Saturday, August 8, 2009

A House Cursed

I should have known the house was all wrong. I had a visceral dislike for it the moment I walked through the front door into the cramped dining room. But then I made a beeline for the back, to breathe, and it was there in the tiny yard shrouded in an otherwordly mist that the spell took me.

I didn't even flinch when the owner volunteered that she had a "nervous breakdown" in the little bathroom on the third floor. "Oh, the painters were here then, you know how it is when your life is disrupted," she quickly offered in an attempt at solace.

The elderly couple hadn't left for the showing of the century-old brownstone, painted pink in this case. They talked about how they fell in love with the small back yard because it reminded them of their time in Japan, the Tokyo posting. And then there was the black iron balcony framing twin French doors off the living room on the second floor. And more French doors leading from the study to a large back balcony. These doors, framed by a big clanking iron security gate, stayed open in the summer, making for sweet cross breezes.

And I have to mention the staircase that curved from the second floor to third, the one that hid the long-haired cat whose belled collar I heard every morning for weeks before I finally opened my eyes and saw his face an inch from mine. He had slipped in through the study's gated door and finally made his way up the stairs into the bedroom to stare me awake.

We had to have the house. We made an offer and it was accepted on the spot. But the cat, the breezes, the back yard didn't make up for the bad times in that house. We made the purchase in good faith after a separation, demonstrating our resolve to stay together for good, despite our problems.

But the first night we stayed there, I woke up screaming at the top of my lungs, causing several neighbors to come pouring out their back doors to see who was under horrible attack. The bedroom window was open and I had dreamed men were climbing in through the windows, menacing, evil men, intent on doing me great harm. As I screamed, these nightmare men had crawled over to me, taken my ankles and wrists in rough hands and were holding me down.

My screams finally woke me up. But I walked around in a daze for a couple of days after that nightmare. And in a way, I didn't wake up again until I left that house, and that marriage, seven years later.

One Sunday night, after a visit to see friends at their beach house in New Jersey, I was dosing on the bed. I was not really asleep, drifting really, when I heard a noise in the shadowed hallway and looked up to see a specter -- what I thought was a tall man dressed in black. He wore a tall hat. He turned his pale face toward me and I knew in an instant that this being did not wish me well and I gasped. Suddenly I was fully awake and he was no longer there.

The weekend had been so peaceful. But I was then seized with such anxiety I slept very little and during the next few months wasted away from lack of appetite. I continued to work many hours, perform at high levels, keep up a very active social life. But inside I was falling apart. Because I could not admit this, it manifested in physical symptoms. I went to doctors, who could not pinpoint a source.

Finally, a physician in the neighborhood who treated many patients from the nearby halls of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that my problems were not physical in origin. She suggested I had perhaps had been taught from an early age to repress negative or unhappy feelings. And those situations can't always be maintained in a healthy way.

My move into an old house that needed repairs had been the trigger that caused "the pot to boil over," she surmised. She had seen it happen many times, she said, gesturing toward the government buildings. "You would be surprised. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You are in good company."

So, maybe that was it, I thought. I was relieved. At least for a while. But what I didn't tell the doctor was that my marriage was a wreck, a mistake from the beginning, and I'd known it for a long time. I was putting off that reckoning. But the walls of the house were closing in on me, especially at night, when I often awoke not knowing where I was, on my knees in the bed running my hands over the walls trying desperately to find an opening, a way out.

Maybe the marriage had spawned the menacing man in black, and the first-night nightmare.

But my personal situation had nothing to do with what happened with the elderly couple who sold us that charming rowhouse on Capitol Hill.

They told us they were moving to a house nearby that was easier to negotiate physically. The old house was three stories and they bought one that was two stories, which I thought was interesting. The husband was lame, rapidly losing his ability to walk at all when he lived in the house we bought. We did not want to pry as to the reasons and the wife was vague. She was nervous, twisting locks of hair, talking too much, too fast. She was desperate to be out of that house.

When we saw them a few months later, we were shocked. They were thriving. He was not running a race, but he was not the frail, gray, twisted man who could only shuffle a few feet. And she had blossomed. Happy, chatting with anyone who would listen, she was on her way to the hairdresser. It was as though both had found a fountain of youth.

And in a way they had. They had left that house, passed it along to someone else. A couple who suffered in silence both separately and together. I wasn't the only one with pain. My husband had been held up at gunpoint around the corner and had suffered a bizarre malady involving a debilitating pain that felt like a thick cord or band tightening around his torso. No cause was ever found. Pain pills were prescribed and eventually the symptoms went away.

Eventually, I grew to hate the house. I wanted to move. But my husband dug in his heels. He loved the house, the Hill, and wouldn't hear of it.

One thing led to another. Marriage counseling was unsuccessful. We broke up. I moved out.

Away from that house, parked on couches of friends at first, I was numb and hurting at the same time. But I was sleeping, finally, for the first time in years. And I could breathe.

Was it the house? Was it cursed in some way? Who knows. My ex moved out, remarried and by all accounts is perfectly happy.

And now and then when I'm on the Hill, I drive by that house. I slow down in the car, admire the French doors, the iron work. I remember the seductive charm of a study with a spacious balcony overlooking a hypnotic back yard that fills with morning mists and an otherwordly glow at twilight.

I almost stop, but then think better of it. Instead I step on the gas and drive quickly for the bridge over the Potomac River, another state in more than just one sense of the word. And then 10 minutes later I slow down and breathe because I have reached, with great relief, a world where the ghosts and nightmares stay away.

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