We built a conceptual house and remodeled it every day with mouse clicks and command + shift + something. We never thought it’d become something bigger.
Most times, the ideas were ours. We’d look at online decorating magazines, do the digital work, then leave notes: Changed a wall here. Installed new cabinets, cherry finish. Taller baseboards, classy. We’d take screenshots of our creation and invent quotes from made up people to accompany them.
Sometimes, directions came from third floor, screen to screen via fiberoptic cable. Shit like: Barn wood is trending contemporarily and thus falls within parameters of corporate interest. So we’d install a reclaimed floor.
We never saw third floor, but we called it Pandora’s Box. We felt intellectually superior—but, who knows? Chris forbade me from going near it.
We stayed in the dank basement with our glitchy computers, begging for firmware updates. Blue light reflected off Chris’ coke bottle glasses, making his eyes and the screen indistinguishable. Our skin shone dull gray against the exposed joist and crumbling brick. Once, we recreated the conceptual house as our office. We clicked all day, hanging dim green fluorescents, painting mildew here, cobwebs near the restroom. We built our conceptual office using features designed for before pictures.
Third floor called it a rustic production milieu in the job posting. We called it moldy. Chris’ lawyer fiancée believed they could build a strong case if he ever fell ill.
It meant something, at least, to create and recreate until the worlds in our minds matched. But at five thirty, we went our separate ways, both disoriented as we stepped into a world of people and things that can be touched and taken. Touch and take. By nine the next morning, we were back at it, back in our world, remodeling our conceptual house.
We were writers. Were. We started calling ourselves ad generators, cracked jokes about our robotic roles and acted unfazed.
Sometimes Chris wore a bow tie, said it made him look like a writer from the ’20s. Those people had to pound out their words with metal buttons. Vivacious, virile, visceral, and other words I have to pretend I know. He typed words in our constant on-screen chat. The point is, they bled to be heard, knew that people read and cared and went to war over the ink on the page.
He shrugged, then typed, At least it’s a paycheck.
So we got lost in the conceptual house—conceptual residents writing about conceptual experiences with snap-together flooring. I wrote: I can’t believe it’s not real wood. It’s so grainy, exclaims Mary in Cedar Rapids! Chris replied: Mary’s husband thinks it’s just so-so, nothing to get worked up over.
We started to build a conceptual dream house. We fought and compromised often. Chris wanted hardwood, eco-responsible bamboo. I liked this earthy Italian slate. Chris made facetious comments about painting the walls orange or mauve. Over my dead virtual body, I typed. Then we’d chat smiley faces or Hahahahaha! We made it work.
We never told third floor, and originally planned not to build the dream house during work hours. So we stayed late into the night. Chris’ fiancée called continually, gracious at first, asking if she should leave dinner out. Two weeks in, she got skeptical, started to insinuate doubts. I tried not to act hurt as he told her he was with me, and I wasn’t anyone she needed to worry about. He tried to make excuses, then stopped answering.
I needed to go home, change clothes, and feed my parakeets, Romeo and Isolde. I hadn’t been home in a while—how long I couldn’t say. Days? Months?
We took off our shoes, ordered pizza, then installed a conceptual pizza oven in our dream home. Chris took a snapshot, captioned it: Now I love when my wife bakes, raves Paul Paulson in Jackson Hole!
I typed: Paul and Pauline are so happy, building their little life together. They love each other almost too much. I knew Chris agreed, though our eyes never met. They feel the positive energy, whatever that means.
We realized a dream home required a dream neighborhood. We tried to build our world, and when the software held us back, we emailed compelling requests to IT. Our inboxes overflowed with messages titled Send Project Updates Immediately and Last Notice (REALLY). Somehow we persuaded IT to give us more power—power to create five-star taco stands, bookstores with nothing but Joyce Carol Oates, solar-powered gourmet popsicle shops, streets of reclaimed barn wood.
We felt like titans of men, demigods, who recreate the world in their image. We could’ve been leaders of men, gentle dictators, if we had wealth or charisma instead of English degrees and thousands in debt. After meaningless years, we could make some smidgen of life how we believed it should be. The world in our image. We navigated it with a computer mouse each and bright infant eyes, and we declared it good.
Then the door burst open, orange light grinding our eyes like sandpaper. Chris’s fiancée walked in with yellow-vested security guards. She said it was time to give it up.
The guards said it was time to gather our belongings and leave the premises, orders of third floor.
Chris looked at me, his arms loaded with a box of bobble heads, a few photographs. His gaze anchored me, but when he slouched into the car with his fiancée, I shook like a bobble head. Imagine returning to your hometown, and not only had it changed, but it disappeared entirely. That’s how it felt.
I weaved in and out of traffic on my way home. Someone had kicked in my backdoor and knocked my belongings all over. The birdcage was open, Romeo and Isolde nowhere to be found.
Those two were never destined to be lovers, I thought. Sometimes it’s about learning to live with the lie.
James Figy is a writer from Indianapolis. He has two cats, two rabbits, a coffee dependency, an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs, and a degree in creative writing from the University of Indianapolis. His creative work has appeared in UIndy’s student literary journal and The Flying Island.
(VIEWABLE BY SUBMITTER)(less)