“Don’t you give me no rotten tomato,” Dexter sang, “just ’cause to your crazy shit I cannot relate-o.”
Silence. Ted plucked out another chord, then tightened a string.
“Needs work,” Lucas said. “But I think we’re getting somewhere.”
“Can you all just please shut up,” John Miller moaned from the couch, his voice muffled. “I’m trying to sleep. ”
“It’s two in the afternoon, and this is the kitchen,” Ted told him. “Go someplace else or quit bitching.”
“Boys, boys,” Dexter said.
Ted sighed. “People, we need to focus on this. I want ‘The Potato Opus’ to be ready for that show next week.”
“‘The Potato Opus’?” Lucas said. “Is that what it’s called now?”
“Can you think of something better?”
Lucas was quiet for a second. “Nope,” he said finally. “Sure can’t.”
“Then shut the hell up.” Ted picked up the guitar. “From the top, first verse, with feeling.”
And so it went. Another day at the yellow house, where I’d been spending a fair amount of my free time lately. Not that I liked the setting, particularly; the place was a total dump, mostly because four guys lived there and none of them had ever been introduced formally to a bottle of Lysol. There was rotting food in the fridge, something black and mildewy growing on the shower tiles, and some sort of unidentifiable rank smell coming from beneath the back deck. Only Dexter’s room was decent, and that was because I had my limits. When I found a pair of dirty underwear under a couch cushion, or had to fight the fruit flies in the kitchen that were always swarming the garbage can, I at least could take comfort in the fact that his bed was made, his CDs stacked alphabetically, and the plug-in air freshener was working its pink, rose-shaped little heart out. All of this work on my part was a small price to pay, I figured, for my sanity.
Which, in truth, had been sorely tested lately, ever since my mother had returned from her honeymoon and set up her new marriage under our shared roof. All through the spring we’d had workmen passing through, hauling drywall and windows and tracking sawdust across the floors. They’d knocked out the wall of the old den, extending it into the backyard, and added a new master suite, complete with a new bathroom featuring a sunken tub and side-by-side sinks separated by blocks of colored glass. Crossing over the threshold into what Chris and I had named “the new wing” was like entering an entirely different house, which was pretty much my mother’s intention. It was her matched set, with a new bedroom, a new husband, and new carpet. Her life was perfect. But as was often the case, the rest of us were still adjusting.
One problem was Don’s stuff. Being a lifelong bachelor, he had certain objects that he’d grown attached to, very little of which fit my mother’s decorating scheme for the new wing. The only thing that even remotely reflected Don’s taste in their bedroom, in fact, was a large Moroccan tapestry depicting various biblical tableaus. It was enormous and took up most of a wall, but it did match the carpet almost perfectly, and therefore constituted a compromise of taste that my mother could live with. The remainder of his belongings were exiled to the rest of the house, which meant that Chris and I had to adjust to living with Don’s decor.
The first piece I noticed, a couple of days after their return, was a framed print by some Renaissance painter of a hugely buxom woman posing in a garden. Her fingers were big, pudgy, and white, and she was stretched across a couch, buck naked. She had huge breasts, which were hanging down off the couch, and she was eating grapes, a fistful in one hand, another about to drop into her mouth. It might have been art-a flexible term, in my opinion-but it was disgusting. Especially hanging on the wall over our kitchen table, where I had no choice but to look at it while I ate breakfast.
“Man,” Chris said to me the first morning it was there, about two days after Don had moved in. He was eating cereal, already dressed in his Jiffy Lube uniform. “How much you think a woman like that weighed?”
I took a bite of my muffin, trying to concentrate on the newspaper in front of me. “I have no idea,” I said.
“At least two-fifty,” Chris decided, slurping down another spoonful. “Those breasts alone have to be five pounds. Maybe even seven.”
“Do we have to talk about this?”
“How can you not?” he said. “God. It’s right there. It’s like trying to ignore the sun or something.”
And it wasn’t just the picture. It was the modern art statue that now stood in the foyer that looked, frankly, like a big penis. (Was there a theme here? I’d never pegged Don for that type, but now I was starting to wonder.) Add to that the fancy set of Cal phalon pots that now hung over our kitchen island and the red leather sofa in the living room, which just screamed Single Man on the Make to me, and it was no wonder I was feeling a little out of place. But then again, this house wasn’t really mine to claim anymore. Don was now permanent-supposedly-while I was of temporary status, gone come fall. For once, I was the one with an expiration date, and I was finding I didn’t like it much.
Which explained, in some ways, why I was over at Dexter’s so much. But there was another reason, one I wasn’t so quick to admit. Even to myself.
For as long as I’d been dating, I’d had a mental flow chart, a schedule, of how things usually went. Relationships always started with that heady, swoonish period, where the other person is like some new invention that suddenly solves all life’s worst problems, like losing socks in the dryer or toasting bagels without burning the edges. At this phase, which usually lasts about six weeks max, the other person is perfect. But at six weeks and two days, the cracks begin to show; not real structural damage yet, but little things that niggle and nag. Like the way they always assume you’ll pay for your own movie, just because you did once, or how they use the dashboard of their car as an imaginary keyboard at long stoplights. Once, you might have thought this was cute, or endearing. Now, it annoys you, but not enough to change anything. Come week eight, though, the strain is starting to show. This person is, in fact, human, and here’s where most relationships splinter and die. Because either you can stick around and deal with these problems, or ease out gracefully, knowing that at some point in the not-too-distant future, there will emerge another perfect person, who will fix everything, at least for six weeks.