Guillermo is painting the inside of my house. He’s got a crew of five young men who hail from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico — and at least two of them arrive each morning at 8:00 sharp, greeting me with the barest minimum eye contact before getting to work. Guillermo himself pops in and out throughout the day, but when he’s around he manifests that particular, very physical male confidence I associate with crocodile wrestling or the Marines or shooting guns. Guillermo’s in his 50s and built like a spark plug: barrel-chested and broad shouldered. His face may be round and sweet, his brown eyes fringed with long lashes — but he’s the Alpha and his boys know it.
“Muchachos!” he cries.
“Digame!” the young men chorus from various parts of the house.
“Make sure you move all the equipment out of the way for la señora before you leave,” Guillermo says. “The paint, too.”
“Bueno,” they say. And Guillermo’s will is done.
I found Guillermo on Berkeley Parents Network, my go-to for recommendations for everything from kid-friendly vacations to financial services to plumbers. We met one morning in October so he could check out the job and write me a bid. I showed him all the colors I’d picked out, with the help of a consultant — embarrassed as if choosing a few different shades of paint made me a Hollywood socialite. But he was kind. “Kate, it will be great,” Guillermo said. “Kate, this is what we do — we paint the colors you want.”
His words reassured me, calmed that anxious fluttery feeling I get when I’m trying to manage lots of details. I could relax into Guillermo’s expertise. “We will help you,” he said, again and again, in answer to my questions about clearing space and moving furniture and whether to paint upstairs or down first or second.
I hired him, and over the following two weeks, as he dropped in to check his painters’ work, we chatted here and there. He told me about his Harley, his vintage Mercedes, his dog Ruby (they go fishing together — he showed me a picture of the two of them on his phone). He told me he came up in the trade and by now, after 30 years, has learned to paint everything from cars to boats to furniture to houses.
By the time the painting was almost done and he had agreed to take apart my desk upstairs and bring it down — along with the other heavy stuff — so the carpet guys could do their work, I was ready to propose. When my friends asked me how the home improvement project was going, I said, “I want to marry Guillermo. That’s how it’s going.”
Not really, seeing as Guillermo and I are both already married to other people. But the mix of relief and gratitude, the sensation of having been rescued from a project that would have overwhelmed me if I’d had to do it myself, felt so powerful that joking about marrying the man who was painting my house was the metaphor that came to mind. (Which was disturbing in all kinds of ways. Marriage equals rescue? After 19 years, that’s not really what I think.) It was as if my relief was linked somehow to Guillermo’s sturdy maleness — as if we were in a fairy tale and I was the princess and he’d just slain a mean old dragon.
Why couldn’t the relief and gratitude come just as well from the effort I’d put in all year, working with my husband to refinance the house, in part so we could pay for this job? Why couldn’t the relief come from my own perseverance, researching painters, choosing the one I thought offered the best work for the best price, and supervising the process with all its logistics? In other words, why couldn’t my “rescue” be based on my own footwork?
Maybe joking about wanting to marry my house painter has more to do with how I feel about asking for help — something that has always been tricky for me, laced as it is with a feeling pretty close to shame. It can be hard to strike a balance between rigid self-sufficiency and an almost craven gratitude. Maybe if I was married to Guillermo (the fantasy voice whispers), I’d never have to ask for help again. I’d be taken care of forever and ever and ever.
“This is what we do,” Guillermo says to me, and I’m attracted to his easy assurance, born of years of experience. But of course the fact that he’s done some good work for me that I deeply appreciate doesn’t mean he’s a hero, or that I’m a damsel in distress.