The House That Lies Built

Photo by Gina Easley

By Gina Frangello

My three children slept on mattresses on the floor, in the office adjacent to the master bath, pretending not to hear their father sobbing and pounding on the shower walls. This had become a morning ritual. How long had it been going on—two weeks, three?—on the morning when one of our twins woke to find a beetle in her ear. She’d become so inured to this strange new life of ours that she, who had once wept theatrically upon any insect sighting, simply flicked it across the room and slept on, later to see it on her brother’s mattress.

Sometimes, after the weeping, there would be shouting behind the closed door of their father’s and my master bedroom. Sometime near the end of that period of weeping and shouting, my son would come to my husband and me and beg us to “stop crying, stop yelling, stop closing the door to have talks.” My heart flipped and cracked and shredded itself apart with guilt. Even though it was my husband emitting the noises, my body pulsed with I did this. I did this.

We were confined, all five of us, to the upstairs of our two-level home, one proper bed between us all, extra furniture heaped in piles around our emotional chaos. Downstairs, the first floor of our apartment was gutted, everything draped in plastic. We were in the early stages of an extensive home renovation project we had been planning for a year—the first in fifteen years for our hundred-plus-year-old house. The renovation was, as such things always do, going more slowly than intended.

In the sixth week, my husband finally packed his bags for a solo trip to Colorado and informed me, while this time I wept hysterically on the floor of his closet, that I was to have had all his things moved to an apartment we co-owned with friends by the time he returned, and that he would never spend another night with me in our house. He had to walk past the children on their mattresses, to get to the stairs that would lead him out. Our fourteen-year-old twin daughters pretended to sleep and ignored him, but our nine-year-old son leapt up and rushed to the closet where I was howling like an animal and took me in his arms saying, “It’s okay, Mommy.” I had never, to my recollection, cried in front of my children before, even mildly. My son kissed my face and I tried to calm myself down, to not be That Mother, whose children have to parent her, the way my own mother, depressed in a back bedroom, had often been. Now, however, I was a broken thing with no control of the noises coming out of my body. I had wanted to be so many other things, but instead I was this: a bad memory my children would never be able to get out of their heads.


Don’t feel sorry for me, hysterical on a closet floor, a woman left behind. It isn’t like that, some Elena Ferrante Days of Abandonment descent into rejected grief and madness. I am the Asshole in this story. What they never tell you is how much being the asshole hurts too.


Three days into a home renovation my husband of twenty-two years and I were planning for our duplexed apartment, where we lived with our three children—my elderly parents in a separate downstairs unit—I confessed that I had been having an affair on and off (but mostly on…say it clearly: mostly on) for nearly three and a half years.

My husband and our children and I were in the Wisconsin Dells when I told him, at a horrible water park resort, in exile of the most invasive stage of the renovations: things being demolished, air thick with dust. My husband and I had left our teen twins in charge of our son and gone to dinner at the swanky restaurant inside the hotel, where we had several cocktails each. Though I’d never been a big drinker, lately—by which I mean at least the past two and a half years—I had more or less required a couple of drinks in order to have what passed as a fun time with my husband, to whom even saying “hello” had become a guilty lie.

I was stewing in a toxic, complex brew of my own guilt and duplicity, combined with longstanding marital resentments, anxieties, and almost unbearable boredom. That night, however, was a good night. It was a night—the first in at least a year—in which I could see the glimmers of why I had once fallen intensely in love with my husband and how we had ended up married to begin with. I felt moved by the way his smile was higher and more creased at one end; I could remember how once upon a time he had made me laugh, had been the confidante with whom I casually shared inside jokes that meant nothing to anyone Not Us. Even though he had told me several months prior, at a friend’s wedding, that he knew I didn’t “love him anymore” and that he feared I was just waiting for the children to go to college and then we would become “a clichéd empty nester divorce,” I could see he was still trying—that he wanted to fix whatever it was that had been broken for years before my affair. He still believed in me, even if it seemed years since we had made each other happy. He trusted me, even though it had been years since I’d been worthy of trust.

Was it my ability to glimpse our former love, that night at dinner, that allowed me to finally see—really see—how grotesquely entitled I had been, thinking it was in any way acceptable for me to lie so blatantly? To confuse kindness and tact with cowardice and manipulation—to tell myself stories about how “the Europeans” don’t make a “big deal” about infidelity, as though all I was guilty of was some vague Francophilia?

During the long night of wandering the resort in search of private spaces, my husband and I sobbed and fought, bargained and despaired, in the wake of my announcement. He kept saying, “It’s him or me” and telling me I could never speak to my lover again if I wanted to stay in our marriage. I knew what the Right Answer to such a demandwhen you have three children together and elderly parents in the unit downstairs and nearly a quarter century as a couple under your beltwas supposed to be, but I couldn’t give it. I couldn’t promise to cut out of my life the man I had fallen passionately in love with and “rededicate myself to the marriage,” and I realized all at once that if I had been able to do such a thing, which my husband had every right to demand, I would never have had an affair in the first place. I had walked away from other flirtations or borderline-emotional-affairs with a fair amount of ease over the years, knowing they were not worth the risk, knowing where I wanted to be at the end of my story, and not to mess that up for some momentary rush.

The second I actually started my affair, the decision had already been made.

I had withheld that decision—from both my husband and myself—for more than three years.

I had no Right Answers anymore.


This is not about whether I had a “right” to leave my marriage. Of course I had a right. The fact that my husband never cheated on me or that he was a good provider or that he didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol or didn’t beat me has nothing to do with whether or not I was obligated to stay. No one is obligated to stay. We live in a society in which women are no longer chattel, in which we are permitted to choose our relationships, in which divorce is painful but common and legal. My guilt isn’t for knowing that I was never going to love my husband the way I needed to again—the way I believe people should love each other if they are going to use up all the days of their fleeting lives on each other. I don’t feel guilty for the fact that I could already glimpse the picture on the other side of our full-throttle “parenting years”—our children busy with their own lives, heading off to college and out-of-state jobs, our retirement years alone together—and knew I could not stay stagnant inside that frame. This is not about whether or not my husband also made his share of mistakes in our marriage or what they may have been. My leaving my husband was not retribution for any fault of his, but rather—and I believe this in every core of my being—that we each have the right to choose what ships to go down with versus when to get into a lifeboat and save ourselves emotionally. Promises made at the age of twenty-five can feel like words uttered by someone else entirely by the time we are forty-six. There is no one who doesn’t have the right to leave a consensual relationship between adults: no marital atrocities required.

Rather, this is about living, quite literally, inside the toxicity of a lie that had the power to knock down walls. If I did not owe my husband an Until Death Do We Part I no longer believed in, I still owed him a common decency and truth that I did not deliver. Our demolished house became a too-obvious metaphor for the ways I had literally blown our house down. How had I even become a person who would commit to an extensive and costly home renovation, paid for by my husband’s salary, when I was desperately in love with another man? After I shocked myself by confessing, I still held fast that my husband and I could live together “as friends” in our home and raise our children together, each having our freedom—I believed this so completely that I nearly convinced him of it, as he rushed out on a dozen Match and eHarmony dates, then came home either sexually keyed up while I hid awkwardly in the bathroom, or tearful in his grief. This was the livable solution I was selling? How do we become so blind to ourselves? How do we come to believe we have the right to know more about the narrative of someone else’s life than they do, to manipulate that narrative behind the scenes for years, and then believe they actually owe us a friendship?

By “how do we,” I mean of course “how did I?”

“…people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes,” wrote Joan Didion. “If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties.” I was trying to force my husband to forgive me, to still think well of me somehow, to avoid having to look at myself. I no longer wanted to be married to him, but after twenty-five years together, I was selfishly unready to surrender using his eyes as a mirror for my own vanities.

To say he was furious about the timing of my confession would be an understatement. But likely it was my very guilt about the renovation—about all that money spent—that finally drove me, after years of Sphinx-like secrecy, to leave hints that night at dinner until my husband at last asked me point blank, “Have you had sex with him? Are you in love with him?” Ultimately, it was the astronomical renovation costs that shook me out of my three-year era of spectacular rationalizations and made me understand that the only thing I had left to give him anymore was the truth.


I still live in the building my husband and I once shared. Within six months of our separation, he had already come to find being in our home unbearable, even when he was alone with our children—he had moved in with another woman and her three children and had no desire, by the time of our finalized divorce, to ever set foot in our house again. He made moves in our divorce proceedings to try to sell the house, but with three children who have lived here their entire lives, and my elderly parents who were too sick to move anywhere else besides assisted living, selling the home would have punished all the wrong people. I was determined to keep our physical home intact, choosing it above the far more lucrative “permanent maintenance” to which every attorney and every friend told me I was entitled after twenty-three years of marriage, even though at the time of my divorce I had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer and had no reliable income. “Divorce law is not about atonement,” my fatherly attorney kept telling me anxiously, but in my mind, if somehow I could keep the kids and my parents safely in their longstanding home, I could contain, at least to some small degree, the wreckage I had wrought.

During the weeks of our marital cleaving, our shattered and tarp-strewn house was a painfully literal metaphor for so many things gone wrong. Now, the beautifully restored home in which I live with my children and my widowed mother, where the man I love writes at an orange desk in the spot where my children’s floor-mattresses were strewn during those terrible weeks, where our three cats curl up with us and we have dinner parties and Game of Thrones marathons with friends…now this place carries enormous contradictions. It is a less volatile, more fun, and more transparent place than it was. Yet this space is also a constant reminder of my worst regrets and shame. Though my once double life is now whole, the dark wood floors of my dining room and restored vintage door (thicker and more soundproof than the flimsy former one) on my bedroom still remind me daily of the casual cruelty of which I was capable and of the privileges—even with my tax return only a couple thousand above the poverty level the year of my divorce—my ex-husband provided in buying and paying off this home he expected to grow old in. Here in what should have been a safe and sacred space, but instead became a site of violation, I wake up every day trying to live authentically, with truth and ethics, trying to be better than I was.

This is about and not about regret. It is possible to both not be sorry that a marriage is over, yet to be grotesquely sorry for the ways in which I ended it. It is possible to be incredibly more myself now, and yet to understand that other people paid far too high a price for my pursuit of freedom and happiness. I love my house, and I do not feel deserving of my house, even though I am trying to be, in the way I parent, the way I daughter, the way I hold to honesty in my new relationship; in the ways I work to care for and manage this household, responsible myself now for its bills and upkeep. Someday, maybe I will sell this beautiful shell that contains so much history, both luminous and sad. Until then, it is a walk-in model of my heart, capable of ruin and beauty, of pain and reinvention. I don’t know if these walls would ever forgive me, but I am trying, every day, to forgive myself.


GINA FRANGELLO’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September 2016, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including in Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Review of Books. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, was also optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006).  She has nearly twenty years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, Role Reboot, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and in many other magazines and anthologies.


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Modern Day Savages

By Phillip Chee/ Flickr
By Phillip Chee/ Flickr

By Andrea Mummert Puccini    

Maybe it’s nothing to be proud of, but tonight I felt my life coming together at a chichi grocery store. At home, things are in disarray, beyond disarray: the result of multi-front home improvement projects undertaken by my husband Stephen, perfectionist and reluctant decision maker.

Acrid fumes volatilize from newly varnished kitchen cabinets. The bathroom stands hallow, stripped of its porcelain fixtures. On the wide douglas fir boards where the tub once stood, the contractor applied an outdoor-only rot-prevention paint. Cursory internet searching vaguely links its ingredients to neurological problems. An oil-based primer seals off that toxic layer but simultaneously introduces hydrocarbonic vapors to the mix. A layer of dust covers the floors, ledges, and window sills. Mostly disintegrated plaster, but molecules of cancer-causing petrochemicals certainly encase each tiny particle.

All of this might be okay for us, but not, I think, for the developing lungs of our not-quite two-year-old son Nico.

We have already been staying at two other places, first a housesitting gig, then the rental house next door ours, until it was rented, which it now is. There is nowhere to go except Miriam’s, while she and her two kids are back east visiting family.

After work, I pick up Nico from his sitter’s and meet Miriam at her house to put dibs on it. If I feed her cats, we can stay there. It buys us a week out of our place.

Miriam tours me around, apologizing for the mess. She opens the door to her playroom, swinging it wide with a ceremonious ta da gesture. Behold. Here, a child’s plastic basketball hoop, the net torn, juts at an angle from a cardboard box sliding off a Navajo rug folded across the arm of a badly cat-scratched sofa. Nearby, a red and black checkerboard and two palm tree bookends are viewable in a thirty-two–gallon aquarium. Normally I don’t care anything about messes, but with this much chaos I’m concerned that keeping an exploring toddler out of trouble will be a challenge. I make a mental note to keep this door shut.

Cats are independent. This sink drain goes nowhere. The water gets hot quickly. The door is locked when the knob’s button is horizontal.

“This is Maya’s pet beetle.” A little roll of Miriam’s eyes. “It was one of those meal worms. Its name is Pepsie. I don’t know what she’s doing.”

(Assume it will die. Assume it won’t stay in the container.)

“Maybe,” Miriam ventures, “when we’re back, you could stay at the house down the street that’s for sale. You’d love it. There are so many kids around, and it’s nice to be so close to Whole Foods. We even memorized the dinner sales. Monday night is burritos. Wednesday, the rotisserie chickens are only six dollars. “

I say yes. Yes to the chickens. I bought a rotisserie chicken at the Co-op last week. It was the best thing I did all month.

She agrees. “My kids love it. I got three meals out of it!”

Our enthusiasm is delivered slightly deadpan, winking and grimacing to ourselves. After all, I once made a practice of pressing my own soy milk to avoid the non-recyclable foil lined packaging. But now I embrace chicken in a plastic bubble.

Miriam and I agree to meet up at Whole Foods after she makes a spare key to the house.


Gleaming steel grocery cart, with a tray projecting in front of the child seat. In the style of a cookie cooling rack, the tray has narrowly spaced metal bars such that Nico’s little wooden Gold Dust Thomas Choo Choo can perch at an angle between two bars without falling through. Off to one side, a circular gap in the tray can hold his sippy cup. This thing was built for us.

Even so, it’s difficult to get through the store. Tired and hungry, Nico writhes in the seat, straining against the nylon seat belt. He grabs my coat collar and tries to pull himself out. He yells.

At last the checkout line. And there at the end I see just the set up I was looking for:

Tall tables, bar height, and stool chairs. Twisted cast iron legs and slate tops. Behind the table, a smoky-gray tinted mirrored wall, an attraction, engagement for a toddler. More wholesome than TV, like a fish tank.

I must have expected to look alright by that half light, because I startle at my first glimpse of myself in the mirror, dark circles under my eyes, my hair pulled tight with frizz escaping along the hairline. I do look how I’m always afraid of: old.

But, hey, the cart pushes right up to the table, the seat at just exactly same height as the tabletop.

Looking down at our browned chicken, condensation forms under the plastic dome. A paper ribbon seals the package. Everything would be perfect if I had a knife and napkin. I can’t muster the will to leave the table and venture to the silverware bar.

I pull the chicken apart with my fingers, but the avocado?

Nico screams, “AVO AVO!”

He is loud. People in line look at us.

One man radiates judgment. Does he think this is how we eat every night? An entire encapsulated chicken between us? Popping the airtight seal to tear meat from its bones?

I look over toward the counter of silverware, and there is Miriam, wondrously materialized, bringing napkins and forks and knives and Maya.

We take up a conversation that we, two mid-Atlantic transplants to central California, have been having since we met seven years ago. Without even mentioning any of it, we talk about the greenery, the rain all year, the architecture, the pull of home.

“How long have you been here?”

“Eight years.”


“Twenty years. And you know, as recently as last summer thought I’d move back, but not anymore.”

“How old are you now, Maya?”


I had been staying with Daniel while Miriam and her friend made the trip to bring Maya home from China. When I ask how she did it, I don’t mean it to be patronizing. I remember the autism parents who have said simply you would do it too.

But Miriam says, “I don’t remember. I felt called.”

I don’t remember her complaining.

She says she actually doesn’t remember much of the first couple years, when Maya was one and two, and Daniel was four and five. It was too busy to remember.

As we talk, I recall the stone statues of basket-carrying ladies just outside that adorn the exterior roofline of this grocery store and remember an essay that came through my writing group describing their architectural and mythological history. Remembering those moments of hearing that essay cinches that time together with this time at the table, the stitches of my life gathering tighter. The mirror behind the table reflects Miriam and I, where we have arrived through this more than half-decade of conversation.

And with these threads pulling through time, I am back in memory to a day in Virginia, snow flurries swirling out the window all day and late afternoon as dark falls, until I had to turn on the porch light to check if they were still falling. One year to the day after you died, Mom.

There in the kitchen, I reflected on Isak Dinesen’s writing about the pattern of a life, a pattern that can only be discerned with the space of time. As if looking down from above on a person’s life—the movements and places travelled—the pattern will emerge like a constellation shape. I believe Dinesen described the shape of a wading bird, but I never have been able find those words again. In the Virginia kitchen, warm and light with snow outside, I thought of your life. What was the bird pattern? Was there one, if you had trouble seeing it even at the end? What if the path never did arrive?

I think of you talking about the way you would watch your Christmas tree. Your childhood trees with real candle flames and weighted metal tinsel lametta sparkling. Shining silver balls hanging half hidden toward the interior branches. Light glinting between these and the ornaments with miniature scenes inside half-glass globes. On our oral history tape you said, I remember just sitting in front of the tree. The reflections of all the little lights. I could just sit there for hours and watch it, because the icicles would move because of the natural candles, because they would move. A door opened or some little wind would come, and it was going through the whole tree and it shifted all to one side.

I imagined your life as that tree, a web of moments, points, reflecting back and forth each other, amplifications and interferences. All the moments like tiny hanging mirrors.

The next day, when I get to Miriam’s, there will be a note on the container where Maya’s beetle lives. In blue crayon, in child’s variably sized lettering, it says:

Please chang apple every DAY (drawing of beetle) Two little sqeres of apple (heart).

Also labeled are Pepsie bed and Pepsies tunnel.

Most of the week, I ignore Pepsie. He has a chunk of apple, although it looks browned and withered on the outside. On the last day, I cut a small fresh slice and put it next to Pepsie’s toilet paper roll cave, and, unbelievably, he trundles out right away, and extends some sort of proboscis and sucks, sucks and sucks, on the apple.

I leave Maya a note: I think Pepsie missed you.

But this I don’t know yet as Miriam and Maya and Nico and I finish dinner together, and somehow it feels leisurely.

Before I head home, I pat my pocket and discover the change that I’d scavenged from my car the day before, when I’d planned to get some cocoa but then misplaced my car keys and missed the chance.

I walk up to the beverage counter to buy cocoa for the road. The young man tells me that Harvest Cocoa is the drink of the hour. I can get any size I want for the price of a small. I get a medium.

Carrying it in one hand, I push Nico out to the car. It is dark, and light sprinkles have started.

One of the first rains of the year in this place where we go months without rain. The rain feels like everything. The dirt, the leaves, the stomata, the dirt, even the sand in the sidewalk opens up. Like pores. Breathing. Drinking. Petrichor.

Driving now, I pull the car off the dark access road into an Amaco station, lit bright as an alien outpost. I swipe my magnetic strip and stand by. I try not to inhale too deeply the vaporized hundred million year old liquefied remains of giant reptiles as they are pumped above ground to burn in the furnace of my car, propelling our course home.

Tank full, I swing out and onto the highway ramp.

We drive the twelve straight miles on the highway. Through fine rain drops, red tail lights stream out in front of me and white lights trail the other way. And I am so surprised to register a net of connection around my heart as we slip along this path of least resistance.


ANDREA MUMMERT PUCCINI is a mother, environmental biologist, and writer. She is a native of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay lowlands. She now lives in northern California with her husband and two sons, where she works with farmers and ranchers to improve water quality and create wildlife habitat on agricultural lands. She co-authored California Wildlife: Conservation Challenges prepared at the University of California, Davis, and her work has appeared in the Yolo Crow, Pilgrimage, River Teeth online, and a number of scientific journals. She can be reached at