Jessie Raymond: Fix a treadmill, strengthen a union

Sunday night, my husband Mark and I replaced the stretched-out belt on our old treadmill.
Good news: We are still married.
Normally we get along, just not when it comes to putting things together. We’ve had so many assembly-related conflicts over the years that the mere sight of a parts list can cause me to start grinding my teeth.
In the summer of ’94, we set up a brand-new tent at an upstate New York campground on a 92-degree summer day. It was our first serious attempt at collaborating on a manual task — and almost our last. Color-coded tent clips weren’t enough to keep us from turning a 10-minute process into a two-hour, sweat-soaked disagreement, complete with comments about each other’s lack of spatial intelligence and snarky retorts about where to put the tent poles.
The s’mores tasted mighty bitter that night.
A decade later, we put together a now-discontinued model of Vermont Castings barbecue grill, the Divorce Maker 2000. Things got ugly at times, but, thanks to an improvement in our communication skills since the tent incident, our emotional battle wounds cut less deep and healed faster. Though not yet on speaking terms, we slept in the same bed that night.
So Sunday, all too aware of the potential discord it could cause, we approached the treadmill project with trepidation.
Early signs were promising: To our surprise, the new belt came with installation instructions. Granted, there were four pages’ worth, but in a pleasant twist, they were clearly illustrated and written in standard English. My job was to read the instructions to Mark; his job was to follow them.
There were 30 steps, and they involved essentially dismantling every piece of the treadmill (“Step 1: Carefully pry the decorative logo from the front housing”) and then reassembling it by doing the same steps in reverse order.
The instructions were clear, but deceptively glib. In “Remove bolts A and B from side deck rails G and H,” for example, the word “remove” implied a process less strenuous than Mark having to contort himself into an inverted bound yoga pose to reach under the treadmill while I struggled to hold one end off the floor and not drop it on his face.
All in all, however, things proceeded smoothly. Yes, I fumbled a vital screw that rolled under the machine to the one spot neither of us could reach, but that always happens — the inconvenient trajectory of all dropped hardware is governed by immutable laws of physics. And at one point I lost the screwdriver; somehow it ended up in the kitchen after I had run downstairs for a moment (it’s hard for me to stay focused when there is ice cream in the house).
Still, we remained guardedly civil during the whole process and within about an hour and a half the machine had been put back together, right down to the decorative logo.
Mark turned the treadmill on and we heard it fire up just like old times. Success.
Except for one thing: The newly replaced running surface didn’t move.
Mark looked at the display. He bent his ear to the humming motor. He tapped the decorative logo. He furrowed his brow, mentally ticking off each step we had just gone through.
Then he turned to me and said, “At some point, didn’t the instructions say to reconnect the drive belt between the motor and the treadmill?”
Not that I recalled.
But when I flipped through the directions there it was, right at the top of page 3, step 18.
“Oops,” I said. “I must have skipped that part.”
With a muttered apology from me and a string of four-letter words from Mark (none of them “love”), we undid steps 30 through 19 in sequence — giving Mark a chance to practice some more yoga poses — until the drive belt could be slipped back in place. Forty minutes later we reached step 30 again, and the treadmill was fixed.
Sure, my little oversight caused a bit of tension between us. But no one cried, no one threw a packet of 1-3/4-inch pan-head screws (10) or 1-7/8-inch countersunk screws (8) at anyone, and neither of us suggested that the other walk back to Vermont from an upstate New York campground on a 92-degree summer day.
Some might call it progress. After 23 years together, we’re calling it marital bliss.

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