Renovations

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BY GINNY KACZMAREK

It all began when I wanted to fuck the carpenter. Shirt off, he glistened in the sun, sawdust covering his arms like down. I stared at the man cutting wood in my backyard with that mix of fear and lust and he-doesn’t-even-know-I’m-alive familiar to teenagers. But I was 31, too old for a crush, practically a cougar. When did I become Mrs. Robinson, I wondered as I twisted the wedding ring on my finger.

Standing on my new house’s back steps, I wanted the carpenter to turn and look at me the way he did that evening he stopped by to say he wasn’t stopping by, after he had had a few drinks with the boys. He looked at me then, up and down, slowly, as I scrubbed grout on my knees, top tied under my breasts. I met his gaze and burned under that little grin. When he walked away, the heat, the connection was broken, and I immediately wanted more. I followed him, all flirty and giggly, hungry for cowboy boots and tight jeans, the perfume of booze and Marlboros off unshaven skin. I craved one more glance, one more smile, despite a perfectly good husband standing right there. I craved escape.

The carpenter was a friend of a friend looking for freelance gigs. My husband and I were renovating our first house, and we hired him to help with the big stuff. At first, the renovation was exciting. We learned about load-bearing walls, sistered joists, and reciprocating saws. But the implications of our work soon kicked in. We’d signed a 30-year mortgage, almost my whole life so far. The 80-year-old  man next door told us stories about when he bought his house — the duplicate of ours — at our age. My life was piles of boxes now, but soon would be cribs, preschools, soccer games, colleges, retirement, Sunday papers and orange juice forever. Suddenly I’d be 80, wondering where it all went. Surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of stuff, I felt the walls closing in.

Running away first occurred to me when I was ten; in my canopied bed, I planned which direction I’d go, on foot or hitchhike, the route to Grandma’s house. Growing up, I saw my mom stuck in a lousy marriage, then in a series of rotten relationships and jobs, trapped in each one by circumstance or responsibility. I made the choice early that I’d never allow myself to be stuck anyplace or with anyone. Once I left home at eighteen, I moved fifteen times in twelve years, seven cities in four states. I dropped out of college twice and rarely held a job for more than a few months, freelancing because it offered freedom. I couldn’t count all the people, situations, or hair colors I left behind. I became an escape artist.

When I started dating my husband, I left him whenever I didn’t like his haircut or wasn’t sure about co-owning towels. Each time he opened the door to his apartment, I readied myself to see another girl there, prepared to have another reason to run. But there was no other girl in his room. He waited for me. If I turned from him, he’d ask, Where are you going? I never had a good answer. With time, I realized he was the one I wanted to run toward. He was the home I’d been searching for. When we married, we wore matching rings to signify that we had found home in one another.

After living in cramped apartments in San Francisco, we felt ready for the next step, and that meant moving away from the prohibitively expensive Bay Area. We fell in love with New Orleans on our honeymoon and decided to upend our entire lives to buy a quaint little cottage in the Deep South.

Neither of us knew anything about renovation. We were in way over our heads. We wanted to convert a 75-year-old double shotgun-style house (two units side by side) into a single dwelling, which meant tearing down walls and attacking the plumbing, electricity, and gas. Friends took pity, which is how we met the carpenter.

While the house was in demolition mode, we stayed at a friend’s apartment across town, but one of us needed to be on site to answer thousands of questions. Where did we want the cable jacks? Which room would be the living room, which the as-yet-still-imaginary kids’ rooms? My husband worked during the day, but my work was flexible, so I could be there to lay tile or cart away bits of plaster.

The carpenter was at the house every day. Cute, funny, smart, quirky; he was fun to look at, to talk to, to be around. He wasn’t my usual type, more burly. But he surprised me, calling his shirt an “old friend” when I complimented it or telling me about his collection of Cat Stevens albums. He and I brought in CDs; I introduced him to the Misfits and The White Stripes, and he told me about taking a women’s studies class with one of the members of Sleater-Kinney. We drove to Home Depot together, and he took me past some of his favorite houses Uptown, the ones he imagined renovating for himself. Sometimes he’d look at me the way a single guy looks at a cute girl, not at a married woman.

With him, I felt younger, wilder, sexier. He liked hearing about my crazy adventures, and I liked his. Mine were all past-tense; his had happened that weekend. When he went home for the day, I felt old, tired, and trapped in a house that represented everything I ever ran from: responsibility, stagnancy. Exhausted all the time, my husband and I talked only about what needed to happen on the house, what decision had to be made by the next day, who would call the electricians when they didn’t show up. We argued regularly.

I thought about running away with the carpenter. What if I climbed into his truck and lived in his world? From some of the stories he told, I imagined a life of dive bars, hip, funky people, and all-night parties with live bands. We’d have booze-soaked conversations late into the night. I’d discover all his secrets, and of course we’d have wild passionate sex, my hands gripping his hard, brown shoulders, my legs wrapped around his muscled thighs. I’d finally get that tattoo; he had a good friend who was a tattoo artist and specialized in just what I wanted. Would an affair be worth it? Was I above the laws of advice columns?

I tried to remember that the carpenter was not a prince in shining black leather armor. He was just a guy with the same problems as anyone. But as our house projects completed, he came over less frequently, and I found myself pining for him. I waited for him to show up, to see his truck on the street, or to bump into him on the sidewalk. I couldn’t get him out of my head.

I didn’t know what to do with these sticky feelings. They lingered like a red A across my chest. I was surprised it didn’t burst into flames, like a rag soaked in paint thinner, taking my hair, eyelashes, face with it. At least then I’d have something other than infidelity to think about.

My husband expressed concern, and a little jealousy. I stopped talking about the carpenter. My husband trusted me. I didn’t tell him about my fantasies. I was alone with my lust, longing, and guilt.

In a state of constant distraction, I took off my wedding ring to paint the kitchen. When I finished, I couldn’t find the ring. It wasn’t on my dresser or on the edge of the sink or in my pocket. It wasn’t under the bed, and it was too big to fit down the drain. It was just gone.

Suddenly, I had lost something real, a tangible reminder of my commitment to the one person who truly made me feel at home. Why was I still chasing that fantasy of belonging when I had already found it?

I looked around. The Formica table came from a garage sale in Wisconsin, where my husband had charmed the ladies down to ten bucks. We had bought orange-and-blue counter tiles from a going-out-of-business sale; my husband and I were the first people in fifteen years who wanted them. Against the wall leaned our wedding photo — holding hands, we laugh at wads of confetti in our faces — waiting to be hung next to portraits of our parents and grandparents. What would happen if I walked forward, into this future, instead of running away? These stacks of boxes were only a prison if I kept trying to escape from them.

A few weeks after we moved in to our almost-finished house, the carpenter stopped by to return a book. My husband and I showed him the progress we made without him. He told us about his freelance business, and his new girlfriend. “Lucky girl,” I said with a tinge of jealousy. After the carpenter left, my husband and I stood alone in our kitchen, arms around one another. We were home. I noticed a little glimmer in the corner. My ring. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was painting. My husband dusted it off and placed it on my finger. I haven’t taken it off since. And I’m still turned on by the scent of sawdust.

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Currently the poetry editor for Literary Mama and a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, Ginny Kaczmarek holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans. Her publications include the upcoming anthology Birth Writes, Women’s Review of Books, Calyx, Rattle, The Oxford American, and the Louisiana Poetry Project, among others. She also blogs at Ginny’s Tonic (ginnystonic.blogspot.com).

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