Stacy and Bart hadn’t seen each for six days. He was at a fitness camp in Burlington, Vermont. He said he needed a break from their house. Stacy hadn’t been a fair partner in cleaning—Bart felt like only he scooped the cat’s litter and dusted around the box. Only he administered the insecticide when needed. Only he inspected the oven for grease.
“That’s ridiculous,” Stacy said as he packed his allergy medications and searched for his extra contact lens cases. “I come home every night after 10 hours in the office and put dinner on the table and clean up while you sit on the toilet or spend time alone with Algernon, hoarding him to yourself—he hates me now,” Stacy said referring to their black and white tuxedo cat, Algernon. “I do so much I—“ she gasped then, making gulping sounds and started to cry. “I can’t take this anymore,” Bart said glaring at her. “The constant crises and hysteria.” It was then that he zipped up his two overnight bags and stomped out of the house. Stacy knew he would be back because they had an appointment the following Saturday with Dr. Hirschman, their couples counselor.
Bart couldn’t bear to miss a pre-scheduled appointment, and he was too compulsive to drop out of an-already-set course of treatment. He believed in “powering through” the misery to “complete the assignment.”
But he was uncharacteristically late, as it turned out. Focusing on the cactuses on Dr. Hirschman’s waiting room registration desk, Stacy folded her arms with her fingernails digging into the opposing arm. She smiled and hoped no one noticed the digging into her own flesh. Bart had texted her that he would be 15 minutes late, so she knew he would show up, but it was out of character for him to be late. When he arrived in his usual khaki pants, collared shirt and loafers (his style had changed little since she first met him at a fraternity party in college), he smiled like you would to a relative you don’t like but have to sit next to at a wedding. “Sorry, I wanted to stop at home and clean up. I was worried about Algernon’s litter box. He doesn’t like it when it isn’t scooped well, so I was worried he would try going in the tub again.” Stacy shook her head and rolled her eyes. “That’s just like you, not to trust that I could take care of Algernon,” she said. “That’s what I can’t deal with anymore.” Before they could continue the latest round of argument over who was the better maintainer of the house, Dr. Hirschman walked out to the waiting room to greet them. If you booked a weekday appointment, she was in what might be called “business casual”—slacks with blouse and low heels or maybe a comfortable looking dress with cute flats. But on Saturdays, Dr. Hirschman wore blue jeans and a t-shirt, her long highlighted brown hair hanging down the middle of her back like a sixties hippie. Stacy found her more credible in that attire, but Bart always winced when he first saw her. “Now, now,” Dr. Hirschman said laughing. “Save that for later. Our session hasn’t even officially started yet!” Bart and Stacy smiled socially and laughed as if they were only play fighting. “I guess we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Stacy said.
Walking behind Dr. Hirschman, watching her brown hair swinging side to side like a soft metronome and seeing the photos of cactuses, canyons and desert sunsets on the wall, Stacy shivered. She couldn’t figure out why the doctor loved the desert so much. “Dr. Hirschman what is it about the desert that makes you want to see it all day?” Dr. Hirschman laughed, and as they got settled in her office, posed the question back to her patient. “I guess to act like the stereotypical psychologist, I’ll turn that question around: Why do you think I like it so much? Or maybe more interesting to think about—why don’t you like it?”
Stacy wasn’t sure, but was too embarrassed to admit she didn’t know why. “Well, it’s just so empty, and it looks so hot, and I know it’s a dry heat which is better than a wet heat like we have here in Connecticut, and the canyons are so steep and, you know, kind of unmanageable, and—“ She knew she was rambling but couldn’t help herself. Bart, meanwhile, was sitting smugly back on the couch laughing, ready to expose her. “She doesn’t like it because there aren’t any benches or restaurants in the photos,” he said. “There’s nothing in the desert ready to serve her.”
Stacy began clearing her throat repetitively. “That’s not true! I don’t need to be served. Why would you say that about me?” She looked as though she might cry with her cheeks and eyes reddening. Bart meanwhile continued in his smugness, slouching even further back on the couch and snorting a laugh. “Well, let’s see…” he said in answer to her question.
“Alright, alright, let’s move on,” Dr. Hirschman said. She seemed to realize she was dangerously close to one of her two clients storming out of the room. “We’ll revisit that later.”
“The problem is he doesn’t believe I contribute to our home,” Stacy said. “Yet I contribute more than a quarter of our income. He obsesses over how regularly I scoop Algernon’s litter and whether I clean properly around the box.”
“True, but it’s more a lack of caring,” Bart said. “I don’t think you care about keeping things in the places we’ve decided they go.”
Dr. Hirshman perked up at that, waiting for an epiphany with the same expression a dog has when asked if he wants to go outside or wants a treat. The cocked head with widened eyes and a slight leaning forward. “You’ve decided things have certain places they have to go?” she said.
“Yeah, he’s got a designated spot for everything. You want to take your sneakers off when you get home, forget it—you’ve got to know where the sneaker box is first,” Stacy said laughing. You need scotch tape? You better put it back in the office supplies cubby. I needed a hanger the other day and it took me a half-hour to remember that he classified hangers as “laundry paraphernalia,” and so, put them in a crate hidden behind the door to our porch.”
Dr. Hirschman bit her lip and half-smiled. Stacy thought she caught the doctor trying to mask a giggle as a cough, which made her happy. If even the psychologist couldn’t keep a straight face about the way Bart acted, didn’t that prove something? “So, Dr. Hirschman, you see what I’m dealing with.”
The doctor looked around letting her eyes rest on each desert canyon or empty night vista full-mooned rimmed, smiling to herself and then looking back at her two clients. “I think you spend too much time arguing about the organization of stuff,” she said, “or, on the other hand, the disorganization of stuff. Or what stuff is missing altogether.”
Stacy’s victorious smile faded. She thought the doctor was becoming a woman-to-woman ally, but it seemed now that what she was about to propose would involve discomfort—perhaps the thing Stacy hated the most.
“How about a living room desert—a temporary one anyway?” Dr. Hirschman suggested. “Actually, it can be as temporary as you want it to be. You spend a week throwing or moving out everything the two of you decide together is not absolutely necessary, and then after at least two weeks of living without it, you decide whether you want to fill the house up again with the stuff that’s gone, replace it with new stuff or use the down-to-the-bare-essentials house as a chance to easily move out and move on—your separate ways.”
Stacy blinked repeatedly as if she had something in her eye, or had turned the bathroom light on in the middle of the night, and cringed. “That sounds awful!”
Bart, on the other hand, did his bark laugh and slapped his knee. “Sounds good to me. I’ve been asking her if we could do a garage sale for over a year. All that crap in the house. You can never dust all the way with all that stuff everywhere.”
Dr. Hirschman laughed. “That just says it all, doesn’t it? Why not compromise, and just try it for one week, including two weekends? You can start this Friday. The first weekend you empty as much out as possible, during the week you live in your homemade desert and then the second weekend you decide whether to move all or some of the stuff back in, forget about the missing stuff entirely, but continue to live with each other, or dispense with everything including the relationship. Of course, you also could retrieve the stuff, divide it up and then end the relationship. Like I said, the desert can be as temporary or permanent as you make it.”
Stacy took a few deep breaths, rolled her eyes and then stared at the floor. “But I like my stuff. I feel like Bart doesn’t like any stuff at all practically. He just likes sweeping things clean, so I don’t really feel like he’ll be suffering. I feel like I’ll be the only one suffering.” She wanted to add an emphatic, “I hate that!” and stomp her feet like she would have done if she and Bart were talking about this proposed plan alone, but didn’t want to appear childish in front of the doctor. “I mean, I don’t know how reasonable that is,” Stacy said laughing sociably to cut the tension.
“I’ll tell you what—give it a try and if you can’t do it, you can’t do it,” the doctor said.
Too embarrassed to protest any further—she hated the idea of Bart appearing the more evolved of the two of them—Stacy nodded in agreement. “Alright, we’ll give it a try.”
Walking out of Dr. Hirschman’s office, the scenes of desert played out, Stacy and Bart one behind the other rather than side by side. The rigid crests of dry sand, the redness of the sun crisp against flat land and the far-off oasis she thought she saw in a picture not nearly as vivid as the hard sand crusts at the borders. The hallway out was wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, and they weren’t yet at the point of separating, so why single-file?, Stacy wondered to herself watching Bart’s shoulders rock slightly from side to side heading toward the exit. His real walk was all balls of the feet with a slight bounce, but a lot of the time—especially in public—he tried for what he must have thought of as masculine by rocking side to side as if to the beat of a drum. Stacy always laughed to herself thinking that with Bart, it wouldn’t be an internal drum that his steps were keeping pace to, but something more like a tambourine.
The next morning light broke up the curtains’ pattern and the last of the picnic baskets had been divided up—the ones Stacy brought to the marriage and the ones Bart had tried to replace hers with. They met through a summertime picnic-goers club about 10 years ago, and so, they both had their ideas on how to spread a meal over an open lawn; they also each had beliefs on how to transport, and, to Stacy’s annoyance, pack up the meal afterwards. She liked to focus on the preparations and the feast whereas Bart focused on keeping the meal contained, how to limit infestations and how to pack up back into the basket. His baskets were compartmentalized; Stacy’s were large and decorative with handles of varying sizes. Bart’s handles were superior, designed for long-distance hauls. If their home was now a desert, they both agreed, they should each get to keep just one basket. They now had about five or six each.
“Don’t worry, I won’t touch your basket. We’re down to just these two now, so since it’s the only one you have left, you can keep it with no argument from me,” Bart said. Stacy forced herself to laugh.
“Oh, good, because if nothing else, I’d like to be left with my favorite picnic basket. At least you respect the integrity of that one basket,” she said. Bart huffed and snorted the way he did to connote irritation rather than humor and then moved onto to Stacy’s collection of flag dishtowels. “So, I guess we can’t get rid of any of these?” he said. “I suppose you wouldn’t want to throw out any part of a collection.”
Stacy laughed genuinely because she really thought it was funny he would ask. “No, one for every country I’ve visited, so throwing one out would be like throwing out a memory.” The only time she used the dishtowels was when they had company. She would drive Bart crazy asking his opinion, given the culture and politics of their guests, which flag dishtowels would be best. “Plus, you know I like to alternate them every few days so I don’t feel like I’m stuck—it helps to be reminded of all the places we could go.”
At that, Bart’s eyes wondered over to the window and the suitcases he had pulled out of the closet that morning for review. Which would go first? They were under the windowsill, with light catching the beaded up dust around their edges. “I wonder why we ever kept all of these?” he said without looking at Stacy. “You only needed your own since you know I don’t like to travel, but you just kept buying more. Look at this one,” he said picking up a brown leather suitcase monogrammed with his initials. “Where would I ever take this thing?”
Stacy laughed, and, getting up, ran her fingers along the monogrammed letters. “Great leather. I remember when I first ordered that for you how much I loved seeing your initials on the leather and how when you wouldn’t use it yourself, I would take it with me on my trips so I could be reminded of you. Now, of course, I don’t need any reminders.” She laughed again and patted Bart on the back.
“Don’t need reminding because you just love me so much you can’t stop thinking about me, right?” he said. Stacy smiled and winked playfully. “Yeah, sure,” she said.
Bart pulled one suitcase for himself and glared at Stephanie nodding his head toward the pile of empty bags. “It’s hard to get a feel for a suitcase when it’s empty; it’s like having to try to pick out an outfit in a store hanging on a hanger or just on a mannequin,” she said. “You can’t get a sense—“
“What are you talking about?” Bart snapped. “You’ve stuffed most of those suitcases full of crap enough times to know what they’re like. Pick one and let’s get this over with.”
Stacy ran her fingers again along the monogram and then let the back of her hand rest on a blue with pink polka dot suitcase she got for their honeymoon. “That’s one that won’t get lost at the baggage claim,” she said. “One of those other ones is liable to just keep circling because they look like any other.”
Stacy had begun making a pile of things she chose to keep while Bart had a large trash bag he was using to throw things away. Stacy kept piling items on top of each other and then all of a sudden remembered the suitcase itself was a container and began piling it all inside it. Meanwhile she brushed off the dust from the underside of her keeper pile when Bart wasn’t looking. He always laughed at her inability to care for her possessions. “I don’t mind if you want to throw away all the cleaning solutions, mops and all that stuff,” she said. “I mean I don’t mind leaving all that up to you. You don’t have to ask me if there’s any of it I’d like to keep.”
Bart laughed and ran his hand along the cords of wood under the window frame, looked around and rolled his eyes. “That makes sense.” During his trip to the fitness camp dust had collected, though none that Stacy could see. She always thought of that kind of dust as just residing in Bart’s eyes, as if the back of his eyes needed housekeeping more than the space they shared. Their home always seemed more or less the same. He always looked at her the same and said the same things when they saw each other at night after work. He was precise throwing his zipped-up iPad down in the corner he appointed for it, his cell phone on the island in the middle of the kitchen and then without looking at her (she sitting usually in the picture window seat daydreaming over a pack of cards playing solitare or painting with Crayola water colors): “So, what do you want tonight?” He just meant something along the lines of do you want meatloaf, turkey loaf, green bean casserole or fillet of sole.
“Obviously, you don’t get much use out of these,” he said, piling the mops, brooms, detergents and solutions into his trash bag. “I think I’d like to start fresh with all new cleaning stuff,” he said. “I don’t want to bring all this dust with me.” Stacy laughed as if she were trying to be sociable and inspected the room remaining in her boxes. She still had a way to go to get them filled. “Well, I always thought if we had ever had a child, we could have done a good overhauling cleaning,” she said. “We never had a kid, we hardly ever traveled anywhere together and we hardly ever had any friends over. You were always so obsessed over keeping everything a certain way—and we didn’t have anyone to make it look a certain way for—so I just figured who cares?”
Bart continued averting his face from her as he kept piling cleaning solutions into the trash. “We had ourselves,” he said. “You’d think you’d have some pride about it, just for your own sake, never mind mine.” He sniffed in a way that always reminded Stacy of a prudish minister or even a manly nun. Bart made a big show of having a certain stride when he walked, and with his fitness camps, but at the end of the day, he always seemed a little old ladyish to Stacy. Would a real man preoccupy himself with how clean the borders of the cat litter box were or whether too much dust had accumulated on the windowsill? Bart even once suggested they clean between the tiles of their bathroom with a toothbrush. “No, not really. I don’t care about it myself,” Stacy said. “I need motivation. Like when I thought we would have children. When we didn’t end up having any and you never wanted us to have anyone over, I figured who cares?”
The childlessness of their house never seemed to bother Bart. They had received hand-me-down strollers from friends when they prematurely told them they were planning to have children “in the next year or two,” and ended up shoving the several strollers in the back of a deep closet under the stairs. Stacy always held out hope even when they began trying to avoid each other. She thought maybe things would eventually warm up again between them and then maybe they’d finally have a baby before she got too old. Bart, on the other hand, quickly seemed to forget about the idea and immersed himself in fitness camps. He hated to travel but made an exception for the long weekends in the wilderness in which he climbed rocks and forged—well, not rivers—but shallow streams (or so it seemed to Stacy from the pictures she saw). It was the only borderline manly thing other than his false macho walking stride that Stacy ever knew him to do.
“That’s just a cop out. If it hadn’t been for the ‘childlessness’ and no entertaining it would have been something else,” Bart said. “You would have said it wasn’t sunny enough to clean or there was too much construction going on outside or the garbage man wasn’t picking up trash well enough to clean—after all, who can throw stuff out and sweep away dust and dirt without a good garbage man?”
Stacy smiled through grinding teeth and chortled her social laugh. “Ha-ha, well, I guess you’ve got me nailed down, don’t you?” But anyway, it’s all going now, so garbage man or not, you’ll finally get your chance to sweep every corner and every exposed cord of wood just the way you always wanted to.” She walked over to the deep closet where all the hand-me-down strollers were stored and began taking them out and lining them up side by side. “I think rather than choose which to get rid of, we should fill them all up and use them as a conveyance,” Stacy said. “Like for my lighter collection. Remember when I tried liking smoking?” She laughed and winked. Bart furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. “That was idiotic. I still don’t know why you did that,” he said. “You’re the only person I know who was lucky enough to fail at trying to like smoking.”
Stacy laughed again. “I don’t know—it looks cool, don’t you think? Hey, my grandma smoked at least five cigarettes a day and lived till she was 90.”
Bart shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I’m not even having this conversation. You’re just lucky it didn’t take. So, yeah, get rid of all the cigarette paraphernalia.”
The lighters were pretty and Stacy might have kept them if they weren’t following the doctor’s orders to strive for a desert that would be a clean slate to make decisions from. They were of all different colors and some even had pictures on them. One, which she got in France, had a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and another she got from a trendy bakery had a picture of a cupcake with hot pink icing. “But do you think it’s safe to throw lighters out in the trash? What if they ignite spontaneously and the garbage man catches on fire?”
“Occupational hazard, I guess,” Bart said. “Anything else for the strollers?” Stacy thought a minute, her eyes tracking around the room until she noticed a basket of scarves, some with stripes, others with solid color, some with spots. Some of them belonged to Stacy, some to Bart. “Let’s get rid of all those scarves,” she said. “Just toss them in with the lighters and then maybe we’ll add some of the college sports sweatshirts we ended up with and maybe finish the stroller load off with some expired toiletries.”
Stacy began retrieving the items and tossing them into the strollers as you would toss garbage into the trash because the strollers had become just that—mobile trash cans. “I guess these served a purpose after all,” she said laughing. “I knew I was holding onto them for something.”
Bart looked away from her and made a show of rummaging through one of his piles. “We could have adopted—I suggested it, remember?” he said. “You were just so stubborn—it had to be ours. Well, that’s what you get.”
“I don’t remember saying exactly that. I just wanted to make sure if we had a kid it would be one we’d feel connected to. I didn’t want to feel like we had a stranger here,” Stacy said.
Bart sighed and turned his back on her, stuffing the strollers with a hodgepodge of garbage. “How about the lions, elephants and the humpbacked whale under the bed?” he said. Stacy smiled and began dragging large black and white wildlife photos from under the bed. “I thought these would have been nice for the nursery,” she said. “I wanted to hang these animals alongside a map of the world so the kid would learn about nature and want to travel. I just didn’t want her to have that fear of travel like you.”
“Not afraid to travel,” Bart spit out. “Just don’t think it’s worth the money. You buy a TV, you can watch it for five years maybe; you take a week’s trip to Europe the money’s gone in a week.”
“Lucky Dr. Hirschman had us make a desert at home instead of having us travel to one. We have our own mobile desert—we can make it wherever we live,” Stacy said. “Pretty convenient, huh?” She lined the freeze-framed animals against the wall and watched as Bart sorted his cleaning equipment and added in a collection of baseball mitts to his mounting garbage.
The sun making a railroad track of light through the prism-patterned window curtains as it set, the living room, kitchen and bedroom were almost empty. The bed remained and the closet with a handful of each of their clothes and Stacy’s toiletries remained, along with a couch, coffee table and end table with a lamp, but the material that had accumulated between them over the years was gone.
Bart and Stacey were like two people who didn’t know each other but saw each other every day waiting at a bus stop. They would look at each other and attempt a pleasant expression and then look away into the distance as if they were looking for the bus that was scheduled to arrive shortly. Their eyes trailed in search from the emptied corners of the room to the garbage-wreaked strollers to the newly opened views from all of their windows. There was formerly always an obstruction like an art print waiting to get hung or a memento from one of Stacey’s trips on the windowsill.
On the last journey of her eyes, Stacey settled her attention on paint and brushes left on top of one of the strollers. She thought she would just throw them out since she never managed to get around to painting anything. Now with bare walls and the decision of what to take and what to leave, the thought occurred to her finally to create not on a canvas but across their shared living space.
“I’m afraid your canvases have long since made it to the dumpster,” Bart said chuckling. “Maybe when we—or you maybe—relocate you can find an art supply store to stock up again.”
Stacy laughed right back. “Well, actually, our desert is here so I can paint anything I want. All our photos, all the art we picked out for our place, is gone. The walls are back to the original now—just like they were when we first got here—and I can paint anything I want—jungles, beaches, cityscapes, gigantic splotches, anything—even yet another desert.”
Broad swipes at the center of the wall from the orange palette were following by royal blue at the upper edges of the wall and pinks were splotched here and there. “Desert colors,” Stacy said.
Bart laughed with a snort. “That’s just a mish-mosh of colors. That’s nothing.”
Stacy reached back into her palette and drew dark and gray colored “v’s” to look like scattered birds traveling. “Time to fly,” she said to herself. The colors merged so that it wasn’t clear where the desert skyline ended and where the sunset began. For a few minutes Bart didn’t say anything and then he tapped Stacy’s shoulder: “You know, I have some white paint down in the garage. I don’t mind cleaning this up after you’re done. I think the white I have is pretty thick, pretty opaque, should cover this up.”
Stacy didn’t hear him and seemed not to see him either brushing past him so that her shoulder butted against his as she strode across the floor to dip into another color and pick out another piece of wall to frame into an orange canyon’s shadow or the rising rim of a sunset (or was it a sunrise?). Bart meanwhile had brought the white can of paint back from the garage, opened it and stood poised with his brush. He looked at Stacy’s back swaying this way and that like an aerobic exercise as she covered the wall with her desert. He looked concerned and confused—eye brows knitted so the lines popped out of his forehead and a line appeared between his eyes. His cheeks were flushed. “Don’t worry about it, just relax, it’s OK. I can fix this, I can clean this up pretty easy, I think. It turns out I have that white paint I was talking about. I just got it up from the garage.”
Stacy twisted toward him briefly with his scrunched up face, muscles tight and his hand raised to administer his healing white paint balm. “Sure, it’s OK,” she said. “Why wouldn’t it be OK? What do you think of all these suns? I decided to bleed the color some. I decided there should be more than one sunset and sunrise maybe and a lot of things that could be canyons or mesas or maybe not or—why do you keep staring at me like that? I’m painting my desert. And there you are with your white paint brush all ready to—“
“Stacy, babe, really don’t worry about it’s OK, why don’t we go sit on the couch for a while and read a magazine or—“
“Can’t—I want to finish this desert scene. I’ve only tackled the first wall, and there are three others, three others with suns waiting to be bled all over the place.”
“Alright—whatever—well whenever you’re ready, I have the white paint.”