We Have Always Lived in the House

In the face of tragic loss, Victoria Comella searches for the home she left behind, only to find it seventeen years later in the last place she expected.

Victoria Comella | Longreads | July 2018 | 16 minutes (3,784 words)

 

It was a good house, the one where we lived together as a family. It was — still is — a white colonial with black shutters in Loudonville, New York, a small suburban hamlet just outside Albany. Built in the 1920s, it was old but solid with a strong foundation and sturdy walls that housed a perfectly wonderful childhood. I was happy there with my parents and my older sister, and we did what most families do in their houses: We built memories. We built them not knowing at the time they would become memories. That someday in the not-too-distant future we’d look back on those times in the house and wonder where it all went. Wonder who we were in that house, and if those people living that life could have in fact been us.

But it was us. In that house.

And the house would be the last place I’d see my mother alive.

***

A week before I left the house, set to head east to Boston to start my freshman year at Northeastern University, the twin towers fell 150 miles south of where I was standing. The floodgates opened then as I hovered on the brink of adulthood, and in rushed the awareness of just how rocky the terrain of life outside the house could be. How big the world was but also how untenable, how volatile, and how those strong, sturdy walls I had been so desperate to break free of as a teenager were also, perhaps, more important than I’d thought.

During college I would move into three different apartments — Back Bay to Allston then back again. I would see the depression of an entire city the day after the Red Sox lost the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, and I would be there the following year to watch the city break an 86-year curse to win the World Series before graduating eight months later. In January 2006, I left Boston for New York City after having landed a dream publishing job as a publicity assistant at Penguin. I slept on the floor in an apartment in Williamsburg — before Williamsburg was cool — that belonged to two friends who were in a band. We’d brush our teeth in the kitchen because the bathroom didn’t have a sink.

Everything I had was in a duffel bag. It wasn’t home, but it was New York and it was where my stuff was.

***

While I was pursuing my degree in English in Boston and reading Victorian literature with dreams of one day becoming a writer myself, 450 miles south of there, in Waldorf, Maryland, Brandon — who was born exactly one month to the day before me in 1983 — wasn’t sitting within the walls of an academic institution somewhere. Instead, on the heels of 9/11, he joined the military.

He would be tested in other ways.

During basic training at the young age of 18, he would receive a call telling him his little sister had died. At 16, she had taken her own life. Questions were asked. How? Why? When? As though the answers would make a difference. Brandon would fly home for the funeral to say goodbye. He would return to the house where he grew up, which would have been the last place he had seen his sister alive.

Later, in 2004, he would go to Afghanistan. It would be a country he would come home from, though two of his closest friends would not.

I wouldn’t meet Brandon for another 10 years, in 2014.

***

Spring 2006. I left Brooklyn for Manhattan. I was 23.

My apartment on the Upper East Side was small and expensive on my entry-level publishing salary. I shared it with a stranger from Texas I found on Craigslist. I forget her name. Katie? Kassie? Kara? On weekends she slept until after lunch, and she had a cat who hacked up furballs so big it looked like hairy turds were always strewn about the apartment.

I hoped I’d never mistakenly step on one with bare feet.

One of my bedroom walls was fake, a partition wall made out of something resembling painted cardboard, thrown up in the middle of the living room as New York landlords tend to do thereby making a one-bedroom a two-bedroom, squeezing in more people than is humanly sane while still charging you through the nose.

We did what most families do in their houses: We built memories. We built them not knowing at the time they would become memories. That someday in the not-too-distant future we’d look back on those times in the house and wonder where it all went.

A little over a year after I’d moved to the city, I walked from the Penguin offices in the West Village up Hudson Street to grab lunch. On the way, I called my mother. She was 54 then, up in Albany with my dad, living in the house. “I can’t wait to see you this weekend,” she said at the end of the call. They were planning on leaving the house, driving down that weekend to visit. “Me too,” I remember saying before hanging up. I got a tuna sandwich from a place that would be out of business in a year. These are the kinds of details that stay with you from the hours before and after a tragedy.

As I walked back to the office I had no way of knowing, of course, that later that night my mother’s car would flip over and three days later she’d be dead.

***

After the first day in the hospital, while my mom was still alive, we went back to the house — my dad, my sister, and me. We sat in the car for a long time in the freezing cold with the engine off, not knowing what to do next. How can we go back into the house without her? With her still in the hospital in a coma? I remember feeling my subway pass in my coat pocket, resting against the folds. How could it be, I thought. How could it be that people’s lives were still going on, that they were out to dinner, hailing a taxi to a bar, or running to catch the subway home when my life was up here, falling apart? I squeezed the MetroCard until the edges cut into my hand.

Inside, my room — with its twin bed and floral wallpaper and Dave Matthews posters and ripped-out pages from travel magazines and yellowed newspaper clippings of all the places I one day hoped to see on the wall — was still the same. The same floorboards creaked, the same radiators clanked on. Chairs and couches and beds and curtains still felt the same, looked the same, smelled the same.

How could it all still be the same, this house, this home, this last place we’d all been together?

And then I thought, what if she never wakes up?

What if she never comes back to the house?

***

On the second day in the waiting room of the ICU, questions were asked. How? Why? When? As though the answers would make a difference. She’d had too much to drink out with friends from work who were celebrating a coworker’s birthday. The coworker had hired a limo for everyone, which took them to different places in downtown Albany throughout the night, before bringing them back to their cars.

Back to their cars.

In the end she drove a mile and a half in the wrong direction, a distance that still catches in my throat as I say it, think it, picture it in my head. All that before another car came hurtling toward her and she veered off the road into a ditch where they’d find her later, hanging upside down inside the car, unconscious. For a long time after, I used to think about that, about what it must have been like for her, and if she knew what was happening as it was happening.


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The woman in the other car would suffer minor foot injuries and turn out to be the daughter of a man my father had gone to high school with. Life is at once ridiculous and cruel, never letting us forget how small our lives are, how we are at the mercy of the powerful threads of the universe that spin on and outward outside of our control.

She was in a coma, rigged up to machines, eyes swollen shut, head resting to one side, hospital gown askew. Exposed, I remember thinking. Someone should cover her up. In that room, looking at her, I felt like I was suffocating. Standing there listening to the methodical guuusssh, tick! of the machine pumping air into her lungs, keeping her alive, it was as though there was water on the floor, pooling over the waxy, sterilized linoleum, getting higher and higher every second, trapping me in.

I would place my hand on my chest in a futile attempt to steady my heart. The same hand that would reach out to her bedside to take hold of hers. I remember it was warm and familiar and soft to the touch.

And I remember that when I squeezed, she didn’t squeeze back.

***

Back in New York I moved across town, fled the Upper East Side for the west, Central Park my own Checkpoint Charlie. There were too many memories of my mother in my old neighborhood, of that first year she’d come to visit and helped me decorate and buy things I needed from Bed Bath & Beyond. We’d gone to a Yankees game with my dad, then to dinner at that cute place around the corner on 70th and 3rd. I had cried too many times in front of the doorman. I needed a clean break. I couldn’t stand his sorrowful look anymore, his pity.

It was 2008 and the housing market was in crisis. I found a prewar studio walk-up on 85th and West End for a song. Well, a New York, New York song at any rate, which means the rent was double its value for a room in which my refrigerator was next to my bed. If I can make it there …

It was my own home. For the first time in my adult life I had an apartment I didn’t have to share with a roommate or someone else’s hairy cat. The ultimate dream. The one I’d had when I was growing up in the house. After the movers left, I performed a profound feat of Tetris unpacking all my boxes in that small room. When it was finished I remember sitting on my bed, tired and sweaty, hearing the hum of the fridge and the rumble of taxis and car horns down on West End Avenue and thinking: All this time this is what I thought would make me happy. This house, this home all to myself.

And now that I finally have it, none of it matters.

***

After the war Brandon would come home, but the war would still be raging inside him. He would drink more than he knew he should, but still he would not stop. He would get married and soon after divorced before moving to Glacier National Park and Joshua Tree, where he spent time outside, building trails and finding his way alongside them before moving to Vermont to attend a small liberal arts college where he studied Faulkner and lived in a Yurt.

In 2012 he would move to New York and settle with his girlfriend on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from where I was on 85th Street. Only I didn’t know him yet. His life would happen alongside mine as that of a stranger, a face in the crowd, on the streets and in the subway with no way of knowing what was lying ahead of us, just down the road.

Two years later, in 2014, I would get priced out of my studio and leave Manhattan for Brooklyn, moving into a friend’s spare room in Crown Heights. Again the movers would come, packing even less this time as I’d gone Marie Kondo on the place and donated all of the books and clothes and things that did not spark joy. The apartment was small and long and narrow with our kitchen doubling as a living room. We had space for a small love seat and no table. My bedroom barely fit my full-size mattress, and in the winter the heat never worked; I was always cold.

But I wasn’t cold when I met Brandon. It was a warm Friday night in July 2014. I was cat-sitting at my sister’s apartment in the East Village, cooking dinner for two friends. We’d eat alfresco to make use the apartment’s roof and stunning views. Since my mother died in 2007, I had been perpetually single. When I did try to date it was always the wrong kind of man, the ones I knew would never work, skillfully allowing myself to avoid the one thing that terrified me the most — losing someone I truly cared about.

Looking back now at how we met, one could call it a great New York story but really it’s just a life story because life, like New York, is nothing but dumb luck. A friend with good intentions was trying to set me up and brought him to dinner, only she forgot to ask before she brought him if he was single. I remember being disappointed once he showed up that he wasn’t. The night was hot and the roof gave us a nice breeze high above the city.

Over the next two years we would remain friends, meeting for coffee on occasion to talk about books and politics and deeper things like life and death. He didn’t talk much about his sister, though I’d heard enough to surmise what happened. I knew that once she died, his life spiraled out from there. Spiraled to war and more death, to returning home lost, to turning to alcohol in an attempt to numb the pain. For him it had all culminated years earlier in a night behind the wheel that should have sentenced him to the same fate as my mother, when his truck crashed into a tree with such force it’s hard to believe he walked away.

Only he did.

He got a second chance.

***

Second chances are funny things.

My father, 10 years after my mother died, met someone else. My parents had met young, married in 1973, and were together for nearly 35 years before my mom was snatched out from under us in the blink of an eye. My father tried to date, and while the rules had changed since the last time he’d done it nearly 40 years before, he eventually found someone who clicked. They wanted to get married, and I was happy for him. Life moves on the way it must, the way we have to allow it to so that our days, for those of us who are still here, have some kind of meaning. We get second acts, sometimes a third and fourth, and we have no choice but to adapt, to continue to reinvent ourselves.

And so my father, then 70, and his new wife, 58, would start over anew, and together they would look ahead at years and experiences to share out from under the pain of the past. I remember thinking on his wedding day that the first time you do this, when you’re young and in love, feeling the world is going to stop for you, you don’t think there will ever be a reason for you to do it again. Not in the moment you’re looking into the other person’s eyes, totally and wholly in love. In that moment all is perfect, and the future, well, you don’t anticipate the bad things. The impossible things.

The things that could bring you back here with someone else you didn’t even know existed.

For my father, marriage meant moving out of my childhood home, starting over somewhere with a clean slate where memories aren’t embedded in the hardwood, and won’t seep out through the cracks in the paint. So one hot June weekend my sister and I came up to Albany from the city, where we were both living, to throw away the past. It took two full days of sorting, innumerable trips up and down two flights of stairs from the attic to the dumpster in the driveway, but we did it. We kept a few things — baby clothes my mother had made, my sister’s extensive He-Man figurine collection, our Barbie dolls and board games and handmade Christmas ornaments.

By the end of the weekend we knew it was time to let go. To say goodbye and leave the house.

And we did.

We had no way of knowing, of course, that we’d be back.

***

After Brandon became single we started dating, falling into each other so easily that at first I didn’t trust it. When you know, you know, as they say, which is true even though it always seemed to me too feeble an explanation for the rest of your life. But wouldn’t you know, “they” are right.

In the middle of a blizzard, four days before St. Patrick’s Day 2016, I decided I was going to leave New York. Sitting there looking out a little window in a tiny studio apartment that was meant to soon be ours, the snow falling sideways against the background of a Wall Street high-rise, I felt like every flake was a different path my life could have taken at a million different points along the way. But somehow, some way, they led me to this man’s overpriced studio in lower Manhattan, where I’d been spending most of my nights, attempting to picture what life would be away from this place.

I couldn’t have known, of course, when Brandon and I got together, that six months into the relationship he would need to move to Atlanta for work and ask me to go with him. But he did, and I knew even as the words were coming out of his mouth that I’d go. I chose it because I knew — in my gut and my bones and my heart — that life is a short and precarious thing and nothing, not one bit of it, not even tomorrow, not even tonight, is a guarantee.

So short and so precious, in fact, that six months after my father’s wedding and almost to the day she was set to retire, my father’s new wife would go to the ER with severe stomach and back pains thinking it must just be food poisoning, but instead would be diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

After a while the snow changed direction, the wind churning it around between tall Manhattan buildings. I watched as it flowed right to left, then left to right, before getting swept upward as though in the middle of an elegant and graceful dance, light and free. Light and free. That’s what I wanted. After all this time. After everything. After all the pain of loss and rebuilding from the things that had happened — and kept happening — that I couldn’t control. Of the unpredictability of life and the lie we tell ourselves everyday. That we will always have more of the one thing there’s never enough of.

Time.

***

In the past year Brandon and I bought a house in Atlanta while my father moved back into his. We have been moving around for a long time, Brandon and I, each in our own, separate ways. Transient, I say. Others call it running. But running is usually talked about when you’re running from something. What about what you’re running toward?

Now that we are choosing to stay and build a home of our own I wonder about our losses and if they have each in their small ways always had us running toward each other. I wonder, if both our tragedies hadn’t happened, how different our lives might have been. If they had lived — my mother would be 66 now, Brandon’s sister, 33 — what alternate paths we’d have taken.

I often wonder if we’d even have met.

The odds, I think, are slim.

But I don’t care to think much about odds anymore. Watching the evening news, seeing a tragedy it’s easy to think: Odds are something like that will never happen to me. You hear a story from a colleague about a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer. What are the odds? Or suicide or a drunk driving accident, or, or, or. I’ll make it home, you think. I would never. Not me.

And then.

And then. And then. And then.

As we move into this new house, ours to build our lives in, creating memories unaware of and unsure of the future, I’ve been thinking a lot about the house where I grew up, the last place I called home, and who we were then when we lived there. They — us back then — feel like strangers, actors in a play pretending to be happy. And then I realize who they really are. They are people still on the other side. The ones who when bad things happened would ask, Why me?

Light and free. That’s what I wanted. After all this time. After everything. After all the pain of loss and rebuilding from the things that had happened — and kept happening — that I couldn’t control.

Not the people we are now. The people who we’ve settled into and become.

The ones who ask, Why not me?

My father speaks often of the past, of when we were all together, my mother was alive and we all lived in the house. “The good old days,” he calls it. After all those years of searching I’ve found the happiness I’d always deep down wanted but was never sure I’d actually get. And when I look at Brandon and how we got to now, I realize these are my good old days.

They’re happening right now, here in this very moment.

Which is why when Brandon asked me to marry him, I said yes. And when I walk down the aisle toward him and what’s meant to be the rest of our lives together, we’ll both know that moment is the most we can ever hope to live for. Because we know about life and its unpredictability. Of how cars flip over and wars break out and tumors and depression lurk and grow in dark secrecy.

But most of all we know that we are at the mercy of luck. Of chance and timing and right now, young and healthy, strong and in love, comfortable and capable of so much.

And I know that this is life. This is the point. And I am choosing it — a house, a home, a love, a life.

I am living it.

We are living it.

We have always lived it.

* * *

Victoria Comella is a writer who was a publicist at Penguin and HarperCollins before moving to Atlanta where she currently handles media relations for Emory University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Salon, Slate, Medium, and other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton