The House

Two marriages dissolved inside 272 Summit Avenue. I blame the house.

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And not just into apartments
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It was the house. Bats flew in. The basement was crawling with snakes. The day I stumbled down there in the dark holding a laundry basket, my heart froze. Conversely, the stove was electric and not very good at maintaining a temperature. I was always burning things. The house caused multiple losses. If I were asked to imagine the attributes of the lot it was built on, I would describe the mound of an old baseball field, sullen with weeds, where the most frequent pitches were change ups thrown at seventy-five miles an hour. It didn’t have leaky faucets or peeling floor tiles. We had a really good landlord. It was in the middle of the block. It was free standing. We didn’t know any of the neighbors, which isn’t atypical for people who don’t own dogs or walk them past neighbors patrolling the grass, at their very most wretched. The guy who lived next door had fought in Nam, and in his own words shouted at me the day the police came to take him away for standing unclothed in front of the windows facing our kitchen, “got half my brain blown off.” The girls who lived there before us never called the police, but they’d warned us about him.

I lived with my husband on the top floor. On the bottom floor lived a writer who taught in my graduate writing program. It was exhilarating to learn his habits. He sprawled on a kitchen chair with a cold cup of coffee until 3 AM just staring up at the ceiling or out the window. He was one of the first to teach me that writing is about looking without knowing what you’re looking at, trying to catch the shape of a beam, its angularity jutting up out of flatness. Describing that without worrying what it would unearth in you. You might discover that the beam was a state you aspired to — responsibility, support, loving kindness — or you could regard the beam as something imposed on a structure like an espalier onto rose bushes that had they grown untrammeled would be gorgeous and wild. He wrote long-hand on a yellow legal pad. He stood bare-chested in our shared hallway once and shouted for me. He wanted to show me a line he’d just written.

 •

The house heaved in the wind, wind blew into the eaves, rapped against the walls, moaning not with the heart of lovers but with the threat of dead things — leaves, tree branches, grass, prophesizing severed connections to what we loved. I think my professor’s marriage dissolved first, then mine followed, like the phenomena of the menstrual cycles of women who live in the same house finding each other. I remember the baby-sitter’s blue Toyota parked outside later and later at night while his wife was teaching then overnight while his wife went out of town to a conference. Another time, I remember seeing him walking with a girl in the program, someone almost as regal and tall as he was, her hair slipping out of its messy bun as they lingered at an intersection. I was walking behind them, but I waited and let them go ahead of me, get the lead. He was my teacher. I felt protective of his feelings and wanted to spare him embarrassment. I didn’t want to arrive at the house just as they were entering through the door.

 •

It was common practice for the students in the program to host parties for the visiting writers who came to campus. At the beginning of the term there’d be a meeting and the list of visiting writers would get read and people would volunteer. That year the Polish Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslow Milosz was appearing. He’d spent his childhood in Russia and returned to Poland for some years until he defected to the States. As soon as his name was announced, I shot up my hand.

“Can I host that one?” I asked. The reason I wanted to host Milosz is because I looked for any possibility of using my Russian, a language I had been studying off and on since undergraduate school. Poland was still Eastern bloc, Russian the official language.

People came up to me at the party and asked me how did I know to take Milosz’s coat as soon as he came in through the door and shuttle him off to the kitchen before any one else arrived? “Easy,” I told them. I wanted him to get first dibs at the food, expecting that he’d be surrounded and wouldn’t have a chance. I also knew that Eastern Europeans like when their hosts baby them, unlike American guests who value privacy. I knew this from the times I had hung out with Soviet dissidents — those fortunate to have defected — back home in Philadelphia where I volunteered at an absorption center hoping to find a native speaker who would be willing to help me translate Akhmatova poems, the Russian poet who dared to voice her criticisms of Stalin and because she was threatened with arrest, did not publish poetry for decades. Akhmatova was an obsession of mine and I liked to fashion myself after her. Her early unsuccessful marriage to Gumilev (like my marriage) and the dramatic, self-deprecating poems she wrote about it (like I did).

The Milosz party is an example of the highs — a Nobel prize winning poet at my door — in comparison to the lows that we, the inhabitants of 272 Summit Avenue, endured having lived there. While some dwellers may not notice — and certainly I was one at the time — those walls we live behind interact with us, fervently even. If you don’t believe me, consider the doors you enter through, the windows you look out at. Mine right now is framed by a dogwood tree. In spring its branches, which almost reach the window, are loaded with beautiful pink flowers; in late summer with clusters of red berries; and in fall, the leaves burn crimson. Now how could I even think of outgrowing the amplitude of my present relationship with my eyes alighting on this several times in a day? This tree shows me how love changes, and its exciting to see those changes. Our homes exist in our minds, each perception subjectively impressing itself upon our consciousness. You think you’re making decisions, and you are to the extent that they are shaped by your material conditions. Had I lived right up against a dogwood, perhaps I’d have responded to my first husband in different ways with different displays of sorrow or joy and maybe our marriage would have withstood the house’s constraints. But looking down through our second-story windows onto Summit Avenue, onto the treeless street and at the orderly row of houses with their brick chimneys and postage stamp lawns, impressed upon me a kind of agency. I wanted to experience more; I desired more and though it took therapy to do so, I voiced those desires. I blame the house, the view it afforded me, its position in the very center of the street, its separate entrances dividing it into two apartments. We felt trapped. No wonder the marriages of both sets of inhabitants, mine and my professor’s, broke up. “People and the places where they reside are engaged in a continuing set of exchanges; they have determinate, mutual effects upon each other because they are part of a single, interactive system,” claims author Julie Beck in an article that appeared in the December 30th, 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Now as I contemplate the domino effect of our shattering marriages, I blame the house.

 •

Six months later, a different party. This one at the house of one of the students in the graduate art department, a fellow student of my husband’s. My husband was invited without me. I sat home alone. He was dancing to the Thompson Twins and throwing back shots of vodka — my first choice drink — or gin — his, in between giving his running commentary on abstract expressionism versus minimalistic art, which had just begun to go mainstream.

“I can’t understand how you would be invited to a party without your wife,” I had asked him. “Don’t they know that you’re married?” I was so naïve. I was waiting for him to say, “Well I’m not going if you’re not invited,” or “yeah, that’s so rude, come with me anyway.” But he didn’t.

He shrugged and went into the next room to change his jeans. Perhaps if I had been smart enough to figure out that he was the one who hadn’t wanted me to go to the party with him, that parties in graduate school aren’t by invitation but are mostly open houses, the doors literally wide open in that college town, then maybe we’d still be married.

I remember lying in bed, watching car head lights circle, waiting for his. I remember falling asleep and waking up. He still wasn’t home. I remember going back to sleep again and waking up again — this time in the morning — without him.

While I had woken up the first time, been awake enough to walk dazed to the refrigerator and open the door and stare inside, drawn to the white light striking orange juice and milk bottles, I heard voices downstairs. Raucous, drunken, it was my teacher, his wife and two students from the program who I didn’t even know were friends of theirs. It was bad enough that my husband had gone to a party without me. Now kids in my class were partying with the teachers — my downstairs neighbors — and I hadn’t even been invited. Our bed was a futon in the living room. My husband and I divided the room that would have been our bedroom in half to give each of us a makeshift studio — me for writing and him for painting, though both halves were saturated with the smell of paint thinner. The living room now bedroom didn’t have a door. It always felt so exposed, so open with his two dreary, monochrome watercolors of the scraggly woods behind his childhood home outside Philadelphia mounted on the wall over our futon.

My mother married at eighteen and the idea of getting married young had been drilled into me from an even younger age. I did everything opposite to the way my parents did things, but that one expectation somehow lived in me noisily like the sound of cricket chirps, insects that are nearly invisible but dominate the night.

When my husband finally did come home from the party mid-morning, we hardly spoke. I was angry and wanted to lash out but held it in. He seemed happy albeit a little guilty, because he didn’t try to speak with me either. We both stoically settled into our morning routine, getting ready for class or catching up on some last minute studying. The house sheltered us for the time being. Our upstairs apartment was remote and large enough to help us avoid a confrontation. He could work in the studio room and I could putter around in the kitchen, until the day we decided it in fact it was not a refuge, that neither of us felt safe in it, bruised from having stubbed a toe on the other’s flung shoes or taken a misstep over clothes that the other had stopped courteously picking up. One of us sought chaos while the other sought organization; one cerebral while the other was emotional; one coming in late, the other leaving early; one apologizing, the other burning pots on the electric stove, opening a screen window and standing in front of it to air out the room, black with a dinner’s charred remains, and with reddened, stinging eyes, gulping in fresh fall air.

It was the house. • 8 October 2014

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
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