If you’re not yet aware of the online magazine Storychord, take this chance to get acquainted. Each issue features a short story, a piece of visual art, and a musical composition, which combine to make a sort of multimedia storytelling triptych and a unique reading experience. In this week’s selection, Laura Bernard’s illustration of a woman trapped in a snow globe and Nathan Hobbs Blehar’s gorgeously melancholy layering of voice and guitar create the perfect accompaniment for Katherine Hubbard’s “This House,” a story about a woman slowly becoming invisible under her roles of wife and mother.
Marnie had the pleasure each morning of watching her neighbor, Celine, barely covered by an ivory kimono, passing in front of windows like a ghost; appearing, disappearing, appearing again. Upstairs, Russ was banging around, shaving, dressing. Finding a tie. He made more noise doing everyday things; it was impossible not to be aware of him when he was home. Marnie opened the fridge. They were out of milk.
Marnie’s marriage has lost its intimacy. Her daughters are defiant temper-bombs ready to explode on her at the slightest perceived offense. Her house is never clean enough; dinner is always chicken nuggets. And Marnie can’t stop comparing herself to Celine, the single, childless, forty-something woman who lives next door with her “flat stomach” and “grapefruit breasts,” and who in summer enjoys “sunbathing in a white crocheted bikini so tiny Marnie thought, What’s the point.” Marnie and Celine’s houses are identical, their windows peering into each other’s rooms. She feels judged by Celine when her daughters cry, when she yells, when she wears sweatpants (which is a lot). She imagines that Celine sees everything, “a ghost witness to Marnie’s red face, rigid body, ghost auditor of all the yelling.”
Marnie is almost preternaturally aware of Celine, noting every time she passes a window, when her lights are on and when they’re off. But Marnie isn’t the only one who’s been paying attention to Celine:
Then she saw Russ was not inside the house, he was outside, shoveling Celine’s sidewalk while Celine stood in the yard chatting. Russ still wore his work overcoat. He had not bothered to come inside and switch to a parka or even put on gloves . . . Celine’s cheeks were not even pink with cold. Russ, however, was flushed; Marnie had always liked the way his face reddened, cheekbones to jaw, like a child. He removed his coat, and Celine took it from him, draped it over her arm. Snow gust from the tree above them obscured the two for a moment. Then clouds merged to form one large black cloud again, the sky darkened further. More snow. Russ finished and walked toward Celine, traded shovel for overcoat. Marnie stepped back from the window. He’ll come home now, she thought. But instead she watched Russ walk with Celine toward Celine’s front door.
Russ comes home a couple hours later, and he never shovels their own sidewalk.
The words “quiet desperation” come to mind when reading “The House,” but Katherine Hubbard does it so well, weaving in small details that illuminate the characters and make the story stand out. There are two different scenes that ring so true to anyone who has had daughters, or who ever was a daughter, just little vignettes of the baseless spite little girls can have, and the resigned helplessness of the mothers it is turned on. (Sorry, mom.) Hubbard’s portrayal of Marnie is complex, revealing a woman with troubles and sensitivities, a woman who sometimes screams at her daughters, who is bad about going to the grocery store when she needs to, a woman jealous of her attractive, childless neighbor even as she insists that she doesn’t care about looking good. In short: imperfect. In short: a human.
“This House” is about a life taken over by others, about a woman becoming a role instead of an individual. It’s about the expectations placed on women, wives, and mothers, and about not living up to them. It’s about that thing that no mother or wife is supposed to admit: maybe this isn’t the life she wants.