Let plainness enter the eye,
plainness like the table on which nothing is set, like a table that
is not yet even a table.
– Mark Strand “Nocturne for the Poet who Loved the Moon”
The first reason Cay is thinking about her mother is that she and Brian don’t yet have a table on which to eat their first dinner as husband and wife. The lack of table reminds her of the table that’s no longer at her grandparents’ place in Charleston. Four years ago, Cay’s uncle the coffin builder followed her mother’s dying wish by dismantling that table and incorporating it into her coffin. It now lies buried in a Charleston churchyard even though Cay’s family abandoned religion long before the day of her mother’s burial.
Her mother named her Carolina because that was where she wished she’d stayed. Besides the coffin wish, it was the only other wish Cay ever heard her mother articulate.
Cay-Carolina herself doesn’t often know where she’d prefer to be, and in truth she’s grown as unaccustomed to the sound of her own name as she is to her mother’s home state of South Carolina. To Brian she is Cay. Cay-roh-lahh-na is the only way he says the full word, as if her name is in a foreign tongue.
Perhaps because she was already thinking of her mother and her wishes, seeing “Carolina” on the pie label at the gourmet grocery store struck her and now the pie warms her lap as she sits on the bus home, Brian drumming his fingers on its plastic lid. This will be a one-time purchase, she tells herself—they cannot afford to shop at a place with posh little chalkboards with wine pairing suggestions next to wheels of cheese. The pie is supposed to contain real Carolina peaches, but she doubts this; it’s late July, the tail end of the season.
“Dinner will be interesting without the table,” she says.
Brian smiles, folding in those crow’s feet that she’s loved for as long as she’s known him, behind the glasses that are new. “It’ll be fun. Like a picnic. Plus now that we’ve got trees outside the window, we can pretend we’re far away from the city.”
But the new table has arrived early and is leaning against their door, not in any recognizable form—a flat, wide box from Ikea, Brian’s name and their new address printed on a label that looks comically small compared to the rest of the box. He abandons the grocery bags at his feet and whoops. “Cay, this is perfect! We should have it all together in time for dinner. Come on, let’s—damn, that’s heavy,” he says, dropping the corner of the box a mere inch from Cay’s toe.
With some maneuvering they fit the box through the door and set it down flat on the living room floor. An array of chairs from previous homes is already in place, waiting for the table to center them. The box takes up a large portion of the floor space and they dance around it while they put away groceries. Brian is like a child orbiting a Christmas tree as presents begin to surround it, leaving half-emptied bags on the counter to intermittently examine the box. Cay finally hands him a pair of scissors and tells him go ahead and open it, she’ll finish here.
Her throat constricts a bit when she sees all the large wooden pieces stacked across the floor. That, a table? She peeks warily over Brian’s shoulder as he extracts the instruction booklet, only to be sidetracked by the ringing of the house phone. They both jump. Brian stands and grins when he sees the caller ID. He’s barely said hi before Cay knows that it’s Jordan.
“No dude, of course you’re not the first one to call us on here, that was Cay’s dad. My dad now too, can you believe it? Would’ve pissed my pants at the thought a few years ago…”
Cay sits on the floor and opens the instruction booklet. She can’t believe how thin it is and is even more alarmed when she flips through and finds no words. On the first page, a marshmallowy cartoon man looks perplexed at the array of shapes in front of him. In the next picture, he’s on the phone smiling. That simple.
“The trip was great. I’m telling you, Jordan, y’all’s Cay-roh-lahh-na beaches are shit compared to the Caribbean. You and Lila gonna be there soon yourselves though, ey?”
There it is again, the Carolina thing. What is it about today?
“Yeah, yeah,” Brian is saying. “I know you and Cay aren’t really from South Carolina but I’m gonna keep saying it anyway. I thought you’d accepted that by now.”
Cay and Jordan became best friends the day Cay ate mud to fit in with the boys and threw up, and Jordan was the only one who admitted that he got sick the first time, as well. They went to the same college less than an hour from home, and the summer after junior year they both met Brian. He swept through their lives as recklessly as the Chicago wind that had borne him south, catching on nothing but Cay.
She lets herself stare out the window for a moment and watch another summer ending before she turns to the table. She rummages around for the bag of nails illustrated in the booklet and wonders what Jordan is telling Brian. He used to tell her this kind of thing first—girls, vacations, everything. Why isn’t she best friends with Lila now, the way Jordan is with Brian?
An easy answer, really. Lila can’t finish a sentence without making Cay’s teeth hurt from sweetness.
Brian is feeding his noisy compulsion of opening and closing all the cabinets in the kitchen as he talks on the phone. He stops abruptly. “Wait … already? Without telling me? Fuck, man, no way! Couldn’t let Cay and me take the limelight for too long, could you? Holy… I can’t believe you fucker, congrats!”
Cay looks up, not knowing what she expects to see but knowing what she does see. Jordan and Lila. Jordan and Lila? Really?
Brian makes the unnecessary announcement to her and she says congratulations, going to the bathroom in case he tries to pass her the phone. Apparently the two of them, she and Brian, inspired Jordan to act. She doesn’t feel like congratulating Jordan directly.
She’s brought the booklet of assembly instructions into the bathroom without realizing it, rolled up and clutched hard. On the cover a foreign name titles a line drawing of the completed table. Did she really pick this out? It’s entirely unadorned, nothing like the table that’s now buried with her mother. She and Jordan used to play underneath that one when they were kids. It wasn’t large, either, but it had knobs at the base like lions’ feet and, to a younger Cay, it looked like a feast table where a royal family might eat. Not like the unimaginative, bare-bones concept of a table captured on the booklet cover.
Cay thinks about sex with Jordan after—okay, during—her mother’s funeral. Before Brian, but still wrong, the wrongness exacerbated by the rush of warmth and comfort rising in her chest at the memory. Jordan was the only thing that felt in place when everything else was reversed around her. Still makes sense to her now, the memory scooping out a hollow in her stomach around which the acid roils in protest.
Brian is off the phone when she goes back into the living room. “Maybe I should start on dinner while you work on the table,” she says.
“No way, we’re gonna make this thing together. Come on, Cay, when was the last time you got to build your own furniture?”
She smiles and hands him the booklet as she sits on the floor. She tears open the plastic bag of screws and puts her hand in, running all the little pieces through her fingers. There are so many different types—long ridged ones, long coiled ones, squat ones with heads the size of dimes, plastic ones, light wooden pegs. “You think there’ll be leftovers?” she says. “They’d make some cool jewelry.”
“Nah, we gotta focus, I doubt they’d give us extra. All right, what first?”
Cay spreads the pieces out in an attempt at orderly piles but finds there isn’t enough room for that. Instead she finds the nails in the first step. The instructions portray two nails, an X through one telling her exactly what not to use. Brian flips open the top of the toolkit. They each take a screwdriver and crouch over the large piece of wood, coming close to bumping heads as they install the first screws. Brian finishes first, comes over to her side, and adjusts the angle of the screwdriver so she doesn’t scratch up the screw’s head. She wonders if males are born knowing this kind of thing. He high-fives her when she’s done and she laughs.
The instructions say now they’re looking for side wooden panels and attaching metal corners to them for the legs. As Cay looks for these, Brian says, “So Jordan and Lila, huh? Didn’t see that one coming so fast, did you?”
I should have seen it coming before you did, she thinks, and then is shocked by the vehemence of the thought. She accepted Brian and Jordan’s friendship long ago. It’s good for them, all of them.
“I didn’t think he’d commit so fast, no. Jordan never dated a girl for more than a few months in college. I guess he’s grown up since then.” She finds the holes on the side of a wood panel and starts to push in the metal corner, but Brian stops her and corrects her placement.
She doesn’t know why she keeps talking. “Jordan used to tell me that girls like Lila would never be his type. You know, girls who have to fill every minute with talking and half the time aren’t really saying anything, who shop without knowing what they need…”
“Aren’t all women like that?” says Brian. He’s struggling with the panel on his side of the table and Cay can’t help but feel a wink of pleasure in the prolonged glare of her irritation.
“No,” she says. “What, am I like that?”
“Well…” he’s looking intently at the screws in the table, but after a few seconds gives her a wide smile. “Come on, honey, of course that’s not what I think. Although you haven’t helped your case by putting in the wrong screw over here.”
“No I didn’t.” She grabs the booklet from him and points at the picture. “See? I knew it wasn’t supposed to be that one so I…”
“Put it in anyway. See the size difference? No worries though, I’ll just get it out. Is it the wrong one on your side, too?”
She pulls up the panel to check and thinks of her uncle taking apart that beautiful table for the coffin. It couldn’t have come apart as easily as this one does. She’ll have to ask him about that one day, when that side of her family has stopped tearing up at the mere mention of her mother’s name. All of them press their hands to their hearts as their eyes fill up, as if they’re squeezing the liquid up from their chests. That’s part of why she’s avoided Charleston ever since her mother died.
“Cay, you there? Wanna get that screw out?”
“But it’s the right one,” she says. “I got the panel in, didn’t I?”
“Oh.” He peeks over skeptically and then shrugs in assent. “All right then. Why don’t you put it back on and hammer it in from the top?”
She riffles through the booklet. “It doesn’t say to do that.”
“Of course not, but do it anyway. It just makes sense.”
She replaces the panel, and takes the hammer. As she grips it a minute pulse of pain shoots through her palm and the hammer clatters loudly onto what exists of the table.
“Shit, what happened?” says Brian. “Did you hurt your wrist?”
“No, I think I got a splinter,” she says. She can’t quite believe it, either; the surface of the table is so sleek and harmless-looking. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of it later.”
“Why don’t you get it now?” He’s taken her palm and is turning it over for closer inspection. “If I can find it…”
“Don’t worry about it for now,” she says more firmly, taking her hand back.
They work in silence on the corners and attaching the panels to the table. Then Brian says, “So what is it you have against Lila, anyway?”
“I never said I have anything against her,” she says Cay. “It’s just—” Brian says It’s just simultaneously, his tone perfectly, bitingly synchronized with hers. She sucks in her cheeks and gnaws hard on their insides and he laughs.
“Never mind,” she says.
“Cay, honey, don’t be mad, I’m sorry.” He’s still laughing but trying to stop himself so his face is turning red. She tries to say she’s not mad but she can’t quite form the words. She wants to say something about how does he think he knows her? Just because they’re married doesn’t mean they’ve been married for ten years, or however long it takes for it to matter. It’s been ten days. Her parents were married for twenty-four years, the whole time thinking they knew what the other would be like in the face of an illness like the one that killed her mother. Turned out they were both misled.
Who’s the last person she really acted like she knew, anyway? She doesn’t do it with Brian. He came into her life as a passionate, talkative boy from a metropolis of things she couldn’t begin to picture, and he will always be that. She tries to imagine the two of them older, sitting at a real table like the one from her grandparents’ house. They look flat and paralyzed, like they’re invading someone’s painting and trying not to breathe too hard.
She remembers that he apologized and says it’s okay, she’s sorry, too. They secure the corners onto the tabletop with a hammer. She squeezes her hand into a fist and feels the splinter embed itself deeper into her palm.
He kisses her lightly on the cheek. “I love you. And you have no reason to be jealous of Lila, okay? Wanna take a break and start on that Cayy-roh-lahh-na pie early?”
It now feels like the entire splinter is under her skin. “I’m not jealous. Why would I be jealous of Lila?” She sounds loud and unconvincing even to herself.
Jordan. The last person she acted like she knew—truly believed that she knew—was Jordan.
Maybe she stopped believing that when Jordan started dating Lila. Or maybe it was a few minutes ago when suddenly he was marrying Lila. Or maybe it was when Brian started knowing him better than she did. Or maybe it was that oppressively hot summer that her mother died, when it was supposed to feel like home, but the only remnant of home in the place was Jordan. The summer after which she couldn’t hear the Carolina in her own name.
Brian has put his tools down and taken a few steps back from the table. “Hey. Is everything okay? Is there. . . look, I’m not even sure what to ask. But Jordan…” He doesn’t often let his words trail off. She does know that much about him.
She might have put that screw in wrong, after all. The whole table could fall apart as soon as they set down the peach pie. Hell, it’s not a table—even with all the legs screwed in, it will still look like pieces to her. She waits for Brian to finish the sentence and thinks of how lucky her mother was to have not just a real table, but a real place where she wanted to be forever.