The House with the Painted-Shut Windows

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

A few months ago, my wife and I spotted a house we found for sale on Zillow. We ran some numbers and we went to see it and we loved it in person, too. We did a walk through and then drove around the area for an hour, talking. This was right after Rosh Hashanah. The air was still warm, summery even, and the apple orchards near the house were abundant with fruit. It was easy to feel like the whole thing was just meant to be. We made an offer the next morning and it was accepted by noon.

A week later, we returned for the inspection. We began with benign stuff: A missing gutter, the faucets in one of the bathrooms reversed, and other signs of work done too quickly. At first blush, the bathrooms and kitchen looked like they’d been transplanted from the nearest IKEA showroom. A closer look revealed a lack of permitting and corners cut. We’d be buying a house priced as a four-bedroom that was legally zoned as a two-bedroom.

The off-gassing from the materials used to install the lower-level flooring — it was a raised ranch with a finished basement that we planned to use as a bedroom and home office — was so strong that my sister, who’d come to help suss out the place, had to go upstairs after a few minutes. My wife started having breathing trouble. I stood there thinking: No.

The corner downstairs “bedroom” had a single bed in the corner with some butterfly decals on the walls. This room had no windows, though it looked like a child slept there.

Before I go on, let me back up a few days and hope this next part doesn’t make me sound stalkerish. Really, I’m not. I’m a curious person, and a writer, and someone who assembles stories in my head. I Googled the address to see if I could learn anything about its history and its current owners.

It belonged to a couple. Presumably, based on the child’s room and the bundle of balloons in the corner of the kitchen that said, “It’s a boy!” they had a daughter and were expecting. The man had a prior court appearance for domestic assault, from a few years ago. None of my business, I know. But if I told you it didn’t color my perception of the house, I’d be lying.

The morning of the inspection, we saw the woman leaving the house with her little girl, clearly trying to get out of there given that four strangers were now milling around her driveway. As she leaned down to help her daughter into the carseat, I tried to catch her eye to smile. She quickly looked away. Had I not read what I’d read, I would’ve thought she was having a rushed and stressful morning trying to get to daycare and then work on time. Lord knows, I’ve had thousands of those myself.

Instead, I saw a woman who looked like she was doing her best to be as small and invisible as possible.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came about 25 minutes later. We started with the visual exterior — roof, gutters (or lack thereof), deck, foundation, trees. Then moved inside — kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room. This didn’t take long, and no alarm bells went off. So far, so good. I wandered into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, the rooms that would belong to my own kids were we to proceed with the purchase.

That’s when I went to open a window. Huh. Strange. It wouldn’t budge. A further moment of investigation, and a quick survey of the other upstairs windows, then later downstairs, exposed something we found odd at best and chilling at worst. They were painted shut. All of them. I touched the paint. It was a recent job, and my wife and I exchanged a sinking look. It appeared that he had literally painted her in.

Of course, we cannot verify this. We are not investigators. We know nothing of these people’s lives, nor was it any of our business. But we knew in that moment — even aside from the lack of permits, the shoddy work, the chemical hazard of off-gassing that, unbelievably, is still not considered a “health and safety” issue in the inspection report — that we could not live in this house.

I wished I could slip a note to her somehow, with the number of Safe Passage, a local shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. But I knew I could not nothing but hope she would have the courage and means to get out.

Maybe she thinks she deserves it. After all, dinner was cold the other night. She’d forgotten to take out the recycling. She spent too much on groceries. Or he’d just had a shit day and that was her fault, too. Or maybe she was just too terrified. She was pregnant. They had a little girl. Keeping them safe — she had to. He loved them. He said so. He was sorry. He said so. Besides, who would believe her, anyway? He made good money. They had a nice life. She was lucky he took care of them. She was making it up. She was making him look bad. She was crazy. She was exaggerating. She was selfish.

We drove away, $700 lighter, knowing we would pull our offer. Knowing this house was a bullet dodged. And knowing that there was nothing we could do with this knowledge that a battered woman and her abuser might live there.

But those painted-shut windows have haunted me. Knowing a little girl slept in a room with no windows in a basement stifled by chemicals has haunted me. The statistics haunt me.

None of my business?

Maybe that woman I saw in the driveway’s personal life is none of my business. But it is my business that in the last 20 years, 17,700,000 women have been rape victims. It’s my business that 99% of sexual violence perpetrators face no lasting criminal charges. It’s my business that we live in a culture where a history of sexual violence does not keep men from attaining positions of power, prestige, and wealth — and that these, in turn, protect them.

It’s my business that many women, especially children and young women, don’t report their abusers, attackers, or rapists, for fear of retribution and their safety, as well as the common fact that they will very likely be questioned if not blamed.

It’s my business. Because I am a woman. Because I am a parent. Because I am a human.

And it’s your business, too. It has to be. And if it’s not, I wonder why. Are you frightened? In denial? What are you protecting?

Not one of us hasn’t been touched by sexual violence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so widespread that you might not even be aware of how, or you might know exactly how and have spent many years honing your coping skills and compartmentalizing the truths your body and psyche carry.

When I was in high school — think late 80s — I went to a presentation about violence against women and the advertising industry. The images of women dehumanized, made into body parts, made into objects, seared into me. For women of color and trans women, and especially for trans women of color, the representations and realities were — and are — even more degrading.

I have had my share of near misses, but I have not been a victim myself of rape. I am not here to tell anyone else’s story, except to say that my life is filled with friends, family members, and writers who can’t say the same. Women for whom sexual assault and violence is woven into their cells.

I believe them. It’s my business to believe them. It’s my business to believe you. It’s my business to write what I can and then to stop writing and to listen, to make room for your story, if and when you feel ready to write it.

It’s my business to never shut up. To smile only when I feel like smiling. To keep doing my own work of healing a nervous system that cranks up in a millisecond if I feel scolded or scared.

And so I’m here. To tell the story of the painted-shut windows. To bear witness where I can and to refuse anything less than our full humanity, our full safety, and a reckoning the likes of which this country still hasn’t seen.

It’s time to get out our chisels and hammers, to break the seals, to break the windows if we have to. They cannot paint us in, ridicule, or scare or into silence.

14/30 Poems in November: Refuge

The woods haven’t always
welcomed me but today
they did.

Strangers haven’t always
greeted me kindly but today
they smiled hello.

Once, I would have been afraid
of this hiding place.
Today, I sought it out.

Once, I’d have been terrified
of dogs running
in my direction.

Today, I opened my hands
to their tongues,
stroked their heads.

In another lifetime,
I fled to the woods
for survival.

I failed
to save my child,
my sister. Never again.

Today, once again,
the woods were refuge,
now of a different sort.

A place to touch
into peace. A refusal.
A pause. A quiet roar.



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