By C.L. Baptiste
I wanted to be in a cave that night, so I slept in the basement. I wanted the simplicity of sleeping alone as if the absence of her warm body beside me could liberate me from the troubles in my heart. We had a fight, a big one. And for once, I was right. She was wrong. Clearly wrong. For the last several months, since completing our colossal house remodel, I have been swimming upstream, trying to make right some of the wrongs I brought into our relationship in the wake of a terribly stressful home renovation.
In our new house, there are 52 windows — 53 if you include the kitchen skylight. Even the basement bedroom has three big windows. When I woke that morning at 5:23 am, the light through the windows had turned the previous night’s cave into something hopeful and joyful; it didn’t match my mood. I had been right the night before. This morning I was steeped in vitriolic righteousness, and I didn’t want hope and joy to crush my position.
From the windows in our living room, the Cascade Mountains and Lake Washington are visible. In the very early morning light, the crew teams glide by, mist whispering beneath their shells, the faint shouts of the coxswain bouncing off the lake until they reach our house. It’s so much sensory beauty, too much whimsy for my mood that morning. To let that in would be to soften my heart.
From our windows is the Republic of Trees. The loudest are the conifers- Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, Alaskan Cedars — waving their long arms in the morning breeze coming off the lake. They stand at attention, waving, but never wavering, no question that they rule the sky — the tallest, darkest, strongest, most deeply rooted. The Cherry Blossoms that line the lake are pretty and pink. They shout at me, “cheer up, cheer up,” and then drop confetti everywhere.
Hugging our house, and visible from all of our windows lives a carousel of colour — screaming red rhododendron, pink flushed dogwoods, purple and white hydrangeas, fuchsia azaleas, the persistent lilacs everywhere, purple blooms hanging, casually off-gassing their perfume.
“By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling.”
The pungency of newly bloomed lilacs relentlessly attacks my senses. I am not in the mood. The honeyed aroma takes me to summer — sitting in the sun, eating outside, diving off the pier. It’s making me grateful, eager, expecting.
On the lake, the coots and the ducks and the geese are celebrating. The coots are captivating as they buzz in and out of formation like Pac-Man characters while the ducks stay close in, lazy, relaxed. The geese loiter at the moorage down the street from my house, leaving green poop all over the shore and holding up traffic as they cross the busy street to hang out on the grassy hill below those houses with the coveted views.
The cormorants dot every buoy along the lake, standing at the ready, alerting the smaller water birds to the goings-on around the lake. It makes me think about the great blue heron I saw while I was jogging last summer. It was just us. He was quiet, pensive, sure, and so beautiful. Long legs, neck cautiously extended delicate beak, a statue in his perfect stillness. Me, panting, excited, sweating. I don’t feel like remembering that indelible moment. It’s too beautiful, and I don’t want that right now.
I wanted to be mad at her that night. Nancy is generous, loving, funny, ethical, smart, and sexy. When I fell for her, when we fell for each other, we knew. This was it. Too often, it all seems too good to be true. When she fucks up, it’s unusual, and I wanted to relish in my victory that night, spend as much time as I could swimming in this sensation of being right in the face of her rare wrong.
We built our beautiful house together. When we bought it, it was ugly; the neighbours told us it was the ugliest house on the block. They said the woman who lived here was the meanest woman they’d ever met. There were rats in the ceiling, 50-year-old shag carpet on the floors, walls in places that seemed to be built to block instead of enhancing the lake and mountain views.
It took nine months to get our house ready. We gave it a new roof, new plumbing, new heating, new paint all over the inside and the outside. We tore down walls, replaced 50 original windows, and added three additional ones. We kept the refrigerator, the washer and the dryer, and one toilet. Nothing else from inside the old house survived.
Every day there were decisions. Where should the bedroom door go? How do you light a room with 18-foot fir-floor ceilings? Is it worth $11,000 to put in wood windows? Should we make the stairway windows opaque or frosted? Where does the bathtub faucet go? Can you really tell the difference between charcoal gray and black stain? How many inches between the vanity and the window? Is that light in the closet really necessary?
By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling. It was as if the lumber, wire, insulation, pipes, sheetrock needed for the construction of our beautiful house had been pulled directly from the framework that was our relationship. We were both skeletons with nothing left to give, like the tree at the end of The Giving Tree; we’d given it all away.
Help us keep the lights on
Nancy, prone to generosity, great love, hard work, and caretaking, poured the little she had left into my shell, trying and trying to create a path back to where we had been. I, disposed to isolating, shutting down, escaping, couldn’t produce a landing pad for her love. It was too much, all of the love she had when I felt like I had nothing to return. Feeling naked, starving, I turned away.
It’s too obvious now. Embarrassing. In my crumbling, weakened state, I sought nourishment somewhere else, from someone else, an acquaintance who superficially fed my ego, quenched my thirst, allowed me to escape into more shallow emotional waters.
I thought it was harmless and temporary — some emails, a handful of texts, a few coffees. And it was nothing until it became too much for me, for us. Like a crack in the plaster that is barely noticeable when it starts, my turning away from Nancy exposed us to a much bigger crash. The light poured in and our relationship, and what we had become, came into view. We could finally see ourselves, exposed as rubble after an earthquake. In nine months of caring for our beautiful house, we had neglected the life within it.
The wreckage — chunks of walls and pieces of doors and pipes and metal roofing and glass from 53 windows and radiant floor pipe parts and splinters from the deck railings — crashed down around us. The house was built, but we were demolished, barely hanging on. The light was everywhere, and we could see everything. Every crack. Every stain. Every flaw. Our neglect of ourselves, of each other, shone brightly, and we could no longer hide inside of the structure we had painstakingly created.
And so, living in our finished house, we began again to rebuild. To look outside was to see the marvels of nature — — the lake, the trees, the birds, the flowers, the sky and clouds, and mountains. And inside too was so much beauty; all of our hard work — the perfectly chosen light fixtures, the precisely measured built-in bookshelves, the special 18-foot wall that magically held the letters of the alphabet constructed from carefully collected sticks and twigs. Our blood, bones, love. But deeper in the house, we were like war victims, sweeping crushed pieces of exploded brick off of our wounded bodies, wiping dust out of our eyes, dabbing moist cloths on our cuts and scrapes. We were alive but damaged, in need of love, caretaking, tenderness.
“It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice.”
We started again — rewound, retraced our path to try to find where we had made missteps and we began to repair. Night after night we slept in our room with six windows, the lake air cooling us as we tossed and turned, trying to find our way back to each other. In the mornings, the sun shone earlier every day, waking us to the reminder that we had work to do.
All of it was new — our house, our words, the way we looked at each other and comforted each other, and trusted each other. Success came in many different ways — mad, hot afternoon sex like the days of brand new lust, crushingly honest conversations that left us both feeling like repair was impossible, moments of contentment watching the cormorants on the buoys, simple agreement on what to have for dinner, me sleeping in the basement for the first time. And slowly, we started to be able to live in the house again, to inhabit it in all of its beauty.
The house is done. It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice. The windows can be open now every day, and the lake air that flows in brings new life into our beautiful house. You can feel it. The light, the breeze, all of the sounds and smells that come with remind us. We live here. We built this house with our love.
C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.