I’ve been thinking that the color of the walls matters. These walls are seafoam green. This is my apartment in New Haven – the one with a crumbling ceiling, and a creaking radiator, and a bathroom window that overlooks a lissome tree. The floor slants towards the kitchen, and a small collection of pennies has gathered in the corner. The couch has a broad, unforgivable stain and a similarly inexcusable rip that we’ve covered with an old sheet. I bought an old velvet armchair – a faded burnt orange – that is less comfortable than it looks. Claudia drove our kitchen table up from her grandmother’s house in Philly. It’s large and square, and unvarnished, and worn smooth and waxy with age. We have made this apartment ours, but it doesn’t belong to us. We didn’t paint the walls seafoam green, and when we leave, we will take my Mexican paraphernalia and Claudia’s photographs down; and the walls will be as they were.
The walls in my Toronto home used to be brown. When we arrived, the house was dark and sepulchral – blackout curtains and long shadows, crooked mirrors and sagging plaster, slightly cool despite the warmth of a late August afternoon in the city. It felt like a pantomime of a house-hunting effort, as we were quite content staying at a family friend’s house, sleeping in his children’s bedrooms while they were on holiday. My face fell when we first walked into our home; I called it a ‘fixer-upper,’ thinking the term would preempt the possibility of us choosing it as our own. But we stayed in this house – long and narrow, two doors down from the subway station, its muddy walls disguising an open floor plan and gentle morning light. Our first three days in that house were spent painting, armed with rollers and tubs of thick white primer and milky gloss. My freshly coated walls glowed a soft, sylvan green in the afternoon, as sunlight glanced off of the ivy enveloping the next building over.
When we moved into this home, we heaved duffel bags and cardboard boxes of my father’s travelling mementoes through the front door. These are keepsakes that have followed us through every home – a tall, articulately carved walking stick, a painted wooden bowl, and architectural blueprints in faded gilt frames. We bought all our furniture in one day, and spent a week fumbling with assembly instructions. I struggled to put together my bed frame, and so I slept on a mattress on the floor, and would wake up to the smell of the humid morning air as the day broke. We planted a maple sapling in our backyard, and bought broad Adirondack chairs that fade in the sun and pile snow in the winter. Those were the early days in that house – days spent weeding the garden, acquainting ourselves with the kitchen appliances, learning the rhythms of a new place. The train would rumble steadily underneath us, and the house would respond with a slight shudder, a mild-mannered giving of way.
The maple tree has grown taller and broader; the house next door has been renovated, and the ivy across from my bedroom window has been torn down by a flinty neighbor. The roots of the oak on the sidewalk have swollen under our front steps, and the stone is warped and buckled now. A couple years ago, for his birthday, my father asked me to paint him a mural. Our house has a wall that extends from the mudroom in the front of the house, up the stairs and into my dad’s bedroom. I carved that wall into large, rectangular blocks of heather gray and robin’s egg blue that extend up towards the skylight, using leftover paint from the summer this house first welcomed us, when we first disburdened ourselves of our bags and belongings and dismay. It felt to me that our mural bridged the floors of the house, and made it feel whole. My father painted our mudroom a bright, glossy red (“like a phone booth!”), blotting the tiled floor with rich crimson stains. These are the first things I see when I return home – our phone booth, our mural, maple boughs waving through the back window.
Julia is a writer and researcher interested in race and migration, environmental studies, and comparative literature. Born and raised in Mexico City, Julia has written about borderlands, identity, and memory. She holds a BA in history from Yale University, and a Master’s in history from Cambridge University.
Andrew Moerdyk is a South African set and costume designer for stage, film, and TV with a background in visual art and architecture. Along with his partners Kimie Nishikawa and Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, he is a director of Dots Design Corp – a multidisciplinary collective specializing in designing environments for narratives and experiences.