeted me when I came home was a bit more discouraging: Almost every piece of wood out was out of place, with a harrowing crack running through the center of the plywood slab. So, the first night, and every night since, I have slept on the couch.
The living room is not unlike my room in many ways. As in my room, not a single piece of furniture could claim a matching mate; most furniture was collected through thrift stores or divorces (a trunk from a consignment store serves as our coffee table; a green bookcase that belonged to my ex-stepfather claims its own wall). Not even the photo frames that smother the walls in photos of me and my sister from ages 0–8 match. There are also clear signs of wear and tear, like my broken bed and black mold. The central wall of the house, which leads to the kitchen, is painted two different colors in the eggshell family. The kitchen linoleum is missing entire shards, exposing raw cement. The base boards along one wall have all been removed, revealing panels of wood snarling under the lip of torn out stucco. Coffee stains ripple across the shallow carpet.
This speaks to a larger project of assimilation that underscores how we live in this house.
If there’s something we need, we find a way to get it, and when things break, we accommodate them. For years, my mother’s doorknob to her room had a habit of falling off, and no one in the house suggested the possibility of fixing it. The main supports for the vanity in our bathroom have long been two chunks of wood ground into broken linoleum (Hanna and I make a point not to stick our toes under the sink in case it collapses). An X‘X’ on the wall painted in hairspray by my sister in an Avril Lavigne-emboldened display of angst remains ominously in the kitchen. One of the cabinets in our kitchen is split clean near the hinge, and this essay must be the first time anyone has acknowledged it.
I hadn’t given any of this much thought prior to last summer, when my childhood home sustained three slab leaks following a shift in plate tectonics. The first sign came three days after the first earthquake: our driveway tripping over itself, one concrete edge spilling just slightly over the other, like a swollen lip. The next sign: a slab leak, like a blood blister rising. The carpet floated on its back. Next came the ripping and the heat to dry out the water. It seemed the house was eating itself: The holes appeared every day, always hugging the baseboards, greedy for the stable ground.
After the leaks, the house took on a freshly haunted quality. There were suggestions of a past history I hadn’t seen before, evidence of life before my family moved into the house in 2001. Beneath wood paneling, the blue and cream wallpaper that had adorned the house when it was first built in 1978 clung to the walls in strips, yellowed and haggard from a past tenant’s cigarettes. When I came back home to quarantine, I was relieved to see all these adopted mutations remained, just as I expected. In a time of so much change, it was a profound comfort to know some things had remained the same.
There were certainly elements of the living room that diverged radically from my room. For one, the couch both physically and psychologically provided a different kind of comfort than my bed; the couch was leathery and clung to bare skin, and while not difficult to sleep on, provided a perspective of the surrounding room and kitchen that was troubling in the nighttime. The presence of the front door made the room feel constantly at risk of entry, and the darkened trees that loomed outside the windows adjacent to the couch swayed with human postures.
Additionally, the space was at once the most transient room in the house and the space in which my family spent the most time. It was where we ate, and where we watched reality television together. It allowed access to the kitchen, where we prepared food and did our laundry. And, as the pandemic worsened, it became indefinitely where I now sleep, attend class, and complete most of my work.
This strange consolidation of purpose into one room was in line with others distortions of normalcy. My mother had returned to work as a nurse in a detox facility after almost a year on disability for a severely broken foot that left her unable to walk for eight months. During the pandemic, she continued to go to work as many others were sent home or became unemployed. The quotidian urgency of her job became compounded by an unfamiliar kind of doom and anxiety about a virus being treated in other sectors of the hospital. My father also continued working in the meat department of a grocery store (normal), but began sending me a series of texts (abnormal) related to how to protect myself when I’m out, a list of demands for improved working conditions his union was submitting for consideration, and a request to advertise on his behalf (“Btw.. I got 3 pallets of Bulk Chicken from a Restaurant supply, I’m blowing it out for .99 lb while it lasts. Boneless Breasts and Whole Chicken. Note this is Bulk Chicken from a Restaurant Supply. Not retail pack , not Organic”). My sister and I continued to attend our classes, but their location collapsed from two cities in the Northeast to one house in the Pacific Southwest. Often, I woke up to my sister hovering over me, her first class of the day starting 30 minutes before mine, a Monster Energy in hand.
I had become the most stationary member of our household, which gave me the privileged position of the observer. I became aware that every door in our house sounded different when it opened and closed. The concave portion of the wall where a small fireplace had been, before my father covered it up when my parents were still married, appeared more sunken in and tired by the day. My peripheral vision noted a stuffed animal atop the green bookcase that I had never noticed before. Most importantly, the house was revealing things about my family.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had not lived with my mother and my sister consistently in two years. Their rhythms of roaming, completing chores, and retreating to their bedrooms became syncopated and surprising, out of step. I notice this most in the kitchen: My sister and I bump into each other. We began negotiating space differently. As I’ve fallen into the habit of occupying the couch’s leftmost side, my mother has adapted to sitting elsewhere, although this has been her spot for years and usually she would tell me to fuck off and move over.
Their generosity, too, divulges itself in ways made visible to me by my newfound proximity to the most central space in our house. I hear my sister quietly washing dishes late at night so my mother can wake up to a clean kitchen. I hear my mother’s labored steps from the hallway to the kitchen as she prepares a pot of coffee, going to work despite her chronic pain. As I observe vestiges of past tenants present in scraps of wallpaper or the concave wall that reminds me my father once lived here too, I’m overwhelmed by the single figure of my mother occupying this house, with my sister in New York City and me in New Haven. When we leave, the weight of all these details are hers to bear alone. Finally, I understand now what has always been the most mystifying thing about my mother, how she always had a sense for what was off. It’s an instinct developed in solitude.
Still, I am reassured by the certainty that we will carry on through this crisis, as we will carry on after. I need not look far to know: The reminders of our resilience are in the walls. If there’s something we need, we find a way to get it, and when things break, we accommodate them. What is most tricky is foresight, of knowing when trouble lies ahead. This seems to be a matter of calibration, something I am learning about every day from my vantage point on the couch. Recently, I asked my mother how every year she knows when to expect the Santa Anas, the hot winds that blow from the northeast and set California ablaze, to which she replied, “Well, I feel wild and free and my eyes look really green.”