I kept my old place when Cheryl and I got married. It was in Hollis, only twelve miles away from the five room ranch, starter home we bought together in Townsend, Massachusetts. Having a tough time with the transition, I lied a little bit and told her there was no market for a small cottage with outdated plumbing. Besides, since the mortgage so low, we could use it as a storage facility—Christmas stuff, things from her past she couldn’t bear to part with.
The truth was I loved the space. It wasn’t vast, three rooms with a small vegetable plot. Originally it was a one story carriage house behind the old Keltner estate. I moved in when I first started working at Mohr’s. Mrs. Keltner let me fix it up in return for a rent break. After a year she allowed me to buy it outright. The main floor was twenty-five by forty. I broke it up into a living room, with a pull out couch plus a tiny dinette set as the kitchen was barely big enough for one person to squeeze into. I turned what should have been a small bedroom into a workshop. As a hobby I fix up laptops. I scout businesses that are updating their units, buy the old ones for a song, then slap in more memory, a wireless card and other newer components. Early on I gave the laptops away to charity, nursing homes, youth groups and the like, but then I began posting newspaper ads and leaving notes on the local community college bulletin board. Within a few days I’d usually find a buyer and be three hundred bucks the richer.
My big selling feature is that I stand behind my product. One time a motherboard on a Sony Vaio went six months after this woman bought it; I gave her an almost new Dell Latitude D600 in its place. I lost money on the deal, but she referred me to new clients so I made out in the long run.
For the first two years Cheryl and I got along fine. I was nuts about her, still am. What few disagreements or conflict we had during the day were forgotten about in the bedroom at night. I’m a writer. Not the fiction kind; I create circulars for the Mohr’s supermarket chain. I really helped my career when I took some graphic arts courses. I not only write the copy but design the whole layout. Most people don’t realize the work that goes into it. We produce a four page spread that must be ready by noon on Thursday so it can be printed and in Friday’s newspaper as well as the flier that gets stuffed into mailboxes.
Sometimes central office makes last minute changes (seeded red grapes are out and seedless green ones from Chile are in). Suffice it to say that by mid-week I’m under quite a bit of stress, especially now that I’m one of the section leaders. When there’s a mistake or misprint it’s my ass that’s on the line. On weekends I desperately need to relax. I like to read my computer magazines, surf the net for bargains, and I’m a big time Boston sports fan. Just like any laptop, I use Saturday and Sunday to recharge my batteries.
Cheryl works a nine-to-five job in customer service for a housewares catalog company. For her the weekend means fixing up and decorating the house. She watches those design shows where you redo your entire bedroom for less than five hundred dollars. Yard sales and auctions are big events as well. She’s continually showing me swatches and paint charts.
“What do you think of this fabric? Too busy?”
“What’s it for?”
“Is that like curtains?”
“No one calls them curtains any more. We need more earth tones in the living room. Did I tell you that Carla Fitzpatrick, the redhead with one leg slightly shorter than the other two cubicles down from me, used a company that brings carpet and drapery samples right to the house. They even stock Hunter-Douglas blinds. She picked out stuff for her whole living room and dining area in one evening, and the next day it was installed. She lives over in Groton if you’d like to see it. I never liked the texture of Berber carpeting, but she raves about it.”
Because I love to make her happy, I went along with the love seat in the living room and slept fitfully in a canopy bed with wallpaper that had circuitous leafy vines which eventually plugged into burnt orange flowers the size of lily pads. When I sold a few computers and contributed eighteen hundred to the family coffers, she put it toward an armoire that conveniently hid the TV from prying eyes. I felt like a peeping Tom each time I opened it up to watch a Red Sox or Celtics game.
The big rift in the relationship came a month after our third anniversary and was brought on by the book club she was in. I’d had a horrible day at work. My opinion was that the product in the ad should be labeled “hamburger” rolls. Sheila Hargraves, my immediate supervisor and a bitch-witch if ever there was one, insisted I write “hamburg” rolls in the ad. No amount of logic, reasoning or showing her restaurant menus sufficed. I cringed every time I had to do it. To add to my woes, I was so distracted by the argument that I “dragged and dropped” a “buy one get one free” logo onto the wrong peanut butter company. Hargraves had to send out a retraction that was pasted up on the front window of every Mohr’s store.
So, when I got home at nine that evening, I wanted nothing more than to flop down my six foot frame as best I could on the stupid love seat and watch ESPN. What greeted me, however, were a half dozen women from Cheryl’s book club (who never seemed to discuss the assigned novel) noshing finger food and gathered around the set “oohing” and “aahing” as a rotund, puffy-haired lady prepared twice baked sweet potatoes infused with pecans and marshmallows.
I surveyed the scene. I was invited to partake of the club’s many dips and tapas selections, but food was not a priority. After Sheila’s tongue lashing, I wanted to hear no human voice higher than a baritone. I took Cheryl aside and told her I was making a long overdue check on things at the carriage house for the want of someplace to go until the party was over. She kissed me on the cheek and re-encouraged me to try a seven layer Mexican dip that Barbara Switzer had brought. I pled acid-reflux and left.
I was an only child. I learned early on how to amuse myself. I have no issue with being alone. In fact, I enjoy it. When I unlocked the front door of my former habitat, even though it was cluttered with boxes we couldn’t fit into our small ranch, I felt the cares of the world melt away. It had been months since I’d been there but even with the musty odor it was as refreshing as a hot shower after a July afternoon of yard work. I removed the bed sheet that covered my old couch and discovered the Red Sox pillow that was always on my stomach when I watched TV. I banged on the cushions to bring them back to life, assumed the supine position and closed my eyes. Many times in my bachelor days, after an evening of puttering with my computers, I’d plop down on the couch, especially when the Red Sox were on the West coast, and watch the first few innings before drifting off to sleep, awakening every so often to catch up on the game’s progress. Those were the days.
I fell asleep but just past midnight my cell’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” theme woke me with a start. The Thursday book club meeting had finally departed the premises. Cheryl would leave the front door unlocked, but would I please not leave the porch light on like I usually did. It took me an hour to budge from my cocoon and head back to the sanctity of my marriage bed.
I never looked at my computer business in terms of money. It was a hobby. I’d get home from Mohr’s, grab a bite and, after a few hours of working in my lab, I’d feel human again. The difference was night and day. I’d put a ball game on the radio and tinker away to my heart’s content. Time flew by.
I would never quit the day job, but it was nice having a few bucks which were immediately reinvested in more computer toys. Since getting married, I’d hand my mad money over to Cheryl who controlled the family finances, which she usually used to furbish (if that’s a word) or refurbish our living space. My current computer workspace was a small folding table in a corner of our guest room which had to be removed when her relatives or friends came to visit. The TV was a twenty-one inch screen of the non-HD variety which was cloistered behind the armoire’s simulated oak doors. So, when I finally got home from the carriage house, early the next morning and turned out the porch light as per her direction, another light bulb clicked on, one which kept me wide awake for several hours.
The first step to having a life was to open up my own checking account as well as a post office box. The story to Cheryl was that I needed the carriage house space for my computer lab. It was ridiculous to pay money on the place and not get some use out of it. And she could have the entire guest room to use for her ever growing craft projects. I mentioned a dollar figure that would come her way if I could expand my workshop, and she went for the idea.
I spent the next week after work at Mohr’s going though the stuff we had stored in the carriage house, tossed out things I knew we’d never use, reorganized the rest, put it out in the old garden on pallets and covered the whole mess with a blue tarp.
My living room was soon livable again. I bought a Sony 42 inch HD set on a new credit card and had a DirecTV dish installed, striking a good deal on all sports packages. I applied for a small business loan and spent thirty-five hundred getting my lab up to the diagnostic level it should be. If I had to destroy brain cells during the day by writing “Sizzling Summer Strip Steak Specials” and “Live ‘N Kicking Lobsters” (Sheila loved alliteration), my well deserved compensation would be to have decent antivirus software and state of the art diagnostic bench machines.
At first I spent two evenings a week in my sanctuary. I was home by ten (usually right after a ball game) and in a good mood. When I increased it to three, I told her I had a big computer order which would bring in a couple thousand. As long as I mentioned dollars she was cool with how I spent my weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons (college football).
I think she might have enjoyed her freedom as well. I was never much fun browsing antique shops, preferring to sit in the car and read. She had taken up oil painting and she was fairly decent at it. Part of the guest room was a studio of sorts. The other half was devoted to her sewing and quilting projects. Our few “stay over” guests were relegated to a blow up air mattress she saw on one of the shopping channels or an old futon from my college days.
In May her mother had a cancer scare. It turned out to be a benign ovarian cyst, but she went back to Dayton for a week to help her dad out. I spent all the time at the carriage house. I put in a few tomato and pepper plants as I’d always enjoyed gardening. Cheryl had a new lawn installed at the ranch, complete with underground irrigation so there was no practical space for my plants there.
I really missed her so it was great to see her when she got back. I got a scare, though, when she said that she’d like to invite her folks for Christmas and, since it would be cramped at our place, we could spruce up the carriage house so guests could use it or maybe even rent it later on. That way she wouldn’t feel so guilty about using the guest room as her personal space. I invented a possible infestation of mice which had the effect I intended.
The summer went well enough. Cheryl got a promotion so there was a bit more money. I got a contract to repair the laptops for the Middlesex Regional School District, a monthly retainer plus parts and labor for each unit I fixed. I wasn’t rolling in it, but there was certainly enough to keep up my double life and then some. I hated to admit it but, as much as I loved Cheryl, some evenings it was very hard to make the twenty minute drive back to our bed in the ranch house.
I don’t recall what started the huge argument. I’m sure my job (confrontations with Sheila) was partly to blame as well as Cheryl’s filling our home to overflowing with cute things she picked up here and there plus the constant smell of oil paint from her studio. Whatever it was, after a shouting match, I slammed out of the house and for the first time stayed the entire night at my place. Cheryl called me at work the next morning, and we began to make up, but then an old scab was reopened so we kept apart for two more days.
I used my lunch break to go back to our place and grabbed a bunch of clothes and other stuff. For all practical purposes I could be self-sustaining at Casa Mia. I always wanted a La-Z-Boy recliner, a “six pack chair” as the salesmen called it, so I went out and bought one with all the vibrating and heated massage extras one could have. During the next few weeks, though Cheryl and I made up after a fashion, I began spending more nights away, sometimes without calling.
This went on for a few months until we finally had a blow up in the car while coming back from a Thanksgiving meal at her brother’s house in New Hampshire.
“There’s another woman, isn’t there. That’s why you stay over there. Why not come right out and admit it?”
I denied the allegation, which wasn’t hard to do.
“You’ve probably been doing it all along. That’s why you wanted to hang on to it all these years. It’s been your private little pied-a-terre for shacking up with whomever.”
“I use the space to work on computers. They take up a lot of room. Sometimes I watch sports so you can have the TV for your shows.”
“I want the key. Let me see for myself. If you use the space for your hobbies then I can use it for my painting and crafts. By law the carriage house is half mine anyway. That will free up the guest room for what it’s intended to be.”
I didn’t say anything. My mind was frantically searching for a reply. I needed that space the way diabetics need insulin.
“See, I knew it! If I went over there right now I’d find evidence of a woman wouldn’t I! You’ve been caught red-handed. Well, you might as well get used to screwing her every night because you’re not going to be sleeping at the Old Farm Road address. I’m having the locks changed tomorrow.”
We went to her company Christmas party as a couple. It was my idea. I thought we might work out our differences. But it was like a middle school dance, I was on one side of the room; she was with her female friends on the other. I presented her with a gift when I dropped her off, but she handed it right back unopened because she didn’t think it was appropriate, given our situation, whatever that was. We talked civilly as the new year began. I thought we were making headway. I didn’t want to break up and sensed she didn’t either despite her cold demeanor. I knew I’d made a few mistakes and, if we could see a counselor or at least come to some accord as to what pushed each other’s buttons, then we might be able to make a go of it. The week before Valentine’s Day I decided to go over to her place and make one last plea.
“Cheryl, do you believe me that there is no other woman, never has been?”
“Part of me does, but I’m so hurt that you wouldn’t want to spend time with me. Instead you want to fiddle with computers and watch stupid baseball or whatever. We’re growing in different directions.”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to be with you. It’s just that I need my own space, especially with what I have to put up with at work. And to be fair, I did spend a lot of time doing things you liked.”
“But now I know you hated every minute of it.” She began crying which I know was going to doom me.
“I didn’t hate it; it was more that you had your own ideas about things and seemed agitated if I didn’t go along with you. Let me ask you this. Do you like having a place to do your own thing—painting, scrapbooking and whatever the sewing you do is called?”
“Well, the same holds for me. You don’t like computer parts all over the house or the TV blasting a ball game. I have sinus trouble when I smell the brush cleaner and oil paint. So what’s wrong with separate spaces?”
The tears had lessened and it appeared that she was following my line of reasoning. “I was thinking. We could have this house as our home. I have my carriage house, but what if we got you a place of your own, a studio of sorts where you could do all things you want to pursue.”
She perked up. “I went to a rug weaving demonstration last month. They do beautiful things and it would be very practical. A simple two by four foot throw rug is like six hundred dollars. Looms take up a lot of space and months to complete a project. But another rent or mortgage payment would be tough to handle.”
“I’d expand the computer business; maybe look for some corporate accounts. I’d do whatever it takes to have us stay together.”
“I’ve always wanted a loft; creative artists like lofts because of the light. I think Edward Hopper lived in one”
“If that’s what you want, then you can begin looking tomorrow.”
“I like cats. You said you were allergic, but they’d be perfect in my loft, wouldn’t they. And I could decorate it anyway I want?”
“I don’t see why not. But I also want you to feel free to visit my space, if you want, that is.”
“I could put the cats in the bathroom when you came to my place?”
“I love you, Cheryl. This is going to be an unconventional living arrangemen—yours, mine and ours, but I really want it to work. And no matter how much we get wrapped up in our separate lives, we need to make time for each other.”
“We could have dates like we did before we were married. Remember how exciting it was when we slept over at each other’s place? We could make Sunday our special day.”
I reached out and took her hand. “You’re the most important thing in my life right now.”
She got up from the table, came over and kissed me. “Want to fool around a little?”
“Your place or mine!”