SOME BRIEF THOUGHTS ON SELF-IMPROVEMENT
My wife fingered the remaining chocolate syrup from her bowl to her mouth and announced she was going to bed. I’ll admit The Tonight Show monologue that night wasn’t going to change her mind. It was all obvious punchlines about the president’s Asia trip, with some cheap shots at the end for the congressman with the Honduran mistress maid, and the reality TV star with the unflattering DUI mugshot. I feared this was becoming the norm. I followed my wife upstairs, hoping we might discuss this unsettling trend, or get in something cursory between the two of us, but she fell asleep in a way that suggested a medical condition.
Our doctor had recommended we remove the television from the bedroom, claiming it was best for both of us, studies had shown, etc. We gave it to a woman at my work who said she needed one in front of her treadmill. It wasn’t going to win us any humanitarian awards, but I was still trying to scrounge up some goodwill at the office. It hadn’t worked, and I’d been left with the increasing inability to fall asleep. Forty-three minutes, an hour seventeen, an hour fifty-one, two hours and three. Our doctor recommended warm milk and counting sheep to ease what he casually referred to as “an adjustment period.” So, I drank glasses of warm whole milk, then skim, soy, half-and-half. I mixed them together and drank that. And I counted. I tallied the barnyard, then the parking meters along Sycamore Street, the counties in the tri-state area, the bricks on the First National Bank’s facade. No luck. I lay in the dark, staring at the steady shape the streetlamp cast across the ceiling.
Dino pushed into our room like an invading army. His collar clanged like armor. His tail flogged the framed pictures of vacation beaches and the home store Buddhas that helped my wife with her yoga. I hissed at him to lay down, closed my eyes, and counted the thumps his tail made on the carpet. The number was nearing one hundred fifty, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to shoo him away, but the blankets pinned me to the mattress. My wife layered and tucked the sheets and covers, trying to recreate the feel of a luxurious hotel bed, and it closed around us like a finger trap. I rolled my body to create separation, and kicked at the blankets. As their grip loosened, I dealt a harder blow, and heard my toenail tear a gash in the top sheet.
Dino shot up and stared at me from beside the bed with his ears back in defense from the sound. I turned to my wife. She was still asleep in the same dead pose. I listened to her breath, counting the seconds between inhale and exhale, waiting for it to quicken or for some other sign she’d noticed, but nothing changed. Dino walked three cautious circles at the foot of the bed and laid back down. His tail began thumping again. I pulled myself from the finger trap and slunk towards the bathroom. I had known for a while about my toenails. They’d been burrowing weird shapes in my socks, and making certain shoes uncomfortable, but they hadn’t done damage. Now, I was disgusted with my lack of stewardship.
I sat on the edge of the tub counting the floor tiles, and remembered gently kidding my wife for the time she spent in here, but no one was laughing now. For five minutes of time, I’d have to explain a ruined set of sheets. Of course, it would have been five minutes if I hadn’t let things become so far gone. It took five minutes just to snake my fingers through to where the clippers resided, deep inside the vanity drawer long ago claimed by my wife, and overcrowded with fiendishly-shaped grooming devices that seemed to threaten harm. And then I had to slowly chip away at the proof of my negligence. The big toes offered the toughest opposition, but the clippers and I prevailed, even if it was only a short-lived victory.
The results were poor. My nails were too angular and jagged, still too much like blades—though now they were serrated. I went to the drawer again, and found my wife’s nail file. Its sides were bifurcated, split between increasingly finer grits and labeled accordingly, which facilitated the institution of an assembly line on my toes. Then, once they were smooth and glossy, my fingernails looked outrageous by comparison. It took another half hour of work until I could approve of my hands. I returned to bed and fell asleep instantly.
A feeling of accomplishment pervaded the next day until The Tonight Show monologue, when looking at my nails no longer did anything for me. In bed, the minutes ticked by again. I tried counting them, but this only made it worse. My satisfaction turned to discomfort, and then became a nag, which manifested itself as an itch that radiated from my groin out over my entire body. I tried to scratch, but my nails were too short to alleviate it.
Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, I witnessed the severity of the problem. Here I was, peacocking around about an overdue nail trim, when the rest of my corporeal chunk lurched like a Sasquatch. I was a thin veneer, shamefully pretending to be civilized.
Waxing began with my shoulders, then proceeded to my back. A makeshift combination of vise-grips, a spatula, and a golf ball retriever allowed me to access the more remote areas. My chest and thighs were easier, requiring only a protractor and a ruler. The groin was last, and as anticipated: not pleasant, precarious, but necessary.
The next morning, I took a post-shower victory lap around the bedroom. I paused in the middle of the room and posed, as though sculpting myself into marble for my wife to behold. The water droplets slid unhindered from my body.
“Since when don’t we use towels?” she asked.
She threw one at me from the pile of laundry she was folding unevenly.
The post office delivered my last check from the bottling company. Just the check, no additional remarks included. I spent the afternoon practicing my signature, not wanting to squander a final opportunity to show H.B. Davenport & Co. what they were losing; but my pen didn’t wet the page properly to give my letters the boldness they required. I searched the house, but we only had one cheap box of the same cheap pens. I left the check on the kitchen counter, took a couple naps, and trimmed my goatee until my wife came home.
She set the groceries and junk mail on top of the check and didn’t mention it. She barely mentioned anything the whole evening, and then said she was going to bed. The monologue dry spell was beginning to sour her mood, I could tell.
After she’d gone upstairs, I sat on the couch stroking my face. Dino pawed at my leg, apparently concerned I hadn’t also gone to bed. I’d shoo him away, he’d come back. He was picking up on the restlessness surrounding him. I walked him around the house, hoping it would tire him out. It didn’t, so I got his leash and took him around the neighborhood.
After midnight, our street was as quiet as could be. The pulsing of the day—husbands and wives back and forth to work, children canvassing lawns for adventures, contractors’ saws and hammers, pneumatics and rotating electrics, cars, delivery trucks, front doors, garage doors, voices carrying through open windows and across backyards—retreated without any sign of ever having existed. The houses were silent, just spreading placid pools of light from front porches and central hall chandeliers. I walked Dino through the silence, remorseful for the jangle of his collar, hoping we could somehow capture the smallest fraction of the austerity the other houses seemed to have in abundance.
We returned home, and I wandered room to room. I couldn’t find tranquility across our threshold, only turmoil. A strange, almost sixty-cycle hum radiated through the house. I unplugged the television and cable box, the microwave and coffee pot, and turned off everything except the front porch light. It felt worse in the dark. The chaos, imperceptible during the day, cloaked by the commotion outside, now threatened to vibrate the house apart. I had to root it out before it tore us to shreds.
I dealt with the drawers in the bathroom first. Dull scissors, baffling implements, half-used duplicates of deodorants and perfumes. They were all discarded without second thought. What remained was cleaned, consolidated, and organized. I applied labels to the drawer fronts to prevent a return to this state. The kitchen received the same treatment. De-Tefloned pans, right-angled whisks, wax-gobbed spatulas, and Tupperware in need of birth control were tossed. I raided the refrigerator and pantry, the cabinets and sideboard. Night by night, I moved through the house. No room, no item was spared judgment. I took special delight in ridding our lives of the plush throw blanket my mother-in-law bought us in Graceland. A calm, Spartan order was settling in.
One morning, while we drank coffee from two of our remaining mugs, my wife asked if I’d seen the stick blender.
I remembered pulling the stick blender’s phallic case from the abyssal cabinet next to the dishwasher. It was buried under three items I didn’t even know we owned. This was enough evidence to condemn it. Her tone implied otherwise.
“You’re throwing our money into the trash,” she said.
“What’s the alternative? Live in a heap because it’s our heap?”
“What are we going to have left when you’re done?”
I explained that it wasn’t about what would remain. It was about trading things for a new feeling, an organic environment where we could breathe. I asked her to stop for a moment and open herself up to receive the sensation of the house. She was having none of it. She stormed off to work, leaving the ingredients for her split pea soup on the counter.
My magazines finally arrived in the mail. I read them all by the time my wife came home. She had a take-out meal with her that she said was for dinner, but the men’s magazines condemned this as being too sodium-laden and processed. I declined her invitation, and took Dino for a run instead. He was getting to be a real chunker, and I had to get my heart rate to one hundred and fifty-three BPM.
I thought about the interior design magazines while I ran, and for a long time after. They implored me to embark on a soul search for my personal affinities to Country Glam or Boho Chic, to explore space as texture, and couple sleek mid-century lines with thrift store finds that expressed personality and whimsy—if whimsy was part of my personality, I suppose. But I didn’t need design gurus utilizing esoteric terms with flippant familiarity. I needed the Platonic ideal of our living room, the Truth of the space. These were layers of reality, not shag pillows and low-pile rugs. The wall between the living and dining rooms was reality—and also load-bearing, evidently. I had to find the room constrained within the room, yearning for its realization.
I awoke to my wife yelling from downstairs.
“Did you move the furniture?” she kept hollering.
I came down to find her collapsed on the relocated chaise lounge, howling, and cupping her foot.
“Did you move the furniture?” she asked again.
The answer to her question seemed obvious.
Her toe was turning a tumultuous swirling of purples and yellows beneath the hairs that sprung from her knuckle. I placed a frozen bag of French-cut beans on it, and reminded myself to wash the bag before returning it to the freezer. She diagnosed the toe broken, and asked for supplies so she could tape it to its neighbor. I had marshaled our first-aid kit into order during one of my organizational nights, and brought it to her as though it sat atop a velvet pillow, proud that she could perform her task with ease. I made coffee and brought her a cup, setting it beside her before loitering a kiss on her forehead. She shook me away.
“Why? Just why?” she asked.
“The living room was a farce.”
“It’s been that way for five years.”
“It was difficult to get the indentations out of the carpet,” I agreed.
She huffed, and limped upstairs to get ready for work.
When she came hobbling through the kitchen door that evening, I was waiting for her at the table. Before she had time to set her purse on the counter, I handed her a loose assortment of wrinkled, coffee-stained copy paper.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” I said.
She read the first page slowly, then thumbed through the others with increasing speed and decreased attention. She finished the last page, then stared at me blankly.
“What is this?” she asked. “Pages—pages—of one-liners?” She looked at the papers again and shook her head. “What is this supposed to be?”
“It’s a rough draft. I printed a good copy, and mailed it to The Tonight Show.”
She fell forward onto the counter, and looked at the first page of my manuscript again.
“This is how you spent your day?”
“I know the monologue has been bothering you—”
“The monologue has not been bothering me. This,” she said, gesturing wildly towards everything, “has been bothering me.”
“I can only do so much at once.”
My wife took up a new hobby. She made phone calls, scheduled appointments, and shuttled me to doctors’ offices. We had long conversations with several of the doctors. They were quick to point out that they had no desire nor intention to place blame. I was quick to commend them. The other doctors were less conversational, and only seemed interested in tests they intended to perform at later dates for additional co-pays, and future follow-up consultations for the same. This was concerning. My wife was collecting referrals like trading cards, and her new hobby was beginning to impede my progress.
One doctor sent us home with probes and monitors we were instructed to affix to specific parts of my body before bed, which would measure all the things needing to be measured. My wife spent the better part of The Tonight Show clamping and taping the dongles and meters to my prescribed parts until they dangled from me like the jewelry of a space pirate. I lost all freedom of movement with these devices tethered to me. I couldn’t shave or spackle, paint or hammer. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. They beeped when connected; they beeped when disconnected. I couldn’t make sense of what they wanted from me. After a few nights dragging those things around, they had my wife drive me to a sleep center for an overnight stay. I lost a whole evening reorganizing someone else’s room.
With the experiments over, I could get back to work. I was mitering and coping an inside corner when my wife came down the basement stairs to talk to me about talking with the doctors.
“Don’t you remember what Dr. Phillips said?” she asked.
“Not as such, no.”
“She said we needed to establish boundaries.”
I examined the cut I just made. The power miter saw was not strictly necessary. I could have performed the work without it, but it moved the process along while still maintaining the required precision.
“Apparently, that was one of her more salient points,” I said.
Crown molding was exactly the type of boundary our dining room needed.
“Where are the boundaries? It’s three-thirty in the morning. We don’t have any boundaries.”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
She leaned slightly while I carried the molding past her. Dr. Phillips, or perhaps Dr. Senglin, or Father Kendrick had stressed the need for us to engage with each other’s lives again. Maybe it was in one of the men’s magazines. I thought my wife might want to see what I was accomplishing, but when I returned to the basement with my next measurement, she was gone. She would have seen everything coming together.
The maintenance was becoming unsustainable, however. Something had to give. Everywhere I turned, a spot needed wiping, dog hair needed vacuuming, the yard needed scooping. Dino’s half-masticated rawhides were omnipresent. Stains were inescapable. My days were spent following him with disinfectant wipes and a garbage can.
He had to go.
My wife abandoned her hobby, and began spending long periods in bed. She didn’t watch The Tonight Show anymore, and she didn’t ask about the powder room I took down to the studs, or the old pickup truck I planned on using for runs to the home center, but had to park in the driveway and dismantle the engine. I worried she was regressing so far into herself that she wouldn’t be able to appreciate the transformations around, and that she would reach a place where I couldn’t reach her anymore.
I circled the bedroom one night, noting the frequency of the drafts swaying the curtains, and the patterns our feet left in the carpet. My wife’s breathing raised and lowered the blankets over her in the slow pulse of a summer lake. She slept on her back with her head turned to the arm curled behind her, and looked posed for a photograph or painting in the way that people used to. I saw the picture of her hung, huge and solitary, on the white wall of an empty museum. It had the same curiosity, drew the same fascination, as any great canonical work. It was easy to forget sometimes. When I looked at her, I saw the world drawn to scale, unified, pulled together in a more profound way than I was prepared to experience. That it would be her who was here, peaceful and full of grace, well…I was still as awed by her as ever.
I stepped back to take in the whole scene, to study it and burn the details I’d forgotten back into my memory. But the more I observed, the more it seemed out of balance. Her upper body flowed easy over the pillows and mattress, an effortless expression of comfort and serenity. A cocoon encased her from the waist down. Her legs were mummified under the blankets. Such an off-putting juxtaposition betrayed the truth of how she should be seen. I knelt at the foot of the bed and pulled at the pleats and folds like opening a present without damaging the wrapping. I found one leg under the covers, eased it out, and set on top of the blankets. This little correction changed the whole scene. It looked like she wore a flannel and down tunic as she descended from a Grecian urn. But her foot drooped to the side, making her look bow-legged. I reset it and adjusted the blankets to hold it upright. It fell outward again. I cradled her foot in my hands and inspected it for any inherent causes. Her toe had healed nicely, but those hairs were still on her knuckles. They were an aggressive disruption, asserting dominance over the idyllic scene. Those fine, haphazard hairs were all I could see. I retreated across the room, hoping distance could maintain the trance, but it kept receding. I didn’t want to lose her. I thought I could touch up the picture and hold on. There was still some wax left over. I retrieved the jar from the bathroom and set to work, but her scream shattered the tranquility of the vision, and it was gone.
She left a discomforting indentation on her side of the bed. Flipping the mattress corrected this concern, but there’s something disproportionate about living alone in a large house.
I’d ask her to come back, but there’s no helping some people.
Reilly Joret is a writer and mechanic. There isn’t as much overlap between those two fields as you’d think. He graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA. This is his first published short story.