The Wall This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 26, 2010
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When we moved into our house, it was littered with reminders of the family who had lived there before us: the little holes in the walls from the nails that held up family portraits, the stains on the living room carpet from spilt coffee, the scuff marks on the stairs; things that even professional cleanings couldn't entirely expunge.

Slowly and tenaciously, we took on the challenge of erasing their existence from the house, and tried to convince ourselves that we were the first to live there, and we would be the last. We didn't live in transience and we weren't real estate agents; we were thoroughly invested in the concept of home, and it seemed impossible to even consider that the edifice that housed our lives was capable of having a life without us.

It was like love. The one who loved the least had the most power, and the home loved the least, but we went about persuading ourselves that it didn't. It seems silly, now, that we devoted ourselves so completely to an inanimate object, but we had much to learn.

We began by tackling one room at a time, transforming the house so completely that while the ­structure was the same, everything else was different. Stained carpets were ripped up; walls plastered and painted and holes filled; the floors cleaned again, and then again.

We thought we'd done a fine job. The house was ours as completely as could be. It wasn't until years later, the night I couldn't stand the thought of sleeping in the same bed as you, yet had nowhere else to go, that I discovered we'd been less successful than we thought.

The morning after the fight, I heard the garage door open and close as you left for work or God knows where. I came down the attic stairs after sleeping in a make­shift bed only to find an undiscovered bit of history. The attic door opened in, you see, and I'd never seen the patch of wall the door covered when it opened, the patch of wall with nearly 20 years of family history written on it.

I'd been planning to get dressed, pack my car, and go to work after you left, but I didn't. I didn't even make it out of the attic. I spent almost the whole day on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, looking at the timeline in front of me.

It was a very detailed height chart, with color-coordinated dashes and names and years. It started in 1983, with Mommy, Daddy, and Noah. Based on his height, I guessed Noah was a year old. The marks labeled “Noah” stopped at 2000, when Noah's green marks were taller than his father's. That was probably the year he left for college, I surmised, the year they stopped measuring him on his birthday.

Mommy and Daddy only had one mark each, both in black, but the bottom of the wall was littered with marks of all different colors, with labels squeezed between them. There were five different colors at the bottom, but only four at the top.

I looked at the wall and let it tell their story. It told me that Noah had greeted a brother before his second birthday, then two sisters after that. The wall told me that the youngest had died before her second birthday, and that things hadn't been right between Mommy and Daddy after that. I was happy to see, though, that the death of a child did not destroy their marriage. Four years after her death, a new name appeared on the wall.

I could imagine their family dynamics. I could imagine the older sister mixing memories, confusing one sister for the other in the foggy realm of her earliest years, and her mother's pain when she asked questions. I could imagine the baby's cries echoing through the house, for it wouldn't matter to the new baby that she was invading a place of sorrow and silence, that the last infant to sleep in her crib had died, that she had a sister she'd never met.

I could imagine her growing up, though, and learning of the terrible event that had preceded her birth. I could imagine her sensitivity, wondering if she truly fit in with her family. I could imagine her parents assuring her that she did, with pain still behind their eyes, for time had only dulled the agony.

And I could imagine them traipsing to this very spot year after year to chronicle their height, to see how they'd grown and how they hadn't.

The wall told me some of these things. It provided the basic infrastructure for my imagination, the way the bones of long-extinct species provide a basis for scientists to recreate what the entire animal looked like. The scientists know how animals work. I know how people work. It's all speculation, of course, but it tends to be very accurate speculation. There's ­really only one story of humanity, after all, and it spins through cycles, repeating mundanely but feeling new to each person it crushes.

I sat on the floor, tracing the old lines with my fingers and imagining the life they had lived in my rooms. It was almost a violation of our sanctuary to have this flagrant reminder of them in our home, and yet, I never thought of painting over it; that would have been a violation of human decency.

When you came home after work, we didn't argue again. I greeted you by the door and led you to the attic. We didn't speak much. In fact, I'm fairly sure my first word to you since screaming that I regretted marrying you was a simple, whispered, “Look.”

You did.

When the light faded from the windows and we could no longer see the wall, we sat on the bottom steps and talked. We talked about them, and the death they had overcome, and the things we were overcoming. Our problems seemed inconsequential compared to theirs.

It was late – probably past midnight – when you finally stood. I realized how funny you looked, still in your business suit, and how funny I must have looked, still in yesterday's clothes, and how funny it was that it didn't matter in the least. You offered me your hand, and I took it. “We'll have that someday,” you promised.

We did.

And now I'm getting ready to leave our wall. Now I think it was silly to write on the wall; we can't take it with us, like a sturdy piece of construction paper, like all the other family photos and mementos. On days when the empty nest stings particularly badly, I touch the marks with our children's names and remember their births, their first steps, the way they smiled at me like I was God, and the days they looked at me like I was the enemy.

I still look at their wall sometimes. I know you don't like to be sentimental, but I've caught you there too, standing there, staring. I know you're remembering how it kept me from leaving you, and you're thankful that it grounded my anger. We both know that the wall didn't make me stay, but rather, reminded me that I loved you; that I hadn't married you to have a house and children and picket fence, but I had married you to have a wall with you.

We've lived here for almost as long as they did. The house is a bit worse for wear after three children and two decades, but it's strong in its own right. It was here before us; it will be here after us.

When we moved in, we were so focused on leaving our mark, on making it part of our history, that we didn't think that it was quite the reverse, that we were part of its history. It's clear, though, now that we're packing up to leave and handing the keys to someone else, that we were only a small part of something greater than ourselves.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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WriterBlocker15 said...
Oct. 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm
I would really love to use this as a prose piece for a tournament. Please contact me and tell me if it would be okay.
northursday said...
Jan. 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm
Thank you so much for writing this, I needed some perspective. Thank you...
wild-free said...
Jul. 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm
This story is truly wonderful--So simple, yet so full of meaning. You deserve so much praise for this. Amazing job, keep writing!
hannahbee7 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm
God. This made me cry. Wonderful job.
Rebecca24 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 6, 2010 at 1:17 pm
This is soooo good. Even without dialogue, the story kept me reading.
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