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Brenda Huang / Senior Staff Illustrator

On April 24th, 2017, in the suburbs of Wilton, Connecticut, a house burned. The flame started in the attic and moved downward with an open, red mouth. The fire lasted for only half an hour, but by the time the fire department arrived, the sky shone brightly into the living room. This is what was lost: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a hallway, another hallway, an heirloom Persian rug, family pictures, a beloved stuffed animal, a double-breasted Armani suit from the eighties saved for a daughter for when the time came, and the alphabetized library of a woman who spent 40 years gathering the books she loved.

“A mouse bit a wire,” the fire chief explained.

My mother had another explanation: “Nonna got us out of Connecticut. If the house hadn’t burned, then we’d never have moved.” But insurance doesn’t accept supernatural interference as “cause of damage,” and so the mouse remained on all the paperwork.

I liked the idea that our house had burned as part of Grandma Lancellotti’s Cosmic Plan to shepherd us out of Wilton, but if Nonna were pulling the strings like some mafioso from the beyond, why then had she turned all our heirlooms into smoke, and left in perfect condition my DVD of Eddie Murphy’s Norbit? I was skeptical.

My mother, on the other hand, was determined to uncover the true meaning behind our disaster, to gather clues from this world and the next. She has always moved through life with the upward gaze of a true believer, talking to mediums, consulting psychics and astrologers, divining “yes” and “no” answers from the sway of the crystal orb she wears around her neck. After encounters with the hereafter, she called me to recount something vague and terrifying like, “they’re looking out for you,” or “she’s proud”—spooky remarks that made me surprised our house hadn’t burned sooner or that I had never vomited pea soup onto an upside-down crucifix while shouting, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” A week after the fire, I was sitting in my room in Plimpton Hall when my phone rang. My mom’s speech was, as it always is after a brush with the eternal, quick and breathless.

“Claire, it wasn’t just grandma. It was Auntie Mimi, Auntie Chenza, everybody. And they have big plans for you, too. Big plans.”

That mom believed Nonna burned our house down surprised me less than my own reaction to its destruction. I had loved our house. I loved the backyard where, as a little girl, I myself had sought secret meanings, assembling twigs and rocks into fairy houses; I loved the kitchen where Auntie Mimi taught me to make ravioli by hand (years before she became an undead pyromaniac, obviously); and most of all, I loved my bedroom, where I curled up on the windowsill and read Matilda over and over. But when Mom called me with the news, I did not cry. I did not mourn the backyard, the kitchen, or my bedroom (I did cry for Lamby, my stuffed lamb, but that is a secret between you and me). Instead, I went back to studying for finals, as unfazed as if I had been told that tomorrow there would be rain.

I had been done with Connecticut for a long time. As soon as I grew old enough to buy my own Vogues, instead of flipping through my mom’s discarded issues for the rush of inhaling expired perfume samples, I knew that my small town would never satisfy my desire, nay, my need, for glamour. Wilton was like business casual come to life. It was like the feel of a firm handshake paired with the sound of the name Mark. It was like the question “Do you have this sweater vest in a bluer shade of navy?” and the response “Yes.” By the time the house burned, I had moved to New York, was a student at Barnard, and was more or less living la vie bohème. I went to costume parties, had an opinion on the worst subway line, knew the best places to dance if you didn’t like wearing heels, and said of people urinating between cars, “Ugh, that’s so New York,” to show that I also understood and loved my city’s grittier side. Wilton was as useless to me now as trickle-down economics or plastic straws. The fire was like an ex calling to break up with me. It was unnecessary, and honestly, rude.

I wasn’t the only one. No one in my family had thought of our residence in the Nutmeg State as permanent. We are city people. My dad’s heart was in Los Angeles, my mom’s in New York. Wilton was the compromise because it had the best schools. After I went to college, my parents stayed, unable to make a move, unwilling to pick a city. Once I left, a strangeness took over the house. I felt it. My mom felt it. My dad did too. The wooden furniture stopped feeling like cherished components of our home and became merely wooden. We were ghosts ourselves, caught between choices. Later, we all wondered: If the house had not burned, would we have stayed in that limbo?

With the house gone, I didn’t know what to think. I never wanted to live there again, but how was I supposed to feel about it being gone? The fire had left my mom feeling closer to her ancestors, and me closer to a younger and less appealing version of myself. Instead of gaining a mature understanding of loss, I regressed. I was a teenager again and everything was total bullshit: homework, getting dressed, being single, being hit on, movies, my nail beds, the presidency. I walked around campus hungry and numb and bruised. I kept miscalculating my dimensions, bumping into chairs and doorknobs. I lost things. I left my cell phone in a classroom, my notebook in another classroom, sweaters and coats on friends’ beds. I never had a hair elastic or a tampon.

My parents moved into a hotel downtown so they could be near me and the house. When the semester ended, I put my things in storage and moved in with them. In May, we visited the house for the first time since the fire. We entered through the mudroom. It was eerily undamaged. The wood floor, the stove, and the kitchen sink were all the same. What was new was the breeze, cold for spring, that blew from the hole in the ceiling. We had to cover our faces, hands, and shoes as we moved into what my mom termed “our own personal apocalypse.” We walked over thick layers of ash and furniture and had to be extremely careful not to touch anything with our bare skin. To be fair, if I were a ghost, this is exactly where I would like to live.

The house was not smoky as I had expected. It was wet—the air heavy with the smell of a dead thing. I entered my broken bedroom and took stock of my charred furniture, the black, caved-in roof, the sooty photographs of me at bat mitzvahs decked in shutter shades and pimples. I was surprised by how much I wanted, even expected, my grandmother to appear. Against my better judgment, I hoped for an apparition, something to bring me closer to an emotion holier than ambivalence. I was ready to feel the loss my parents felt, to cry as they cried. But instead of erupting into graceful and cathartic sobs, I got itchy and fled to the backyard where I spent the rest of the afternoon covered in hives, helping my mother sort through the mildewy remains of her books. What was wrong with me? There my parents were, sending their lives soaring into a dumpster. Here I was, a horribly unlikeable character, hiding behind the garage checking Instagram in the hopes that Kylie Jenner would just confirm her pregnancy already.

More uncomfortable than the rash spreading across my neck was the relief I felt. All of the items I had lost were items I didn’t know how to get rid of. The uniform of my awkward phase, the pink crocs and crocheted ponchos, was gone. Even the death of Lamby seemed to mark something cosmic, some passage from child to adult, girl to woman, training bra to bra bra. I couldn’t help but feel that the fire was somehow necessary. I wondered if all the time we had been living there, the house had been preparing to burn, drying out the wooden floors, welcoming heat, rodents, and ghosts into the walls.

On the drive back to Manhattan, we were all silent (and one of us—me—was covered in hives). We watched from the windows of the car as the setting sun outlined the skyline in red and orange. Each of us, I knew, was thinking of the house. How could a mouse have done all that? How could a rodent have forced me to confront such grand ideas as home, family, and the ephemerality of youth and possession? I was skeptical.

Maybe my mom was right and it had been Nonna after all. Maybe she had lit a fire under us to get our family to take the next step. She could sew a suit by hand and make a full meal even when the fridge was empty. And she knew we were ready.

In November 2018, after 19 months of waiting, construction began on a house in Wilton, Connecticut. The blue tarp was removed from the roof and fresh shingles were laid over a gaping hole in the attic. Some things—the original filigree radiators, a green bedroom with a window sill perfect for reading—were scrapped. But some were added, like heated floors in the bathrooms, and a great room on the first floor, all of which were made to help the house sell. Though the family had loved it, they were moving on. It was sad. They cried, finally, each of them, graceful and cathartic sobs. But they also felt just fine.

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