There is a house I can’t really tell you about. I can’t tell you where it is. Nor can I tell you what it is like to live there. The lives of others take place behind glass. The one of us named I presses her face to the window.
The house is swathed in green, because this is the season when the green starts. There are tiny white stars of jasmine on a fence somewhere—in the deep, green, haunted, low country I’m not from. I live there, though. But not in the house, not exactly. No one lives there exactly. Tiny white jasmine stars; then, out front, the sheen of a crushed Miller Light can at the curb. It shines like a large gold insect. And a blue beer cup, large as a palm, its spine cracked. So that it splays and bares its white inside lips.
When you get to this blue beer cup, turn around. We are in the dusky, slow streets at the town’s edge. There is a street sign behind you with its name rubbed out. Take that small street, which snakes like the slip of a river. Walk long enough to forget your worry, or, more likely, to worry it deeper. Then look up.
It is a small fourplex, painted drab, like a missable yellow flower. Like the drab flowers that hang low in their bush.... and a small parking lot flanks it. And you can’t see it now, but there is a yard behind this, a rain-faded plastic tricycle there. And three low swings whose long metal cords twine. And a slide, and a covered table where women gather to smoke. If you sit to smoke there, and stare, you see a large street, where cars race by, stinking of metal and their cargo of lives. How did we get here?
I wear the key to this house on a black cord on my neck. Deep gray fob, a smooth place here for my thumb. I click it outside the door, and there appears a green flick of light.
But I only come to this house at night. I cannot say for sure that the house exists at other hours. So let’s say it’s night now, at the late start of it, early summer, nine p.m. The drenched blue of the heat is here. All day it has worn at itself, like someone who’s spent years on an angry thought. Now it gives itself up. Blue, blue, blue: the night expands, slack, until stars appear to pin it. I used to drink at this hour, but now I come here.
I come here on Friday and Sunday, wearing loose pants with pockets and a rubbed-soft t-shirt. The green pin of light lets me in. The lights are pulled low. I climb stairs to the hushed office: desks, manila folders, one slow turning fan. The last solitary worker waits inside. I will relieve her. The white phone carries the hotline. Quiet now, it could wake.
This is a house where women live. They live here for at most ninety days. They live here when their own houses have turned unsafe—when, in the night, they have to leave them.
When a woman calls us, it means that her own house has turned. A house can catch roaches, which quick-flicker on the mirror, sudden near the toothpaste. And likewise it can catch menace‐like dirt and fur, which cling in the legs of the dresser, webbing. Or mold that feathers the ceiling, lush in itself, out of nothing. Profuse, prolific: threat is a denizen. Once it has grown, it is there.
The woman cleans the house all day, knowing she has to leave. She wishes she did not know it. But the splinter of knowing it has lodged in her palm, which is hot now.
So she calls.
“Pack a bag,” we tell her. “But don’t let him see it.”
“Decide which door you’ll use to get out. Stay close to the exits.”
“Find a room where the door locks, or where you can push a dresser against it.”
“Stay away from the kitchens and bathrooms.”
She cleans the shoe closet. In two days it has furred over with dust. She finds her son’s soccer duffel from last season, his tiny cleats inside, and one folded sock. She keeps this bag in mind. Weeks pass, then the man blacks her eye again. Now she removes the cleats and the sock. She folds in the boy’s red summer shorts and his blue jeans. The next day he asks her where the jeans are; feeling silly, she gives them to him again. But she packs away her own knee-length khaki greens. They curl close over her large, curved thighs the man once would trace with a finger. Now he calls her fat, though she’s the same size she was. His face screwed and red when she comes home from her receptionist job. On other days, he is open-mouth laughing drunk. Both are bad. Her son goes to his friend’s after school instead of coming home. Now he’s stopped asking—just goes. She’s glad.
Another woman has not packed a bag. She’s out on the street, alone. It happened suddenly, how her girlfriend swiveled to face her, the neighbors asleep. She goes out to the large rushing street, wanting to be near anyone—strangers who won’t judge her, for she is nothing to them. Her face is unhit, tonight, but tear-gummed, her lashes turned sharp. She dials the phone. She remembers her girlfriend confessing long ago, face moon-black, rapturous: I’m scared I might hurt you one day.
Another woman has been sleeping in her car for months, parking it outside the Walmart. Sometimes her son lets her pull up a sleeping bag on his porch, but only now and then—otherwise, he says, his girlfriend gets mad.
This woman has been abused a lot before, so much it makes her tired to think of it. She’s been hit by men, by a girl she worked with once who’d thought she was flirting with her. (Maybe she was, but the girl was tricky, too.) She’s been hit a lot by her mother. And by this same son once, wild-eyed on something he’d told her he wasn’t taking. She was evicted from her Section 8 place one month that went bad, and with that voucher gone, she hasn’t found another place.
She has no abuser now, no one looking for her. She just wants a place to stay—with her own room, a door she can close and no one can come in. She calls the number and knows they might take her if she tells them: “I’m a victim of domestic violence.”
(The trouble is: the safe house sinks out of my sight when I’m gone. It bobs in and out at the corner of my knowing. Don’t trust me wholly.)
Friday at midnight I go to make my bed in the safe house, carrying the quiet hotline phone close. Sleep in a room in the back of the office: faded red loveseat room with one big desk. On the desk near me are piled papers. Yellow papers, a big yellow pad covered with notes from a meeting. Post-it notes all over it like hands over faces. Then typed papers all neat in their pile: something to send to Georgia DFCS. The Shelter Manager, Mikaela—this is her desk. Framed photo of her and her mother. Framed photo of one baby, inching into a blue bedspread. A birthday card to Mikaela from the staff. Closed blinds with night traces. Night winks through the slats, genderless.
Between the loveseat and the wall is a pile of hastily folded sheets and blankets. I take one from the pile—yellow as legal paper, flanked by large purple hearts. I turn to a sleep ready to break open. A sleep with two sides: on one side my tiredness. On the other—I want to belong to the safe house. I want the phone to ring. I want to ask the caller: “Are you safe?”
This is a house with no men, though they are not forbidden at the safe house. They are allowed to come if they need to escape the order of men. But none has ever called and said: let me stay. I hope one day one will call. I hope he knows he can want to escape that order, too. This is harder for most men to know, their fists clenched as if men were holding them closed.
It is not only men who are violent in a house. Not even all houses have men. But any violent house carries the shadow of men in absence.
Is the safe house built of the same earth, the violent earth? It dreams of a different earth. The women in the house—who sleep there one night, or ninety—try to unbuild it when they go. The house builds and unbuilds; it is fingered by grasses. They are shot through with earth.
(Still: last week we learned that the women in the house were pouring oil in each other’s food. The staff took the oil away and put it in our office, so that now the women need to ask to be given oil to cook with. After we took it, someone began putting soap in the food.)
Still—a house that unbuilds is not an ordinary house.
What would grow there? In the yard of the safe house is a single blue flower. A boy sees it, the soccer-playing son. Boys are allowed here. He sees it one day. He hunts through the yard for another, but there is only one.
The boy sees that right now his mother is safe, though it means they have to sleep in a strange room of bunk beds, a room with a mother and a small girl. He has to take a different bus to school, and he’s told his friend he can’t go to his house. Instead grown women he doesn’t know come give him toys and ask him questions. These days he is put to bed late: the women and children are in a loud kitchen, babies scrambling and crying, until ten at night. The TV is on with no one watching it: he looks up. He knows, this boy knows, that he is not a house. He will be all right; he is the kind of boy who is watchful. He will grow up like this, waiting inside himself at the only center he can trust. He will remember the house of women.
At the start of a story, a child went to the judge of the house. The child asked: “Who am I?”
The judge said: “You are not good.”
The judge’s words made a fire in the throat of the child. The judge was large as a table. The table was fixed at the heart of the house. The house was a person with table for heart. In the heart the child wanted to leave. The fire in the throat stuffed the child with smoke. The child was smoke-gray and throttled. The child did not want to live in the house.
But the child was raised in the house.
The child went to school and came back to the house.
The child lived in a room in the house.
“You are a bad girl,” said the judge of the house.
The child was not a girl. The child knew this deeply—but did not tell the judge.
The child grew and found a college in another state. The child could leave. The child piled an old car with clothes and books from the house. The child stepped out into the day and drove: past the threshold of house, past the street of house. Past the neighborhood of house, the town of house, the city of house. State of house, country of house, long flat fields of house pricked with stars. Field of house, world of house.
Grown up now, the child does not like houses. The child likes other places: the child likes it when people gather in the street, or gather together in the black-quick bar, with its dark prickled red neon of talk. The child likes it when people gather in college—but better still would be a college on the steps of the college, a college to take the other apart.
The child has spent a lifetime running from houses. But one day in the black-quick the child met a woman who said: “Come to my house.”
The child looked at the woman, whose skin shone pale brown, her hair deep brown. The child looked at the lips of the woman—like scrap-pink flowers that grew in the brambles. Flower was a night-bramble on the woman’s tongue. Skin a kind of street. The child wanted to live in that street.
The woman took the child to her house. The child took up residence there, fed by the woman. The woman made her fragrant beans with cilantro. With fried onion. With the fried red stem of a chard. —She led the child to her bed. –The child, with the woman, lived in the house.
Then: ( )
This to mark the space for what happens in a house. When the house fills with smoke and the judge enters. When the judge tells the child: “You are not good.” The house is all table: a flat surface to be pinned.
At two a.m., my office bell rings. I am asleep in the mussed hair of night, twined braless in the old sheets. My shoes are on the floor beside me. I knock over a water glass—and mop it with sheets—and flop my shoes through the office. Here is a low gray cabinet of binders, one with the name of each resident. I come to the door that divides the office from the house.
“Do you have any Naproxen?”
She is a woman partly toothless, her remaining teeth crooked. Her skin is a hot brown with red underneath: she’s a white woman with street-darkened skin. She wears a tank top and jeans; she is in her late forties, but her body is lean as a teenager’s. It’s Amelia, who calls me “honey.” Our generic Naproxen is bright baby-blue in a cabinet of plastic tubs. I tap baby-blue out into her hand; I will have to mark this in her binder and the time I gave it to her.
Amelia has a tattoo at her collarbone that says her own name. Its curls arc and wing. I tell her I like it, which I do; the safe house is a good place, I think, to tattoo oneself with your own name. Everyone deserves that: the sting of your name throbbing in her skin, the blood and shaking, and, after that, the recognition of yourself in the mirror, your own (Amelia’s) shocking blue eyes seeing you in your dark-reddened skin.
If you needed it, I would draw you a map to this house.
I would say this: to get here, come to the precipice of your life.
Come to the place where you see that your life, as it is, has failed you. Where your house has failed you.
Then: call me on the phone. I might be asleep, tossed in the sheets where the previous night worker has slept. My shoes will be off on the floor beside me. I will answer the phone with a voice like rumpled hair. You might be hard to hear, straining of voice across night and crisis. You might say: I need a place to stay. But I might say: our shelter is full.
You: then he will kill me tonight.
One house, sixteen beds: I might fail you too.
I: I will find you another shelter.
: I can’t leave this town. My job is here. My kids go to school here.
: I will try to find you something near.
But I will call all the shelters—all the ones near us full. I will call you back and hear your voice alive with anger. I will hate myself then—the way that every judge of my own houses hated me once, my own houses unbuilt and escaped. I will hate myself for letting houses go on this way: for being a flimsy house, a shy one, until I go home to my own. But I will forgive myself later (forget).
Around us, the night. Around us summer night waits on the town. Last night I read a white Buddhist who said, this is how you meditate: breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out, from yourself, lightness. I read her in a state of wretchedness, my own life wrecked around me. This is not this story’s subject. I told my friend Blu about the Buddhist; Blu furrowed their brow and asked: have you read the feminist critique of empathy?
The other is not knowable. I know. And yet I wonder if this is right to say, because who wants to be the other, to stay the other? If you are another, would you rather be known?
Around me in my own bed, in the house I bought because my family has money, the night waits. It waits outside the safe house too. The night slips into its gender and leaves it. The night slips through the safe house too. The night is heat-clenched with your anger—and mine too, when I think of you.
A house like this is a stranger house than we know. A safe house: is a house devoted to the idea that the patriarchal order has failed us. The heterosexual order has failed, the nuclear family has failed, and capitalism has failed: they have all failed to make a home safe to live. The idea of a house has failed. The safe house is thus also the opposite of a house. “House” is a danger. “Safe house” is a remedy. The safe house is no house.
Two forty a.m.: after you call, I must log your call in the database. First I must rescue the slow, slow computer, which is locked in its own thought: a frozen screen stares at itself. It is black plastic and smells of old shoes, donated long ago from another government office. I press the small square in its corner; it is slow as prayer muttered to the dust in a corner. From the bulk in its heart, it shudders in stillness, then darks. Then it fires into being again. Its screen blacks, flashes words. Then it draws up the world that lives inside it: mild landscapes of blue. With the dusty mouse I furious-click on the picture of a circle that means the Internet is here.
Then I am in the database: like walking in a shuttered exurb of white walls. To them I must utter your name. I must select from a menu: “Crime Type Experienced.” I must answer this question: “Caller in Danger?” I must select from a menu: “Refused.” I must enter your race; I must tell them whether you are a veteran; I must tell them whether you are urban or rural; I must tell them your address, and your income’s percentage of the poverty level, and your social security number. I have not asked any of these things, nor would I ever, and so I select from each menu: “Caller Refused,” for there is no option that says: “I didn’t ask.” There are 176,486 fields. While I am inside the database, the world grows old; the paint in the safe house flakes and the walls crumble; everyone dies; the world ends. I stay wandering the database streets.
Three a.m., the phone rings again.
“I need a place to stay. Do you have room?”
I am supposed to say this: “Tell me what’s going on.” I am supposed to find out if the situation is domestic violence. The rules: if it’s not domestic violence they can’t come.
“I’m in the car with my two kids. We’ve been in the car for a week.”
In our town is one homeless shelter that takes women and children. It is not a safe house. It is always full. I ask her if she’s called already.
A safe house is made of paper. It is a drawing of a house on a notebook page. If you are outside the safe house, you scratch at the drawing of a house until it tears. I must shred all paper in the office shredder, which, unlike the computer, is new—quick silver teeth in its shiny dark case. I have on the paper your name and birthdate. I will shred how we reached for you and failed. I will shred how we reached—how I reached my pale fingers into the genderless night. How I reached in my sleep. How sleep in my ear muttered its names.
I am the kind of person who is always coming to a precipice in her life. She must sit quietly there. The idea of herself, the person she needed herself to be in order to be okay, has fallen apart. In the last seven or so years I have come to this precipice over and over again. I wanted a different kind of life, a life as fortress. My mother wanted me to have this kind of life: she wanted me to be safe.
So I am at home in the safe house, which is not my home. The safe house is no one’s home unless it is everyone’s: unless it is for everyone excluded from home. The safe house throbs with the houses it is not—it is an endless place of no houses.
All night in some safe house, others are awake. If you need someone awake, call a safe house. Someone, bleary-eyed is there; someone is there with caffeine in her teeth. The worker has come to the precipice of her life; the worker has come here.
One day the child will find the right safe house. No one will assume that the child is a woman. The child will step from the street—on the long journey away from the judge’s house, away from the judge who stood in every house. Away from the long exhausted eyes. The safe house large as a city, large as a world. And tangled by grasses, the quick hot green of the grasses. In the low, hot country where I’m not from.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Shamala Gallagher is an Indian/Irish American poet and essayist based in Athens, GA. Recent work appears in Poetry, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, a PhD candidate, and, newly, a mother. Her first poetry book is forthcoming this spring.
The imaginary city of Mooncalf, “two hours from Atlanta.”
I'm mixed-race in such a way that I've rarely been around people of “my own race,” though I've spent my life looking for them. I've lived in Georgia for the past four years, and I've spent much of my PhD program at the University of Georgia studying this state's racial history. A lot of my recent writing takes place in the imaginary city of Mooncalf located “two hours from Atlanta.” I think this essay is set there too.