In the midst of a pandemic-year DIY home renovation as a single mom, Kate Vieira wonders, what makes a house a home?
I don’t mean ‘bedroom’ like that. I wish. It was a long, cold, lonely winter, my adult company zero, unless you counted my new vibrator, which was pink and perky and seemed to have its own personality, though I stopped short of naming her. I had bought my last vibrator almost a decade before, about the time my divorce was finalized. Since that time, I can now report, there have been technological innovations involving puffs of air, for which I’m grateful. But truth be told, I’m a single mom, so it’s not so much the quality of an orgasm that matters to me, but its expediency.
My bedroom was uninhabitable, so nothing exciting could have happened there anyway. When I closed on the house in 2019 I had immediately demoed one of the bedroom walls down to the studs, exposing the yawning fiberglass chasm of the attic and its many mice carcasses. Now, in 2020, the wind screamed through the roof slats, blowing toxic dust into the room’s corners, and each time I ventured in to retrieve a sweatshirt or an earring, I faced my own mortality. We were in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. Death had come swiftly to one friend, to one relative, to those hundreds of thousands in the country who were by that point receiving only a passing mention in the news that otherwise screamed at me from my phone. What makes you so special that you can’t be next? the bedroom seemed to ask.
When I closed on the house in 2019 I had immediately demoed one of the bedroom walls down to the studs, exposing the yawning fiberglass chasm of the attic and its many mice carcasses. Now, in 2020, the wind screamed through the roof slats, blowing toxic dust into the room’s corners, and each time I ventured in to retrieve a sweatshirt or an earring, I faced my own mortality.
I did not like contemplating this question. There was a child to finish raising, several books I imagined I still might write, and plus I had heard that my 90k in student loans (the number seemed to be growing despite my steady payments for over a decade) would not be forgiven even in death and instead passed down to next of kin. Could that be true? It seemed so horrible it was plausible. I therefore slept not in the bedroom, but instead on the living room couch, a brightly colored sectional I was grateful to have purchased second hand just a few months before life shuttered.
In the moments I was alone on that couch with “Sally”—ok, I named her—I often wondered what demons had possessed me to knock down the walls of the home I could barely afford with no plan for repair. I supposed I thought myself a creative with a vision. Or I was just impulsive. Or I didn’t actually believe I deserved a house, so I destroyed it. That last one was my therapist’s take.
It was all of these, I decided, but it was also M., who, at the time of the house purchase and demo, I was pretending was my husband. I had met M. about five years out from a divorce so traumatic that I was still terrified of the chaos, the decimation really, that full-on commitment could wreak. That fear, of course, didn’t keep us from experimenting with other kinds of demolition.
We started with the kitchen, creating an “open concept” layout with sledgehammers and an electric saw, finishing the job one night when my daughter was at a sleepover. Then we got more ambitious and decided to rip out the last of the old furnace piping from where it was lodged in the floor, an exertion that caused M. to re-tear a muscle in his rib that he wouldn’t notice until the next day. Before we knew it, it was two in the morning, and we were so hopped up on James Brown and our own virile capacity for destruction that we didn’t want to stop. We were still wearing our N95s, the saw was still charged, and the box fans we had fixed with filters were still propped in the windows. I felt for M’s penis through his work overalls, and just as I turned away, he grabbed my waist, pulled down my mask, and kissed me. Electricity. Dirt. Power tools.
Why not demo the bedroom, too?
It was my voice, husky with lead dust, that made the first move.
We were in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. Death had come swiftly to one friend, to one relative, to those hundreds of thousands in the country who were by that point receiving only a passing mention in the news that otherwise screamed at me from my phone.
Some bedroom context. It was very small. I had given my daughter, Lia, the bigger one on the misguided conviction of parents everywhere that all a child needs to keep their room neat is a little more space. Plus the small bedroom, the one that would be mine, faced east: hickory, ash, crabapple, squirrels, the rising sun. It could maybe bring me peace.
Pre-demo, the bedroom was wallpapered with pink and orange poppies on which hummingbirds alighted three per panel, less vintage than hipster. The previous owners were a young couple, divorcing I guessed, whose parents, I was sure, contributed their down payment, and whose sole updates to the house seemed to have been that wallpaper and the installation in every room of brooding iron light fixtures from which dangled those yellow Edison bulbs, which gave the whole house a moody cast, evoking a kind of ironic nostalgia for Victorian-era something, consumption maybe?, never mind that the house was built in 1948.
In another context, that wallpaper could have been a cheerful artistic statement. But in the 12-by-12-foot square where I was determined to lay my head, it gave the room a pulsing supernatural glow, like Stephen King supernatural, and I hadn’t been able to stomach that kind of thing since I was a teenager. Yellow would have been calming in comparison.
Why not just tear off the offending paper and give the room a nice paint job? A reasonable question and one I retrospectively asked myself many times during those long lonely nights with “Sally.”
The ostensible reason was this: at the edge of the bedroom at about chest height were two small white doors, about big enough for, say, an elf or a child or a middle-aged woman to climb through after she hoisted herself up and confirmed that yes, she still had just enough hip flexibility to throw a knee over the threshold. Behind the door was an unlit passageway about three feet wide and running the length of the wall—something between a closet and a crawlspace. Lining its floor were rough wood planks, and the walls and ceiling were fashioned from a kind of thick cardboard staple-gunned to studs. It had that cockroach smell of closed-in spaces. How many little brothers and small animals had been trapped in there as a practical joke the decades the house had been standing?
The idea was to open it up, to give it some light. M. and I both believed we understood what that meant. We were giving the house light.
“To give light” in my heritage language, Portuguese, means to give birth. Dar luz. The phrase ran cycles through my pandemic dreams during the many months I slept on the couch, a compulsion of a mind filled with languages and people—my family, my community, my ex—who were now inaccessible. It was just me, the kid, the Internet, and those bloody open walls, reminding me there aren’t reversible choices in this one life with which we are blessed. There really aren’t.
When I originally toured the house with the real estate agent back in the spring of 2019, it had been a sunny day, and gold had streamed through the glass sliders leading to the back deck, lighting up the little living room like a jewelry box. It felt charmed. Plus it had been the cheapest house on the market such that Lia could continue to go to school with her friends after our lease ended in the student apartments where we had been living most of her life. So that seemed good, too. Also M. had had his hand on the back of my neck and had nodded his approval.
All of which tells you a little bit about how I make major life decisions.
“To give light” in my heritage language, Portuguese, means to give birth. Dar luz. The phrase ran cycles through my pandemic dreams during the many months I slept on the couch, a compulsion of a mind filled with languages and people—my family, my community, my ex—who were now inaccessible.
M. and I did not buy the house together. But once I put in the offer, he was the only one present at the inspection. My daughter and I were in Colombia for two weeks on a tour for a community project I had been working on with colleagues there. Picture jeeps jerking through the Andes to community centers, people reciting poetry in the tiled courtyards of public schools, city streets, all bus exhaust and cups of salted mango, then Lia in the mask of a bird, among other colorful bird-children, drumming and whistling under moving lights at our opening reception. But also, please, picture this: In a public forum my co-authors explaining why they didn’t correct my error-laden Portuguese- and English-inflected Spanish in our published work. Kate is part of our community, they said, and this is how she speaks. Picture what it felt like to belong like that.
I tried to Facetime in for the house inspection, but the connection was fuzzy, so I left it to M., who I figured knew better anyway. I think I believed that I could trick time, could be two people in two places. Technology makes you think that. I danced hard that last night in Colombia, wept hard the first leg of the flight home, but then arranged my face, also hard, for touchdown. Two months after that, Lia and I moved into our new house.
Later I learned that “to give birth” in Portuguese is actually dar a luz, to give to the light. But by then it was too late. I had given birth believing not that I was giving a child to the light—no, sir, she was staying right here where I could smell her—but that I was giving her the gift of light, to do with as she chose. And that my mother had given the same impossible abundance to me. Light. In this way I hopped along my life, molding it the best I could with the tools I had at hand. Perhaps I would have had an easier time accepting things as they were if I had learned to read properly in Portuguese.
But I didn’t. Therefore, this is just how I speak.
When the pandemic came and we broke up, I was left with a house gashed with unspoken hopes and didn’t know what to do. For a time, being with M. had felt like the life I thought I would have had if I hadn’t married the wrong man in the first place.
And, therefore, it was easy for M. and me to mount the stairs to the bedroom, tarp the floors, and slice into another seemingly unnecessary partition. I felt an adolescent thrill similar to when I had toilet papered a house or markered a small heart on a bathroom stall or smashed rocks open on the sidewalk to see what was inside. By that point the soundtrack was death metal. Was heavy breathing. Was the grinding of the saw ripping through plaster, wire, wood. We discovered an old soda bottle, brown and heavy as if with sleep, sitting patiently on a horizontal 2 by 4; a miniscule curved rodent spine, including the skull, amidst the ceiling insulation that fell soundlessly as snow; numbers penciled into wall studs in another century by carpenters now likely dead. When we pried up the passageway’s floor, we saw, in a dizzying moment of architectural understanding, the tippity top of the cabinets that lined the one kitchen wall we had spared. The next thing I remember was us falling asleep together on an air mattress on the laundry room floor, which we had walled off from the dust and chaos.
When the pandemic came and we broke up, I was left with a house gashed with unspoken hopes and didn’t know what to do. For a time, being with M. had felt like the life I thought I would have had if I hadn’t married the wrong man in the first place. Me and M. and Lia on the couch watching The Great British Bake-Off, him filming her piano recitals, us DIYing the bedroom where we would sleep. As if I were trying out different possible ways to make my story conform to what I believed was its original and necessary plot—without fully realizing that that moment had passed. And that houses, held together with old nails and wood and layers of paint, are only as safe as you make them.
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