Marie's survey of the kitchen was slow and methodical. As she scrutinized the room, she took a deep breath and a much needed break. She had washed all the dishes, mopped the floor, scrubbed the sink, waxed the dinner table, and organized the food in the pantry and fridge and freezer. And yet, the nagging feeling that she had missed something remained. Maybe she hadn't been thorough enough with the sink, she fussed. Maybe it needed the toothbrush treatment, she thought to herself, not without a little sarcasm, as she sighed and collapsed into a chair. She knew too well what was going on: stress had transformed into nervous energy, and here she was, obsessively and needlessly cleaning house.
Marie's business wasn't doing as well as it once had. Antiques had never been particularly lucrative, but she had always managed, even been comfortable. She did most of her business online, but it had always been her dream to open a store, and that dream, for a time, had seemed feasible. Then things had taken a turn for the worse in recent months. She knew that it wouldn't be long before she might not even be able to make rent. She could figure out how to live frugally otherwise, but there was no way that she could work around her bills.
Although she rented the house, it had become her home, like an exoskeleton. She still had a lease to honor. More importantly, to move would be heartbreaking -- to leave behind the soft green carpet, the worn patterned wallpaper, its sounds as it settled at night, the way the light shone through its high, ornate windows. Moving just wasn't an option.
Marie had lived alone for the past year and a half in this modest-two bedroom home in the country, with neighbors occupying houses just as beautiful on one side and a gorgeous lake on the other side. Not only was the house itself lovely, but the little lake was her private lake, part of the property. The landscape was peppered with trees and backgrounded by a mountain range. Marie had been especially fortunate to live so close to the city, which was only a ten-minute drive down a long, lazy road. She had luck and a generous landlord to thank for it. Now she would have to find a roommate to help her keep it.
Marie was desperate. She would have preferred living with a friend, but as a woman nearing 30, most of her friends were already married or shacked up with significant others. And if they weren't, they had their own leases to worry about. So she had done the unthinkable. She had posted an ad online.
The ad asked for the usual: someone who was conscientious, quiet, and tidy. She had even thrown in "hygienic" for good measure. And she had expressed a preference for a female roommate. But the slew of bizarre responses had immediately made her rethink things. One woman wanted to know whether Marie was "pet friendly," as she owned five cats. Another had wondered whether Marie was sober, too, as she was a recovering alcoholic and coke addict. A third responder was 20 years old and wrote on behalf of herself and her 47-year-old boyfriend, who didn't actually ask but presumed it would be fine if the two of them moved in with her. Marie was overwhelmed and wondered whether someone was playing a trick on her.
So Marie gave her full attention to a brief and unassuming message sent to her by a man named Colin. Marie had learned that the shorter the message, the less peculiar the sender. He claimed to be quiet, respectful, a self-described "introvert," and easy to get along with. At that point, it was all she really wanted. So they set up a meeting and mini-tour of the house for the next day.
Marie tried to imagine what it might be like to live platonically with a man. Aside from her father, the only men she had lived with were boyfriends. Would there be sexual tension? If there were, would it be too much for them? Would they find it too difficult to do anything but go at each other anytime they were home? Would their sexual relationship disintegrate after just a month and then find them living out some kind of Fatal Attraction-scenario made even worse by living in such close quarters? Or maybe her attraction would be one-sided, making it unbearable for Marie to live with him. Or maybe it would be his lust that would be unrequited, and he would attack her. And even if no attraction was involved, there were still the usual roommate concerns to fuss about, like whether or not they'd even get along.
The truth was that Marie didn't like change. She was neurotic, and she knew it. It was just that it had been too long since she'd shared a space with someone, let alone a stranger. She recognized that her fears were unfounded, irrational even -- plenty of her friends had lived with members of the opposite sex, and none of them that she could remember had spiraled out of control. And besides all that, she was pretty good at maintaining control.
As Marie waited for Colin in the coffee shop the next day, she reminded herself of all these things: that she was being absurd, that situations like these were run-of-the-mill, and that she was just loathe to give up living alone. These thoughts reassured her, and she was glad that she'd showed up early, just a little before 2, to settle in and settle down. She'd felt it best to meet him here first so she could size Colin up before she brought him home with her.
And then Colin entered, a big, built man, shaved bald with a mustache and stubble. Marie's initial reaction was that sexual tension would not likely be an issue, and she sighed with relief. In terms of her usual type, Colin was a major departure. All her boyfriends and hook-ups had been thin, almost petite, with full heads of hair. The majority of them had been clean-shaven. "Boyish" was the word that came to mind. There was nothing boyish about the man who strode up to her. Marie rose to greet him.
"Colin?" she asked.
"Yes. Marie?" She nodded. She realized that he stood at least a foot taller than she did. For the first time, she thought that maybe a male roommate wasn't a bad idea after all, and that a man this size could serve as a pretty good security guard.
Colin, however, regarded Marie with awe. She hadn't disclosed much about herself via their e-mails and he hadn't had the time to snoop around on the Internet, so he had imagined a much older, less attractive woman. But Marie was young, a little thing with thick, long, strawberry blonde hair that almost overpowered her. Her eyes were hazel and her skin fair and glowing. He shook her outstretched hand, careful not to crush her delicate fingers. Just as careful not to stare, he took a seat across from her. The cup of coffee in front of her was almost as big as her head.
"How's it going?" she asked easily.
"Oh, just fine. And you?"
"Going well. Do you want to get yourself some coffee?"
"Oh, no. I don't really do caffeine."
"All right." Marie raised an eyebrow. "It's your life." Colin laughed at this and relaxed a little bit. "So what do you do?" she asked. "I mean, what allows you to be out on a weekday afternoon like this?"
"I'm an architect. I used to do some of my work from home, but right now I'm actually taking some time off. What's your thing?" He rubbed his knees, hoping she wouldn't notice his fidgeting.
"My thing is running a business. Online antique shop." She steepled her fingers. "Architect, huh? What have you designed?"
"My last project included a skyscraper downtown. I guess the corporation saw that there was a little empty space in the city and decided to fill it."
"I'm not hearing a lot of pride. Is that why you're taking a break?"
"Something like that. Rethinking my priorities, I guess."
"Got it." Marie paused and took a giant gulp of coffee. She set the empty cup back on the table. She guessed there was no way of being completely sure yet, but to her, he didn't seem like a maniac. "You ready to take a look at this place or what?"
Marie led the way out of the coffee shop, but Colin reached over her to open the door for her. He brushed her side and the brief touch left him momentarily stunned.
"Do you want to follow me?" she asked, turning to him on the sidewalk outside.
"You know, your car follows my car to my house. Or if you have GPS, I could just give you the address."
"I'll just follow," he responded sheepishly.
The place was almost as beautiful as Marie, Colin thought as he pulled into her driveway. Everything about it impressed him: the lake, the trees, and especially the English-style cottage. If he hadn't already been sure that he wanted to live here, there was no question now.
"I think it's great," he shared with Marie, who was at the front step already, patiently waiting for him.
"I do, too," she smiled. As he reached the porch, he felt like a suitor with his date. He couldn't tell whether it felt more like he was picking his date up, or if it was more like the sweat-inducing date drop-off. Either way, it was enough to make Colin tense up.
He was not the only one aware of the weirdness of walking into the house together. Marie began to feel a little nervous about letting this stranger come inside, but she chided herself for worrying. She dropped her keys and set her purse down on a little table by the door. All the while, she kept her eyes on Colin, who looked at the house's interior as though charmed, wondering at everything. She had decorated almost exclusively with art deco pieces, and even the gold wallpaper was deco, with its simple, strong lines in an elegant pattern.
Marie watched Colin as he inventoried the living room. Colin was dressed down, but he wore his outfit well. A heather gray t-shirt that actually fit, dark-wash denim jeans, charcoal loafers. There was a certain amount of skill involved in looking so sharp in an outfit so conventional. For a moment, she almost felt a twinge of jealousy.
"This lamp is pretty remarkable," he mumbled, indicating a vivid orange lamp with a beaded curtain of fringe that stood at one end of the couch. He touched the beads with a tentative hand.
"Just commenting on this lamp. It's great." He turned to face her. "Sorry, it's been a long time since I've seen a woman's place decorated in a way I actually liked. If you don't mind me saying so."
"Not at all. I think that lamp is pretty all right myself. Wouldn't have bought it otherwise." She laughed, and he looked reassured. "Let's go take a look at the kitchen." Colin obediently followed Marie through an open doorway. The kitchen was decorated almost entirely in black and white, with accents of gold here and there. "And the bedrooms are through here," she explained, pointing to another open doorway that led into a hall.
Colin couldn't decide how he felt about the bedrooms being so close together. He found himself wondering whether this was a blessing or a disaster waiting to happen. A distant part of him considered the possibility that he could get himself in a lot of trouble if he moved in with this woman.
Marie turned to him. As if reading his mind, but only discerning his most innocent thoughts, she said, "Don't worry, we each have our own bathroom. Let me show you." Marie opened his bedroom door and walked into the center of the room. "I've already furnished this room. If you have a lot of furniture, though, we can work that out."
"Not a problem. The place where I've been living came furnished, too. Not much to move in."
"Perfect. Oh, and here's the bathroom." Marie pushed open a door to her left. "You have a sink, a shower, a toilet. All the luxuries of modern living."
He peered in, nodded approvingly. "So how many more of these little tours do you have to get through? If you don't mind me asking."
"You're the only one I've scheduled, actually. If the Internet is to be believed, 9 out of 10 human beings are totally insane. You're 1 in 10, or so it seems to me."
He had made up his mind, for better or worse. "If that's the case, when can I move in?"
Colin had finished moving in within a week of his first visit to the house. Marie was impressed, though she hadn't been quite sure about the rush. But he was as he had claimed: quiet, respectful, easy to get along with. In fact, she rarely saw
The night that Colin had finally settled in, Marie received a note under her door. It was a Friday night, and she had gotten home late. She set her glass of water down and reached for it. It read: Making breakfast. It was signed with the letter C. She stared at it for a few moments, as though another message would reveal itself to her. But there was nothing more to the note, and Marie smiled and shook her head.
In the morning, Marie woke to the smell of food. Lots of food, and all the smells intermingled were so incredible, her stomach growled. She rolled out of bed and, having not washed her face before going to sleep, looked in the mirror, checking for any major makeup smears. She looked passably human, she thought as she pulled a robe on tightly over her underwear, then ventured out into the kitchen.
"Good morning." Colin looked up from a skillet full of eggs, peppers, bacon, and sausage.
"Are you making us a coronary for breakfast?" Colin smiled and nodded. Marie glanced around the kitchen and saw that the waffle-maker was out on the counter with its "on" button lit up. She slid into a seat at the kitchen table and watched. Even the table was already set, and she absent-mindedly played with her fork. "What's the occasion?"
"No occasion. I wanted an excuse to make as much food as possible. Preparing a breakfast like this for two makes me feel less guilty than making it just for me."
"Although your reasoning is selfish, I'm still grateful to you."
"Wait until you've tasted it before you thank me." Marie forgot how much she loved the smell of a real breakfast. And she loved the sound of cooking, the sizzling and the scrape of the turner in the frying pan. Her breakfasts were always simple and fast: a bowl of cereal, a slice of toast, maybe a little fruit. The simpler the meal, the less likely she was to ruin it. Having a roommate competent at cooking would definitely prove to be an asset. "Done," he announced. She heard the scrape of the turner again as he divvied up the portions, pushing half the food onto one plate, the rest onto the other.
Colin gingerly set Marie's plate in front of her, then took his place across from her. Marie was famished and didn't bother to wait for Colin to begin.
"This is great," she exclaimed through a mouthful of food.
"How does one get good at this kind of thing?"
"This kind of thing? You mean cooking?" Marie nodded, and Colin smirked. "Well, I was a line cook for a little while in college. No formal schooling, but they taught me how to be decent at it." The two allowed for a long pause between them, Marie deep in thought, Colin enjoying his meal. Marie broke the silence.
"So, I never asked you about your temperament."
"My temperament?" Colin laughed.
"Yeah. You know, like when you're looking for a dog. You're always supposed to ask. You said you were a quiet guy, an introvert, but I don't know much else."
"Well, I'm laid-back. Very loyal. Not particularly aggressive, unless provoked. You?"
"Sharp. A little sensitive. High energy, I guess you could say. That makes me both a little neurotic and a little wild."
"In what sense are you 'wild'?" The question itself was inherently flirtatious, but made even more so by the little smile that Colin tried to hide as he asked.
"I'm not sure how to explain. I think it's one of those things you just have to find out for yourself."
"Jesus," he murmured, too softly for her to hear. "Can you at least tell me whether I should be worried? For example, 'wildness' isn't a euphemism for 'criminal,' is it? I never did see the garage. Is there a meth lab in there?"
"Nothing to worry about." Her laugh was generous and soothing to hear. "The only thing in the garage is antiques. Though the meth business might bring in a bit more money. You may have given me an idea."
"How did you get started with antiques, anyway?"
"I grew up with them. My mom loved them and would take me to antique malls every weekend. There's nostalgia in it, undeniably, but I like that all the pieces I sell have lived lives I can't even imagine. They have history. I love them more for their imperfections, I think. The dream is to open up a real store one day, but the way things are going, it's going to be a while yet." Marie seemed thoughtful for a moment, pushing her fork around her plate like a shovel. "What made you want to be an architect?"
"My dad was an art historian. He had tons of books on architecture. Whenever I had a moment, I was devouring them. I'd see stuff like Gaudi and wish I could create something like that myself."
"Gaudi is a far cry from skyscrapers."
"Exactly. Which is why I'm on vacation from them. Not sure where I went wrong. I think that I decided making a living was more important than being happy."
"May I ask a personal question?"
"Why such a rush to move in? Was your lease up or was something else going on?"
"Oh, that." He sat back, resigned, plate clean. "I was still living in the house that I once occupied with my wife. My ex-wife. We've been divorced for a couple of years, and in all other ways I felt like it was in my past. So I was just done being reminded of that. Plus, it was in the middle of the city. Something about living here appealed to me, in the country."
"Were you thinking of her when you mentioned your dissatisfaction with women decorators?" Marie smirked.
"Ah! Well, maybe. It was a general comment, but she definitely had a thing for a more modern look, even futuristic. And she had the final say in all decisions, always. Sometimes I felt like I lived in the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange." Marie shuddered and gave him a sympathetic look. "Just not my thing."
"I'm glad the house suits you. And I'm glad we don't live in a milk bar."
"So." He looked at her squarely. "What's your deal? How long have you lived alone?" Marie was surprised by his bluntness, but she had been a little forward herself.
"I've been living on my own about five years now. I shared an apartment with a boyfriend before that, but it didn't work out."
"Do you prefer living by yourself? Am I an intruder here?"
"Yes. I mean, yes, I usually do prefer living by myself, but no, you're not intruding," she laughed as some of her tension eased up. "There's a lot of freedom in living alone, but there can also be a little loneliness, too." Her look became distant for a moment, but she caught herself and continued. "I don't mean to make you feel like you're intruding. I think with the right roommate, sharing a living space can be pretty gratifying, as long as you get along."
"I think we're going to get along just fine."
Marie was getting to like her new roommate, though he was undoubtedly shy. For the most part, he kept to himself, but he made their breakfast almost every morning, always offering up some new interesting fact about himself or uncovering one more facet of her, some hidden away thing he would have never guessed about her. For example, that she had been an art major and had considered a career in medical illustration, that she made her own beer, that she was a religious scrap-booker. For his part, he had wanted to be a detective before he'd discovered architecture, and he had gotten a tattoo of a Da Vinci illustration on his left shoulder in college. Marie, not typically a big fan of tattoos, had loved it.
One morning, Marie woke to find that there was no breakfast announcement under her door. She scratched her head and pulled on a robe. She was none too happy that she'd just have to make it herself and grumbled under her breath. He had spoiled her, she realized, feeling just a little embarrassed.