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Pamela Paul: Our homes have had enough of us, too

Over the past year, ‘homesick’ and ‘housebroken’ have acquired new meanings.

(Maria Ines Gul | The New York Times) Your Home Wants to Know: ‘Why Are You Still Here?’

The pandemic has broken so many things, it was only inevitable that it would break into the sanctuary of our homes and wreak havoc there as well. A year in, the spaces we’ve been holed up in and all they contain are falling apart, frayed at the edges, ceasing to function. It’s as if our weary household appliances have grown sick of the humans who exploit them and never, ever leave. The overall message seems to be: “Why are you still here?”

Stuck with a household of six people and three cats (don’t ask), my house has engaged in what I’ve taken as a silent form of protest — sheets tore, towels ripped, paint peeled, wooden planks in the floor buckled and came unstuck, nails akimbo. The washing machine moldered and then called it a day. The freezer wouldn’t stay closed. Granted, we were overstuffing it after ambitious trips to the supermarket. Two exterior doors also refused to stay shut. I would wake in the night seized by a fear that one of them had sneaked open, beckoning our indoor cats to wander away forever.

Inside is a mess, in part because a sturdy upright vacuum cleaner quickly petered out after putting up with the incessant shedding of people and pets. I developed an ad hoc cleaning method that involved running my bare fingers over the treads of each staircase, accumulating a sizable fluff of human and animal debris that would snowball as I made my way up the stairs. I’d arrive at the top waving the resulting accrual in triumph to my family’s disgust. At one point over the summer, a bat took up residence in my home office and the cats swiftly attacked. It took days to wipe up the blood; several stains and a generalized sense of terror lingered far longer. When a second bat turned up in the basement weeks later, it felt only natural.

For the first time ever, I shattered the screen of my phone — not once, but twice — during my commute from kitchen to home office to bathroom, something that never happened during years of taking the train to work, barreling through Times Square and even once letting loose from the top of the atrium in The Times’s office building where it plunged three stories only to land, intact, somewhere in Interactive Design.

At home, sitting for entire days staring at our respective desks provoked a clear negative reaction. The seats of two of my kids’ chairs acquired an oppressed concave shape before entirely detaching from their frames. There is a layer of debris beneath the mesh of my own office chair that honestly frightens me. One by one the keys on the keyboard of my laptop lost their zip and snap. The more I hammered away at them, the more they seemed mired in what I suspect was a toxic emulsion of dander, fur, human hair and assorted snack crumbs. I had to turn the laptop in.

I learned that it is possible to break clothes simply by sitting in them. Over the summer, I destroyed three pairs of khakis — their button closures simply let go. Come fall, I wore through three pairs of corduroys, the fabric first losing its ridges and then acquiring a tissue-paper-like transparency. I punctured actual holes in two pairs of pants just by pulling them up — because really, who is going to bother wearing a belt when not leaving the house? It’s as if my clothes chose to slip off out of sheer boredom, an existential weariness made manifest.

While more enterprising types went full throttle on the grow-your-own-mushrooms craze, I grew mushrooms, or at least cultivated a terrifying form of fungal growth, in the shower stall of my bathroom. Once Clorox returned to market, I entered the dark grout passageway armed with rubber gloves, a stiff scrub brush and a full bottle of bleach cleaner. Two hours of hard labor later, I staggered out in a sweat, eyes bloodshot, nasal passages aflame, shouting in triumph: “I did it! I destroyed them all!” to an audience of no one. This remains the crowning achievement of my quarantine year.

Dishes came out of the relatively new dishwasher dirtier than they went in. This was an emergency, given the amount we were all eating. “How did you do this?” the repairman asked. “The spinners are completely clogged with food.” What could I say? We were six people stuffed into one house, and a good portion of us consisted of rapidly growing teenagers. We were bored out of our minds. We ate constantly. The dishwasher, apparently, got fed up.

Granted, I did nothing much to make the house feel better. I learned no craft and painted no foyers and reared no houseplants in a nook. Unlike those who gave their mundane chores and home environment a stylish revamp, mixing fresh eco-cleaners and ordering outdoor heat lamps for quarantined socializing, I was flummoxed by the range of choices in firepits and opted to freeze. An especially brutal winter only exacerbated my cooped-up behavior. While colleagues took long scenic walks and photographed birds of prey, I circled my block like a prison inmate or an elephant in mourning.

Perhaps humans weren’t meant to become quite so ingrained in a Sisyphean cycle of use, abuse and overuse, whether in a four-bedroom house or a 700-square-foot apartment. Perhaps our homes aren’t meant to silently and ceaselessly bear witness to our worst habits and stick it out. Our homes seem to be telling us, in essence, to give them some space. At this point, dear house, the feeling is mutual. With the weather improving, there’s always lawn furniture.

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times’s Book Review and oversees all books coverage at The Times. She hosts the weekly Book Review podcast and is the author of seven books.

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