When I tell the owner of a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath Colonial that she should hang dried squirrel carcasses from all of her lampshades, I’m picturing my husband’s cock in her mouth.
When I say, Murals made out of shaving cream are very in right now, this broad is on all fours and my husband’s tongue is buried in her ass.
I say, Do you have any dead relatives? She nods, and my husband is bound and gagged while this strumpet whips him with a riding crop. I say, You should have one of them exhumed, stuffed, and mounted.
I say, Potential buyers love that kind of thing.
I almost always meet clients alone. Then one day I brought my husband along.
I get the call on the way home from Jerry’s colonoscopy.
It’s this woman, Marina, she’s a stager. One of the best. She gives seminars, even. I’ve been to a couple.
Marina says she’s selling her house, that she needs a stager, that I was recommended by a mutual friend.
I’m caught off-guard, I don’t know what to say.
Marina asks if I’m still there.
I’m still here, I say. I ask her why me, why not stage your own house.
A doctor wouldn’t treat her own child, she says. It’s like that.
I ask when she’d like to meet.
She says as soon as possible.
I jump the gun, tell her I can be over right away. But that I have my husband with me.
She’s says that’s fine, that she’ll see me in a bit.
I look over at Jerry, still in a post-anesthetic daze. He waves his hand as if to say, Do what you need to do.
So I do.
We get to Marina’s house, and Jerry stays in the car. He’s nodding off and doesn’t seem bothered.
Marina gives me a tour of her house. It’s not what I expected for somebody so successful – it’s modest, dare I say cozy.
We’re strolling through the house, and I don’t know what to tell her. The house looks perfect. She’s done things even I wouldn’t have thought to do.
We finish the tour and are back in the foyer. I’m searching for what to say when there’s a knock at the door. Marina opens it, and Jerry’s standing there.
He gives Marina a smile like he just shit himself.
This is my husband, Jerry, I say. We were on our way back from the hosp—
Won’t you come in, Marina says.
Jerry stumbles through the door. Marina catches him by the arm, smiling and tutting. Oh you poor dear, she says.
Had to use the bathroom, Jerry says. He looks at me, broadcasting an apology from his eyeballs.
I say, Like I said, we were on our way back from the hospital, Jerry had a colo—
Let me show you where the WC is, Marina says.
I squint and cock my head. Did she really just say “WC”? What is this, the 1930s?
Marina slowly leads Jerry down the hallway to the bathroom, one hand on his back and the other on his biceps.
While Jerry is in the bathroom, Marina asks what do I think, what should she do.
I dig around in my purse for my phone. Waggling the phone in the air, I say, Would you mind if I took some pictures? I have some ideas but I’d like to study the spaces before I give any recommendations.
Marina winks and nods. Very professional, she says, smiling.
It takes me about fifteen minutes to document every room. When I return to the foyer, I hear giggles coming from the kitchen.
Jerry and Marina are at the kitchen table, a glass pitcher of iced tea between them. Marina is still laughing, one hand over her mouth while the other grazes Jerry’s hand.
Jerry smiles and takes a sip from a sweating glass. Ah, he says. For a guy who had a fiber optic camera up his ass an hour earlier, he certainly seems fine now.
The look they give me when I walk in makes me feel like I just broke up a party. I’m the narc, and they’re the kids with the keg.
Think I got everything I need, I say.
Jerry reluctantly says goodbye.
I say I’ll be in touch, and we leave.
Days go by.
I still don’t have any ideas for Marina’s house. The last thing I need is to give Marina bad advice or no advice and have her blab to people about my inadequacies.
On a whim I decide to drive past her house, thinking that maybe inspiration will hit.
I’m approaching her house, and there’s a maroon Acura parked out front. I didn’t know Marina had a maroon Acura. It looks like Jerry’s car.
Son of a bitch – it is Jerry’s car.
I coast by the house like a shark who can’t stop moving less it dies. When I get to the end of Marina’s street, I make a right.
Get to the end of another street, make a right.
Get to the end of another street, make a right.
Get to the end of yet another street, make a right.
And I’m back on Marina’s street.
I pass the house again, and Jerry’s car is there. Again.
It’s no mirage. I’m not losing my mind. This is really happening.
But maybe it’s nothing.
Maybe I’m imagining the worst.
I stop in front of a house that’s three doors down from Marina’s.
I suck in a deep breath and get out of the car. I walk to Marina’s, and it feels like a dream, like I’m not walking at all. I’m…floating, drifting to her house.
I stand at the end of the driveway. Maybe I don’t want to know what’s happening in there. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe if I stand here long enough I’ll grow roots and wouldn’t that be something.
I slowly move one foot into the driveway. Then I move the other foot. Before I know it I’m on the side of the house, near the dining room window. It looks right into the foyer.
Jerry is standing with his back to the front door. Marina is in front of him, kneeling. She has her fist in front of her mouth, and she’s bobbing forward and back, forward and back.
Oh. My God. She’s blowing him.
Her other arm is hooked around Jerry’s side, her hand sandwiched between Jerry’s ass and the door, doing who knows what.
I back away slowly, hypnotized by Marina’s motion. Forward, back, forward, back.
A voice behind me calls, Can I help you?
I turn and it’s Marina’s neighbor, an elderly woman in an old, violet housecoat.
Just checking the meter, I say. I’m from the electric company.
I’m also in a pantsuit and heels. Think she’ll notice?
The meter is in the back, the neighbor says.
I wish I were that out of it. If I were, I could get back in my car and drive home and pretend like none of this ever happened.
Right, I say to the neighbor.
I manage a tight grin and wave thanks. I venture around the back and am greeted by a deck.
Since Marina’s house is on a bit of a slope, the deck sits about five feet off the ground. So, standing in the pachysandra bed that abuts the thick timbers that comprise the foundation of the deck, I peer over the weatherproofed slats and look through the sliding glass door right into the kitchen.
Marina is bent over the kitchen table, and Jerry is savagely thrusting into her from behind. Their violent movement causes the salt and pepper shakers to shimmy across the table and crash onto the floor.
Marina’s arms flail until her fingers find purchase, latching on to the sides of the table.
Slowly, I recede from the deck floor. I touch the diamond pendant on my necklace, a gift from Jerry for our tenth anniversary.
Then I throw up into the pachysandra.
Head throbbing, I trudge back to my car and get in. I lift a bottle of water from the cup holder, open it, and take a drink. I swish some water and spit it out the window. I close the bottle and replace it in the holder.
I take a deep breath, let it out. After a moment I start the car and drive away.
They say you sometimes enter a hypnotic state when you drive, that you don’t “wake up” until you reach your destination. That’s certainly true because I’m parked in my garage, and I swear I don’t remember the drive home from Marina’s. I could’ve run over a gaggle of schoolchildren, and I wouldn’t remember it.
Sitting in my car, my hands still gripping the steering wheel, I stare at the wall of the garage, at Jerry’s workbench full of tools. Marina is bent over it and Jerry, gripping her ass, pounds away, hammers and wrenches rattling.
My cell phone trills. I blink, and Jerry and Marina dissolve into the ether. I pick the phone off the passenger seat and look at the screen. It’s Marina.
I push the green “answer” button and put the phone to my ear.
Marina says, Hello? She says, Janine? She says, Are you there?
I imagine her walking around the house, skirt bunched up around her waist like a swollen belt, trying to track down her underwear.
I’m here, I say.
Well hello, she says. She asks do I have any suggestions for her, do I have time to stop by.
My mouth goes dry.
I don’t say, Drop dead. I don’t say, Fuck off. I don’t say, How does Jerry’s dick taste.
Sure, I say. I’m on my way.
And I’m back at Marina’s house.
My car is parked where Jerry’s was, and I’m standing in the foyer.
Marina is smiling so widely that I swear her skin is going to tear.
She claps her hands and holds them in front of her. Her skirt and blouse hang perfectly, and not one hair is out of place on her head. She doesn’t look like a woman who was just fucked on her kitchen table.
So, she says. Any ideas?
I don’t have any. Not one. Marina’s house, like the woman herself, is perfect.
Well, I say. I point at the plantation shutters on her windows. It wouldn’t hurt to paint clown faces on the shutters.
I have no idea where that came from. I’m expecting Marina to call 911, expecting her to tell the operator to send an ambulance because a woman is having a stroke in her home.
She looks at the shutters and cocks her head. Go on, she says.
The problem with most houses today, I say, is that they’re too…perfect. Where’s the character, where’s the charm? Creases form in Marina’s brow, and I touch her arm. Don’t worry, I say, you’re not alone.
Marina’s forehead relaxes, and she smiles. She asks me to wait while she “fetches a pen and paper.” She returns and is jotting furiously in a small spiral-bound notebook. She finishes and says, What else?
I explain about the squirrel carcasses, the shaving cream murals, the taxidermied family members.
She writes all of this down, the pink tip of her tongue poking out the corner of her mouth. The same tongue she used on Jerry’s dick.
I exile this thought from my mind and continue giving her my ideas, every one more whacked out than the next. An hour later Marina has filled her notebook and is beaming.
I make a show of taking my cell phone out of my purse and checking the time. I say, I have to run, Marina. Jerry’ll be home soon.
She starts at the mention of Jerry’s name but barely. Thank you so much for coming over, she says. You’ve been so helpful.
She walks me to the front door and opens it. Before I know it, she’s hugging me, pinning my arms to my sides. If she feels as awkward as I do, it doesn’t show.
Marina lets go, and I give her a half smile, waving as I walk to my car. She mouths “thank you” as I get in and key the ignition.
Makes me wonder if all mistresses are this chummy.
I’m making snickerdoodles for Jerry when my phone bleats. I’m dumping copious amounts of laxative into the batter as I crane my neck to see a text from Marina.
IT SOLD IN A DAY!!!! it says.
I fumble the bottle of laxative, and it spills on the counter, glug-glug-glug-ing out on to the granite surface.
The phone bleats again – it’s a link to Marina’s house listing.
I right the bottle and grab a wad of paper towels. I dab at the puddle with one hand and operate my phone with the other.
I scroll through the pictures from the listing. She did everything I suggested to the letter. There’s even a waxy figure wearing a funeral suit standing in a corner – a stuffed corpse, I assume.
Congratulations! I write back.
Couldn’t have done it without YOU!! Marina writes. They love it so much they want to buy the whole house as is, furniture and all! Yay!
Who’d the house sell to? The Munsters?
I put the phone down and return to the cookie dough.
I decide there’s probably enough laxative in there to cause Jerry’s colon to prolapse so I give it a final stir and start placing small blobs of dough on a cookie sheet.
Jerry doesn’t know I know. He doesn’t know because I haven’t said anything. I haven’t said anything because…I don’t know why. Call it paralysis. Call it cowardice. Call it temporary insanity. Sometimes things don’t make sense.
So I’m putting laxatives in his food.
And giving Marina bad advice.
What I thought was bad advice.
I’m in the bathroom, putting on my makeup. The lingering scent of Jerry’s excrement hangs in the air. An unwelcome side effect of my on-going revenge. The TV is on in my bedroom, tuned to some national morning show.
One of the talking heads says, Up next, stager-to-the-stars Marina Van Camp joins us in studio to talk about the hot new decorating trend, dubbed “freak chic.” We’ll be right back.
I drop my mascara brush, and it skids into the sink. I patter out to the bedroom, stand at the foot of the bed. Commercials for products that I could care less about crawl by, each one dragging by. I’m tapping my foot and fidgeting with the hem of my blouse. Get on with it already!
The picture cuts back to the morning show, and there’s Marina, smiling that ear-to-ear smile, a toothy canyon in the middle of her face.
A wide shot reveals Marina on one couch and the host on the other. The talking head introduces Marina, pronounces her last name “Vahn Cahmp.” Marina’s plucked and coiffed, impeccably attired.
The talking head praises Marina’s style, asks what inspired her to do such a thing.
The problem with most houses today, Marina says, is that they’re too…perfect. Where’s the character, where’s the charm?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Marina explains how she needed to sell her house, how what she’d done wasn’t working. She says, I had to get weird with it. She says, I had to think outside the box.
The show cuts to a before-and-after split screen of Marina’s house. That trollop takes credit for all my demented ideas, all my horrible suggestions.
A new set of before-and-after photos cycle through. They’re the houses of actors, pro athletes, rock stars – Marina’s clients. The talking head says these photos and many more will be featured in the upcoming issue of People Magazine.
My jaw throbs, and I realize I’m grinding my teeth. I take a breath, sit on the edge of the bed.
The talking head thanks Marina for her time, Marina still wearing that face-splitter of a smile, and cuts to commercial.
I’m in my car, driving to my nine o’clock: a three-bedroom Tudor. A buzz saw is whining in my head so I turn on the radio to drown it out.
NPR is doing a piece on “freak chic,” and telephonic voices of so-called experts extol Marina’s brilliance. My knuckles go white on the steering wheel, and I click the radio off.
When I get to the appointment, the woman selling the house ushers me inside and makes a sweeping gesture with one arm toward the living room. She tells me she isn’t happy with the room, that it’s too…perfect.
She says, What about a pile of dead computer monitors in the middle of the floor. That’s what that rapper had, she says, and his house sold in an hour.
My lips clamp together, and I smile knowing that it doesn’t look like a smile at all.
As politely as I can, I try to steer this woman away from the dark side. But it doesn’t matter. Marina has already got her hooks in.
Marina the jezebel. Marina the phony.
I say, Have you heard of “demo decorating?”
I make air quotes with my fingers.
The woman tilts her head like a confused dog.
It’s the newest thing, I say. It’s very in right now.
Strolling through the house, I suggest exposing a few wires, punching bowling ball-size holes in the drywall.
We return to where we started by the front door. I say, Are you familiar with the term “controlled burn?”
Again with the air quotes.
The woman shakes her head no.
It’s simple, I say. You burn part of your house.
I gesture toward the rear of her home. I say, The sun porch would make an excellent candidate.
The woman covers her mouth with her hand.
I know, I say. Seems drastic. But if you want an omelet…
I don’t send the woman a bill. I don’t follow up. I don’t expect to ever hear from her again.
Then I get a card from her in the mail. I open the envelope and pull out a card. THANK YOU! is sandblasted across the front in glittery print.
I open the card and a check falls out. I read the message scrawled inside: Consider this a bonus! Best advice ever!
I pick the check off the ground. It’s triple my usual rate. If I were a cartoon, this is where my eyes would pogo out of my head.
I hustle to my computer and search for her listing. She followed my directions explicitly – her house is a disaster. The sun porch is reduced to carbonic toothpicks, even.
The kicker: the house sold for double the asking price.
I’m in a two-bedroom Cape Cod, and spotlights are assailing my face with incandescence.
I squint, and a woman in a tailored pantsuit asks me is the light too much, would I like it turned down.
I say, Uh.
She turns to a cameraman and says, Ernie, turn down the kliegs a little, will you?
The lights dim. I stop squinting.
The woman, Jillian, smiles. She says, Better?
Jillian explains that they’re going to shoot me giving the homeowners some advice on how they should stage their house, then she’ll interview me, then she’ll interview the homeowners, and then that will be it.
Jillian is from a local news affiliate that wants to do a story on me and “demo decorating.”
This comes on the back of an enormous surge in business for me. I have more success and more money than I’ve ever dreamed of. Yet I’m still the bridesmaid, not the bride.
Marina still holds that position.
Even Jillian assumes that Marina is my inspiration, that I’ve spun my aesthetic out of hers, that I’ve taken her idea and evolved it. That stings.
But I give answers when asked questions, smile for the camera.
Smile even though I want to scream.
Smile even though Marina is the architect of my deconstruction.
Smile even though she’s stolen from me. Twice.
Marina’s got fame and fortune.
But Jerry has chronic diarrhea.
Things aren’t all bad.
Poor, stupid Jerry.
He finally left. Practically crapped his entrails out before he did. He never suspected the laxatives. He thought the colonoscopy had “rewired” his digestive tract. Like I said, stupid.
We’re sitting at dinner one night, having osso buco, when Jerry gives me the news.
He says that he’s met someone, that he’s leaving me.
Okay, I say. I make a careful incision into the veal, separate fat from meat and meat from bone.
He says, It’s Marina.
I know, I say.
He says, You do?
I take a bite of veal. I say, I’m keeping the house and all the furniture.
Okay, he says. He continues eating. So stupid.
Please leave, I say.
He nods, wipes his mouth with his napkin, and goes.
Anticlimactic, I know.
I slice into the meat again. When I put another morsel in my mouth, it tastes saltier than the others. That’s when I realize that tears have tracked down my cheeks and onto my lips.
The news segment gets picked up in the national news, and pretty soon I’m getting calls from all over the country.
I fly to Los Angeles to meet with some film mogul about his house. He has a driver pick me up at the airport, shuttle me to the walled-in compound where he lives.
We pull up to the gate. In front of us is a red Ford sitting next to a small guardhouse. There’s an arm jutting out the driver’s side window. I can’t hear what the owner of the arm is saying but the arm itself looks like it’s having a seizure. There’s a lot of pointing and fist shaking.
The uniformed guard sticks his head out and waves my limo through. As we pull past the Ford and through the gate, I peer at the driver through the tinted windows.
The insulated carapace of the limousine baffles all outside sound to a dry whisper but I can still make out her words before the gate closes behind us: “But he’s my client! Mine!”
I smile, and that sucker goes ear to ear.
Exposed Tyvek sheeting. Deleted gutters. Chimneys missing bricks like half-finished games of Jenga.
I see all of these in the neighborhoods surrounding mine. Houses seem to be losing parts. Devolving.
A house on my street is stripped down to the studs in one area, completely exposing the master bath. My neighbor, Gretchen, has a towel around her midsection and is winding another around her head as I drive up to the curb and park.
I step out of the car, shield my eyes from the sun with my hand. Gretchen sees me and waves.
She yells, Isn’t this great. She yells, Way better than a skylight.
I nod, ask her what gives.
She says it’s the newest thing. She says Marina suggested it.
“Marina.” As in Madonna or Cher. As in she’s so famous she’s shed her last name like she’s telling people to shed parts of their homes.
I ask Gretchen, is she selling, has she had any offers.
She says she was thinking about it but she likes it so much she’s going to stay where she is.
I nod, wave goodbye, and walk to my house. It’s not until much later that I remember to retrieve my car.
There’s a knock at my front door. It’s Jerry.
He tells me Marina dumped him.
I don’t say, Surprise surprise. I don’t say, Who didn’t see that coming. I don’t say, You dumb fuck.
Sorry, I say. I actually say it, it actually comes out of my mouth. And it actually sounds sincere even though it isn’t.
He says he’s sorry, too.
I put up a hand. I say, Don’t.
He says, Is there any chance.
I say, No.
He nods and says, House looks nice.
I say, That it?
My colon cleared up, he says.
Poor, stupid Jerry.
Good for you, I say. Anything else?
He shakes his head and walks away slump-shouldered. And I actually feel bad for him. I actually pity the sad sack.
I don’t say, Fuck you for making me feel bad for you.
I don’t say it even though I should.
I’m posted behind a dais in a hotel ballroom.
PowerPoint slides flick by on the screen behind me as I cycle through them with a remote control. They’re before-and-after shots of homes I’ve staged with bits of bulleted text peppered in.
Saying the “after” shots are of homes is a gross overstatement; most of the shots show just slabs of gray concrete sitting in the midst of ornate landscaping.
I say, A house is more of a state of mind than an actual thing. I say, Buyers need to be able to visualize their house, what they want.
Marina is in a hotel across town, on the lecture circuit like I am. She’s probably giving her audience a slightly modified version of what I’m saying. And honestly? We’re both full of shit. Only difference is I know it and she doesn’t.
Marina and I have become animals. Bulldogs pissing on each other.
I do something, she one-ups me. She does something, I one-up her.
She told people to start removing their siding, their drywall. I told them to strip the whole house down to the studs. She told people to erase a few rooms. I told them to get rid of an entire floor. Back and forth we went until there was nothing left but the foundation, that cold slab of concrete on the screen behind me.
We’re the worst kind of cause and effect.
Now we’re preaching to the masses, messiahs competing for market share.
And the masses, they’re lining up, waiting to be saved.
Delivering my litany to the throng of disciples lining the ballroom, I don’t say, Save yourselves. I don’t say, Before it’s too late. I don’t say, Even though it is too late.
I finish my spiel, ask if there are any questions. Nearly every hand in the room reaches for the ceiling.
I point to the center of the room at no one in particular because I can’t tell one hand from the next. I say, Yes, you.
A woman stands, puffs her chest out, and smiles, as if she’s the Chosen One. She says, Why is your house still standing?
Every Jesus needs a Judas. This woman is mine.
Not that I blame her. I mean, she’s right – my house is still there, still has all its parts. And it’s tastefully decorated, if I do say so myself.
I say, I have no intention of selling.
Even as it exits my mouth I know it won’t be enough to appease her.
She says, Seems a little hypocritical, doesn’t it?
I don’t say, All religions do.
I’m a stager, I say. I stage houses that are going to be sold. My house isn’t going to be sold. Next question.
She says, Yes, but.
I say, Next. Question.
She says, Marina’s living in a tent on the concrete foundation of her house. Why aren’t you?
This woman is quite a few rows away from me but I catch a gleam in her eye. It’s the gleam of a brown-noser, a teacher’s pet. A gleam that says “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I caught you” in a sing-song voice. It’s the gleam of a weaselly toady.
This woman is a plant. Sent by Marina.
I clench my jaw, release it. I say, Marina is a tramp who fucked my husband on her kitchen table.
That gleam in the woman’s eye? Snuffed out like a flame in a stiff wind.
I say, Marina fucked my husband and stole him from me just like she stole my idea for “freak chic.” I make air quotes with my fingers.
I wrench the microphone from its stand on the dais and step in front of it. I say, I staged Marina’s house way back when. I gave her those bat shit crazy ideas. And it’s all because I caught her fucking my husband on her kitchen table.
I don’t say, Talk about false prophets.
Thank you for coming, I say.
I drop the microphone. Feedback squeals when it hits the stage.
I walk past the rows of occupied chairs, part a flock of fire-code-violating, standing-room-only disciples in the back, and barrel through the double doors. I stop in the cavernous hallway, gather my wits. Then I go to my room, pack up my things, and catch an early flight home.
Great swaths of white billow down and around the front yard of my house. Everything is wrapped and draped in them: trees, bushes, the lamppost.
I’m headachy and jet lagged so it takes me a second to realize that I wasn’t home for Halloween – my house has been like this for days. Fucking kids and their toilet paper.
News vans have collected on my street, an amoeba of media. I maneuver my car into the driveway, and TP streamers fwish against the windshield like in a car wash. Reporters, ducking bands of white, converge around the car. They back up just enough to let me out, but after that I’m surrounded by microphones and cameras.
Questions are broadcast at me in a fuzzy cacophony of cocktail party chatter.
I put up a hand. I say, One at a time, please.
One of the reporters says, This feud with Marina, is it over?
I should say, Marina won. I should say, She can have all the idiots willing to listen to her bullshit. I should say, I’m done.
I open my mouth to respond when the reporter points at the flowing sheets above us. He says, And what’s with the toilet paper?
I gently run my hand along some cottony ribbons. I should say, What’s it look like, genius? I should say, Get a clue.
I say, Oh this? It’s the newest thing.