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.