Our Old House
by Julia Shiota
We have been in this house since the late nineties, and although I’ve steeled myself to face twenty years’ worth of debris, going through so much of the past shoved into forgotten closets and corners is enough to make me want to burn the entire place down.
“You’ll never believe it, Julia, there was a whole garbage bag filled with bottles — from how many years ago? The handyman pulled it out from behind the wall, I was so embarrassed.”
My mother’s voice comes through the other end of the line, strained by the exhaustion of juggling work with the renovations happening in her house — with the emotional weight of updating a house long marked with pain. I stay with her for over a month, painting, caulking, grouting, sorting, trashing, remembering.
Most homes are inscribed with some sort of meaning. There is a general affect: safety, comfort, our habits creating a warm familiarity between us and the walls that protect us from the world outside. Or conversely: fear, suffocation, pain, a dread that seeps inside us whenever we cross the threshold. Though spacial meaning often comes from the people who inhabit these spaces, space itself can also allow certain things to occur.
Abuse, for example, can happen easily within a family home because the four walls designate the private from the public, the windows and blinds can be tightly shut, the door can be locked. The actions on the stage can therefore repeat themselves uninterrupted by the very nature of the stage itself.
Growing up, I found the discarded evidence of my father’s addictions as I went about my usual chores, stumbling across bottles that became more and more familiar. I would mow the lawn and come across them haphazardly stuffed into shrubs. I would drop kitchen rags down the laundry chute, only to find the way blocked by a large bottle hastily wrapped in a towel. Before the age of ten, I knew enough to recognize the seals on the caps and to tell my mother what I found. I learned which dark corners were prime hideaways and that a human being is able to imbibe an incredible amount of the stuff when they want to.
One summer I suddenly woke in the middle of the night, startled by a faint scraping sound breaking the silence of my bedroom. For the next few weeks I tried to figure out where the sound was coming from — outside, inside, above, below — before finally discerning that it was coming from the vent at the head of my bed. If I were a girl in a story, I would have found some sort of treasure there — an ancient talisman left for me by some mysterious power triggering a wild adventure, or even a colony of small, fantastical creatures to befriend.
Instead, I pulled out empty bottle after empty bottle of whiskey.
So much pain can be hidden within four walls, in private spaces that are deemed none of our business. The happy home life and the stable, nuclear family are so deeply entrenched in the American dream that we expect to see happiness and stability, even when they are not there.
Ask me, I thought to myself each time someone visited our house, please just ask me how I am.
Between expectation and the desire to stay out of another family’s business, no one questioned the strained smiles, no one asked why I always fell silent whenever conversation moved to the topic of my father — though years later most will tell me they noticed both.
Yet no one ever asked.
As carpenters and repairmen come through the house to fix things before its sale, they often find such a jumbled, crumbling mess that they turn to me and say with a bit of a surprised smile, “What on earth happened here?”
I do not know what to say to that. My father always insisted he was a good father, a good husband, but it was simply part of a drug-induced, narcissistic fantasy. In reality, he harmed his children, he harmed his wife, he harmed whatever pets we unluckily had in the house with him.
He harmed the house in the same way he let all of us shatter, rot, and crumble over the years.
This house as it is now, I want to say, is how all of us were for a long, long time.
One of my father’s favorite things to do was to “renovate” the house whenever my mother happened to be away on a trip, either for work or to visit her family in Japan. Since that didn’t happen very often, the house had only been ‘renovated’ about two or three times. I knew I would have to make sure we survived those few days, make sure my younger brother was fed, make sure I cleaned up after the handiwork of a man whose addiction to opioids had begun to eclipse decades of alcoholism. Each update was an opportunity for my father to clean house, to messily slap paint or plasticky faux-column trim over the horror of our life — because a father and husband who takes the time to renovate the home for his family would never do the things we claimed he did.
I point something out to the carpenter in the basement bathroom, one hand resting on the counter in the adjoining laundry room as I talk. I try to avoid touching the circular-patterned scratches covering its vinyl surface, miniature crop circles that we first found on the mid-sized table-top mirror over a decade ago, its surface rendered completely unusable from its regular, unintended use — scratches that now only remain on the surfaces we can’t easily rip out and throw away. The powder that was once there, thankfully, is long gone.
These scratches, and the decorative candles burned to the very bottom, the missing spoons, and the grimly laughable number of variations on how to make heroin on my father’s desktop computer — these are the things that happened here over ten years ago and came to a breaking point, leading my mother to kick him out of the house for good. Over ten years ago and I have never seen him since.
And yet the house remains.
For years I had nightmares:
I am in the house, going down the stairs into the basement, and I see termites swarming everywhere, a legion creeping across all surfaces. As I watch them, I hear a disembodied voice say to me, “Once the termites come, there is no going back.”
I move into the laundry room, located near the bottom of the stairs, where I see a woman made of what looks to me like black particles. She is pulsating in a terrifying, staticky fashion, her component parts just barely kept together. She has no features. She is just a squirmy, staticky silhouette. I speak something to her, I don’t know what, and she crumbles.
The scene abruptly changes to my father and me on a small fishing boat. We are at sea, but I somehow feel that we came here via the house. He is yelling at me to help him with something, utterly beside himself in panic. I agree to help him.
We are throwing dead bodies off the boat, which he somehow collects from below deck and hurriedly brings up, one after the other after the other wrapped in faded brown cloth. In the dream this goes on for some time before I realize there is no end. We will be doing this forever.
Is it cruel to say one of the happiest days of my life was when he left and never came back? I think to myself as I spend an afternoon painting the basement bathroom. I know that a coat of paint can do wonders to freshen up a space, but I’m surprised at how cathartic it truly is. I picked the color — a beautiful, pale cool-toned grey — and love how it completely changes the room, making it as bright as a basement bathroom could feasibly be. It feels clean and it feels peaceful. And there is no trace of him left.
I sit back and admire my work, letting the last coat dry before my mother comes home. For the first time I envision another family living here, enjoying the space and bringing life to it, with no idea of what happened before.
Within a month, my mother hands over the keys for good, and I imagine the house will change to fit the personalities of the new family inside. I imagine that even the grey color I lovingly picked for the downstairs bathroom will eventually change. And if they find remnants of our old life — perhaps a bottle tucked away in a corner that we could not reach or odd markings on the countertops — I imagine they will think nothing of it, the hypothetical bottle or scratch becoming a nuisance rather than something meaningful. I imagine that for them, the house is not built on bottles or the dust of old pills, but on the renovations my mother and I put into it, our hope that the house could be as good to them as it was so very hard for us. For them, the house is the beginning.
Julia Shiota is a Japanese American writer whose work centers on questions of identity formation and belonging through the lens of literature. She holds two Master’s degrees, one in English Literature and another in Japanese Studies, both of which provide key methodological approaches to her writing. Her work can be found at www.juliashiota.com.