“Sea-bright, but not too blue,” Belinda said, stroking the wall as if it were a pony. “I want bright, but more on the green or turquoise side.” She swept back her wavy, bobbed dark hair, slightly frizzy on a humid day. I thought the best thing was just to humor her.
“Yeah, I think that sounds good. It’ll be like your wall is an ocean.” Belinda liked that and laughed: “That’s what I need—a wall that’s the ocean.”
I had known Belinda since we were in summer camp together as 6-year-olds. I was the mousy one with glasses, and a visor my mother forced me to wear, who was always red and peeling. Belinda, on the other hand, was always tanned golden with no obvious need for sun protection, and a compact, lithe body. Where I stumbled like a Saint Bernard puppy, she was nimble, like a little chipmunk. Now, she was contemplating a wall that resembled the sea, and I was thinking about how to get myself up the next morning to return to a job I hated, but needed. “Actually, you can do whatever you want,” I told her. The wall doesn’t have to just resemble the sea—it can be the sea—well, sort of.”
Belinda looked up from a catalog of paint colors she had just opened and looked up at me like I was dumb. “What are you talking about? The sea is nowhere around here.”
“But you’re building a huge pool right outside here,” I said, pointing to the contemplated sea beyond the still-white wall. “This whole wall could be glass, and—or—it could open with a switch on the wall or a remote control, so your living room could be the beach. You could even add sand if you wanted to.”
“Sounds messy,” Belinda said, inspecting herself in a seashell compact mirror she had picked up from the top of an oak bar. The living room, along with at least three other rooms in the house, had a fully stocked bar. Her husband was somewhat of an alcoholic. Not an alcoholic, Belinda liked to say, if being an alcoholic meant you couldn’t function. Brad could do anything you asked him to—even drive—after having numerous drinks. Our Friday night visits had become a ritual because of his habit of being passed out on the bed by the time she got home. End-of-week celebrations got out of hand, or were enjoyed, too fully. So, she was alone in the after-party and needed a friend to break up the silence (and snoring).
Somehow Brad had ended up successful, at least from a money perspective. He worked for some financial institution doing something I didn’t really understand, so I wouldn’t even try explaining—whatever it is you can do at financial institutions to become wealthy. I thought maybe he might be involved with that thing people call a “hedge fund,” but I wasn’t sure. One thing was certain, though: that he fell into clover. I mean he was lucky like a man on a sinking ship who accidentally falls into a life boat, or a man who gets knocked unconscious and is picked up by a Good Samaritan who decides to not just nurse him back to health, but to stuff a huge wad of bills in his pocket before sending him off. He just didn’t seem that bright or hard working to me. The only thing I’d give him is he was good with numbers and maps. But it seemed that you could know him for years, and he wouldn’t have any idea what any of the expressions on your face meant, or what you might like for your birthday.
“You can always turn one of the other rooms into your regular living room, and make this one your beach living room,” I suggested. Belinda liked that and started laughing, tapping the top of the bar with her sharp fingernails. I never knew if that was a nervous or happy gesture. “You have so many more rooms than you need, you might as well make one of them the beach,” I said. Belinda shrugged and began scavenging through a drawer in the bar, pulling out stray, unused birthday candles, a lighter, rubber bands, notepads, and one of her cat, Samuel’s, toy mice. “Are you planning to set the mouse on fire?” I asked.
She laughed. “No,” Belinda said. “I’m looking for a sheet I thought Brad stuck in here with price quotes from one of our contractors. I was going to try to figure out from it how much a living room beach would cost us.”
I couldn’t help but laugh because “us” was just too silly. Belinda had her “freelance” travel writing and photography (really just marketing writing on behalf of tourism bureaus around the world), but the livelihood of the household was entirely up to woozy Brad. “Don’t worry about it—I bet Brad wouldn’t care.”
Belinda nodded, but kept her head down, with her thick black eyebrows furrowed. “That’s not the point,” she muttered. “My psychologist says I need to become more accountable, so I’m trying to keep track of all this stuff.” Stuff was the word for it, I thought to myself. Belinda had left several shopping bags on the floor with today’s loot. She had purchased at least six sundresses and four pairs of sandals in preparation for the summer, along with a new kind of coffee pot that somehow was supposed to make your already-made coffee taste better, and three ceramic bowls said to be made by some sort of spiritual guru in Peru. “As long as I track everything, and it seems to have a purpose, I can buy it,” she said. “Like, tomorrow, I think I need curtains for the kitchen windows with lobsters printed on them to go with the sea theme, and I saw a clock somewhere with crab or lobster claws as the minute and hour hands. That kind of stuff.”
The gravel driveway rumbled and the wind chimes moaned—moaned that Brad was home. It was a Friday night, so he would probably go straight to the bedroom and collapse on top of the made bed, fully clothed, just shucking off his loafers. Belinda patted down her hair—or did she fluff it up? And straightened her puffy mini-skirt, which had the outline of cat heads on it. When she heard Brad’s key in the lock, she looked back at the wall she was hoping to knock down to create a sea at the edge of the living room that she could stumble into from the couch without opening any doors. It was “casual Friday,” so he had on a navy blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt and khaki pants with the usual loafers. He had driven home, but he was already drinking. His eyes were bloodshot—that was always the giveaway with him, more than behavior. “Babe!” he blurted, brushing past me and giving Belinda a kiss on the cheek. She laughed and then turned her face away knowing he was on his way, first to the bathroom, and then to the bedroom to go immediately to sleep for a few hours.
This time, though, he paused, pivoted and began thumbing through papers on the counter where Belinda had sketched out the contours of the living room seawall. “Looks like it’s coming together,” he mumbled, running his hand through his blond hair. He was 30, but his hair was still blond—he was one of those people who would have blond hair until it finally turned gray. His skin was tanned from helping his father lay down a roof at the family’s summer home. You could see why Belinda had been taken wit him—blond, tan, handsome, strong (the kind of natural muscles in the arms and stomach that don’t require time at the gym) and smart, at least where numbers and finance were concerned. “Yup, it all adds up,” he mumbled without looking up.
“What adds up?” Belinda said, shoving his shoulder lightly. “What’s there to add up?” He laughed, and taking out a joint from his pocket and sticking it in his mouth, hand fishing in the other pocket for his lighter, turned again and walked (mostly straight) to their bedroom.
“Well, at least he said ‘added up,’ and not ‘what the fuck is this?’” I said. Belinda stroked her head from scalp to hair tips and sighed. “Who cares?” she said. “The contractors will be here tomorrow morning to begin work.”
The smell of burned toast and marshmallows was strong enough that each of the three contractor workmen who came through the door the next morning asked about it. It was Belinda’s usual breakfast of slightly burned toast with Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter on top. Toasted wasn’t enough—it needed to be slightly blackened, she always liked to remind me. “Something burning?” one of them—the tallest of the three, with a comical, long mustache turned up at the ends and a baseball cap turned backwards, asked. The second one—equally tall, but with a potbelly and crew-cut blond hair snickered. “Breakfast go wrong?” he asked.
“The burning is intentional—that’s the way she likes it,” I said. He flinched and then made a sort of funny clucking sound with his tongue: “To each his own, as they say.” The third one was as small as a jockey, and had the kind of little hands and fingers I could imagine being very nimble with minute screws. He didn’t seem capable of heavy lifting, so maybe that’s what they used him for. “Somebody roasting marshmallows in here?” he asked.
“No, just Marshmallow Fluff,” I said.
“People still eat that stuff?” he asked.
“It’s her favorite thing,” I answered, pointing to Belinda, who wasn’t listening to us, but was instead sipping pulpy orange juice in the adjacent kitchen, and texting someone.
I couldn’t stand when Belinda divorced herself from her surroundings—especially when she was the conductor of the surroundings, the one everyone was there for, and everyone was ready to take orders from. I walked up to the back of the high stool she was slumped over on top of, face buried in her phone, and jiggled the back of the chair. “Hey! Belinda! These people are waiting to hear what you want them to do.” She looked up slowly and drowsily, like a person awakened by a flight attendant to be informed the plane is landing and she has to put her seat back in an upright position. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “That’s right, I forgot I haven’t given them directions yet.”
“See, what I want,” she said, facing our three contractors, who I had tapped on the shoulders to turn around, “is the sea inside. I mean what I want is a continuous flow from my living space into the pool,” she said. The three of them started laughing then, which I thought was risky since they were laughing at the person who was going to pay them. Belinda, though, didn’t let that stop her, and continued as if they were solemnly listening and nodding their heads. “See, the sea is something I’ve always really felt at home with—did you see my seashell collection when you walked through the living room? Well, I just thought that as long as we were going to have a pool, we may as well make the living room convertible into a beach. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s your house,” the tall contractor with the potbelly,” said. “Fair enough.”
“Well, what I was thinking is once you tear down the wall, you could replace it with a wall that’s entirely made of glass, and also retractable by pushing a button. Then, I want to try eventually maybe to expand the pool to as close to the wall as possible, so the pool would begin where the living room ends.”
The other two contractors were just nodding their heads and spacing out the way you do in a boring high school class. They weren’t interested in the thought process behind the construction; they just wanted to know which wall needed to be torn down.
“So, that’s the one we’re tearing down and putting in the glass for?” the potbellied one asked.
“That’s right,” Belinda said, “the retractable glass, that is.”
The contractor, and what seemed to be his two underlings, nodded then and turned away, and began measuring the walls and conferring with each other, while Belinda and I stayed silent. She was in one of her moods, where she acts all day like she’s just woken up. “I can’t find anything today,” she mumbled to herself. “Somebody should help,” she said under her breath, not wanting to address me directly or start a conversation.
“Something you need help with?” I asked, playing dumb. She sighed melodramatically: “I just want the Graham Crackers I bought yesterday. And the sewing kit and the elephant purse.” She wasn’t on any drugs that I knew of at the moment, in case you thought that sounded like a delirious person talking. That was just Belinda’s usual brain workings.
“Well, the Graham Crackers are in the cabinet, the sewing kit is in the top drawer in the kitchen, near the microwave, and the elephant purse is in your bedroom closet,” I said. She looked at me for just a second and then sighed again.
“It would be good if the things I need could just be here when I need them, don’t you think? It’s good not to have to go searching for things all the time. That’s one thing I hate—searching for things.”
“I thought the places where I put all those things were places you usually would put them yourself,” I said.
“Well, in the future, it would probably be better for you just to put all the stuff I ask you to buy right here on the counter, or on top of the bar in the living room,” she said.
The workmen had begun drilling something, and were shouting instructions at each other over the drill, so Belinda and I couldn’t talk much more. I just nodded and turned away. “How long do you think it will be before that wall comes down?” she said to me between drilling sessions. “How long?”
I didn’t know myself, though I guess I should have researched that when Belinda first start talking about this project. “I don’t know. I suppose you’ll have to talk to the contractor about that,” I said.
Belinda didn’t like that and started breathing heavily. “When I hired you, I thought you were going to keep track of things for me,” she said.
“Yes, but the thing is, I was staying late yesterday just as your friend, not as your employee—like I do every Friday night,” I pointed out. “You picked out all that stuff when we went to the grocery store after my official hours were over.” I was beginning to regret agreeing to work for Belinda, but I was between jobs and needed the money. I needed the salary she was paying me to continue paying my rent and buying food and toiletries. It wasn’t just one of those jobs you take to earn a little extra spending money; it was a job you take just to afford the necessities in life.
“I guess we have to be clear now that whenever I spend time with you—even as a friend—just hanging out—I’m still working for you,” I said.
Belinda didn’t argue. She just tapped her fingernails, painted the palest “ballet slipper” pink and nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good. I need your organization skills.”
I started keeping a running tab on my phone of everything Belinda purchased when she was with me—bags of Blow Pop lollipops, bags of marbles (she liked to roll them around her fingers to relax and meditate), multi-colored, multi-design gypsy-like skirts, inevitably with animals woven into the prints or hiding in the background—or maybe just a replacement jar of Marshmallow Fluff.
A lot of days I would be tapping into my phone the latest candy bar or skin anti-aging product she had just purchased, including what she purchased, where she purchased it (and whether she received a receipt) and where in the house she decided to store it, and Belinda would look at me like I was crazy. “What are you doing?” she would snap, and I’d have to remind her that I was doing what she asked me to do to “keep her organized.”
My favorite times were when I had the entertainment of Brad chipping in with the home renovations. He was handy, and liked to add his own flourishes where the contractors left off. One Saturday morning, for instance, while Belinda and I were still sipping our mimosas, he came down in his jeans with no shirt on—tan and with that natural musculature he had—and took out a drill of some sort and started working on what he said would become the frame for the retractable glass wall. “There! How’s that?” Brad said, turning off the drill and standing back to admire his work. That work so far consisted solely of what looked like a few bolts or joints for a door.
“Why couldn’t the contractor do those things?” I asked.
“I noticed something that needed to be done, so I thought I’d pitch in,” he said, smoothing back his wavy blond hair.
“But aren’t you worried you’ll mess up their work?” I asked.
“Well, it’s my house and I’m paying for them, so if I screw something up, I’ll just have to pay for them to fix it, so who cares?” I didn’t want to bother pointing out that he’d be hurting himself if he had to pay for them to re-do work. He must have known that himself, and just had so much money he didn’t need that he was almost looking for ways to blow it. Belinda put down her drink in the middle of our conversation, looking bored and went outside to inspect the lawn and some herb plants she had just put down seeds for.
“Must be weird working for your old friend,” Brad said out of the blue as he stood back to inspect his work and dust off his hands. “I mean it can’t be easy.”
“Easier than being married to her, I bet,” I said. I laughed big to offset the meanness of my comment, but he looked at me in an unfriendly and flat way in response. “I mean, you know, Belinda is a complex person,” I offered. He laughed and headed to the refrigerator in the living room bar for a beer. Popping it open, I thought I saw him roll his eyes. “Not that complex, but she makes things harder than they have to be—she likes projects.”
“I guess you could call turning your living room into a beach a project,” I said.
We both laughed, but also muffled ourselves because we knew how sensitive Belinda could be. She had come in from outside and was upstairs continuing her two-hour morning-get-ready routine, and she would want to know what we were laughing about—and then, of course, she would get suspicious, jealous and territorial—as if I wanted her emotionally dumb, alcoholic husband anyway. “I should get back to my Graham Cracker cataloging and shelving,” I said. “I think I heard the shower switch off, so Belinda will be down soon.”
Belinda had a few different Graham Crackers she liked—there was the original, and then there were variations, like one with cinnamon and another with chocolate. She decided that it would be a good idea for me to enter into an Excel spreadsheet everything she bought during the week, including where we put it in the house. Brad had finished “helping” the contractors, and was sitting quietly with his Wall Street Journal and beer, and I was concentrating over the Honey Graham Crackers when Belinda finally came down the stairs. Her hair was still slightly damp, and she was scrunching it and puffing it up in her hands to help her natural waves and curls take shape. She had on a pink, blue and green sundress with a geometric pattern and flat sandals with rubber soles but with silver snakeskin-print straps that came together with a zipper at the top of her foot. “Have all the Graham Crackers been accounted for?” she asked. She was smiling, but also tapping her fingernails impatiently on the counter.
“Well, it looks like everything’s in order,” I said. “The question is whether the honey ones should go next to the original kind, or whether the cinnamon ones should come after the honey. I thought it might be nice to have cinnamon in between the honey and the plain, or should the chocolate ones go between the honey and the plain?”
“You can use your discretion,” she said, walking over to her husband. She rubbed Brad’s back, but he seemed to contract slightly at her touch, even though he looked up and smiled and clicked his teeth the way you would say giddyap to a horse.
“How do you like the beginning of the end of our immovable living room wall?” she asked, nearly prancing and twirling in front of her husband. She stood back just far enough for him to admire her fashion acumen and beauty. “I just got this dress yesterday,” she said, shyly looking up and down, waiting for a compliment.
“How well do you think the wall will retract?” he asked. “Do you really think it’ll be as easy as you’re picturing?”
Belinda rolled her eyes and turned away, back toward the kitchen counter, where I had printed out an Excel spreadsheet detailing the Graham Cracker files. “Why wouldn’t it?” she snapped. “That’s what we’re paying them for—to create a wall onto the pool area that we can retract by pushing a button.”
Brad laughed. “Just because you’re paying for it, and that’s how you’ve asked it to be done, doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way. It may retract, but it may not be as easy or fast as you think.”
“Then we won’t pay for it,” she said. “We don’t have to pay for it until it’s just the way we want it.” Brad laughed again, but this time didn’t bother to respond. He just looked back down at his newspaper, and resumed studying it. He had taken out his phone, and was using the calculator on it to add something up. “You know, you can read the newspaper on your phone, too,” Belinda said to her husband who was still looking down and not responding. “We’re not that old that we need print newspapers delivered to the house.”
“In fact, I’ve been tearing them up for an art project while the contractors are here,” Belinda said. “I’m using them to line the floor and then wherever I see work boot prints at the end of the day, I’m using a permanent marker to outline them. Then, after this construction project is all done, I’m going to paint the insides of the work boot prints different colors, and create a big mosaic of the newspapers with the work boot prints on them.”
Belinda bent under the bar and pulled out two long sheets of taped together newspapers full of dusty boot prints framed by black ink. “See the progress I’m making,” she said. Brad looked at her and then looked up as if imploring God. But actually he was inspecting the ceiling.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to three circles looped together not unlike the Olympic rings.
“Well, that’s another of my ideas,” Belinda said. “I was thinking if we have the sea in our living room—once that wall is knocked down and a new one we can take away any time is created—we’ll then have that barrier overhead.
“Do you want to also create a retractable roof?” Brad asked.
“Well, maybe,” she said, “but not just yet. I was thinking first about painting a design on the ceiling, like my own version of the constellations—because it would be too hard for me to try to replicate the real constellations.”
I wondered if she had become a full-time bored person. Belinda had no real job, so maybe this was just a way to fill her time. Who expects an ocean and constellations in their living room? I always thought she had mental problems, but now it seemed as if I had confirmation. “Belinda,” I said, “where does this end? Are you going to ask for a retractable wall in the kitchen so your kitchen leads right into a stable full of horses—so you and the horses can eat together in the morning?”
“Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” she said. Brad had checked out of the conversation long ago and was inspecting his fingernails—holding them up to the light to see if he had gotten dirt or a splinter out from underneath while “helping” the contractors.
The thinnest of the contractors, whom we learned was Larry, arrived first that morning. Belinda had convinced Brad to pay extra to have them work on Saturdays, on top of the weekdays, because, she told him, her living room seascape couldn’t wait.
I had begun to think of the three contractors as dominoes because they looked like one of those pictures where you line up three people in descending order of height. If they stood in the right order, side-by-side, it looked like you could tap the biggest one and the other two in descending size would topple over. Brad had left already that morning, so he wasn’t there to explain his contribution to the project. It was an ongoing contribution, however, so Larry and the others knew when something seemed awry what must have happened. “Looks like our helper is back,” he said running his finger over the wood Brad had worked over.
“Sorry! He doesn’t listen to us,” I said. Belinda was at the bar fussing over her phone again, looking through her calendar, so I was acting as family spokesperson. “He’s not always in his right mind,” I added. “He’s really good at numbers and in putting things together on paper—like paper puzzles—so he thinks his talents will transfer to the three-dimensional world, but it usually doesn’t work out.”
Larry just laughed and went about his work, not caring much what we did—he seemed to think of us like ambient animals of some kind—like the way people eating a picnic think of the squirrels in the trees around them—harmless, kind of cute, and of no consequence in any way, good or bad.
“Do you think the Northern or Southern Hemisphere’s constellations should be on our ceiling in here?” Belinda asked me.
“Well,” I said, not needing to deliberate, “we’re in the northern hemisphere, so shouldn’t it, of course, be the Northern?”
Belinda looked at me without smiling. “Sure, if you want to be obvious about it. I was thinking I shouldn’t have to choose. In my living room, I’m bringing an ocean inside and I can have both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere’s skies overhead—it can be both,” she said.
Belinda was one of those people who asks questions mostly to have you confirm whatever she’s already decided. I always had a suspicion that’s the way she was, but when I went to work for her, I found out for sure. “Oh, yeah, that’s a good point,” I said.
I didn’t have anything to do like you would at a typical job where you have set responsibilities and regular tasks to complete. Instead it was like I was simply there to be on call—at the ready in case an emergency like an errand she didn’t feel like dealing with arose or she needed something in the house that she didn’t feel like looking for herself. Belinda always said her least favorite activity was looking for something. If it didn’t fall in her lap then it wasn’t worth having. “You know me, I hate challenges,” she would say with no shame. “Why does everyone have to pretend they love challenges so much?” was a frequent Belinda question. “Everything is a challenge to me. I find getting out of bed in the morning, and then peeling myself off the couch after my nap in the afternoon, a challenge. Why would I want to go looking for more challenges?” She was reiterating this tirade as I was trying to think of projects for myself. I couldn’t spend another day watching Belinda map out her Northern-Southern Hemisphere ceiling in between checking text messages on her phone.
I doubted the ceiling constellations would ever rise as long as it was a project that depended on Belinda’s own hand. However, if one of her ideas involved someone else doing and/or paying for it, it was much more likely. She was good at keeping other people on task. “You know, I was thinking,” she began saying to me, “as long as you’re here for so much of the day, maybe you’re the one who should be supervising their work.” She made a sweeping gesture toward the contractors as if she were sweeping her arm to indicate everything featured on a buffet table. “Yeah,” she said without waiting for me to respond, “I think that makes sense to me.”
“But it’s your ocean,” I said smiling. “How can I be the guide to the builders who are creating it? You’re the only one who knows what’s in your head—how you envision this living room sea.” That was the truth, and it also was my way of trying to get out of what I knew would be a lose-lose situation. It was inevitable that Belinda would be dissatisfied with the outcome of the project, so it was better that she be dissatisfied with herself and the builders, then have me to blame. “You can approximate it, anyway,” she said, “and so it doesn’t turn out perfectly, we’ll just rebuild it.” Belinda said it so flippantly you’d think she was talking about throwing away a pancake that didn’t turn out the exact way she wanted it. “Stop worrying!” she said, patting me on the leg, “It’s no big deal—really.”
So, Belinda stepped back, sometimes out nearly all day, running errands, taking walks, or just sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom upstairs staring into space while she listened to the Stone Temple Pilots. I was left sitting at a stool at the living room’s oak bar watching contractors work.
There was about three weeks when a heavy tarp went up, after the old wall had been knocked out and removed, when the contractors worked on the other side of it, and I was left facing a dark, thick, plastic shield. It was the intermediate step of allowing for the living room’s ocean, but in the meantime, it was much worse—there was no way to see in front of me. I spent all day glancing to the sides and behind me, where a few windows still remained. As I listened to music on my phone waiting out the removal of the tarp, I noticed that Brad was coming home earlier and earlier. He was becoming my companion waiting out the arrival of the living room ocean.
I thought maybe he had lost his job, but he kept a computer propped open on the edge of the bar, where he worked, and would take a call every now and then. “I don’t have to be any one place,” he told me. “As long as I get my work done, they don’t care. Actually, after this new wall is built, I may work some place different every day. Like I might go one whole day to that new miniature golf course, or go another day to a bowling alley,” he said.
I laughed imagining him—or anyone—trying to get work done at a miniature golf course or a bowling alley. “But you won’t be able to hear anyone if they call,” I said.
“I don’t have to hear anyone to get my work done,” he said in a serious way, seeming to want to earnestly inform me of the new way business is done.
“So much the better,” I said. “If you don’t hear what anyone is saying, they can’t distract you.” You couldn’t learn from them, either, but I could see what Brad was saying. I didn’t want to learn from anyone either a lot of the time. Sometimes laboring under the droning roll of a bowling ball—even when it was headed to the gutter—was preferable to the tedium of explanations and minute-detail reiteration. I definitely wanted nothing reiterated.
“Yep, that’s it,” he said, his voice trailing off under the contractors’ hammers and drills. The blinds before us, the hammers in our ears, it was so cozy. Neither of us bothered even making the smallest talk about Belinda. She was excused by both of us from the project. She set the living room ocean rolling, but its arrival wouldn’t be dependent on her. “What’s Belinda up to today?” he asked about his own wife.
“Well, she’s doing some new kind of exercise class today—something about dancing and kick boxing, and there may be ropes of some kind involved.” We both laughed, at first muffled. I felt bad laughing about my friend, and he must have felt the same way, only worse. I guess you’re probably not supposed to laugh about your wife behind her back. “Or is it the class with stationary bikes, that even though they’re ‘stationary,’ are called spinning?” I asked. We then doubled over and started laughing even harder. Belinda had made a whole life for herself of running errands and maintaining her figure and health. The things most people squeezed into a couple hours after work, or on the weekend, had been elongated to encompass her whole life. The only thing left was to turn her living room into a beach with an ocean at its edge.
Brad was nursing what looked like a white Russian, one of his favorite mid-afternoon drinks. He had a stirring stick in it, which he swiveled around absent-mindedly in between typing on his computer and staring into the tarp covering the window. “Care for one?” he asked, holding the glass up and shaking it, so the contents swished around.
“Well, I never know when Belinda will need me to double-check the Graham Crackers, or to go with her to the supermarket to lead her around and push the cart, so I better not,” I said. We both started laughing again.
“You’re sure you really want to be here?” he asked.
“Of course I don’t want to be here,” I said. “I just don’t have a lot of options. I’m applying for other stuff, but haven’t found anything yet. The two of you (you mostly) are paying me more than I’d make working at a store or as a waitress.”
“I wouldn’t want to work for my wife,” Brad said. “All her specifications for everything—she has an opinion about everything, and a particular way she has in mind.”
It was the standard formula for a bad boss, but also a bad spouse. I just kept my mouth shut about that out of loyalty to Belinda, and not wanting to get involved in their marital disputes. I hadn’t even noticed, but as we talked, I had been trading sips of the white Russian with Brad. He had been sliding it back and forth to me, and I had been taking little sips from his glass. “The thing is, Belinda is a very creative person,” I said. “She’s a little out there, but she has ideas a lot of other people don’t.”
The three workmen, their perfectly collapsible domino sizes aligned one after the other on the other side of the tarp, sounded far away even though they were just several feet from us. We both stared in a glazed way at their shadows moving up and down doing whatever it was they were doing to make Belinda’s ocean possible. “They’re nice ideas, but after a while you get tired of having to get up and go to work every day while she’s worrying about living room oceans and drawing constellations on the ceiling. It gets old,” Brad said.
“I guess that’s part of her charm,” I said. “Belinda doesn’t have to have practical concerns—especially with you here now. Not that she was too practical before she met you, but now she feels she has carte blanche to be the eccentric grande dame she always wanted to be.” Brad laughed at the expression “grande dame,” but I think he knew what I meant. She was role-playing “whimsical lady of the house.”
Neither of us laughed because, actually, that wasn’t sarcasm—she really was very charming. We had advanced to a rum and Coke, or I should say Brad advanced and I accompanied. He kept sliding the glass to me and I kept taking timid little sips. The men working on the other side of the tarp were hammering and screwing something beyond our vision into what would become the frame to the retractable door. From where we sat sipping our cocktail, it looked like one of the men was about to land a blow onto the other’s head every time the hammer was drawn back—the trick the shadows played on us. When the workmen carried a cooler between them at lunch, we laughed that their shadows made it look like they were carrying a coffin. Other times they appeared taller or fatter than they really were—it must have all depended on the angle of the sun, but neither of us could figure it out. “It’s like our own puppet show,” I said, sipping at the rim of a Tom Collins.
“But who are the puppets? The shadows or the men? Do you think they can see our shadows in here? Maybe we’re the real show,” Brad said.
About a week later, the tarp was removed, and a seamless living room-to-pool “ocean” was emerging. Belinda fluttered around whenever guests were over pointing to “her creation.” Giving a visitor the grand tour, she would gesture with her arm in a flourish toward the pool. “See,” she would say, standing at the newly retractable door, “it’s already almost boundary-less, but once this whole thing is done, it’ll be just like we’re at the beach—the pool will come right up to the edge of the door—and there won’t be any door there—unless we want there to be.” Here friends would usually nod their heads and smile, or laugh with her good-naturedly, and a few now and then would grumble about building inspection codes and other legalese she didn’t care about. “Oh, who cares? I’m sure nobody who can take anything from me will notice a thing,” Belinda would say.
The living room walls were now the sea-foam green color Belinda had been vigorously testing paint samples against for weeks to find just the perfect shade. “I almost wonder if I should move some palm trees in here,” she said.
“I think you should be true to your region—be authentic—and just leave the palm trees out,” I said. I partly believed that would be the more tasteful choice, but I also didn’t want to make work for myself, knowing I would be the one, as her trusty personal assistant, who would be sent to search for the “perfect palm tree.”
There was a bed of sunflowers outside, near the pool, that was entering the first stages of the wilting process. Belinda was standing in front of them wrinkling her nose in disgust. And then she suddenly brightened. “I have another of my fantastic ideas,” she shouted back to me in the living room. “I’m going to take my old compact mirrors, remove them from the cases they’re in, and stick them to the center of the sunflowers. They won’t just be drying out and wilting then. They’ll be one of my new art projects. The flowers will reflect me back to myself,” she said.
“Or, whoever happens to be standing in front of them,” I pointed out. Something seemed cruel to me about dirtying up dying flowers by affixing little mirrors to their stamens. “I really don’t see flowers—real flowers—as objects to turn into art projects,” I said. “They’re part of the natural world, not art.”
Belinda looked up like she was considering what I was saying. “Well, actually, I think I know a way to make this even better—some of the flowers can have magnifying mirrors—you know how compacts usually come with one mirror that’s magnified and one that’s not? And so people will get all different views of themselves when walking around the perimeter of my ocean,” she said.
“But I don’t know that anyone needs that many views of themselves,” I said.
It was too late, she had run back into the house, and up the stairs to get her old compacts and was studying the different ways she could pull them apart and remove the mirrors. Brad had returned from wherever it was he disappeared to now that he was almost entirely working from home. “Any idea where Belinda is?” he asked.
“Oh, she’s just upstairs pulling apart old compact mirrors because she wants to stick them to the stamens of the dying sunflowers outside.”
“What?” Brad asked. He was nice looking, but not nice looking in a just-home-from-the-office way. More nice looking in an I’m-on-vacation kind of way, or the way you would look as a retiree just home from the golf course. He had on a pair of khaki shorts and a Polo top and flip flops. His phone was in one hand, but a beer was in his other.
“Given up on going to the office?” I said.
“What did you say she was doing?” Brad asked, disregarding my question.
“Oh, never mind, she’s just bored and finding ways to entertain herself again. She probably should just get a job, but I guess that would be too far fetched,” I said. Brad smiled, nodded and raised his beer can as if to say “cheers” to his spoiled wife.
It was sad that our tarp was gone, and the project almost complete, the pool nearly up to the door to the living room, and nothing escaping or delineating the view from outdoors to indoors. It was sad the way we could see straight through now. There was less to talk and guess about. There were no additional divisions for Belinda to break down, so she was left looking for places to create where she could see herself more often—even if just for a few weeks, embedded in the faces of dying flowers. “How do you like your own personal ocean?” I asked Brad.
“Well, it makes it easier to drown now,” he said, only partially laughing—and partially stifling a belch. “I mean, think about it, there I am—the way—you know me, and then, the doors being open, I just wander in my bathrobe right into the pool.” We both started laughing then, but, truly, I also could envision an easy drowning.
Belinda was on her way through what used to be the sliding glass doors, but now was just an open threshold. She had at least five compact mirrors, separated from their cases, in hand. “Sunflowers, prepare to show me off!” she said, twirling around the parameter of the pool, where five foot tall late August sunflowers, heads beginning to wilt, nodded in the breeze. Her dark hair was pulled back into one of her bouncy pony tails—exactly the same as when we were 6-year-olds—and she took out of her pocket a stick of Krazy Glue. “Don’t tell me you’re going to glue the mirror onto those poor flowers,” I said.
“Well,” said Belinda, “you can Krazy Glue anything to anything.”
Brad and I turned our back to her, and, just as we had watched the shadows of the contractors working behind the tarp for hours a few weeks earlier, so now we watched our own shadows skimming over the surface of the pool. It was getting dark outside, and the lights outside the house were positioned just perfectly to create a shadow show of ourselves.
He handed his beer to me to sip from, again just like he was giving it to a child to taste, and then after each sip, both of us would revert back to the pool’s surface, watching our elongated shadows. “It’s strange that now that the ocean is done Belinda is onto the garden,” I said. “There’s not even anyone in the pool.”
Brad thought it over, gulping down his beer. “Except those cool shadows—they’re like swimmers, kind of.”
Belinda, who had affixed the first mirror to the first billowing, dying sunflower, perked up at that. “It’ll be full, you’ll see. I’m just trying to figure out what parties I want to throw for it—the first party of my first living room ocean.”
I rolled my eyes in her direction, realizing that I would be the lead helper in any of these parties she threw, and Brad laughed, and, I thought, also grimaced. “When are these parties going to be?” he asked, keeping his eyes all the while on our swimming shadows.
“Well, it all depends on how much help I have,” she said, looking at us as if we had stolen something from her, or were about to.
“Your show, baby,” Brad said. I wished I could go say the same, but working as her assistant, all I could do was nod.
“Sure, whatever you need,” I said.
The problem was there didn’t seem to be anything to celebrate. Belinda had created her own ocean, but did the end of a construction project in itself call for a celebration, or was it just to brag about the whole thing? It seemed like she was conflating bragging and “celebrating.”
“Did you ever wonder if you could catch your shadow?” Brad asked, ignoring the party planning.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Belinda snapped.
“You mean this time of day, when the shadows get elongated, trying to jump on top of them—like jumping into the pool to meld with your shadow?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said, laughing.
Belinda was standing back a few inches from a sunflower, head hanging, Belinda’s own head, pert, checking herself out in the flower’s newly mirrored center. “Hey, it works!” she said. “I see myself. I knew I’d get something out of these flowers before they died.”
The shadows in the pool—our own—looked more appealing the more Belinda squatted down, angling herself in front of the mirrored sunflowers. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was Brad who went first, just a loosening of the collar, and then the shirt was off, and then the pants, and then the boxer shorts, and before I knew it, I was following along, fixating on the scar on his tanned upper left arm for some reason. I didn’t even think about whether I should undress and follow—I just did, like I was a duckling following a mother duck into a pond.
We stayed apart in the water, and even though we had caught up to our elongated shadows, we could still see our upper bodies reflected in the pool’s surface. We laughed and splashed at it, as if we were babies who had never seen our shadows before, or animals standing in front of a mirror.
“Well, why did you do that?” Belinda whined. She seemed kind of freaked out, and took steps back from the pool, like a person would step back to see a painting in its entirety. “It’s awful!” she nearly shrieked, once she saw we were naked.
I thought she might join us for, if no other reason, than not to be left out—especially with her own husband involved—but instead she sat cross-legged at the opened boundary between the living room and the “ocean.” As we swam back and forth, the water, which used to lie a comfortable distance from the house, lapped at her knees. She was wearing a sundress, so I suppose she didn’t care if her legs got wet. She just sighed, and looked down at her thumbs. It looked like she was inspecting her thumbs for hangnails. She looked up occasionally at the living room’s ceiling. “My constellation never got done,” she said as if listing end-of-life regrets. “I got the paints for it, but never even opened them.”
She stood up then and backed up, so that she was up to her knees in the water, and used her hands to make a frame, like she was holding up a camera, and pointed the imaginary camera up toward the living room ceiling. “Well, I don’t think it would be too hard to complete, and then maybe we could build an overhang over the pool that would be lit with LED lights and have a constellation design that would show, so it would look like you were right under the stars,” Belinda said.
Brad and I were swimming back and forth still, and around each other, similar, I thought, to a two-member herd of whales or dolphins. I was just coming up for air when I heard this latest idea. “But we ARE under the stars,” I said.
“Under the stars, but most of the time, you can’t see them,” she said. “Too much light around here, and the weather’s a lot of times too cloudy.”
“I would just turn off the outdoor lights, and just leave the pool light on, if you want to see stars,” I said.
Belinda backed into the living room, her newfound shoreline, and walked to a panel of switches on the wall near the bar. She paused to take a sip of her Chardonnay, swishing it around her mouth for a second or two, seeming to think about something. She then switched off the lights outside, and for at least a few minutes, Brad and I were submerged up to our necks in total darkness since Belinda had forgotten to turn on the lights inside the pool. We could hear her humming to herself and tapping her fingernails on the bar, and the clink of her wine glass as she set it down. It was disorienting floating in the dark, but neither us bothered to move to the shallow end. After a long time, we saw the flicker of a light—she was flicking a cigarette lighter on and off.
Brad and I were making ever tighter concentric circles around each other, and eventually Belinda’s lighter stopped flicking on and off. I knew she knew where the pool light was, so I wondered why she didn’t just turn it on. I guessed she found it funny thinking of us swimming around in the pitch dark, stuck, with no way to see where the edge was. The concentric circles became sloppy, and Brad and I started bumping into each other and rubbing an arm here or there. It wasn’t intentional—definitely not on my part anyway—it’s just that we couldn’t see a thing, including where one another was moving. Were we moving away from each other at any moment, or drawing close enough to graze?
“Is there a reason you’re leaving us in the dark?” I shouted out to Belinda. She had gone a step further and also shut off the lights inside the house, so now there truly was no light to navigate by. “Not especially,” she said. “I just thought it would be nice to have darkness at the same time both outside and in, now that I’ve taken out that wall—or made it retractable anyway. Now the lighting conditions can match—can be seamless—dark out and dark in.”
Brad and I began holding onto each other so as to keep steady and afloat. We would make our way to the edge of the pool—or what felt like the edge anyway—and then retreat back into the center, laughing. You’d think Belinda would get uneasy about her husband and her good friend/personal assistant clinging together naked in the pool, but she gave no indication she cared either way. We could hear her humming and picking up and putting down her wine glass. “Ho-hum, what a night,” she sighed. “There’s just not a good enough star show out tonight. That’s why I want to build a decorative overhang for the pool, so I’ll know there’ll always be stars whenever I want to see them.”
We heard Belinda get up—she must have been sitting on the floor—and put her wine glass down on the bar top. And then switch the lights back on. Brad and I began pulling away, and then drew close again regardless of the light. I was resting my head, cocked sideways, on one of his shoulders. Belinda had taken out a large piece of construction paper, and laid down by the side of the pool. She had the kind of colored pencils artists use to make rudimentary sketches in hand. Those pencils always reminded me of adult crayons. She looked up at the sky, which with the lights she just turned on, was washed out, and then looked down at her paper.
She began drawing what must have been her ongoing constellation—the same one she originally envisioned, just for the living room, now would be extended into an overhang above the pool, with lights inside, guaranteeing her “seamless stars” whenever she wanted. “The question is which colors do I chose to make it flow as undivided as possible from the inside to the outside,” Belinda said.
Brad and I hung onto each other and twirled in little circles around the pool. The great thing now was how we could cling together in our swirling state from garden back to where we came from. The living room remained open for us permanently—while the door remained retracted.