The Catholics who sold us our lot have fourteen children, which didn’t seem like overkill at first so much as midcentury optimism — that was until Steve, the paterfamilias, let slip to my dad that his children had also gone forth and multiplied. Vigorously. The brood now stood at sixteen, with adjacent cousins, spouses and in-laws attached like lego, and Christ knows how many grandchildren. They’d be fine if there was another flood. They also had a regrettable habit of convening for family events. My mother suggested soundproofing.
We bought the lot in 2009, when the housing market in Auckland wasn’t yet dysenteric, just borderline liquid. I was in high school at the time, and didn’t think it would go anywhere — it was another venture in a long line of get-rich schemes my parents had cooked up since we immigrated. One summer, my dad sold shoes on the foot path and was fired after half a day. Another: my mother went most of the way to becoming a substitute teacher before she came to the realization that she didn’t like children who weren’t related to her — and sometimes not even then. When I was eleven, we sold ice cream from a cart at a basketball stadium and never made any money because I kept bringing people over; I was old enough to think of bribing friendship, and young enough to think it would work. I’d wave one fat hand, magnanimous, and command my mother to scoop a triple Neapolitan swirl with sprinkles for Anna, on the house. That’s a bad habit of mine: wasting money I haven’t earned. My parents realised around then that I wasn’t going to make it as an accountant, and started priming me for law. That stereotype really is true.
We were never poor — that’s not where this is going. We never worried about what to put on the table, and in true Chinese fashion, my mother’s favorite preoccupation for most of my life was stuffing me round, then complaining about my weight, then refilling my bowl, then asking, hurt: why aren’t you eating? I took hundred-dollar-a-pop piano lessons with a Juilliard grad, with whom I shared a polite and mutual hatred. Even when my mom deliberated for thirty minutes whether to buy a shirt that cost twenty dollars, she never blinked at tripling my weekly lessons when ABRSM exams rolled around. Piano to her, like art, or history, or Bullfinch’s Mythology, or the university workbooks she made me slave through, were necessities in moulding a well brought-up young woman. She got that from her grandmother, a landlord’s daughter who married a Maoist before the classicide rolled around; he handed her heirlooms over to the Party, but by some truly ingenious fuckery of fate was mistaken for a sympathiser. Point A to point B: he died on the chamber pot with a bootprint on his back.
There’s a line in her favorite book, Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett’s father takes a handful of Georgia red and says, ‘Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because that’s the only thing that lasts.’ The irony of this being said by a plantation owner never once occurred to her; in any case, the sentiment stuck. She told her mother when she was a kid that one day she was going to own a house with a staircase. She was laughed at, and for good reason: my mother’s mother grew up in a courtyard house — ten families crowded around a concrete slab where everyone dried their washing, aired their dirty laundry, and hung their children out to dry. It was that kind of town. That type of people, and that type of thinking, too, that was more blood than culture, and more nature than history. But don’t be confused: it didn’t come from any revolution. If you trace it back, that instinct to stand on the crossroad and boast to strangers was antediluvian: what’s your granddaughter doing? Mine just got a scholarship overseas competing against white children. That’s right. White.
I don’t give my mother enough credit for the staircase dream. Not the achieving of it, really, but the having of it in the first place. A place like that will strangle the envy out of you, and the avarice too, and the pride. Most of all the pride. And you can’t get anywhere without pride.
Every generation of my mom’s family as far back as she could remember lived there in the navel of China, in a town that had been a great capitol during the Warring States Period but now straddles the line between 1980 and 1880. I haven’t been back since my grandmother died. The last time I was there, I washed in a bathhouse with strangers and almost fell into the public shit ditch near the county castle. I never got to ask, but knowing my mother as I do, I don’t really have to: she absolutely had fallen into it, at one point.
The Catholics hated us because they realized two years after-the-fact that they had sold for too little, but by then it was too late. Dreamscaping our final home became her full-time job, and the blueprints stacked up in a perilous Babel tower. She began hauling a Dostoyevsky daily from bedroom to lounge to dining room to kitchen to bedroom again.
At that time we lived in a three-bedroom (my dad snores) on Newington Road, the back garden of which was a construction site. My parents bought it because of the development potential, and because they liked the pines which bordered the other side of the creek, where my mom ended up crashing my dad’s favorite car. That house was my sixth; I thought we were nearing the end of the rope, but I would go on to live in four more. I remember them all the way I remember people, with one crystalline needle plucked out of a diorama of straw, like a big nose or a butt chin. School Road: my parents fought ad infinitum ad nauseam about money; she hit him and then yelled at him for bruising her hand. Red monstrosity on Vodanovich Road: I picked claret for the carpet and it didn’t sell for four months; the barren downstairs lounge was lined with rosewood, where I laid on my back for two consecutive summers to read; my chihuahua was killed in a hit-and-run and my dad buried her in the yard. Newington was different. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when the year turned, the blueprints had sprouted legs and evolved. No longer Bic scribbles: the bottom right corners were stamped with the logo of a firm. One day my mom came home, cherry-cheeked and preening, with her very first Louis Vuitton tote.
The other day we drove past it again: a sad little thing, ramshackle and blue-grey, with overgrown weeds in the yard. It had survived, like most things, impressively as nostalgia but by the skin of its teeth in life. I don’t remember the colour of the walls or the texture of the carpet, but I remember falling asleep outside in a bathrobe older than I was, on two wicker chairs pushed together just as summer turned to autumn. My mom woke me up in the middle of preparing dinner and laughed at me, and I stumbled inside with dead feet. When was it? I fell asleep reading; the late afternoon was too bright. When did I wake up? It was dark and not dark: l'heure bleue. Smack dab in the west and breathing in the invisible sea; over the mall in the distance the sky had a habit of turning gold then pink then purple-indigo, and summer clouds floated by like crumpled silk. I got something to drink and sat at the rickety dining table, where she was poring over the blueprints while the rice cooked. The light that came through the window did so through two filters: the kaleidoscope sky and the pines she loved so much. By then I’d been to Germany and back, and had seen what real churches looked like; there was a split second of displacement. Dusk became day, and the dim bare bulb crowning the kitchen spread a flickering yellow puddle on the linoleum; I wanted to put my hand through the gold, like breaking a yolk. Like splaying my fingers and casting black over the rack of votive candles at an ancillary altar, apart from the tourist hum. The two light sources met in the middle: a slate patina from outside and the tempera glaze of the single bulb. A part of my brain confused it then with the grotto of silence in the cathedral at Cologne, where the sun fell in patchwork through the Adoration of the Magi and Mary at the pietà. We’ve all done that, haven’t we? Gotten confused? Sometimes I get away from myself and I take her with me to places she’s never been: a double decker in the bustle of Hong Kong; the torture chamber at Neuschwanstein; slack-jawed and eye to eye with the Antonine athlete in the Met; squinting at the fun-sized Leonardo, home again in the National Gallery. Two versions of all memories exist in my head: the one with her, and the one without.
That won’t do. Why make something magical out of the dirt-common? She was doing what she always did, which was handling our present needs and predicting our future ones. Cooking dinner and designed the family home. A benevolent tyrant; she gave me a say — bookshelves in the wall or freestanding? Window seat in the kitchen? Bath or shower? Wall; yes; shower. I put my feet in her lap because it was cold — or maybe it was because I wanted to annoy her, who knows?
It’s a funny thing, the hippocampus: seahorse shaped and snug under your temporal lobe. Every time you remember something, it’s recalled, reshaped, re-encoded, reformed. Were we in the kitchen after all? Maybe we were in the lounge. Was it was already dark?
That’s the thing about memories. You turn it over so many times like a charm in the hand, that after fifty the lacquer wears, after a hundred it chips, and by the thousandth time it’s just brass. You whittle it down to the bare necessities; you damn the details. What remains, nestled in the fear of forgetting: the rice cooker whistle, her face as she indulged me, the light. I stay one step ahead of my hippocampus by shuffling the order: some nights the church, with that patch of stillness between the thirteenth and fourteenth stations of the Way of the Cross, comes first. Hindsight on my side, I drag my feet between the votives and bargain skywards. But that’s for special occasions only: birthdays, New Year’s, first time on the motorway. More often than not I keep myself on stone rations.
This indulgence is free, though, because I have it on paper: she penciled in a walk-in closet for me. Another one: twelve charcoal trees drawn in a distracted hand on one of the plans, lining the walk up to the house like the Wilkes Estate.
The part of me that liked telling people I was going to be law had liked the idea. Another part was fifteen years old. ‘That’s so white,’ I told her. ‘Mom, Jesus Christ, I don’t want to live in a plantation house.’
My dad agreed. ‘Where are we going to get oaks? Woman, we are going to die before they grow an inch.’
‘We go at night,’ said my mother. ‘To the park. We dig a couple up and bring them back in the trailer.’
If they had tried and gotten arrested, this would be about that, which would have been a funnier story. But they didn’t, so this isn’t.
The lot stayed empty until 2015 because other projects kept coming up. We moved to the new house in the backyard of the Newington when it was completed because my dad didn’t want to pay the sales tax when we sold, because we needed to sell something to get the money to build, because my mother was sick of living in a house built before the 70’s. By then we were living cushy: it was a nice house even if it wasn’t the house I wanted to live in (seventh; counting). My dad was proud of the roofing, or the panelling, or the whatever. I thought it was an ugly McMansion, and looked like what happen if Levittown knocked up Stepford and didn’t call afterwards.
The light in the lounge of the McMansion was white, high enough out of the shadows of the pines for the sun to come through without intermediary. There the dining table stood beneath a window which framed the trees, and the light was better outside than in. Inside it was too bright, exacerbated by the white walls — white, because Vodanovich didn’t sell for four months. Outside it reminded me of the Cézanne I looked at in class, the one of the valley at Saint Victoire: the trees bled green and gold and earth brown at the root. It was a strange patch of the continental, a slice of somebody else’s childhood. By then the blueprints resembled three Bibles stacked on top of each other, 198 books of floor plans. It had been five years.
‘Honestly,’ I had said more than once, freshly graduated, three years past impatient. ‘Are you going to build this house or not?’
It wasn’t too long after that and not too long ago that my dad and I left that place, taking what fit into the car and leaving what we didn’t want for the cleaners; we packed into the night and drove away like thieves. There was nothing methodical about that move: I didn’t and still don’t know how to vacuum pack duvets or stack boxless shoes without wrinkling the leather. The night of, I fell asleep in the cold lounge with the balcony doors open, pillowed on a stack of unwanted novels. The suburbs were always quiet at night, and dead silent now that I was alone. I woke up and didn’t know where I was because all the furniture had been moved out already and anyway the corpse never looks like the living person. The next day I had a friend take me back because I’d forgotten her silk dressing gown in her closet after we gave away her clothes. It was still on its satin-padded hanger because she never wore it. My friend stayed in the car and I went in alone; there was dust already on the kitchen island and the carpet, as thick as two palms in prayer, soundproofed my steps. I didn’t linger.
My dad began construction on the lot in late 2015 and it’s set to be completed June of this year. It’s going to be the monster she always wanted: five bedrooms, two occupied. Two staircases, not one. She wanted a cellar, too, even though neither of my parents could tell the difference between an eight-dollar and a forty; my grandmother wouldn’t even have known what a cellar was.
The Catholics are still having their events. The last time I went to see the lot they were having a reception, and two of their third-generation spawns were hanging over the fence to gawp. It would have been inappropriate to flip them off, so I didn’t. In any case my dad wants to buy another 2m² off their grandparents. Let’s evaluate.
How many square meters? Bedrooms? Insulation? Underfloor heating? Both my parents always said our house would be worth more because it was new, and what did all those children mean? A mess. Kids have to be house-trained like dogs, and they had fourteen of the former and two of the latter. Let’s put it this way: you can’t go barefoot on their carpet.
Instead, the Catholics have a wraparound porch, the hallmark of turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival. You’d see the same in a dozen places across seven continents: the offshoots of a bastion a world away, on a frontier or an outback or a plantation or scarp, where clouds rolled down in ribbon streams, and in dusk or dawn it was such a sight and such a place deserving of the name Tara that you forgot what went into making it. Dark cedar. White trimmings. The French windows I’d always wanted but was told were too expensive to manufacture, on account of the world moving on. Price point, then. Half mil? Full mil?
Let’s see. Deduction for uneven plaster from Spawn #3’s tantrum regarding toy; deduction for old kitchen wall, veteran of fourteen growth spurts; deduction for scratched portico floors, for the ring on the carpet where Christmas tree after Christmas tree reigned for but a season, for the dozens of feet that had beat the carpet flat, for having been lived in, for having lived. The kids had run off. Are you going to remember seeing me? Are you going to be jealous of me, too? Even when I was your age, I never made a mess the buyer might see.
Maybe Steve will invite us to dinner once we move in, but probably not. It would be an awkward meal anyway, sandwiched at the Table of Nations, with my dad still trying to convince them to sell. Hold on, Steve might ask, confused. Where’s your mother?
I hate that question. And if you’re going to ask uncomfortable questions, at least let me counter: Where’s the six hundred thousand dollars you didn’t make?
Chin up, buddy. Let me put it in terms you understand. Your guy trudged six hundred meters up the Via Dolorosa with his cross on his back, but count your blessings. At least he got to spend three whole days on it.