Every marriage has its challenges, mine not as insurmountable as two of our neighbors who recently divorced and sold their newly built homes, well below market value. What were they thinking? Karen—that’s what my wife called her—had an affair with a guy whose black BMW pulled up at odd hours of the day. Her marriage had disintegrated into a barrage of yelling, with her often shirtless and ripped husband dumping their two young boys into the backyard whenever they fought. He’d pick them up like free weights and carry them out, then lock the slider.
The neighbors behind us divorced over money—a final notice letter had been accidentally stuffed in our mail slot. Beer belly Chuck owned an appliance repair business, but his truck had sat idle in his driveway for months. He and his wife didn’t yell, just let the weeds overrun every corner of their yard. I let mine grow in solidarity.
But all that awkwardness is history—my wife and I are getting to know our new neighbors. We have reaffirmed our commitment to one another and redecorated our home during this transition. Nothing like a fresh coat of paint, a new sectional, a handwoven area rug. We’re not in danger of being a statistic—I still flirt with her, and she still finds me funny, occasionally. We’re the fifty percent of our neighbors who work through our issues, let the small stuff go, and stay married. Never mind my desire for greater intimacy: calculated intercourse on the weekend and half-hearted blowjobs on birthdays isn’t really cutting it anymore. But I’d be a fool to abandon our catalogue existence, my endless to-do list, insane to flee this suburban dream nest. We’re good; she’ll come around.
“You don’t always have to be so frugal.” My wife sips from my coffee, her berry lips imprinting the cup. She’s trying to cut back on caffeine and binging on Netflix.
“I can pour you a half a cup,” I offer and scan the Times on my tablet. There’s news of an emerging novel coronavirus, rapper Pop Smoke is killed in a home invasion, the Elle advice columnist is fired after accusing Trump of raping her.
“It’s gorgeous.” She angles her laptop’s webpage towards me. “I want it. I want it.” For a moment her gasps sound like she is inviting me for a quickie, but her look tells me not to go there.
I don’t want to stifle my wife’s inner interior decorator, but I’m done with HGTV, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel—house porn in general. I tell her I don’t need every room decorated like a teasing magazine spread; we’re wasting vacation money on a $1,200 crystal chandelier. I don’t know where her new lighting obsession is coming from, or why anything reasonably priced at Home Depot isn’t good enough. Light is light. But she wants to make a statement—sophisticated, intimate, smart—for when we host a dinner party for our new neighbors. I’d prefer just to hang out first, have an informal barbecue—not commit. Why get close, in case things don’t work out? Breaking up with neighbors is hard when they divorce, it feels personal. Besides, I don’t want to rinse the dust off the fine China, then be obligated to hand wash the plates, so the gold leaf trim doesn’t flake off. I tell her this and she places the chandelier order online. So much for taking it slow, compromise, or a quickie.
I spend half a day taking down our builder grade dining area fixture with its LED energy saving bulbs. The one installed in everyone’s house on Senac Lane, if you chose the deluxe lighting package. To say we live on a cookie cutter street is an understatement; I’ve pulled into the wrong driveway more than once. But there is a uniformity I’ve come to appreciate: set-back sidewalks with newly planted maples, mountain ash, choke cherries that a crowded urban landscape can’t match. My wife is trying to make this house unique, her own, but the furnishings, curtains and artwork can only take you so far—you need light, she tells me. Light. I stay positive and recall when she had me position two yellow ceramic pots on the walkway stairs. “Curb appeal,” she said, my work gloves swallowing her hands and wrists, as she planted dahlias and snapdragons. “Now you won’t overshoot our driveway.” That did the trick, despite now having to work from home. There’s talk of a larger lockdown to curtail the spread of the virus. I’m not complaining— at least I can smell the potted flowers: the closest things to a vaccine so far, or perhaps UV light. I think that’s what the president of the free world had said.
Installing the new chandelier isn’t as easy as the single page instructions made out, and I spend another two hours watching YouTube videos to make sure it won’t come crashing down on me. It’s bulky and heavy and has its own built-in grappling hook. The ceiling groans as I attach it to the crossbar. It hovers above our dining table, floats like an alien structure. I stand up on our dining table, using it as scaffolding. In my pajamas and slippers, I match up color coded electrical wires and my wife hands me wire nuts. She flinches as I twist them on, and I reassure her the breaker is off. Avoiding electrocution is the easy part. The tension wires that hold up the chandelier’s frame prove more difficult. They cut into my hands like soft cheese. The chandelier banks, settles into a lean, refuses adjustment. I leave the preset lengths, despite it hanging too low. I guess it’s made for homes with ten-foot ceilings, not nine. I must be careful that the jacketed electrical lines, tracing the tension wires, don’t twist or yank out. They feed the bulbs that light up three tiers of crystals, a layer cake of illumination.
“Don’t break the crystals.” My wife fingers a spare gem, worry and impatience contorting her face.
I’m more concerned about the chandelier dropping on my foot and double check the security of the twisting grappling hook. I should’ve worn some steel toed boots, at least not worn house slippers. Right about now I wish Chuck were still around to help me hang the chandelier. I wonder where he’s living now, if appliance repairs have picked up for him. You can tell a marriage is no longer working when a husband BBQs just for himself and eats the steak right off the grill: fire, meat, eat—primal urges driving all his decisions.
The rectangular face of the individual crystal gems resembles a thick microscope slide, rounded at the corners with an eyelet at each end. They could double as a pair of my wife’s earrings worn with a backless evening gown. The crystals fan in a flat circular spiral, like rings around Saturn, netted to a steel frame. Industrial monks—metal workers with fine blow torches and craft jewelers with needle nose pliers—dedicated their lives to brighten our world. I wonder what Karen saw in that guy with the BMW; I knew what he saw in her. She gardened in Lululemons, held your eye when she spoke to you over the split-rail fence. She made you stand up straighter, suck in your stomach and push out your chest a little.
To get the fixture mounted and ceiling plate on, I shout for my sleepy-eyed teenage son. He regularly sleeps into the afternoon. Light is not his friend, unless it has a blue light that emanates from a screen. He comes down with a groan, not motivated to help. “Can you make sure the chandelier doesn’t fall on Dad,” I say, my shoulders sore, my hands tender from craning the fixture. “Or driving lessons are over, hear me?”
“You don’t have to raise your voice,” my wife fires back. I think about our former neighbors whose shouting we heard even when they had slammed their windows shut.
“I’m not yelling.” I lower my voice. “I just need a little help here.”
“Why don’t you use a ladder, Dad? And set the light on top for support.”
I try not take his sound advice as an affront. “I need your mother to eyeball the height with respect to the table. The ladder will throw her off.”
“I should’ve paid extra to have it installed,” my wife piles on. They are ganging up on me again. “You’re ruining the finish on the table with your slippers.”
I kick them off and stand on the table in my bare feet. “Better?” I wiggle my toes. “I guess you don’t mind foot sweat. A little toe jam?”
“Gross,” my son says and laughs. “I’m never eating at this table again.” He stands to its side, while my wife stands on the other, equally disgusted. I’ve gotten crasser and crankier over the years. She’s not laughing like she used to.
“Okay, on the count of three… lift!”
My son raises the chandelier into place like an enormous topper on a Christmas tree in Times Square, and I bend the wires into the electrical box.
“Up, a little up. Left.” My wife’s hands gesture. “No, right.”
“There is no left, or right, Babe.” The grappling hook chain dangles, sways. “Just up. Up.”
“Hurry, Dad. This thing is getting heavy.”
I line up the ceiling plate housing with the anchor bolts and fasten the plate. The radiating tension wires stretch like bicycle brake cables. I steady the chandelier and gently lower my hands.
“It needs to move to the left,” my wife insists and hands me a light bulb, then another.
“We’ll reposition the table.” I slip my hands through the fan of crystals and screw in the bulbs. My forearm scrapes a blunt edge each time, its coolness like a fresh shave. “The builder didn’t center the outlet in the room.”
When I fumble a bulb, the crystals chime. She gasps and notes, “The chairs will be too close to the wall.”
“No one will notice. I’ll add a chair rail (another item on the to-do list).” I hop off the table and head to the fuse box outside. I snap on the breaker as if arming a bomb, and carefully step back inside. I hope I don’t need to relocate the outlet.
My wife stands by the light switch, ready to do the honors. It’s as if we’re having Christmas in spring. “Thank you, Darling.” She puts on her Rihanna face, and sings, “Shine bright, like a dia-mond.” The room illuminates, transforms. The crystals paint a triangular pattern on the walls. It isn’t bright, but you need to squint. Mini rainbows appear and disappear as you move about the room.
“Looks like one of those ancient disco balls.” My son waves his hands through the air, trying to catch the light.
I tap the chandelier to keep the disco effect going. “Babe, let me queue up Donna Summers.”
“You both stop it.” My wife crosses her arms. “This is style.”
“It casts a light everywhere you don’t want it. Can’t read with it.”
“It’s not for reading, but for fine dining.” She steps back to take it all in, as when she eyes herself in her full-length mirror. “I love it.”
“As long as you’re happy, Babe.” I flex a bicep, then suck in my stomach.
“It’s perfectly perfect.” She gives me a hard kiss, her full lips keeping our teeth from scraping, then follows up with a softer one, sneaking in her delicious tongue. Totally worth $1,200.
“So gross!” My son feigns disgust to avoid additional work. He’s caught us in more compromising situations. “Are we done, Dad?”
The love of my life eyes the room and sighs.
“What, Babe?” I knew this was too good to last. “The centering?”
She shakes her head. “The dining table looks dated, too worn.”
I try to avoid the conversation with her by telling my son to get ready so we can practice parallel parking downtown today. He takes two stairs at a time. I don’t want to spend another dime on this room.
“We need something more substantial, modern.” She places an index finger on her lips.
“It’s classic, Babe, it seats six and we can squeeze in two more at the ends. Enough for our new neighbors.” I have her take one end of the table and we center it under the light. We look like we are about to start a ping pong match.
“Everyone’s knees will touch. People need elbow room.”
“It’s cozy, holds lots of memories for us.” I straighten the chairs. “This is where our son did homework in middle school.” I point to the imprints of writing marks in the wood. “This is the only piece of furniture we’ve had in every home. This is the table we had sex on trying to unsuccessfully conceive our second child.” Something our son doesn’t need to know about, nor the neighbors.
Despite my nostalgia, my pleas fall on deaf ears, and we shop for a larger table (at some overpriced furniture gallery I don’t want to name). I could build a table for a third of the cost. But I don’t say anything, not wanting to be at the receiving end of my wife’s decorative ire or make a scene in her retail sanctuary. This is the key to all good marriages, respecting one another enough to go shopping for something you don’t want or need, regardless of whether it’s overpriced or not. Besides, we had a quickie in the shower before we left.
I follow her from table to table. Her leopard print leggings and black knit cable sweater with a red purse in the crook of her arm has an allure that is difficult to explain post coitus. She runs her hand down one table, then another and I want to take her again. Her wedding ring catches the light, its diamond having been buried a billion years before adorning her beautiful brown hand. That ring was overpriced too, but now seems a bargain compared to a new table. Yet, I’d still prefer a vacation.
It’s not that the displayed tables weren’t beautiful, I tell her. They just don’t hold our family history in their grain: plates scraped across surfaces at Thanksgiving, endless rounds of Scrabble, fanned out 1040 tax forms. I rapped the table she pointed to, my knuckles tapping Morse code.
“Please stop that.” If you didn’t know my wife, you’d think she’s controlling, difficult to please—another stereotype of a black woman, who wants everything her way.
“I plan on kicking the legs like tires for good measure.”
She cuts her eyes at me, “Don’t irritate me right now,” then instantly smiles as the sales associate approaches, donning a face mask.
“Just to be safe,” she tells us. “I have an underlying condition.”
We take a quick step back, then apologize for our overreaction.
“No, you’re fine––six feet is recommended. This coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. Beautiful table… a forever piece.”
I take a seat on a showroom bench, and scroll through the Times, while my wife discusses finishes. It’s only money I think, we’d break in the new table soon enough, cut and sand in new memories. Every marriage has its chemistry. Mine is something I’d rather not dilute over a table. I can’t judge her for being herself and wanting what she wants. She has found her joy, her pleasure. I want to be part of that.
When she returns, she sits beside me, her brow furrows. “We should start wearing masks.”
“I’ve got N-95s in my toolbox, but they’re not ideal for making out.”
She pulls in her lips. “I loved how you joined me in the shower this morning. I felt dirty and cleansed at the same time.”
“You have to be careful with the avocado facial scrub.” I smiled. “When are they delivering?”
“I don’t want the table anymore.” The showroom light reveals the worry lines of her face. “We should keep our old one, hold on tight to our memories.”
“Get the new table, Babe. We’ll make new and better memories. I promise.”
“What if we get the virus, and one of us dies?”
“First it was divorce and now you’re obsessing over what the sales rep told you. We’re healthy, and you can’t stop living.”
“I didn’t think I would miss Karen and Chuck, but now I do. Why couldn’t they make it work? What if we’re next?”
“What are we talking about?”
“Are you still happy? I don’t ever want to say goodbye to us.”
“No one is saying goodbye. We just had sex.”
“But it takes more than that. I want us to be with and enjoy each other. This table is too perfect, it somehow separates us, and so does the chandelier.”
“Where is this coming from? I’m here. I love your designer vision. I can knock out a crystal or two, make the chandelier bank more. I’m not pulling it down.”
“Be serious for once.” She places a hand on my arm. “I don’t want to end up like our ex-neighbors and keep arguing over stupid things that in the end don’t matter. Remember, Karen, how she got tired of smelling her husband’s protein shakes, but loved how all the wives secretly admired his abs.”
“Is this a confession? What does this have to do with a table?”
“I want us to agree on things, not just concede and end up being bitter. I don’t want us to become tired and exhausted of one another. I want our memories to mean something. I want our knees to always touch.”
“You mean everything to me.” I place a hand on her knee. “And I love your sexy kneecaps.”
She pulls her leg away. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. Get the table.”
The sales rep approaches with her tablet and asks if we have decided. I tell her to give us a minute and look into my wife’s brown eyes: polished gemstones with haloed irises, the freckled pigmentation of her cornea creating an unknown universe, brimming with a distant light.
She squeezes them shut, then dabs her cheeks with her palms. There is no tissue on the sales counter, just a pump bottle of hand sanitizer. I offer her my sleeve.
“Is everything okay?” The sales rep asks, her mask muffling her concern.
“We need to measure our dining room again. It’s more of a dance floor, really.” I take my wife’s hand and leave the store. As we cross the parking lot, I pull her into me and press my lips on her head. I’m uncertain of what I should say, worried that I can’t give her what she needs.
I open the passenger door. “Let’s invite our new neighbors for dinner this weekend, okay? Make some new memories.”
I swing back to the driver’s side, and she leans across and fingers the handle. “Only if that’s what you still want,” I say. “No pressure.”
She stares across the half-empty parking lot and sniffles.
I open the glove compartment and hand her a stack of fast-food napkins, and she sets them on her lap.
I buckle up and start the car, wondering where we are going, trying to hold onto where we’ve been.
She blows her nose, then says, “Promise me not to talk about what happened to our old neighbors. I need to live in our future, not someone else’s past. I love you too much.”
“I promise you.”
She abruptly kisses me, and we breathe in each other until I get a honk from someone who notices my back up lights.
“No dancing in our dining room.” She wipes the corner of her mouth, contentment filling her chest. “I’m glad I have a husband who can hang a chandelier.”
As I pull out and head home, I wonder what we just avoided.
So much of love and marriage is unspoken, it lives in an unexpected touch, a concession. It’s a bond where nagging doubts can be erased by the taste of lip balm and spittle. We are sound, and true to each other. I will keep my promise and look forward to all our new neighbors being crammed around our dining table, knees touching, the chandelier’s mini rainbows washing over our dinner plates and licking our faces clean.