Manual Labor Man Cleanse

Sara Wigal

I’m on a manual labor man cleanse. It’s cayenne lemonade for a lovesick woman looking to shed a sour heart.

          Every day I wake early, long before any work would require me to be on my feet. It’s summer, and I am a professor. I don’t need to go to work, but I am laboring for myself these hot months. I’ve let my contractor go and will finish my kitchen renovation on my own. I have a list of other jobs to do around the house, too. I’m cutting costs and living a lonely, productive summer.

          I do projects and think about him.

          While I power wash my deck, I think about all the ways we said we couldn’t work. I think about happy beach trips we took while I use an electric sander to smooth the splinters out. We traveled together frequently, because we lived far apart. I called it “the vacation relationship.”  While I stain the deck Kona Red, I think about my face in his hands, my painted lips pressed tight to his. The deck work is backbreaking and sends me to the chiropractor twice in one week.

          The chiropractor doing my back adjustment comments that I must be right-handed. He can tell from the tension in my right shoulder, which releases as he turns my neck halfway around. He presses my side ribs, and pent-up air and emotion escape in a bony xylophone’s quick scale. I don’t think you’d have to be skilled with a chiropractor’s spine-savvy to feel how out of whack my life has become.


          I remember when the contractor removed the drywall separating my kitchen and living room, I saw the lattice-like structure of the load-bearing wall. I think about a different partner from years ago that didn’t want to hear about my needs. He punched our bedroom wall instead. To make my house better, I will gut her first. A supportive beam holds my roof up now, and a new archway frames the view of the kitchen I’m improving.

          I feel the love-pain flowing through my body as I work on my home. I’m mourning three relationships and I’ve got at least that many projects to occupy me. I push my tired arms to build muscle, even though I’m not confident my heart is strengthening. I’m googling, YouTube-ing, and making a thousand trips to Home Depot to teach myself to do the things that will make my house just so. There is no one else to have an opinion. I am a woman on her own.

          Another man would mow the lawn while I planted flowers two springs ago. He is also gone, and after cutting the grass alone last summer, I’ve finally hired a service. They leave the backyard gate swung open wide one sunny afternoon, and my dogs, too, flee from me. I spend an afternoon traversing the neighborhood, calling out for the pups and questioning neighbors who are strangers to me. I cry into a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich I’ve just taken off the stove, clutching it tight. I’ll forget to finish it until doggy whereabouts are nearly confirmed.

          I wish dearly departed were with me while I fret that one dog is microchipped, the other not. I worry the dogs will be kidnapped—they are too friendly, I moan internally. I have just stopped sniffling when the thought of them joining another family in captivity unleashes a new round of tears. I can hardly get the words out to describe them to a couple down the block that seem uncomfortable with my discomfort. I point to my house, finally, in case they should see my wayward animals, and I walk away.

          A neighbor rounds them up and brings the dogs home to me. By now, I have finished the grilled cheese but resigned myself to doglessness. The old man across the street recruited my dog savior—my neighbor two doors down, a supposedly lonely man near my age whose live-in girlfriend recently left him. They will sell the house a few months after the split, and he will move home to Ohio before he ever asks me on the coffee date my aging friend suggested we might both enjoy. I remember the 5 p.m. lattes I drank in excited preparation for late nights out with the boyfriend now deceased.

          I spend more time keeping the flower beds in perfect, weedless condition. I didn’t know what I was doing when I planted, so the gladiolas have sprung up in wild arcs of falling blooms splaying downward across the lawn, each stalk too weak to stay upright. I know they need wire supports, but I refuse to do anything other than prop them on my picket fence or against each other.

          In the fall I’ll marvel at yards with flowers growing straight, and only then will I realize I should have buried the bulbs a bit deeper to accomplish that. I’ll wonder if I should dig them up and start again. Or, I hope, perhaps the straggling floral bursts are charming?

          I plan for new kitchen cabinets to match a newly installed island, something I treasure because I can throw parties more easily. Look at how much room there is for putting out the meal! Just see how easily we gather around now in happy conversation! I’ve lost my cohost for these parties to another state, so the night of the first party of the summer, I sneak away to put a dish in the sink and cry. Before the waterworks splash into my margarita, I lift my chin and return to the party outside. The couples start giving excuses at 10 p.m. and migrate to their private love nests. I check for the third time that I’ve turned the gas grill off and load the dishwasher alone in silence before climbing into bed.

          I coat paint stripper in giant globs to pull three layers of paint off my kitchen cabinets. I’m surprised when removing the most recent paint job in the cupboard above my oven reveals ‘70s vegetable-themed contact paper pressed onto the shelves. The olive artichokes, golden mushrooms, and tangerine carrots flake off easily with my elbow grease. I wish I had known they were there before I sliced into them. Last year’s dinner party cohost would have loved this authentic bit of vintage whimsy, and I want to send him a photo. I apply the paint stripper again. I allow it to set and dry before I scrape the paper away, revealing naked wood replacing what I cannot preserve. I don’t text the picture.

          I repeat my paint-dry-scrape process at least three times on every cabinet door—and at least five times on the base. I’m weeping most of the time, my tears flowing into the orange-scented chemicals and diluting their power. Later, I will realize that perhaps another paint stripper would have worked faster. I chose a slower pace with nontoxic chemicals meant to keep me from getting high. I traded away mineral spirits and kept kitchen ghosts. I wish I could google how to make one man willing to relocate, and another, kind. I wish a third had not died.

          I scrape so hard that on the second morning of the cabinet job my right forefinger and thumb have swollen twice their size at the joints. I put on my work gloves anyway and get back to it. I am unkind to myself, my body, and my heart—for years pushed to the limit, never given a break, always asked to perform stronger, bigger, faster. My love has only grown and grown; I’ve never allowed it to sit a spell, take a breather, or push pause.

          The weight of love presses on me. I haven’t shrugged it away despite each power wash, pulled weed, and scrape of ugly, old paint. I want to get free from this heavy feeling, so I go to yoga class. I complete vinyasas meant to restore balance to my mind and body, but I can’t stay steady on my feet. I nosedive in a standing pose for a moment, and then I catch myself, abdominals straining and arms stretched wide, a shaky body airplane in a humid studio’s sky. I look up and the floor-length mirror is staring back. I see the soft glow of the summer afternoon pushing through the curtains behind me.

          I flow through each step of the cabinet project. I scrape away, and memories and old paint lie surfeit soon enough. I remember when a handsome man’s hateful words turned him ugly. I hoped it was a temporary transformation, but over time his good looks calcified into meanness. He once screamed at me in front of a restaurant hostess, and then turned to pleasantly chat with his mother as we walked to our table. It’s been years since I last saw him, and I think I walked by him in the parking lot of the grocery store closest to my house. I called my brother to report on my confusion. How could I not recognize him? His mask was always a good one.

          I scrape paint from a cabinet door sitting on the side stoop of my house, the July sun searing my skin in a bathing suit. I took this bikini on a cruise winters ago with the boyfriend who tuned guitars for a living. A familiar voice belts country from the radio inside, and I move to turn it off, quick—it’s hard to hear these days. My now-dead beau parodied this song to the artist himself, changing the popular lyrics into a joke about firing the tour manager, who everyone loved. He’d carry the cases of gear, singing bits of made-up lyrics in the back of concert halls, a gentle smile crinkling crow’s feet. His eyes were cyan, the blue of the hot sky burning my back. A different blue than his mottled body the night he died.

          I stop for lunch, a bag of potato chips I eat standing next to the island. I covered it with taped-down garbage bags to protect it from paint, and it’s not fit for a picnic site. My last picnic was on the floor of a Brooklyn apartment, a kingly spread on an antique tablecloth. A kind man that loved to surprise me sent me off to read in the bedroom while he gathered homemade pâté, cheese, and all the rest for a spring celebration, even if the weather hadn’t complied. He planned each meal with a chef’s gusto, but we didn’t dedicate more planning to a shared future. I planted myself in university life where I live, and he stayed in New York.

          As I work I envision my future kitchen; how perfect it will be when it’s just the way I planned it. The colors will finally match, and the seemingly endless summer hours, freed from manual labor, will be spent alone in quiet comfort. I stop every time I walk through the kitchen and touch the lower cabinet doors, running my hand over the Grizzle Gray paint I chose to complement my granite countertops. The upper cabinets remain the old pinkish taupe, and I have many days of work left to finish the job.

          I teach myself what is vital during this thrifty summer. Losing love feels so costly at first, but the months of hard labor in response feel invaluable. I’ll drink sweet lemonade on my breaks as I carry on the work next summer, installing a new backsplash. I’ll retile my bathroom floor. I’ll paint my bedroom shell pink, a rosy color to warm me when the summer heat fades.

Sara Wigal is a graduate of Emerson College’s Writing & Publishing M.A. program, and the Director of Publishing and an Assistant Professor of Cinema, Television, and Media at Belmont University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, The Tennessean, and Writer’s Digest, and The Chaffin Journal. She is the Editor of Belmont Story Review.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021