by Ian Johnson
Rosie sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of her empty living room, unassembled furniture parts strewn around her like small towns at the base of a big mountain. She held an Allen wrench in one hand, the assembly pamphlet in the other. The tip of her tongue played with the corner of her lip.
Steve sat on the lounge chair in the corner of the same living room. On his lap an open book, but he’d yet to turn a page. Instead, he eyed Rosie’s handiwork, following along as best he could.
She looked up, and Steve looked quickly away, back down at the page he wasn’t reading, so she wouldn’t think he’d been staring.
She waited until he lifted his head again, at which point she widened her eyes like a deer, her ear falling towards the neck. “Steeeeviiieee,” she cooed. She pouted her lip. “I need help.”
Steve, heart thumping, replaced his bookmark, set the book on the coffee table and scooted forward on the cushion. “What’s up, boo?”
Rosie held up a slat and a connector piece. “I can’t figure out how this goes.”
They were living together now, Rosie and Steve. It had seemed a wonderful idea in theory, living together, and it mostly was, in practice, so far. One of their first activities as living mates had been a trip to IKEA. They’d cruised along the snaky aisles, admiring Swedish-tinted furniture, the mock rooms, every lightbulb lit, quietly admiring themselves for having achieved a new level of domesticity, having both the apartment space and financial means for quality furniture.
After perusing for an hour or two all the chairs and tables began to look and feel the same. They swiveled in desk chairs as Rosie asked Steve for his thoughts. ‘I like everything you like,’ he said, rising and kissing her forehead. He told her she should make the final selections. She had better taste. He insisted only that he pay.
They folded the backseat down to make room for the boxes. Steve drove carefully home, thinking how in a few years they might drive carefully home with a different sort of cargo in the back.
He carried the three boxes — the chair, the coffee table, and the ottoman — up three flights from the car. As he stacked the boxes against the living room wall, he remembered that the next step was actually putting them together. He quickly took a step back, as if realizing he’d accidentally purchased three of her ex-boyfriends.
Steve was not handy. He’d never taken things apart and put them back together, like other curious boys had growing up. He didn’t care for simple maintenance, was never fascinated by drywall or wall anchors or flathead screwdrivers. Living alone before Rosie, faced with apartment problems, he’d called the landlord.
The thought of constructing furniture constricted his chest and shortened his breath. It wasn’t so much that he’d fail, that the chair would look like a sink, but that Rosie would see him fail and think their joint residence was likewise failing, as if his inability to correctly set Connector AB into Receiver CD meant a similar ineptitude in his ability to link Part He with Part She. That he’d never made claims of his handiness one way or the other was irrelevant. That she’d never asserted handiness as attractive was irrelevant, too. This is what happened when you moved in with someone. No matter the liberal age they lived in, he knew, as the male, that handiness was supposed to be his niche.
To convince himself he could fill it, he’d quickly offered, upon returning from IKEA, to assemble their selections. He tried to make it seem like no big deal. Over the next few days he stalled, finding, or making up, excuse after excuse. Days passed, the empty spaces in the corner of the living room growing as glaringly vacant as the boxes on the far wall were glaringly unattended. Rosie made jokes about the toilet being the only real seat in the house. Steve regretted not suggesting other furniture shops in their neighborhood, shops that delivered your purchases pre-assembled. He debated hiring someone, surreptitiously, to come put the furniture together for him. Or, if he could just get a large enough block of time alone, he could take his time and get it done. But whenever he thought he might start, he feared she might stumble in and survey his ineptitude.
It didn’t matter. She beat him to it. One afternoon he returned home to find Rosie in the newly assembled lounge chair, a cup of tea resting on the new coffee table in front of her, on which her bare feet were stacked. She smiled. “Ta-da.”
How comfortable she looked, Steve thought. How secure. Self-secure.
From the doorway, Steve tried to smile back. “We need to get some coasters.”
“Sorry,” Rosie said, removing her feet from the table. “I know you wanted to put these together but I couldn’t wait.” She stuck out her bottom lip. “Can you forgive me?”
Steve was horrified but relieved that she’d one-upped him. In a few weeks nobody would remember who put together the lounge chair. He could look forward to domestic bliss again.
Her lip retreated. “I did leave you this though.” She patted the ottoman box.
His sense of relief evaporated. He was on the clock again. He eyed the ottoman box, still unopened. He strategized on dumping the box in the dumpster at the end of the block. Then after a few days maybe they’d forget they’d purchased an ottoman at all.
After dinner they sat down to read. “I’ll miss the toilet,” Rosie said as they opened their books. They still only had one chair, but that could be overlooked for the moment.
Rosie had read less than a page when she shut her book again. She looked at the ottoman box. “Do you mind if I,” she said, arranging herself on the floor, toolkit at the ready. Steve pretended not to hear. He adjusted his bookmark and pretended to read.
Rosie pulled her hair into a ponytail. She used her fingernail to pluck at the tape on the box. It snapped open, releasing a silent fart of stale industrial air. She tore open the small baggies full of screws. She tore the plastic wrap from all the pieces, balled it all up, and stuffed it back in the box. She opened the directions to Page One.
A few minutes later, she looked up and asked for his help. “Steeeeevieeee.”
Now Steve held the directions, examining her progress. He kept nodding and saying “Uh-hmm,” as if grading her work. He avoided eye contact, fearful of what she might see.
He held the two pieces in question, the slat and connector, and stared at the corresponding diagram. The slat was to slide down the connector. There was a helpful arrow. He frowned. It was an easy step, so easy it could only be a gimme, a gesture on her part, a consolation to his ineptitude, made all the more glaring when he thought about how breezily she’d finished the chair and the coffee table, both much more intricate in design.
She was stroking his ego then, playing the submissive female. She would let him feel needed, would let him play hero, would placate his insecurity like a parent would a small child. If this was true, then it was also true that she’d already judged him incompetent, judged him like he had already judged himself, without her ever having observed his screwdriving skill set. She’d assumed he was incompetent when it came to manliness. This was an early and unwelcome referendum on their nascent cohabitation.
His stomach tightened as he entertained a rush of assumptions. If she patronized him now, would she again? If he couldn’t be honest with her now – “Hey Rosie, I suck at this kind of thing, thanks for doing it” – when would he be? Had he ever been? What kind of precedent was this setting? Was this how resentment stockpiled?
He dismissed these thoughts as he set the directions down and easily slid the slat into the connector. It settled nicely in the hold. He furiously fought the urge to smile. He likewise fought the urge to look smugly at her. Feeling bold, he glanced at the next step, then called for the Allen wrench.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing