The mushroom grew out of a dark corner where the hardwood floor met the baseboard.
Bending down to pick up a dropped pen, I faced five inches of fungus invading our home office.
I instinctively reached to uproot the offending stem. My boyfriend Joe* and I hadn't glanced at the corner since we painted the room the year before. He admonished me to use a paper towel instead of my bare hands.
Joe snapped a picture of the shroom anomaly. I sprayed disinfectant on the black-spotted corner.
The mushroom wasn't the only sign of abnormal growth. The bathroom was built without an exhaust fan, and mold accumulated on the walls. Joe scrubbed, but the mold was stubbornly persistent. We lived around it.
After dating eight years, I'd recently moved in with Joe. He rented his grandmother's former home. Joe's father now owned the modest property, and we paid him. Joe said it was good deal, but I wasn't entirely sold.
The roof leaked, and the ceiling cracked in a crooked line right above the toilet. Each time I carefully sat on the commode, I prayed the plaster held until I flushed.
Then crickets came to roost in the bathroom closet. They bounced in through a break in the floor. We laid down insect-repelling sticky strips, but I still showered with the hoppies, as Joe deemed them. Every day, I shook chirping crickets out of my shoes and shampoo.
"When the locusts descend, I'm totally outta here," I mock-threatened. They never arrived. But bats nested in the attic and front porch eves.
I worked from home, so I usually dealt with the puddle of yellow fluid seeping out from under the fridge. Just wipe it up, Joe advised. When the dryer conked out, I blotted our clothes with beach towels and placed them on the kitchen table to air dry. The only dishwasher was the human kind.
The heating unit, on cinderblocks in the crawl space, broke down for two weeks during December. We set up space heaters, and for the frosty interim, I didn't remove my hat, scarf or down puffer jacket. Joe called me the Eskimo. These modern inconveniences wore on us.
As a renter, Joe was reluctant to invest his income on repairs. He preferred I not contact his dad, the landlord, and make trouble.
The residential neighborhood devolved simultaneously. Our streetlights were shot out, gunfire woke me and police cars cruised by several times a day. Joe witnessed a fight between two prostitutes on our corner. A neighbor was arrested on drug charges. We slept with a loaded gun.
And then my face fell. One Spring morning, my chin and neck swelled up so much, they were no longer distinct. My neck tripled in size overnight, and it was hard to breathe, swallow and sleep.
I saw an ear, nose and throat specialist and started multiple rounds of steroids, antibiotics, antihistamines, decongestants and allergy testing.
"I think it's the house," I told Joe. "I've had more sinus infections since I've been living here. And you've gotten more colds."
"It's not the house," Joe sighed.
My symptoms didn't improve, and I avoided looking in the mirror. I submitted to an expensive CT scan, which revealed a lump under my chin. The golf ball-sized mass was benign, but I'd have to receive allergy injections twice a week and take medicine daily.
I asked Joe if he'd do those things for me if the situation were reversed. Maybe now he'd talk to his dad about the air quality, the necessary maintenance on the shithouse, as I affectionately referred to our abode.
Joe quietly said no, he didn't think so.
We should've ended with that whisper, that admission of apathy. Instead, we limped along for months and let our frustrations run rampant. In a rage, Joe chucked the vacuum and ironing board across the living room and dented the hardwood. I smashed a water glass against the dining room wall. It was me against the house.
When Joe angrily dismantled my favorite room, the future nursery we converted into my current walk-in closet, I couldn't ignore his choice. I suggested he leave. He slammed the side door and came back 10 minutes later with cardboard boxes from the ABC store. He spent the night at his mother's, and I called my parents to ask if I could stay with them.
After a decade, maybe we were exhausted from bending together. We weathered deaths of grandparents, periods of unemployment, time on food stamps, career changes, car accidents, illnesses, family vacations. Everything was thrown at us, but nothing stuck. We danced through. Until the house separated us. The house always won.
I left a hollow house. It was the right decision, but I was still undone by it.
At my parents' place, I breathed much easier. Sleep was elusive, though. I'd wake screaming from violent night terrors with hot tears streaming into my ears.
In a particularly intense dream, I came upon a blond toddler, genderless and gorgeous. I could gaze upon but not touch it. When I moved toward the child, it smiled beatifically, waved a tiny hand and ascended into the air.
I filled up with love and longing. I knew who the angel-baby belonged to -- it was Joe's and mine. The child we both wanted but never had. That image gave me permission to let go. I loosened.
I called Joe to share my vision. He asked if I let myself into his house the night before. I hadn't.
"Then I had the weirdest dream ever," Joe said. "You were standing over me, and you put your hand on my forehead. Then you leaned down and kissed me. I could have sworn you were really there."
"Do you know how much I loved you?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Do you know how much I loved you?"
I thought of the thousands of photographs he took of me, of us. The favorites he matted and framed himself and placed in every room. I left those behind as well.
"I know," I acknowledged. I wished it were enough.
A week later, Joe texted. A professional heating and air conditioning company inspected the house. The technicians told Joe the air ducts hadn't been cleaned in half a century.
The outdated and broken ventilation system actually blew dust, bacteria and toxic mold back into the house and into our unsuspecting lungs. It'd make anyone sick, the workers said. Joe's father covered the charge but didn't offer an apology.
I still get allergy shots twice a week. Sometimes they burn. Sometimes they bleed. And once in a while, I don't feel anything at all.