Home Decorating

by

01/12/2020

Neighborhood: Yorkville

Was I a fool to think this relationship could be saved by an upholstered storage bench? I spent weeks in deep contemplation on my go-to furniture websites, activating coupons and letting them expire, looking at measurements, colors, prices, patterns. Jonathan and I had already discussed it in couples’ therapy. The plan, sanctioned by our therapist, was to get rid of the exercise bike sitting by the living room window and replace it with an upholstered storage bench. Then, I could relax. I wouldn’t have to move out. Maybe.

Things hadn’t always been this dire. Our first few weeks living together – just four months prior – had been harmonious. We moved in a gentle flow, passing each other in the hall, handing each other dishes, respectfully negotiating our differing opinions on decisions like whether kitchen counter objects should be arranged symmetrically or artfully, and how to handle the doublings – two paper towel holders, two toasters, two Brita pitchers. But once we settled the minor stuff, all the other stuff that had always quietly bothered me when I was just an overnight visitor to Jonathan’s apartment suddenly screamed at me. Everything I needed to change or eradicate was now blaringly clear: the light-sucking, mood-depressing stormy sea colored gray-teal living room walls; the big brown, round, faux wood “dinosaur butthole” mirror hanging above the sofa; the slow dense creep of someone else’s consciousness in my periphery, constantly. Everything was heavy and dark and inelegant and closing in on me.

Before Jonathan, I’d lived alone for over 20 years. I was mostly at peace, except for a periodic panic that would appear with no warning, tear a shivery swath through my heart and gut, and insist I was alone because I was hopelessly, psychologically malformed. Some nights, as I was settling in with a serving bowl of popcorn and Netflix, poof, it was back. Like a bitchy genie or menacing fairy, with the voice of a tiny, screaming me, she’d start in: This is it, for the rest of your life! Anyone you love, you’ll repel! Anyone who loves you will have no way to break into your heart! You’re cursed! You’ll die alone!

Aside from those moments, I was ok.

Where better to live alone than in New York, with its wired, weirdly nurturing energy and abundance of friendships and everyday adventure? Then, about three years ago, Jonathan stuck to me, and I stuck to him.

After twenty years of dating in New York, he was the first guy I could neither easily detach from nor sufficiently freak out enough to make bolt. As a result, I crossed two major barriers to be with him. The first was Central Park. I came from the Upper West Side, land of leafy boulevards, golden riverside sunsets, and blissfully solitary moviegoing, way the hell over to Yorkville, land of long schleps to the subway, whipping winter winds, and sparse eye contact among strangers.

But it was worth it, because the second barrier was twenty years of chronically single life.

And yet, something was wrong. Was it the basketball hoop over the closet door? The baked salmon color of the kitchen counter? The Star Trek phasers? No single thing I laid my eyes on could possibly be the source of so much deep wrong. Frantically, I began eliminating and relocating objects in Jonathan’s – our – apartment. If I couldn’t figure out what this wrongness was, maybe I could inadvertently toss it out or at least rearrange it. Or redecorate it.

One by one, after monumental effort — arguing, yelling, exhaustion — Jonathan relented and let me change most of the big stuff. I had a handyman move the wide screen TV down the wall about eight inches. I hung a framed poster of an abstract hovering angel above my new, custom-made reclaimed wood desk. There were days —highly caffeinated, over-confident days — when I believed all could be solved by putting up temporary wallpaper in the master bedroom and buying crystalline objects and faux furry things. I’d create a luminescent cocoon, withdraw into it as needed, and re-emerge as the full me in our shared home.

And there were days I knew I couldn’t stay.

Many arguments climaxed with me standing in the hallway near our front door, whisper-yelling, “You obviously want someone very different from me. Someone more nurturing, feminine, socially inexhaustible. You should go find her.”

What Jonathan needs and what I need are almost entirely at odds. And I don’t just mean his preference for sleek and modern versus mine for cozy and bohemian. The man I love needs stimulation – social, video games, touching – and I need light, quiet, tranquility.

About a year into dating him, it came to me in a flash that my whole life is a prayer for tranquility, privacy, and emotional security – and a guy who’ll allow me those first two things and assure me regularly of the third. The truth is, there’s no way to quantify the emotional security Jonathan lavishes on me through all his cuddling, hugging, and phone calls throughout the day. After being a couple for almost three years, I should feel secure. I should feel entitled to my preferences and needs.

So why is it so fucking hard to get rid of a rusted old exercise bike in the living room?

He found it on the street years ago when he was just starting to make this apartment his home, which – from the wheeling and dealing he did to get on the lease when his finances didn’t cut it, to the horrible roommates he’d endured – was no easy task. The fact that I wasn’t much happier with the apartment than with the bike was of course alarming to him. Doing his best to pacify me, he promised, early last winter, that once the leaves fell off the big tree outside our window, more light would come in. The living room would be brighter, the East River view wider and more lovely. He was right, so I let the damn bike sit there, between the sofa and the window – the handlebars vandalizing the view – month after month. I was afraid to break his heart and kill his hopes that he’d one day get his back problems resolved and have time to use it.

But mostly, I was trying to assure us both that my soul’s plan was not in fact to move in with him for six months, systematically eject everything he’d worked for years to buy or had serendipitously found on the sidewalk, then move back out and leave him with a half-empty two-bedroom apartment and not enough stuff to rent out the second bedroom furnished. I promised I wouldn’t leave him in that condition.

What I couldn’t promise was that I’d ever get good at sacrificing my space and dovetailing my needs with someone else’s.

But it’s a rusted old bike. You couldn’t give it away on Craigslist. He never uses it, and replacing it with a cushioned bench would liberate the sightline; our living room window is a Monet canvas of shifting colors, shadows, blossoms, rippling water, and silver-blue light. I could nestle in that windowed corner in the mornings, drink coffee, read, think, not think. Just be. No bike. No trace of Jonathan’s style and needs. Just stillness and solitude.

At the end of our fourth couple’s session, the therapist said, “So, hopefully you’ll take that bike down to the street when you get home tonight.” We nodded, but we both knew it wouldn’t happen that way. I’d have to buy the bench first, it would have to arrive and take up space, and the bike removal would happen at the last possible minute, if it happened at all.

It took months for me to finally hit “Complete Purchase” and select a shipping preference. One small click. One giant leap of faith in us.

The bench arrived when I was visiting my parents in Baltimore. Jonathan sent me a video of it in its nook by the window. It’s ivory linen. The seat cushion looks plush but sinks under my butt like a half-deflated swimming raft on the concrete by the pool. “I don’t think it’s meant to be sat on,” Jonathan said. “You’re gonna fall through one day.” He took a picture of me the first morning I tried it out. I sat, knees up, coffee mug in hand, back leaning against the wall. The trees were thick and green again, but a slant of eastern morning light shone through the leaves and dappled the wall, my collar bone, arms and wrists. He laughed. “It’s the only direct sun in the apartment and you’re sitting in it,” he said.

On the second ivory bench morning, I groped my way to consciousness, knowing that when my sleeping boyfriend woke up, he’d want cuddles and head scratches. I offered kindness and acceptance as I whispered and kissed him. I ignored the butthole mirror, still on the wall, and felt grateful that the walls were now three shades lighter, which, he admits, he prefers, and which is still gray and slightly bums me out.

Objects and preferences like these will come and go. Impermanence is easy. Love that sticks is as rare as it is imperfect and maddening. Barrier-crossing love is even rarer.

A few weeks after the bench arrived, we moved the bike to the basement. The super won’t likely ever remove it. There’s a broken glass tabletop that’s been down there for years. So it’s possible Jonathan will have access to it forever. And maybe he’ll agree, eventually, to let the painters return for one more round in the living room. And I’ll replace that damn mirror, too. What can’t be replaced is our love for each other. The question is, what’s the best arrangement for our life together? Hopefully one that draws the eye to intimacy – the workhorse furniture of commitment and comfort – and highlights the moments of soul-nourishing solitude, like crystal figurines on glass shelves. The good fairies. The beneficent genies.

***

Nina Camp‘s humor and personal essays have been featured at HuffPost, Goodhousekeeping.com, Cosmo.com and Mogul.com.

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§ 4 Responses to “Home Decorating”

  • TSB says:

    Terrific piece. You get the trauma of West side to East side – lighthearted but also heavy – in a way that echoes Nora Ephron’s treatment of the same subject. The basement you evoke is like that thing once seen, or imagined, one can’t unsee.

  • Syd says:

    Beautifully written. Keep the butthole mirror…and each other!

  • RBB/NYC says:

    Bravo… you nail the angst of coupling’s finer details.

  • Mindy Camponeschi says:

    You nailed it with the first sentence. Really well written. You capture perfectly the details that make loving cohabitation so jerky, so unlike the smoothly functioning interlocking gears we dreamily imagined when we fell in love.

§ Leave a Reply

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