A Conversation with In the Dream House
Author: Leo Rachman
July 17, 2020
House idioms and their variants, in fact, often signify the opposite of safety and security. If something is a house of cards it is precarious, easily disrupted. If the writing is on the wall we can see the end of something long before it arrives. If we do not throw stones in glass houses, it is because the house is constructed of hypocrisy, readily shattered. All expressions of weakness, of the inevitability of failure.
— excerpt from ‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado
The following story is in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado’s most recent publication, In the Dream House: A Memoir. In the book, Machado explores intimate partner abuse and its effect on her psyche. She interleaves folklore idioms and plays with form throughout the book. The book is not a traditional memoir, as it does not have regular chapters. Rather, it is presented as a series of snapshots that deconstruct illusions of perfect domestic partnership. She works to dismantle monolithic concepts of queer love, and seeks to enrich them with complexity and depth. She works to dismantle the idea of a “Dream House.” Dream House is a concrete, palpable construction. Dream House is also elusive and intangible, it represents the metaphysical construction where Machado’s relationship with herself and her partner takes place, and continues to decay. This memoir has helped me make sense of a previous toxic relationship I was involved in. It represented to me that intimate partner abuse can be both concrete and nearly invisible simultaneously.
June 18, 2017
I woke up one morning in her bed in her childhood home. Her down comforter was hugging both of our naked bodies, and when I opened my eyes I looked over and saw the early morning sun dappling her face making her look like something out of a dream. Her hair gracefully framed her jaw, and the sun hit the iris of her eye, making it shine almost like amethyst. The sun kissed her cheeks, and highlighted her soft pink lips, glistening from a fresh coat of Aquaphor. I felt a pit in my stomach every time I looked at her. I didn’t know what triggered that in me. I saw her lovely exterior, I saw she was the first person to ever care about me in a way that I had never experienced before. I saw she was a gold-gilded lockbox, and she had given me a key. The brightness of her exterior blinded me to her interior.
I leaned over and kissed her, our bodies moving closer together under the sheets, both of us now in the warm glow of the morning sun.
“Are your parents awake?”
“I think so, I can hear them moving around downstairs.”
She lazily traced her fingers along my thigh, dragging them between my legs and kissing me to keep me quiet. I felt dread knowing that we were covertly disrespecting her parent’s home. I whispered her name onto her lips, “Fucking hell, Gem.” I was at once thrilled and mortified. I wasn’t sure which, yet I felt the anxious pit in my stomach fade away as she touched me. Sex as anesthetic.
Once we were done, she led me downstairs. We muttered awkward hellos to her parents, and out we went to Washington Square Park. I lit up a cigarette, trying to forget the growing pit in my stomach, again, blinding myself. I told her I was feeling a little off. I barely finished my first drag before she pulled the cigarette from my lips and said “What the fuck are you doing? No more for you today.” She put my cigarette to her lips and took a long drag as she held her hand out expectantly for the pack. Sheepishly, I handed over the soft pack of Marlboro Reds and my lighter. We stood outside of The Grey Dog, a hotspot for kids of NYU. The hot, greasy smell of fried eggs and cheese wafted my way, making my whole body clench in protest.
“Do you want to grab some food?”
“I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to eat yet.” Eating is problematic when anxiety is present.
“God, I’ve tried everything to help. You’ve got to stop this.”
Her face went blank. She flicked the cigarette somewhere over my shoulder and grabbed me by the hand as we went into the café, not saying a word.
Did I do something wrong? Was it my social anxiety? Was it the cigarette? I wanted it to be perfect, but my body was not cooperating.
After this terse exchange, she bought both of us an egg sandwich with that wide toothy smile that I loved. I was surprised she switched so easily from mad to sweet, open, and kind. I did not eat except a bite to make her happy. Who was she? Was she the smiling, open, kind person, or a dictator? We walked to the east end of Washington Square Park, her favorite part. All I could think of was how I disappointed her, how she didn’t understand me, how the pit in my stomach had now consumed my body, ever deepening.
Sitting on a park bench, she asks, “How do you feel about coke?”
Confused, I sipped my coffee and said, “Like, the drug, coke?”
“Yeah, the drug.”
“I really don’t think it’s something to be messed with, I think it’s really dangerous.”
“Well, I’m going on this trip abroad soon, and I was hoping I could try it while I was there.”
“I really don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said, “it’ll just make me super worried about you. What if it’s laced? What if it’s not really coke but fentanyl or heroin or meth? You can’t know what you’re getting, and you don’t really know the city very well so what if something bad were to happen to you and you didn’t know where you were?” The very last word of my sentence twisted up into a pinched sob, and I started to cry. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
She put her arm around me and said, “I didn’t know it would work you up like this. I’m sorry, it’s really not that important to me to try it, so if it will make you feel better I won’t do it.”
She knows my father is an alcoholic. She knows how afraid I am of being in a relationship involving drugs and alcohol.
I took a deep breath, my crying slowed down, and she rubbed my back. “Thank you, I really appreciate it. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said.
July 21, 2017
Gem had been on her trip for about two weeks. She wasn’t very good at staying in touch. I slept fitfully, waking up nearly every hour to check if she had finally decided to get back to me.
“I have an amazing story to tell you once I wake up tomorrow morning. I love you.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it meant that she had been out very late, something she didn’t normally do. I had a rush of panic remembering our conversation in the park about a month ago. I wondered if she went against her word, but she told me I could trust her. We ignore the signs our bodies use to communicate. The inability to sleep, the worry, the tenseness in my shoulders, all trying to scream at me, “THIS IS NO GOOD.”
“Tell me your story! I love you too.”
She sent an incredibly long text message, outlining a wild night out. I read through it, my stomach falling when I read that, “Some guy gave me and my friend coke for free because he thought we were pretty, so we both did two lines in the bathroom.” After that sentence, the story continued on as if the admission hadn’t just blown open my world, my trust, my fears. As if that had not been a problem at all.
I didn’t even know what to think, and I began to cry. I texted her back and said, “I thought you decided not to try coke.” Not trying to force my will on her, but trying to understand.
“I don’t remember ever saying I wouldn’t do it, I’m sorry if you misunderstood.”
“I didn’t misunderstand anything, I remember that conversation like it was yesterday.”
“I do too, and I definitely don’t remember making any false promises.”
“Do you remember what made me cry?”
“Yes, the idea that I would try coke.”
“Do you remember what made me stop crying?”
“I remember telling you it wasn’t that big of a deal. I definitely did not promise you anything. It’s really not that big of a deal, I don’t understand why it’s upsetting you so much. Clearly I’m fine.”
My stomach fell further and my head spun in circles. Did I misremember our conversation? I couldn’t have. I remember how sincere she looked when she said she wouldn’t do it, I remember how she looked when she wiped my tears and put her arm around me and comforted me. I remember how warm she felt cuddled up next to me that night, still reeling from our conversation.
I asked myself why it mattered, why I was so upset at her personal choices. I have always been a tolerant and accepting person, so why did this bother me so? It was the betrayal. I shouldn’t have asked for the promise, but she made it, and then gaslighted me into believing she had not made such a promise.
It took me a long time before I could really make sense of what that relationship was, and how it impacted me. At first, when I broke up with her, I was devastated at having to end something that felt so important to me. She was the first person I ever truly opened up to, and I believe that the relationship meant a lot to her too. I don’t say this to sympathize, in any way, with how she hurt me. I say this because I know she is a real human person with depths of emotion like all of the rest of us. However, I think there was a fundamental difference between the two of us.
Growing up, I was raised primarily by my mother. My parents divorced when I was twelve, so my dad was around when I was a young child, yet somewhat of an absentee father. His life was consumed by alcohol. He has the same story that many opioid addicts have. He suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. After that surgery, he was given opioids. He continued taking them long after he physically recovered, and the rest is history. As I grew older after my parent’s divorce, my mother continued to instill the core values that govern her moral compass. Truth, honesty, and respect. My mother is a giver in every sense of the word. She works on relationships. She tries to get people to see where she is coming from. She gave everything she had to me and my brother growing up.
As a child, my mother would stop at nothing to see how she could possibly help me or my brother in any way. If we appeared sad, she would sit us at the table and ask us to put words to our feelings. Emotional literacy was drilled into me from a very young age. It was my mother’s goal to shape my brother and I into empathetic, kind, and driven individuals with a very developed sense of self. Only as I have continued to mature have I learned that my mother did my brother and I an immense service with this practice of open emotional communication. I have learned that I am privileged to have such a dedicated parent, and one that always encourages me to succeed mentally and physically. I have found that this strict attention to emotional literacy and self-examination from a very young age is not incredibly common.
I believe that my previous partner simply did not have access to the same emotional language that I did. I understand that, and I have unpacked a lot of experiences from that relationship that all lead to that focal point. I believe that I can be able to see who she is, and respect her humanity and human experience, while also condemning her behavior and how it impacted me.
Carmen Machado’s personal Dream House showed me all the corners of my own Dream House. Machado’s words spoke volumes to me. She represented the toxic relationship as something metastatic — cancerous almost. The way she used her language and played with form highlighted this. There was such complexity and depth to every exchange between Machado and her partner, and the audience was given insight into Machado’s thought process as the relationship grew sour.
Through the text I learned a lot about façades. I empathized with Machado’s experience of being so blinded by her partner’s beauty and interest in her, and letting that dictate how she interacted with the relationship. I empathized with how she often felt small in comparison to her partner. I gained a lot of strength from the end of In the Dream House. Machado made it clear that, like the cliché, time does heal wounds. This doesn’t mean that something will not trigger some part of you, deep down, that is still tied to Dream House. It does mean that “Sometimes you have to tell a story, and somewhere, you have to stop…. My tale goes only to here; it ends, and the wind carries it to you.”
I will leave things here. I have grown from my experience, and I, too, lived to see a day where things are better. Where I don’t have to be afraid of those close to me. Where I don’t have to silence or change any part of myself, but I can just be and breathe. There is a life after trauma. It isn’t perfect, there are moments where progress regresses, but one thing is for sure. We are capable of growth. We are capable of learning. We are capable, and should, be radically in touch with our emotions, as they often know more than we do.