The last acts of a desperate relationship: we discuss house projects. We live in a dump—that’s how Owen has characterized this rented row house he’s lived in for eighteen months, me eleven. If our refuge is a dump, then we cannot feel warm and protected. At least, I can’t.
Open the creaky screen door and shove against the main door (with the dirty white paint peeling like cuticles down the middle) at chest level, so that it opens to the right, exposing the area to the left first. Squeeze in and awkwardly step to the right, through the archway into the main living area. Kick the door you just walked through and close it, inching to your right, now standing directly in the eighteen by twenty-four-inch foyer, your back to the side door. To the left: the main room. In front: the door to the creepy basement with the brick oven. To the right: the old candy store. Hundreds of books are stacked on makeshift shelves on the far (west) wall. It’s dark, for the large glass store window faces north; little natural light gets in here. You flip on the light and see a chaotic mess of dumbbells, watercolors, books. The instruments are covered with dust: the twelve-string, the piano, the concertinas, the whistles, the bodhran, the djembe, the doumbek, the bones.
On the piano, open: Mozart, Bach, Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1. My Nocturne. Oscar Wilde: “After playing Chopin, I feel as though I had been weeping over sins I had never committed, and mourning tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to produce in me that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.”
My cheeks are stained with salt because of how hard I slapped them, how many times I slapped them, and, perhaps this is the real reason—because Owen exasperatedly pleaded, “Lyra!” from two rooms away. Today is the first time he acknowledges this habit. I begin to whimper, praying he will not come in to hold me, to try to make me feel better. He doesn’t.
With lines of tears hardening my cheeks, I pick up my knitting. The yarn is variegated, blues and grays with a hint of purple in places. I bought it a year ago, in Santa Fe, the month I learned how to knit and knitted a shoddy sampler scarf for my mother out of it. She never wears it. She doesn’t wear scarves.
I had started a similar scarf with this yarn and left it, half undone, until yesterday. We’ve been snowed in for a week and I’ve finished two hats. I’m sick of hats. I started a pair of wrist-warmers, but I’m doing them in the round on double-pointed needles, which is slow going and infuriating—due mostly to dropped stitches. So I’ve started another pair of wrist-warmers in this hideous blue that I’ll never wear. Nor would my mother, I suppose.
Order. Knitting is orderly. On the right: skein of yarn. On the left: “your work,” as the patterns read. The work in progress. A series of rows, rows made from knots, two basic knots: knit and purl. Under and over. Tiny knots on little rows. Knitting may be the most organized thing that I know how to do, or, at least, the most satisfactory one. I fuck up all the time, but that’s all right. At least I understand what it’s supposed to look like.
Writing, on the other hand, is impossible. There is no supposed to look like. Knitting is math, writing is English; the latter is ambiguous and never satisfactory, for one can never be satisfied with imperfection, with almost, with “no…that’s not quite the word I’m looking for.” Math, when done correctly, yields perfection, or close to it: the cabled wrist-warmers. The bulky tam. The ribbed hat. The fringe scarf. Follow the pattern. Follow the pattern. Just like baking. Follow the pattern. I don’t need to think. I don’t need to think.
Yesterday, we shopped at Bed Bath and Beyond for the first time. With our shopping cart already full with a box of fifty Real Simple hangers that are black, slender, and promise to transform my closet into something I don’t hate myself about each time I walk into it; a baking dish with a glass lid, and a salad spinner, I halted in front of the display of curtains on clearance. The curtains and valances spilled out of the cardboard box display in the middle of the aisle. I dove in. Curtains slashed to five, ten, nineteen dollars. The trick was to find enough identical panels I liked—they had to let in light, yet offer privacy—and to find enough identical ones. Bonus if the color was decent.
What began as a game to flaunt my bohemian frugality became an ordeal that ran on for forty minutes. Towards the end, Owen drifted over to the permanent curtain display and noted, correctly, that the full-price curtains weren’t that much more expensive. I dutifully followed him and fingered the fabrics draping down to the floor, studied the brand-name collections, and felt my brain begin to break down in the face of too many options. I smiled politely and returned to the clearance display.
Tonight, at Pazo—the trendy tapas restaurant in Harbor East, the faux neighborhood created out of disused warehouses and unsafe street corners—over our iceberg wedge, seared scallops, and beef brisket, we discuss the flooring. The carpet that covers the second floor, snakes down the stairs, and ends in a pool in the living room is abysmal: light beige has become a hopelessly sullied dirty brown, stained with coffee and wine and littered with cat hair, wood chips, fingernail slivers, and yarn bunnies—the only term I can come up with to describe the one-inch scraps of wool or tiny donut holes of fibers that are created when a skein of soft yarn is not wound properly and the strands rub together, fuzzy fibers trapping into knots that take too much time and patience I do not have to untangle. And dust. And dust. And dust. Were we to pull up the carpet, what horrors would we find? What would we put back down?
“At Home Depot, they have these things—it’s called floating wood, and it’s thin, only about a quarter of an inch—that stuff is great. And cheap. The guy told me for a ten by ten space, that would only be, like, two hundred dollars. It’s laying it though—that’s an art in itself. I’d prefer to just throw a cheque at it.”
That’s Owen’s phrase for easy problem solving. If throwing a cheque at a problem fixes it, so be it. He’s in a position to do so. I have never been in a position to do so, have never remotely considered buying, for example, new furniture. Why buy new furniture? There’s plenty of furniture at Goodwill. Scratched and strange, but cheap. In the main room, next to the TV, I’ve stacked two black crates on their tall sides for shelves (to organize the handful of DVDs and a small cardboard box of things I don’t know what to do with1). The plastic crates have been staples of my interior décor since college. Last week, I stared at them while Owen stared at the TV. Everything I own is cheap and temporary. We need to replace those crates, a need I articulate with rueful, passive-aggressive longing and punctuate with a dramatic sigh:
“I wish we could replace those crates.”
Owen broadened his gaze to study the area around the TV.
“What about a small entertainment center?”
That would replace the hopelessly inadequate TV stand, as well, upon which is piled the CD player, the stereo, the DVD player, and finally, the TV.
We turned to our laptops, both of which were perched on our laps. I go to Craigslist. He searches Google for “entertainment center” and scrolls through pages of new options. Because I am acutely aware of our professional inequality and its consequential income disparity, I remember details like these and replay them in my mind whenever I need a concrete example to demonstrate the power imbalance in our relationship. The replay of the entertainment center scene begins and ends in the eight seconds it takes me to take a sip of my tempranillo and set the glass back down on the white linen tablecloth.
“Well, what we should really be doing, before we redo the floors—we should be thinking about painting.”
My shoulders curl in reflexively as I look down at a new dish, an assortment of olives. Painting? Are you serious? I ask silently as I stab a large black olive with my fork. Last fall, as the days got darker and I began to feel the familiar blanket of bleakness return to suffocate me for the next several months, I had demanded that we paint the kitchen. The wallpaper—dead cream with brick red and slate blue printed flowers—would be my undoing, I had claimed. I could not winter with such colors, especially not under artificial lighting.
“Great,” he’d replied. “You pick the colors and we’ll do it together.”
I had told myself that I liked painting, even though I had done it before and knew that it was hell. Artist’s amnesia. It took me over a month to match the paper color swatches together and nearly as long to test the paint samples to find the perfect tones of orange, pale green, and soft yellow. I live for orange and green: homage to my beloved Florida. The kitchen should have green, I read in one of the home color books I’d picked up from a used bookstore. Green for health and life, both of which I would need dearly in the winter. Orange and yellow to replace the disappearing sun. Glossy antique white for a bright trim.
I started working in mid-October. Removing decades-old wallpaper from brick is a hideous task that should never be undertaken by a non-professional who is also a perfectionist. The green ended up being too pale for both the wall and the cabinets. I tried yellow on the wall—still too pale but I couldn’t bear redoing it. The cabinets started off as yellow, then green, then finally orange. We didn’t like it. Finally, I sponged the orange over the yellow wall, a simple, artsy effect that actually looked good.
By January I became panicky when I thought of the finishing details and touch-ups that were left undone. And I missed the green.
I’d painted the whole kitchen by myself, save for the bottom cabinets that Owen had finally handled. He’d needed to remove the sliding doors anyway, and only then remembered that he’d promised we’d do this together.
“A little traumatized about painting?” he smiled sympathetically, half-apologizing.
“Well, we’ll think about it.”
We discuss the house as though a face-lift will improve things, as though a layer of paint, curtains, and new flooring will dress our own flaws. Yet we’re more than flawed. We’re fucked.
1. The house is filled with these boxes. There are nine such boxes in this room alone. Cardboard boxes, wooden baskets, wicker baskets, and two small mahogany drawers that I found in the garage before Owen started building his shop in there. Envelopes. Bills. Cards. Receipts. Pamphlets. Chargers. iPod buds. Manuals. DVDs. Yarn. Knitting needles. Packing tape. Nail polish. Mail that apparently will not go out today, either. Had we furniture, things with drawers in them, most of this clutter could hide in drawers and the room would feel less like someone just moved in last week. Or is about to leave.↩