There is a bat that lives in my bedroom wall. Every couple of weeks, the bat chirps so loud and long that I cannot sleep. I pound my fists in the place where I hear it singing. I anchor a pan against the wall and beat it with a spoon. I do this until the wall softens beneath my hands, until the paint flakes, until the pan leaves smudged black crescents behind. Until the bat finally goes quiet. Sometimes, if I put my ear to the wall, I can hear it very softly cricketing to itself. That lets me know the bat is not gone, but afraid.
My parents live in a house an hour and a half away from me, usually empty but for the two of them. Because of the walls, there is no place in the house where you can stand and see them both at once. The walls demarcate the border of his from hers. If my dad is in his home office, my mom is making herself lunch in the kitchen as soundlessly as possible. If my dad is nodding along to TV conservatives in the family room, my mom is a floor away, in the bedroom, watching the same channel on a lower volume. When I visit them, I cross back and forth between their grudges, stand at the midpoint of their separation, try to draw them together from their hidden corners. It’s exhausting, futile. Even when I succeed, they can hold entire conversations without ever looking each other in the face.
I have lived in a place where, nights in my twin bed, I could hear my roommate and her future husband through the wall: their short and whisper-sharp arguments, their laughter, the repeated hit of the headboard. This was the same place where, through another wall, I could hear my neighbor yelling at his girlfriend, pushing her against furniture or, once, down the stairs. I heard my unseen neighbor shout that he was sorry, and in the same sentence, tell her he had a machete. This was also the place where I slept with my head close to the wall and woke to hear my other neighbor, pinned against the opposite side by a man she didn’t know. Please, no, I don’t want this, I heard her say, before she was able to break free.
Most of the human history I learned in school has been defined by this symbol of separation: Hadrian’s Wall. The Great Wall of China. Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Donald Trump’s presidency was predicated on the promise of a border wall, and has continued to be anchored by it: the government shutdown in early 2019, the longest in history, was in part due to the president’s demand for over five billion dollars to fund his wall. Some Americans have reacted with a listless kind of horror at walls that detain migrants, at walls that separate migrant parents from their children, the walls behind which migrant children die in custody. Others express—with an aggressive, gleeful kind of approval—that they find security in walls serving as physical deterrents for those who are other from themselves. More recently, protesters in D.C. who took to the streets after George Floyd’s murder found the White House fortified by additional, taller fencing—unmistakably like a wall.
This last wall may have appeared overnight, but it was not organic—walls never are. They are built with purpose, brick by brick. If they endure, they almost always outlive their original purposes and times. Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China are relics of walls that were meant as physical manifestations of great empires, as well as a defense against the “barbarians” outside. In the centuries since, with whole sections eroded away, their stones depleted over time for the local construction of roads and houses, the remains of these walls have become tourist attractions. In some places, Hadrian’s Wall denotes nothing more serious than the border between neighboring pasturelands of sheep and cattle.
My parents and I have a fundamental disagreement about what walls can and cannot do. We have different vocabularies for necessity, different capacities for faith in something so material. When my parents and I talk about the walls that have been in the headlines, we define our differences from one other, squaring ourselves solidly away. My parents believe a wall offers certainty, a definitive “end” to an ongoing “problem.” I think a wall is an idea that cannot guarantee success in keeping anything out. When I argue that walls are imperfect, it is not because I would rather they were otherwise. It is because the foundational idea is faulty, too: A border wall cannot put an end to the extreme violence, poverty, and lack of economic opportunities facing the migrants who seek refuge in America. A border wall is only a cruel and crude way to demarcate a tangible limit to our compassion and aid—the problem persists, but it is not ours. These conversations with my parents end with exhaustion; we look at each other like strangers.
In the places I have lived, the walls have never succeeded at keeping very much out. Where I live now, in Ohio, squirrels live in my walls, scratching themselves nests behind the ceiling panels. Roosting birds. Mice, and once, memorably, a snake. When I lived in southern Louisiana, there was a perfectly round hole where floor met wall. Sometimes I stopped it up with Kleenex. Sometimes I forgot about it. Mosquito hawks would zip through that hole, as did the neon-bright lizards that ate them. Often I would wake from a stone sleep to the sound of the feral cats that lived beneath the house, crying so clearly that it was as if they were putting their mouths to the hole in my wall, as if they wanted me to hear them.
My mom calls to tell me what it’s like, to describe the oppressive house of walls she shares with my dad. When she does, I feel myself go empty, like a chute has opened right beneath me and cleaned me out. When this happens, what’s left behind is a small, walled place at the center of me that seems very separate from her and very far away. The walls go up in a way that feels instinctive, primed for survival. When I put up these walls, my mom can tell. She asks if she’s been a good mother. She asks me to lay out my list of grievances. She rails against my silence. She cries. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I let the walls down for her. I wonder what she would want to happen: something like communion, a sense of oneness. She wants to be understood. But I do not want her to pass so easily through my resistance; I do not want to welcome her. I do not want the drab veil of my mother’s life to absorb me, too. From that inner place, I can hear the pounding of her fists against my walls. How they give her an opportunity to throw herself against something, to make herself hurt. There has always been a small part of me that thinks she deserves this.
The physical necessity of walls—as shelter, as safe haven—is a matter of public service. As the threat of coronavirus continues, Americans stay within the walls of their homes, using them as barriers against an unseen threat. For the foreseeable future, we will see more of our bedroom and kitchen walls than we will of our friends, coworkers, and loved ones, and we implore each other to accept this new status quo. Safe as houses. But there is always that dangerous lure of mistaking the fact of a wall for something else.
Once, as I heard my unseen neighbor hurt his girlfriend, I stood on the other side of the wall and hesitated with my phone in my hand. I wondered if I had misunderstood the situation, somehow—if I would embarrass myself by needlessly calling the police. This, even in the days after the girlfriend knocked on our door with her shirt torn down the sleeve, begging to put a wall between him and herself. On the night the man tried to rape my other neighbor against our shared wall, I woke and sat up in bed and couldn’t think what to do. I wondered first if I was dreaming. I put my hand against the wall in the dark and waited—just a few seconds, I told myself—to make sure. To make sure. You should have pounded your fist against the wall and screamed, my roommate said later, when I told her. You should have let him know you heard.
Why did I hesitate? I only knew that I was apart from the violence on the other side of the wall, and wanted to stay that way. What mattered was that I was on the “right” side of the wall, even if my neighbor wasn’t. Beneath the concern I felt for her was the relief I felt for myself: I was not her, and that meant I could have chosen to pull the comforter up over my ears and try to sleep, and no one—not the neighbor, nor her attacker—would ever know otherwise. And it’s true, the inches of wall between us were a kind of protection. But as I lay in bed, with the sound of my neighbor’s fear in my ear, I knew no wall could keep me safe.