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  • Writer's pictureSophia Aguiñaga

Interior Castles

Updated: Jun 1

Chapter 1

When you find someone who deserves love in a way you never knew existed, who deserves more patience and kindness than you’ve ever seen demonstrated in this material world, it’s a calling to grow and expand. It’s a challenge from the gods to deepen and strengthen yourself to the size of a sea, so that you may be able to contain even some small portion of what the person in front of you deserves.

More than family or lovers or any other, she is a catalyst for my expansion. For my urgency to redefine love in a way that serves the world more holistically, because I’ve seen what it has done for us. Together, she and I have reimagined love and lived fully into it. And somehow, no matter how clumsy and idiotic and selfish and confused and terrified and reckless we were, we managed not to fuck it up. I feel to be the size of that sea and I’m expanding as I write this. Because she deserves absolutely fucking everything and I’m still not even close.

Chapter 2

She knew every single dark corner in my house, and chose again and again to live there. She helped me turn on the lights in rooms I was most afraid of and got to work right beside me in the soot; cleaning, evaluating, and eventually demolishing every inch of that house. By hand. Her precious hands. She hated her hands because of her clubbed fingers.

Listen to me. Her hands were fucking perfect.

She stood beside me in assessing my house, saw and reckoned with the disrepair. It felt endless and real ghosts lived in that house. I was haunted and dangerous. I'll never fully comprehend what happened next, because it was the last thing I would have expected. She stayed.

I gave her what little I had and I gave it with devotion. But at the time what I had to give was so, so little. A lot of laughter, depth (mostly uncharted), and devotion. Borderline obsessive devotion, however well meaning. So much was broken at the time. We were only 15 years old and had no clue what we had found, what would grow from and through us. And I still had no idea what cystic fibrosis was.

She saw what I was, yes. She saw the danger and felt the ghosts taunting us, but she also heard me when I shared my visions. The ideals, the purity, the castles I planned to build in this broken house's place. "Castles that reach the sky," I told her. "Dripping in gold."

She believed in those castles more than I did, as if she had already seen and lived in them. She saw them with more clarity than I ever could. The way she would remind me when I forgot or got distracted or tried to escape my work. The most magical ability she had to draw me back to myself.

Neither of us knew it, but I was building those castles for her. There came a day when all my past work and all my future work became for her, because of her, in her name. Or maybe it had always been that way. I can't recall a single thing before I met her and I don't care to. I do know that I was born to worship her, and any goodness that comes from me is of her.

She stayed and we worked. The embarrassing truth is that I was needier and louder than her. We mostly worked on my house. Not completely due to my self centeredness. She never needed as much work. Her house was already comfortable and warm. Certainly haunted, like all of ours, but she was stronger than me in that way. Easier. There wasn't much damage, she didn't care about what little there was, and she didn't actually enjoy working on her own house. She’d already done so much and she was enjoying what she had built.

She was fine with me knowing all her dark corners, but she rarely cared to investigate or even hear about them. She was an escape artist, my beloved. Perhaps that's why she was so content to focus on me and my house.

She also loved to be in service. A trait that sometimes cost her, but largely was what made her an angel. She would cringe and laugh right in my face for using that word, angel. But fuck that. I don't believe for a second that an angel can't be sharp and a little sadistic. It sure kept my loud, needy ass in line. She was not someone you wanted to get checked by. It would smart for days afterwards, and she was a fucking angel.

I realize I haven't told you her name. Kaila. The love of my life. The most precious jewel of my world. She died in 2018 and I will write her love letters, just like this one, until the day I die. My devotion to her is ageless and completely unbound. There is no dimension where my love can't reach her, now or ever. I'll sing her name as a psalm, again and again and again, unto eternity. I'll use my song to draw her back to me in every single life, just so I can worship her all over again.

Heavy, I know. You're probably wondering why. And I'm wondering how I ever got so unspeakably fucking lucky to find a love like her. God, where do I start?

Chapter 3

My house, I guess. Let's start there. Truthfully, it often felt unlivable. I was so fucking wounded. I considered suicide very seriously sometimes. Maybe if I came and went quickly I'd inherit something more... possible in the next life. I was so ashamed, it seemed like everyone could see it. Like I was trailing blood everywhere I went. And I was. All the fuck over.

There was no hiding my neuroses. I had PTSD and it showed up loudly in every relationship I had, the loudness directly correlated to how close we became. Of course, I didn't know it was PTSD then. I wouldn't discover that until 20 years later. In the meantime, I had this house. This haunted fucking house and a white woman, so small she could fit inside of a dryer, questionably committed to the cause. I would have died without her. I mean that literally. She saved my life.

The relentless gravity of consciousness grounded me like lead. Every morning I would wake up, aware of the weight of consciousness. I could feel it in every cell in my body, in the air. So dense I could've pulled the molecules apart if I focused enough. I was conscious, aware of and knowing things, and some days I could barely lift my feet.

I was the buried glint of a rock at the beach, settled amongst countless others, peeking helplessly through wet sand while the tide barraged me with more sand and more water, endlessly. The only way I was moving was if I caught someone's eye and they dug me out. The weight felt unbearable and I couldn't fucking move.

At least, that's what I thought. In truth, I wasn't moving because I was waiting. I was frozen in terror, waiting for something that would never, ever show up. For those of you into trauma porn, don't be weird. I’ll just say that I inherited things and was brought up in ways, in places, around people that sometimes caused me significant harm. Frequently enough that core aspects of my identity became inseparable from that harm.

I was in what’s called a freeze response. Someone in a freeze response is simultaneously “frozen” and extremely alert, hyper aware of but unable to move or take action against a danger. Parts of me would remain in that state of frozen terror until I was 35 years old. I think the trauma that causes this type of response is infinitely less interesting than the experience of said response.

Why? Because in addition to a dilapidated house filled with ghosts, I also inherited a level of abstracted mental awareness that sits about as distant from my immediate reality as the moon sits from Earth. This may sound like a gift. The overview effect sounds dreamy, and in some ways it is. But it doesn't hit that mark when you're suffering.

I was experiencing the suffering of being wounded and in pain, while sitting outside myself observing and analyzing it. At the exact same time, constantly. I dubbed this phenomenon "The Observer," the part of me that was witnessing and clocking it all. The Observer amplified the suffering because it was listening to it so intently, examining it with a microscope. Working tirelessly to understand it, in order to excavate and eradicate it. The Observer somehow knew that there was something underneath awaiting revelation, and I suffered for that revelation.

I used to cut my wrists as a relief valve for the intensity. The literal bleeding made the figurative feel more manageable. At least for a moment I could marry my physical experience with my internal one, let the intensity flow out of me in red.

I wish this weren’t true, but it worked for me. It felt grounding, even if my father told me the cuts and scars made me “look crazy.” Well, fucking good. Part of the point, maybe? I felt unstable. If it was so obvious, why didn’t he do anything about it?

Chapter 4

My father has given me all the love one could possibly hope for from a parent. Truly. I see and feel it in ways now that I wish I could have when I was young. I would have felt so much safer. Despite his love, he wasn’t equipped with any tools to care for me beyond the material realm. We couldn’t understand each other, so we lived in that misunderstanding and believed for a long time in the presence of an unending, lightless chasm between us.

If we had met on the street, completely unrelated, there would have been a violent repulsion. We had nothing in common. He was a military bro. Unjustified aggression, humor that often came at someone else's expense, and confidence so palpable you could feel it reaching for your throat. I survived him by imitating him. Him and my older brother, who to this day parrots my father.

Pops was a single, exceedingly Mexican father. My paternal family is indigenous to Jalisco, México. Colonized by the Spanish so after our native roots were beaten out of us, we were Mexicans. Humble Mexican roots. No running water, that had to be carried back from a well. No heat in the house, just more wool blankets. Dirt roads, metal washboards and clotheslines filled with billowing sheets, waiting for your turn to take a bath in the tin tub that the rest of the family had already used that day.

He still carried deeply Indigenous features and everyone, including my high school girlfriends, thought he was handsome. He used to wear these low cut tank tops that were common on Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70s. And these fitted lace mock necks. Always showing off, dripping with swagger from his days as a b-boy.

“Your dad is, like, hot.” The most popular, beautiful girl in my graduating class said that straight to my face. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and hand it to her, tell her, “Just take this instead.” Don’t worry, dear reader. She said the same thing about my brother, so no one felt left out.

Ricardo, or Tío Richo, or Rich when he needed to prove he had successfully assimilated. His main hobbies were competitive bodybuilding and womanizing—also competitive. In fact, all of life was a competition and the current perpetually flowed in his direction. He gambled all the time, but won so often that it was never considered a problem. It wasn’t about the win, though. It was the flex. The volume of his voice would slowly creep up to eclipse yours in a conversation about crocheting just to get a flex in. All the braggadocio and machismo you could pack into one chiseled, brown body.

When I was especially irreverent, he'd pull out the Bible to remind me of a woman's place as a housekeeper and child bearer. According to my mother, pops was so upset that I wasn't born a boy that he refused to hold me for days after I was born. To this day, I have no idea if this is true. It's equally as plausible that my mother was lying to hurt and manipulate me as it is that my father was so disappointed in the presence of a woman in his bloodline that he refused to come near me.

"Traditional" is often synonymous with "oppressive." Northern México and its traditions, and my father, were steeped in racist, sexist stoicism and the blood of Christ. Me and my brother endured frequent physical punishment, the worst of which was saved for my brother. My dad wasn't an abusive man, though he did engage in abusive behavior sometimes. The distinction? My father was taught that physical punishment was the most reasonable method of discipline. He didn't take pleasure in it, he never used it as a relief valve, and I would guess he never considered that he was hurting us in ways he couldn't see. After all, look at how well he’d turned out.

He never considered, I think, how being beaten with a belt by an adult male bodybuilder might contribute to whether your daughter takes a knife to her arm when it all feels too intense. His emotional well was a kiddie pool to my sea. He wasn’t built like that. Sensitive. Or feeling at all, maybe. He couldn’t have gone deeper if he had wanted to. He would die never wanting to, because Rich just wasn’t fucking built like that. Perhaps a feeble attempt at hurdling the cognitive dissonance that can arise when given equal parts love and abuse from your caretaker, but I beg of you to allow me this one comfort. I inherited so few.

I’m not ready for the part about my mother yet. She contributed to my house too. Not nearly as much as my father, but her contribution was cemented into the fucking foundation. Hidden, surrounded by dark, living earth and filled with all the cracks that insects find and burrow into. Entry points for the spider you would find looming over you in the kitchen one unsuspecting morning. Silent but it had been there for weeks, mummifying its prey and draining the animation out of them. Watching you with its eight eyes and crawling towards you, in your home, a place you had naively imagined protected you from creatures just like this.

Chapter 5

We’ll get to my mother. The point here is that my father was the most significant input to any soundness of structure my house had. As an engineer, he was exceptionally good at structure. His house was a fortress, built of tierra Méxicana, steel, and whatever poison he bled out as he built. It was heavily armed, cold, and impenetrable. As stoic and unmoved as he was. Mostly empty, only pure necessity, because he needed to be able to see around corners. He was good at that too.

The castles in my visions? The floors and ceilings were lined with velvet, sound waves disappearing into the walls. Opulent and filled with art and music and color. Prisms everywhere, catching light and dividing it into its infinite spectrum across the halls. High, curved ceilings painted like the Sistine Chapel, except the bodies were Black and brown and proud like a Kehinde Wiley painting. Sounds of perpetual invitation and unapologetic pleasure would fill my castles. Not a single clock anywhere, there was no time to be told. Those invited in, for however long they stayed, would be filled with the most generous and overflowing sense of love, sweetness, safety, and worthiness. The air would be so fucking pure and rarefied in my castles. My castles would be heaven on Earth.

We couldn’t understand each other at the time, you see? I couldn’t understand why someone would ever build a house like his, and I couldn’t fathom that it was built with me in mind. Not when every cell in my body drew me to its opposition. I think I even imagined he built it to spite me, it felt so personal. Because it almost killed me, living in a house so devoid of what I felt inside myself. I desperately needed that sweetness reflected back to me. But that was my house to build, not my father’s.

There was a chasm between us, but it was neither endless nor lightless. Come to find out, our parents are not omnipotent. I think it’s important to understand this. If you and I are dumb fucks—and we are—then so are our parents. They’re on this weird floating rock, stumbling around, trying. Big, dumb, easily confused fucks. Just like you and me.

Our parents inherit their houses too, all in varying states of disrepair, all with ghosts from some haunted past of somebody who did something fucking terrible. It’s easy to take it personally, that their houses weren’t built to orbit us. As children, I think we’re self-centered enough to believe we should be the center of our parents’ worlds. But their houses orbit them and their visions. They started dreaming and building before they could walk, just like us. They give us what they have to offer when we show up. Sometimes they can move a lot around to accommodate, other times we have to figure out how to make it work. Sometimes we burn that motherfucker to the ground and start fresh. In any case, the value of our parents’ houses cannot be determined by whether or not it’s what we would have built for ourselves.

If you're a second gen American like me, most of our parents built fortresses. They built with the materials they found around them—usually some exotic earth, broken English, and corporal punishment. It’s important for us to at least try to understand this, because I think it harms our parents when we don’t. When we reject or invalidate their love, what they built and shared with us, because we can’t understand it.

Of course, there are parents who do not fall into the category of someone who tries to share anything. Some parents don’t have the intention of sharing a single thing. I have one of those too. Some parents just take, others take and destroy. Others simply destroy. There are parents who do this consciously, with malice and unconsciously, via ignorance.

But my father? He remodeled that fortress for me. Trust, it was even more spartan before I arrived. But he built what he knew with the tools he had been given. Tools he had found in the dirt and in the chill underneath his wool blankets, in his father’s backhand and his abuela’s firm, punishing pinches.

I think he was equally as confused as he was inspired by the song and sweetness and blushing I brought to his house. I think he found it so precious and bewildering that, to him, it justified the overbearing protection of his fortress. It was a sort of bell jar, because I think he didn’t know what else to do with it. He would tirelessly perfect that fortress until the day he died, and I was protected, and it was his gift to me.

Needless to say, I was raised in a haunted house. All I had at the time were visions, so I imitated and repressed feelings and experiences and told myself all manner of stories to justify why I felt so fucking depressed all the time. I survived it and many of those ghosts came with me when I left.

Still, one of the only reasons my castles stand today is because my father loved me, truly loved me, and taught me how to bleed poison and build a fortress with my bare hands.

Chapter 6

But that’s not the interesting part of the story. It's Kaila. She's the whole story. All of it, forever. The only reason any of this bullshit about my house matters is because she lived there with me, when my golden castles were nothing more than a notion. A weak, muffled slur from a nameless rock sinking under the weight of wet sand. How the fuck did she even hear me? What compelled her to dig me out of the sand?

I'd be dead and you wouldn't be reading this if she hadn't. That's why I worship her. Even after her death, having not spoken to her in five years. Not since that last phone call where she told me she had a nosebleed that wouldn't stop, apologizing with all her Catholic guilt for it interrupting our conversation. That nosebleed turned out to be the sign; her body was about to shut down. Kaila didn't live past the next day.

Still, daily, my love deepens for her as if I'm learning her endless world in real time. As if she is still unfolding for me, in this very moment. These castles I'm showing you are hers. I'll build them in every lifetime, just to ensure she sleeps as comfortably as she deserves, surrounded by as much beauty as she deserves. And I'll make them more and more beautiful every day. Because if she ever returned to me in this lifetime, I would need her to see that the very thought of her presence drives me to endless betterment. An eternal thank you, an everlasting requital.

She never knew what to say to my poetry. I found a unique pleasure in watching her squirm and bristle when the feelings were too much for her tiny body. She escaped all her feelings, at all costs. But I made it my work to ground her in my love for her. If she wouldn't feel a single thing else in this lifetime, she would fucking feel my love. And she did.

Eventually she realized she didn't need to say a word. Words were my thing, and I loved how they left her quiet and blushing. The words were simply there for her, to adorn her. One day she stopped resisting and stepped out wearing them like an ornamental, sculptural cloak made of velvet that rippled like water. She absorbed the truth in them, finally, and let them make her weep. She let them hold and cover and protect her. My love was heavy and oversized, but she grew all the way into it. That was all I wanted in return, to cover her in my love. She looked like a fucking goddess covered in me and it made me love her even more.

Chapter 7

At 15 years old, Kaila stood 5'1" tall, which she never bested, and had a tiny, high-pitched voice with an even higher pitched sneeze. She was a cheerleader who seemed to really believe the patriotic incantations about our school and she said "like" constantly. She was white with mouse-brown hair and was, in every visible way, unremarkably basic. And so were all her friends.

I couldn't stand her. We met in the hallways through a mutual friend and I distinctly remember thinking, "Okay, Becky." Probably even rolled my eyes. I preferred the misfits. I didn't present much like one, but I was a freak.

My best friends were in every corner of the school—goths, nerds, band geeks, thespians, loners, and artists. I felt myself in all of them. I was dark and wore black platform boots with flames flowing down the sides, I wrote poetry and played the flute and sang opera. I skipped class, talked back whenever a teacher said something that didn’t make any damn sense, and had resting bitch face. Still, all my teachers loved me. My older brother was an ultra popular jock two grades ahead of me, so I kicked it with the football team, the popular kids, and the seniors too. I never belonged to any particular clique, but I belonged in all of them. I was fucking cool with everybody.

Except the cheerleaders. God, please. Shut up. Did they lift their entire vocabulary directly from Clueless? And their clothes? And their fucking voices too? Babes, we lived in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Tell me again how you managed to supplant your Yooper roots with a full blown California Valley Girl accent overnight. OMG, that's literally amayyyyyziiiing. Little boxes, all the same. So fucking boring.

Give me my blue haired goth named J Dizzle and the quiet girl who volunteered to put on after school activities for the special education students. That quiet girl, my closest friend throughout middle school, made me laugh so hard that I threw up once. She grew up to specialize in teaching children with severe autism. Fucking misfits. Infinitely more interesting than plastic, alcoholic trophy wives who traumatize their kids by trying to be their friends and living vicariously through them. Judgmental? Definitely. I was 15 and sometimes I was an asshole.

The first time I heard Kaila sneeze, falling just below a dog whistle in decibels, I knew in my bones that she was doing it on purpose and I couldn't stand her for it. Faking that pitch to look cute. "I'm so tiny and everything about me is small, look at me." I still believe that shit. The last time I heard her sneeze before she died, I promise you I rolled my eyes and said, "You just can't get enough attention, can you?"

Nope, this isn't one of those, "if only I could hear it one last time" situations. There are a handful of upsides to Kaila's death and never having to hear that fucking sneeze again is one full Mount Everest above every other thing on the list.

People don't like to talk about the upsides of someone passing. I know it probably feels blasphemous, but what do you want me to say? Every person we love is sometimes an asshole and that's part of the story. That's part of the remembrance. In some ways Kaila and I held each other back. Her death was also an emancipation, which grief accounts for. It’s normal to miss our tethers and shackles, especially when the handcuffs are so golden.

Chapter 8

Neither of us could remember how we ended up spending time alone together. It's like we both repressed whatever terrifying and otherworldly events that must have transpired to land me at her house after school one afternoon. Seriously, it's weird. But there I was. Sitting in this cheerleader's bedroom fawning over the cover art for the movie Closer. The fuck was Jude Law doing with such a chiseled jawline? And Clive Owen's eyes? Please, god, end me

The movie played out, poetic and visually arresting. The writing was exceptional. The acting, impeccable. The music was flawless, opening and closing with the haunting voice of Damien Rice. Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts, equally as stunning as Jude and Clive, played out the poesy of the messy plot to perfection. Every line, every pause. The idiocy of the drama seemed to make perfect sense acted through their bodies, as if every parallel universe merged to create one for just those 90 minutes.

The film washed over both of us and we gushed about it for weeks, eventually years after. Kaila fell in love with Natalie Portman's character. Jane Jones, who told everyone her name was Alice to maintain her anonymity. Jane spent years in a relationship with Dan (Jude Law), with him believing her name was Alice the entire time. She picked the name Alice Ayers from the headstone of a woman who died rescuing children from a house fire. It gave Jane a sense of redemption from the troubled life she was escaping. Kaila was Alice. Or Jane. She was both of them, and she was the lie and the redemption buried inside it.

I observed Kaila closely from then on. She surprised me with her depth. She lived in the liminality between Jane and Alice. That lie was really a transmutation. She could go from the reality of her life as troubled, plain Jane Jones to the heroic and worthwhile Alice Ayers in a moment.

She was a Piscean escape artist. I used to call her my little fishy. She swam fast, could slip through cracks, and moved around anything she preferred to avoid without ever being noticed. She didn't have to face any of it if she didn't want to. And she definitely didn't want to.

Chapter 9

Kaila was brought up by a single mother, alongside her younger sister, Heather. Heather was Kaila’s favorite, most cherished person. Even more than me, which I raise because it hurts my feelings a little bit. I prefer to be at the forefront where possible.

Look, I’m not a complete asshole. It surprises Heather too. But the foundation of Kaila’s house was built on Heather in such a significant way. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense.

Kaila and Heather’s mother, sadly, was a narcissistic alcoholic. Lisa had a revolving door of boyfriends who weren't very good to any of them. She was almost always drunk or on her way, and far more concerned with her boyfriends than her daughters. Five years Heather’s senior, Kaila took on the role of mother as best she could. Cooking, bath time, bedtime. In every way a young girl could, she protected and tended to Heather. Her free time was spent either escaping into books or confronting their mother about her drinking and negligence.

Their mother was also a smoker. An indoor smoker, even. Unremarkable, except for the fact that both her daughters were born with cystic fibrosis. Yep. CF. Both of them. Which makes some sense given it’s hereditary. The twist? Kaila and Heather had different fathers. Their mother, who carried the CF gene, had managed to find and get pregnant by two different men who also carried the CF gene. There’s a 2.857% chance of that shit happening. One of the infinite ways Lisa’s bad decisions betrayed those girls.

Lisa’s indoor smoking would have been harmful in any case, but she had two young girls with active lung diseases in the house. It was an outright disregard for their lives and an ongoing betrayal of her inherent duty to protect them. So was the drinking, so were the boyfriends. And it was all happening right in front of their faces.

Cystic fibrosis is a progressive disease that makes the mucus in a person’s body thick and sticky, building up in the lungs most significantly. Effectively, the body can’t expel the mucus quickly enough. There are treatments that help break the mucus up, but they only delay an inevitability—either a lung transplant takes place or the body shuts down due to organ damage.

So, let me correct myself. In addition to caring for her younger sister, battling her drunk mother, ensuring Heather was protected from the new men always in orbit, managing her and Heather’s health regimens, and finding some semblance of freedom through books, she was in and out of the hospital all the time. Heather too. They would frequently travel, an hour each way, to Froedtert Hospital for check-ins. Sometimes they would wind up staying for a week or longer if they needed heavier maintenance.

And the treatments. There was a slew of pills they had to take every day, in addition to high-frequency chest wall oscillation. For an hour a day, they were supposed to sit with an inflatable, vibrating vest strapped onto their torsos and inhale some medicinal mist from a nebulizer. It helped loosen and thin the mucus but again, only so much. There are currently no treatments that will match the speed of the mucus buildup, aside from a lung transplant.

Can you feel that? The weight, the tension, your mind reaching its capacity. All that responsibility, the complexity, the perpetual danger, the toppling height of the stakes, the physical exhaustion, the constant betrayal and rejection and disappointment and anger and confusion and fear and resentment and… my little fishy had nothing but her books. Escaping into a fictional, often fantastical world was the only reprieve she had. She had stacks and stacks of them. We used to call her Belle, just like Beauty and the Beast.

Facing the enormity of it was never an option because breaking down would have meant putting Heather in danger, and Kaila protected Heather with her life. That role became rooted into her identity. So much so that if Heather’s health would decline, Kaila would start to let herself go. Skip treatments and medication, stop eating. No, it wasn’t healthy. It was codependent as fuck. But that’s what happens when we endure trauma. We develop exceptionally creative coping and avoidance mechanisms and build identity and safety constructs out of a deck of old, moth-eaten cards and give it our best flailing shot. That’s how a house can end up in such dire disrepair.

Chapter 10

It’s difficult to recount how unprotected my beloved once was. Life was wildly unkind to Kaila. It laid anchor upon anchor atop her tiny body, from birth until death. Yet her house remained sound and safe and warm. There was damage, unquestionably. Enough that she made an art out of avoiding it. But she somehow gathered all the fear of facing all that pain and transmuted it into a structure that could be safely and comfortably lived inside of.

The drive to protect Heather, to give her a safe home, gave Kaila this superpower. Like a mother who can lift a car if it means saving her child. No wonder Heather was so precious to her. She couldn’t live without Heather because all of Kaila’s superhuman strength was built on the existential urgency of protecting her little sister. And it gave Kaila not only the power to build a house big enough to fit her and her sister. In her hysterical strength, she built a house that would eventually become a safe haven for anyone that needed a home.

Can you imagine containing a strength like that? We’ve all heard stories, but have you ever imagined containing it in your body? Imagine witnessing or experiencing a need so vital, so existential that you become strong enough to lift, build, carry, destroy beyond the laws of physics. The electricity coursing through your body, your mind falling silent and turning all evidence that points towards you being confined by any parameters of the physical world into laughable theory.

That can happen in our minds, too, not just our bodies. For Kaila, it was both. She lived in that state for 15 years. Exactly half of her life. Can you fucking imagine? She razed the burning building that was her mom’s house and built a brand new one directly on top of it. By herself. With her perfect fucking hands.

The house wasn’t flawless, and she wasn’t like me. She didn’t need anything to drip in gold. She just needed it to be safe and comfortable for her guests. She needed it to have a worn sofa and a fireplace for people to sit and drink around, a kitchen to feed them food. Just enough rooms to sustain a steady rotation.

Beyond the traditional comforts she shared with her guests, her house was filled with underground passages and Murphy doors that served as bookcases. Even funhouse mirrors, all the better for evasion. Only she and I would ever access those parts of her house. They were intricately locked and protected by booby traps. I explored them more frequently than she ever did or even cared to. At first I made my way in by picking the locks or brute force.

At some point, years later, our love melted those locks away. Eventually every single barrier between us had dissipated and I could walk through the walls of her home. Look, I’ve been in every room in her house and there wasn’t a single monster hiding in there. Kaila was pure. All the locks and traps were only there to keep the pain at bay, to make sure she could keep the house up and running. There was no safer, warmer, more inviting place to be.

Kaila would amass a collection of strays over the course of her 30 years on Earth. Every sad, lost, rejected soul that came across her path was invited. She wanted to be a mother more than anything in the world. When I say she loved to be in service, I mean she found her whole entire purpose in it. She didn’t want a career, she didn’t care about anything material. She had almost no outward ambition.

To the eye, Kaila was common and perhaps even a little concerning. She happily worked at KFC for years, never once feeling the need to advance. She couldn’t have cared less what paid her bills or what anyone thought about it. She just wanted to take care of someone, to nurture and support them. As many people as she could, in fact.

Building that house so she could protect Heather and one day invite people like me in was the highest fulfillment, the fullest expression of Kaila’s inner wholeness. She saved Heather from the flames of their mother’s house. And for the rest of her life, she would welcome other survivors into the home she built.

Kaila was Jane. Kaila was Alice.

Chapter 11

Heather was the catalyst for their eventual emancipation. Shortly before Kaila and I met, Heather’s health had started to decline drastically. Their doctors had long suspected there was smoking and drinking in the household but Kaila kept it to herself. She thought she could handle it and she didn’t want to upend what little stability they did have in their lives. She also didn’t want the crushing guilt of turning her mother in. But Heather’s life was on the line. Kaila knew that even her superhuman strength wasn’t enough. She was only fucking 15.

With support from her family and doctors, she did something a child should never be responsible for. She called social services, desperate for help in caring for Heather. Life changed quickly. They were pulled from school and an investigation began. As a temporary safe house, the girls went to live with their mother's sister, Gina.

Auntie Gina. Another absolute fucking angel. A very different kind of angel than Kaila, but I can see how Gina's influence seeped into Kaila's way of being. So giving and forbearing. They wrote about angels like Gina in the Bible, the helpers and protectors. While Lisa and the girls navigated everything from mandatory AA, court appearances, and supervised visits, Gina gave those girls the safety, stability, structure, and care they were starved of.

Kaila never went to the visits, so Heather went alone and Lisa would often show up drunk and Heather would leave. The attempts at individual and group therapy were a mess. It wasn’t working, Lisa wasn’t even trying. While the investigation was still in progress, she abandoned everything. Moved to Florida, washed her hands of getting better and getting her daughters back.

Kaila would later tell me that she was glad it happened that way. She was fucking done with her mother tearing holes in the walls of her house. It wasn’t much, but that house was hers and she built it with her own hands and she was ready to trade in the super strength for something softer.

Auntie Gina gave Kaila that respite. She took them in permanently, and Kaila and Heather finally got to experience the life Kaila had been trying to build. Her link to Heather would never dissipate, that existential need for Heather to be okay. But the adrenaline subsided and she was able to soften and laugh and be a girl. Finally.

Chapter 12

That’s where Kaila was when I met her. Living with Gina and Heather, coming down off a 15 year adrenaline high. Our love story began in that house. It was in Auntie Gina’s house that we watched Closer. It was in Auntie Gina’s house that Kaila took in her very first stray, yours truly.

Between Gina, Heather, and me, Kaila would never face a single thing alone again. I think the three of us formed a sort of invisible shield of protection around her, each of us giving her something that was imperative for her survival. I think we carried her together from then on. I think all three of us would have carried her the rest of our lives, if we’d had the chance, without feeling burdened by it for even a second.

The depth of gratitude I feel for Auntie Gina is inimitable. If it weren’t for her, I would have never met Kaila. If Gina hadn’t saved Heather, which saved Kaila, we’d have all died. If not for Gina’s safe haven, her immortal patience and generosity, her care and her love and understanding, I’d be dead and you wouldn’t be reading this. I’m repeating it because I don’t think it’s possible to stress how critical Gina’s love was.

Psalm 91:11-12 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Gina was one of those kinds of angels. I don’t know what Gina’s house was built of, how many rooms there were, whether she kept what she inherited or threw it out. I know how safe it was. It was the fucking safest. I know how comfortable it was. I slept in the fetal position on her sofa countless times. I know how warm it was. I know she welcomed me and it felt soft. I know it was filled with care and intention and love that I could understand, more than any home I’d ever been in. And I know that Kaila was there. I know Kaila was safe. I know Kaila slept easily there, and that saved at least three lives. Gina was a fucking angel.

Chapter 13

When I first stepped into Gina’s home, I was incapable of love. It was welling up inside me, spilling out messily, but I had never once experienced or found a healthy way to give and receive it. PTSD had made me obsessive and controlling. I was terrified constantly. There was no amount of reassurance that could quell my instability and it came out in unhidable bursts.

While I was in middle school I wrote a letter to a boy late one night, telling him how much I liked him. I said I was obsessed with him, among other humiliating things. I didn’t have the wherewithal at the time to add the caveat “not the creepy kind, xoxo.” I said what I meant, and I meant what I said.

My bedroom light was on later than it should have been and my father found me writing it. He took my notebook, read the letter, and then told me that it wasn’t okay to tell someone that you were obsessed with them. He took that letter and threw it away. Bennett Schad never had to wonder what kind of creepy shit I meant when I said obsessed.

I do have the wherewithal to say it now—I promise, it was nothing creepy. I told you, I was a freak. Needy, loud, and scared. Tense and obsessive. A great many other parts of my personality developed too, don’t get me wrong. I was a lot of things. Funny, charismatic, intelligent. I was down to ride as fuck and didn’t care what other people thought. I was independent and confident, capable and resourceful. I was a natural performer. I had an inherent proclivity for kindness; I noticed and cared about the suffering of others immensely and I hated the parts of myself that seemed to contribute to it.

Kaila and I were true opposites in infinite ways. I was a romantic and fell in love with everything that caught my gaze. She was a little sadistic and her kindness was at the center of a labyrinth of conditions. She was constantly avoiding herself while I was perpetually meeting myself. I was tender, she was hard. My head was in the clouds, hers was under the sea. She was tiny and her voice was small, I had an hourglass figure and I belted soul. That volume was a huge difference.

Kaila, evasive as she was, was quiet so as to go unnoticed. I, confrontational as I was, was loud so as to make sure y’all motherfuckers heard me. I had so many feelings. And, at the time, it was important for me to feel, understand, and process every single one of them, then express them. Another feature—or bug—of the trauma response. A constant, urgent analysis of myself, my surroundings, and anyone I came into contact with.

This was The Observer, the extreme alertness I mentioned. It helped me feel safer, to believe that I had a complete understanding of a situation or a person. If I could anticipate people’s moods and reactions, if I could map out the circumstances perfectly, perhaps I could anticipate the potential pain and avoid it. Delusional, obviously, but it helped me survive the extreme inconsistency I endured as a child. At least, I think it did. It gave me the illusion of protection, which was enough to get me by. I’d spend most of my life working to understand, integrate, and, in some ways, release that tendency.

Chapter 14

The Observer had infinite questions and observations and questions about those observations, and the written word was its first language. It’s the voice you’re hearing right now, all this reflection and multifaceted analysis. The Observer is a philosopher, orbiting in the solar system of my consciousness at about the distance of the moon from Earth. There’s also regular me, the one fully residing on planet Earth, covered in tattoos. That’s all the cussing and boorishness. There’s also The Muse. That’s the poetry and idealism, and The Muse resides amongst the gods. But we aren’t there quite yet. The point is the sequence. If I’m on Earth and The Observer is the moon, The Muse is the Milky Way. The Milky Way both contains and is the moon and the Earth, and contains infinitely more that is somewhat known but mostly a mystery requiring complex technology to unfurl.

And don’t worry, I don’t think these entities are actually separate of me. I’m a multifaceted creature, as we all are, and I’m introducing you to the most distinct and prominent parts of myself. I named them because I think naming things is cute.

What you’re reading is rooted first in The Muse. I’ve always felt this loftiness, this soaring love inside myself. I was born with visions of a liberated world refined by this love, ideals and dreams that have acted as an internal compass for me. The Muse gifted me those visions. She gifted me the truth and the love for it. She gifted me the eyes to see and ears to hear and humility to absorb it. She gifted me the language to transmit it. The Muse, through visions of golden castles fashioned of enlightenment and love perfected, called me out of my burrow and stationed me on planet Earth. And it was The Garden of Eden to a towering romantic like me.

Through those visions of Nirvana, a state of perfect wisdom laced with infinite compassion, was born an aching, bleeding need to understand. Part of the reason I suffered so much in my formative years was because I was perpetually aware of the canyon between the visions I carried and what I experienced in my day to day life. And I felt every crack and crevice in that fissure like my bones were made of it, aching and creaking in my joints. I almost died in that canyon. Pops’ steel fortress versus my golden castles, you know? And we still haven’t gotten to my mother, I know. The contrast was even greater between me and my mother. But, listen. However painful, that contrast was also a gift.

It was through relentless examination of that fissure, that I came to understand: it was my work to repair it. I mapped that fissure like my life depended on it, because it absolutely did. If not for my visions of castles, I would be dead and you wouldn’t be reading this. If I had visions of sky-scraping castles dripping in gold, it was because I was alive to realize them. If I was going to endure the pain of this fissure, this disparity between my interior and exterior worlds, it’d be for a good goddamn reason. I’d do whatever it took to fill that gap, and I’d build whatever shoddy bridges I could in the meantime.

I wrote urgently, every single day, from my earliest memory in kindergarten until I turned 26 or 27. Through this introspective, analytical, philosophical investigation, I carried the weight of my vision over the mountain of reality, again and again. I would examine my interactions with the exterior world and I would write about my experience of it in meticulous detail. Without knowing it, I was calibrating my experience of the world against the love I felt inside myself. How fully was I adhering my visions and where did I find obstructions? I knew, however unconsciously, that it was my work to create the thing I felt was so direly missing in the world. I would build my castles, and golden, glittering threads of a perfected love would be my mortar.

What luck that the part of me on Earth happens to be a builder. Those visions almost felt like a dare to a vulgar, weed smoking, whiskey drinking builder like me. The Muse and The Observer were kicked back on the couch with a beer and a grin saying, “Betcha she won’t do it.” I fucking hate spectators with the audacity to talk shit about people actually on the field. So, I said, “Fucking watch me. Watch me run that shit through.” I didn’t know how, but I would become the size of a sea to hold it all. Kaila was how, and that’s why I worship her.

Do you know why I say that specific size, a sea? Nietzsche is one of my favorite philosophers—don’t @ me. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes, “Verily, a polluted stream is man. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.” His meaning is debatable, but my mind understands Nietzsche to be describing enlightenment. Zarathustra was afflicted with the same sort of visions and the same sort of fissure. He further wrote, “Lo, I teach you the Superman: he is that sea; in him can your great contempt be submerged.” The same archetype as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, all the prophets.

This notion that someone could expand so far and so wide, that one could be so massive as to purify anything that entered into them. I’m a weird bitch and I fucking know it, because I’ve never heard a single thing more motivating and inspiring. And in me has always run an urgent current to expand myself exactly that far, exactly that wide. To become that sea, filled to overflowing with a love perfected. To build those castles with it, to invite others in.

I’m not a prophet, I know that. I’m saying I felt Zarathustra like a motherfucker. Ideals are poetry and magic, yes. They’re ecstatic and inspiring and they too can give us hysterical strength. They can also be painful and isolating, sometimes heavy and lonely.

When so much of you resides in the idyllic world of your visions, it can cause a lot of misunderstanding. You’ll probably be a freak, at a least a little bit. You’ll speak and behave and orient your life differently than is common. You’ll hold different beliefs. You might piss people off and you’ll definitely scare them. You might, if you feel more allegiance to your visions than the comfort of others, find it easier and safer to spend a lot of your time alone.

Chapter 15

That’s where I was when Kaila met me. A solitary alien, simultaneously floating in the heavens, pulling tides with the moon, and traipsing the Garden of Eden. High as fuck off the knowledge of good and evil, examining the choice between them intently enough to start a fucking fire. Checking the material world and my lived experience against palatial visions, and choosing as “good” whatever brought me and my reality closer to them.

Introspection is metal as fuck. Examining one’s own mind is not for the fainthearted. It’s also not for the meek or the insecure. If you’re unwilling to see yourself, truly see yourself, it’s best to stay tucked in. Because the ugliness you’ll find inside yourself, inherited and self made, is enough to turn any of us against our neighbor. Or our family, or our spouses, or our friend, or the poor, unsuspecting motherfucker we just started dating. Just to avoid accepting that we have the capacity to be so fucking ugly, so selfish, so manipulative, so abusive. So frequently and so consistently. In moments when it matters most and in moments when it wouldn't make a difference.

We live in a white, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist hellscape. That’s our paradigm. Not a single one of us hasn’t done something humiliating or malicious to survive it. And if you truly manage to transcend that category, you’ve absolutely inherited something from someone else who had done something humiliating or malicious. We all have the capacity to be monstrous and that shit is dark.

Part of what made me a freak is that I was loud about what I found when I introspected. The Observer was my mirror, and I checked myself against it constantly. No wonder I was depressed. I was horrendous sometimes, and I think communicating about the ugliness I saw was a coping mechanism. If I could say it out loud to another living person, surely it couldn’t be that bad. I’ve found that saying my worst truths out loud does, in fact, purify them. At least, it purifies me. So I was extremely, questionably, uncomfortably honest about what I found.

Kaila, my little fishy, found my affinity for honesty appalling. Why tell the truth when you could just disappear forever? This is one of the ways Kaila held me back. She would recoil at the thought of sharing her feelings and experiences the way I did. The truth made her flinch and cringe, and sometimes I absorbed that reaction. Sometimes I muzzled myself because Kaila would remind me of the infinite danger in showing all your cards, even while the dangers of withholding tormented me.

We were built different. Just like me and my father, we differed in ways that should have repelled us. Except with Kaila, those differences drew us closer. Those differences expanded each of us. We grew into and because of them. Yes, certainly, in some ways we obstructed each other’s growth. You can’t avoid the reality that, in love, no matter how pure and generative it may be, the attachment itself is inherently confining.

Part of what defined our love, maybe the most significant part, was that we grew together. Each time Kaila would meet a new version of me, and she would create more space inside herself to meet me as if anew. I did the same for her, without pause or question. Kaila’s evolution was my expansion, and my evolution was hers. The more deeply we loved each other, the more deeply we loved ourselves. The deeper we ventured into each other’s worlds, the more capacity we had to understand and refine our own. So, yes, tethers are inherently confining. And we must, if we are to live, make room for the paradox that confinement is often an integral variable for expansion.

Of course my Piscean soulmate would be terrified of the consequences of me telling the whole truth. Of course she would. She couldn't fathom, not for a moment, facing herself the way I did. Her house was built on evasion. She needed it to function. Until the moment Kaila died, her life force was rooted in choosing against facing the enormity of what she had endured.

I’ve always done the heavy lifting for Kaila and her introspection. It’s so easy for me to do. She’s given so much to me, I would walk her through the labyrinth of her own mind forever if I knew it would liberate her one day. Any day. It wouldn’t matter how long it took. I would be her sherpa in every life if I knew it would bring her closer to enlightenment or whatever the fuck she wanted. It wouldn’t matter, I’d fucking do it.

She never did want enlightenment, though. Just like gold and poetry and truth. Those were my things. We were so different. Kaila just wanted a fireplace to sit and drink around.

Chapter 16

Visionaries are meant to bring a new world into being, and some are built to express it in the material world. I’ve worked with a great many brilliant minds on building new economic and governance models, for instance. Or teams building eco-friendly hardware that upends the unit economics of our most ecologically destructive industries. Material.

Then there’s people who build the new world in their hearts and minds, where it can remain a pure and perfect Platonic ideal. Artists, poets, philosophers, and anyone who liberates themselves from societal norms that obstruct the expression of their inner wholeness. Those who are meant to be the new world by living into it here and now or pointing us toward it. A beacon to craft a blueprint after, long after the maker is dead and gone. Interior.

Annoyingly, as you know, I’m both. It’s not enough to imagine the world, I must also build it. Alongside theory, there must also be praxis. And I believe deeply in the integrity of what I envision and build, just like my father before me.

Him and his fortress and the money he made with his own two hands stockpiled in a basement vault. Surely such an abode would suit any reasonable human. But step outside of his mind for just a moment and find a little girl, curly-haired with big brown eyes, terrified and slitting her wrists because she couldn’t even begin to decipher it.

I’ve spent a lot of my life from the self-centered perspective that everyone had visions of castles. Not only could everyone realize enlightenment, in my mind, they too were destined for it. It was coursing through their veins, guiding them like a current of inevitability, however consciously or unconsciously.

Arrogance is dumb like that. It’ll have us believing all kinds of egotistical shit, validated forever by the echo chambers of our minds that are, at best, capable of a pinhole-sized aperture of understanding. Because those beliefs were good for us, because they worked for us or helped us survive, we tend to believe in their inherent goodness and project their universality. And we tend to take them very seriously.

Kaila had a boyish sense of humor. Wicked and crass. She was constantly checking me and my poetic idealism. I’d say pretentious shit like “my body is a temple” during a conversation about casual sex and she’d throw her head back and laugh right in my face. Purposely to make me feel dumb. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. I did sound ridiculous, but I would have never known that if not for her.

Me and everyone else took my poetry exceptionally seriously. She did when it mattered, but every other time she reminded me how, despite my lofty visions of castles, I was just a dumb fuck like everyone else. I can’t tell you how good it felt to laugh at myself like that, how much I needed it. Nowadays I laugh so hard and loud it makes people turn and look. I’ll double over on the sidewalk over any goofy shit and not think twice because that shit heals me. Laughter, at some point, took the place of my affinity for knives and I have Kaila to thank for that.

Opposites attracting is painfully cliche, I know. But Kaila and I were opposites and we did attract. It took that jarring polarity to cut through all my arrogance and pretentiousness, the weight and depth of my visions. I had never imagined laughing at it all was even possible until I met her. I’d write some poetic prose about an untainted, loving future and she would read it, be moved to tears, and then look me dead in the face and say, “So what?” It mattered, sure. But it didn’t fucking matter.

She made sure that if I ever did realize enlightenment—and she piously believed I would—that I’d do it with a shiteating grin spread across my face, a dick joke in my mouth, and a loud ass laugh bursting from my belly. God fucking bless Kaila.

The picture I’m painting is a slow build, I know. But I need you to know how we did it, the conditions which enabled it to arise. How a love like ours got built and how we lived into it. How we’re still living into it even now, no matter what dimension she’s occupying. I need you to understand how transcendent it is and how possible it is to realize endless, immeasurable love, however imperfect.

There exists a love which extends beyond what the physical can do to perpetuate physical and enters the realm of healing supporting further healing, unity and integrity supporting heightened unity and integrity. I know you know what I mean. That’s why I need you to know. The only reason you’re reading a book like this because you know exactly what the fuck I mean and I have to leave you a blueprint, just in case.

Chapter 17

Soneja, pronounced Sōn-yuh. Soneja Leona Holloway. The phonetics of that name are stunning to me. Soneja is my mother. I’m not excited to go here with you. If I could avoid it, I would. It’s embarrassing and raw. It’s wildly biased, inevitably. It’s layered. It’s the most painful thing I've held in my consciousness. It’s also true, and you know how I feel about the truth. It’s truth over everything. I have to tell it, I’m addicted to it. If I was Neo, I’d swallow the red pill and ask for another, even if I knew exactly how hard it would be.

The truth is important to me for a lot of reasons. I believe it’s easy to remain easily convinced of our isolation when we withhold the unabridged truth. I believe our secrecy begets an experience of alienation and we develop shame and shadows around our inner worlds as a defense mechanism. If we believe that sharing is inherently shameful or that certain parts of us are too shameful to share, we can justify keeping those parts hidden. And hiding is the easiest of many ways to protect ourselves.

I mean, Kaila wasn’t wrong. Showing all your cards is dangerous. Brené Brown did a lot to make vulnerability trendy, but the definition of the word vulnerable is “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” Telling the whole truth, in this paradigm, makes us exceptionally vulnerable. In this white, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist hellscape, vulnerability is a necessarily calculated risk. I’m clocking the potential ostracization, humiliation, rejection, sometimes physical danger. Still, somehow, the torment of withholding, the shame and shadows I find myself hiding in have proven infinitely more dangerous.

So, here I am. Admitting a lot of embarrassing shit to you based on my all-too-serious belief in The Muse and The Observer and a marvel of a discovery. When I’ve been lucky enough to transcend the shame of my most unapplaudable thoughts and behaviors, it feels like peeking out above a storm cloud to see that the sun has never stopped shining. Every time I’ve broken through the clouds of shame by telling the whole truth, at least one person was on the other side, beaming like the sun, telling me they too have felt or experienced something similar. And we are both healed simply by seeing ourselves in each other. Or maybe they’ve never experienced anything like it, and instead the warmth of their sun is compassion and receptivity. And we are still both healed by expanding ourselves to hold a more nuanced appreciation of another’s reality without judgment. It doesn’t always go this way, no. More often than not, it does.

The dark corners in our houses can be portals through which we can access connection, healing, and love. But those portals can’t ever open, not fully, if we don’t tell the whole truth. So, bear with me. As all seeds to sprout must, my story begins surrounded by dark, living earth. This is the foundation of my haunted house.


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