In its long history it had been many things, including a “free love” cult in the '60s. Hidden away among the redwoods but only a few blocks from the Berkeley campus, the house became a student co-op nearly half a century ago. It was well worn by the time I moved in in the early 2000s.
To those of us who lived there, the house’s history was its most prized aspect. Though it only existed in oral form, we all knew it. It was easy to know. The house’s lore usually corresponded to artifacts, like the psychedelic murals in the basement or the crates of yellowed newsletters in the attic. It was part of the ethos of living there to know these things and leave them undisturbed. While some of our cooperative labor was dedicated to building new things, most of it was spent taking care of the things past residents had built, like the homemade hot tub, the gigantic snake terrarium, and the cantilevered tree house built into the redwoods. The ever-growing, intertwining layers of new and old made the place not unlike a hippie version of the Winchester House, its constant additions cast in the quiet knowledge that each spiral staircase, each crooked wall, would live on, would even take on a life of its own.
Being a place that hundreds, if not thousands, of people had left a part of themselves in, past residents would sometimes drop by and join us for an evening, or a week. It might be a grad student from five years before, or a mom with kids, or a bearded old man. They never called ahead or rang the doorbell. They would just walk in through the kitchen as they had when they’d lived there. Whoever was cooking or idling around would go about their business, or strike up conversation. It didn’t matter. Everyone belonged there, the elder statesmen perhaps even more so than the ones currently paying the rent.
In this way, the house was more than a home: it was a living repository of memory. It was understood that to have lived there once was to be welcome there forever, regardless of how much the place had changed.
One evening I heard a bunch of people laughing and shouting downstairs, so I came out of my room to see what was going on. A number of my housemates were sitting around while an older couple told a story. Their details were fuzzy; the two of them kept adding extra bits of information to each other’s recollections and my housemates shared in amending the details as they surfaced. The story centered on some people who used to live in the house, and a name came up. Someone ran off to fetch the house photo albums to see if they could confirm who the person was.
I loved listening to them talk as a cacophonous group. Though they kept backtracking and became confused at points, they pressed forward to get out the details. I joined them in the crowded room, rapt.
Over the years I have told my friends stories about the co-op here and there. Like that older couple, I sometimes get a bit dreamy in my own recollections, so it’s my fault that people sometimes doubt the veracity of these stories, or whether the place even exists.
I have delighted in taking people there, the few times I’ve managed to do so. Whomever I bring gets to corroborate the fantastical things I’ve told them about, like the underground crawlspace that connects the two basements, or the sleeping room built under a solar panel on the roof. While they wander around and check the place out, I investigate things that have fallen just outside my own memory, things I worry never existed because I don’t recall them clearly enough, like the sealed-off unused stairwell, or the hatch in the treehouse roof that overlooks the Bay Bridge. Then there are the details I seek out not because I remember them but because I don’t remember them, though logically they must exist. How could it be that the meditation room is only accessible through a third-story window? But it is. Where is the front door of the second house? I don’t know, but surely there must be one.
Little facts like these—or, rather, their absence—haunt me. Forgotten parts of the house mirror forgotten parts of my life, and the mirror itself is dusty. Sitting there in the courtyard fifteen years later makes me wonder what other things I’ve lost.
As with the couple that struggled to piece together a forgotten story, recalling hazy facts makes them susceptible to being overwritten by later retellings. The more fantastical the story, the more often it is told; the more often it’s told, the more likely it is to be altered.
After college, I volunteered as a peace observer in a Zapatista village in Mexico. To get there I had to follow explicit verbal instructions to meet a particular man on a particular street in some remote town. That man took me to another man, who brought me to a truck headed to the village. The secrecy involved and the number of times I’d been shunted around made me start to doubt the legitimacy of what I’d gotten into, and I climbed into the truck terrified I’d never return.
It didn’t get better once the truck left town. In my broken Spanish, I was made to understand that the truck would be taking a treacherous route that only locals knew and only small trucks could maneuver. The Mexican government was actively persecuting the village; anyone coming or going had reason to fear. I dismissed it as paranoia at first, but after a few miles on dirt roads it became obvious that we were indeed being followed—by a large armored truck.
Exposed in the back, we all crouched and lay down atop one another to hide. I stared into a clear blue sky bordered by languid leaves and our own swirling dust. At a decent speed we turned off the road and clattered through the rainforest, thick branches snapping around us as a green canopy obscured the sky. We rattled on like that for some time. Eventually one of the men broke the silence and yelled out a shout of relief. Everyone joined in, cheering. We’d made it, I guessed. Or so it seemed. The armored truck appeared again, some distance behind us but on same forest path. Our situation didn’t look so good, but the men kept cheering anyway. We reached a river and everyone held on. The men shouted instructions and encouragement to the driver, big grins on their faces. We were jostled around in the back, some of us soaked from all the splashing, but everyone was exuberant.
When we got to the other side, I could see why. The armored truck sat parked at the edge of the river as we sped away into the jungle.
Safely ensconced in the village, what I learned was that the locals had built a narrow, winding stone path just under the surface of the river; a small truck that knew the way could drive right along it like a road. This clandestine way into town wasn’t a story but a fact of life, so it was only when I left much later that I had a chance to recount it.
It being one of the more fantastical things I’ve experienced and thus one of the most out-there stories I’ve told, I suspect that parts of it can’t be true. A hidden trail in the jungle, armed men in hot pursuit? It’s just too wild; even I find it hard to believe. The only thing that makes me sure it happened is that at the time I was just as shocked by all of it as I am now.
Yet I cannot shake the haunting doubt that some of these details must be fabrications. I can tell because in some moments of the story I’m not sure about my position. Did I lie down? And as I lay there, did I notice the sky—or did I once add that for storytelling’s sake? This was a dozen years ago and I have no way of separating the truth from the telling. All that I am sure about is my memory of being terrified, overjoyed, blown away.
Whatever extraneous details have crept in since then have stayed because they fit how I felt. The facts of a story are subject to narrative revision because memory is not subordinate to truth; it is subordinate only to meaning.
The relationship I have with my hippie co-op is strange in that, for all of its fantastical quirks and oddities, it is very much a real place. People live there; anyone can visit. And yet every time I do, I am perhaps more surprised than ever. I look around the place, baffled, and ask myself I lived here? If I go look for corroborating details, they’re there, but even they don’t assuage my suspicion that the place is a fantasy—not a real place but a place in the mind. Because its quirks and architectural details are traces left behind by others, the house itself is less a house and more a metaphysical canvas scrawled on by hundreds—thousands—of people, each scribble written in the invisible ink of time, a marking in dust amended and overwritten atop every new layer. These traces, though weightless, are so dense that they’ve become more substantial than its walls and foundation.
Then again, in the years I haven’t lived there, the place did stop being a real place—for me. It is a place in the mind: my mind. I have written it and written over it since I’ve been gone, left new traces atop not the house but the story of the house, even now in this story of the story of the house. With each level of abstraction, the distance grows by an unbridgeable order of magnitude. The armored truck recedes into the distance; it may as well have had Viva Zapata! scrawled on its dusty windshield, for all I can accurately recall. The facts cannot be corroborated, yet everyone is grinning, cheering, and very real under an invented blue sky.
The only hope I have to know the veracity of my own stories is to return to where they took place, to make myself the small truck that knows the way back. As for the village, that is a near impossibility; in the intervening years it was rumored to have been razed by the federal government. Even while it existed it resisted verification. Insurgent villages are remote, off the grid and often inaccessible. Even their names were altered, transposed into a more metaphysical language with names like Mother of the Sea Snails of Our Dreams. If I ever go back, it will not be for the struggle of getting my facts straight; my facts do not matter and anything straight is necessarily fabricated. If I ever go back, it will not be the same anyway. The truth, when it uncurls itself enough to be seen, is shaped more like a spiral: a circle that passes itself along the way but wends a different route each time.
In the spiral that led me from the village back to the co-op, the only physical evidence that I existed at all in those years is in a single photograph. I only saw it once, that night when my housemate brought out the photo albums. Right on the same page where they found the guy the couple was looking for, just next to him, was me. I had only lived there for a few months at the time, yet somehow I was already in the book, mixed in with the yellowed polaroids from decades past.
At first I couldn’t be sure; though recent, the figure wore a yellow calico dress, the kind that country girls or dreamy hippies sewed themselves, giving the picture the same sepia tone as those next to it. I only knew it was me by one discernible fact: I remembered the feeling it depicted. Me, swirling in dust, sweeping the courtyard with a big old broom. One day I will go back and sit on the same couch, perhaps to tell forgotten stories or perhaps to remember them. Then I’ll thumb through those dusty books looking for this photo, a photo that will itself have yellowed by then, a photo of a dreamy woman who, upon closer inspection, may or may not be me.
Melissa Mesku is a writer and editor in New York City.