To Hate a House|
by Anne Scheftic
When we moved in, I thought it was the biggest and prettiest house ever. I was four, tiny, transplanted from a duplex in New Jersey that was too suburban by my mother's standards, to a house in pastoral upstate New York. The first thing I remember is being carried up the stairs to my room. It was dark and looming, decorated only by the tattered remains of a curtain tie on the window frame, and also huge. I didn't want to be there at first; somehow I grew into it.
It isn't technically my house anymore; my physical remains are limited to matted stuffed animals I'll never want back, five or six photo albums tracking me from birth to adolescence, spare clothing—my sister even moved into my room and repainted. Still, I call it my house, our house. There isn't a single other house like it, probably fortunately. I'm not sure when it was actually built, but my mother and I have always joked that it was probably around 1964, as the décor suggests. Almost every carpet is some shade of orange, rusty tan, dirty ginger, except the old master bedroom (equally pitted in luminous olive green). The wallpaper in the kitchen is all yellow, brown, orange, splattered with old-timey kitchen utensils and roosters in front of little flowers in diamond patterns. Half of it has peeled off, on its own or with help, and it doesn't go with the red and black linoleum on the floor. The living room walls are paneled with artificial wood, also deep brown, also dated. I'm somehow always reminded of hunting lodges when I'm in the living room, almost surprised at the lack of mounted buck or moose head and tacky wagon wheel. The couches and chairs never matched—striped gray, horrible yellow plaid, and something else (surprise) brown—and were usually second-hand. Everything is old and worn now; the kitchen cupboards dank with generations of ingrained grease and dust, the carpet rolled up at the edges or folded over in the middle, walls scratched, musky remnants of our fifteen years imbedded in the cracks in the walls and between the faded couch cushions.
Mom wishes for either of two things: that we'll somehow end up on "Extreme Home Makeover" and get a gleaming new house, or that the existing house will accidentally burn to the ground and we'll get a gleaming new house. It's too small, too old, too faulty, she says. Eight people live in a house built for four. Sometimes I wish it would go up in flames, too. I hate my house.
I can't help but feel guilty about wishing that fate on the house I grew up in, on the house I fight not to be a part of but inevitably am. At least a quarter of it is now some extension of our family. My dad is the handy-man, always fixing and, sometimes unfortunately, innovating. He's extended the porch, re-sided, built cupboards, refinished the garage, constructed at least two mailbox posts and clothes lines, and during my last summer home was installing a grand underground septic pipe network. Most of these projects go unfinished. Dad ran out of siding and never bought more, leaving only the bottom half completed; no one can walk on the far right end of the porch because a support post is dangling up out of the ground; when I left for school in August the septic extravaganza was only a quarter completed, possibly forever stuck in half-dug limbo. That's all partially thanks to money, of course. Supporting eight people on a mediocre salary doesn't leave room for much cosmetic surgery, as much as my mother would like to destroy and replace all the lingering vintage inside.
"Did I ever tell you how your father tried to build cupboards on that whole wall?" she asks me occasionally. I humor her and pretend I haven't heard the story six times before. "At least I didn't let him do that," she says, proud that she got to preserve some aesthetic value in resisting. We'd never be able to sell the house like it is; anyone new would hate it, too.
Maybe it's not the house they'd hate or that I hate. My sister claims that she can tell who's coming up the stairs by the sound the steps make, each family member's speed and weight eliciting a distinct whine from the barely-padded stairs. She's right; we've become such a part of the stairs that they know how to speak of us, even when we try to trick them and even when we've left for a while.
Hating my house shouldn't be difficult. It's old, and ugly, and crowded. There's too much stuff inside. Toys I played with when I was six still sit in bins in the living room. Every shelf is full of torn coloring books and GI Joes. Ancient Disney VHS tapes line the television stand, the same Christmas video that I still watch every year somewhere in the jumble. Part of the process of coming to college was sorting through the accumulation, trying to discern what was actually mine and what to bring with me. I can't help but admit that it was secretly heart-wrenching. A piece of me is still there, in the blue paint I left in the bedroom, in the once-useful training wheels now captured by the basement, in the scratch in the new stove where I dropped a can of cooking spray.
Sadness rose to just behind Mom's pupils as she touched the spot of the can-induced injury; the novelty of a hopeful, foreign addition had been shattered somehow. The can wasn't supposed to slip like it did, to scar the paint on the edge of the stove. For a while I thought the new, sparkling new member would escape its actually becoming part of the house. It's white, with buttons instead of dials and a fifteen minute preheat time that I'm not sure is better than the almost-instant but temperamental heat of the old oven. Last year we invested in replacing the original, because of its temperamentality and because whenever someone opened the oven door it would absolutely shriek. I used to sit on the kitchen floor watching the cookies bake, cringing even before they reached light golden brown, wondering how much pain I was actually causing the oven to make it scream so pointedly. I think the stove was finally tired of us baking our cookies and our lasagna and our chicken pot pie, the same seven meals we had every week.
I'd be exaggerating terribly if I said that everything the house touches comes to ruin; it's just not true. Everything, though, does start to blend together, to become weary and more aged with its residency. New things stand too glaringly pristine until they're integrated into our lives through the house. Sometimes I catch myself wondering what life would be like in a house I didn't hate, in one of those museum houses where everything falsely maintains the just-unwrapped freshness with which it entered the house. A few of my friends growing up had houses like this, every one complete with its patterned sofa pillows, shiny hardwood floors, the old smell of new furniture and drywall compound. I was always afraid to even look at coffee table without putting a coaster down first. And even those houses have their troubles, I'm sure. The furnished basement of my friend Megan's museum had a terribly noticeable dip in the floorboards just inside the door. But her parents filled it in a few years ago. The problem is that I think I would hate having that house even more, that I'd hate feeling like a visitor able to destroy the art of it with one fell flick of a soil-covered sneaker. At my house, I know the pile of dirty dishtowels will always be lying comatose next to the washer, not caring that it's on display, unconsciously knowing and playing its character all too consistently.
Still, I can't remember a time when I was truly embarrassed to have people come over to the house, in all its fifthly, ill-conceived glory. Mom was always the one who fretted over how unvacuumed the rug was or how much dust was on the moldings in the bathroom. She doesn't actually clean until company comes over, and the house always reverts back to being unkempt the moment the door shuts after an exited guest. We're partially to blame, of course.
I hadn't noticed how much I actually hate the house until I was outside of it, here, at school; the walls here are blank and empty, untouched by the years of baggage one family can add to them, pound into them, hang from them, punch holes in them with. In two days I get to go back to my house, the first time in two months. I never know when I open the door whether the smell that I meet has come to welcome me or to haunt me, what its motivation is to leech into my hair and follow me. It's not a musky smell, not stale or hollow, not like a closet that's been sealed for years; it's not dank or old, but not sweet and new, either. No room or building here smells the same, has the same fluid, living odor. Friends that know both of us say my house smells like me, and I smell like it. Every Glade Plug-In in the world can't change the fact that we possess each other, the house and I, and that it somehow knows I'm coming.
Whether or not other people feel this way about their own houses, I don't know. The museums and the pig-sties alike have quirks and stairs and smells, accidental dents and bad carpet and unbearable creaks. Sometimes I feel ridiculous in my obsession with my house and even more ridiculous in thinking how the house doesn't even deserve that much. Other people seem to love their homes and care for their homes, to primp, prune, and polish. Maybe on some level we do the same to our house and just aren't as successful. My youngest sisters painted their bathroom recently - shiny new blue to match the crayon-like drawings of dogs and cats on the shower curtain Mom "couldn't resist." Even so, the mismatched fluorescent bulbs in the vanity and the ring of staining grime around the base of the toilet are the only things I can think about. I'm not convinced that this phenomenon doesn't happen to the kind of people that renovate on a regular basis; I don't think they can forget about the floorboard dips and the paint scratches.
I fondly image that the house I come to raise my own children in will never fall into the same familiar, almost instinctual disrepair of my parent's house. Something irking inside my stomach tells me that it will, though, and that my own husband will want to install wall paneling or build too many cupboards. I'll find the same satisfaction that every wife does in saying "Honey, I love you: but no." But at the same time I want to actually live in my house, to become a part of it, steeped in the cracks, odors, dents. I only hope they're not as gripping as the house I live in now.
There is a blue velveteen armchair just inside the front door, turned slightly toward the front picture window. I hate this chair the most, with its flattened cushion and springs protruding up and downward underneath, its agedness and overwhelming silence. I think I remember it being a much brighter shade of indigo than it is now, most of the flocking matted in upset ruffles or slowly sanded off, from the arms. It is old and ugly and faulty, and still I manage to find myself curiously sitting in it, drinking tea or reading The Hours, wondering how I got there but somehow unwilling to leave. That chair has been a part of the house as long as I can remember, quietly standing, vigilant or in mocking in its corner and never considered for replacement. Everything about the house is summarized in that blue armchair, torn and patched, ruined but not dismissed. It's the only one that knows how much I love to hate.
Anne Scheftic is a sophomore pursuing a BA in English with an emphasis in writing. When not at school, she lives with her family in upstate New York. This is her first publication.
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