“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.
As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”
Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”
Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.
Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.
He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.
I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.
In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.
We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…
I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.
We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.
I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.
It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.
We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.
The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.
Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.
Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.