Digestion - Reif Larsen - The Nursery

The Nursery

Reif Larsen

Ahzin Nam, The Hypercontaminated Home, 2022. 

Digestion
October 2022

I.

It must be said from the outset that Lila disagreed with the whole idea of Geffen’s father coming to live with them. But Geffen, in that maddening way of his, left the possibility open for discussion long enough that her ongoing dissent began to feel like a kind of violence.

Geffen’s father, Mimo, had once been a master stonemason in Porto—his specialty was chiseling gargoyles into various states of fury. But now his fingers had frozen shut and his left eye had filmed over. Geffen’s mother had passed just over a year ago from colon cancer and it was clear Mimo could no longer take care of himself.

So it was a very reasonable proposition, Geffen argued, that his father should not live alone in Portugal but rather come to upstate New York and spend the rest of his days tottering around the new room on the third floor. There was a view of the river and en-suite facilities. It was not a bad place to die.

Everything always happens at once. Days after Mimo moved in, Lila found out she was pregnant. They had been trying for several years. They had entered the surreal world of IVF. They had learned terms like “ovarian hyperstimulation,” “trigger shot,” and “blighted ovum.” There had been three miscarriages. Four, technically. At a certain point, Lila and Geffen had resigned themselves to a path that would not include children. Maybe it was for the best. No: it was definitely for the best.

Everything always happens at once. At first, Lila remained terrified to even acknowledge the gestation in case there was another catastrophic ultrasound or those 3am exorcism spasms that confirmed what she already knew. But after four months the miracle began to soften against the sandpaper of reality. The doctor would not have to go in to scrape her uterine wall clean. This might actually happen.

They eventually told Mimo that he would be a grandfather. Mimo, who spoke little English, began to cry. He said that he wanted to live long enough to meet his grandchild.

“What’re you talking about?” said Geffen. “You’re going to help raise the baby.”

Lila shuddered involuntarily.

Ela vai ser linda,” said Mimo.

“What did he say?” said Lila.

“We don’t know if it’s a girl, papai,” said Geffen.

É menina,” said Mimo.

There were ways to know, of course, but Lila was the type who liked to cushion her dread with certain known unknowns. She was an architect. They were both architects, though Geffen no longer practiced. He was working on a novel. He was working on the vegetable garden. He had designed the systems in the house so that they could live a life of carbon neutrality.

Geffen set up a little radio for Mimo in the room on the third floor. It was one of those fancy digital ones that was made to look like an old fashioned 1950’s radio and Geffen programmed some stations from Porto so his father could feel at home. Mimo would tap his gnarled hands on the table and hum along to the salty warble of a fado melody. Geffen brought out some of his childhood blocks from Portugal which he kept in an old fruit box. Mimo smiled when he saw them and tried to build a house but his fingers shook and the blocks clattered across the floor.

Mimo seemed generally grateful for all of their efforts. Yet Geffen could not help noticing that familiar look of disapproval at the construction of his quarters. His father had never once been impressed by a building that he himself had not worked on.

One time Geffen came up the stairs and found his father pressing his ears against the wall.

O que é, papai?”

Isto não é certo,” murmured Mimo.

“It’s one of the most advanced materials in the world,” said Geffen.

É perverso.”

“They’re completely natural,” he said. “They’re plant-based.”

His father slapped the wall and shook his head. “É uma blasfêmia.

“It’s the future, papai,” said Geffen, gently, like a doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis.

II.

The small city where Geffen and Lila had moved five years ago was up and coming. Or at least this is how they described their home to friends from out of town. The city had once been an industrial powerhouse where they had fabricated 70% of the world’s cast iron stoves. Now it was filled with contaminated vacant lots and had one of the country’s highest overdose rates.

But things were beginning to turn around. The new mayor, who had a master’s degree in environmental science, believed in a just transition. The city had recently passed a “Green New Deal.” There was now a bike lane in the downtown that no one used and three decent coffee shops where you could order locally roasted espresso.

Geffen and Lila had gotten a good deal on their building, which was in a brownfield opportunity area now being transformed into an “eco-district.” Like many, they had become increasingly climate panicky. They had tried to shrink their carbon and psychic footprints through well-researched methods. They had made spreadsheets. And yet they could not empty that slopbucket of guilt they both felt for trying so hard to bring a child into a doomed world. Still, every enlightened choice (composting, heat pumps, an E-Bike) granted them just enough moral currency to breathe another day.

After they received a “Deep Retrofit” loan with absurdly low interest rates, someone from the city whom Geffen occasionally played tennis with on Saturday mornings put them in touch with a green contracting firm run by a very handsome, very smooth-talking Brazilian man named João.

João managed to be both muito macho and gender fluid at the same time. He had muscles in strange places. He wore complicated flip flops and linen shirts that seemed to be missing critical parts of fabric. In partnership with a team in Singapore, João had developed a revolutionary building material called ProBrikotic™. The brick was derived from a genetically modified butterwort plant (Pinguicula) and featured sophisticated somatic properties: it breathed and purified the air inside of the home through thousands of tiny nanopores, modulating the interior climate and providing high r-values during times of extreme temperature. There was no need for extra insulation or drywall. All of this was done naturally, without mechanical intervention or control.

ProBrik, the patent owners of ProBrikotic™, had attracted nearly $200 million in venture capital funding from various Silicon Valley, Beltway, and European investors. Overnight, ProBrik had gone into contract with mega projects in London, Singapore, and New York City.

But João was also committed to the transition of the small city. He had grown up in Volta Redonda, a city of 275,000 just west of Rio with a well-known steel industry that had also faced a series of devasting floods made worse by climate change.

“50% of the world lives in places like Volta Redonda,” João had declared in an interview on MSNBC, bracelets jingling. “This is where you can still afford a house. This is where humanity will either be saved or broken.” Early on, ProBrik had made deals with a dozen smaller post-industrial metros that were looking to build out eco-districts like the one where Geffen and Lila now lived.

João and Geffen had gone out for drinks one night at a fancy dive bar in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Over the course of four dirty martinis and in an increasingly sloppy mixture of English and Portuguese, they had started and incubated four or five companies. They had solved most of the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin. João knew people with money, he said. Dinheiro nunca é problema.

Geffen was smitten. He was ready to go. He was ready to completely reorganize his life for this man.

“This is the real deal,” he said to Lila the next morning. Lila, knowing the look her husband now housed, patted his shoulder in sympathy.

“I’m happy for you,” she said. She did not say that her firm had just won a major contract from the Department of Energy to build a net-zero affordable housing complex in Utica, the first of its kind in the nation.

But João did not return Geffen’s calls. He was busy, no doubt. After several weeks João sent a convoluted lowercase text message apologizing for his absence. He had been in Oaxaca on the grow farms. In the end, he put Geffen in touch with his deputy, Brad. brad is a king, wrote João.

Brad had been forged in the fires of financial bro-speak. He said Geffen could be one of the first ProBrikotic™ beta testers in the county, as long as he was willing to put up with a few kinks in the deliverables. They were still sourcing from Mexico as they sought a local grow bank. The product, Brad stressed, had not yet been “verticalized.”

Geffen had no idea what this meant, but it didn’t matter. He was over the moon. He would be one of the first! He e-signed some glitchy paperwork that resembled an NDA and waited for the bricks to arrive.

The bricks did not arrive. Brad deflected. There had been some problems acquiring the appropriate import permissions as the bricks did not fit neatly into any category. Brad also casually mentioned that their head of operations in Mexico had recently been murdered. He did not elaborate. “Once we can grow and process the product locally, everything verticalizes,” he said over the phone. “We’re targeting Western Pennsylvania.”

While he waited, Geffen designed and redesigned the addition which would incorporate the new materials. The side of the building that faced the industrial lot had not fared well—it looked as if someone had repeatedly backed their truck into the wall and then lit the truck on fire. He would tear down this entire side and then add a third-floor guestroom, as well a new home-office space. Everything would be done with ProBrikotic™.

Six months went by. Spurred on by national media attention, the housing project in Utica started ahead of schedule. Structures like these would fight generational poverty and climate change went the narrative. Lila found herself traveling nearly every week. DC, NYC, London, Akron.

“Saying it out loud enough almost makes it true,” she would confess to Geffen over a glass of late night vinho verde.

Then, in the matter of just over a month, Geffen’s mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and passed away. Somehow it felt both sudden and expected at the same time. They flew to Portugal for the funeral and the fallout. Geffen wept on the airplane watching Friends reruns but did not cry once at the service itself. Mimo was in much worse shape than they had anticipated. Something must be done.

After dinner one night in Praça da Ribeira, Lila and Geffen stumbled across a puppet show of Dante’s Inferno on a street corner. The puppets were simple, made of what looked like wire coat hangers, but the production was oddly affecting, like a dream from long ago, and they watched much longer than they intended, until the final curtain came down. Later, wandering along the waterfront, they had one of the biggest fights they’d ever had. The next day, neither could recall exactly what it was all about, only that a portal to another universe had briefly opened and then closed.

One day that fall, completely unannounced, the bricks simply appeared. They were delivered on five palettes by a foul-mouthed trucker from Jersey who seemed clueless as to the unprecedented nature of his load. Geffen spent most of that first night touching the bricks, unloading, rearranging. The bricks were almost purple and were slightly sticky to the touch. Each brick was marked by a gentle concave on both sides. If you looked closely, you could see the thousands of tiny perforations, the nanopores through which the bricks modulated the airflow. Geffen sniffed. A faint odor of something earthy, like unwashed carrots.

One corner of a palette had gotten wet and some of the bricks seemed to have melted, but Brad had assured Geffen that the bricks were more malleable before they were treated with the included maturing compound, after which they would harden into their finished state.

Geffen and Lila shared a celebratory glass.

“These bricks are still young,” said Geffen. “They don’t know what they’ll become.”

Lila was silent for a moment. “But they’re not really alive, right?” she said. “I mean, really?”

“What’s your definition?” he said. “They’re to going to work for us. For our home.”

Lila cleared her throat and then told him her firm had just won a national award from the American Institute of Architects for their Utica project.

“That’s wonderful,” said Geffen. “That’s really wonderful, Bear. I always knew this would happen.”

III.

The bricks proved tricky to deal with. They were soft and sticky until compounded and then they became not exactly hard, but at least more set in their ways. Brad gave him the name of three local contractors, one of whom turned out to be recently deceased. The other two each came to see the house. After surveying the bricks, they seemed impressed but then never got back in touch. Another contractor that Geffen found said he could start the job in a year and a half, if everything went according to plan.

So Geffen did the work himself. It nearly broke him, but he persevered. After a while, he found that he had become an expert reader of the bricks, each of which had a different personality, its own brand of loneliness, its own flavor of exuberance. He began to understand which one would do well at the top of a wall, which would work well together, which must be separated at all costs. Each brick was a labyrinth of wants and needs. It was like solving a puzzle in three dimensions. Four, maybe.

Once the first wall was complete, Geffen stood inside and placed his palms against the bricks. He closed his eyes. He could feel it. He could feel it… breathing. The sum of a million quivering apertures. Opening, closing. When it was hot outside, the air inside was cool. When the air grew chilly, the bricks maintained the internal temperature and seemed to even generate their own heat.

Lila had slowly come around to her husband’s undertaking.

“You remain totally insane,” she said.

“But admit it, you’re a bit impressed.”

“You know João’s full of shit. No contractor will ever deal with this, much less on the scale he’s talking about.”

“People change. Systems change. If there’s a market then people will buy it.”

“There’s no market,” she said. “I mean, look at us. The West is evaporating and on fire. The South is melting. You would think we’d learn. We’re experts at acting just after it matters. And by then no one’ll give a shit about Bricktannica or whatever the hell it’s called.”

“ProBrikotic.”

“And why can’t they come up with a good fucking name? My God.”

Still, the renovation could only be called a success. Brad came and visited the house. He was much shorter in person than Geffen had expected. He was carrying an extremely large water bottle that seemed designed for a farm animal. Geffen was hoping João would be with him.

“He’s in Mexico these days,” Brad explained. “He met someone.” Then, in a moment of rare bro-divulgence: “Everything’s been delayed. We’re in the shits.”

Dezeen and Grist both wrote think pieces about the house. The headline of one article read “Can Green Bricks Save the World?” (“No,” was the definitive answer.) Geffen printed them both out and put them on the fridge. Someone from The New York Times claimed to be very interested but never followed up.

The house might not save the world but it really did respire. Everyone who came over noticed—or was forced to notice—the immaculate clarity of the air inside despite the bones of the building being almost 150 years old.

“We sleep so well in here,” Geffen would say to their friends.

“We sleep well because we take sleeping pills,” said Lila.

Sometimes—and Geffen admitted this was stretching things a bit—the house seemed to be communicating with them. Not in a way you could hear, but it would adjust itself or shudder imperceptibly if something grew off kilter. The bricks supposedly needed no maintenance, but Geffen found himself misting the outside of the walls with a special cocktail of water, sugar, and fertilizer. Even after compounding, the bricks inside the house still maintained a tacky quality, such that you could press a piece of paper to the wall and it would stick. “Wet Paint” he wrote one time as a joke.

“It’s like living inside a cocoon,” said Lila. “And not in a good way.”

The bricks seemed to appreciate him. And he, in turn, appreciated them. “My peeps,” he called them in private. When winter came around he found he only had to generate a bit of heat in the early morning from the HVAC. The bricks—his peeps—would do the rest.

What was even more amazing was to watch the material makeup of the house change over time. The seams between the bricks—where Geffen had applied the organic mortar according to the instruction app—had almost entirely disappeared. It was as if the walls had become a single organism.

IV.

So it was disappointing when Mimo dismissed the whole endeavor as a perversion. Uma blasfêmia. His father took to hanging his bedsheet over one wall of bricks in the morning, a trembling maneuver that Geffen could not help but find deeply offensive. After his father nearly toppled off his chair pinning it to the wall, Geffen began helping him tack up the sheet each morning in a ritual act of self-humiliation.

The bricks were not pleased with the gesture. In general, Geffen had noticed that the air inside the house had perceptibly changed since his father arrived. The house appeared to be adjusting to the presence of another being. Making room. There was a new kind of shuddering. A groaning in the eaves. Geffen sprayed a bit more of his concoction on the bricks each day as a peace offering. The walls became stickier. When you put your hand against its surface, the wall clung to it for a moment before letting go.

“He doesn’t mean what he says,” Geffen whispered as he misted. “He’s an old Portuguese crank.”

Lila, despite her initial protest at Mimo’s arrival, did her best to accommodate him. They developed a cute routine where she would make her father-in-law a lunch of sardines and a Caesar salad from the garden. “Bom apetite,” she would say and bow, and he would blow her a little kiss. This was repeated each time without fail.

With each passing month, the pregnancy grew more present in their lives. Eventually it consumed them both. Lila became fixated on where they would put the nursery. The nursery! They had rented out the first floor to a physics professor named Felipe who never seemed to be home. Lila advocated getting rid of him, but Geffen protested against evicting his gentle bearded energy.

“You could give up your office,” said Lila. “You’re not even using it.”

“I use it all the time.”

“You’re never in it.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m not using it.”

“Geffen,” she said. “This is real.”

“I know that.”

“It’s not some theoretical exercise.”

He came to her, held her, felt the lump of life between them.

“I know,” he said. “I’m doing my best.”

In fact, the office was the place where he communicated with the house in the morning. It was a site of communion, of negotiation, of contrition. Could you evict a house from itself?

“We’re turning my office into the nursery,” Geffen said to his father as they hung the sheet up one morning.

Talvez o bebê não devesse ficar aqui,” said Mimo.

“What’s that supposed to mean, papai?” he said. “We’ve been trying for years.” He grunted lightly as he pressed a pin into the wall. “This is everything for Lila.”

His father nodded.

“You are… lucky,” he said in English.

“Yes,” said Geffen. He felt tears in his eyes. He went over to his father. How many times are we allowed to embrace our fathers in one life?

Yet before he could reach him, he saw that Mimo was making a curious waving motion with his hands. At first Geffen thought that this was meant to ward him off, but then he realized his father was gesturing at the wall where they had just hung the bedsheet.

Não, não, não,” he was saying.

Papai,” said Geffen. “What’s wrong?”

His father was slowly backing up.

Papai,” said Geffen. “There’s nothing there.”

Mimo bumped up against the table.

Não,” he murmured and flicked on the radio with surprising grace. Suddenly they were engulfed in a wash of static.

V.

Geffen woke up early one morning as usual and headed to his office. His books were half off the shelves, squirreled away in a series of boxes. A sample mobile of flying crocodiles hung from the ceiling. Geffen fetched his mister to placate the house but stopped short just before his first spritz. The wall of the office was covered in a thick layer of gelatin.

He swallowed. With quivering hand, he reached out and touched the goop. It felt cool and bottomless as it encircled his fingers. A slight burning sensation on the skin. He wanted to call out to Lila but did not dare wake her as her sleep had been erratic recently. Lila complained that the baby already wanted out of its compartment. Her new fear, fueled by late night doom scrolling, was a premature NICU birth.

“Everything doesn’t always have to go wrong, you know,” Geffen said to her once.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said without looking up from her phone.

Now, staring at his viscous hand, Geffen thought about calling Brad. He thought about João, sequestered somewhere in Oaxaca with his harem of acolytes. Had they known all along?

“Peeps?” he said to the wall. Not quite a question.

Silence.

He heard the faint, mournful call of a fisherman’s lullaby.

The radio must be playing in his father’s room. Geffen cursed under his breath. He should go up and help him with the bedsheet before he hurt himself.

He hastily wiped his hand clean on the cover of a book and ascended the flight of stairs, ducking his head instinctively at the low clearance where he had miscalculated the dimensions.

The room on the third floor was empty. The bedsheet had already been hung. A few wooden blocks were strewn across the surface of the table. Geffen recognized the song on the radio from somewhere in the depths of his childhood. The singer moaned over an acoustic pizzicato—her man had been lost at sea; she knew he would never come back. Minha solidão é minha prisão, she sang.

Papai?” he said to the bathroom.

The room smelled damp and loamy, like the forest just after a fresh rain. Geffen went to the window and looked out at the river. Even this far north, the water here was brackish. The tides bent its shorelines—sticks would flow downstream then up, back and forth, all the way down to the sea. Maybe when their daughter was old enough they would take a canoe and paddle this river.

“Geffen,” he heard Lila call from downstairs.

It was then that he noticed something was behind the sheet. He lifted one corner and saw him. It was as if his father were listening to the wall, except that his head was inside it, his hands raised in weary surrender.

“Geffen,” his wife called again from below. “It’s happening.”

Digestion is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the 2022 Tallinn Architecture Biennale, supported by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC), the Estonian Museum of Architecture, and Friendship Products.

Category
Architecture
Subject
Fiction, Climate change, Sustainability
Return to Digestion

Reif Larsen's first novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, was a New York Times bestseller and is currently translated into twenty-seven languages. Larsen's essays and fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Tin House, one story, The Millions, Virginia Quarterly Review, Travel + Leisure, Asymptote Journal and The Believer.

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