In our Winter issue, we published Mieko Kanai’s “Tap Water,” a story whose remarkable first sentence spills across more than two pages and describes the interior of the narrator’s new apartment as if it were the architecture of her emotional landscape. Who among us has not resolved to stop obsessing over some small piece of our home, only to fail? Inspired by Kanai’s story, we’re launching a series called Home Improvements, in which writers consider the aspects of their homes, gardens, and interior design that have driven them to distraction.
We were still in Colorado when we booked a first appointment with a realtor in Rhode Island. In the hour before our video call, my husband suggested we make a list of must-have and nice-to-have features in a house. He wrote “3 BR” in the must-have column on a page in his notebook, because we each wanted our own office, then leaned back in his chair. “Built-in bookshelves would be nice,” he said. We’ve always wanted built-in bookshelves. We didn’t yet know we were going to run out of space in the shipping container we’d rented and would have to throw out all the shelves we owned. “A fireplace,” he added thoughtfully. I went into my strident mode, a part of my bad personality that for some reason I cannot change. “A fireplace isn’t optional!” I said, taking the pen and writing “fireplace” in the must-have column. “I’m not going to buy a house without a fireplace.”
We’d spent eleven years in Denver, all in the same apartment, not because we liked the apartment so much, but because every year, when our lease renewal came up, we never felt much like moving. We had moved out there from Boston with eighty or ninety boxes of books, and we didn’t want to pack them up again. We kept hitting that snooze button. Finally John convinced me to move back to New England—he was born in Connecticut, and he never stopped missing it, the trees and the stone walls and all that. What pushed us over was the housing market, which was more reasonable in Providence than in Denver. John kept showing me listings for adorable Colonials with mortgage payments not much higher than our rent. They looked cozy, and I thought I could be happy in New England if we had a little house to settle down in—one last move for us and for the books—if we could cozy up together on a couch and read by the fire.
We drove across the country at the end of March 2022, arriving in John’s hometown in early April—an old mill town in Southeastern Connecticut, an hour from Providence. Our plan was to stay with his mother for a few months. This had a dual purpose. We’d save money on rent and recoup the costs of moving while we looked for a permanent place to live. We could also help Linda with some things around the house, and keep her company—John’s father had died the previous fall. We felt useful, helping her clean out the basement, which had flooded the previous summer, and manage the yard, and so did she—on nights when we had to work late, Linda made dinner.
It’s strange to return. I lived in Boston in my twenties, and now I’m in my forties. One weekend in April we visited friends in Cambridge, then stopped in Harvard Square to buy Linda a Mother’s Day present. There was still a bitter chill in the wind that morning, and as we drove around looking for a spot to leave the car, we kept passing places where I remembered being cold. Once I slipped on some ice coming out of a bar on Mass Ave. It must have been 2007. There was frozen, jagged snow all over the sidewalks, and I tore my jeans and scraped up my knees and the palms of my hands. A couple days later I got food poisoning—it was particularly miserable, vomiting while down on my wounded knees.
During the spring and into summer, whenever anybody asked me how the house hunt was going, I’d make the same unfunny joke. We’re facing two problems, I’d say, and they’re related. The places we like, we can’t afford, and the places we can afford, we don’t like. During the nine or so months between our decision to move and the actual move, housing prices had gone up something like 25 percent. We had told our realtor the absolute top of our range. A week or so later, he asked for a reminder of that figure, quoting back a number fifty thousand dollars higher than the one we’d given him. I didn’t know how to respond. The places in our price range lacked our must-have features, to say nothing of nice ones. I felt like a fool.
When I was twelve or so, my parents converted their wood-burning fireplace to gas. The idea was that it would be so much easier to light and extinguish that we’d use it more often. But the fireplace lost almost all of its appeal. It no longer gave off any real heat, and it didn’t smell delicious—it didn’t smell like anything—and worst of all, it didn’t crackle. I love the sound of a wood fire, and I got through many a winter in that Denver apartment by burning a special kind of candle with a crackling wooden wick, and by playing ASMR white noise videos on YouTube with names like “Cozy Reading Nook Ambience” and, my favorite, “Crackling Campfire on the Windy Tundra of Norway.” My family’s new gas fireplace offered no drama. As Jun’ichirō Tanizaki once wrote of electric heaters, “without the red glow of the coals, the whole mood of winter is lost.” After the conversion we only lit a fire once a year, on Christmas, and in a perfunctory fashion. In Providence, I thought we might have to settle for a gas fireplace. But most houses we looked at had no fireplace at all. And with interest rates increasing, we couldn’t afford those houses either.
It was a world-historically terrible time to try to buy property. People kept saying that prices were bound to come down eventually, so we decided to wait. We had a place to live. I thought I could do it—not indefinitely, maybe, but almost indefinitely. Then in October I sprained my ankle; I was on crutches for a week, and wore an orthopedic boot for several more. I missed long walks desperately. My anxiety ratcheted up. We told our realtor we’d start looking again after the holidays. Around Thanksgiving I started having nocturnal panic attacks—I’d wake up with a shock, like I’d been shocked with a defibrillator, then start sobbing uncontrollably. I listened to a podcast about why people cry—there’s a theory that it serves a social function more than anything else. Literally, a cry for help. In December we both got COVID—for the first time, somehow—and had to cancel our trip to Texas to see my parents. On my third day of COVID, I threw out my back and cried laughably hard. The tears seemed to actually leap from my eyes—projectile tears. I am sometimes amazed by the depths of my own self-pity.
One good thing about time passing is, you get to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again. My mother-in-law had never seen it, so we all watched it together. I’ve seen it dozens of times, but on this occasion I heard a line I’d never noticed before. George is trying to explain to his father that he doesn’t want to stay in the family business, which is a building and loan association. “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office,” he says. “I want to do something big and something important.” His father says, “You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”
Roof and walls and fireplace. I thought of philosophers and their furniture: Plato’s “chairness,” Wittgenstein’s disappearing chair: “I say ‘There is a chair’. What if I go up to it, meaning to fetch it, and it suddenly disappears from sight.? —‘So it wasn’t a chair, but some kind of illusion’.” Not all houses have a fireplace, but I read somewhere that when children draw houses they often add a chimney with smoke coming out. I remember doing this myself, the chimney coming out of a pitched roof, though our own roof was flat. I remember believing that snow smelled like fire, because every time it snowed, I smelled woodsmoke in the air.
There’s a big stone fireplace at Linda’s, and ever since the clocks changed, once or twice a week John will ask me, in his soothing voice, Would you like me to build you a fire tonight? I’ll open a book but only look at it part of the time, because I love looking at a fire. If there’s a TV on in a bar, I’ve noticed, and there almost always is, the movement pulls your eye to it, no matter how boring what’s on is. A fire is the same, but a fire is never boring. It’s mysterious that it isn’t. Or maybe it’s not mysterious. It’s this miracle life-giving thing you can build in your house, the same thing cave people built in their caves. I have not lived a day without a sunset, but a sunset is never boring. Apart from being beautiful, it reminds you there’s a giant ball of fire in the sky and we only see it half the time. The transitions remain interesting.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently Normal Distance, out from Soft Skull in September 2022, and The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays. She writes the “On Poetry” column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared recently in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The Believer.
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