You’re doing what?”
So you do a simple everyday thing like you and your husband moving in with your ex, and people raise their eyebrows.
Jim (the ex) got his master’s at Berkeley and traveled to Europe with the Glee Club. He and I met in 1970, when he was an English teacher at College of Marin, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais. A couple of years later we were dating. One night at the Savoy-Tivoli in North Beach, he must have grown impatient with my failure to see the obvious. “Have you noticed that the restaurant here is straight and the bar is gay?” I hadn’t. “Well, I’m more like the bar than the restaurant.”
That mattered, but other things mattered to me more, then. He lived in a world where people bought antiques, and read The New Yorker, and took the TV out of the closet on Sunday nights to watch Masterpiece Theatre. We married when I was 24 and he was 45. I had already moved the few things I owned into the rundown four-story Queen Anne Victorian he’d bought in 1971.
I was married to Jim for seven years, and we had two children. Then his being gay and being 20 years older began to matter to me, and we divorced.
For years afterward as I looked back and surveyed the wreck of my childhood, I comforted myself with knowing that I’d had the unconscious self-preservation to start myself out with a good man. He was the only person I knew who never gossiped, was never petty, was the person you’d call in the middle of the night because he would come.
They say every marriage is that of a kite and a rock. I was the kite, living in apartments around San Francisco with boyfriends, while he was the rock. Jim had roommates to share expenses, but never again a live-in partner.
I remarried, and—raising eyebrows—brought my new husband Bill to live in the first floor of the building, which Jim had divided into condos. The two men liked each other, and the kids ran up and down the back stairs between the flats.
That was 20 years ago, and the kids are grown now. Jim got older—we all did—and is now 80, with Parkinson’s that makes cooking more difficult. So he took to coming down the back steps to have dinner with us. Then he fell on the stairs to the upper floor of his two-story flat, and, what with one thing and another, it made sense for the three of us to live together, in his huge flat.
The three of us discussed it over Bill’s grilled pork chops. I slipped upstairs alone. High ceilings, grand piano, brown drop-leaf tables, spindly-legged antiques, frowning Flemish portraits. It looked exactly as it always had. He renovated it and bought furniture, then never again so much as moved a vase.
Could I live here again? At 59, I was way too old to be anybody’s roommate, or to live in someone else’s house. In our own flat below, Bill and I made constant restless improvements, painting the walls bright colors like Sunset Sea and Aching Blue, remodeling the kitchen, and getting drunk and buying sofas at Macy’s.
Jim and Bill came up and found me in the hall. “You’d have to let us more or less take over your house,” I told Jim. “And get rid of a lot of stuff, yours and ours.” I pointed at a huge mahogany display case in the hall that contained a large collection of pink seashells. “That, for example.”
“I’ll put it on Craigslist,” he said firmly.
He was so agreeable! So it was decided. We would all live together, and rent the flat below to pay the bills.
Weeks later, I had our flat ready for the tenants and our stuff ready to move up. Only there was nowhere to put it. “That’s my electric blanket,” he protested when he saw that moth-eaten item go by on top of a box. Nor could he see why I would want to get rid of his old Royal typewriter, Singer sewing machine, copper kettles, or the caribou head—a real one—that his nephew in Minnesota had given him.
The sofas in the living room sagged a bit, but, he said, “You just have to know how to sit in them.” The display case full of seashells? “People need something to look at when they come up the stairs.”
The more he resisted changing anything, the wilder my need became to toss it all out or paint it over or shove it into a new corner. Jim went to the gym at 3 every day, and I would tear off wallpaper, toss out his heavy art books, and jam his flat file into a closet. He headed to New York for a week and I replaced the bedroom carpeting with warm hickory flooring. I painted the hallways a wonderful golden color.
He came home and painted it all back to the ’70s bronco beige it had always been (where on earth did he find the paint?).
One day he came home to find that I’d moved his whole bedroom downstairs, right down to the brass bed, 1972 Denon stereo, and the framed wall photographs of his undoubtedly equally pigheaded Swedish forebears.
He was furious. “You can’t just take over someone’s house.”
“You said I could.” I hung up our paintings. Jim took them down and put his own back up.
“This is the most idiotic decision of our lives,” Bill fumed. “We are not moving up there.”
But we had to, because by then our flat was rented. The three of us went on grimly. Bill and I were resigned to living with a madman. Jim had taken to practically never leaving the house, lest he come home to find the grand piano moved to the back yard.
One day as I was shoving a box in the attic out of my way for the tenth time, I decided to just get rid of it. I opened it, and found things I thought had been lost forever, from my college diploma to my father’s wallet. I found that stupid suede jacket wedged at the bottom, the one I had worn on my first visit to Jim’s house. And he kept every other important artifact of our lives, his and mine and the kids’, including photos and letters and drafts of plays.
He kept every friend he’d ever had. Just as he looked at tired carpeting and still saw the gleaming expanse of wool he had installed when Nixon was president, so when he looked at you, he saw the best in you. His worst qualities—refusal to countenance change—were also his best. His love is unwavering, ungrudging. You can depend on it.