by Virginia Boudreau
I locked myself in the powder room again, just couldn’t help it. Flipped the toilet seat down, and sat there. I squirted cream into my hands and rubbed them together, staring up at the ceiling, like always. The crown molding is so bright against the deep scarlet of the walls. I did all the painting myself. Chose the paint too, and still remember that day at the hardware store. That silly clerk with her clenched jaw. She had to mix the colour three times before it was right, but she got it. Knowing this makes me feel good when I hide away in here. I seem to be doing it more and more.
It had been unlike me, the insistence I’d shown that day. I pride myself on being easygoing and flexible, probably too much so. At least, this is what my friend tells me. Most of the time she just shakes her head and says I need to speak up for myself. “You are not a doormat!” Siobhan yelled that in my face one day. I was so offended that I treated her to stilted conversations for almost a month. But I digress.
My absolute favourite thing in here is the brushed pewter switch plate next to the door. I always feel a need to study it—all those subtle indentations, painstakingly drawn. The design is shaped like a leaf, maybe an aspen. Such excitement when I found it in a boutique last summer! We were in Charlottetown. My parents had come along on my vacation; they’d always wanted to go to Prince Edward Island. We’d had to cut it short though, because poor Dad’s gout was acting up. There hadn’t been time to shop much, so I feel so lucky to have found it at all. And it looks right somehow, splayed against the bold colour of the wall. Really, I can be happy with very little.
My mind wanders back to the paint day when I’m in here. It was busy that April morning; there was a spring decorating sale on. The woman behind the counter in Home Hardware was Joanne; that’s what it said on her name tag. I’d stood in line behind five people and waited a long time. I remember watching the machine shake and rattle as it mixed the paint. I enjoyed seeing the expression on each of their faces when they checked the final results.
The older lady in front was wearing a green raincoat; and she had her granddaughter with her, I assumed. They whispered back and forth as they waited, acting more like friends than an adult and child. Boundaries don’t seem to be there anymore, like when I was young. You see this more and more these days. The little girl, she must have been six or seven, was like a bright-eyed bird watching everything. When the can was held out for inspection, I overheard the woman say, “It’s perfect, isn’t it, Crystal?” I can still see her shiny blonde ponytail, the way it swished when she nodded her head and giggled. Then something was said about a surprise. Joanne was beaming. I’d longed to see the colour in that tin but couldn’t from where I stood. They were so Polly-Anna like that I thought it must be a sunny yellow, a shade you’d tire of quickly enough.
I pictured them going to Crystal’s house, having an impromptu gathering where everyone would be slopping paint onto drab living room walls. There would be a potluck—a mish mash of who knows what—set out on the dining room table. The grandmother didn’t strike me as the sort who would have put too much effort into planning and synchronizing menus. It would be so loud with everyone talking and laughing, with more than a few headaches before the ordeal was over. They’d be doing this for Crystal’s mother, I just know it. If she’s like most young women today, she’s always complaining about never having enough time. They likely felt they had to pitch in. I suppose that’s one way of dealing with a tedious task—if you can hack all that confusion. Hard to say what that room must have looked like afterward, and then you have to wonder if it was even appreciated.
The next person in line was a contractor, about my age. He was wearing a tool belt which some women find sexy. I can’t imagine why. His work boots were splattered and so were his jeans—so untidy! I wondered where he was working that day. He was very tall and looked to be the type who could handle anything that came his way. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with his sort at my house if I were alone. Who knows what he might try to get away with.
His belly hung out, and I noticed a small hole just below the shoulder of his black T- shirt. It had a slogan in cracked white lettering across the back. The exact words are lost to me now, but I remember thinking they were crass at the time. Some wife he must have, allowing him to leave the house in the morning looking like that. Joanne had smiled widely at him. I bet she flirts like that with all the guys—so inappropriate. He was likely in there all the time and felt he had to be pleasant to her.
When the mixing machine had finished, she pried the lid from the can and held it out for his approval. I imagined some generic shade of white with an eggshell finish; hard to go wrong with that. He’d barely looked, just nodded, and grabbed the large can and his wad of keys from the counter before barreling towards the front cashier. Her eyes followed him right out the door—what a display!
A young woman and her boyfriend were waiting in front of me. I remembered her, especially. She was very attractive in a cheap sort of way; you know the type who wears spike heels even on trips to the hardware store. Her long, streaked hair was arranged in a style that was supposed to look casual but probably took her an hour to do. She wore silver hoop earrings and bright fuchsia lipstick. I would never wear a shade like that. It positively screams: “Look at Me!!!” I can just hear my mother now. Anyway, her partner was hanging on her every word. He was younger and less sophisticated. I wondered how long they’d been together.
She was an attention seeker, making a show of choosing just the right colour for their bedroom. She chattered on at him, saying it should be a restful tone that would make their space feel like a retreat, a place they’d want to be all the time. I could just imagine what he’d been thinking—and it wasn’t about wall colours! But he’d nodded anyway, as though he’d known what she meant. “I love the name,” she’d whispered to him in her husky voice. “Don’t you think ‘Dusk’ is the perfect name for bedroom wall paint?” I remember thinking, that guy standing there in his Blue Jays ball cap, he didn’t have a clue.
Joanne used a screwdriver to pop the top from the can, then stirred the paint with a fresh stick. The end was stained a deep mauve. I suppose it was a dusk-like colour if you had a good imagination. Joanne nodded and smiled at them. Her yellowish teeth, slightly overlapped in front, were displayed for all to see when she gushed, “Oh, I like that colour! Most people don’t dare go for the really bright ones.” The young woman, clearly flattered, agreed as her boyfriend reached for the two heavy cans. They must have had a big bedroom.
Finally, it was my turn. Joanne turned towards me. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and her nails were short and ragged. Her ruddy cheeks and broad forehead had a faint sheen, and I figured she was probably going through the change. “Busy today!” she chirped, and then asked how much paint I’d need. I gave her the dimensions of my small washroom and asked what she’d recommend. She nodded approvingly at my paint choice, and I imagined her thinking: here’s another lady who’s not afraid of colour.
She headed over to the mixing machine, secured the can, added three squirts to the base coat, and hit the button. Everything began to shake. Her ginger hair looked dry and shapeless, with threads of gray visible. She needed a good hairdresser. Her red smock rode up in back, caught on her ample hip. There was a smear of white close to the hem. It annoyed me, somehow, that these things weren’t important to her.
It seemed to take forever for the machine to stop its rumbling and quaking. She removed the can, carried it over, lifted the lid, stirred the paint, and held the stick out for me. “Oh no,” I said, “this won’t do at all; it doesn’t have enough intensity.” Joanne peered at me. “The colour usually darkens up a bit when it’s on the wall.” She sounded petulant, but I held my ground. “Even if it does, it still won’t be right. I think it may need more cadmium yellow.” She looked surprised at that.
I saw her sizing up the line before turning back to the machine. There were three or four people behind me clutching paint chips by that time, but it didn’t matter. I needed the precise hue of the leaves that flicker on my burning bush each fall. There’s something about their steadfast colour that always lifts my spirits. I think it’s because everything else is fading, growing dull and lifeless.
The home decorating books tell you to go with wall tints that inspire you. When I explained it to Siobhan, she suggested my crazy lifestyle might lend itself more to calming blues and soothing greens reminiscent of waving meadow grass. She’s poetic that way, at times. Normally, I find it endearing. But when she said it that day, it made me furious! I felt like she didn’t know me a bit, not even after all these years.
How could she possibly understand? She knows Mother and Dad, of course, but how could she know what it’s been like living with them until their new home is ready. Right now, there’s only a sign in the middle of a mud pit on the other side of town. It reads: “Future Site of Whispering Winds Seniors Complex. A state of the art facility catering to all needs.” It sounds good, but they’ve been with me now for almost three years! My small condo is overrun with packing boxes that they refuse to put in storage. “Why waste all that money?” they’ll ask if I try to bring it up. I can’t find the toaster half the time, and my living room window is almost blocked. My drapes, which took ages to find, are smooshed up against the wall. I’ll probably never be able to get all the wrinkles out. How would she deal with that?
Just thinking about Siobhan’s comment makes me mad all over again. I’ve always been careful not to let it show. We’ve known each other since early days at the Housing Authority. She left her position almost twenty years ago to start a family; of course, she could do that with someone else to support her. I’d slogged on even though I only ever considered it a temporary position until I found something better. It got so that it was impossible to leave. Whenever I mentioned it to Dad, he said it was terrible to be so ungrateful and that I should feel lucky to have a pension and all those benefits his generation had worked so hard for. They never had all this, and here we are taking it for granted. I stopped broaching that subject a long time ago.
I guess it doesn’t matter that much if it isn’t my dream job. I needed to stay around. After my brother moved to Ontario, Mother was so upset; there was no way I could have left too. Who would have looked after all the details for them? That’s what families are for, she always says.
Though Siobhan doesn’t understand, I’ve been glad of her company. It’s so good to get out sometimes, even if it’s only for tea and bread pudding at the diner down the street. Mother and Dad don’t mind my going out so much when it’s her, as long as she makes a point of stopping in to say hello first. Young people today don’t have any manners, they say. They’ve known her forever, so that makes it easier. It takes them a while to adjust to some people, that’s all. Probably everyone gets that way when they’re older.
I keep thinking back to Joanne, returning to the counter. The can was open and her new stir stick was stained a deep tomato red. It was brilliant—a colour that would make a statement. I’d almost laughed out loud picturing my mother’s horrified expression. I slowly shook my head as Joanne looked askance at me. Her lips were pursed, and I could tell she was trying to be pleasant, repeating some tried and true mantra in her head. As I said before, I’m the last person you’d ever consider difficult, but it had to be exact. I needed to be able to look in that can, to see the colour I had carried around in my head all winter long. I’m not sure why, but the shrub I’d planted outside my kitchen window had become an obsession.
“I think it may need more indigo this time, not a lot. This colour isn’t deep enough; it doesn’t have the richness I’m looking for.” Joanne’s blue eyes darkened. She enunciated each word, “Reds are the most difficult to mix, anyone who knows paint will tell you that.” I nodded. “Just try again, please. I know this one won’t work for me.” I’d been secretly satisfied with the ring of authority in my voice; it tended to be on the soft, wavering side. When she turned back to the mixer, I saw that her shoulders were tight. It would be safe to say that I totally sympathized with her frustration.
I heard a murmur and shuffle behind me and recall not wanting to see the people waiting there. I kept my eyes on Joanne’s back and the shuddering paint machine. I remember pushing my thumb into my palm and rubbing. I play with my hands when I’m nervous—touching the skin there soothes me, always has. I take pride in their softness, and in all of all those luxurious hand lotions I collect. I know Siobhan is downright jealous. She couldn’t have things like that around her house; her kids would have them in a mess! Mother says I’m much too extravagant with myself, so I only keep one on the vanity now. It’s easier that way. Sometimes I love to pull all the bottles out from the cupboard and line them up on the counter. That way you can smell one right after another, just like a bouquet.
Joanne returned to the counter and flipped the top on the can. I did not look at her face. I couldn’t. I felt almost afraid because I hadn’t decided what I would do if it wasn’t right. Miraculously, the pigment appeared true, and I had the sensation of falling into a scarlet well. It was funny, the feeling of excitement that came then; it was like right before opening that first gift at your first real birthday party. “It’s perfect, thank you.” Joanne didn’t seem to hear me, but I’d noticed a crooked smirk playing about her lips as she’d looked past me to the next customer. She was probably rolling her eyes by then too, but I didn’t care. I had my burning bush in a can, and that was all that mattered.
It feels like such a long time ago, yet it was only last spring. So much has happened since, but I can honestly say I love this room. It’s nice to know that I didn’t back down, you know. It was definitely worth it. I remember gloating to myself when Mother thinned her lips and whined, “Really, Margaret, whatever were you thinking? You’ll have to take it back.” I’d shrugged and told her it was too late; and she was furious, of course. She still rants and raves about the “ridiculous” colour of my powder room to anyone who’ll listen.
I hear Dad outside the door now, his cane tapping on the ceramic tiles. He’s wondering where I am. He’ll be asking about supper soon, but I don’t know what we’ll have yet. They are both so particular about things. I can never get it right. The potatoes will be lumpy or the pork chops overdone—it will be something. There’s always something.