We built the house, my ex-wife and I, a decade ago. We poured our love into her foundations as we watched her bones rise over the snowy plains of Illinois. Vein and sinew were strung throughout and were covered by skin. A miraculous thing, to witness for the first time.
A house is a thing but things have feelings, too. Ask any little girl who’s every owned a doll. My house took care of us, and I took care of her the best I could, clumsy hands and all. I never expected a thing would come to mean so much, even outlasting the love that created it, for a time.
TIme passed and many things changed. I divorced and remarried. House starts to feel more like a home, as we finally paint walls that had been primer white since birth. Small touches, since our budget was limited, that made house feel warm and cozy and ours despite once being hers.
Divorce eventually put house and I into an intangible position, though. The economy was tanking and the real estate market was leading the charge. We were being forced to part with house. I couldn’t afford to refinance and my options for selling were being stifled by the opposition. Swimming in debt not entirely my own and facing a raging storm of guilt, I chose the only option left: bankruptcy.
This culminated a long, painful journey that saw us making the move to Canada to start anew. In the year and half since we walked away, I’ve heard whispers of gossip since then. I knew the bank was formally foreclosing, for example, even though my role in things was over. Their process server called me one January, first about the paperwork he needed to hand me and again when he visited the property, to warn me that he’d just called the fire department because water was gushing through the ceiling. Of drywall hanging off the walls. “If the bank tried to make a deal with you to take the house back,” he said, “run away.”
Like the scent of a old lover, she is forgotten until she is not. A year ago, I was back in town visiting my mom, and she came up in conversation. Of the tragedy of her loss, and the things that could have been. I knew I had to see her. I was so close, and I had to see for myself.
I stared through the front door, aghast at what she had become. The sign I purposely left hanging in the living room, “Welcome to the Israel’s”, was still there. Of the rest of the room, mold covered wall where drywall still clung to joist. Part of the ceiling was collapsed. The carpet was ruined. I circled the house with trepidation and climbed the back patio steps with dread. The kitchen and family rooms looked like a scenes from a nightmare. The light fixtures hung by wires and mold, mold, everywhere.
My next door neighbor was outside, with her children, enjoying the summer day. Curiosity, and something else, glimmered in her eyes as I approached. The story of the house that love built unfolded, still second hand, but the closest account I’m likely to ever get.
Sometime in December, after I’d officially moved to Canada, there was a mysterious incident. Someone broke into the house, stuffed the tub in the second floor bathroom with towels or rags, and turned the water on. The water overflowed, spilling down the stairs, saturating the walls, and eventually filling the basement. By the time the fire department arrived in January, the house I knew been drowned for some time.
The story continued, of repeated break-ins, of fires being set, and of responders having to wear full hazmat suits to enter the house because of the epic amount of mold covering everything. The city was called out multiple times to deal with the unruly eyesore of a lawn. A group of neighbors had been trying to get the house condemned, to no success. The neighborhood feared what would happen if the house continued to sit, and contemplated if it would be better to let it burn and be done with it.
In retrospect, I can only imagine what it must have looked like for my neighbors in the cul-de-sac, me returning after so much had happened. I apologized profusely, knowing that I didn’t cause this horrid corruption but unable to sever my feelings of guilty by association.
Love dies but is also reborn. I got a call from my mom this morning. She had breakfast with a family friend and, as they were catching up, an interesting discovery was made. J- had recently finished a painting job for a friend, for a house they bought and remodeled. They’d had to tear out her guts, replacing things like carpets and drywall. The kind of work that is a labor of love; an act of creation.
Today, someone sees her cast in their own light, but I will always remember her the way she was.