In Ohio, stepping outside in March is like playing weather roulette. You never know if you’ll be swept by a snowstorm, rainstorm, or some unpleasant mix of the two. But the day we moved into our new house, we had to fight only some gusts of wind that billowed through the car’s open windows as we pulled into the driveway. Wobbling out the passenger door, I made a dad-joke about not being in Kansas anymore, while my husband unlatched our two-year-old daughter from her seat. She pitched herself into the grass, delighted to be freed after the drive.
We weren’t in Oz, but you could nearly taste the green in the air, from the blankets of soft grass to the frail, white-tipped Bradford pear tree in the front yard to the glossy emerald trim on our neighbor’s siding. The color of spring and the color of fresh starts.
I saw my daughter kneeling by the ground, picking up something small and white. A fallen bloom from the tree? A mushroom? She held it out to me. “Mama, look! Flower.” It was a cigarette butt. As I peered closer at our new yard, I saw that it was embedded with hundreds of stumpy white rods, the detritus of a chain-smoking spree. I thought of how some of those butts — desiccated, limp — must have survived a whole winter, hibernating like rodents only to reveal themselves in the blush of spring.
As I collected two, then ten, dirty butts, shooing my daughter inside to wash her hands, my mind wandered to the mystery smoker. Was it the mother or the father of the house? The kids, still in booster seats, too young to smoke. I knew there were four people living there: mother, father, daughter with Ariel decals, son with glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling. They owned a construction business. Our realtor said they were moving back home, but never said where that was.
When we first visited the house with our realtor, we were surprised to find the mother and kids sitting in an SUV in the driveway, kids propped up with their iPads in the backseat, while the mother watched us from the front seat. She was stunning — movie-star beautiful with dark hair and olive skin and arched eyebrows that lifted challengingly. She did not smile or acknowledge us.
Once inside, our realtor said, sotto voce, “Her husband lowered the price of the house twenty-five grand yesterday without telling her. She’s mad about it.”
Well, yeah. Now, as I threw the butts in the garbage can by the side of the house, I thought: is it possible for anger — or heartbreak or love — to stay embedded in the foundation of a house, long after its residents have gone? If we can stain walls with crayons and marinara sauce, can the soul of a home be marked by feelings of those who came before? Even in the brilliant sunshine, I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of reckoning.
While house hunting in our new town a month earlier, my husband and I had toured 21 houses over the span of two days. At first, we kept checklists with a comprehensive rating system, but then we abandoned it all for gut feeling and vague recollection. What would become our house was the last one we visited, both of us hungry and tired and impetuous enough to sign a contract on the spot, just so we could make a decision already. Before walking in, I’d had my heart set on a weirdly shaped house with sky blue carpeting and a kitchen that reminded me of my grandparents’ growing up. My husband was partial to a fixer-upper with oak trim.
But then we saw this house. My niece, while scrolling through the photos before we arrived, called it the Futurama house. To us, it was the dark horse. It had a silver bannister — not gray, but bright, sparkling silver — and the primary bedroom was painted completely black. The glass bathroom tiles were inlaid in groovy silver wave patterns. The wallpaper made your head spin: Van Gogh swirls in shades of puce and eggplant. There were chandeliers everywhere and a red-and-black leather sectional that crowded the living room. I felt claustrophobic. And yet, the layout was perfect. The wood floors, pristine. The light that filtered through the windows — after we peeled back the damask drapery — was lemony-bright.
Our realtor, a woman who came straight from Channel 9 news with the most beautiful corkscrew curls you ever saw, urged, “Just look past the stuff. It’s paint. A little elbow grease. I really think this is your home.” My husband agreed.
I was less certain. Maybe it was the wife in the driveway, her glowering presence following me as I walked through her bedroom, opened her linen closets, and slid my eyes from the contents of the medicine cabinet. It was all so clearly not mine that I had a hard time imagining myself there. Or maybe I just felt something not-right about the house, attuned to a lingering discontent. But it’s easy to assign prescience in retrospect. Most likely, I was just tired and overly fixated on sky-blue carpeting. After some convincing, I began to see the picture they were spinning for me, realtor and husband now in allegiance. The yard was so pretty, the rooms so perfectly sized for our small family. As we walked out of the house, I averted my eyes from the SUV in the driveway.
After our offer was accepted, the strange communications began. The homeowners wanted us to know that they would not be replacing the showerhead, even though it leaned perilously to the side, because it was imported from Japan and had sentimental value to them. They would not remove the hundreds of tiny decals from the wall. They asked if we wanted to buy their colossal, 300-pound gun safe — a safe we had somehow overlooked in our tour. There was a belligerence to the negotiations, as well as a certain hastiness. Our realtor said they were anxious to leave the country, though she could not illuminate why. When we finally received the keys, we all sighed in relief, thinking it was over.
But as anyone knows, no home — unless it’s a brand-new build — opens itself to a new owner without also offering some detritus from the residents who came before. Even with the most rigorous cleaning and eagle-eyed inspections, there’s bound to be something left behind: a stray bead from a craft project, a few cans of paint in the basement. In our new house, we found a trove of things we never asked for.
First, there was a safe (another one!) in the bathroom, disguised as a mirror. I only noticed it one day when I knocked into it with my shoulder and the mirrored facade shook loose. We asked for the combination, but couldn’t retrieve it from the previous owners. To this day, it remains locked, partially from my own laziness and partially because I admittedly enjoy the mystery. In the crawl space, we found a baby crib and many other personal belongings that I thought the previous owners would want back. They did not reply to our emails. Once, while organizing the closet in my office, I found a bulging binder full to the brim with papers: tax returns with very personal identifying information, school applications, receipts from their business, and a divorce decree that looked like it never got filed. I shredded the documents, feeling as if I’d intruded somewhere I shouldn’t have been.
Soon afterward, we began meeting neighbors on the sidewalks and at local functions. When we told them about the house we’d moved into, they said, “Oh, yes. That one.” They said that they’d never once seen the wife in the years the family had lived in our home. Only the husband, standing on the porch smoking through the night. He was friendly but taciturn. I, being relatively unsocial myself, could understand that. We didn’t grow up talking to our neighbors either. But a few weeks after we’d moved in, the collectors began sending mail, each note marked URGENT. A lawyer came to the door and asked for the old homeowner. It took 10 minutes of convincing him that I was not the person he was looking for and that I had no idea where they’d gone, for him to finally leave, though certified mail from his office kept coming to our door.
For our trio, the adjustment wasn’t as smooth as I thought it would be. We all bickered more than usual, and had a series of financial losses that felt more pointed than random bad luck. I kept dropping glasses and plates, as if my hands had been dipped in olive oil. My daughter slept badly, for the first time since her newborn months, often waking up to big hulking cries that rattled the baby monitor. As a consequence, I slept oddly, too, marking the hours by chunks of silence broken by crying or the plaintive blare of a train’s whistle a few streets over. In the night, I began to imagine the old house owners floating around downstairs as we slept, the woman accusing me with her gaze, the man flicking his butts on the floors. They weren’t dead, but they had left something tangible behind, a ghostly presence that continued to unnerve me.
Sometimes I think of how houses used to get passed down from generation to generation. Then, at least, the house you inherited might have been your childhood home, creased with the memories from your own family, stained by your own sweat. When we find ourselves in strange houses, what greets us is often a more confusing mix of emotional residue, created from daily rituals that are inscrutable to us, arguments and laughter caught in the walls, smells suspended in the air, like invisible moss tangled in the canopy of our lives. I hoped the previous homeowners were happy, and perhaps they were, but it took me months and months before I could shake the unrest.
After a time, we painted all the walls of the house, even the blood-red laundry room that wasn’t really worth the effort. We peeled decals and wallpaper. We donated almost everything in the crawl space, losing hope that anyone would come back to claim their belongings, though I felt guilty doing it. I followed a 10-step checklist on cleansing the negative energy in a home, which included making a lot of loud noise as you walked through the rooms, and chanting your hopes for the home into walls. I didn’t really have much faith in these rituals, but I did get a sense of peace and satisfaction from the chanting part.
It took six months for us to settle into our home. We began to supplant some of the first impressions of the house with memories of our own: having our neighbors over for a barbecue, hanging my daughter’s finger paint art on the walls, filling the kitchen with the scents of my family recipes. Slowly, the house became ours. We slept normally and spoke more kindly to one another. If anything lingered, it was quickly overwritten by our own laughter and arguments and haphazard home improvement projects.
It’s been almost five years, and we still get mail for the old homeowners. It’s never personal mail, only professional form envelopes. They arrive daily, mostly bill collections, but befuddlingly, there are also notices about overdue toll fees on the Chicago highway. Did they really leave the country? Or are they only a few states away? I found their business name, now registered in Illinois, and sent an email about the undelivered mail. No response, but I didn’t expect one. Occasionally, we will discover something that belongs to them — a half-full box of subway tiles or a barrette lodged near a baseboard — and I have a brief flash of disruption. It’s not resentment, exactly, that I feel, knowing that our house was once someone else’s. But my mind has revised history so that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe us to be the house’s only owners.
Today, on a walk to school, I asked my daughter if she’d ever want to move. Aghast, she wondered, “Why would we do that? I want to live here forever.” Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. It’s a nice thought, thinking this is a forever home. But if we do move, I wonder about the hypothetical next homeowners. Will they be a couple on their first starter home? A young family choosing to take the playset in the yard as a good omen? Will they smoke? Will they wonder about the box of Halloween decorations we might forget to remove from the crawl space, or tsk at our outdated paint colors, a relic of a time when everything was so very beige? Our residue will become their burden, the years of our joy and grief and living distilled into the ghostly presence that they won’t be able to shake until they find a way to write their own stories into the house.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in June. Thao has also written for Cup of Jo about religion, mothers, fathers and physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
(Photo by Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy.)