After their third fight about whose turn it was to switch the wet clothes from the washer to the dryer, and therefore whose fault it was that the clothes now smelled faintly of mold, Robert started writing on the walls. He took a magic marker he found jammed into an old soup can full of pens, went into the spare room which they never used, and closed the door.
The walls were the same white they had been since they first moved in. There were still boxes and odds and ends they hadn’t quite found a place for, even a year later piled all around. The marker was dark green; writing on the clean, white wall felt good.
He wrote, She said it was my turn, but I did it on Tuesday so it’s her fault. She brought up the time I left the milk out too, and it went bad, which was unfair. I was in a rush, and it’s not like I did it on purpose.
He then continued to transcribe the argument in full as he remembered it, starting on the wall opposite the door and circling around in one long, continuous line. Tess came in on the tenth ‘she said’.
“What the hell are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”
Her cheeks were flushed with holdover anger. Robert suspected she had come in looking for another fight, and that made him feel strangely smug. Before he could answer, she slapped the marker out of his hand. It hit the ground and a dark patch of green ink began to spread on the off-white carpet.
“Way to go!” He pointed triumphantly.
She slapped him. Robert blinked at her. Oddly, the shock of violence had the opposite effect on him from what he would have expected — all the anger and irritation, even the smugness, drained away.
He regarded Tess, and she stared back at him, blue eyes blazing. Earlier, he had overheard her on the phone telling her mother that they still hadn’t found a replacement for a co-worker who had quit, and how she was now doing two jobs with half the recognition. Robert smiled.
A strand of strawberry blonde hair strayed across Tess’ cheek, and she brushed it away impatiently. The gesture was endearing; she had never looked lovelier. He kissed her.
She pushed him away, determined to stay mad, but he put his arms around her and held her close.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured against her hair.
“Me too.” He could hear her half-resigned, half-amused smile.
They made love on the floor, on top of the ink stain. After, Robert laughed and brushed away another stray strand of her hair.
“We’ll paint over it tomorrow. We’ve been putting this room off for too long anyway.”
They painted the room green. Two weeks later the ink from the marker began to bleed through. The words were faint and blurred, like ghost images on a photograph.
“We’ll do another coat,” Robert reassured her.
Three weeks later the phantom curves of ‘she saids’ were still visible, peeking playfully through the green as they marched across the room.
“You’re such an asshole,” Tess told him flatly. “The whole room is ruined.”
She wouldn’t listen to anything he had to say, and because he already felt guilty, Robert lashed out and yelled back even though he knew he was wrong. He hated the room too; it reminded him of the petty argument and his even pettier reaction. When Tess finally walked away in a huff, Robert found the magic marker and, out of spite, he filled a whole wall of their walk-in closet with everything that was wrong with her side of the argument. Then he left the house to run errands, feeling fully satisfied.
That night he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t because the words of their argument were running over and over in his head, it was because they weren’t. He felt empty.
At the same time, it bothered him that he and Tess were fighting more often lately. In their first year of marriage, they hardly ever fought. Now it was a completely different story. In Robert’s opinion — even in the heady days of the quickie divorce — that seemed too short a time-frame for a marriage to fall apart.
He lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling. He listened to Tess breathe, snoring softly every now and then. He noted with some amusement how quickly their ‘never go to bed angry rule’ had dissolved. He couldn’t blame Tess; he was exhausted too.
They were both under a lot of stress at work. They were irritable and short with each other, snapping at the least provocation, letting the little things grate on their nerves. What they needed was a change.
An idea occurred to him. Near dawn, Robert fell asleep grinning.
“What are you going to do about the spare room?” Tess asked first thing, over breakfast.
Robert was still grinning, despite his lack of sleep. Even though she had slept, Tess had dark circles under her eyes. In her dreams, he guessed, she had been going over the argument all night long.
He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek, and didn’t say another word. After Tess left for work, Robert called in sick. He took the magic marker, went into the ruined spare room and wrote on each of the four walls in letters as high as he could reach, I AM AN ACCOUNTANT.
He called a local equipment supply company and rented a backhoe. Then he started knocking down walls. It felt good.
After lunch, he called into work and quit. By the time Tess came home, the guest room was gone, and Robert was sitting in the space where it used to be, drawing up plans for a greenhouse.
At first, Tess yelled. Then she cried and threatened by turns to call the cops, the psych ward at the local hospital, and his mother. They stayed up all night. As the sun started to rise, Robert put his arms around her and murmured soothing words in her ear.
“But now it’s like the argument never happened. We can start fresh. We can start over again.”
“It doesn’t work that way!” She protested.
“Why not?” Robert pulled the magic marker out of his pocket and pointed.
“See? Magic marker. It says so right here.”
“Stop it!” She shoved hard against his chest, pushing him away. “It doesn’t work that way,” Tess protested again. “Not in the real world. You can’t just write over things you don’t like as if they never happened. In the real world you either push your problems down until you have a heart attack, or you deal with them.”
“What about money, then?” She challenged. “What about the house? Without your income…”
She trailed off, her voice catching on a sob. He stroked her hair. The last pale stars were fading, and he took her face in his hands.
“Everything is going to be okay, I promise. You believe me, don’t you?”
Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, but underneath they were still the same lovely blue that made him think of the sky on their wedding day. She looked exhausted. The pallor of her skin accentuated the spray of freckles that she tried so hard every morning to hide. She bit her lower lip. The way her eyes shone, even through the tears, Robert could see she wanted to believe him.
He took her hand and squeezed her fingers. After a very long time, Tess slowly nodded.
“Okay. I believe you.”
Within two months there was a greenhouse where the spare room had been, and their bungalow was transformed into something strange and wonderful. A flagstone path ran down the center of the greenhouse, and Robert wrote in small letters on the first stone, I am a gardener.
He was happy.
“I hate my job,” Tess told him in May.
“So change it,” Robert replied.
He was working in the greenhouse, crouched between the long rows of plants. The air was slightly damp and sweet with the scent of blooms that had been growing all winter long.
“It isn’t that easy,” Tess replied.
“Sure it is.”
Robert took her hand and guided her into the house. Aside from the addition of the greenhouse, it was unchanged.
“What don’t you like?” Robert asked her.
“I don’t know — the internal politics, the cliques, the finger-pointing and back-stabbing. I don’t really like anything about it, I guess.”
He handed her the marker and led her to the garage.
“Write it down,” he instructed.
Tess stared at him. He closed his hand around hers and guided it to the wall.
“Where will we put the cars?” Tess asked uncertainly.
“Doesn’t matter.” Robert shrugged, and then he chuckled. “We don’t need cars. Without jobs, we won’t have anywhere to go.”
Tess wrote, I work in human resources in small, tentative letters.
“Now, what do you want? What do you really want?” Robert asked her.
Tess closed her eyes, her expression pinched with concentration.
“Make a wish.” Robert smiled, and with her eyes still tightly closed, Tess offered a goofy, lop-sided smile in return.
When she opened her eyes, they shone.
By August, they had a bowling alley.
Robert gardened, and Tess bowled. Instead of having fights, they wrote messages to each other on the walls. Once the neighbors complained about the eyesore their constructions caused, but a loophole in the zoning permit was found, and the case went away quietly on its own.
In the front hall, above the mirror, Robert carefully wrote out their wedding vows. He circled and underlined words like love, together, and support. They were happy.
In December, Tess said, “I want a baby.”
Robert stared at her.
“What’s wrong?” Tess’s eyes flickered, and a faint frown tugged at the corner of her mouth.
“I thought you said you wanted to be a father someday?”
“I did. I do. Someday, but…”
“Well, when? How long are we going to wait?”
Irritation built in little lines between her brows, and storm clouds gathered in her eyes. Tess looked dangerously close to yelling. He studied her posture, the way she put her weight on one foot, arms crossed and fingers drumming on her upper arm. It was oddly restless, as though the lack of conflict over the past few months had created a tension of its own.
“I thought you wanted to bowl.”
“I’m sick of bowling.”
“I…let me think about it,” he stalled and turned away. Tess’ eyes followed him all the way to the greenhouse. They followed him all the way through each wall and every closed door.
Instead of sleeping that night, Robert paced between the long rows of plants. The flowers looked at him expectantly, and he imaged he could almost see faces nestled in the petals. If he could care for these flowers, coax them into life and health and happiness, then why not a baby?
He thought back to the look in Tess’ eyes, the mounting tension of held-back shouts — a storm waiting to break. He didn’t want that. Not after the peace they’d achieved.
Robert went back into the house and wrote out his fears on the walls of their second bathroom. The next day he tore it down, and in its place he built a nursery.
Tess stopped taking the pill and, in February, she announced she was pregnant. Post-conception, Robert spent more and more time in the greenhouse. He started growing orchids, which were highly temperamental and required near-constant care.
Tess spent a lot more time in her bowling alley, and she ended her days stiff in strange places. Robert ended his days with dirt smudged on his clothes and embedded in the creases of his skin. They didn’t fight, but they didn’t talk much either.
“How are we going to afford this baby?” Tess asked during her second month of pregnancy.
They sat together at the breakfast table. Tess massaged her wrist absently, and Robert picked dirt from under his nails. When he looked up, Tess was regarding him seriously with her bright blue eyes. Reluctantly, Robert dragged out a calculator and began going over their recent bills.
Water for the greenhouse, special lights and heaters to keep the plants warm, fertilizer, insecticide and gardening supplies — his garden was eating up a lot of money. Tess regarded him steadily. Her posture was one of waiting — waiting for him to come to the same conclusion she had reached ages ago.
“One of us is going to have to make some sacrifices…” she let the words trail, expectantly.
Silence stretched between them. For a moment, Robert had the almost uncontrollable urge to write Fuck You! across the kitchen floor. Instead, he got up and began washing dishes.
Without looking, he knew there were hard lines in Tess’s face. Without words she implied that she would already be sacrificing enough – her body and everything else that made her who she was now — to have this baby, even though it had been her idea.
After the dishes were done, Robert left Tess alone in the kitchen. He took the magic marker and stared at the blank walls of their bedroom. His hand trembled, but he couldn’t bring himself to write anything. After a very long time, he went down to the greenhouse. He regarded his precious orchids, the delicate blooms he had coaxed from their recalcitrant state to their current glory.
A sudden surge of anger filled him. Tess hadn’t even tried. She hadn’t even pretended to offer to sacrifice anything she loved. And she was doing it all to make him mad, to provoke a fight and destroy the peace he had worked so hard to create.
Closing the marker in his fist he knelt and scribbled violently over the words he had written just months ago. Under the violence of ink, I am a gardener disappeared as though it had never been.
But it wasn’t enough. There was a crowbar among the pile of building supplies, and he jammed it under the edge of the flagstone with the scribbled out words. Grunting with effort, he pried it up, and hefted the stone over his head, throwing it with all his might. It shattered with a satisfying sound.
He was flushed now, breathing hard. Adrenaline surged through his body. He felt a certain smug satisfaction in destroying what he had built. There was a strange spiteful pleasure in destroying his dreams for Tess’s sake, one he couldn’t quite put into words. Robert continued along the row, prying up each flagstone and smashing it on the ground.
Tess’s image hung in his mind. She was serene in her motherhood, one hand cradled around her barely-showing belly. She stood in her bowling alley, smiling inanely at him. He hated her.
With a trembling hand, Robert wrote on the glass I am happy. Then he lifted the crowbar in both hands and smashed the walls.
May swung around again, and Tess woke him in the night with a cry of pain. Her face contorted, and she gripped the sheets in white-knuckled hands. Beneath her, the bed slowly turned red.
Robert called for an ambulance. Hours later a grim faced doctor came to speak to him in the hushed tones of a hospital waiting room. Robert nodded numbly and his mind was miles away amidst crushed flower petals and shattered glass scribed with fragments of happiness.
An hour later they let him go in to see Tess.
She was pale, her freckles a dark stain across her skin. A strand of hair strayed across her forehead, and clung to her cheek. Her eyes were bruised and full of shadows. Robert sat gently on the edge of her bed, and took her hand.
“How are you feeling?” He asked her.
“Okay.” she murmured, but she turned her face and refused to look at him.
Two days later, Robert brought Tess home. They pushed her in a wheelchair to the hospital doors, and Robert carefully helped her into the car. They didn’t speak all the way home. Tess kept her head turned, staring at the scenery that passed in a long, extended blur.
Robert led her up to their bedroom and tucked her in. The doctor had prescribed lots of bed rest, and he respected that, treading carefully around her as though she was made of glass.
Robert brought Tess soup and tea and spoke in hushed tones. He tried not to think about the greenhouse, but her eyes were the color of orchids sometimes, if he looked at them just right.
In the deepest, most secret part of himself, Robert was afraid that he hated Tess. He didn’t dare write it on the walls for fear that it would come true. He didn’t dare write it on the walls for fear that if he then destroyed the words he would never be able to recapture that pure, burning emotion again. Instead, he carved the words into the white walls of his skull, and kept them hidden safely inside.
One night, while Tess was sleeping, Robert crept into their bathroom and closed the door. He stared at himself in the mirror. There were crow’s feet around his eyes, and when he leaned close he thought he could see strands of gray nestled amongst the darkness of his hair.
With a steadier hand than he would have imagined, Robert wrote, I have blue eyes, across his reflection in the mirror. He stared at that reflection hard, memorizing the shade of blue that was there — not quite the sky, and not quite water. It was sort of like clouds, just after a storm, tinted with the new-rising sun.
Robert took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He took the metal wastebasket from beside the toilet and hefted it at the glass. It shattered with a satisfying sound. Silver shards rained down and filled the sink like frozen drops of water. On the other side of the door, he heard Tess crying softly.
The next day he bought a new mirror. He kept the glass covered as he mounted it against the wall, and only when it was firmly in place did he uncover it to look at his reflection. He leaned forward until his face was almost touching the glass. Flecks of green like new leaves glimmered in eyes as rich and brown as fresh-turned earth.
Robert walked into the silent nursery and closed the door. The weight of the room was oppressive, the powder-shaded walls mocked him where they held in the empty space. He turned in a slow circle. The magic marker was in his hand, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to write, I am a father, on the walls.
Four simple words could redefine his life, set it in stone — or at least paint and plaster. Four simple words could make Tess happy again. His finger twitched, and after a very long time Robert turned and walked away, softly closing the door behind him.
After another three weeks, Tess finally got out of bed. She was very quiet and very pale, and she still refused to meet his eyes. Robert watched her walk into the room that should have been a nursery and close the door. He stood on the other side and listened. He imagined he could hear the soft sound of Tess crying from the other side.
By sundown, the nursery was gone. Nailed to the door where the nursery should have been, Robert found rough, hand-drawn blueprints for a library.
He stepped through the empty doorframe into the wreckage. From the pile of rubble, Robert stooped and picked up a fragment of shattered wall. Though it was cut off, in shaky handwriting he could make out the words, Everything is fine.
Tess had learned the secret of the house too. Nothing would ever be fine again.
Their space grew. What had once been a simple bungalow expanded and spawned a library, a second greenhouse, a skating rink, a theater, three outhouses, six towers and a lake. There were also alternately and occasionally, depending on various moods, a maze, a planetarium, a rookery, an aquarium, and an exact, full-size replica of an ancient Viking feast hall.
Robert and Tess changed too.
They scribbled furiously on mirrors, and shattered them in the night with hammers that they kept handy now at all times. Tess’s strawberry blonde hair became dark auburn, and Robert grew by turns taller, then shorter, then taller again. Overnight, Robert sprouted a full beard and mustache. A week later, it was gone. Tess’s breasts grew, her tummy tightened, and Robert developed biceps and a six pack without ever lifting a single weight.
They hardly ever spoke, but they nodded politely to each other when they passed in the hall. Every morning Robert brought Tess fresh flowers from his greenhouse. She baked him savory home-cooked meals in their brand-new kitchen and left them at the greenhouse door. Tess smiled, and her teeth were perfect and white. Robert, who had not a single gray hair and was never stressed or strained, always smiled in return.
The house continued to grow — new rooms and halls and wings sprouted up like a colony of mushrooms after a heavy rain. They lost themselves in their hobbies. Robert took up philology and Tess took up beekeeping. The week after that it was lion taming and topiary sculpture.
One day Robert found himself hopelessly lost trying to make his way from the library to the kitchen. He tried turning left at the bowling alley, then right, but somehow he always ended up at the lake no matter what. The house was a stranger to him, changed beyond reason or recognition. Robert sat down at the water’s edge, and laughed until he cried.
The next day, Robert bought a new mirror, leaned close, and wrote, I am a pathetic, foolish old man. Instead of shattering the glass, he took his hammer, threw it into the lake, and watched it sink beneath the smooth, dark water. The next time he looked in the glass he saw gray hair and wrinkles crowded around his eyes.
He left the bathroom and wandered through the house. He told himself he was looking for the theater, but his eyes were scanned the walls for the wedding vows whose words he had circled and underlined seemingly a lifetime ago. He passed through the whole house twice and never found them.
The next time he walked into their bedroom, he saw Tess’s neat, calm script lining the walls. How could you do this to me? How could you turn our lives into this?
She had considerately left the magic marker lying on the bedside table, waiting for a response. If he tore down the walls, it would be as though the accusation never existed. But what would he build in the bedroom’s place? It was the last original room in the house, the last shred of sanity among the madness of labyrinths, dance halls, cafes and conservatories.
After a long deliberation, Robert took the cap from the pen, and at the end of Tess’s words he simply wrote, You started it. He could think of nothing else to say.
Why weren’t you there for me? Tess wrote the next morning. Robert woke to it, scrawled across the ceiling. He lay in bed for a very long time, staring at the words. He tried to remember the last time he had actually seen Tess in person. He couldn’t. In his mind she had been reduced to a neat script, scrawled across the walls, trailing across the floors, spilling out the windows.
If he rented fifteen backhoes, if he tore the whole house down, could they start over again? Could he make everything the way it was? Could he make Tess happy again?
He got up very slowly and stretched his stiff, popping joints. The magic marker was where Tess had left it on the bedside table. From some distant corner of the house, Robert could hear the thunder of Tess pounding on the piano keys, her latest hobby. He took the marker and wrote in careful, deliberate letters on the wall above their headboard. I hate you.
His skull itched. It felt empty. Something hard clicked into place inside him. Robert made his way to the greenhouse. This second iteration didn’t have the feel of the first one. Stepping through the doors didn’t provide the same sense of freedom. He felt like an imposter here. He wasn’t a gardener — not anymore.
The scent of orchids was cloying. He should never have erased their first argument. Writing it out and covering it over with a fresh layer of paint was, in retrospect, the stupidest thing he had ever done. It was a child’s solution, and as Tess had told him years — or a lifetime — ago, things didn’t work like that in the real world.
He walked down the rows of orchids. At the end of the row was a traditional bloom, white speckled with purple like flecks of paint. He twisted the stem until it snapped. On one of the petals he very carefully wrote, I’m sorry. He left it outside the conservatory door for Tess to find.
Later he found a fresh baked pie waiting outside the greenhouse for him. It was cherry, his favorite, and the smell made his mouth water. Across the flaky, golden crust Tess had written, It’s too late. He went to find her. She was leaning over the piano and when he called her name, she pounded the keys with renewed fury and volume.
“Tess!” He yelled.
The storm of her fingers fell still. Her shoulders slumped, as if in defeat, and her head hung down so her hair, which was no particular color at all now, hid her face. She spoke very softly, without looking at him.
“I’m tired, Robert. My fingers ache from bowling, from pounding keys, and shelving endless books in the library.”
“Then change something. Start over again.” There was a note of pleading in his voice, a note of desperation.
A fluttering sensation of panic started low in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to force Tess to turn around and look at him, but at the same time he was terrified of seeing a stranger.
“I’m tired of changing. Everything demands motion, that I change some aspect of my life that isn’t perfect yet. Do you ever feel like that, Robert?”
She didn’t seem to expect an answer, but there was a rising note of hysteria in her voice.
“I write on mirrors all night long, and I break them in the morning. But there’s no such thing as perfect. It’s a lie, Robert. It’s always been a lie.”
She turned, her colorless hair swinging back over her shoulder. Robert had to stifle a gasp. Tess’s cheeks were sunken; her eyes burned fever-bright. He was staring at her skull, near-translucent skin stretched over bones. She grinned hideously at him and began to laugh.
She stood up, and stepped towards him.
“What’s the matter, Robert? Don’t you want to kiss and make up?”
He stepped back, tripping over a low footstool. Tess towered over him.
There were tears in the wrinkled folds of his cheeks; it was hard to breathe. For a moment he wondered if he was having a heart attack, and something Tess had said a long time ago came back to him. If it didn’t hurt so much, it might have been funny. He reached for her. How had everything gone so wrong?
She gazed at him dispassionately. After a moment she turned sharply on her heel. There was a heavy, gilt mirror hanging on the wall, and she lifted it down carrying it over to where Robert lay. She drew a magic marker from her pocket, scribbled furiously across the glass, and then turned it so he could see her words.
Over his own reflection her scrawl read, I forgive you. I still love you. Everything will be fine.
Her eyes met his, and there was a hint of sadness in the storm-colored gray, a hint of regret.
“It was my turn to switch the laundry. I forgot to do it, and I didn’t want to tell you. I’m sorry it all went so wrong.”
She let the mirror slip from her hands. The sound of shattering glass filled the room as it hit the floor.