I’ve Got A Perfect Puzzle For You

My parents stayed with us for three and a half weeks this past December and, after a few days spent running around Austin, we found ourselves with nothing to do. It was cold, it was gloomy, and there are only so many episodes of House Hunters you can watch before you find yourself standing in front of the TV holding a steak knife and screaming, “You don’t deserve an open floor plan, Denise! And guess what? If you don’t like the paint color, lick it off. THAT’S RIGHT, LICK THE F — ING WALL, DENISE. America wants you to slowly die of lead poisoning, you indecisive half-wit. GOD, I hope you have carpet in your bathroom.” We clearly needed something to do.

Then my mom had an idea.

“Do you have any puzzles?” she asked. “Puzzles can be fun.”

And with that, our descent into jigsaw madness began.

We started off with a gateway puzzle — 200 easy pieces that, when completed, showed a picture of a black cat sitting in a field of pussy willows like some kind of chump. My mom dumped the tiny, colorful pieces onto the dining room table and then, with bright eyes and confident hands, we sat down and assembled it in fast two hours. “That was quick,” I said. “What do you want to–”

“Get another puzzle,” my mom whispered. “But this time, a bigger one.”

I brought home a 500-piecer called “Garden Birds of the Southwest.” It looked colorful. It looked challenging. It looked time consuming.

We put that bitch together in five hours.

We needed more puzzle.

We set up an old card table in our wine room and watched with quivering hands as my dad cut open a 1,000-piecer called “Vintage Cereal Boxes.” “Hurry up, man!” we yelled. “We need to pick out the edge pieces! We need to find the corners! We need to light this damn candle already!”

“What you need to do is calm the hell down,” he muttered, then he poured us each a big glass of wine and his wish was granted.

Over the next few days, we sipped our wine and hunched our backs and puzzled over the puzzle. We’d get excited when we thought we found a piece of Raisin Bran, then sad when we realized it was actually a piece of Frosted Flakes. We high-fived when we finished the dreaded Kix section and cried when we got a paper cut. We strolled to the mailbox with pieces of the puzzle stuck to our sweaters and went to sleep with asymmetrical images floating in our heads. We cruelly snubbed Virgil the cat for two days after he swallowed part of the lower left corner and puked it up in the laundry room. We had it bad, super bad, and we knew it. But we didn’t care if our madness was destroying our family faster than a positive DNA report on “Maury.” We didn’t care a bit.

The kids said they were hungry, and we told them to fend for themselves. The cats meowed for food and we ignored them. My husband may have cut his finger with a knife and cried for me to drive him to Urgent Care for stitches, but I don’t quite remember. The puzzle both liberated and captivated us at the same time. It was exhilarating.

One day my dad sat at our table and watched us try to put pieces in. “Yeah, that doesn’t go there,” he’d say when we were wrong. “I wouldn’t have tried it there. Why did you think it’d go there? Haha! Don’t you think I’m funny?”

We didn’t. He wasn’t. We banished him to the playroom for the rest of the day where he refereed the kids’ “Whose socks smell the grossest?” game. A game where everyone is the loser.

My mom and I worked all day, every day on the puzzle and when we weren’t working on it, we were thinking about it. “Got my mind on my puzzle and my puzzle on my mind,” I purred into my husband’s ear one night when we were going to bed.

“Sleep on the floor,” he purred back.

Finally, one evening at 11 p.m., with glazed eyes and grizzled fingers, with unwashed hair and burning sciatica, my mom held a piece in her hand and I held a piece in my hand and together, we solemnly placed them in the puzzle. And then — it was done. Finished. Complete. What started out as a jumbled pile of machine-cut madness was now a gorgeous picture. Of poorly laid-out cereal boxes from the 1950’s that looked like an advertisement for “How To Get Diabetes!”, sure, but we had accomplished something amazing and we were beyond proud. We had conquered the puzzle.

Alas, like many great works of art, ours was ultimately destroyed by its creator. Specifically, me, when I tripped on the queen size electric blanket I was wearing around the house like a prayer shawl and knocked the table over with my ass. (Experts say something similar happened to the Venus de Milo.) All that remained of our hard work was our memories. And a few metric tons of puzzle dust circulating through my house’s air vents.

A few days after our Jigsaw Triumph, my parents packed their bags, kissed us goodbye and headed home. I put the card table back in the garage, washed some dishes and moisturized my hands. I remembered I had children and pets. Life went back to normal and I slowly realized that I’d gone too far off the deep end with the puzzles. I’d been a jigsaw junkie and flew too close to the cardboard sun. I was lucky to have made it back without any lasting damage. After much thought, I realized that I couldn’t risk that obsession again, so I made a vow: the next time I touch a puzzle, I’ll be 80-years-old and on an all-soft-food diet. It’s a promise I intend to keep.

But still, whenever I’m in Target and I have a few minutes to spare, I push my plastic cart slowly past the shelf of puzzles and gaze intently at the boxes. And I wonder just how many pieces of joy I’m missing.

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