There was a gas stove humming in the corner and a forest green chair just beside it with my book left open on its arm. I spent my evenings there, reading and staying warm by the fire, petting the dog with my feet and feeling completely content. The wooden walls reminded me of a cabin and maybe more so, a simpler time. They had once welcomed me inside as their guest, family even, but now the rooms are cold and indifferent. Only a month had passed, and already the welcome was worn. It kills me to think of how quickly I came to love this house. It was our new beginning. These walls were supposed to be written about with affection and fondness, not the heaviness and regret with which I write about them now.
I could hear him a room away, beating the indifferent walls and screaming things I couldn’t understand. Minutes before, I informed him of my decision to leave, to move out, to end our commitments entirely. That was the pivotal moment. I was no longer home. I was no longer in love. I was the stranger inside.
I sat while he screamed, and I stared at the walls, so wholly unfamiliar to me now. Eyes emerged from the knots in the wood and stared back. They were dispassionate and removed. ‘You’ve probably seen this before’, I said aloud but not loud enough to be heard over his cries. I stopped listening when he started cycling around the same threats and pleas. I sat next to the fireplace and waited. Soon enough, he came stomping around the corner, hunchbacked and deformed in every imaginable way. He demanded to know why I hated him so much. He met me face-to-face in the chair and breathed all over me. Then, he shrank away from me, cowered more like, and said amidst stuttering sobs, ‘Why are you smiling?’ Smiling? I thought, instinctively bringing my hands to my face. I was smiling. Worse, I was laughing, giggling like a nervous girl at her first R-rated movie. I hated myself. I tried to stop, but the muscles in my face weren’t mine to command. ‘I’m sorry’ I said, hiding my face behind my hands. It was a cruel trick. Nothing inside my heart was smiling. I went to him, suddenly compelled by my own coldness to care for him, to take it back. I threw my arms around him, but he pushed me away and shook his hands as if I were diseased or covered in slime. I tried again, this time cooing at him and begging him to calm down. I held him tight and tried to stop his shaking, but it was like trying to contain a monster. I could feel how he was torn between holding me and hitting me. Over his shoulder, I looked at the walls and fed on their indifference. Then I felt his arms around me, squeezing me, breaking me. I released my embrace and kicked until he released me. I fell to the floor and felt his weight on top of me. He held my hands behind me and kept his foot on the small of my back, spitting and screaming into my ear, swearing and cursing and threatening again. No pain was registering, not even anger. All I could think of was how dusty the carpet smelled. I imagined falling through the floor into the cellar. Spiders and mice, dust and shadows – all of this would have been a glorious escape. Finally, he subsided. I expect my complacency did not satisfy his want to frighten me. I was still too naïve to think that he wanted to hurt me. I am not entirely foolish, though, because up until that day his temper was more moderate than my own. He rarely lifted a finger in anger towards me and scarcer still did he raise his voice. So, it’s not that I’ve tolerated such behavior this last year, just that I tolerate it now.
He left the room as thunderingly as he came and growled at me not to get up. I had no trouble obeying, as my body seemed magnetic to the floor, pulled and pushed at the same time. My breath made the carpet smell worse, but I did not move. I heard his keys and winter coat and then the screen door slamming behind him. I lay still, though, until I heard his car pull away over the snow pack and ice.
I still did not feel alone in the room with all the eyes. ‘You don’t frighten me,’ I spoke again to the walls, this time observing my own sanity with skepticism and laughing at hearing my voice aloud. I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water. A mouse fled from one end of the kitchen to the other, disappearing behind the stove. The cellar is coming to me, I thought, amused and confused by the matter of my own thoughts.
The kitchen was filthy. I blamed my own negligence; although, most of the marks and stains were there when we had moved in. The cracked floor and the burned counter tops were probably decades old. The dirty dishes were mine, and the sauce stain on the stove top. I frowned and went to sit in my chair. I didn’t read though; that would have been strange and inappropriate, even without a witness. The walls were witness enough, and I could not deny the effect they had on my behavior.
I let my mind wander to a month before. It was Christmas time, and I jumped for joy at seeing the fireplace in the corner, the perfect selling charm for two people looking to buy a home in December. In a day I had arranged everything: clocks, pictures, furniture, books and candles. We had a lot of candles. Now, they were deformed, burned up like him and me. Some of them were only puddles of colored wax stuck on shelves.
Together, our things formed an eclectic collage. I tried my best to arrange everything according to style and color, but no two things seemed to go together. On one wall there was a Picasso next to a bird house made from a Colorado license plate. On another wall there was The Kiss by Klimt and a tall bookshelf made entirely of cork with a thousand cds alphabetically organized from top to bottom – a chaotic array of colors and text that complimented nothing, not even itself, but it did not matter then because we were in love. It was a delightful mess that I adored.
We had already had dinner parties and Sunday breakfasts, everything that makes a house a home, so my attachment was considerable despite our short stay. As I looked around, images lingered in every space – ghosts only days old flickered in and out as if they resisted the very passage of time. On the floor in front of the couch I saw us sitting with a board game between us. We were smiling, sipping tea and talking about nothing in particular. In the far corner our figures were entangled; he had just come home from work and I was dressed up. I remembered that day. It was two days ago. We made love that night, and I stared at the walls then too and imagined terrible things in the shadows. Somehow, I knew what was coming, but I avoided it. I wanted things to remain as they were, not because I was happy but because I was comfortable, emotionally and economically stable. But it is not comfort my heart thrives on; it’s happiness, and I wasn’t happy, not really. I scowled in defense at the ghosts and cursed my vulnerability. I shouted something I can’t remember, and the ghosts disappeared from the room, from my mind.
I noticed, again, the puddles of wax on the shelves, and I had an irrepressible urge to scrape them off, so I began picking at them with my fingernails and thinking of nothing else. I was being very meticulous and obsessive, but I was content to avoid another haunting, so I continued for nearly an hour. Now there were only tiny flakes and ribbons of wax on the carpet, and my fingernails were red and brown, cinnamon and sandalwood.
The refrigerator made a sound like a nest of birds right outside the window; it chirped and hummed and wailed all at once. The gravity heater crackled and popped like old stairs, and I looked to see who was there, no one of course. Just me.
My mind wandered again and imagined the future of the house. Would he stay? Would he brave the ghosts and memories alone? Would he sit in this room with a hundred eyes, outnumbered and alone? Or would this house be silent? Could this house ever be silent with so many ghosts? Our story was in the walls now, eternally fixed like the eyes – in the eyes. If I become a ghost, will I exist here within these walls even after I am gone? Will part of me stay with him, with the house? I wondered these things as I wonder now, two weeks removed from the walls. I have yet to feel completely gone.
After I had waited nearly two hours in the haunted house, I considered leaving for the first time. I had stayed hoping for some resolution, pleasant or unpleasant; I felt some sort of conclusion was due. I never considered that our love, our time together would be completely forsaken. How can God abandon two people who truly loved?
Just as I was losing faith, I heard the unmistakable sound of tires over snow and an engine I had come so accustomed to hearing. But I did not run to the door and prepare to greet him this time. Blood rushed to my head, and I became frantic and disoriented. I looked for my keys, my phone, my stuffed dog Henry – anything and everything I believed could protect me or aide me in my escape. Through the window I saw him walking. His countenance was changed since last I saw him. He seemed sad, detached, or tame at least.
‘Where are you going?’ he greeted me. I asked him if he wanted something to eat. ‘You need to eat,’ I said, ‘you look pale.’ He agreed, looking very sympathetic of his own condition. He grimaced and sulked into the living room and took a seat. I asked him what he wanted. ‘A sandwich?’ I offered, eager to leave. I had never known him to refuse a meal. He nodded pathetically – almost made me smile again, but I avoided the same trick by turning and leaving directly. I hadn’t decided if I was coming back. I just knew I was leaving.
The winter air had a nasty bite that morning. I filled my lungs with the dry, icy air until they ached to release. It was everything I needed, a brutal awakening of my senses, a sharp reminder that I wasn’t, in fact, dreaming.
I started my car and noticed that I had a full tank. It was an invitation to leave. A tank could get me to my parents’ house; their walls shone with happy memories. I was a girl there and always, always safe. I was still undecided as I pulled into a school yard and parked. I felt so free. I couldn’t go back. I had done what I needed to do. I had no lingering obligation to him or that house. I could just get my things later. Everything I really needed was in my car, except clean underwear, but that was cheap enough to buy. I was already pulling out and turning onto the highway when my conscience made a semi-successful attempt to break through the emotional block I had been building all day. I couldn’t just leave him sitting there waiting for a sandwich, so I called him. He answered and sniffed into the phone to let me know he’d picked up. I told him that I was uncomfortable coming back, that I’d said everything I needed to say and that we would take care of practical matters when he was feeling better. His protests were incoherent and, from what I could tell, mostly to do with the sandwich. I apologized over and over until he became angry enough at his futility in the argument to hang up.
That was the end of it for nearly two days. I was ridiculously happy; it was an offensive kind of joy that I didn’t attempt to defend or explain, but I relished in my unexpected wellbeing. I found an apartment on the opposite side of town. The walls were bright and empty, like a blank canvas.
At the end of two days time, I found myself driving back to the house. I had called a moving company and was meeting two men at noon. That left me roughly three hours to get everything boxed and ready to go. His car was not in the driveway when I pulled up, so I hurried to take advantage of his absence. I grabbed everything that was mine, in no particular order, and threw it into a box. As I filled one, I set it by the front door and went to fill another. What had taken a whole weekend to put up took just over two hours to take down. My furniture, linens, knick-knacks and dishes were in one pile nearly six feet tall in the living room. In appearance it looked very orderly and organized, but I knew better. I think I actually packed dirty dishes. Every room had been stripped of my things, but I continued to systematically open closets and cupboards in search of something else, and an occasional trifle made it worth my while.
Just minutes before I was expecting the movers, I heard the door slam. He was back. I suppose seeing him one last time was inevitable, but I was grossly unprepared. He let out a loud exclamation of grief that made me jump, and then my nerves were back on guard. He shouted and whined at the same time, a quality I had only witnessed in him and never desire to witness again. He was sincerely confused – delusional enough to, in fact, forget or disempower the changes and events of the last two days. I told him I was expecting the movers in just minutes; he seemed surprised still, so I left him to remember. He followed me at my heels and reissued his pleas. Every word opened a new wound and reinstated new doubt. The power he had to persuade me was more frightening than the potential of his temper. I tried to distance myself internally from his voice. Outwardly, I was making incoherent pleas of my own, but he just talked over me.
Then, in a moment of weakness – or maybe it was strength – I spun around and said in a steady, hard voice, ‘It’s done! I can’t help you.’ My stare was unflinching, but I was already regretting my words. The next minutes were a blur. He was taking things from my boxes and throwing them against the wall: My snow globe, a set of Tupperware and a picture of my sister and I. I was just picking up pieces and trying to remain calm. At one point, I looked at him, and he was holding a pottery vase over his head. It wasn’t the vase that scared me, though. It was the look of reckless abandon in his eyes that made me take cover behind the couch. He missed, but it came close. I started for the door, but before I managed my way out, he shoved me from behind, and I hit the door and then the concrete porch. It was the back of my head that hit the ground, but my eyes pounded and pulsated like there was a band of drums inside my head. His voice was completely hoarse now as he shouted at me from inside to get up. I got up, but he knocked me down again as he pushed past me to get to his car. The movers had arrived; I don’t know what they saw, but they saw him spin his tires in the snow until he screeched out of the driveway and swerved on down the narrow, icy road.
The two men had moved us in the month before, and I greeted them accordingly. Although they never spoke to me directly of the situation, a look in their eyes and a tone in their voices indicated they had seen enough to feel sorry for me. I sat on the floor and watched them take my things into a truck big enough for ten times the load.
The walls watched, too, but it was different that day. The tables had turned because I was leaving. They could no longer prey on my vulnerability or haunt me with shadows of sentiment. As my things disappeared, so did my attachment to the strange house. The comforts of my life were in boxes and inside of me and never belonged to the house.
As the two men waited for me outside, I said goodbye. It was half empty now, but I was leaving it completely whole. The stupid smile was back on my face again as I wrestled the key off of my key chain. I dropped it on the floor on the way out and didn’t even look back. As I walked down the porch steps covered in a strange green rug, I smiled at the movers who waited patiently in their truck. Behind me I left a house, a love, a year and a broken heart, but I smiled anyways – because I was going home.