“We must destroy both the woman in the building and the building in the woman. In so doing we can begin to reimagine the (re)constructed body as it intersects the coordinates of gender, the social constructions of identity, and the familiar contours of the built environment."
-Jack Halberstam, Unbuilding Gender
When I dream, I dream of houses. Tonight, it is the Blue House.
On a raised foundation, this property nestles into a hillside. Half of the structure levels out to a wall of large stones that line a pathway down to the beach. The shore is always foggy and gray and blue and green. Sometimes, the water crashes against the shore; sometimes there is no beach and I find myself swept out. This time the water is calm.
I materialize on the shaggy lawn between the iron gate and the open front door. There is movement and liveliness drawing me into the building. I hear people laughing and glasses clinking and children running and screaming.
I enter and the house falls quiet, the reverberations echoing into stillness.
The foyer is a deep, cool sapphire and the coats and shoes ripple as if underwater. In the cane rack is an umbrella and the duck-headed walking stick; The Owner is home. I push further in, through the hall and past the living room – which is off limits and for guests only. Past the living room, through the hallway, dark and warm brown, into the kitchen. JoAnn is cooking in her striped apron, steam squeaks out of pots on the stove and her back is to me as she pulls a tray out of the oven. She transfers Cornish hens and Coquille St. Jacques to a cooling rack, careful not to trip on the empty stool beside her. That stool she leaves out for me, since I am too short to reach the counter. The aroma of what she is preparing is intoxicating. I resist the urge to drag my finger through the crispy mashed potatoes that edge the half shells and as the steam clears, I am already gone. The adjoining room leads out to the backyard. A mud room, a sunroom, an addition - multipurpose. Here stacks of soggy books smell like the hallucinogenic mould that librarians covet. In this room there is always the sound of rain hitting the glass and iron. But there is nowhere to sit, and reading is out of the question. I push on, taking a spiral staircase up and out to a small balcony. The rain continues and I’m soaked to the bone.
The balcony abuts a bedroom. The room is white, and large, and horrifyingly carpeted. The four-poster bed is tall, and soft. It looms over the rest of the fixtures and takes up most of the floor area. A television glows in the corner, and someone is talking about 9/11. The towers fall. The anchor sputters. The towers fall again. This playback seems the most real. Have I been watching this broadcast for 20 years? I sit on the cedar chest at the end of the bed, legs crossed, and hold my head up with my fists gazing, unblinkingly, at the towers and the smoke. The Owner enters the room and turns the TV off. I wait for them to scold me and suggest I get some chores done, but they don’t. They barely acknowledge my presence and stroll into the bathroom, shutting the door behind them. There is a clunk and the sound of water running. The air gets moist, and steam fogs the transom.
I stand and my legs are on pins and needles – I must have been sitting bare-legged on the hard cedar chest for some time. I stomp my feet to wake them and catch myself in the mirror of The Owner’s vanity. It looks like I am having a tantrum, slapping my thighs and carrying on. My face and shoulders still wet from the outside. I pull my long hair back and hold it, so I look more boyish in the reflection. So much easier to look at. The mirror steams up from the running shower in the next room, and I hear the clunk of the water shutting off. I drop my hair and I bolt into the upstairs hall.
A banister stretches to a set of stairs on the left and three doors run along the opposite wall. The first door is open and dark. I shuffle past with my hand against the right side of my face. I don’t want to see what is in there. The last time I peeked my sister’s head was in the sink. I pause at the next door. It is shut and I can see an orange glow seep out from underneath. I hear music and shuffling around. Before I can knock, I hear laughing, and feel my cheeks hot and red with embarrassment. I pivot to the last room, and I don’t knock, I just enter.
This space is mine. The floor dips down at an unreasonable angle; a load-bearing pillar below was modified sometime before we got here, and my room has been slowly sinking ever since. I remember to bend my knees and engage my calves to move further in so I don’t slip straight under the bed. There is a rug over the carpet in the center of the floor. It is hiding a red wine stain. There is an old desk pushed against the only window and on it sits an older PC; the kind that only accepts commands in green characters and floppy discs. It is covered in stickers. The bed has an iron-frame, and it squeals and shrieks if you look at it funny. It is shoved in the corner and is one of only two signifiers that this is a bedroom. The other being the door. The door can either be shut or absolutely must be left open - depending on the company. Sometimes, when the door falls closed, I hear yelling and it is ripped open and The Owner wrenches their body into whatever horrible thing I must be doing to them. However, when They are here and the door is closed, this truly is a bedroom. It is my room, and what we two make and talk about must stay in it. And when we come downstairs, there is a conscious effort made to remember what behaviour is expected of friends.
Now the room is empty, the computer is on, and in green text are characters I can’t read, but I know it is a message from Them so that The Owner cannot hear us speak through the paper-thin walls. I look out the window, past the cigarette burn in the screen and out to the foggy waters. There is no good way of telling the distance between my body and the shoreline. Oh, that Vertigo! Near and far blip back and forth until I feel sick, and I back out of the room more carefully than I entered.
Golf or rugby or football or Formula 1 is on the TV when I descend the stairs back to the main floor. The Owner sits on the couch in the room on the other side of the kitchen gesturing at the flashing box, agitated with small men. The Owner, without turning their head away from the screen, says, “Guten morgen” as my feet transition from carpet to hardwood.
“Morning,” I hear myself reply automatically, and I use my arm to swing around the banister to the second set of stairs leading down to the basement. I keep the lights off and thump, thump, thump down into the dark. The basement floor is cold on my feet, and through the soft light of a sunken window I can make out the couch and the faulty load-bearing pillar and another TV. This TV is mine. The red record light is ON the VCR and a wave of calm flushes through me – I’m not going to miss this episode. I can hear my name from upstairs. I ignore it, nest into the couch, and switch the TV on. The entire room glows with the beams of distant stars. When the show ends, the light on the VCR turns OFF and I get up to eject the tape. I label it and slide it into the missing space on the shelf nearby. I almost have the whole season.
Then, figures in dark clothes smash through the sunken window and I hide behind the couch. They do not see me and move upstairs, and I can hear them mow down The Owners, and JoAnn and anyone else I have ever met that happens to be in this dream. I slink up the stairs and quietly into the garage, without drawing attention. I wait for them to leave crouched behind the trash cans. The garage door whirs to life and the room becomes bright. I hear them moving closer and closer and I decide to make a break for the water. I get a fair distance. I use the stone wall for cover, and I make it to the edge of the beach. I feel small bites all over my body and fall into the sand. I try to scream, but there is no sound, and my throat aches. Every. Damn. Time.
My dreams are in houses. I know what the dream will be when I see the house. The colour, the location. The houses are an extension of my body – my mind. They crumble and creak and embody irrational fears of insurgents and untimely death. But if I am the house, what is the ocean? Maybe tomorrow I’ll conjure myself a boat.
Charlotte Healey (Canadian b. 1989) is an emerging contemporary painter and printmaker with a BFA from OCAD University whose writing practice is mostly diaristic. She works with themes of emotional urgency, representational ambiguity, and inter-personal vulnerability. Her writing is an engagement and exploration in feminist theories and societal criticism.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Halberstam, Jack. “Unbuilding Gender,” Places Journal, October 2018, https://doi.org/10.22269/181003. Accessed 18 Nov, 2020.
Header Photo by Charlotte Healey.