"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Obsession - Making Lists And The Sad Reordering Of A Life

Lisa Branford had had a good marriage – faithful husband, two successful children, a home in the suburbs, and a professional career – but in recent years uncertainty had begun to erode what had been the pillars of a good life.  Her allegiances seemed to shift with the weather - uncontrollable urges to recalibrate her marriage, expunge all the nasty bits of her husband’s behavior, and to reassert her control over house and home.

At first her husband’s indifference to domestic propriety was simply irritating. His strength, intellect, and ambitious energy had always sustained her, but when with age he began to lose much of his eccentricity and male allure.  He got underfoot, a clotty, banged up thing in the way of her desire to set things right.

At first, she ignored his indifference to the warped shingles, dripping gutters, and flaking paint and went ahead with the contracting of what she saw were much needed and too long neglected repairs.  The house became a construction site with men on the roof, in the portico, and in the garden.  Jackhammers tore up the loose concrete on the walk, staple guns fixed the new tiles, and backhoes trenched the backyard for drainage. 

Once and for all, she said, a fell swoop was required, a definitive resetting of the domestic clock. She would be finally in the home she had always imagined – a bright, shining, clean example of practicality and good sense, and her husband’s annoying indifference would end.  She would be in the house she had always designed with her mind’s eye; and while the renovated and repaired one would be more modest in scope than she had hoped, it would still make a statement of determination, purpose, and good taste.

The renovations and refinishing took far longer than she had anticipated, dragging on through the winter when work became desultory. The garden was torn up and muddy, the porch half-painted, and the excavations half filled with water and crusted with ice.  When will they make an end? She wondered as the work was still not finished with the first crocuses.

On second thought, however, these delays were blessings in disguise.  She could now begin interior redecorating. What the contractors attended to was infrastructure, and what was now needed was design. Tropical planters had to be bought for the porch, new cane chairs and comfortable chaise lounges, decorative tiles for the walls, a new mailbox with a red flag, RFD-style.

When she began to take inventory, however, she realized how unappealing the inside of the house looked, how inferior, and how shabby.  The exterior of the house, however new and impressive it might look, was only a shell. Something must be done to the living room, the kitchen, and the guest room.

Lists were made, precise detailing for the new contractors – soft lighting but bright over the stove, under lighting for the mantel and the bronzes and terracottas; cerulean blue for the guest room to provide dramatic background for the Whistler and Sargent reproductions; Bokhara carpets for the hallway and office.  It was a wearying process but a labor of love.  She banged on with her plans, now undisturbed by the hammering and digging still underway above, below, and behind her.

Discussions over dinner were about grouting, PVC, knots-per-square-inch, and alignment.  Lists were stained with gravy and sauce, but still usable, edited, expanded, corrected, and fixed on the refrigerator (that too must go, she thought).

Enough said.  The life of an obsessive is interesting only up to a point.  Each obsessive is different in predictable ways, so once a scenario has been written, it becomes old hand, a second-rate repertory.  To Lisa, however, the drama was new, exciting, and compelling.  Each list was a creative reworking of a troubling scene; each item crossed off was a sign of dramatic enterprise. The sounds of the house – the banging, hammering, scraping, drilling, and riveting – were orchestral.  Imagine, she thought, I did that! I am producer, director, screenwriter, and key grip.

No sooner was one piece of work completed than new lists were assembled.  The fine work was the real artistry, she knew, and set herself to the task.  Home Depot was a thing of the past, for now it was time to visit the boutiques of Georgetown – Tiffany-style lamps, Wedgewood China, Chinese landscape wallpaper, silver tea services, and antique odds and ends.  Lists were made and revised according to the market; but the satisfaction was in the lists, not the end; in the shopping, not the purchase.

There could be no end to this enterprise.  What had become an interest and a putting to rights an uneven marriage had become a labor unto itself, an enterprise without end because it was the enterprise which had taken over, had completed some unexplored psychological circle.  There were no means and ends.  Only means.

A harsher critic might well say that it was all about her, a self-satisfying measure to finally, after decades of servitude and playing second fiddle, to assert her femaleness, her emotional diction.

She did seek help after the divorce, a pill to calm her down, then a full-blown pharmacopeia, sedatives, anti-depressants, and a range of anxiety tropes. Through the fog she still tried to create lists, but the drugs had left her enervated.  Familiar issues didn’t seem to matter so much, especially since Henry had taken his slice of the settlement and moved to Florida, but she tried.  “Now, I must do something about those curtains”, she said to the maid, “how tacky they have become”; but without Henry to annoy, new curtains made no sense. 

The nursing home was good news. Everything was taken care of there, and although she despised the drab, gray walls of the foyer and the treacle linoleum of the halls, none of it really mattered.  She had ended up standard-issue; but had been so rattled and confused by her last spurts of organization and doing, that she thought she was in finery surrounded by elegance.

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