Paula and the contractor grunt and heave on the just-delivered mattress. The plastic wrapping is harder to pull off than her lace corset. Paula has fallen in love with the contractor because he can build things, whereas her husband can fix things once they’ve been built, but not every time. She realizes their affair will end badly, but her only question now is: where are the condoms?
The beams are exposed. Bands of light glaze the marble. She runs the water till it’s screaming hot. She dabs it on her face and looks in the mirror. She has feline features and a long neck. Her eyes are puffy from crying. Twenty-eight is too young to be married, she thinks. But an unmarried woman of twenty-eight would’ve been an ‘old maid’ in the early nineteenth century, she laughs to herself. Marriage isn’t at the center of her sadness; her sadness has no center, which is what bothers her. From the window she sees hills and the large houses of her neighbors. Everyone is wealthy. They own horses. She’ll have to take up riding to fit in.
The room is full of danger—saw blades, hammers and chisels, tangles of electrical wires. She avoids it and eats take-out. One night she finds his work shirt draped over a steel pipe. She keeps the shirt to smell. When he asks if she’s seen it, she says, “No, but I’ll look.”
Her husband John discusses the bookshelves’ dimensions with the contractor. Should they reach to the ceiling or stop short of the door? They deliberate. John decides the study should really be a gym. “Fitness is key to survival,” he says. The contractor points to the blueprints; the gym was supposed to be on the first floor. John shrugs. The temperature drops and their talk is done.
There are no rugs or curtains. The light is weak. The windowpanes are thin. They rattle during storms, and make daylight feel like twilight. The dark floors and brick walls will be torn out. But the bleakness of the room is pervasive, built into its big bones. When Paula stands in the room she must light a cigarette to calm her nerves.
The doorbell rings. Paula greets the architect, who brings new blueprints. His name is John Wood. He’s nothing like her John, who is bold and hot-tempered. John Wood is cautious and overly polite.
She calls to her husband to see the plans. They roll them out on a large table. Everyone is silent for a moment. Paula loves the drawings of spaces more than the spaces themselves. She has an aversion to completion.
“Will we have enough bathrooms?” asks her husband.
“You’ll have five,” John Wood says.
Her husband shakes his head. “We need six.”
“But it’s just the two of us,” she laughs.
“And children one day,” he says.
She smiles faintly. She loves children because they’re strange and innocent. They have no idea what awaits them in adulthood.
Standing at the base of the hill, she thinks the house is too old. Renovation will be a terrible burden to it. It will leave her tired and demoralized too. She can’t remember why it had once been her dream to renovate a farmhouse. She invents some reasons: the vineyard, the paddock, the guesthouse made of stone. When it is done, she even might write to a magazine about the project. Maybe they’d publish “before and after” pictures.
The “before” pictures would not show Paula and John in the early days: their long walks together, the time she pulled a bumblebee stinger from his arm with her teeth, how they’d waded through a swollen stream, fearless and in love. The “after” pictures wouldn’t show her affair, his inattention, they way he eats oranges, leaving the rinds on the table.
By now, it’s autumn and some of the trees have dropped their leaves. Paula doesn’t notice the change. She meets the contractor between rows of grapevines. She can see her husband down by the paddock, talking to a workman. The contractor tells her he kept rabbits as a boy. She tells him she loves the Japanese poet Basho. They hold hands. She wonders what to do with all these grapes. Where are birds when you need them?
The renovation presents problems. The cathedral ceilings will be difficult to restore. Ground water is leaking into the basement and pumps must be installed. The gas furnace is shot, so John Wood proposes a hydronic radiant floor and new HVAC system. Paula listens to the conversation between her husband and the architect. She keeps a frown on her face, pretending to care. She craves things she can’t name anymore, though long ago she could list them with pen and paper. A jackhammer blasts the sidewalk. It sets off a car alarm and its wail will not cease.
She wanders among the stalls and feels confused. She wants to buy the contractor a gift. Expensive cologne might be nice, or maybe a tie. Except his wife would ask questions. So she settles on a jar of forty-dollar honey. She wraps it in gold ribbon. Later, she finds out he’s allergic to honey. He kisses her and takes the jar anyway.
The menu offers beef or bison, the tables are wagon wheels topped with glass, and stag heads hang on the walls. They are a party of five at a table set for six.
“I’m so sorry John couldn’t make it,” says Paula.
“These things come up,” says the contractor.
“When you least expect,” adds the contractor’s wife.
Paula thinks the wife is pretty with her oval face and large eyes. But she wears too much makeup and has bad posture.
The architect’s wife, on the other hand, is not pretty, but has poise. She holds a martini like she’s been holding one since childhood.
After the salads arrive, the architect launches into a discussion of politics.
“Syria has me worried,” he says.
“Syria and Iran,” says his wife.
“It’s Pakistan that keeps me up at night,” says the contractor’s wife.
Paula stifles a yawn. She thinks none of them really care about those places, or the terrorists who lurk in dark houses within their borders. But it seems important to appear to care.
The contractor glances at her. She wishes they could sneak off to the bathroom and fuck. She knows he’s thinking the same thing; it’s hardly a revelation. There will be no revelations tonight.
Late at night, Paula stares out the unshaded window. She sees the contractor’s truck in the darkness, parked across the road. She has no idea why he’s here, and feels both annoyed and intrigued. She fluctuates between the two states until John says that if she stands like a statue she may turn into one. It’s a funny thing to say, but she realizes it wasn’t meant to be.
John gets up from bed. He touches her hand. He calls her by a pet name she’d almost forgotten, because it’s been so many years. He promises Paris in June – the music festival, multitudes of people, bands along the river, ice-cold champagne, parties till dawn.
It is a lie, of course. But Paula kisses John anyhow.
Talila Baron recently completed her debut novel, Blotted Out. Her stage plays have been produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, New York University, and the Abingdon Theatre in New York. A winner of the Wilner Short Story Award, Female Eye Screenwriting Competition, and Jane Chambers Award for Playwriting, Baron was a also a finalist for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, a finalist for the Beverly Hills Film Festival, and a semi-finalist for the Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in creative writing.