When I set up the ironing board and plug in the iron in the two foot margin between our bed and the wall, I turn off the window air conditioning unit in order to avoid tripping the circuit. I gaze through the window at the peeling paint on our neighbor’s building ten feet away and ask Paul “Are you the least bit concerned that your pay cut will affect our standard of living?”
There are two
types of people in the world: those that
make lists and those that don’t. If you
were to make a list of these two types of people, Paul would be on the “makes a
list” list and I would be on the “does not make a list” list. Most people who
know us would put themselves on the “No
shit, Sherlock” list because it is a well-known fact that highly organized
people make lists, while more creative types shun them. On
rare occasions a creative person may be a list maker but they are genetic mutants,
Martha Stewart for example. If you were
to ask her about world hunger while she was chopping up a head of her favorite
cabbage, her likely response would be “I just want to focus on making my salad”,
which is why there should only be two types of people in the world.
My relationship with Paul is amazing because we never fight.
Happy Birthday Husband
Sometimes, I’ll look back and see the boy I never knew in the face of the man I do.
finally agreed to live with Paul he packed up my ragtag group of furnishings on
a snowy winter day and moved them by himself to surprise me while I was at work
one day. He was too excited to wait for
me, or perhaps he understood that my involvement would only prolong the process.
Walking through my empty basement apartment one final time, I paused at the
bedroom door, took a deep breath and turned off the light. “It’s time to stop
saying goodbye,” my friend Nancy advised me tearfully when I told her that I
was moving again, and that was the thought in my head as I trudged through the
snow towards a warm waiting car. I mentally counted; five homes in four years,
each time hoping to find a place that would heal me. “I want to plant a garden,” I told Paul as we
drove to New Hampshire and for the rest of that winter I looked through the
window at the banks of silent snow and envisioned a border garden in the
backyard at the edge of the forest.
Paul has a plan.
He always has a plan. This is one of the things that I love about him. Without provocation, he says “Huh, that’s a cute idea” as if I can hear the conversation taking place in his head, which is another thing I love about him. He thinks that I can read his mind.
“What?” I say, proving that I cannot indeed, read his thoughts.
“The Powerball lottery is now three hundred million dollars. We’ll pass through eight states on our drive home. Let’s stop and buy a ticket in each one,” he says.
This makes me very happy. We are going to drive seven hundred miles; eleven hours in the car and this plan makes me happy. Perhaps I cannot read his mind, but surely he can read mine.
We have come to Virginia to move my oldest daughter into her off campus apartment. I am such a fool. I thought that because I had already experienced the pain of separation when my ex-wife left with my daughters the first time that this would not be difficult. But last night’s parting loops through my mind like a broken record.
Walking through her apartment, I search for things left undone. The trash needs to be taken out. The nightlights need to be plugged in. “Make sure you keep that window in your bedroom locked.” I tell her. But it is of no use, if I look hard enough I will always find things left undone.
“I will Dad. I don’t want you guys to leave.” She says holding her arms out, signaling that it is time for us to leave. I pull her to me and hold on, inhaling the scent of her. Not the soap she uses, or the shampoo, but the scent that parents love when they smell the top of a baby’s head; because it is a part of themselves.
When I let go and look up, I see Paul’s face. He wears an upside down smile and his eyes answer my question.
“OK, I’m leaving now, goodbye.” I say looking away.
As I walk to the car, a part of me reflexively expects Katherine to follow shouting “Daddy, wait” because this is what would occur when as a child she tarried. I would say the exact words “OK, I’m leaving now, goodbye” and make an exaggerated exit like a vaudevillian actor.
This time, she does not follow.
We wake up early the next morning and begin our trip home. We stop to fill up the car with gas and purchase our first lottery ticket in Virginia. The day is wrapped in promise as the slanted early morning sun shines through the car windows.
“Will we change anything when we win?” I ask as I turn to face Paul in the driver’s seat.
“You know I don’t think that way.” He says looking straight ahead.
But as our cache of lottery tickets grows we begin to discuss what we will do with the winnings. We would most certainly keep working, but just until we get pissed off by some transgression at work, which is estimated to take fifteen minutes, tops. Paul would purchase a Bentley automobile and I would become a full time writer. We begin to mentally cancel upcoming social engagements because we’ll be busy meeting with our financial advisors and accountants.
Of course you know that we did not win the lottery. But that was not the plan. Turns out that Paul can read my mind. He knew that eight tickets, a mere sixteen dollars, would be enough to keep my mind occupied during the eleven hour car ride home; to keep me from thinking about things left undone.
Paul had a plan.
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If you are looking for love, do not build a house in
Do not sit on a wide sandy beach under a blue sky painted with wispy white clouds and listen to the romantic sounds of distant bell buoys and laughing gulls. Do not drive along Route one with the car windows down, salty sea air in your hair and marvel at rolling green lawns, craggy ocean side cliffs and white clapboard homes. Do not sip from a glass of wine in a harbor side restaurant at sunset while watching a sailboat’s brilliant white sail bend against the wind.
Above all, do not wander into an open house and talk to a builder about upgrades. You will fall in love and when he ultimately becomes unavailable? Your heart will be broken.
Our affair began as all affairs do. We coveted. We desired. We had to have it at any cost.
His words were too hard to resist. “This view? It’s the best in the development” our builder, Mark said as he winked at us. He was a burly man with a gruff voice, but he knew exactly what to say. “You want a shower with two heads? I can give it to you.” He whispered.
Paul looked at me and he knew in that instant, I was smitten.
The affair continued in a whirl wind of expensive gifts: upgrades and options. Nothing was too dear for our Maine cottage. Yes, we must have custom audio visual, anything less than hardwoods, granite, stainless steel and custom tile would cheapen our love, our precious.
We would visit on weekends, intoxicated by the heady elixir of a new romance. We watched our love grow. The bare bones of the frame became smooth walls, the glint of the hardwood floors in the afternoon sun flirted with us.
Then one day Mark casually asked “Have you seen the shower?”
It was a thing of beauty. Smooth glass and marble tile stretched from wall to wall. Two shower heads on either side beckoned to us. “Go ahead, step in!” Mark jokingly ordered us.
There we stood, two men fully clothed standing in a shower looking slightly embarrassed. Mark laughed at us and said “You are too cute.” It was the pinnacle of our relationship.
But on the day of consummation, the closing, the love began to sour. Others were introduced into the relationship. “This is Hank; he’s going to finish your tile.” Mark said casually as he hopped into his Corvette and disappeared, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake.
“But today is the closing, will it be completed? And what about the stove, shouldn’t it be in the kitchen instead of on the front deck?” I asked Hank, trying not to sound jilted.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ll be here all next week to finish up that stuff, but I have a court appearance that I’m late for. I’ll see you in five to ten.” He laughed manically as he stepped into his truck and drove away.
“He was joking, right?” I asked, searching Paul’s face for answers.
“About going to prison or finishing up our cottage?” Paul answered my question with a question. I didn’t know which was more alarming.
We began to find telltale signs of infidelity. The tile in the shower was unfinished. There was no refrigerator and the dishwasher was merely for show. Our home was only a shell. A pretty shell, but a shell nonetheless.
Over the following days, our time with Mark and Hank began to dwindle. It was clear they were spending time at other cottages.
“What did we do wrong?” I asked Paul.
“They’ll be back. They always come back.” He tried to sound re-assuring.
Week after week we would receive empty promises. “I’ll be by in the morning.” Hank would say. I would stand by the window trying not to appear too eager. Hank would show up sometime late in the afternoon, reeking with the smell of construction materials from another cottage.
“You’ve been working at someone else’s cottage haven’t you?” I demanded answers. Little things would get done, but his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Eventually, we found a support group. Other cottage owners came forward for a “Get to know you” cook out. We met Renee and Roger first. We poured our hearts out as we sipped vodka tonics from our green and blue tumblers.
“Oh honey, we’ve been here for three years. You’re nothing special.” Renee said as she took a long sip and peered over her sunglasses.
“Are you a top or a bottom?” She quizzed me.
“Excuse me?” I thought I misunderstood.
“A top or bottom unit?” She asked, slightly annoyed.
“Oh, we’re tops.” I answered.
“Then the dust from the unpaved street shouldn’t bother you too much. Do you know how long we have been waiting for this road to be paved? Don’t worry, it will get done. But, you’re on Maine time now. Everything is a little s-l-o-w-e-r here.” She took another long sip and then barked “Roger, I’m empty!”
Sometimes, I will see Hank’s truck and Mark’s Corvette parked in the development and experience a little thrill. But, I won’t let myself think about those early days when they couldn’t keep their tools off of our cottage. I’m in it for the long haul.
When I first started writing I would flip through the rolodex of memories in my mind, pluck out a story and transcribe it from beginning to finish: The End. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am. It was an accurate account, but it was hardly inspiring. As my writing skills matured my synapses rewired themselves forcing me to become introspective, preoccupied and dare I say it? somewhat of a diva. Objects became repositories of memories. The chair was no longer just a chair. I would weave two seemingly unrelated stories together and become frustrated when Paul could not see the perfect arrangement.
“So, you understood that the ducks in my post represented a dormant memory taking flight, right?” I would ask Paul impatiently.
He would stare at me blankly and reply “Can we have this discussion with your shirt off?”
“Savage” I would think to myself and then whip off my shirt. “And the symbolism of the snow on the path, tell me you got that?”
Absent mindedly he would say “Nope.” And then ask “Sweetie, where is the kitchen?” Frustrated I would wave my hand without looking up from my notebook and say “Over there” until I felt his puppy eyes boring into my skin. “OK, it’s there!” I would say bending my forearm back towards my shoulder in an exaggerated body building pose.
“Oh yeah, that’s where it is baby!” He would say while grabbing my bicep.
I would roll my eyes and focus my attention back on the computer screen. Clearly we were operating in two different worlds. I became obsessed with the idea that every word had been written and the only thing new I could add was to arrange them in a unique way. But at the same time Paul began to engross himself in planning the furniture for our new cottage in Maine.
We would sit silently on the sofa, me arranging and then re-arranging words on my screen while Paul searched the Internet diligently for the perfect deck table.
“Look at this one. It is perfect!” Paul exclaimed. Lost in my words it took me thirty seconds to process his statement. “Yep, that’s it.” I said flatly.
Our local IKEA store ran out of stock of the Perfect Table before we could purchase one. Paul was morose and became obsessed with finding a replacement. He created a diagram of the deck on drafting paper complete with all of the door locations and paper cut outs of the Perfect Table and chairs. He would show me how the table’s leaves could open up and the chairs could be arranged to fit all of us around the Perfect Table. There was just enough room for this arrangement.
On weekends we would drive to IKEA and Paul would sadly visit the spot where the Perfect Table once resided in its own little outdoor diorama; replaced by an inferior table. Tempted by the smell of cinnamon buns I guided him towards the exit. “Come on, we’ll get a frozen yogurt and a cinnamon bun. I’m sure we can pick up a table at Target.” I said in my most sympathetic voice. He gave me the “how could you? “ look as if I had just brought a date to his funeral.
“It’s just a table” I said while licking the icing from my fingers. We had spent enough time looking for this table and I wanted to go home and get back to arranging words.
But he never gave up. Then one day he checked the stock at an IKEA in Long Island, New York. There were five tables in stock. In a rare intersection of personal life and business his travels took him to New York and then I received this e-mail:
Subject: Porch Table
Purchased and in the car! Great Success!
I refrained from typing a reply asking how the actual business portion of his trip had fared.
We drove up to Maine this weekend to survey the construction progress on our cottage. During the car trip, I sat silently in my world, arranging words in my head and I can only imagine that Paul must have been arranging the Perfect Table in his.
At the construction site, we stood on the deck under a surreal blue sky. The Webhannet River snaked across the marsh and just beyond the pine trees the New England Sea sparkled in the afternoon sun. “This is where the table will go.” Paul said proudly. “It's just the right size for our family. You can sit here with your notebook and a glass of wine as you write, looking out over this view. That should make Willy happy. Can you see it?” He asked beaming. At a sudden loss for words, I replied "Perfectly."
Sometimes a chair is just a chair and sometimes words are just words, but sometimes? A table is much more than just a table.
Some men learn by following a father’s example. And some men learn by not following a father’s example. I learned how to be a father by doing both.
|My Father-circa 1963|
“Now see the way this sofa is pushed up against the wall? It says doctor’s office waiting room. If we place it like so and cozy up these chairs then what we’ve got is an arrangement worth talking about!”
My father would stare at me speechless. But thinking about it now, he really didn’t have much to say to any of us. When he came home from work he would plow through dinner in five minutes, gulp down a glass of Scotch and smoke a pack of cigarettes. His quota of words was used during the work day.
“Son” My father would say and all of us would respond “Yes?”
“Get your Dad the newspaper.”
I soon learned that what he truly wanted was women, and lots of them. Something I couldn’t quite grasp. They were blonde, brunette, tall, short, shapely and slim. But there was always one on the side waiting to replace the current one. At my wedding there were two ex-wives, two ex-girlfriends and a current girlfriend on his arm. When I exchanged wedding vows I also vowed never to be like my father.
For twenty years I did what my father could not. I stayed married and never had an affair. Blessed with two daughters I lavished them with affection. It was all going according to plan. But as time wore on, my quota of words began to fill up. Until there was nothing left to say but "I’m gay". When my marriage ended I was broken, like my father.
I picked up the pieces and tried to reassemble them into something attractive. I attended a gay father’s support group and was picked up by a man at the first meeting. The fact that he collected vintage washing machines and proudly displayed them in his basement really should have alarmed me, but I decided to find it cute and quirky. The fact that he attended a gay father’s support group and was not actually a father? Fine by me. What really should have alarmed me was that I was too fucked up to interest even him for very long. It was over within a few weeks.
And then I met Paul. On our first date, he pulled out three perfectly crisp photographs of his children from his wallet and placed them on the table. I opened my wallet, flipped through old receipts, peeled the sticky photographs out and proudly displayed them. It was the first time all of our children would be together in one room. The second would be at our wedding.
The more time I spent with Paul the more I realized that he was the father I wanted to be: self-confident, loving, patient, funny and authoritative. Eventually, I became that father. It was no more evident than the day I received a text from my daughter “I want you to know that you are my hero. Sis and I have been talking and we both want to marry someone like you or Paul”.
This father’s day I’ll reflexively think about giving Dad a call and then remember, oh, he's gone. Deep down, I know he loved me. I just wish he could have learned what Paul taught me. In order to properly love your children, you have to love yourself.