Fiction by Claire Ellen

Our House

by Claire Ellen

You obliterated my heart with a baseball bat and I found pleasure in my hunger again. I watched my lower belly, my unavoidable paunch sink like those cars in Chicago when it rained too much, like those videos of dogs that underestimate a puddle.

Sadness looks nice on you is what the women at work said to me and I nodded like ah, yes a silver lining. Mary-Ann was right though, my cheekbones jut out slightly more and I finally felt satisfied with them. I’m the youngest here and I expect them to know more than me. They say they do at least.

“This could be a blessing,” Susan says to me.

“A bloody painful one,” I say with a sarcastic drawl. I’m not British but I want to swear and circumvent the American terms. I am tapping countertops in false kitchens while we wait for another terse couple to come in and disagree with us.

“It could be worse, could be a divorce like Mary-Ann went through and that was horrible, Leah, let me tell you.”

“Yes I’ve heard.”

“Except she didn’t lose weight, she gained so much of it and—well that’s the lesson there,” Susan says, slowly smiling and I turn to see a younger woman marching towards us. I exude unconvincing warmth.

“Hi,” the younger woman says, business-like.

“Hello how can we help you today? Looking for anything in particular?” Susan says. I smile, mostly on the left side without my teeth.

“Yes. I’m redoing my kitchen. It’s a development home, brand new. So we need something unique. I’d like to look at some cabinets or something.”

“Okay,” I say, outside of the cadence of the conversation so that everyone looks at me with bewilderment. I was behind, stuck on some internal horror. I am the bleached bones of a desert creature. I look good on a shelf and not with a voice.

“Anything you had in mind? Color? Style? Maybe some Pinterest pictures on your phone?” Susan says, shooing me away and handling it herself.

This woman will have new cabinets, and I shall have old ones at home filled with food that no longer interests me. I will think how you have cabinets too and somehow that is a connecting thread I cling to and pull to find nothing.

***

Mary-Ann mopes with me today and I almost prefer her to Susan’s optimistic platitudes until she begins to regale me with tales of her past.

“He didn’t even take anything. He didn’t have to, you know? It’s just one of those things.”

“Yeah,” I say, not knowing.

“And he just fell out of love with me, Lord knows why. Love has no rhyme or reason at all and Susan says that’s the joy of it, but let me say, Leah, in my opinion, that’s not the case. A good love has a good solid reason.”

“She’s back,” I say. The woman from before has returned, hustling through aisle ways with unsuitable urgency. She spots me and I wave. Mary-Ann winds down from her diatribe. I straighten up like I will pounce and I lightly touch Mary-Ann’s plushy arm: “I’ll take her. It’s okay.” Mary-Ann emits a little squeak, a pip from her throat at this; I am supposed to be catatonic. The woman tottering towards us is waving the plans for her kitchen around like a surrender.

“Can I do marble countertops?” she says, out of breath and wheezing.

“Let’s talk about it,” I say, leading her away from Mary-Ann who sputters but ultimately is saying nothing of importance. I am exquisitely charming, my arm swoops over the view of our countertop options like the opening shot to a movie. “First: what’s your name? I didn’t catch it last time you were here.”

“Kate,” she sticks out a hand to shake. “What’s yours?”

“Leah,” I say, shaking her hand.

“Leah.”

“Yeah.” I pivot on my heel and glance at the plans she’s handed me. “You want to do marble countertops.”

“It’s just so lux, you know?”

“It’s a very buttery material. Gorgeous, palatial even. You live in a palace?” I say.

“No, I live in those houses in Doveshire,” she says, as if I will know, which I do. The houses there sprung up quickly, all in beige-tones, tucked away from a main road. I am angry with them because they aren’t made for people they are made for People, the common denominator. An advertising group. A target audience.

“Yes, Doveshire. I know it.”

“I hated the granite it came with and the cabinets are that early 00’s color, you know?” she says. I nod profusely. Horrible, those cabinets. I don’t blame her for changing them, but I wonder why she chose a ready-made house when she wants to immediately alter it. “So I’m redoing it. That was the deal with me and my husband.”

I arrange a quizzical brow, as if to ask whom. “Oh—Hunter,” she says. He has the name of someone who treats you just well enough that you’ve got no reason to go. This satisfies me, makes me feel that even though I have nothing I still have the better lot.

“Well congrats on the new house. I can get you a quote on that marble right away!” I say, slapping a hand on the sample marble. It is a pathetic noise, reminds me of the lightness of my hand. It stings afterwards; buzzing.

“Really? Great!” she clutches the measurements close to her chest. I look at them and think I ought not to recommend this material. It is too porous, would be better in a bathroom, not a kitchen. Awful with acids like lemon juice, orange juice, what have you.  Not suited.


***

I am with Mary-Ann again when Kate returns. This is good, as Mary-Ann is weak. She won’t fight me once I’ve established the pecking order. I rush to meet Kate. Today is about cabinets, ones that aren’t hideous.

“I was thinking a dark, nearly cherry-red wood,” I say as I lead her by her elbow over to where such examples are presented in a false kitchen in beige shades. “Do you like this?” I ask. Kate bites her lip and I notice she looks tired. I imagine she and Hunter in their cavernous house—those homes always echo—pointing at color swatches and passively disagreeing.

People say going to Ikea ruins relationships; in fact there are studies on it. The pressure of choosing, of having the ability to curate a space and sharing it is too much of a strain. Seems easy to draw a parallel to a kitchen, seems easy to draw a parallel to buying a home, and allowing someone to place themselves in your space. It’s idiotic, deeply American, highly unimportant and yet all-important.

“I was sort of hoping for white cabinets. A clean look, a modern look.”

“I understand,” I say, watching her. I am looking for something. “What does Hunter like?”

“Oh…he wants something darker. Probably something like this. I just think with white marble it doesn’t make much sense. But I already won the battle over the countertops.”

“I see.” I am licking my chops. “Well it’d be fair to compromise, but I have to agree, now that you’ve pointed it out, that the white cabinets would be far better. Very sleek. Very clean.”

“You think?” She says, rolling her giant blue eyes over at me, pleading for an expert opinion to take home.

“Oh yes. I think it’d be much better.”


***

Kate now has marble countertops and white cabinets. I led her to a sink that tends to jiggle upon installation despite its price. I recommended a farm sink and she hates to cook, doesn’t do many dishes, and hardly needs a miniature bathtub for her uses. Did she need an espresso machine? It’s just like a Keurig; it’s an investment I say. It’s a costly piece, positively extravagant. Every day I cry in the car on the way home.

“This is quite the bill,” Susan says to me when we tally up Kate’s purchases. “Maybe the husband is rich.” Why does everyone always assume it’s the husband, I wondered bitterly, completely uninspired in my critique.

“He’s actually a wedding photographer,” I say. I have learned a lot.

“That’s sweet!” Susan says with her lips out, but she frowns again at the bill. “Why the hell would a young couple get an espresso machine?”

“It’s an investment,” I say, shrugging. We laugh. It’s something we encourage for people who like to toss money around or desperately need to appear as if they do. But Kate and Hunter shouldn’t be tossing around money. All their newlywed bells and whistles, now paid for, ought to be glistening in their home in a few weeks. And then what? What do you start after you’ve checked off the list: married, house, remodel? There are rooms to be painted, maybe. Dust to gather.

“You look better,” says Susan.

“Really?” I say. I do feel as if I am winning something, even if you can’t see and the fact that we cannot see each other makes my jaw clench with stress.

“Really.” She looks up from the computer and smiles. “It takes a lot of work to start coming out of this.”

“I’ve resisted,” I say.

“It’d be strange if you didn’t.” She continues clicking away and I am skeptical of my earlier assertion of her lack of profundity, even if it’s a profundity made up of well-timed clichés.


***

On this slick nighttime street with its avian moniker, I find them. I think that if I were to watch myself as if I were a bystander, I would be suspicious and assert quietly to a friend “she really needs to move on.” This no longer matters; I stopped listening to my own advice when the pain of the real thing bore down on me.

This is their house. I know this even though all of these homes look the same. I see them, see them in the kitchen, through a large window framing their successes: their marriage, their mortgage, and so on. I slide out of my car, shutting the door with care.

I needed to see it, to have some sort of recompense, the moment where I rub my hands together and growl “perfect…” as I wait for the glory of my misdeed. They are there inside my creation, sliding hands on gleaming countertops and smiling through their conversation. It’s domestic bliss, some cable-knit sweater dream, not a brawl match over the knobs on the cabinets or the overpriced additions. I remember you with unkempt hair turning on the kitchen sink, the words you said are lost to me. I still long for the intimacy of a voice freshly awakened. Now I wake up to my empty kitchen where the tiled floor is unbearably chill.

Kate ought to be snarling at Hunter, ought to be baring her teeth in persistent defense of her marble countertops. And Hunter should be pouncing, snatching a handful of her shining hair and hurtling her against her the matching cabinets, the ones he didn’t want. She should turn and dispatch one of his eyeballs with a stray fork, flick it off into their carpeted living room like a child launching food.

Instead, I stand witness to their home, stopped stiff on the sidewalk. They are lovers. They are two doves cooing and nesting together in their defected cubby, glowing and chubby with the joy of sharing the space. They touch slightly as they move through their tasks: a hand on the back as they pass one another, a few fingers skimming a cheek, an arm grazing another arm. They dance like this, with these soft reassurances.

Hunter has put on a kettle for hot water. Perhaps he will make tea. Kate is kind enough to have selected a tea bag for him and this means that she must know his preferred flavor. I have made my way onto their dew-dropped lawn, feet dragging. I am exhausted. I worked very hard on this kitchen. I will give them a piece of my mind.

I march up to their door and press the glowing doorbell—it’s practically begging me to, this nighttime beacon. Footsteps. Conversation. A pause. And at last Kate opens the door.

“Leah? What are you doing here? How—” She doesn’t have it fully open, peeking around it, but in recognition she shows herself.

“Oh! Kate! My friend just moved into this neighborhood. I think I got the address wrong…” I say. She is processing this, deciding if I’m credible. I’m only the lady with the cabinets, after all. The fatal words, the ones that ask the questions that would unravel my lies are coming, I see them speeding silently down her tongue. Before she can get to them I mumble a goodbye and express embarrassment that will comfort her enough. If anything she’ll return to Hunter and tell the story with confused humor. Hands up, tossing it in with the other unexplained happenstances.

I am not satisfied as I walk away towards my car.  I made this kitchen, this nest they now settle in. It’s arrogant of them. It’s unjust. I won’t stand for it. What would you think of me, here in their yard—fuming? I don’t know your mind anymore.

I pivot towards their carbon copy home. My feet crush the grass, pick up the nighttime dew, leaving cavernous footprints in their plush lawn. In a swipe I snatch a rock and chuck it in the glass. Chuck it like when the boys told me I couldn’t throw and I needed them to know, to hell with accuracy, that this girl could throw.

The shatter reverberates in this safe neighborhood, where no such shattering occurs. How loud this noise, this disruption must be. They won’t forget it; they’ll cite it in future conversations about the safety of the neighborhood, in hushed voices, huddled together. Strength in numbers. The ability to throw the rock lies with the loner.

Hunter’s eyes shoot up, his recently made mug of tea sloshes over onto his hands, a momentary tsunami. He scans, flicks his eyes all around to settle on me. It takes less than a second. All I understand in his gaze is all he must understand in mine, but he doesn’t understand that this house is mine. The kitchen is. He does not know me. I know him and he is all I have.


Claire Ellen
lives and writes in Cleveland, Ohio. She's excited to add this publication to future bios as it is her first published work. She writes fiction, poetry, and whatever else flies out of her on occasion.