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A Model Life photo


The Elders rented a two-bedroom unit in Building 16. The office staff knew Harv and Jean from their numerous complaints. Marvin Gardens, located just five minutes from the university, sold itself as a luxury complex, with two swimming pools and hot tubs, fireplaces, almost everything a couple needed to be happy. “Just like the Monopoly property,” Harv told friends, though he stressed that they paid the rent with real money.

They were saving to buy a house. Each thought it best to test the waters—another of Harv’s gems—before buying anything that would again be shared. Harv agreed to put the lease in Jean’s name. This was their second try at marriage; both guarded the future by keeping ever-present their shared past, the string of mistakes and shortcomings that had led them to this moment.

Harv woke first that Tuesday and made breakfast for his wife. From a pitcher in the fridge he poured filtered water for the coffeemaker, then toasted the multigrain bread. Jean stepped into the bathroom to wash her face. Pressurized air, not water, shot out from the faucet.

The apartment had problems: carpet stains, a streaky dishwasher, the heartless water heater. Three times last winter, the water was shut off for several hours while plumbers replaced the same stretch of pipe. Each glitch felt like another speed bump on the couple’s long return.

Jean tried to eat breakfast while Harv called the management’s office. Both were scheduled to work today: He built homes, and she booked vacations at a travel agency.

Harv said, “It’s still too early. Nobody’s in.” He left a voice mail for the office staff, demanding to know why the water was shut off, and why the office hadn’t warned them. Last winter, a secretary and leasing agent had walked around the complex and taped notes to the renters’ doors.

 “This is ridiculous,” Jean said. “I have to shower before work.” She was sitting at the dinner table, tearing off the toast’s crusty edges. The oak table was hers; she had to remind herself. Most of the furniture belonged to her. Harv had a cheap bed he kept in the second bedroom for visitors, not that their friends had come to town. The king-size waterbed belonged to Jean.

“What can we do?” Harv said. He didn’t need to shower until after work, and he wasn’t expected on site until noon—he’d been on overtime for two days already. He said, “We could shower at the gym, right?” The complex had a small gym near the main office, with one shower stall in each bathroom.

“I’m not showering there.”

“Why not? Might as well use it.”

“I shouldn’t have to, Harv. This shouldn’t be happening.”

“Well, maybe the gym has water service, that’s all.”

 “I’m not going to the gym,” she said.

He shrugged and turned up his hands. Jean headed for the bathroom, slamming the door. A moment later, she called out: “The toilet won’t even refill.”

Harv picked up the phone and tried the office again. They didn’t officially open for another twenty minutes, but he thought he should try. This time, the secretary answered. She said a pipe had burst overnight.

“How long until everything’s back to normal?”

“By this afternoon,” said the woman. “Two plumbers are on their way.”

She apologized again. Harv hated her insincere voice, how everything she said ended with a small laugh. Why was she laughing? He said thank you and hung up as Jean stepped out of the bathroom.

“Really, Harv. I should never have to shower at the gym.”

“We won’t have water until dinner.”

“Did you ask them why no one called us?”

“Didn’t think about it this time.”

Jean wondered what he’d think when she told him she wanted another divorce. Would he think aboutthat? Would he be angry this time, punch a wall, kick the car? Any kind of emotion would be preferable to last time, when all Harv did was nod and agree with everything she’d said. She’d been waiting for the right time, which never seemed to come.

She asked for the phone and called her agency. She explained the situation—she’d be in soon.

“This is outrageous, Harv. Really.”

Harv did not want to upset her, but she often overreacted. He dreaded the way she’d storm around the apartment like a living black cloud. The women he’d been with after the divorce weren’t so hostile, but he didn’t love them.

“We’ve got time,” he said. “Let’s figure something out.”

Jean called the management’s office and let the girl have an earful. She complained about the water, the carpet stains, the unfinished work orders—everything that could roll off her tongue—and five minutes later, the senior maintenance man was at their door.

He was a charmer. Harv had worked with him years ago, in a new development south of town. He liked being around people and kept up with the various tenants like an old friend. Work orders weren’t completed because of his chatting, but everyone liked him, even Jean.

The maintenance man apologized for the office staff. “They should have called,” he said. Jean’s face lit up at that. “The water’s only shut off for 10 through 20,” he said. “My building, too.” He told them they could use the model apartment near the front of the building.

Jean said, “Why not?” and gathered hair products and towels into her bag. She collected her makeup. The maintenance man said there was a shower curtain without a liner, but everything else was fine—he’d checked it himself.

“Just get the key from the office,” he said.

* * *

They walked to the front of the complex. Across the street was old farm land, fields that hadn’t been planted in years, sold to one real estate company after another for development. Harv enjoyed smelling the earth each morning, especially after rain, but Jean hoped they’d build a coffee shop there.

Jean waited outside while Harv retrieved the key from the main office. The secretary was holding it and smiling—that laugh!—but he ignored her and left without a word.

They crossed the lot to the model apartment. The key didn’t turn the lock easily, and Harv said, “What next?” He let Jean try it, and she jimmied it open.

The model apartment was furnished. The carpet was a dark mocha, free of stains, and the layout differed slightly. They roamed from room to room, investigating.

Jean called from the master bedroom, “Do you think this is bigger than ours?”

Harv was in the kitchen, holding a porcelain cherry pie he’d found on the stove. There was a coffee maker under the hanging microwave, a bowl of potpourri on the glass dinner table. The thick placemats on the round glass table were soft as bed sheets.

“Could be,” he said, though they paid an extra fifty dollars each month for the largest floor plan.

Jean came out to examine the living room. “Look at these shelves,” she said. “And the books!” Two bookcases stretched from floor to ceiling, one on each side of the front window, packed with hardcovers. The white couch wrapped around the living room. Jean sat down and smiled.

“There’s no fireplace,” Harv said.

“This is the first floor. None of them have fireplaces.”

In the cushy recliner, Harv flipped through an art book he found on the end table. Jean lugged her bag into the bathroom.

“Take your time,” he said. “I like it here.”

The book was about Renoir. The back cover said his paintings were “sensuous” and “joyous.” He was an Impressionist, it said. Flipping the pages, Harv was impressed. He had to laugh when he saw The Bathers.

The shower kicked on full blast. He peeked inside the bathroom.

“How is it?” he said. The water in their apartment didn’t always stay hot. The water was included in the rent, and several buildings shared one giant water heater.

“We’ve got heat,” she said. “We’ve got pressure.”

He started to close the door, but Jean called from behind the curtain. “Could you leave the door open? I don’t want the mirrors to get steamy.” He did as she asked, then went into the master bedroom. The bed was king-sized, covered by a beige comforter. The light through the window was inviting. He opened the window, country air mixing with the smell of black asphalt.

Harv imagined living here. He liked the model as it was, especially the porcelain pie. He could do without a television or stereo. He even liked the art book, the bookshelves in the living room. They could move in today. He’d be fine with it.

* * *

Jean stood with her back to the showerhead as the water rinsed her clean and massaged the muscles of her lower back. She would be someone’s idea of a joke—married to, and divorced from, the same man twice. In the two years between marriages, she’d felt unfinished with Harv gone. When she allowed herself to return to Indiana and eventually get in touch, they’d quickly fallen into old habits. Now living with him drove her bonkers. What they needed was not a house, but two houses, one for each of them, across a large property. Then she could see him when she needed him, when an urge for affection came upon her, and she could have a house of her own. Her own space. Necessary distance.

Harv lay on the bed long after Jean shut off the shower. She stepped into the bedroom with a towel wrapped around her torso. “You look comfortable.”

“I am,” he said. “A man could get used to this.” She closed the window and drew the blinds.

She crawled beside him. He moved his arm to hold her. He loved hearing her breathe, watching the rise and fall of her breasts. She loved being surrounded his thick arms and chest.

“What a day,” Jean said. They fit together in so many ways, but not as husband and wife. Two times was enough to know her heart was wrong.

Harv said, “Maybe we should break the lease and get on with it.” He meant that they should buy a house.

Not wanting to complicate matters, she stayed silent. Harv didn’t have the words for what she needed to hear. Finally, he released her and stood up. “Guess it’s my turn.”

The bathroom door clicked shut. If she told him now, it would be worse. For her, for him. She would wait. She promised they’d discuss it soon. Within two weeks, absolutely by month’s end.

And she would break the lease. It was in her name; the decision was hers. The lease could be broken for a number of listed reasons; one of them was if the complex failed to complete work orders within seven days. A broken glass globe on their balcony had been reported the week they moved in, nearly seven months ago. Almost daily she stared at the broken globe. She could buy a replacement at Home Depot for less than five dollars, but it was a matter of principle.

If their apartment were like this model, would things be different? She’d need her possessions, of course. She liked the idea of stepping into a happy life, and the bookshelves really were impressive.

Too much work—she’d strained to keep on like this. They’d been married eight years, then divorced. She’d moved across the country to find herself and what she wanted, only to decide she wanted to be back here, near Harv. To at least talk with him in person. To know him again, and to love him, if not completely. He would not take this second divorce lightly, she knew. He might not want to stay in touch. Seven months ago, caught up in rekindled romance, she should have known better. How foolish that seemed now.

In the shower, Harv counted the days since he and Jean had last made love. Twenty-three? The night of St. Patrick’s Day, when both were tipsy from green beer. And before that, another three weeks, maybe longer. She brought her book to bed most nights. He would turn on his side, away from her, and try to sleep while she bent the lampshade toward her pages. He would say good night and drift away, thinking of their early years.

* * *

Harv came out of the bathroom, naked and wet.

“Hello there,” she said. She mustered a smile.

“I definitely like it here,” he said. “Even that art book. Did you see it?”

Jean said she hadn’t.

“I feel better than I have in weeks.”

Jean said she did, too, and part of her did—this model apartment was her life, but not. Stress-free. Yes, she would wait, for now. In this moment, she wasn’t as unhappy as she had been. That was enough.

They dressed and talked. Harv kept on about the art book. Jean mentioned office gossip, offered suggestions for dinner. She did her hair and makeup during the conversation.

“Maybe we should go out tonight,” Harv said. Jean nodded; she could change her mind later. Harv relinquished the key and they returned to their apartment. Jean ran upstairs, threw her bag on the couch and snatched her keys. Harv waited in his truck. He leaned through the rolled-down window and said, “What a morning.”

She went to him for a quick peck on the lips. He squeezed her hand. Then she pulled away and climbed into her car. From there, she watched her husband drive toward town, where he would build another woman’s dream home. 

image: Ryan Molloy