By Cati Porter
I can almost feel the give of the wall, how with enough pressure it will flex, snap, crumble. How a sledgehammer might feel in the hand, the swing of it, the heft, heaving in an arc to lodge in the wall with a satisfying smack. The pile of rubble at my feet. Destroying a thing to remake it. Not quite a Phoenix. No fire. Just cold; a hard edge into something you love. The necessary repair. The field that flowers around the debris.
Two years ago to the day, we moved from the old neighborhood into a new old neighborhood; from a sturdy but boring post-war tract house half a century old to a house twice that and twice as tall. Surrounded by other houses more than a century old, we now live on a street where a street car used to ferry people downtown at a time when the orange groves were worked by laborers who’d traveled here from distant lands in search of a better life, or at least a living wage. Most of these people endured conditions that would be illegal now while people like me – white, upper middle class – lived in fancy homes that employed people like them to cook, clean, and tend the groves.
Times have changed. Nothing has changed. I drive through the old neighborhood: close to “good” schools, populated by families with dogs and yards and two cars, two incomes. Mostly. Some of the folks, I know, don’t have quite that. Some have only one car, one income. More dogs than kids. Cats, not dogs. No kids. Where we live now, the homes are larger, stately even, but the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is more pronounced, more nuanced.
After the first month of living downtown, we were awakened mid-night by the doorbell. Then, it rang a second time. We were still skittish sleepers. We had installed an alarm system on the house. Against my objections, my husband keeps a gun in a lockbox. On this night, we learned how long it takes to get a gun out and down the stairs to the front door. We arrived at the door to find the porch empty. We did not open the door. The next morning, we found droplets of blood. Maybe someone was injured, we said to each other. Maybe it was a ploy, he said.
We bought and installed a Ring video doorbell. It is so sensitive that every time someone goes by on the sidewalk, the motion sensor sends us an alert to our smart phones. Now we can see who comes to the door when we’re asleep, when we’re not home. Two nights ago, a man wearing only shorts stumbled around the porch and had a conversation with no one we could see. Eventually he left. He never rings the bell. We watch this on the video recorded by Ring. The man who paints the address numbers on the curb comes to the door once, twice, four times finally, holds a script that he rehearses before I answer, does vocal exercises to practice asking for money for performing a service we did not request, but for which we still pay him.
At our old not-so-old house, occasionally a cart would rumble by, pushed by someone who looked a cross between embarrassed and exhausted, or defeated. A very tall man walked the neighborhood loudly conversing with the air. We could always hear him coming. We had bars on the windows. Our children could walk to school, but didn’t want to after the novelty wore off. When they were little, I made friends with other parents whose children I approved of. Later I learned that you cannot choose your child’s friends. I should have known this.
The friends my children chose for themselves came from families who struggled: with mental illness, with addiction, with health, with money, with love. I did my best to love them all back. There is only so much you can do.
Now that we live miles away, my youngest son often walks to a friend’s house after school. Later, I pick him up.
Today when I pull my van up to the curb, there is caution tape staked in a large box across the yard, connecting to the house, which, now that I am looking, has a gaping hole in it. Chunks of what I later learn is the master bedroom make a messy pile on the un-mowed lawn. I text him. “Here.” My son opens their screen door, comes down the front walk, ambles toward the van. His friend smiles and waves to me from the door, gestures with a shrug to the lawn. I smile and wave, shrug too, as if it were an everyday sight. That houses are prone to giving out like that. That it is just another day in the neighborhood.
My first thought: What did his father do?
My mind runs to another father of another of my sons’ friends, one who knows the heft of a sledgehammer all too well, in the malignancy of remaking one’s life around loss.
My second thought: I hope no one was hurt.
Yesterday, my stepmother sent me the Zillow listing for my grandmother’s house.
It hasn’t actually been her house for seven years. When it was, it was the house she raised seven children in, where she lived when she lost an eighth after carrying it to term, where she nursed my grandfather through his final years with multiple sclerosis, where I wrote poems in the finished attic with its low-hipped ceiling which served as my uncles’ bedrooms when they were young and mine too on summer vacations. Where I knew where the Coca Cola and Lance’s crackers were stashed. How to run the squeegee down the shower walls after a shower and how to wash dishes not under running water but in a shallow tub in the sink (and the wrath I would incur if I failed to do these things). Where the front porch was where everyone gathered to smoke their cigarettes and drink, my grandmother included. Where my sons on their last visit to that house looked for and found salamanders with their cousins, beneath a rock next to the garage, then took a walk in the adjacent woods, the same woods where my uncles would climb to the highest bendy limb and wave back to their horrified mother at the kitchen window.
The pictures of the house as it is now are astoundingly beautiful. My husband blames that house for the one we’re in now. Really, though, it wasn’t the house I was after. It was how it felt to be in that house. Looking at the images, I can see the newer owners have removed all the carpeting, exposing and refinishing the gorgeous hardwood floor that had been hidden all these years, all the way up the stairs. I look at those stairs and I see the family Polaroid portrait of everyone stair-stepped, three generations including myself, the first grandchild, as well as Tina the dog and Elsa the cat. I miss the carpeting; the original functional but plain kitchen cabinets. Now, the kitchen is straight out of Better Homes and Gardens: white Shaker cabinets, marble counters, stainless steel appliances. They removed part of the kitchen wall to open it up to the dining room. I miss that wall. I miss my grandmother at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, kitchen door swung wide, screen door latched but not locked.
When we sold our old not-so-old house, we believed the new owners would make it right, would do all the things to it that we never got around to doing. The kitchen with its original solid maple cabinetry that I had painted a pale green? Not refinished; ripped out. The pocket door to the living room, the one that my father-in-law shimmed to make it shut? Destroyed when they, too, knocked out the wall to open up the kitchen.
There were arguments. Moments in that house, things that were said and done that I would take back. But it was our kitchen, our house, and I would never have knocked down that wall. I would have kept it all as a monument to what can withstand.
But it can’t. Couldn’t. Didn’t. Now, I drive by and there is a black van not unlike my own in the driveway. I sometimes catch myself wondering who is at my house. I drive past it to get to the friend’s house, to get to Target after dropping my son at school, almost daily. The yard is full of weeds. The lawn is still the same mix of weedy grasses that grow at different rates, the one we had been planning to re-landscape before we decided to pull up stakes and move. The same lawn where we had our fire pit, where the boys and their friends sat around, looking glum because there was “nothing to do,” where on Halloween they mugged in costume; the same lawn where I stood when I got the terrible news.
The houses, the lives, of my sons’ closest friends I have only ever known from the outside in. Now one of those friends is gone. His father took a sledgehammer to the closet wall – yes, that closet – to convert his room into a sanctuary, find self-preservation in the act of demolition. A cleansing. A ritual breaking down to renew.
I believe I understand why new owners decide to break things. To make them their own. When you inherit a history, you must write yourself into it. When you live in a house with a history you would prefer to forget, you revise, you edit, you restore.
Picking my son up from his friend’s house again, other friends have now gathered to help his mother very literally pick up the pieces. How to rebuild from what was lost. How to understand how a husband, a father, could punch his truck through the wall.
One way to find a way through a thing is to destroy. Another is to build around it.
Or sometimes, you move.
Copyright 2020 Porter