Every day, coming home from grandparent camp, the dogs want to sniff every nook and cranny--which is a reminder, if I needed it, that other humans have been here, in our space. Also, if I want, I can see them on the security system, which lets me know when a door or window has been opened and sends me short video clips of people getting into and out of trucks at the curb.
On Tuesdays, I stop by after work to change clothes, and I find the men sitting on the back step eating sandwiches or listening to music on the patio. It’s their lunch time, and I tiptoe around. My instinct is not to disturb them, although that seems silly. Don’t mind me! I’m sorry if I’m in your way!
Later, there are obvious signs that people have been in our house--the drywall down, the gas line moved, new tubes and wires--and more subtle ones, too. A box of nails sits next to the French doors. A Doctor Pepper can, crumpled, in my recycling bin.
But mostly, these men are like ghosts, flitting in and out of my peripheral vision. It’s strange to think that by now, they know more about me than I do about them.
Today is marked “Rough Electrical,” the second of three days with the same designation on the schedule taped to our front door. My dad, probably annoyed by my daily appearance in his home, wonders out loud what’s taking so long. I remind him that it’s a ten-week project, and we’re only in the second week.
“You should be there keeping an eye on them,” he tells me, and it’s hard to tell if this is out of concern that I’m being ripped off, or whether he would rather not have my dogs vying for cuddle position on his lap. How exactly would I keep an eye on them? Stand in the corner with a hard hat, pretending I know what the heck is going on?
I remind him that I’m in daily contact with the project manager, that we have a schedule, that things seem to be moving right along, but he seems unimpressed.
I tell my husband about this conversation later, expecting him to be as exasperated as I am, but instead he’s sympathetic. “Your dad probably wishes he could be there, working,” he says. “Those days are behind him.”
This is confusing, because in the eighteen years I’ve lived with this horrible kitchen, no one in my life has ever offered to do practical things like knock down walls or rewire electrical for me, and while my dad is decidedly handy, I’ve never known him to do things like this in his own home, either.
“It’s not about the exact work,” my husband insists, when I raise these finer points. “It’s about being able to work.”
Yesterday, I stand in the doorway and realize that all the furniture--the sofa table, the modular sectional, the trunk that holds DVDs I have no idea why we own--seems askew, as if it has all been shifted a few inches to the right. It’s only at that point that I look up and see that six holes for can lights have been cut into the ceiling, that they’re wired for action. I imagine the electricians heaving the bulky pieces of the sectional out of the way, stepping around throw pillows and the basket of dog toys, wondering (as I often do) why someone needs three remotes, and then putting everything back, more or less the same, at the end.
It’s not a huge leap of metaphor to say that all of life feels like this for me right now--similar but different, slanted, off-kilter.
And dusty. So effing dusty.
I was asleep by nine last night, after two hours of audible yawns. It turns out that remodeling a kitchen, even when my only physical labor has been to peel back the painter’s tape and take a look, is exhausting. Or at least, living life around it is exhausting.
A feature of my back-on-campus life is that I have to leave early--before six a.m. early--to make the drive to Merced and greet my bleary-eyed 7:30 students. Since the dogs can’t be there during the remodel (other dogs, better behaved dogs, maybe your dogs could, but mine can’t), this means an in-the-dark doggie transfer two mornings a week. My mom, in the running for sainthood for sure, has been showing up at my house at 5:45, her little white Fit ghostly at the curb, and I meet her there with two leashed-up, sleepy-eyed terriers.
At the end of my work day, after checking in with the contractor at my house, I make the twenty-minute drive across town, where the pups are waiting for the trip in reverse, and then it’s back to the rustling painter’s plastic and the strange left-behind scents of workers who have eaten lunch on the patio.
And then, for an hour at least, the three of us do nothing but sit on the couch, dazed. Sometimes we do this while eating cheese.
My best feature, which is also probably my worst, is that I’m a very structured individual. I make lists with a type of devotion that can best be called religious (and worst, anal). I have not just a rough outline of what needs to be done, but I often write down time markers (7:15-start load of towels; 8:30-post office) and so my day unfolds. I AM PRECISELY THIS KIND OF FUN, BUT I CAN’T HELP IT. This kind of rigid scheduling for the boring-but-necessary bits allows the rest of my life to happen--the midweek birthday party for my husband, the tickets to a play on the weekend. I don’t like to scramble. I don’t like to dig through a pile of laundry at the last minute to find the pants I want to wear.
These habits, cultivated in childhood, mostly shelved in college, attended to haphazardly early in my teaching career, have become solidified during the pandemic, when I lived the same day, day after day, differentiated only by a few markers. Street sweeper on Tuesday. Trash pickup on Thursday. Groceries on Saturday.
I’ve tried, y’all. But I’m 45 now, and we may as well all acknowledge that I’m this person.
And so yesterday, after some gentle (?) urging, the contractor gave me a schedule that covers the work for the next eight weeks. Rough plumbing… rough electrical… inspection… and so on. I appreciate this schedule. I have it taped to the inside of the front door where it will not only be handy but also, hopefully, serve as a kind of talisman.
“Well, it won’t look like this for the entire eight weeks,” my husband said last night, a rare glum note creeping into his voice. We were looking at the temporary framing, the bare floor boards, the painter’s plastic rustling in the breeze from the air conditioner. (It’s September 24 but still 95 degrees, and with a hole cut in the ceiling, there’s not much to stop the hot air from seeping down.)
No, I thought. It won’t.
Because we have a schedule.
It’s 6 a.m., and I’m in my writing spot, a cup of coffee by my side, my terrier mix circling next to me, trying to find just the right position to settle into for the long haul. My laptop is on my lap, but I haven’t opened the file still called “idea" although it's hovering at 50,000 words, as I’ve done every morning for months.
Instead, I’ve opened this one. A blank slate. And I’m typing this, whatever it is.
I both hate that my mind does this—insists on a divergent path from the one she and I have agreed upon—and have learned to respect it. This is my mind saying, Nope! There's something else you have to do first.
The trouble is that at this early moment, I don’t know what it is.
Or rather, it’s so many things, they’re warring inside me, like a classroom of insistent hands raised high: pick me!
Yesterday, after years of planning and some financial scrambling over the summer to make it happen, the kitchen remodel began. Approximately six feet from where I’m sitting, a wall of painter’s plastic is taped, floor to ceiling. Beyond it, where for eighteen years has been a beige and blue linoleum with a square repeating pattern, are bare boards, laid on the diagonal. Under that--my rat terrier and I both peered into the largest of the knotholes, inspecting--is the crawlspace beneath my house. It's an area that my twin fears (of the dark, and of tight spaces) keep me from thinking too much about.
There are other changes, too--the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room is down to studs, nothing but a spindly wooden skeleton from which dangles electrical cords and a disembodied light switch. Yesterday, picking my way carefully across the bare boards to the laundry in our garage, I was surprised to find the switch hanging there, even though that was where I’d flicked it on every morning for eighteen years. Things look different when the context changes. I can already hear myself saying, this was where the gas line used to be. There was a wall here, can you believe it? And the tile: lime green with a red stripe!
The physical changes are the most obvious, because remodeling a kitchen while you (and your husband, and two confused terriers) are living in the house means that everything else has moved too--the refrigerator is outside, plugged in via a long and janky extension cord. The microwave and a temporary pantry have been set up in what no longer looks like a music room but an odd assemblage of furniture--dining table, chairs, ironing board, printer, crockpot, electric kettle. In a Facebook post the other day, I called it sub-glamping, although maybe “camping inside our own house” is still a better, if less elegant, descriptor.
The remodel is no doubt why I haven’t slept well in a week, worried about what they would find in the walls, under that scraped-up linoleum. (Just a few weeks ago, our neighbor, probably intending to be helpful, told us about the expensive and time-consuming process of her asbestos removal.)
But as sometimes happens, I feel all the areas of my life converging at once. (I was, years and years ago, an English major, and seeing symbolism everywhere is how we roll.) The kitchen remodel--tear it down, build it back up--feels like a symbol of other things, ones I’m not even able to name right now. I’ve been cycling between an anxiety that wakes me with a pounding heart and a bone-deep exhaustion that settles in after things that shouldn’t be that exhausting--two back-to-back classes, a long wait in line at the grocery store.
Maybe tearing down the walls isn’t the best thing for you right now, Paula.
But then again, maybe it is.
This is my kitchen, before.
I've lived in this house for 18 years and never once deliberately turned on the light in this room. When friends have come over, I've shooed them out of the way. Don't go in there, it's scary. They laugh. People always think I'm joking when I'm being my most serious.
The problem isn't just one thing, it's all the things. It was built before disposals and automatic dishwashers, before cooks had need for more than one outlet, when refrigerators were (apparently) the size of two stacked mini-fridges. It was built when lime green tile with a red stripe was a good design choice. Should we put in more countertops or cabinets? I can imagine a worker asking, and some tight-ass budget manager puffing on a cigar, saying, Hell no. They can figure that out themselves.
You might notice it's cluttered and crowded. You might notice the owners long ago stopped scouring that sink (because what, really, was the point?). I once had a faculty mentor who had written her dissertation on Henry James tell me, "Don't worry, you cannot think worse things about Henry James than I have thought." And likewise--you can't say something horrible about my kitchen that I have not said myself a thousand times. I simply cannot be offended on this score.
And so I give you: my old kitchen.
Paula Treick DeBoard