Home ImprovementsChristine Meade
“HONEY!” D’s voice echoed down the steps to the basement office where she sat on the cool floor. Her coffee cup tasted of Lemon Fresh Dawn soap. “Honey? Honey! Honey. Honey!” From singsong to panic, the honeys paraded down the steps and she did nothing. They piled between her ears like teetering rock art formations. If she turned her head one-way or the other, they would collapse around her and she would suffocate.
His voice grew louder, almost shrill. How long could she leave him for? How long could her husband fend for himself in that wheelchair, until he was forced to eat the corner of his newspaper and empty his colostomy bag in the cat’s litter box?
He began pounding on the windowsill, with either his fist or his copy of Ulysses. The shaking of the front side of the house proved he still retained upper body strength despite the accident. Bang bang bang. He stopped calling for her, just incessant banging. She didn’t need to have his child because he had become one. For her.
She waited until the breaking moment, when she couldn’t take it any longer, and she let her coffee mug drop—the one that read you stole my heart. She watched the ceramic splinter and separate. For him.
They used to run together. Miles of pavement, boxes of run-through Nikes. The cool mornings mixed their sweat and their thoughts. The pace couldn’t remain steady forever but a year and a half was too soon. She had to work from home now. Typing her articles in the basement office, the one high window staring at her like a foggy-eyed employer. Work hard, do more, run faster. She did run faster without him now but her muscles twisted and twitched at her desk and her toes moved individually. Her knees bounced until it crept into her shoulders. She had become a jangling mess, like the piles of change collected in the bottom of her father’s old pants’ pockets.
She did pushups in the basement. The blinking curser on the computer screen counted her reps, egging her on. In college she had been a group fitness instructor, smiling in front of the class like her face might explode from the pure delight of FITNESS! and STEP AEROBICS! D had taken her class once, as a gas. She couldn’t look at him, knew she would lose it if she did, with his mocking pink sweatband and high shorts miss-stepping throughout the entire 55-minute class.
“HONEY!” he called down the steps. She threw in a one-handed push-up, surprised she could still do it.
She walked up the stairs, slow as a trespasser. “Honey?” He sounded scared now. She crept through the hallway, not wanting him to hear her approach. Sometimes, if she was really quiet, she would catch him staring down at his legs or out the window at the road. He would stare like that for as long as she was able to watch.
A line of soapy half-cleaned dishes sat on the back of the sink and she sighed at D’s attempt to help with the household chores. It’d be easier if he didn’t try, just gave up and stopped being so hopeful. Let me do the dishes. Let me do the grocery shopping alone. She hated when he read aloud every headline and sub-headline of the daily paper, as if showing he still belonged to this world. But his love for her was in the headlines and in her coffee that tasted like soap.
In the hallway, she passed their black and white wedding photo. D stared with a hint of shock and a smile on his face as she looked demurely into her bouquet. Her profile from only a year and a half ago looked younger, pretty; slim nose, carefully curled eyelashes and painted lips. How long could she keep aging forward as he moved in reverse?
She wanted to crawl back into the basement as soon as she left it. She planned to jump rope for 15 minutes and then finish and submit her article. She saved writing her own headlines for the end.
He gazed out the window at the bare trees. The Wednesday paper had slipped to the floor. He had read an entire library of books over the past six months. Her parents bought him a Nintendo Wii to keep him occupied. He had stared at the white controls in his hands, helplessly watching his animated self play tennis for nearly a round before he threw the controller and started weeping. She never cried.
“Honey.” He smiled when he saw her.
His soft curls looked nearly girlish in the forgiving afternoon sun of the bay window. He was months overdue for a cut. If she never cleaned the window and never cut his hair, how long would the curls grow?
“Come sit, pretty.”
Shocked by his strength, he lifted her by the waist and sat her on his lap. Reaching a hand behind her head, he pulled her face down to his and he smelled of breakfast—eggs with sour cream and coffee with soap. He kissed her carefully at first, as if his lips expected a retraction. Then he covered her mouth with his. Being turned on surprised her and she leaned into him, one hand on his chest over his heart of flannel.
“You forgot to tell me what you wanted to talk to me about,” he said. She wanted to kiss him again. She was still attracted to this man, her husband, which made it all the worse.
She paused, turning her question sideways and upside down. Its edges never smoothed, never the right time, and so she tucked it back.
“I was thinking I wanted to re-do the back porch. Make it a three-season porch or a sunroom. That way you can sit out there and I can work out there, instead of just deserting it until summer.”
“What do you mean re-do it? I just built it a year ago.” She knew she shouldn’t have said anything. His cheeks sagged and his smile dropped into a pout.
“But I was thinking of replacing the screens with big windows. Maybe we could heat the room and add a door to the yard. It’d be really nice.” His eyes pinched at the corners. It happened so easily now—crying over a misspoken word, a spilled glass of wine, not being able to reach the cat.
“How are you going to do all that without me?” They asked each other the question hundreds of times since the accident. D looked down at his legs, now strands of spaghetti. She tried to get the tune of his shattering pelvis from tinkering in her inner ear. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that it had been only six months since D stood between two cars, only three blocks away from home. On their walk back from the cool-down portion of their run, he teased her for slowing him down as she bent at the sidewalk to tie a wayward lace. She didn’t look up until she heard the crunch, like her grandfather with his fake teeth biting into a Ritz cracker. A bumper and a fender bit her husband in half, his eyes on her the entire time.
If only the other girl two cars up had been a better parallel parker. If only the driving school had been more diligent in her training. If only she had had her license for longer than a few months. If only if only if only. If only his eyes hadn’t stayed on his wife for the whole time, not even blinking at the sound. They expanded into orbs and moons and then entire planets until they both collapsed.
If only flannel and warm kisses and soapy coffee were enough to keep any woman happy with a man, only 29, stuck in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. They were lucky, they should be lucky. His entire body wasn’t paralyzed, but would it have made a difference?
She kissed him again and laid her head on his shoulder. He raked a hand through her hair. She hadn’t cut hers in months either. Maybe they were growing into the same person, with girlish hair and skinny legs. Joined at the hip—one with feeling and one without.
“Okay,” he said.
“We can eat ice cream sundaes for supper tonight. Like we used to.” Nesting his head in the crook of her neck, he gurgled softly. She glanced back towards the sunroom—long rays through large windows, fresh flowers, and spring air through the open door—and pulled the quilted blanket higher up over both of their legs.
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