A Design Flaw by Olga Zilberbourg
The night after her first date with Travis, Michelle dreamt of a house made of glass. The house stood deep in a forest, and the Dutch architect who designed it—somebody Michelle knew by reputation—imagined the woods would provide occupants with privacy while the transparent walls reinforce their connection to the natural environment. At first, the house appeared to Michelle as a 3D drawing: tucked away between old growth pines, bathed in yellow electric light, with all the furniture and kitchen appliances on display. The floor plan was completely open, no interior walls needed, and she could see all the way through the house to the forest understory on the other side. As Michelle looked closer, the model acquired greater details, nearly life-like reality. She recognized her red velvet sectional; her drafting table stood in the corner. There was no sign of the bathroom. Michelle guessed that it blended in, hidden by mirrors. Had she been forced to live in a house like this, she would linger in the bathroom as long as possible.
In the second part of the dream, Michelle was inside, watching the woods rapidly recede all around her. Frantically she searched for a place to hide, first on one side of the red sectional, then on the other—but no matter where she turned, she could see urban development encroaching from all sides. She pretended to be invisible, hiding her head between her knees, closing her eyes, and plugging her ears with her fingers. Just like with most of her other dreams, this one turned into a nightmare just before she woke up. She had heard somewhere that this was related to an increasing need to empty the bladder. In the bathroom, she shivered hard when she recalled the image of the glass house marooned in the receding forest.
Michelle hadn’t dated for over a decade, since grad school. She’d focused on her work, trying to dispel age-old stereotypes about women architects lacking three-dimensional vision for complex projects and firmness of character required to deal with construction crews. To get to the top she needed to outshine the bright young men, hired about the same time, during the firm’s years of rapid growth. Now she could feel satisfied: having decisively demonstrated superior resourcefulness, she got her corner office and a roster of projects for the next decade. But she knew better than to lose her vigilance. She prided herself on the work ethic that each night kept her at her desk long after the junior associates went home.
On her second date with Travis, just four days after the first, Michelle found that she couldn’t stop playacting. At the café, she ordered lentil salad and green tea, two things she hated. She talked about her yoga practice, though she’d never as much as watched a video. She told Travis it was her dream to visit France. Later, at a bar, Travis ordered vodka martinis and started telling her about a symphony he was writing. Michelle cut him off to say she had to call it a night. “I have an important client meeting in the morning,” she said. “Somebody asked us to design an office made entirely of glass. We have concerns.”
Travis said, “I’m enjoying talking to you too much, so I’d better stop.”
He called Michelle two days later to invite her to the performance of a chamber music group in which he played violin, an evening in three parts starting with Prokofiev’s Quintet and ending with a contemporary piece based on the revolutionary poetry of Pablo Neruda. “I think you’ll love it,” he said. Michelle knew he had her pegged wrong. She grew up in rural Kansas, where her father still worked in the post office and her mother kept a cow, chickens, and a vegetable garden. Michelle couldn’t wait to get out of there, yet felt that in some ways she was forever defined by her hometown. Everyone there was in everyone else’s business. The neighbors were always keeping an eye out. Michelle was six feet tall and had nowhere to hide. It was important to her that Travis was 6’2’’ and had a full head of hair.
The performance was held at the Throckmorton in Marin, a half hour drive from San Francisco, without traffic. Michelle bought the ticket in advance, but showed up minutes before the performance was over. Surprisingly, the theatre was nearly full, and the musicians received resounding applause. Michelle clapped and appraised the orchestra members. Everyone, including the two women, wore white shirts and black pants. Travis was the tallest, and the only one who showed evidence of physical exercise. None of the musicians were good enough to play with a real orchestra. She imagined what they had to go through to scrape a living, from playing at weddings to driving cabs. Travis lectured on music theory at the conservatory, part time, and Michelle guessed that she earned more in a week than he made in a month.
After the concert, the orchestra members and their friends and family piled into cars and drove back to a bar in the city. Michelle was asked to give a ride to a young woman with blond dreadlocks and tall lace-up boots. The woman was clearly uncomfortable in Michelle’s BMW. She sat straight-backed, hugging her knees, and after the slightest of prompts—Michelle, who hadn’t had dinner, offered to share an energy bar—started preaching on the ethics of the raw vegan diet. She carried on about how processed foods were destroying the Amazon forest and turning humanity into television junkies. Michelle swallowed the offensive energy bar without chewing and pressed on the gas pedal.
At the bar, Michelle bought everyone a round of top-shelf bourbon. She chugged the contents of her glass as though it were cheap whiskey, aware of her performance as the richest person in the joint. Travis, who had dispatched his duties of concert co-host, was finally by her side and ordered, with what Michelle thought a surprising presumption, two vodka martinis.
“Did you enjoy the concert?”
Michelle pushed back the second martini and asked for more bourbon. “It looked like you guys were having fun,” she said tensely.
“I thought I saw you come in after the intermission,” Travis said, smiling.
“From the bathroom.”
Travis put his hand on the back of her neck, under her hair. She was disturbed by the touch, and couldn’t endure it for as long as Travis seemed to want to hold it. She leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the lips. He tasted of wood-smoke and alcohol, not the way she’d expected, and not in a way she found appealing. It was like kissing charred tree bark doused in lighter fluid. But suddenly Michelle felt herself getting excited. There was something dangerous about taking on a man with such a wrong smell. Michelle polished off the second shot and said, “Would you like to come over to my place tonight?”
Travis pulled back. He held her hand and, trying to catch her eyes, said, “I really like you.”
“Actually,” Michelle said, now uncomfortable and looking past his shoulder, “my sister said she’d come by for breakfast, and it might be awkward.”
“I understand,” Travis said. “As I’ve said in that first email, I’m getting over a bad breakup myself, and I don’t want us to rush into anything.”
Michelle left the bartender a fifty-percent tip and went to her condo on Telegraph Hill, a large studio with a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. She kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the beat-up velvet couch with the computer on her lap. Construction never stopped and even on a Sunday email and phone calls poured in from suppliers in China, crews in the Bay Area, and from her own staff too skittish to sign off on any decisions.
Out the wall-sized window of her living room she saw the brightly lit urban grid spanning the far sides of the Bay. The moon and the stars festooned the landscape like decorations set up to celebrate some holiday. She felt like calling a sister she didn’t have, and crying on the phone. “A girl as tall as you are can’t go through life pretending to be a mouse,” her mother had told her once. Every day Michelle went out into the world, posing taller and stronger than she was.
That was the answer, she thought, remembering her dream, the way to survive life in a glass house: A mouse, hiding in shadows, and little by little, burrowing a hole outside. Michelle didn’t notice she’d slipped into a dream, in which she made a nest for herself in the mossy roots of an old pine. But then she glanced up. She saw the glass house looming between the trees, abandoned, partially covered by moss and lichen, but still lit up. It was then she realized that she, she alone had been the architect, and she had done her job so thoroughly that nothing, at least no natural phenomenon, could ever destroy it.
© Olga Zilberbourg, 2015
Olga Zilberbourg is a San Francisco-based writer with work in Narrative Magazine, Hobart, Santa Monica Review, eleven eleven, J Journal, and other print and online publications. She's completing a collection of short stories and is working on her first novel.
A Design Flaw was read by Alexandra Gray on 1st April 2015 for Kiss & Breakup