Five years and two lifetimes ago, I was an architecture major. Most of my time was spent in a sleep-deprived fog of frustration and passive aggressive turmoil. From the get-go, from the very start, it did not fit with me. I knew this very early on, for within the first two weeks of entering the program, I had pulled an all-nighter. It snuck up on me, the first night of my life when I did not get any rest. Around 3 a.m., things stopped making sense. I brewed a whole pot of coffee and drank none of it. I broke back into the studio after hours to find the place deserted. No one stayed up late at the beginning of the semester. There was no reason to. One would think I’d have come to terms with my short comings and just moved on. But I lived the next two years in denial.
It wasn’t an entirely uphill climb those two years. Some days and weeks were easier than others, but in the grand scheme of things it was never meant to be, nor was there anything I could have done to make it work.
Five years and two lifetimes ago, I began a failed endeavor, but kept on with it for fear of embarrassment or the great what if?!
Four years and two lifetimes ago, I realized it was not going to work, no matter how hard I tried, but I kept on anyway, for the same reasons listed above.
By the end of my third semester as an architecture student, the assignment that defeated me wholly, that completely crushed my spirit as an artist and creator, was not in and of itself very complicated. We had to design a pretty or hip house in a city then multiply that house by four, each residence butted up against one another in a line. It was a rowhouse. You’ve seen them; they’re everywhere. I can practically look out my window onto Cedar and see a whole mess of them. I could have copied one of those designs and probably received a B-/C+ on the project. But I tried (oh, how I tried) to do something a little different.
My rowhouse, much like my life at the time, was misguided; misaligned. The walls were positioned at odd, obtuse angles. A few rooms were shaped like triangles. The floor plan revealed a kitchen with no outside view. Professor Davies, in her infinite spatial wisdom, drew this to my attention on the final ink drawings: a misshapen red oval scrawled around the thick black line that signified kitchen wall. Part of it encircled the sink and refrigerator. Next to the circle, an arrow and text: ‘NO VIEW!’
At the time, I was in a relationship. Or at least I kept telling myself I was. This endeavor also proved itself misguided and misaligned. My life became increasingly tensile, as the two factors seemed to place more stress upon the span than it could withstand.
In the end, everything collapsed. My rowhouse puttered to the finish line with a few botched section drawings leading the stampede of things I never got done. The final project, among a host of other things, called for drawings of aspects of our project we found ‘interesting.’ I sat and I sat and stared and stared and could find nothing remotely interesting about my monstrosity of a design. My residence was grotesque, unlivable, as far from aesthetically pleasing as one could meander.
My rowhouse was a solid D project. At the time, before we received our grades, during long nights that eventually bled into long days that eventually bled into more long nights that eventually hemorrhaged whole weeks, I was of the belief that merely finishing this marathon warranted at least a B. I had been mistaken, I thought, after slitting the piece of drafting tape and opening the grade sheet left on my studio desk. I looked at that D and thought that I had been taken advantage of, that the profession of architecture had victimized me. I had given so much time and effort and had nothing to show for it.
Years later I realized that my professors had been right all along, for I never finished that project and thus never deserved a decent grade. My lady interest left me for greener pastures and that had made me sad. In retrospect, I drove her away because, much like my stint with architecture, I had no idea what I was doing.
I entered a renaissance period shortly thereafter and renewed my passion to produce great things in architectural design. I took the cumbersome rowhouse model back to my dad’s house and locked it away in the shed. It would not see the light of day for four years. I attempted to do well at my design work and improved markedly but fell behind in my other coursework. More conflicting downward forces were affected upon the span.
Three-and-a-half years and one life ago, I was kicked out of the architecture program. I received the rejection in the form of an email from the dean himself. The subject line read: ‘Not accepted into 3rd year.’ I didn’t need to read on, but I did. The explanation was as follows: ‘GPA was a problem, etc. Sincerely, C McW.’ The end. With very little consideration, I scrapped my architecture career and fell back into writing where I belonged. There were some growing pains but I felt fine about the shift much sooner than I thought I would. There were no hard feelings in the end.
One month and no lives ago, my special lady friend and I went home to visit my dad. Towards the end of our stay, I stepped off the back deck and saw that the old man had started a burn pile in the fire pit behind the shed.
‘You wanna burn that rowhouse now?’ he asked as I approached.
Burning the rowhouse had been one of my intentions since leaving the program. My dad and I talked about doing it every time I came back to visit. I had romanticized the act over the years, as the rowhouse not only signaled the end of era for me but also (distantly) a lost love.
‘Okay,’ I said.
I opened the doors to the shed and was immediately overtaken by the odor of stale piss.
‘Had a mouse problem in here for quite a while,’ Dad said. ‘Can’t find where they’re living.’
Our shoes crunched against droppings on the plywood floor as we searched the upper shelves for my model. The shed itself was small and my rowhouse was rather large for a model, so we quickly became confused as to where it had gone.
‘I didn’t burn it,’ Dad said. ‘Must’ve just moved it somewhere.’
‘What’s in here?’ I asked, pointing at a green plastic storage container on the floor.
‘Don’t know. Let’s take a look.’
My old man pried off the lid and roughly a dozen baby mice leapt out in all directions. They scampered along the wall and found the safety of dark corners. A few made a break for the door. My rowhouse sat inside the tub and we pulled it out for inspection.
The family of mice had snuck in through the rear window, which had been widened to accommodate the hustle and bustle of a large family. The kitchen was full of seeds and other munchies. The living room was furnished with fluff and lint and such. It looked like they had spread out into a few of the units. The place had really become a multi-family residence. Most of the family had escaped when Dad pulled it out of the container, but a few kids were left behind in the confusion. They hid in the dark corners of the triangular shaped rooms, safe from our stares and the stick poking of my meddlesome little brother.
‘You still wanna burn it?’ Dad asked.
I thought about that for a while, pacing around the yard, checking back occasionally to see if the mice were still hanging around inside. They were.
Eventually, I said, ‘Nah,’ and we attempted to shoo the remainder of the squatters toward the woods. They would have none of it -- too frightened by my bro’s frenzied poking to venture into the real world.
It was time to go, said my special lady friend in not so many words. She grabbed the palm of my hand and tapped it three times with her finger: our signal for ‘Time To Go.’
I thanked my old man for the effort and for saving my rowhouse for all those years. He said that it wasn’t a problem but asked if I wouldn’t mind if he went ahead and burned it. I said I didn’t mind at all. My special lady friend and I left.
In the end, the rowhouse was livable. It housed a great many tenants. Said tenants affected much change on the structure; put a lot of tension on the spans, so to speak. It was no longer suited for its intended purpose and had to be condemned. The situation reflected that of a great many other buildings: despite one’s better judgment, a project is undertaken and the design is misguided and misunderstood by all parties involved and there is a lot of confusion and too many factors acting against one another and not enough cohesion and you go ahead and build the thing anyway and that’s a whole other headache and then that part’s done and it isn’t received well at all and you wonder if the whole thing was even worth it and people live and work in it anyway and everyday the place is used and inhabited and inexplicably changes people’s lives and then inexplicably it doesn’t anymore and it is empty for a long time and eventually it is condemned and set on fire and extinguished and torn down.
I talked to my dad a few days later and he said the thing went up in flames with little fanfare. I hadn’t missed much. All the better, for I had seen it before and see it everyday -- structures that change lives everyday and then don’t somehow anymore. Dozens of little mouse babies living in buildings completely oblivious to where they’re going or where they’ve been.