When we moved away from that little house on Whiteway, it was into a house that my father designed and built, and my mother decorated. It was 1968 and the house was the very height of modern: split-level, sunken living room upstairs, kitchen with black slate floors and countertops and fire engine red appliances (where did she find a fire engine red refrigerator, I have no idea), her giant bathroom with two full mirrored walls lined with Hollywood lights and a custom-built bathtub paved with small hexagonal charcoal tiles, and black vinyl wallpaper with giant white polka dots. The front door was red, and the siding on the front of the house was charcoal gray. It sounds kind of lurid, now, but boy was it stylish then. My dad’s specialty was lighting, and we had this really tremendous chandelier-type fixture hanging in the split-level stairway, a kind of spiral of lights, although about a month after we moved in he shattered the globes in a furniture-throwing rage, so the bare bulbs just hung in the space the rest of the time we lived there, jagged remnants of the globes still in place like ugly fangs.
The house was giant, it was stylish, and I think my mother felt like she had finally arrived. She was 28 years old, ambitious, smart, and savvy, and she steadily traded up and up and up and up: a tiny starter home in Austin, a nicer one, a nicer one, and then a custom built home.
Back when we moved out to Westlake Hills, a now super wealthy area in southwest Austin, it was wild. There were some nice homes, but there were also tiny little houses that were falling down. There were well-off and well-educated upper middle class people, but there were also very ignorant and uneducated lower-class people. The school district was good, and the location was sure to become what it actually did become, but we got out there in the early days of it, when there was so much empty, wild land. My parents built their house at #16 Sugar Shack, a street name that always makes people laugh. I wish I knew who named it; the other streets around are Rollingwood, Ridgewood, Yaupon, Redbud Trail, etc., but we were on Sugar Shack. Somehow I imagine that delighted my mother.
It’s for sale now, $1,345,000 — price reduced by $55,000 — which means it’s also on Zillow. The blurb about it says it was stripped to the studs for a remodel, and BOY is that right. If you blindfolded me and dropped me inside the house, I would never know I lived there (though I wonder if the violence still lives in the air like particulates, and only I could feel its echoes). Rooms are all in new places, spaces have been reapportioned and I can’t get a sense of what I’m looking at. The kitchen is in the wrong place. There is now a wall of windows overlooking the canyon. It’s gorgeous.
When I look at this picture, I remember my dad hauling large rocks up the driveway to landscape the yard, which was kept wild and natural.
But you can see how wild it was, how undeveloped. The only homes on Sugar Shack were ours and the one next door, which belonged to two men who lived together and who were so fancy, with feathers and scarves, and who were — vaguely, and mysteriously — “in the theater.”
When I look at that house from the outside, here’s what I see. I see my mother’s pink Oldsmobile flying backwards down the driveway running over all the new kittens, and I hear them screaming. When I look at that house from the outside, I know the walls inside were full of holes punched into the drywall, either by my father’s fists or by furniture thrown.
When I look at this picture of the new back of the house, I recall the large deck we had that hung out into space, and my father standing on it, shimmering with rage and alcohol, hurling Cleo and Claudine, our cats, off into the canyon. I remember hoping they would die this time, and if they didn’t, that they would not come back, please don’t come back. They did come back, and I never understood why. I remember feeling jealous of them, they had a chance to get away and yet they kept coming back so that was utterly confusing.
When I look at this picture, and at my old bedroom window, I remember the night I saw one of the neighborhood boys standing there in the dark, looking into my room, staring at me. It was terrifying. A couple of months earlier he had come home from school to find his father hanging in their living room, and he was never ever right again. A few years later he tried to kill himself by throwing himself into Town Lake, off a bridge, but I think he survived that attempt. He lived at the corner of Hatley and Riley, and I drove by his house yesterday — which felt so tainted after his father hung himself — and saw that they’d torn down that old house and built a new one. It was one of the older, falling down homes even back then.
When I look at those stairs, my heart starts pounding. My bedroom was right at the foot of the stairs, on the lower level, and how many times did I sit in my room, shaking so hard, watching those stairs as he came thundering down them. How many times did my sister and I clutch each other downstairs hoping so hard that the Longhorns would win the football game, because if they didn’t it was going to be so very bad for us.
This is one of the few spaces in the remodeled house that I recognize; they kept the same fireplace, and those small windows are the same. We had pink and orange bead curtains hanging in front of them, and the fireplace was painted purple, I think — or maybe we had a purple couch and the fireplace was painted white. I can’t remember. I look at this space and remember “choreographing” a little dance to the Baja Marimba Band’s song “Coming in the Back Door,” which involved nothing more than tiptoeing around the coffee table with our shoulders up to our ears and our arms at our sides, hands turned out, going around and around and around, until the fast part came on and then it was jazz hand running, then back to the tiptoeing. I loved the song and the dance because it felt like giant joy erupting suddenly out of the quiet, and the joy of it filled me up to bursting. I remember doing the little dance for our mother, desperately wanting her approval, and I remember the look of disgust on her face. When we finished, she stood up without a word and went upstairs. I remember feeling like I must be poison.
But of course when this room was mine, it looked very different. The walls were all painted black and the ceiling had a very ugly wallpaper of black, brown, and mustard wavy stripes. The window had a burlap pull shade. Mother decorated it and said it was what I would want, because it looked like a library. (WHAT??) I’m glad the room looks so different, because I don’t want to remember what happened in that space. My father knocked out my front tooth in that room, and that was definitely not the worst thing that happened there. How many hours I spent hiding in that closet. How fast the furniture flew around in that room. I hear the whizzing of his belt buckle past my ear as he’d whip it at me. I flinch, still, remembering the exploding shattering of glass when the belt buckle connected with a light fixture hanging in the corner, thick frosted glass flying everywhere.
This house — even the way it looked back then, with its gloomy charcoal siding and its red door — is the reason I look at beautiful homes with neverending suspicion. I always wonder if there’s a little girl inside, hiding under her bed and hoping this time they won’t find her. I always wonder if the walls are filled with holes. I always imagine that nothing inside matches the way it looks on the outside, in part because Mother told us that everyone was just like us, that everyone looked one way on the outside but the inside was exactly like us. That I shouldn’t be fooled by friends from happy families, they were just like us, stupid girl what an idiot to think otherwise.
That picture was taken at a party on a houseboat the summer we moved into the house. That’s my mother with the black hair and sunglasses, and my father holding the flag up — both of them so mod, so stylish, and so filled with hate for each other. My father was equally filled with hatred for himself. He didn’t hate us children, but we bore the brunt of all the hate he felt for himself, and all the hate he absorbed from my mother and from his mother. My beautiful, stylish mother hated that she was stuck with children, and with my father. She wanted more. She hated us for keeping her from having it.
When I see smiling, happy people having fun — like my parents seemed to be having on that houseboat party — I wonder what they are like at home. I imagine the stark difference, because I have been on the belt- and fist-end of that stark difference. I have been on the vicious cruel end of that difference. Less than two years after we built this house and moved in, my mother left my father (on Christmas Eve!) and my parents divorced. This house was the end of it all, though I didn’t have any way of imagining just how much worse my life was going to be.
So I had enough courage to get out of the car and walk slightly up the driveway to take a picture of the house. I used the Zillow picture instead, because it’s brighter and clearer, but I had enough courage to do that because the house looks SO different.
What I didn’t have enough courage to do, though, was to walk down Sugar Shack toward the house, as I used to do every day when the school bus dropped me off. I could’ve done that on Whiteway, even though I was always scared in that house. But I hit a brick wall of my courage on Sugar Shack, and sat in the car shaking and crying at the very idea of walking that old walk. Whatever remains of that girl I was on Sugar Shack, she is still utterly terrified.
A psychopath doesn’t start off telling you, “I know everything you think all the time, and I know everything you do when you are away from me.” They don’t start off telling you that — that’s clearly insane. But by the time they do tell you that, it’s not insane any more. By the time we lived in this house, on Sugar Shack, Mother told us that and I believed her. My father’s violence had ratcheted up by the time we lived here and nothing was safe. No one was safe. No moment was safe, any moment could suddenly shift into a nightmare. Sleeping wasn’t safe. Quiet wasn’t safe. Laughing wasn’t safe. Eating wasn’t safe. Watching a movie late at night with my father wasn’t safe. I was never, ever safe.
It’s OK. I didn’t have to take that walk yesterday. I can put my arms around myself now in a way I wish someone had done to that shivering, terrified girl with broken teeth and bloody gashed cheeks and broken bones and the small red cave of her entered and torn. I sent the Zillow link to Marc, who wrote me back saying, “wow, and so expensive. I like our new house better.” I DO TOO. I love my new home. The walls will never have holes in them. The light fixtures will be, at worst, dusty. Fear won’t hide in dark spaces, and animals won’t be hurled off the deck. Beautiful food will be made in the kitchen. Laughing will be safe, sleeping will be safe. I will be safe. Except, maybe, from ticks.