wallpaper

photo by Marko Seppänen

photo by Marko Seppänen

On the home tour, John and I stood holding hands and looking at a wall covered in splotches and splatters of plaster so nubby and thick it cast shadows in the late afternoon light.

“What is that?” I wondered. “Did something explode in here?”

“No, it’s texture,” he said. “Someone intentionally sprayed chunks of plaster on the wall.”

“It’s not… nice.” I turned to see if he agreed. We were buying a house together, so we both had to agree.

“It’s godawful,” he said. He reached out and ran his hand over the jagged wall. “But since they ran out of money before they painted, it’s not sealed. Maybe we could wash it off. What do you think?” We turned to survey the room: Subfloor mended with patches of linoleum, windows tinted with dusty reflective film, exposed beams coated with cat hair and plaster. “Could we do something with this?”

This is something I love about my man: We’re standing there in a one bedroom fixer-upper that’s been on the market for over a year with no offers, a half-finished dive reeking of mildew and cat piss, and he’s willing play to what-if with me; he’s willing to give it a try. An ability to see through surface flaws and fissures to an inner solidity is a large part of why we’re together.

“At least it’s not wallpaper.” I squeezed his hand and turned to face the weird wall mottled with plaster warts. “I think we could make it work.”

*

Whenever I see wallpaper, I think of the famous story, The Yellow Wallpaper. I must have been in high school when I first met the nameless narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist tale about the woman whose patronizing doctor-husband confines her to an attic nursery as a cure for her postpartum depression, even though she’s desperate for distraction and can’t stand the oppressive wallpaper, “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” There’s nothing for her to do but study the walls and in the wallpaper’s design she begins to see fungus, bloated faces, an endless parade of mushrooming forms, and the bars of a cage. As she slips into a prison-induced psychosis, she imagines women creeping around behind those bars of color, women trapped like her, shaking, rattling, and desperate to escape.

The Yellow Wallpaper is stuck fast in my imagination and when I read it again after I’d had kids and my own bout of postpartum despair, I discovered a whole new dimension. I know that feeling when the walls become so oppressive you’d use your fingernails to dig holes—anything to get a different view. Sometimes, standing on that worn spot on the floor in front of the kitchen sink washing a dish I’ve washed countless times before, when I’m slipping into some old rabbit hole of thought, I close my eyes and remember how she crept around and around in fast-forward, eyes swallowed in black and her left shoulder stained yellow from rubbing against the wall, and I step away from the sink: step away.

Because a setting can get into your head and stick like wallpaper. Setting is just as important as plot, in literature and in life, and a house (literal or fictitious) is often a physical representation of a conflict, a structure that manifests an underlying psychology: “Form follows function.” But it goes both ways: Our lives are informed by our settings, and our settings shape our lives. Form follows function follows form, each conforming to and accomodating the next. Characters (like real people) often lack the perspective to see where they are and when they get stuck in a place that doesn’t really fit, they might not notice, they might just grow accustomed and then languish there in an ill-fitting spot forever.

Knowing all this, fully aware of the risk of getting trapped in a bad real estate investment forever, I convinced John that we should buy the house anyway. It had burned halfway down in the 70s and been fixed up by a boozy contractor who’d invited his carpenter friends over to drink forties and play games with power tools. Before he was done, he sold it to a woman who didn’t have enough money to finish the job. She lived there with unpainted walls, no kitchen cabinets, no heat, no floors, and seventeen indoor cats that had been “trained to use the toilet.”

I took a photograph of John on moving day. He’s standing in front of a ton of garbage heaped on the sidewalk behind him, clutching his checkbook as if it might fly away. If you didn’t know better, you might think that for some reason this sad man has just purchased a pile of trash. The circles around his eyes are so dark it looks like his eyeballs have retreated from the horror, leaving two gaping sockets. His smile is a flat line. His smile wants someone to explain what the hell he got himself into.

I remember taking that picture, looking at that pile of garbage and that sad man and not knowing if I’d made the right decision, either. At that moment, it wasn’t too late—we could have tossed the camera, ripped up the check, and backed away from the house, stepped away. He could have called me psycho, I could have accused him of having no vision, and we could have gone our separate ways. Things like getting married and buying houses and having children are things no sane and logical person would ever do if they stopped to think about it. Conformity is never easy, especially when you have to share. Even when they end up being worth the risk, these are all stupid, crazy choices.

But we did it, we bought the house and then spent months vacuuming up cat hair and repairing damaged subfloor. We had to buy a new refrigerator to replace the old one, which was clotted with a black pool of blood and held together with duct tape, and needed a new stove to replace the countertop electric burners, under which John found a dead rat. John took countless trips to the dump to remove the hundred-or-so empty wine-in-a-boxes we found stacked along one side of the house. I used a razor to scrape the dark film off the windows, attacked the walls with a wet brush, and removed the bathroom’s puke brown tiles with a pickaxe.

One night, John and I were lying in bed upstairs, having this conversation:
Me: How many exit routes do we have, anyway? How do we escape—hypothetically, of course?
Him: I count four outside doors. And 13 windows that open, not counting the one in the bathroom which is too small to count.
Me: There are also 13 transoms and skylights. So 26 if you count them all.
Him: Yeah, but you’re not going to crawl out of a skylight, are you?
Me: I guess I’d need a hammer to break the glass. (*pause*) If there’s a fire and we’re in bed, how are we going to get out of here?
Him: We can climb out onto the roof and then shimmy down the fig tree.
Me: The fig isn’t strong enough to hold us.
Him: It will be by that time. Hypothetically.
Me: Okay. (*pause*) But if it’s an earthquake, then what?
Him: We’ll be fine. Just hold on tight and ride it out.
Me: If this house has lasted since 1903, I suppose it’s liable to keep on lasting.
Him: You couldn’t burn it down if you wanted to. You couldn’t knock this house over if you tried.

Instead of moving, we added two rooms, one for each kid. Instead of yearning for something bigger and better, I throw stuff away. Rather than threaten divorce, we rearrange furniture. Like the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with a manic need to escape, but I’m starting to wonder if this feeling isn’t normal. Our garden has grown as lush and thick as jungle and the fig tree is strong enough to hold the whole family. Our house, although small and somewhat pieced together, is rather lovely.

Still, when I think this will probably be the last place I’ll ever live, I’m simultaneously alarmed and relieved: alarmed because if you don’t move, you’re trapped, and if you can’t leave, it’s harder to change; happy because if you don’t have to move, you can hunker down and fully inhabit the life you’re living. I remind myself that this feeling is probably normal.

I keep telling myself this is my home, not my prison. I’m not just walking in circles like the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper, I’m building something. Something is taking shape here, like a form following function following form, like a face blooming behind the wallpaper, my own face, maybe, and every now and then, I catch a glimpse of what my setting reveals.

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

61 comments

  1. Nice Blog. I know that feeling of moving. We currently want to wallpaper one of the walls in our apartment. Once that is done I am afraid we will never leave. Wallpapers carry so many stories and some can be so rich and meaningful. Crazy choices all the way! It’s what makes life interesting.

  2. Valerie Bowman

    I love The Yellow Wallpaper & Charlotte. Thoroughly enjoyed your account .

  3. This is beautiful, and hit me right in the heart.

    xox

  4. Oh my god. Absolutely transported by your writing on this hot, hot August afternoon, surrounded by children yanking at the hem of my shirt for more lunch. But I went there with you. I pictured the Maine home from Wyeth’s Christina’s World. I was pregnant when my husband and I visited it, and it was so filled with ghosts and wallpaper with tears and splashes, door frames scratched as if by a dog or person, that I went outside and sat on a rock with my head on my knees.
    This was gorgeous. And I am so glad you gave that poor, lost house love and a family.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    • I wish I could visit Wyeth’s house. I wonder if you lay on the grass outside for a photo. Everyone must do that. Houses are so strange, aren’t they? Not quite inanimate. Thank you for reading, Jen.

  5. Dana

    Love this and you all and your home!

  6. However good our lives are, there are always the ones we might otherwise have lived, in settings as infinitely varied as the lives themselves might have been. And yes, that feels like it might well be a normal feeling to me. A beautiful piece of writing.

  7. I sometimes think you don’t mean to have us leave comments. You put your words together so lovely and deep and true and they fit us, but you can’t cry out in excitement at every interlocking puzzle piece. Those times, I wonder whether it is desecration to dissect the wholeness of (your) writing into conversation.

  8. Beautiful, thoughtful and emotional, thanks, Anna!

  9. Karin

    Ah, goes with In Case of Emergency. Thank you again for your lovely word gifts. There is something bonding about recreating a space for yourself. like a hermit crab remaking a shell. I moved into this house because it was smaller and for the garden in the heart of the city. I think again about moving and then realize, I can’t take the garden. Each little change I make to it is an imprint. Thank you.

    • If you’re like me, the plants and trees have become old friends. Our fig tree volunteered itself just after we moved in, so it seems especially special. You can’t just leave old friends, can you? What if the next owner neglected or razed or didn’t care!?

  10. And how i love that line… “our fig tree is strong enough to hold the whole family..” ♥

  11. Oh my word … lumpy walls. When I was a kid, and especially if I was feverish, I had a recurring nightmare that involved precisely that horrible texture! So several years back when my husband and I were looking for a new house, I rejected a really nice one because I simply could not imagine being able to live with hard disgusting cottage cheese on the walls. One would, inevitably, *touch* it! UGH! (Mind you, I quite like cottage cheese. Just not on walls.)

  12. ” if you don’t have to move, you can hunker down and fully inhabit the life you’re living” this is philosophical. Not on the run, but settling in. I think, it is all a question of ending the inner war of “have I made the right decision? is this the life I really wanted? weren’t it better to do something completely different? would I be happier elsewhere?” with trusting yourself to have come to the right decision and be contend with it. Happy you, if this is done via conscious thought processes. As opposed to people (like my mom) who always feel trapped by circumstance or responibilities Or folks, who simply wake up one day, to find, that they are of an age, in which live just doesn’t hold every possibilty open for them any more. As opposed to those teenage years, where one thought, one could become and do everything one wants.

  13. Beautiful post..feels homely.. 🙂

  14. jen0life

    im new to word press – and this type of material is guna make me stay – wall paper be the death of home owners – i feel your pain – I am in the same boat with feeling alarmed and relieved – i think it’s a totally normal feeling, just keep reminding yourself of that – HEAPS-
    it’ll get better
    keep up the positive thoughts
    xoxo

  15. I loved this post so much. I read The Yellow Wallpaper while “confined” with my colicky daughter for the first 5 months of her life (a strange choice considering the circumstance, I’ll admit). I hated the narrator’s patronizing husband/doctor trying to tell her what to do. I could relate, though my problem was the opposite. Although I wanted to go out and do stuff with my daughter, she seemed to do better in dark, cold rooms with white noise. I was willing to do anything to help her cry less, so I paced a 12×12 room everyday rocking her for hours in the dark. Everyone was trying to pressure me to take her outside, to get out, to just let go and let her cry since whatever I was doing wasn’t doing much (it was doing a little, and that was enough for me). Everyone needs different things in times of crisis. I needed control. I needed that room where people weren’t trying to hold my daughter (which would then cause her to scream for hours) or tell me how I should be taking care of her or how I was doing it all wrong. I don’t regret the time I spent “on pause” with her at all, because like you said of your own life, I was building something. My daughter and I have a serious bond now from all the time we spent together and I’ll always treasure that.

    Anyway, all that was to say: I think your story is amazing. The way you and your husband invested so much into your house and by extension, your growing family is endearing and shows your commitment to each other. Thanks for sharing this. I wish you many happy years in your home “without wallpaper.”

  16. Nice one in the blog….good pic

  17. hafsaishaq

    wonderful!!! hatsoff!! especially the last para …thanks to your pen 🙂

  18. hafsaishaq

    Reblogged this on penaccelerated and commented:
    Wow!!! loved this

  19. So very vivid. I could almost see the house and characters come alive. Is it possible to see a picture to compare to my imagination?

  20. I enjoyed reading this very much. I have moved 26 times in the past 50 years. Having to reinvent myself or the setting each time. I do know how to nest! All that being said, I loved the idea of settling into one place/space. I am also always alarmed and relieved when I think that I may be in a place forever and am always looking for the “next house” but at the same time I’m “hunkering down” today. Thank you for the vivid writing. It was a pleasure to read this story and i look forward to reading more of your work.

    • 26 times in 50 years is crazy! I’m awestruck! 🙂 How much of the original you is left over from all the reinventing?

      (I thought 18 moves in 28 years was loads, but lots of them were only partial moves, or while I was too young to realise what was going on…)

  21. “Rather than threaten divorce, we rearrange furniture.” AWESOME!!! 🙂

  22. Jill e.Jones-Waller

    Beautiful and now I want to read the book. Nice morning read, thanks

  23. Your post reminds me of the house we bought when we were first married. We spent seven years trying to make something out of not very much and it was a task that was both rewarding and frustrating. Since then I have lived in two more houses, but now that I think about it none of them feel as much like home is that first one did.

  24. A nice article!! The analogy of the women stuck in the yellow wallpaper is beautiful! You are right when you say that sometimes even though a person doesn’t fit in a particular place, he conforms to accommodate somewhere, a place which he can call his home! All in all, a beautiful article!
    Regard, Chaitanya Haram 🙂

  25. Beautiful post!
    I went to a workshop a few months back about what home means. You have, by far, given me the best insight.

  26. I love this, thank you. Wise and funny and beautiful.

  27. Loved it Anna, really thoughtful – thanks for sharing with us.

  28. Sheila Rogers

    you write beautifully. I often feel trapped in my running down in the ground quick fixer upper…. but I can’t imagine living anywhere else… lol I think your writing can appeal to ALL. I saw and felt everything and loved it (though it wasn’t science fiction or fantasy). I look forward to reading everything else and your future blogs as well.

    bloggerjintz.wordpress.com

  29. A beautiful narrative of how one can get overwhelmed easily on just the face of odds, which is why its absolutely vital to keep moving, just to reassure your mind that it is not transfixed to an ill spot… Absolutely loved the flow and simplicity with which you presented it… Great work!

  30. This is beautiful. I am speechless.

  31. Oh this was so nice and thoughtful

  32. Beautiful piece. I’m heading to a home tour this weekend. We are remodeling a second place. I’ve already decided these place will be the last for us too, but life has a way of snaking other directions when we least expect it. We’ll see!

  33. “These places”… sheesh.

  34. Beautiful, Authentic and poetic. Love your style.

  35. A vey original subject with a refreshing angle of approach – thank you for a good read

  36. Powerful writing. I like the imagery here:
    “Sometimes, standing on that worn spot on the floor in front of the kitchen sink washing a dish I’ve washed countless times before, when I’m slipping into some old rabbit hole of thought, I close my eyes and remember how she crept around and around in fast-forward, eyes swallowed in black and her left shoulder stained yellow from rubbing against the wall, and I step away from the sink: step away.”

    and your characterization here:
    “The circles around his eyes are so dark it looks like his eyeballs have retreated from the horror, leaving two gaping sockets. His smile is a flat line. His smile wants someone to explain what the hell he got himself into.”

    I could really see the house and feel the need to escape. Thank you.

  37. Oh, I absolutely love this, and I am so glad I read it

  38. The yellow wallpaper story has always got my mind. Especially recently when i realized I am now the creeping creature.

  39. Klare

    Hello, I love your essay! Is it alright if I use it for a paper (with proper citation of course)? 🙂

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