Someone should write a survival guide for growing up—like the ones they give to freshmen when they arrive on campus. That’s what I was thinking as I lay sprawled on my living room floor in the middle of winter. In that moment, as brief as an eclipse, as strong as the moon’s grip on the ocean, it became clear: the life I’d grown accustomed to was over. In my new life, I was an English teacher with a mortgage, a few months out of graduate school. I could barely keep herbs alive, but was suddenly responsible for the education of freshmen. I needed an operator’s manual for this part of my life—something that explained why my new house came with a leaky roof and a snake that lived in the laundry room. I needed a carpenter to patch the holes in my walls, the rusted pipes in the basement, the wires that were crossed. But I couldn’t hire him to fix all of the things that didn’t work the way they should. Some of them I had to handle on my own, and some of them just couldn’t be repaired. This is what you learn in the house that is your life.
Each room is a chapter. There is the living room, where I built a fire each day in the winter because I was too stubborn and too thrifty to install a heating system. I was supposed to be a tough country girl, resistant to ice and cold. So I tossed freshman essays into the fire, wondering why I cared so much when they cared so little. Wearing a fur-lined aviator’s hat, I read page after page, drinking coffee that was cool by the time I reached the couch. Their grammar made me cringe. Their topics made me cry. Why were they confessing these stories to me? These things they would never tell their parents, couldn’t trust with friends? This is what happens when you grow up—their problems become your problems. You realize you don’t have it that bad after all, that there are others out there who ache, who worry, who wonder. The world becomes less and less about you, and more about what happens as a result of how you move within it.
There is the bathroom, where something like ninety percent of all household accidents occur. After an emergency house call, the plumber exhumed my septic tank—a scene fit for a horror movie––and handed me a bill that could have funded a low-budget one. This is the room where I’d discovered my hair was coming out in clumps. Where stepping on the scales showed I had lost more weight in a week than I had in six months (because no amount of running, rowing, or cycling at the gym ever pays off—ever). This was when my parents and my boyfriend arrived the same weekend to help me move my life out of a truck and into a house—two worlds collided under one leaky roof. The fallout was inevitable. Relationships began to rapidly decay. It became evident that different kinds of love are like different kinds of chemicals. They don’t always work well together just because it works out on paper. Some are more volatile than others. You have to consider the state they’re in, the bonds they have on the elemental level. People want to make you choose when you think you shouldn’t have to, and they want to excavate the strata of your heart like layers of dirt in the yard. They say they want to compromise, but “compromise” means something different to adults. It doesn’t always apply to plumbing, and it rarely applies to the heart. That’s somewhere in the back of the adulthood manual, back in the fine print.
The bedroom is in a constant state of remodeling, and I fear that it always will be. Some days there is fusion, some days fission. A fresh coat of paint can only hide so much. There are carpenter bees living in the beam by the window, their endless buzzing filling my chest and my ears, reminding me that I am not as alone as I think I am. When one leaves, there will always be another, and there is an eerie comfort in knowing that. They want so badly to get out of the world that they know and into mine, and I want to tell them to give up already. But I know that there is always someone out there more determined than I am. Since I can’t have my way all of the time, I have to learn to compromise. (There’s that word again.) Lying in a bed that now squeaks, I decide that a bedroom is a bad metaphor for love. It’s too juvenile and short-sighted. There are better comparisons out there.
There is the kitchen door, which I repainted when I moved in. At night, I can still see an oily handprint on the glass. It’s been there for months, left by the man I loved, the man who would later cleave my heart in two. He’d rested his palm on the glass the last time he’d driven in for the weekend, while he waited for me to unlock the door. He was good at waiting, and I was, too. For a while. But sometimes you don’t fully understand what you’re waiting for, and that leads to a different kind of compromise—the kind that feels like a rip tide. We’d broken up when we learned that love was not enough to keep us together, but I hadn’t been able to wash the door. It was one of those moments where you know you should let go, but you aren’t quite ready yet. Love doesn’t get any easier when you get older. It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s more complicated than it was in the stories about princesses and dwarves. But rips and tears make muscles stronger, and as I place my hand over the glass, I remember that the heart’s a muscle, too.
The laundry room is carved out of the basement. Exposed beams and pipes form a maze that the five-foot-long black snake takes delight in navigating. On the first winter day I did laundry, she dangled just above the washing machine, her lower half wrapped around a copper pipe. Her eyes level with mine, she stuck her tongue out as if to remind me that I was not the only one searching for a warm place to rest. “We’re in this together,” I said. “We have to learn to adapt.” Then I started the spin cycle and she retreated to the chimney. We had an understanding after that––there was enough space for us to coexist, as long as she stayed out of my bedroom and the mouse population declined. That might have been my first successful cohabitation.
This house is still in a state of flux. There are always floorboards that need to be repaired, leaks that need to be patched. This is how it will always be: this house will always need my attention, as if it is a living, breathing beast. I cannot simply storm out of it when we have a disagreement, just as I cannot leave my students when I think they’ve already given up. We have created bonds, and my actions are not simple anymore. I’ve heard people say that we have a certain “sphere of awareness”—that might be best described as how far we can see ahead of us, in terms of our actions and their repercussions. For children, it extends about a foot in front of them. For teenagers, a few yards. But you know you’re an adult when you start to see the consequences of your actions in windowpanes and bed frames, paragraphs and footnotes. When the small things start to matter because they are indicative of something larger, then you know that sphere is widening, and you are starting to see the patterns and complexities in the world that you are a part of, for better or worse. It may be a small part, and it may be a huge part—but this role you play will always be in flux. None of it is easy, love least of all. But I wouldn’t change a single action––for that would alter the outcome. This is what occured to me when the fragments of my life aligned in that odd moment, when I lay on the floor in my fur-lined hat, burning essays for warmth. When I looked at the rooms of my house and saw not nails and boards and fieldstone, but all of the choices that had brought me to this place where all of the parts collide into the shape of the person I had become.