THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE ARCHITECT
She wouldn't let these men intimidate her-the contractor, the
plumbers, the electricians, the foreman of the roofing crew who
glared with murder in his eyes when she asked if the tar that
acridly bubbled in its kettle had reached a certain temperature.
These men might have an inherent dislike of architects, to say
nothing of female ones, but she had discovered that they would
listen if she knew what she was talking about, and thus she had
deliberately informed herself about such matters as the desirable
temperature of roofing tar. She hoped her smile didn't look
forced as she told the foreman she realized that his men would
have to stand around doing nothing while he waited for the tar
to get hotter, but if he didn't she would arrange for a test cut
to be made when the job was finished, to determine whether the
roofing plies were properly bonded. And if they weren't, she told
him, his crew would have to return, tear everything off, and do
The man muttered a profanity. He was broad and muscular and she
thought that he could simply pick her up and toss her aside if
he was so inclined. "If you want," she said, hearing
an unpleasant quaver in her voice, "I'll call your office
and speak to someone there."
The man stared into the distance and said that he would wait for
half an hour, but not a minute longer. She thanked him, perhaps
a bit profusely, then walked across the gouged front yard and
through the doorless entry into the house. The idea of compromise
lay like a shape or color in her head, a little too thin or fat,
a little too bold or pale. She had designed the house with a
roof, but after the plans were drawn and a model constructed the
clients decided that they wanted higher ceilings, and because
of a limit imposed by the city the only way she could add this
height was to make the roof flat. The pitched roof would have
been tiled, and the unpleasantness about the heating of the tar
avoided. But such things happened. A test of the soil had revealed
an instability on one side of the lot, for example, and in order
to keep the floor space the clients wanted she had narrowed and
lengthened the house, trying to maintain proportion with the
of windows and other tricks that had not succeeded, not entirely.
Above her a power saw whined. On her last visit to the house she
had climbed the rough-framed stairway to the second floor and
at the very top she had tripped, catching herself with her hands,
slightly spraining one wrist and skinning a knee. A carpenter
had rushed over to help her up and had asked so many times if
she was all right that she had become irritated, and told him
not to be absurd when he offered, with foolish gallantry, to help
her back down the stairs. Afterwards, in her office, and later
at home, she had pondered this mishap which evolved at length
into a sort of pratfall. She hadn't been wearing shoes with heels,
but the sneakers she carried in her car to put on at job sites.
She couldn't blame her shoes. She had simply been in too much
of a hurry, although she was not innately clumsy or careless,
especially around construction sites that bristled with hazards.
She had simply caught her toe on the edge of the step, but her
mind wouldn't let it go at that; she had to know why.
She took a measuring tape from her purse, a delicate instrument
in contrast to the obese ones the carpenters used, and she knelt
at the foot of the stairs and measured the very first riser, the
vertical face of the step. It was slightly more than seven inches.
She leaned and measured the second riser- it was the same. She
climbed halfway up the stairs, stopped and measured the riser
nearest her feet. Exactly seven inches. She continued upward,
stopped at the top of the stairs and held the tape against the
final riser. She bent and stared at the black calibrations on
the yellow tape, to be certain that she hadn't made a mistake.
Eight inches. Almost eight and one quarter, to be precise. She
allowed the tape to retract with a whir into its case. Then she
pulled it out once more and held it against the riser and bent
again to follow the calibrations with her eyes. Just to be
As she straightened, she heard a shuffle of feet, and then the
carpenter's voice, inquiring with earnest gravity about the
of her knee.
Back in her office, she listened to messages on her answering
machine. One from the contractor, wanting to know if the tile
for the bathrooms had been selected, and one from the client,
telling her that he and his wife couldn't go to the tile showroom
tomorrow after all, something had come up. A third from the
she had engaged to find her a house, a man whose voice described
in fantastical jargon a house she simply had to see despite the
fact that its price was higher than the figure she had set as
her absolute, inviolable limit. She felt herself frown. She had
taken a friend's advice and gotten a male realtor, this man who
had patiently listened to her highly specific list of desires
and then the very next day shown her a house that didn't fulfill
a single one. Her friend had asserted that men are better
and thus she would get a better deal. She decided not to call
She dialed the client's number and a female voice of modulated
cheer informed her that he was in a meeting. This man had a wife
but it had been obvious, from the beginning, that he would make
all the decisions about the design of the house. At first she
had tried to draw the wife out, to involve her, and had even
subversion-asking the wife's opinion when her husband wasn't
But this intelligent and educated woman had qualified every answer
by saying that, of course, she would have to discuss it with her
husband. Another friend, a male architect, liked to pontificate
on this subject, saying that the only way to successfully handle
a couple is to identify the one with the power and then go to
that person when decisions have to be made. "You're not a
psychologist," he had said, when she complained of
"You're not here to change people. You have to deal with
whatever arrangements they happen to have made for themselves.
If you don't, you'll drive yourself crazy."
She called the contractor and got his answering machine. She
his pager, and when he called back, within minutes, he immediately
launched into a speech about why he had to order the tile by the
end of the week to keep the job on schedule. Then, in the form
of an afterthought, he said that he had just come from the house
and the roofing foreman had bitterly complained about this female
architect poking into things she knew nothing about, holding up
his crew, costing his company money.
"What did you tell him?" She briefly imagined that
it was, it had contained a reference to her sex, possibly
"I told him that it wasn't any big deal," he said
"You and I both know," she said, smothering a little
flare of anger, "that if the tar isn't hot enough the plies
will separate and eventually there'll be a leak."
"They guarantee their roofs. If it leaks they'll fix
"I don't understand that attitude," she said. "Why
not just do it properly the first time?"
"Sure," he said. "I agree." He was a man who
succeeded in appearing to be on everyone's side no matter how
much at odds they were. Whenever he had wanted to change something
to simplify construction, he had praised her design before
telling the clients how much money he could save them. He would
always say to her, "You're the boss," while claiming
that something couldn't be done according to the plans.
"I was at the house this morning," she said.
a problem with the stairs." She went on to describe her
of the risers.
"I'll check it out," he said blandly.
"The last riser is over an inch too high," she said,
hearing in her voice a note of shrillness that she intensely
"That's why I tripped. The carpenters made a mistake."
"Probably forgot to account for the plywood on the second
floor," he said, as if that explained everything, closed
"It can't just be left that way," she said.
A moment of silence enlarged around a hum and faint crackle of
cross talk. She had observed that this man kept a tight rein on
his crew, on the subcontractors, and was probably calculating
how much it would cost to tear out the stairway and do it over.
How much time it would take, if it would hold up the job. The
man seemed obsessively concerned with schedule, and she knew that
his reputation was for getting a job done without delays and extra
costs. She suspected, however, that he wouldn't hesitate, if
to cut a corner.
"That won't pass code," she said. "An inch
in riser heights. Does the building inspector normally measure
He didn't answer this question. Instead, he said, "I'm going
back this afternoon. I'll check it out." His tone of
annoyed her. "I've got to order that tile, though,"
he added, and she said with as much equanimity as she could muster
that she would try her best to hurry the clients up.
She changed her mind, then, and called the realtor's office. If
she liked the house, perhaps the owners would listen to an offer.
Although her personal life was at the moment free of entanglement,
she had imagined in certain detail a life with a companion, and
if she entered into such a domestic arrangement she wanted it
to be in a house with a yard to garden in, with rooms to paint,
a place uniquely hers and this other, unseen, unelected person's.
The realtor's secretary put her on hold long enough to seriously
dim this luminous fantasy, after which the realtor said with his
usual exuberance that he would meet her at the house at four
The house was built in the Sixties and displayed the slovenly
craftsmanship all too typical of that period. She noticed stains
and cracks in the plaster, evidence of leaks and possible problems
with the foundation. The street didn't appear to be heavily
but the house was less than half a block from a major boulevard,
and even inside with the windows closed she could hear the
hum of traffic. She didn't care to recall how emphatically she
had told the realtor that she would consider a neighborhood only
if it was quiet. She told the man she wasn't remotely interested
in the house, not at any price, and in a drama of voice and
he said, "Look at the potential. You're an architect. You
can make it into whatever you want. Think of the future. This
neighborhood is going to be hot, I guarantee it. Buying this house
is like putting money in the bank."
He was a handsome man of such enormous insincerity that she felt
a sense of being onstage, of feeding him lines that he could
in response to. He had offered to pick her up at her office, but
she had fabricated a reason to drive herself, to avoid being
with him in his car. As they stood outside at the curb, he
his eyes and puckered his lips, a prelude to what she imagined
would be a further, futile pitch, but instead he said, "You
want to have a drink?"
"What?" She was startled, then wondered if she had heard
"There's a place down here." His arm waved in an
direction. "It's almost five. Time to unwind.
"I'm sorry." She repressed an urge to laugh at a
scene of herself and this man in low, romantic light, their heads
bent in provocative symmetry over their drinks. She detected a
lascivious glow in the tanned, lotioned skin of his face. She
couldn't quite bring herself to tell him the truth, that
even if she was interested in men it would never be him. "I
have to get back to the office," she lied. "I have to
work on some plans."
"All work and no play," he said, with a polished,
smile. "One drink." He raised his manicured hands and
turned the palms out in a gesture of innocence. "No strings
"I'm sorry," she said, wanting to get back to her
and put on shorts and T-shirt and lie in the chaise longue on
her balcony and read the newspaper while sipping a glass of wine.
She produced a little smile intended to dismiss him, but taking
no for an answer was something he was obviously trained to resist,
and his eyebrows lifted and plunged, and his pupils glistened
through narrowed lids, making his quest seem highly serious, even
"How old are you?"
Jesus, she thought. She had gotten into her car, but he had placed
his body within the swing of her door, making it impossible to
simply pull it shut and drive away.
"I'm thirty-five." She jiggled her keys impatiently
in the ignition. "Why?"
"It's none of your business." The conclusion he
she guessed, as she tugged the door, forcing him to step back
although he didn't go away but just stood watching her fasten
her seat belt, start the motor, and put the transmission into
gear and check the rearview mirror, all with an enormous
After the first few houses he decided that I'm a bitch, she
and this little charade about a drink was just a test to prove
it. When I get home, she told herself, slowing at the corner,
I'll call his office and leave a message to the effect that I
won't be needing his services any longer. As she waited for a
break in the boulevard traffic, she once again saw herself with
him in the bar, and she laughed aloud. As she surged into a space
behind a truck she saw herself in bed with him, married to him,
and her amusement expanded so suddenly and deeply that her entire
body shook, tears streamed from her eyes, she gasped, she had
to concentrate to keep the car from drifting out of its lane.
She decided to stop at her office and pick up some sketches to
work on at home. The little red dash on her answering machine
was blinking, and with an odd twitch of apprehension that banished
any lingering mirth she pushed the playback button. The first
voice was that of the client, saying that he and his wife could
meet her at the tile showroom tomorrow after all, the second that
of the friend who had advised her to get a male realtor, saying
how are you, I've missed you, we're having a party and it would
be fabulous if you could come. Some interesting people will be
there, including this couple who want to build a new house.
The social life, she thought, so necessary to meet potential
to display herself in stylish clothes and witty voice when she
would rather be curled up in her living room reading a book or
watching TV, although a vision of herself in this solitude had
a slightly out-of-focus, disorienting quality. She had designed
an addition to the house of the friend, this woman and her husband
who had turned out to be one of those rare couples who act upon
a belief in absolute equality. A relief from men who would make
every decision, or women who would make every decision except
the critical one of how much money to spend, or couples who
to themselves traditional little bailiwicks, the wife deciding
everything about the kitchen and bathrooms, for example, the
the heating system, the garage. Once or twice her friend and the
husband had argued with an intensity that flirted with ugliness,
and their difficulty in deciding certain things had caused delays,
but in the end both had seemed pleased, in contrast to certain
wives who possessed no power and seemed indifferent to and even
unhappy with their new houses, their new kitchens and bathrooms,
their family rooms and solariums and gardens that had failed,
she abruptly decided, with a sense of possibly being unfair, to
fill up some vast and empty space at the center of their lives.
On Friday morning she met the contractor at the job site and gave
him samples of the tile the clients had selected. In each
the husband had lifted a tile from the showroom display and
it, then asked his wife what she thought, although this was
a formality. The wife seemed to know this, saying, "It's
all right with me," or "Do you think it will go with
the fixtures?" or, at an extreme, "Maybe it's a little
too bright." If she expressed an opinion that he agreed with,
he would praise her eye for color or form, but if he disagreed
he would patiently point out her lapse of judgment and she would
nod, dutifully, as if he had spoken an obvious, inviolate truth.
The contractor listened to a description of how the tile was to
be set and she allowed him to figure his quantities before
up the subject of the stairs. The man rubbed a ridge above his
eyes, a gathering of skin she supposed to be the result of years
of squinting into the sun. He was a stocky man in Levi's and a
polo shirt with the name of his company on the bulge of his chest,
and all at once she was certain that beneath his amenable exterior
lurked a hatred of her, not because she was an architect, but
for what he must have suspected about her, inferred from some
manner of speech or grooming or posture or any of a myriad of
"It's pretty minor," he said, looking away, as if the
subject interfered with more relevant matters.
"It was enough to catch my toe," she said.
He glanced at her as if to say, so what's so strange about a woman
being clumsy? She had never heard him mention a wife, but she
was sure he had one, at home, a steadfast loyal woman who cooked
his food and washed his clothes and tended to his ego. As an image
of this hypothetical woman indistinctly wavered in her mind she
told herself not to be superior.
"I really believe you should change it," she said,
the fact that she couldn't just put it in the form of a demand.
Just get it done. Damn it.
The man was turning, beginning to drift away, toward another part
of the house. She felt as if she were being dismissed.
"If you don't," she said, "I'll have to tell the
He stopped and stared at her, and he looked just like the roofing
foreman-smoother, more groomed and polished, but nevertheless
a man with the same intent of mayhem or murder in his eyes. His
cheeks inflated and caved in, as if he was working something
to the front of his mouth.
"And suppose they don't give a crap?"
"Then I'll tell the building inspector." A sudden,
regret cinched tightly around her ribs, robbing her of breath.
She hadn't meant to say this, not in so many words. She saw the
man's lips pucker, open just slightly, and she heard in the space
between them the word, "Cunt."
"What?" Fury danced into her eyes, threatening to
her vision. "What did you call me?"
He turned his head to one side and spat on the floor. Cords stood
stiffly out on his neck.
"I saved your ass a dozen times, lady. Fucked up things on
the plans that cost me time and money that I could have told the
owners about. That I could have charged them for!"
"Lots of things!" His plump jowls were aflame. "But
you know, in this business we work together, we don't go stabbing
each other in the back like a bunch of goddamn thieves. But you
wanna play a different game, be my guest, lady, just don't go
crying wolf when you get your tit in the fire!"
What did this mixture of metaphors mean? she thought, a flare
of dangerous heat and pressure behind her eyes. If she were a
man, she thought, she could bluster in return, threaten to knock
him down if he didn't apologize. But who could successfully make
such a threat? Her friend the male architect?
"I think you had better apologize," she said, her voice
made hollow by the emptiness of the house. The man glared at some
private vision contained in an open wall of studs crisscrossed
by electrical conduits and the thin white wires of the security
system. She imagined that he had risen from the ranks of the
trades; she had watched him pick up a hammer and show a carpenter
how to nail a particular joint, she had seen him demonstrate a
certain cut with a saw, and his bantering manner with his crew
implied an equality, a sense of having something fundamental in
common. This went through her head in seconds, and she would have
liked to form it into a levelheaded speech, but he didn't look
receptive at all. He turned and stamped away, disappeared through
a doorway, and she heard a thump and then something skitter, as
if kicked, across the floor.
She dressed in what she considered architect-chic, gray pants,
black shirt and tie, shoes and accessories that added up to a
slightly careless formality that spoke "artist" although
not to an extreme that would suggest some sort of fringe. She
was successful, without knowing exactly why, at telling
clients-most often lawyers, doctors, film people-what they wanted
to hear. Her friend the male architect had said that clients want
to believe that their architect is one of their own, and thus
will not betray them, spring upon them some monstrous surprise.
She did not consider herself to have much in common with corporate
lawyers, and yet one had hired her to design an addition to his
house. She did not think she had anything in common with
financial analysts, film editors, and yet each had retained her.
She had persuaded herself to believe, despite her awareness of
having projected a definite image by dress and speech, that what
these people recognized was her vision, and her commitment to
professional ethics and responsibility. Her friend the male
believed that she was entirely naive. They want to think you're
one of their own, he had repeated, so many times that she had
grown weary of hearing it.
She arrived just late enough to discourage any impression that
she might be eager. In fact, she had no major commissions beyond
the present one and the real estate boom had clearly expired and
she was a little worried, particularly in light of the fact that
she had decided to use her savings for a down payment on a house.
As usual, there seemed to be only couples at the party, but this
had long ago ceased to bother her, and in fact was a blessing,
because she wouldn't have to face the possibility of single males
acting upon the fact that she was alone. She drank three glasses
of wine, one beyond her usual limit, and she felt slightly dazed
as she talked about real estate and houses with people who shifted
into that subject as soon as they learned that she was an
She was introduced to the prospective clients. The man told her
that his business was doing market research for movie studios,
testing audiences, that sort of thing. She could only vaguely
imagine this business and her interest in movies was limited to
going to one now and then that didn't promise to be steeped in
the malignant partnership of sex and violence. The man said that
he and his wife had added on to the house they lived in a few
years before, an experience that had turned into a nightmare.
His wife nodded her assent, then appeared to lose interest and
"I got screwed by everybody," the man said, in a loud,
earnest voice that verged upon stereotype, although of what she
didn't exactly know. "The contractor, the architect, the
building department. This time I'm gonna be a helluva lot smarter,
"What happened?" she asked.
"You got a couple of hours?" A bellow of mirth escaped
from his mouth and she concluded that if he wasn't drunk, he
wasn't sober either. Dread passed like a shadow over her face,
and she tried to freeze between her cheeks an adequate smile.
"We had this house up in the hills, you know, and they had
to drill these holes in the ground for the foundation." His
hands slid up and down over an imaginary cylinder that the gesture
managed to render phallic. "So this goddamn contractor hired
this rig to drill these holes, but then the goddamn geologist
comes along and says they gotta be deeper into the bedrock or
something, and instead of getting this drilling rig back the
contractor goes out and hires some Mexicans off the street and
sends them down in the holes with a jackhammer and unbeknownst
to me one of the Mexicans screws up his back and after the job
is done this Mexican shows up at the door asking for money."
The man paused to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand,
exposing a soft palm and the gold enrichment of two rings and
the band of a watch like the realtor's, also gold,
"Well, the guy can't speak a word of English, of course,
so I have to get Angelina, she's our maid, to translate, but she
doesn't speak a whole lot of English, either, so it was pretty
much a farce, but I was able to figure out that the goddamn
didn't have any workers' compensation and Angelina and this guy
kept saying the word abogado which I just accidentally
happened to know means lawyer so I say, 'What the hell,' and I
dig up all the money I've got in the house, which with pennies
and all comes to a little over a thousand bucks, and I give it
to him and I tell him that's it, no mas, amigo, and I tell
you I was holding my breath for a while although thank God he
never came back and I never heard anything more about any goddamn
She didn't want to listen to more of this story, if there was
more, and she didn't want this man for a client. Either she would
be essentially invisible, or he would treat her with a wise,
detachment that she knew would make her stiff with frustration.
She looked past the man and saw his wife, a woman of faded,
beauty, giggling over something said by a handsome, younger man.
"How deep were they?" she asked, forced into speech
by the silence, and a deeply compulsive urge to be polite.
"The holes they drilled."
"Well . . . lemme see." His hands performed some
in the air. "Twenty feet. Yeah, twenty feet. That was it.
The deepest was twenty feet. They were three feet wide."
"And the contractor sent men down inside them? That's
"Well, yeah, you know." The man gulped the remains of
a yellow drink. "I asked the goddamn contractor, I said,
'What if it caves in?' and he said, 'These guys are all here
if something happens we'll just pour the concrete and nobody'll
ever know, they come and go all the time.'"
"I trust," she said, plotting the route of her escape,
first to the bathroom, then on a quick search for her hosts, to
tell them thanks, it was a nice party but I'm a little tired,
goodnight, let's have lunch sometime, "that you're not going
to hire this contractor again." If they asked, she would
say, yes, she talked to these people who want to build a new
but wasn't sure if they would be right for each other, an
based, of course, on a very fleeting conversation.
She excused herself, leaving the man in mid-sentence, and on her
way to the bathroom she saw the man's wife extend a
hand and brush the arm of the younger man who now had a woman
at his side, a young woman whose radiance seemed to plunge
beyond a certain distance into darkness. She had to wait for the
bathroom but nobody spoke to her, and after peeing and washing
her hands she leaned against the lavatory counter and stared into
the mirror, feeling an unpleasant, medicinal intoxication, and
then so suddenly sorry for herself that her face dissolved into
a shimmering caricature. She opened her mouth and pressure in
her throat ejected a small, hard ball of sound that flew against
the mirror, shattering it into a web of heat and light that seemed
to be a vision of a future she had never intended for herself,
never wanted, did not deserve.
When she got to the office on Monday morning there were half a
dozen messages on the answering machine. The first from the
"Hey, what did I do wrong? Talk to me. Are you there? Was
it something I said? Listen, I've got this two-bedroom Craftsman,
just came on the market, needs a little work but great, great
potential. Give me a call? Huh? Are we still friends?"
She felt herself smile as she listened to a beep followed by the
voice of the client, a man who never offered a preamble like
are you?" but always got directly to the point, which in
this case was that the contractor had submitted a bill, several
thousand dollars for extra work related to what were termed
Errors." In an insistent voice that immediately quenched
the amusement aroused by the realtor's histrionic distress, the
client said, "I don't understand what's going on here. I
need you to call me, immediately."
She listened to the other messages, but none were from the
and she supposed that she and the man would avoid any further
communication, although she didn't see how this would be possible.
She knew, above all, that she wanted him to apologize. Not that
she would necessarily believe in the sincerity of such an apology,
but it would allow her the dignity of saying, "I forgive
you," or "I've totally forgotten about it." It
was the word that had upset her, cast clouds upon her future,
dragged the unexpected, uncharacteristic self pity from her at
the party, in the bathroom where solitude had descended upon her
like a monstrous jeer. This word so common, probably, in the
language of these men and yet so harsh, a word that seemed to
rob her of all the power she had ever imagined herself to possess.
When she got to the job site a truck loaded with bundles of
sat within the chainlink fence that enclosed the lot. Inside the
house she briefly watched a man with a wooden pole push batts
of yellow fiberglass into the spaces between the studs of the
wall. She heard the rap of a hammer, once, twice, and when she
walked further into the long, skylighted foyer she saw the
who had rushed to help her the day she tripped at the top of the
stairs. He was a young man with hair that loosely rained from
a cap, and when he saw her he grinned and nodded and she imagined
that he might have applauded if his hands had been free.
"Gotta re-frame the stairs," he said, with excessive
cheer, considering what she guessed to be the nuisance of such
a job. "Glad I wasn't the one who screwed it up."
He held a tool she had forgotten the name of, an iron bar with
a claw on one end that he hammered around the head of a nail,
then levered to pull the nail from the wood.
"The boss was hot," the carpenter went on. "Man,
did he ever chew out the guy who did it." He paused, as if
to give her time to process this information. "Normally,
you know, whoever screws something up is the one who has to do
it over, but Danny-he's the guy who laid out the stairs-he can't
do it because he's at the hospital."
"The hospital?" An image revisited her, from a job site
a few years before, splatters of red leading away from an oval
stain on a dusty concrete floor, like tears from an eye, the
of an accident in which a carpenter had thrust his fingers into
the blade of his saw.
"Yeah, his girlfriend had a baby last night but there's
wrong with it, like it can't breathe right or something so he's
staying there with her."
"I see," she said, although what she saw was vague and
indistinct, a scrim behind which her mother wept over the tragedy
of a daughter who would never have children. The tragedy, she
thought, was not that she would never have children, because if
she wanted to have a child it could be arranged, the tragedy was
that she was alone, and the social milieus within which this
and his boss and the other carpenter, Danny, and the man at the
party and the realtor and her friends who were married functioned
were needles of mockery that danced through her head. The
had more to say but she didn't want to listen; she wanted to leave
the house because she knew that fibers from the insulation would
irritate her skin and get into her throat and make her cough.
The carpenter was explaining how the rise and run of a stairway
is properly calculated, and how the body has a memory that lifts
the feet the same amount on each step, and how he himself
that the reason she tripped that day was because the last riser
was too high. She nodded, smiling to let him know that she was
interested, but she had heard a car or truck pull up outside and
she felt an urgent desire to escape. As she moved through shafts
of sunlight that plunged from the skylights and splayed upon the
floor, she heard the scrape of shoes on the plank that angled
up to the doorway, and then she saw the contractor enter and come
directly toward her, as if she were invisible, as if he would
walk right through her if she didn't get out of his way.
"I didn't say anything to the clients about the stairs,"
she said, when he was almost upon her. He stopped, as if he hadn't
noticed her until the moment she spoke. He stared past her, eyes
lifted, watching the man raise a long strip of insulation and
prod it into place.
"If I made mistakes that cost you money I'll pay for them
out of my own pocket," she said. "But I just really
want you to apologize for what you called me the other day."
His face darkened, or perhaps it was just a passing cloud,
the sunlight from the roof. His jaw described a rectangular motion
in the air.
"I'm sorry," he finally said. "You threaten me,
I tend to get pissed off."
"I'm sorry," she said, aware of the repetition, a
of recitation, or song. "I just want to be certain everything
is done properly. That's my job."
He still stared past her, as if enraptured by the soft, yellow
fiberglass that bulged from the walls, and she shifted slightly,
trying to get into his field of vision.
"I'd like to go over these things you call architect's
If they're legitimate, I'll pay for them." She thought of
her savings, the down payment on a house, significantly, perhaps
fatally, diminished, along with her fantasy about planting a
painting rooms, then being in them with someone.
"I was pissed off," he said again, as if this
a deeply profound explanation. "I'm sorry I called you
He glanced at her, a tic in the muscle along his jaw that made
him look uncharacteristically nervous and unpredictable. "I
guess I'll withdraw the bill. It's not that big a deal."
Then he was gone, and she heard his voice, and the carpenter's,
mingled in the near distance. She felt the itch of the fiberglass,
and as if this were a signal a finger scratched in her throat
and she raised her hand to her mouth and coughed.
She stood beside her car, waiting for a feeling of happiness,
or relief, or even smugness to come upon her. She stared at the
face of the house that she had designed, a structure of studs
and joists and beams and rafters, unfinished but complete as to
dimension and shape, and she wondered if any of the reasons that
had inspired her to become an architect were compelling or even
sufficient. She had once wanted to be an artist, but had
intelligently she thought, that her powers of imagination were
too limited. She had been good at drawing, though, at drawing
houses especially, an activity that always promoted a sense of
fulfilling some natural longing. But she had also imagined herself
in the houses she drew when she was a little girl and later an
adolescent and college student, and now when these intricately
detailed houses were actually built and occupied, not by herself
but by strangers, there always existed within her pride of
an unwelcome quantity of disappointment, an oddly personal feeling
of exclusion, of loss.
She backed her car through the gate in the chainlink fence. She
couldn't afford to build a house, but if she could buy one then
she could begin saving money to remodel it, and in this manner
create a home exclusively for herself and the as yet unknown
She suddenly felt a powerful urge to speed, because she wanted
to get back to her office as quickly as possible. Another friend
had given her, over the weekend, the name of a female realtor,
a woman reputed to be sensitive, ethical, diligent, possessing
other virtues too numerous to totally believe in, and the
number lay on the drafting table, along with sketches,
brochures, all the disparate elements of her professional life.
This number glowed in her head like the answer to a question that
had forever stumped her, and she sniffled, then opened her mouth
to laugh, although she did not laugh but coughed, and lifted a
hand to rub the sudden tingle of an itch across the skin of her