Here, an excerpt from my novel and work-in-progress, Monday Night Bike Club:
They built their house, officially, in the middle of nowhere.
They spent hours after work, after college classes, before breakfast and during lunch working on the house. It was his idea, a terrible one she thought.
Her dad had looked at Lainey and said, “Your Aunt Emily built her own house too.”
“Great,” she said.
“It took them 8 years,” he answered.
They were 22 and 23, so young and foolish and idealistic, she sees now what her dad was thinking. They had set about it with a $20 how-to book from the little store downtown. They dubbed it “The Bible,” the closest to religion they’d ever come. Nick had worked at a lumber store for five years by then, spent all his working hours with men building houses and garages and kitchens.
Lainey wasn’t a natural at the job and about a month into the job nailed an entire wall flat to the floor. She'd spent an hour measuring and marking the length of each board with a fat carpenter pencil, balancing the boards on the saw and cutting a smooth edge. Each time she cut she imagined a blade taking her arm off.
But when she tried to lift the bathroom wall she’d built, to right it into position on the marks on the OSB board under her feet, it wouldn’t budge. Nick, which Lainey made note of, didn't seem surprised.
“You’ve nailed it down completely,” he confirmed. He watched her, for given the weeks of labor forced upon Lainey, it could be complete meltdown material. He set about casually dismantling the wall she’d just built.
Lainey started bitching until Nick stood up and dropped the crowbar and pulled her to him with a yelp of laughter. He kissed her, kissing the wind-burned turn of her cheeks and her young, bitching mouth. This, Lainey decided, was the only thing she liked about building.
As their home took shape, so did her respect for Nick. She found herself both annoyed and proud of his skill and commitment. Nick would work and work, even as Lainey took breaks, her long legs swinging over the 8-foot drop-off around the foundation of the house, the backfill still undone. With no electricity, they worked fueled by a generator. It whirred and irritated, a backdrop to every conversation. They would work late into the night, the generator, their saws, their nail guns, reluctant Lainey and her Twix bars.
One night they worked until the generator ran out of gas, its whine coming to a halt in the basement and, as if by Lainey’s will, each tool in the house fell silent.
“I told you it was time to quit.” Lainey wasn’t happy.
“There’s a flashlight in the basement.” Nick whaled his leg against a sawhorse and she grabbed him in the dark.
“We’ll go together,” she said. The only thing worse than going into a dark basement with Nick was pretending not to be scared upstairs by herself. They made their way down the steps but before hitting the landing, hysterics were building, the irony of being completely lost in the home they'd built every inch of, falling heavy on them.
But when Nick eventually got the generator fired up again, Lainey found herself disappointed. He would make her work another hour or two, into the night.
“Please?” she asked.
He said nothing. Instead, he killed the generator he'd just started and turned the flashlight off.
Lainey doesn’t remember what they did next, but she remembers the feeling of breaking out early, late at night. Their work behind them and the sweet illicit shine of the moon on them as they crossed the wooden plank that bridged the house to the land. She remembers putting her arms out like she’d done on the playground balance beam and seeing the shadows of her arms cast by the moon.
And she remembers feeling young and free and brave crossing above the 8-foot pit in the night with no light, without hesitation and with Nick chasing her.
The meltdown came a month later.
On the rooftop, at dusk, when they were nailing shingles. The ladder, their path to freedom, caught a gust of wind and fell to the ground, breaking a plastic chair in its fall, and Lainey’s spirit in the process.
“What, what, WHAT?” Lainey said, her voice reaching a shout the closer she walked to the edge to confirm the ladder situation. They were, indeed, stranded on the roof, alone, in the middle of a godforsaken forest, with the sun setting and a chill coming in the air. This was before cell phones, and Lainey was long out of Twixs.
Lainey walked to the peak of the roof without hesitation, her fear of slipping gone after dragging bundles of shingles from one end of the roof to the other. She put down her nail gun without fanfare, no longer afraid of its trigger, its power, either. It could shoot her for all she cared; it would end her misery.
She sat on the peak that faced west. They had no neighbors yet only acres of maples and white pines, beautiful, striking, and cast in a sunset. She pulled her knees up and rested her forehead against them. She looked down to see the black and brown pebble of the roof between her tan workman boots.
“I’ll shimmy over the edge, here, where the fill is highest,” Nick said, rounding the roof looking for the least leg-breaking drop. He hurried, his steps quick, trying to sideline the crisis.
But Lainey didn’t look up. She started to cry instead. Indeed, her shingling was well done as her tears rode a singular line from the lip of one shingle to the next, expertly escorted from the scene. Nick stopped his rescue mission and stood still.
Screw him, she thought, I am tired, tired of this. I am not a builder, I am not a shingler, a plumber, an electrician or all the other things one had to be to build a house.
She was a student (she loved her lit class but could she linger with her friends afterward? No, she had 2-by-4s and 6-bys and sheets of 8 to pick up. Her friends knew what none of these were and she envied them). She was a writer, a daughter, a sister. She was a newlywed. She was not what she had become, a woman with her own tool belt.
“Hon,” Nick said, “we’re almost done.”
She hated him at that moment, that he’d made her do this physical labor when really she was just a girl with glasses and straight As. But, no. She’d married him, married this idea, just a few months ago, this complete consumption of her life, one of boards and nails and dirt and sweat.
She cried more then, fearing that her Aunt Emily would outpace her.
Nick sat beside her and waited. He held on tighter and watched the sun go lower and said nothing. Eventually she quit pulling away from him and instead leaned into him.
“It will be worth it,” Nick whispered.
“I know,” Lainey said, wiping her nose on his sweatshirt, satisfying in its own way. “But you owe me, big, forever.”
“Yes,” Nick said. “Forever.”
And when he kissed her, it was over, the tears and the resentment and the anger. She would make her way off the roof that night and come back the next morning and do it all over again, all summer long.
And when the house was done she would be happy to live in it, with him, forever.