When Chris calls, I can't wait to tell her the word I've invented.
"Scissorfucked," I say, shouting into my cell phone as I turn a corner in my aging Mazda.
"What? You sound like you're in an aquarium."
I wait until I have passed under the power lines to speak again. Meanwhile Chris is shouting over and over that she hates cell phones. "I've never had a good conversation on these things, not once."
"I feel as if I have been scissorfucked," I say again, pausing for the word to assume full impact.
"That's a horrible word."
"Exactly." I smile, pleased that she's gotten the visceral pain of the word, the image of the scissors inside, shredding. It's dark and foggy; the roads are wet. Given my track record with spin outs and rear-end accidents I should not be driving, let alone talking on a cell phone.
"Rejection is part of life. You're a writer, you have to have a thicker skin."
"Did you draw the dog yet?" Chris is supposed to have an illustration gig. A doggy spa is opening in downtown Boston and a friend of ours is doing the ad campaign. He wants her to draw a dog with a turban on its head and cucumber slices over its eyes. She is avoiding looking for a waitress job so that she can finish this drawing. Last month, she sold a sketch of two pigs on a sofa doing sixty-nine. I'm skeptical about this career turn of hers but as a failed writer I know I am too broken to be a good judge of vocation.
"I got some dog books out of the library. Where are you?"
“I'm headed to Rick's. His wife is away on a cruise through the Caribbean. He hates to be alone."
"Is that safe?"
"Who cares? The way my life is these days, a good affair is what I need to blow up the remaining shards of my life here."
The phone is silent and for a moment I think I've lost her to the airwaves. "He has children."
"I was just kidding. I'm almost there, I'll call you tomorrow."
I ring the doorbell at Rick's house. No answer but the door is open. I go inside. The kitchen has been gutted. The cabinets have been ripped off the walls. The stove and sink are nowhere in sight. The contents of the kitchen have disgorged themselves throughout the house, mingling in with toys, computers, stacks of CDs and videotapes. The television and the radio blare so loudly that he might not have heard the doorbell. I walk upstairs, calling his name. Nothing.
Has he forgotten? I go back out to my car. I don't even have his cell phone number. He had called me the other night, after a five-year space in our friendship and asked me to come over. I tried to play cool and act as if I had a life and wouldn't be available for a few days. We settled on Wednesday.
I start my car and drive around the neighborhood. Small single-family houses line the streets. I feel like a predator in this suburban town. I don't belong here. When Rick and I were roommates we lived in a two family house closer to the city. Our lives then, urban and chaotic, centered on our jobs in a computer company and our circle of friends and lovers, dovetailed neatly. When he met Nancy and married quickly, I felt sorry for him, giving up all the fun times and freedom for suburbia. Now, I wonder if he was the lucky one.
I go to the local mall and run a few errands. If I had any pride at all, I would just go home, back to the house where I rent a room. But as little waits for me there as does out here so I drive by the house one more time.
His truck is parked in the driveway. He is just getting out of it, balancing a coffee and a paper bag on the roof. I move my car into the driveway and he motions toward a dirt parking space.
"You knew I was coming over, right?" I say as we squint at each other in the gray fog.
"You were late. I left the door open."
"I went in but I couldn't find you."
"So you saw?"
I nod and follow him into the house. He sets the coffee down on a cabinet, still wrapped in its cardboard crate. "Where are your kids?"
"With their aunt. They'll be back in a half hour. It's pretty bad, isn't it?" He gestures at the room and then begins searching for something in the piles of screws, plaster chunks, and bits of plywood. "I only meant to replace the countertop but once I took off the countertop, the cabinets underneath were a mess. I took those out and I couldn't find a match for the ones above so they had to go too."
"Does Nancy know?"
"She's in Belize. It's her vacation. Besides, she'll like these cabinets. They're maple. I'll let her pick out the handles."
I think about what I would do if my husband remodeled our entire kitchen while I was away for a week. I've never had a husband so I'm not sure, but I don't think I'd be pleased. "When is she coming back?"
"Saturday. It's got to be done by then or she'll kill me. I've been working non-stop since Monday. Haven't even taken a shower." Rick finds a heavy cast-iron level and holds it against the wall. "Two hundred years old. Can't buy a level like this anymore. Hand me a pencil."
I cast my eyes around frantically and finally find the flat-edged pencil. "Don't you think maybe you should tell her?"
He scowls at me over his shoulder. "I can get it done."
I had forgotten about Rick's manic phases. They didn't bother me when we were sharing that wide-roomed apartment on Lawndale Street. I'd come home to computer parts strewn through the house or the side of the garage half-sanded, and not think too much about it. Being roommates required an attached detachment and my own life was such a tangle of boyfriends, girlfriends and liquor that I did not judge.
While he measures, I grab a broom and start sweeping up what I can. The floor is thick with sawdust and cigarette ash. When I walk by him, I catch the smell of his body odor, a bitter mix of coffee and fear. The mess is everywhere. I herd his scattered Dr. Pepper cans together and rinse them out in the bathroom sink. I don't think I've been alone in a room with him since we lived together. "Did you tell Nancy I was going to visit?"
"She doesn't hate you."
No, I think, but she doesn't trust me either. In the beginning of their relationship, it was my friendship with Rick that gave him a much-needed stamp of normalcy. Even after they married, I was often invited to the house and my boyfriend and I were included in the core group of people that attended their parties and barbeques. But after my father died, my world began to distort and shift. The normal life slipped away almost without my control. I no longer wanted the same things as everyone else. I quit my job and went back to school, finishing up the undergraduate degree I'd abandoned ten years ago. I cheated on my boyfriend with a woman whose beauty made my teeth ache. Desperate to cover up the true reason I was breaking up with him, I repudiated suburbia, domesticity and the life we had constructed. On his own, Rick might have held on to me as a friend, but Nancy could see me for the loose cannon I was.
He sets the first cabinet in but he can't make it line up against the wall. While, he's swearing and wrestling with the wood, the door opens and Nancy's sister Susan leads Rick's children in.
"Hello," I say hesitantly, bending down to see Rick's girls for the first time. The older one, Jennifer is tall for four and has the homely charm of her father. Julia is petite and has her mother's more delicate features.
The children and Susan stare at me quizzically. Then the girls make a break for Rick who manages to put down the edge of the cabinet without landing it on his foot. He sweeps the girls up in his arms, lifting them high over the detritus of the kitchen, the saws, nails, hammers and other potential household dangers.
I can feel Susan watching me but I don't look up. I continue putting trash into the industrial strength bags. "The kids were great today," she says to Rick. "They miss their mommy a lot but I told them she'd be back soon."
"Susan, you remember Denise, don't you? She was at the wedding."
I glance up and smile, hoping I seem harmless and helpful. I know she will report back to Nancy that I have been here.
Susan takes the children upstairs to get them changed for bed. Rick shoves the cabinet in place and then stands back. "Perfect. Just as I hoped." He pulls a wrinkled piece of paper from his pocket and holds it close to his eyes. "Now I've just got to figure out what goes next."
"Are you doing the same layout as before?"
"Nope. Whole new thing. Designed it myself yesterday. See, I moved the dishwasher to the other side of the room and the fridge went against the wall."
"I never knew you could do contracting." I wonder if, while in another one of his frequent bouts with unemployment, he has become addicted to House and Garden Television. This whole remodeling debacle seems so fraught with pitfalls that I am surprised there aren't cameras here.
"Me neither. We'll see how it goes. This one is tricky. See how it's got holes cut in it for the pipes."
"If you hold it up, maybe I could help you guide it in."
"I've been waiting for you to say that for years." He waggles his eyebrows at me but is careful to whisper the sexual innuendo so that Susan doesn't overhear from upstairs.
Together we push the cabinet into place. All the ragged-edged holes he has cut miraculously line up. We look at each other in amazement, neither one of us can believe he did it.
Rick's eldest girl, Jennifer comes tottering down the stairs. "Look, Daddy, I made you a picture today."
He kneels down and looks at it. "That's gorgeous, sweetheart. I bet no daddy ever had as nice as a daughter as I do. Now, you go back upstairs to Auntie Susan. Daddy's got to get this kitchen fixed."
Jennifer nods solemnly, her blue eyes taking in the mess and me as well. We haven't been introduced and I feel as if I shouldn't identify myself. Because I live in a house with a four-year old, I had assumed I would have instant rapport with Rick's kids but I am awkward here. After she goes back upstairs, Rick takes her drawing and sets it on top of the refrigerator. He begins drilling holes into the back of the sink cabinet and then tries to put in the screws. They go through the plaster and do not hold the cabinet to the wall. He curses and kicks one of the boxes with his foot.
"It's got to be bolted in. I'm putting a 300 pound sink on top of this cabinet."
"You bought a new sink too?"
Rick takes the drill and begins putting random holes into the plaster over and over haphazardly. The line of white tiles clinging to the wall shake and I'm afraid he's going to hit a water pipe and destroy what remains of the kitchen.
"Don't you have a stud finder?" I ask when he turns the drill off.
"We don't need no stinking stud finder," he answers with a laugh and then continues drilling, stopping only when the drill begins to whine and smoke. "Got one."
He secures the cabinet to the wall with one screw and then goes in search of a second stud. The back of the cabinet becomes pockmarked with holes. Still, no second stud.
"Isn't one enough?"
He shakes his head. "The job's got to be done right. Let's take this cabinet off." He removes the screw and we lift the cabinet up off the pipes. His hands tremble as he sets the cabinet down.
"Sweetie, when is the last time you ate?"
"Yesterday maybe. I know I'm manic right now but I told my shrink and he said that if I'm careful I'll be fine."
"I never thought you'd get a male psychiatrist."
"Marriage. Anyway, he's got me on a bunch of meds." Rick starts up the jigsaw and cuts a large square in the wall. He shoves his hand in the space, looking for the elusive stud. Instead, he pulls out wads of newspaper. "Look at this shit, shoddy workmanship and in my house."
I wonder if, legally, it is his house. Nancy bought it before they married and I doubt she changed the mortgage. She's a Harvard MBA with a father who recently had a medical building downtown named after him. Rick is a mongrel from St. Louis with a sketchy past that I doubt Nancy knows the full weight of. "Let me go get you a sub."
"We could split a pizza."
"I'm not eating white flour. Trying to lose weight."
"D, you'll always be a big girl. Just accept it."
"I was thin when I lived in California." His comment wounds me. I've spent the entire winter peeling twenty pounds off my body and I still have thirty to go. I will make it this time, I have vowed to myself.
Rick looks up for a minute and his eyes go all warm and crinkly. "I remember the first time I saw you in the office. That outfit with strings."
"My black lace-up pantsuit. See, that was right after I left California and I was at least twenty pounds thinner then."
"Man, I wanted to untie you."
We smile at each other both made a little sentimental by the thought of a younger, thinner me. He gives me the name of the pizza place and I call in the order. Susan's car has mine blocked in but the restaurant is only down the street. "I'll be back soon." I'm a little relieved to be getting away from Rick's destruction of the kitchen. It's too painful, I know he'll never get it done and so does he, but the fact that he is willing to try seems quixotic and endearing.
I am scissorfucked, I think again, returning to my own internal drama as I walk down the street in the deep fog, but the pain already feels more distant. The snow rises off the ground into a gray mist and I keep a wary eye out for approaching cars. If I can't make it as a writer, I could have other careers. My resume flashes through my head-the series of officious bright career girl jobs usually having manager or coordinator or marketing in the title somewhere. Jobs that straddled the line between administrative and creative. When Rick and I worked together, I arranged seminars about new computer equipment. And then there's my shadow resume, the spaces in my job history, neatly patched and invisible to the casual observer. The secret list of things more daring and perhaps shameful. But I am too old now to make money in any way that involves nudity. I imagine myself instead, in a business suit, legs, ankle-crossed under my desk. Not here, not in Boston, maybe California again. Scissorfucked, yes, but I am already healing, imagining other things I can be.
I pick up Rick's sandwich, large roast beef, tomatoes, onions, extra mayo and a bottle of water for me. My stomach grumbles at the smell of real food. I could eat something if I really wanted to but if I am going to go back to California I want to be the same weight I was when I left. I am starving Boston out of my system.
On the way back, I get to thinking about Rick and I and a friendship that after years apart, draws me here on a vague pretext. I recently had lunch with a mutual friend of ours, who reported that Rick and Nancy have been having marital trouble. "She won't have sex with him, anymore. He's says it's been a year." I pretended not to be interested; these peoples' lives didn't concern me anymore. "He loves her but he says he's going to have to cheat."
Maybe I think it should be me. After all these years of false starts and innuendos, why not? We had slept with each other's friends often enough back in those crazy single days. And several times, we had almost wound up together. This time, when he had invited me to come over, he had threatened to put "Strange Currencies" on the CD player, a reference to the one romantic moment we had ever shared. In another one of his less-than-inspired ideas to make money, he had convinced our landlord that he could replace our downstairs neighbor's bathroom ceiling. He enlisted me to help and we listened to REM CDs and installed drywall. We cut the piece and then had to hold it up to the ceiling to see if they fit. We had our hands on the ceiling, close together, both supporting, when he leaned in to kiss me. It lasted, tender, slow, mouth-driven, for the entire length of the song "Strange Currencies." We have both never forgotten.
When I get back to the house, Susan's car is gone. I hope she hasn't said anything to Rick about me. Maybe I shouldn't stay. I set the sandwich down on the table but Rick ignores it. "I think I do need a stud finder," he grumbles. "And longer screws. I'm going to run to Home Depot. Watch the kids, okay?"
He bolts out the door and I am left alone in his house. Even imagining the kitchen whole, I can see the house is overcrowded, stuffed with toys and electronic equipment. A big screen television covers one full wall. The couches are the same ones I used to come over and sit on as we curled up, couple by couple, to watch movies. If I had stayed with my ex-boyfriend this life would still be mine. I would be a friend helping a friend, instead of an outsider creeping around this house in the dark.
"Eat your sandwich," I say to Rick when he returns.
"Food will slow me down." He threads the longer screws onto his electric screwdriver and bores them into the wall. After a couple tries, he manages to bolt the cabinet to the wall. "That dog will hunt," he says, surveying his work proudly. The cabinet has been gouged and dinged by the repeated movings but I don't point that out.
There are things we don't know about each other now. I have no idea how he felt when his children were born or what led him to give up a career as computer technician to start doing construction. He hasn't heard about my misadventures in the stock market-how I turned my small inheritance into a million dollars and then suddenly lost it nearly as fast as I gained it. He doesn't know I've written a novel. We can't acknowledge about the things that separate us. Instead we talk about music. It's bonded us since the first time I went over to his house and he played his old vinyl record of my favorite song "88 Lines About 44 Women" by The Nails. Our tastes haven't changed. We both like quirky lyrics, bands with horn sections, reggae, ska, anything that has a decent beat and makes us smile. When Cake comes on the radio, we both agree that they are an underrated band. A song I've never heard of comes on but Rick says it's great and stops working long enough to sing the lyrics. I listen and smile at the angst-ridden tale of a man looking for love in coffeehouses. For a minute, it is just like the old days.
Rick tries to drop in the adjacent cabinet but it won't settle. He picks up a sledgehammer and bangs the top. No luck. He moves it and then rips the baseboard off the wall and tries again. Nope. He grabs a chisel and starts to hack at the tile floor.
"The plastic feet," I gasp and point at where the green plastic corners, meant to protect the wood, are still attached to the cabinet.
He stops, laughs and removes the four plastic pieces. The cabinet slides neatly into place. "Good thing you're here. All I have to do is put the countertop on and I'll be done for the night. Then we can hang out for a while and talk." He goes out to the garage to get the countertop. I clear a path from the back door to the cabinets. Another song I like comes on the radio and I am struck by how good the music has been tonight. All while we have been working on the kitchen, all my favorites have been playing on the radio. I dance as I sweep, half-hoping that Rick will see me circling around the kitchen and join in.
He brings in the countertop and we balance it on the cabinets. I hold it in place while he lines it up against the wall. After a frantic search, he locates the masking tape and we wrap it in layers over one end of the countertop. "How are you going to measure it?" I ask.
"It needs to be four and a quarter inches, so I guess I'll take my dick out and fold it in thirds."
"Shut up. I meant tape measure or ruler."
Rick locates the ruler under a box of nails and marks the distance to the wall. The howling whine of the jigsaw fills the room. I put my weight on one end of the laminate counter to hold it steady. The saw jerks and sputters as it pushes through the compressed wood. One saw blade bends and shatters so I hand him a second one. Finally, he reaches the end of the wood and the smaller piece drops to the floor. "If I did it right that diagonal edge will line up against the edge of the corner cabinet.
At first, it looks like he's done it. The countertop hits the cabinet perfectly. But there is a small gap between the counter and the wall. He turns to me and looks as if he is about to cry. "Can it be fixed?" I ask but I know he has just made a big mistake. He shows me the channels drilled in underneath and how another cut would destroy the way the pieces fit together.
"I need to go to Home Depot and get another one."
"It's past eleven. They're closed."
"The night crew will be there. I'll bang on the door."
"Rick, stay here."
"Can't. The plumber will be here in the morning. Where are my keys?"
He's out the door before I can protest again. I put the uneaten sandwich in the refrigerator. There's nowhere to sit. The couches and chairs are heaped high with plates, glasses and boxes of food. I crouch on the floor next to the big screen television. It's been playing since I got here but I can't find the way to turn it off. Rick always has to have sound overload, television and radio at the same time. He hates silence most of all.
It suddenly occurs to me that Rick did all this on purpose-he always meant to redo the whole kitchen and not just the counters. He would not have been able to withstand a week of quiet nights. Maybe Nancy knew that, which is why she has her sister handling most of the childcare. I have new respect for the bravery it takes to be marrise and set the coffee down on the table. He's mapping out the template for the sink cut. He traces it once, gets ready to cut, then realizes he's at least an inch off. "At least I waited this time," he mutters as he retapes and starts again.
The plumber knocks on the door and comes in. "I can't get in the driveway."
"I was just leaving," I say quickly and grab my bag.
"Thanks, kid," says Rick.
I can't hug him. The plumber is already throwing me suspicious glances. It's seven in the morning and I am a strange blonde in another woman's house.
"Good luck." I sail out the door and start my car.
I head down the highway and wonder if that was the last time I will ever see Rick. Once I am in California, I doubt I will come back to visit. He'll raise his kids here, remodel his house a few more times, weary his wife with a never-ending wave cycle of manic-depression. The radio is playing a song I haven't heard in years and I imagine Rick listening to it as he revs up the saw for the last cut. I turn up the volume and pray that the gods of home improvement will be kind to Rick.
Deidre Woollard graduated from Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sojourn, Sundry: A Journal of the Arts, Pebble Lake Review, Coe Review, Phantasmagoria, the Mota IV anthology, and on the www.rhapsoidia.com and www.storyglossia.com. She won second place in the Confluence Fiction Contest for 2003, second place in the Andre Dubus Award in Short Fiction, second and third prize in the Writer’s Challenge Contest 2003, and first place in the Oregon Writer’s Colony Contest. She writes a blog on fiction writing available at www.thefictive.com and is working on several novels.
Copyright 2004, Deidre Woollard. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.