Somehow the ceiling's edge blossomed during my meetings. A wooden vineunknown in nature, it sprouts berries, acorns and spiky leaves that I won'ttouch for fear of splinters. I picture it taking root during my morningstrategy session. Extending itself with each click-through of my Powerpointpresentation. My kitchen ended up ringed with mutant growths bearing all theingredients of granola.
I pick up the phone and dial a familiar number. A computerized voice tellsme to leave a message. "You bastard," I tell the voice mail. "I know you'rethere. When are you going to stop messing with my house?"
Five minutes later, an e-mail: "It's my house too, Maria."
Henry once told me he had a five-year plan for our Alameda house. At thetime, I thought he meant gardening and kitchen tiles. We divorced in YearTwo, and it's Year Three-and-a-half now. At least the kitchen vine isn't asbad as the cornflowers sticking out all over my bedroom. I snagged my nylonson one of them last week. This house symbolized the start of our lifetogether.
I've forgotten what Henry looks like. I remember the scar between hismiddle knuckles on his left hand, and the way his fingers pressed my pubicbone when we pre-fucked. I remember the way his neck smelled in themornings, a rankness borne of sweating through dreams he wouldn't describeto me. I remember the nasty barley brew he switched to when he quit drinkingcoffee.
I already have my e-mail open, so it's easy to sort my inbox according tothe "From:" field and look at Henry's message from a month ago. "It's calledRococo," he wrote. "The French nobles rebelled against the baroqueclassicism of Versailles. It's supposed to look delicate and asymmetrical."He included an attachment, a JPEG file showing a big-skirted woman on aswing, her head lolling and her legs mid-kick. Supposedly she's ashepherdess or something.
There's a message somewhere in all of this. Beauty in asymmetry. Somethingabout our lopsided marriage, perhaps. If Henry'd lavished on me the kind ofattention he gives the house, we might still be married. When he lived here,I thought maybe the feverish shrine-building was his way of showingaffection. But now I'm less sure.
A week later, I come home to shells. The front door of my house opens to alittle alcove with a closet and the control box for the burglar alarm. Thatspace now bristles with wooden seashells, painted with gold leaf. Amock-Chippendale mini-dresser sits to the right of the closet, covered inwhorls. I throw my coat on it. Everywhere I look, shells. I've stoppedwondering how Henry manages his guerilla decorating in a few hours at atime. He's an engineer. He seems to have some way of attaching moldings andflourishes in a hurry, but when I pull on them, they seem solidly attached.
I'm guessing he's drilled into the walls. The outside of the house stillsays 1920s California.
A week after that, it's a big chandelier and some more gold-leaf vines. Ifeel his hands everywhere, shaping my space into some anachronistic joke.The sadomasochism of flourishes. It's consensual as long as he has keys. Idon't understand why he's accelerated the pace. Maybe he senses I'm gettingfurther away from him, developing a life of my own.
"Rococo. Celebration of the feminine. Carefree. Idealized view of nature,"says his latest e-mail to me. Choppy -- I'm guessing he wrote it on his palmpilot. Stuck in traffic in his pick-up, probably, snarfing a burrito dashingoff an e-mail and making notes on the next phase of the renovation. Iimagine burrito bile spattering his white shirt -- he owns two dozenidentical white shirts, 75 percent polyester 25 percent cotton. Henry isabout as close to nature and the feminine as Tommy Franks.
I read a book on the Rococo style. It was "interrupted" when the FrenchRevolution put most of its major proponents into guillotines. It was as ifthe presence of so many sea shells and frills left the peasants no choicebut decapitation. I should change the locks, put a new code on the alarm,and hire someone to rip out all the vines, shells and nuts. But I just can'tshut Henry out of the place we chose together. Instead I pay Henry a returnvisit.
He sent me a check once to cover some house expenses. Under his name, Ifind an address in Drabbest Millbrae. A half mile from El Camino Real, hisside street abuts a strip mall that offers all the necessities of life: pornvideos, dry cleaning, falafel and smoothies. Henry's four-unit cinder blockthrusts its garage forward as if to say: Welcome, cars!
Since Henry lives on the ground floor, I almost jack a window. But he'sleft his front door unlocked. What has Henry got worth stealing? A microwaveand fridge. A desk with monitor and keyboard to plug his laptop into. Acheap futon. I'm guessing Henry sleeps here and that's it. Henry hasn'tdecorated the pale walls or done anything with the wall-to-wall parquettile. Other than cover it with dirty clothes and fast food wrappers.
I fell in love with Henry's innocence. I felt pre-corrupted from earlychildhood, harboring not some gorgeous satanic rottenness, but a sadunderstanding of the world. Nobody ever surprised me until I met Henry. Ithought him autistic the first few times I met him, in a statistics classthat my MBA program made me take. He and I constituted the front row, alanky man in sweats, glasses and a permanent frown, and a little blondewoman in an off-the-rack power suit. I bantered with the teacher, Henryasked painfully serious questions. Then we went for sodas in the cafeteriaand I saw the drawings he'd been making in his notebook: Art Nouveau fairiesand sighing women. I glimpsed something inside him that I wanted to touch,but the more I pursued it the harder it became to grasp.
I find a florist's a mile from Henry's den of squalor. They have a specialon crysanthemums and African violets -- hardy potted plants that just needwatering every now and then. Will Henry water them? I can't say, but Inestle them around the filmy windows in his kitchen and bedroom and hope forthe best.
Henry comes home while I'm still arranging the flowers. His lean facecreases. He drops his canvas briefcase onto a pile of old magazines, notquite staring or smiling. "I brought plants," I say. Henry shrugs. My eyefixes on a patch of dry rot to the left of Henry's head. "I need to know," Isay. "The whole Rococo thing. Your grand plan. It's not about me, right,it's about the house. Right?"
Henry has the same look he had when he couldn't find the ring during ourwedding. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe both, maybe neither." A longsilence, then I worry he's going to start mumbling about Beauty. I reach formy car keys.
About the author:
Charlie Anders wrote a novel called Choir Boy. She also publishes a magazine called other. Find her at www.charlieanders.com.