2018 – The New York Times
June 19, 2018
After the reality set in that only Versailles mafia oligarchs could afford Brooklyn real estate, my husband and I began to browse north for our dream weekend escape cabin. For the first few years after college, my acting career had been mostly Off Broadway theater, so my bank account consisted of four hugs and a cough drop. Still, we scoured Zillow together. My husband was raised by apocalypse-ready-Vermont-angel-people, and assured me he could turn any haunted tornado shack into a Nancy Meyers-worthy celebrity rehab center while I valiantly napped. Or at least that’s how my brain filtered the words, “We would do the work ourselves.”
We spent a year of weekends stepping through houses that had been on the market for years, their pictures conveniently omitting the beached uranium barge on the lawn. Every house closed my throat tighter. Slowly my Gwyneth of Green Gables fantasy turned into “Deliverance.” My husband was the happiest I’ve seen him. I stood in one kitchen marveling at a sink full of dusty ghost shoes when from deep in the woods he shouted, “This is where we’d build the compostable toilet!”
Later that year, through sobs, I had to tell him that a shack only accessible by boat would be where I would die. But buy a house we did: a faded red 1834 farmhouse that said Abigail Adams on the outside and “Duck Dynasty” on the inside. It was filled with what a sunnier, more-caffeinated person might call “cool challenges.” Tiny stairs designed for miniature colonial feet. Aggressively stained wallpaper, some of it decorating what I lovingly referred to as the “Guantánamo Room.” Brown wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere — including the kitchen. A gaping hole in the ceiling that surely housed thousands of mouse cadavers, and possibly a transparent eyeless blacksmith.
After my husband took me on a tour of the thousands of fix-it projects he was raring to complete, he unveiled the grand finale: Hiding in an old chicken coop was a new drum kit. “I’m going to learn the drums!” he proclaimed. I slid onto the grass and screamed. I suddenly knew what was waiting for me here.
Have you ever seen a woman realize that she has toothpaste on her shirt, nervously laugh for your benefit, then slowly look like she’s going to murder six people? Believe her and step away.
There is a very convincing threat for some women that if we don’t find the right job or serum or therapist or life secret, if we don’t solidify our confidence in time, the monster that splattered the toothpaste will take over and rule for eternity. When she’s in charge, she stashes important mail in a wicker basket for six months, lets your hair tangle into a sad nest, puts the kettle on and promptly leaves the house. The monster appears periodically to remind you that she’s waiting for her grand takeover, laughing at your adorable attempt to organize the closet. I spent my teens running terrified from her. I got in cars I shouldn’t have, had regrettable experiences on futons, copied the vocal inflections of the ringleader. My identity was up for grabs.
Then I became an actor. As a young actress, you are made to believe that the clock is rapidly running out, and you’d better scramble through every version of yourself before your sellable qualities expire. Change your hair color, dye it again, be softer, be tougher, be a paper doll. Then, at 27, you’re auditioning to play mothers of teenagers. You haven’t put a tack in a wall in years because every space is temporary; you’ve forgotten to ask yourself the big questions because you were trying to lose five pounds to be the hot cop in a show that would insult your 12-year-old dreams. I felt the monster snapping at my ankles as I ran, believing the world when it told me that men had the answer and girls had to guess.
At first the house only confirmed this belief. My husband skipped around the property with tools that looked like Tower of London souvenirs, gleefully ripping out drywall. He was flourishing. I was drowning. So much of my life as a woman had been dedicated to running, calculating, morphing on command. I didn’t know how to do anything permanent. And here was a house whose roots went to the core of the earth. Little by little, it showed itself to me.
When we ripped up the carpet in the kitchen and then the wood underneath that, we found oak floors with burn marks where the oven had once been. Under one layer of floral wallpaper was another, a hand-painted scene of a woman walking down an Italian street. Brushing my teeth one night, I noticed a small slit inside the ancient medicine cabinet. A swift Googling told me that’s where old-timey people would dispose of razor blades, and that the entire wall was probably full of them. We pulled a bright green back seat out of the attic and put it on the front porch. Months later a neighbor told us she’d ridden in the car it belonged to as a girl. The next time we arrived she’d left iris bulbs at our door.
Gardening, that’s something I could do, I realized. I’d had a summer job as a gardener when I was 18, but even that was a pose: a pack of teenage girls deadheading pansies in string bikinis, desperately hoping the bro-mowers would tell us where that night’s kegger was. There we’d all meet, our flat-ironed hair soaking in bonfire smoke, laughing at bad jokes and swallowing our own. A frantic race to be accepted as the person we were not. Before the monster could get us.
At the farmhouse, the spade I found in the garage broke by the fourth bulb so I just used my hands for the rest. In an hour I was covered in dirt and mud. But I was surprised at how much I remembered, how natural it was. I had assumed my 18-year-old self was too busy being an apologizing chameleon to retain anything as eternal as the subtleties of soil.
Maybe I was wrong in assuming my life had been an impermanent scramble for identity. Maybe if I turned around and faced the toothpaste monster, I’d see she had never wanted to kill me. Instead she’d been watching me, picking up the things I’d thrown aside as useless or terrifying and secretly braiding them into an identity more powerful and ancient and beautiful than any paper doll. Maybe the greatest trick of all is to convince girls that their roots are weeds, that their powers are curses. Maybe we’re taught to run and change because if we stopped and stood, the world would change.
People driving by saw a laughing mud woman on her lawn, hundreds of years wiser and full of razor blades.