Sometimes the best thing for your sanity is to rip up filthy carpets and tear down shitty wallpaper. This week the husband and I are taking a staycation; it was originally supposed to be a genuine vacation—taking our moving-truck-turned-camper to the southwest to see some more national parks before they get sold to the highest bidder—but the truck is a bit wonky right now and our new house is a very old house that needs crazy amounts of renovation. As such, we stayed put and armed ourselves with pry bars, paint brushes, and caffeinated beverages.
I’m not disappointed. The camping trip would have been a lot of fun, of course, but I don’t know that I’m in the right frame of mind just yet to go back to appreciating the beauty of America. Our honeymoon trip in the summer had filled me with the requisite awe that comes from seeing just how astonishing the landscape of this country is. But my head has been a muddled, messy place for many days now, and when you’ve got a mess to clean up, turning your back on it to look at pretty scenery isn’t going to fix anything.
So far the reno seems to be going well, though it’s early days still and we’ve only just begun shoveling money into this pit. Already there have been a couple of unexpected expenses—the old furnace, for example, which dated back to when phones had rotary dials and TVs had rabbit ears, needed to be replaced. Luckily we discovered this back when the weather was still unseasonably warm, so midweek while the husband was at work I went out by myself to let the furnace guy in and do some cleaning. The furnace guy was a jovial man who looked like he probably played football in high school and still got together with his buddies once in a while to drink beer and reminisce. I showed him the old furnace and let him do his thing while I went upstairs to Windex the hell out of the windowpanes, which had so many layers of schmutz on them they might have become archaeological dig sites.
A couple of hours later I heard a vehicle pull up our long gravel driveway. I looked out and saw a pick-up truck with a broken chair in the back. The furnace guy must have called some salvage guys to haul away the old furnace. I watched from the upstairs window as two men got out of the truck, and then I jumped back from the window as if it had suddenly burst into flames.
Before I tell you why I reacted the way I did, I could remind you that I was alone in a very isolated location and in many ways I don’t much resemble the people who live around here. I could tell you what recent events have meant to me personally and hope you understood. I could rationalize and justify and defend for great long paragraphs, but the fact remains that when I saw the two men who came out of the truck, I was terrified. They came into the house, bantered briefly with the furnace guy, then got to work hauling out the old furnace. I stood perfectly still, willing them to leave quickly.
One of them was calling up the stairs to me. There were only about three things wrong with those three syllables (it’s Ms. not Mrs., it’s not pronounced “well,” and it’s not my name) but I sure as hell wasn’t going to point that out. I pasted a smile on my face and went skipping down the stairs as though my beau had come to take me to the county fair.
“I seen you got a lot of stuff outside.”
He was talking about the piles of junk the last owners had left out there, including six TV sets, which we were having a hell of time figuring out how to deal with properly. He handed me a business card. “I can haul that all away. Just give me a call, I can deal with it.”
I beamed delightedly as I took the card, as if he’d handed me a great gift. “Thank you! That would be terrific! We were trying to figure out what to do with all those TVs! Nobody will take them! It’s ridiculous!” As I prattled on I couldn’t help noticing that the man had exactly one tooth that I could see. Maybe he had some molars, I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to ask.
He nodded, encouraged by my enthusiasm. “Also I seen you been taking off the wallpaper. You know the best thing for that? They have these things, steamers, you can rent ‘em at U-Rent. Takes the paper off real quick. I did a whole room in just a couple hours.”
He explained how the steamer worked, and I listened with a rapt expression on my face. I know about steamers. I also know they aren’t necessarily the best way to get off wallpaper because they can damage the wall. I didn’t say anything, though, just nodded and looked fascinated. In the back of my mind I imagined describing this moment to friends, making good use of the term mansplaining.
The guy’s buddy appeared—he had on a faded T-shirt with something written on it that I glanced at and then didn’t glance at again because I pretty much didn’t want to know. “This is a big house. Looks small on the outside. Didn’t think it was going to be this big. Where’s the bird?”
The non sequitur threw me until I realized he must have seen the cage we’d set up for our macaws. I explained that they were still back at our old house, and that this would be their temporary cage until we built a much bigger space for them. He nodded. “What you got?”
“Macaws. Two of them.”
He nodded again, more vigorously. “Oh yeah I had two of them once. Blue and golds. How big’s the new cage gonna be—the whole room? That’d be good.”
Actually we were going to create pretty much a whole other house for them, but I didn’t feel the need to go into all that. After a bit more cheerful conversation we shook hands, I thanked them for their help, and they drove back out.
I still do not know quite what to make of this experience. I know what was going through my mind before, during, and after the encounter, and if I’m honest with myself I know that a lot of it did not reflect the politeness and civility I showed them. I saw them as two white guys in a dirty pick-up truck in the country. I am not sure it is a victory that I was able to treat them as though this didn’t matter to me when in fact it did matter. I am not sure of rather a lot of things right now, but luckily there’s a whole lot of wallpaper that needs stripping, and like I said, that kind of work may be just what I need: peeling away the surface layers, exposing what’s beneath, and hoping to make it better.