“Life is filled with holes.” – Patti Smith.
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“So how long does it take to get over someone?”
Thom asked this question of all the women he knew, thinking that women would be more likely to consider it seriously. When he asked Nathalie, she became upset and asked him, “Who are you trying to get over?
He assured her that it was a hypothetical question. “I’m asking everyone.”
“What does everyone say?”
Most people said that it took “time and a half” — meaning, the length of the relationship and then half that again.
“That sounds about right,” said Nathalie, chewing on a stray lock of hair, which she almost never did anymore.
She gave Thom a fixed stare. “I’m thirty years old.” She pointed at him. “I don’t have time for bullshit.”
Fortunately she left the room then, because Thom lacked an adequate response.
He used to think it was sexy to have an intimidating girlfriend, but now — along with everything in his head — it was getting scary. “I’m thirty years old,” was a data point she brought up repeatedly, usually in conjunction with their imminent cohabitation. She also mentioned her birthday frequently, even though it was seven months away.
Luckily, his first appointment with Dr. Rudolph was the same week. As an expert on the human psyche, Dr. Rudolph could be expected to understand stubborn maladies and know how to heal them. Thom knew little about his own psyche except he had a stubborn malady named Darcy Winter, and no way to get rid of her.
“It’s been six years since I even talked to her,” Thom told the doctor, removing his glasses and rubbing at his eyes.
Dr. Rudolph was a small, grey-bearded man with a continual expression of suppressed alarm. He was a very good listener. “You said you have a girlfriend?”
“Does she know about this?” It was clear that Dr. Rudolph thought she should.
Thom walked home in a drizzle that rather comfortingly matched his emotional state and found Nathalie repainting his bathroom. The stark, almost glistening white paint looked good against the baby blue tiles. It exorcised a dinginess that Thom had never noticed was there until now. “You’re painting over the wallpaper?”
“Who the fuck cares?” said Nat cheerfully. “It’s a rental.”
Thom remembered long summer afternoons spent with his father in Vermont, painting attic bedrooms in old houses and replacing rotten floorboards. Whatever they worked on, it seemed to take a lot of time. When there was wallpaper, they steamed it off. It took them hours to scrape away stubborn bits of glue and damp paper.
Thom felt that these old Vermont farmhouses embodied a simpler, nobler, dearer past. It seemed to him that he was entrusted with handling relics of a sacred era. His father’s own slow, careful progress suggested that he felt the same.
In one steeply-gabled house they found a secret compartment that they theorized might have been part of the Underground Railroad. It was windowless and dank, full of old smells, but when Thom crawled inside, he felt keenly that he was in a holy place. His father told him of finding an Indian skull back in the 1950s, hidden up inside the eaves of a house slated to be torn down. Thom’s father talked fondly of putting his finger through the bullet hole, wiggling it around where the man’s brain once had been.
From these experiences, and certainly others, Thom had gotten the idea that a home, a real home, ought to be something permanent. A place that was like a museum, or more properly like the mosque in Jerusalem that was built on the ruins of so many other holy sites. Not that he had done anything to his Brookline apartment that reflected this, exactly. But it was still a core ideal.
It seemed to Thom that Nathalie’s painting, while well-intentioned, was more slapdash than he could tolerate. Though he didn’t know exactly what such a thing would look like, he wanted a home of complete integrity. “I think you should have at least asked the landlord,” he said. “Or me.”
Natalie slapped down her brush onto the can of Benjamin Moore paint, spattering her forehead with tiny white dots. “I live here. As of Monday.”
Thom stepped over Nathalie’s long, muscular legs and sat down on the toilet, which was covered with a dropcloth.
He took his glasses off and hung his head and swept his hair out of his eyes. “I lied to you a little. The other day.”
Nathalie braced herself against the sink. “Who are you not over?” She laughed mirthlessly. “I don’t really know about any of your exes, do I?” She laughed again and took him in a slumping embrace. “We’ve dated for four years and I hardly know anything about you,” she murmured into his flannel shirt.
“You do,” Thom assured her weakly, beginning a frantic inner search of what, exactly, Nathalie ought to know about him by now.
“Well,” said Nathalie when her breathing calmed, “You’re not the only one with…complexities.”
Nathalie’s breathing was still jagged but her eyes were dry. “Let’s have a bottle of wine and talk it over. Like adults.” Nathalie often appended this phrase to the end of her suggestions, as if it would make them more appealing.
Thom remained on the covered toilet, listening to his girlfriend take out the wine glasses and rummage for the corkscrew. He had owned none of these implements prior to Nathalie’s entry into his life. Before her, it had been screwtop wine and paper cups.
Read the next part of THE PLACE BELOW here.