My marriage was killed by home-decorating magazines. Or at least they put a big nail in its coffin.
I was lost. Paul knew what he wanted to do with his life and was passionate about it. I didn’t, even with two degrees. I had a lot of interests—and yes, even passions—but I had no idea how to translate any of them into a career. I loved art, I loved to draw, but my parents had steered me away from advertising as a career (see post 36, “Bad Influence.”). In school I got feedback that my writing was good, but how is writing a job? Journalism was political—our family’s religion disparaged politics—and anyway, I knew I’d never make the deadlines: I was a slow writer. Because of my good grades I felt I could do anything; should I not then follow the highest ideals of service and become a doctor? My first year in college, therefore, I was pre-med. That was a mistake. If I’d had a burning desire to be a doctor, I might have been able to do it. But the idea was based on idealism, not desire. Math and chemistry were not my best subjects.
So I took a break from school and went to Germany. Germany, because that’s the language our primary school system taught, and I’d learned a few words. It was fun seeing German on the billboards, hearing it on the radio, reading simple novels in it with a dictionary at my side, and practicing it over coffee with newfound German friends. When I returned to the United States, I found out I could take a competence test and skip a whole semester toward a German degree. Forget what practical use such a degree would have for my life; I was already almost finished, and that’s what counted.
It made sense, after that, to get a degree in teaching English. After two years I’d be able to live anywhere in the world, and the required linguistics classes would be fun. They were! Languages were a blast. I worked part-time in the Hebrew Department, studied some Hebrew, rounded out my credits with Swedish classes. And then, when I got a job teaching English . . . Well, it wasn’t me. I gave it a good shot, got over the initial shyness that came from having thirty students in front of me, but I saw that to teach people to converse in a second language, you had to be spontaneous. You had to be a “ham,” to be able to ad lib, to love being on stage. I tried to make up for what I wasn’t by producing worksheets. They were good, often funny, with pictures I drew or cut out of magazines, but to make enough to fill up the class hours, I spent more time on them than my evenings contained. (Of course, I was slow at this activity, too.) When Paul took me to class in the morning, we always passed a certain park, and I’d moan, “Oh, I’d give anything to be that guy sleeping on that bench right now!” When the lack of sleep started to put me over the edge, I quit.
Paul was in a different position altogether. He’d learned about a career called scientific illustration. He had studied both science and art in school; in fact his fine art often contained charts, graphs, chromatography, and other references to science. He enjoyed making detailed, accurate studies of the natural world. And now he was taking a class in it—a delightful class, with a teacher that looked uncannily like W.C. Fields, and made W.C. Fields-type wisecracks. In fact, Paul said that being in class was like watching an entertaining old movie. After dinner he couldn’t wait to go sit at his drawing table and draw. When we bought our house he’d insisted on having one room as his studio. And that’s where he’d go, involved in his happy passion, while I cleared the table, washed the dishes, swept the floor. If there was time, I’d study home-decorating magazines.
Trying to make nice interior spaces was at least a somewhat artistic activity. But I’m afraid I did a lot of copying. Oh, look at the way those sheer white curtains hold onto the light! I need to get some of those. Or, I love the way those gray walls show off artwork with a white mat—I’m going to buy paint, and do the living room in that same gray. Some projects had to be done. Our house came with—can you believe it?—gold shag carpeting everywhere. I ripped it out of the living room to start, chose the new ceramic tile and grout, and learned how to install it. Buy, buy, buy. We couldn’t afford everything, though, like tile for the kitchen. So I would scrub the horrible kitchen linoleum and then pour on some shiny, plasticky stuff—I forget the name—that made it look really nice. Until someone walked on it with dusty shoes, minutes after it dried.
Having a show house—humble as ours was—required cleanliness. And that job was ongoing. Ceaseless. When the baby came, more tasks were added: more cooking, more laundry, more mess at the dinner table. Diaper changing, stroller walks, nighttime rituals. I did all of it.
Paul found a graphics job; I lost my identity before I’d found it. On the cover of the first book he illustrated, he fought for his name to be as large as the author’s; I cleaned up baby messes and pushed a stroller around, my only “creative” outlet copying ideas from magazines The ambient feminism of the day didn’t help. You can be more than a housewife and mother! It shouted. But that’s what I was. Maybe I’d never been smart. Maybe my good grades were due to my dutiful homework habit, while other students scoffed at that and did their own things and became their own authentic selves. I should have done less schoolwork, more play, involved myself more deeply in life.
But I had been looking over Paul’s shoulder. Everything he did looked fun. So art didn’t have to be “kooky,” like my dad had said, or used for advertising—making people want what they didn’t need—like my mom had said. Paul had turned his art into a job. Why couldn’t I?
So I took my turn, and signed up for scientific illustration. I got to see Don “W.C.” Sayner in action. His course revolved around the shopping cart he brought in every day, filled with real-world examples of illustrations of all sorts: maps, line drawings, graphs, scientifically detailed parts of things, funny or expensive mistakes people made, different media and materials, page designs for books and brochures, manipulated photos, tracing methods, uses of color, medical diagrams. He’d hold up each sample, sometimes laying it on the table in front of him afterwards, but more often than not, sending it sailing into his audience like a Frisbee. Now and then he’d mutter something out of the corner of his mouth at a low volume. It was worth straining to hear; there was always a laugh in it.
It was a fun way to begin a new career. I felt like myself when I sat at the drawing table, and later the computer.
It was too late to fix the marriage, though. Roles had been established, precedents had been set, and resentments had piled up.
But I had a direction. Having that, I was a happier, better mom. I still enjoyed following inspirations I got from decorating magazines. And when I took on a housemate, I made sure she understood that the arrangement of the house was established. In her room, she could put her stuff anywhere, but the living room and bathroom and kitchen were to stay as they were. I gave her space inside certain cabinets, which had doors, and had them for a reason.
I guess that wasn’t nice of me. But I was attached to my aesthetics.
And I kept working on the house’s interior as I could afford to buy the materials—more new paint, ceramic tile for the kitchen floor and tub surround, miniblinds for key windows, a few new pieces of furniture, tongue-in-groove pine boards for the bathroom walls like a friend of mine had used—and eventually the house was done.
I had no choice but to move to the yard.
It was a different experience, working with live things, getting hot and dirty. I sorted out bird songs. Flowers surprised me. Spicy, perfumy scents (oh, that delicious wolfberry! The yellow balls on the acacia!) were released by the sunlight. Working gloveless was a game of thorn avoidance. My bare, beaded-up skin felt heavy, until bursts of breezes washed over it and brought a shivering pleasure I never experienced inside, in the regulated air. I could feel the vitamin D getting made in my tissues, and I sensed tiny, invisible sidekicks in the soil I touched. Ice water, pure and privileged, tasted better than any drink I’d ever known.
I didn’t want to leave the yard, didn’t want to go shopping, and didn’t have to. I sank rocks with a flat surface in the dirt as a pathway. Dead houseplants donated their pots. Sprawling cactus and other rootable plants sacrificed their arms for new landscapes. Sinuous dead branches and lacy cholla skeletons became boundaries for new plantings. Every alley offered chairs for seating areas.
I took a permaculture class and immediately launched into larger projects, yard projects that exemplified or suggested larger-scale, political rearrangements. I dug a channel from the street gutter that wound through the front yard, watering all of the trees there—because water was becoming a global issue, and it shouldn’t be wasted. I planted a garden, because our food system is fucked up. I found out what was edible in my surrounding landscape, for the same reason. I learned to use earth to build, mixing my dirt with straw for strength, because cement was a horribly polluting material, globally. To reduce energy for cooling, I encouraged trees that gave me their heartfelt shade, bought air-pocketed window shades, new, and some old, light-blocking curtains from a thrift store.
Yeah, I was getting political. I had opinions. I was acquiring an identity. Getting to know and like myself. I guess that’s usually when you meet your soulmate.
By this time I was renting out the house and living “out back.” That meant a tiny, one-room mud casita I’d built in the backyard, plus Paul’s former studio space, now my “efficiency apartment.” The little adobe house was beautifully appointed with my recent loves: Tarahumara pots and wooden ceremonial sword, a collection of O’odham baskets, some ankle-rattles and masks by local Yaqui artists. Pillows echoed colors in the rug. I still valued having a space that was me, that displayed what I thought was beautiful, still obeying some of the magazine principles.
For five years I’d rented the main house to a beautiful Lithuanian-American student working on her PhD, and her young son. She had a knack for creating beauty around her, but I only got to see it when I had to go in and fix something, or identify a spider, or admire her new bedspread. It was her space.
So when she left, and Terry moved in—well. It was in some ways the same: his space. He was paying for it. I’d never dream of interfering with a renter’s interiors. But this was an unusual arrangement. With him in the house, I gained it back; I was generously invited into it. He was more than a tenant; he was a tenant with benefits: my benant. The old house I had shared with Paul was mine again, with this new person. When I looked into the familiar mirror in the bathroom, which used to reflect my younger self, an unfamiliar person looked back—an older woman. It was all quite strange, yet not disconcerting, because my life had gotten pretty wonderful.
One question remained, though: Would I be able to refrain from redesigning his rooms? They weren’t exactly what you’d see in Martha Stewart Living.
As it turns out, I don’t worry about them reflecting on me. For one thing, his version of home décor makes me laugh. Did humor enter into a single room featured in Better Homes and Gardens? No. It always seemed a very serious business, impressing others, if that’s what those pages were about. (For me it was about beauty, too, though of a very narrowly defined sort). Also, in his interiors, books rule. He’s read a good percentage of them, too. I once had a boyfriend with not a single book in his house. How can I not love this opposite feeling of sitting in a book womb? (Walls of books are also very insulative.)
So I’m surrounded by stories—and also paintings, about half his art and half other people’s. Including mine. So why should I care if they’re not displayed “properly”? They’d be in dark storage otherwise, just stacked up motionless somewhere as though dead. Also, I’ve seen him rework most of his faces and figures, now back on the walls. I watched his skills take off. Under each surface is a rejected paint layer that points to a transformation above, and sometimes my eyes stick there, appreciating the new and improved, enjoying imaginative details I’d never think of.
There’s a tall work desk that sticks up a foot or so in front of a window. Never cover a window with furniture—I remember reading that. But since chairs kill, he has to stand part of the day. It’s about health. And being able to look out on green things. Besides, it reminds me of a surprise I pulled off once, right after he moved in. He’d placed his widest bookshelf so it partly blocked a window, and a narrow one against a wide wall. While he was on a business trip, I switched them. I knew I could. I knew he’d see the logic and be pleased. I was excited, not nervous, about his return. Because that’s who he is. And now that I’ve found him, I don’t want a chair to do him in.
This place is really him. And if it followed the rules of Better Homes and Gardens, it wouldn’t be. It’s not that I’ve learned to tolerate the place; it’s that I love it—because of who put it together.
You’re invited to come have tea with me in my thoughtfully furnished casita. But I’m glad I get to hang out as much as I want to at Terry’s.