2/25/14: Old Houses are Like This

For the month of December I'll be reposting certain highlights (and lowlights) of 2014. The following post was first published February 25th and for those wondering, the rats have since gone. (Although Hal still wakes up from time to time thinking he heard something. I think we might be scarred for life.) The main shower, meanwhile, is still caving in. We haven't been able to fix it because it's an extremely expensive repair and we had to prioritize with our roof which was a mess. (We've been using the small shower in the half bath all year.) Thankfully, we were able to fix the roof before last week's storm. The bathroom (and basement) are next. Unless the garage caves in before that. It's endless... this list. It truly goes on. And on. (And on.) I will say that living in an old and storied (and extremely high maintenance) house has served our marriage well. Having something to "work on" as a couple, serves as a convenient metaphor. (Same story with my ever-broken ring.We can look at our house with all its cracks and creatures, leaks and holes and, say, "Okay, so it's imperfect. Let's invest and make it better... " and know we're talking about more than just the house. 
"Are we falling apart?" he asks in the darkness.

I am lying with my back to him as the word "no" escapes like a reflex.

"It feels like we're falling apart."

"This is a bad time. We've been here before. We'll find a way."


There are rats in the house again and he's more afraid of rats than of anything. He's afraid of rats like I'm afraid of confined spaces and when he hears them in the walls he can't breathe.

But I kept rats as pets when I was little so they don't scare me.

Which sickens him and now he feels alone.

I don't want them in the house but he can't live with them here. He is wide awake and I am already sleeping.

And then there is a sound and another sound and "I CAN'T LIVE HERE ANYORE! I'VE HAD IT!"

So I turn on all the lights and check under the bed and in the closet where he swore he saw one scamper but I don't see anything.

"I don't see anything."

"But I heard one."

"We have to sleep now," I tell him.

"But I can't."

"But we have to."

I turn off the light and his eyes don't close. He's awake and he will stay that way for the rest of the night.


We are not the same, him and me. I am stubborn and calm and he is sensitive and combustive. I emote through my fingers and in the shower, scream into my steering wheel in an empty van. A tree falling in the forrest when no one is around doesn't make a sound. 

But my silence is a ravine against his mountainous loud. And suddenly we are standing on either side of the Grand Canyon, communicating only through letters that cannot be delivered by post.

"I feel like I'm alone," he shouts against the borders of my whispers.

"You don't understand me," I whisper into the margins of his cries.

I can hear his eyes blink as we turn our backs to each other. He is awake on his side and I am asleep and the line that separates us is made of stone.

He is angry at the things he cannot control and so am I.

But his things are different from my things. And that has become a bigger problem than the things themselves. The jagged edges of our zig zag are impossible to navigate without bruising egos and unraveling strings.

So our backs curl like question marks, dented and dinged, his feet touching mine but only on accident.

Quick, pull away. You can't touch right now, it would be impossible considering the universe that expands between you.


The fifth contractor we've seen this week is in our basement. He's put on a hazmat suit because he's afraid of the mold.

He's an alarmist so we won't hire him. He calls us "my friend" and shows us videos on youtube of black mold and what it does to homes and people and families.

I suddenly feel like we're all dying and this is how our story will end.

My eyes sting and I can't stop coughing. I ask the kids if they have headaches.

They do not.

We order an air quality test, anyway.


The rat darts across the room while we're eating. Everyone screams and I go to find a shoebox.

"You can't catch a rat in a shoebox," he says but I think I can. 

"Of course I can."

I sneak up behind the bookcase where its tail reveals itself before disappearing behind a box of toys. I pull the box back slowly and away he goes like a shot across the room. 

Everyone screams.

Hal and Archer and Fable and the twins and me screaming loudest of all. 

The rat darts around the room like a pinball until he disappears into the laundry room at the end of the hall. 

"It's okay," I say, "everyone calm down. It's just a rat."


"Everything's fine! We're all fine."

"But Mom," Archer says, "you were screaming, too." 

We skip bath time and the six of us get into Fable's bed and read Tiger Goes Wild three times in a row to change the subject. Bo and Revi know every page by heart and every time they "read" it we all laugh. 

"Tiger goes wild..!" Bo yells. "

"..Tiger goes home!" Revi says. "The end."


"I can't live like this," he says. 

He's on the phone with the exterminator and I can see it on his face, the look he gets when he's frustrated and furious and powerless...

On the other side of the kitchen, I whisper for him to breathe.

Please don't raise your voice. It's impossible to hear you when you're yelling. 

He flashes me a look and then, hand to temple, lets out an exhale. 

He speaks calmly to the man. He doesn't yell or accuse or tear into, and when he hangs up the phone he flashes me a look.

"Thank you," I say. 


"Is it falling apart?" we ask him.

The kids are dancing to Frozen in the other room, their voices belting "Let it Go" as loud as they possibly can.

"The whole house needs a new foundation. Everything is falling one way. The floors are unbalanced."

"What about the mold?"

"We test it. We make sure it isn't toxic. We take it out. Redo this beam. Demo the damaged areas..."

This particular estimate will be double what the previous four have been so we won't go with these guys either, we'll go with someone who doesn't twist our arms with fear mongering and doomsday scenarios and "if an earthquake hits, your house will be swallowed whole and everyone will die." We'll go with someone who doesn't charge us double for the same job.

We can't afford to fix the beam. Or the bathroom. Or the foundation.

We can't afford not to fix the beam. Or the bathroom. Or the foundation.

We call a new exterminator.

We buy the fancy traps.

We sleep in silence, wide awake...




"What's wrong?" he finally asks. "Talk to me."

"It's nothing," I say. "I don't want to fight. I don't have the energy to fight with you."

He sits up, turns on the light.

Please raise your voice. It's impossible to hear you when you're silent. I can tell you're angry. Please talk to me. 

And that's when I cry, except this time it isn't a whimper into my pillow. I am angry and I can't stop all of the words that prove it. My whispers have become screams until the house is shaking. I'm standing and I'm yelling and the twins are awake now because I woke them with all of the things I need to say out loud to his face.

All of the things he needs to hear out loud in his ears.

This is his language and now he's listening.

"I hear you," he says.

Sometimes it's impossible to meet in the middle. Sometimes we have to learn to speak in voices that are unnatural... so that we can hear each other. So that we can hear ourselves.

"I'm beginning to understand."


Our feet touch in our sleep but this time neither of us pull away. We're too tired.

Or maybe it's something else.

Tomorrow, in the wee hours of the morning, after weeks of failed attempts, we'll catch the (last?) of the rats.

And later that day, a new contractor will swing by. He'll bring us down to the basement without masks on. And there, we'll touch the rotten beam with dry fingers for the first time. We'll feel the deteriorated wood against our hands. We'll follow the flashlight's beam across the sinking floorboards, past the darkish mold that grows beneath the broken tile, feel confused when we're told we are lucky...

"Without the rats you might not have known about the leak until it was too late.

This can be fixed.

Old houses are like this.

and broken,

They all need work," the contractor will say.

And we'll hang onto those words like a railing as we climb the basement stairs in steady silence, toward the voices that sing with all they have.

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