Photograph by Ottessa Moshfegh.
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.
This one time, my dad bought me a house in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a two-story fake Colonial with yellow aluminum siding on Hawkins Street. We bought it from the bank for $55,000; it was one of many properties under foreclosure in the city in 2009. Dad and I had spent a few days driving around and looking at these houses. In one driveway, I found a dirty playing card depicting the biggest penis I could ever imagine—I still have it. In one basement, the realtor had to disclose, the former owner had tied his girlfriend’s lover to a chair, tortured him, and then shot him in the head.
The man who had lived in my house on Hawkins Street had owed more on the house than it was worth. It was in an undesirable part of town, or so I was told, but I loved the neighborhood. The houses were small. There was a permanent lemon icee stand a block away. I was about twenty steps away from a bodega that functioned as the neighborhood grocery store. My next door neighbor was an elderly lady from Portugal who spoke almost no English and yet complained to me about all the dogshit in my backyard while bragging about the tomatoes in her garden, which looked exactly like her breasts beneath her housedress, heavy and sliding. We were separated by a chainlink fence.
The layout of the house was nothing special. When you walked through the front door, you could go up the staircase on the left. Or you could walk straight down the hall, past the small living room, to the kitchen, and from the kitchen you could take a u-turn and step down to the side-door to the driveway, or continue on down to the basement. I had never had a house of my own. When we signed the papers, I felt myself moving into a new phase of my life, a rite of passage with my father in the chair next to me. It was a beautiful and slightly terrifying experience I know I was very lucky to have, and I loved the house, I loved the light and the intimacy of the rooms, and I loved writing in that house. I wrote McGlue in that house. But more than anything, I loved that house because Dad and I renovated it together. Every day for months, he drove down from Massachusetts with his tools. We’d work all morning sanding and painting, breaking down walls, laying tile, whatever, then go have foot-long Subway sandwiches at the Walmart, hit the Home Depot, and go back to work until it was dark and the rush hour traffic had died down. This was the most time I had ever spent with Dad. It was fun and emotional and felt like the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy.
The biggest issue that needed to be addressed—the thing that made the house unlivable—was the nicotine. I don’t mean that the place smelled of cigarette smoke or old cigarettes or ash or the butts stubbed out on the greasy parquet floor. I mean that there was nicotine syrup soaked into the walls. Have you ever smoked a cigarette in a small room in Providence in the summer, in the still of the night? Cigarette smoke is distilled in the lungs, and upon exhalation, the nicotine adheres to the moisture in the environment, the droplets land, the nicotine is absorbed, and the poison never leaves. The interior of the house had a layer of nicotine varnish that made everything sepia and gross. You cannot scrub this stuff off anything except, maybe, stainless steel. So Dad and I had to rip out all the walls.
I can’t really remember what the kitchen was like when we got the house, although I’m sure Dad took a picture. I just remember using a sledgehammer. I had been an on-and-off smoker for many years—something I tried (and probably failed) to hide from my parents. (I finally quit last year thanks to Chantix and the grace of God.) I mention this to stress that I was used to the smell of smoke. But this was something different. It was, literally, the smell of carcinogens. And yet the demolition was kind of sad. When I was breaking up the walls in the kitchen, I found horsehair in the plaster, and a sloppily potato-printed wallpaper I wished I could keep.
Upstairs was a slightly different story. The previous owner had painted the walls orange, laid huge white tiles down the hallway, and installed some kitchen cabinets in a windowless area by the bathroom. An old fridge stood awkwardly, wedged as far is it could get under the sloped roof ceiling. It appeared to be a half-renovated rental unit. It wasn’t a bad idea, and I did use that fridge while the real kitchen downstairs was being gutted and renewed. I mention this because it it was part of the interrupted life of the house. The previous owner wanted to turn the upstairs into an independent apartment. He had obviously failed to keep up with the mortgage. Maybe if he’d finished sooner, and rented out the upstairs, everything would have been okay.
One day, when Dad and I were at work in the kitchen, a guy pulled into the driveway, walked in through the side-door, took one look at the place, and lit a cigarette. He didn’t introduce himself or say hello. We knew exactly who he was. I tried to talk to him. He kind of waved me away, and looked at the crumbled drywall on the floor. He didn’t come any further into the house. Dad and I put down our tools and stood, a little penitent, while he smoked. Finally, he threw the cigarette on the floor, crushed it under his sandal, opened his mouth to speak, but began to cry instead. It was horrible. It was heartbreaking. It was so bad. I looked at my dad. He made no expression. There was nothing to say or to do. We just stood there, respectfully, gazing downward as the man cried and rubbed his face and pulled another cigarette out and lit it. Finally, when he was done crying, he turned to us and said, “I used to live here.” He kicked at some broken plaster on the floor. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He waved his hand as though to say, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” He took one more long, hard drag, coughed for about a minute straight, and then went out the side-door and drove away.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a novelist and screenwriter. Her latest novel, Lapvona, is out now.
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