Six Decembers ago, Sweetheart & I moved. Along with our physical possessions, I was concerned about emotional baggage. Mine, not his. It was just shy of a month living here, New Year’s Day in 2009, when I wrote this essay.
Real Estate & Leather
Sweetheart and I had just gotten the keys to our new house after he bought it back from his ex-wife. Ex, who has an impeccable eye for design, had left some great stuff – large potted plants they had nurtured together, some blankets, and a pie pan on the upper shelf of the pantry. She left something else too: in the built-in drawer of the master bedroom closet, there was a lingerie collection complete with a leather bra and matching thong.
Given the history surrounding both moves – hers out and ours in—it had occurred to me that she might leave some sort of parting shot. But leather unmentionables? Her last word was underwear? I’d prepared for shock and awe; I got shock and disappointment.
Sweetheart and Ex had already lived in their gorgeous 1886 Victorian for six years when Second Ex and I moved into a fixer-upper down the street, the last problem house on our block. That was in 2000, when the main requirement for obtaining a mortgage was a pulse. Our credit was marginal (mine due to fallout from my first divorce more than a decade earlier, SE’s the result of a roommate situation). But I’d always vowed that if I ever got a chance to own a house, I wouldn’t blow it.
Built in 1904, our house had been turned in to a duplex in 1959 and subsequently owned by a series of slumlords who’d stocked it with anything that could slither up the porch with a security deposit and a month’s rent. I loved the porch, the oak paneling in the kitchen, the fireplace and woodwork in the living room. I did not love the leaky roof, the ancient furnaces or having to walk down four stairs and through two doors to go to the second floor, which had been completely denuded of any original beauty. I cringed every time it rained. Buckets in the lone original bedroom caught the water that leaked in from the roof.
Our house needed work, but I knew I could make it right. It was like me. It may have been messed with, but its soul was intact. For what we’d eventually have to pay for a nicer one I knew it could become the house I’d always dreamed of owning, even nicer than the one Sweetheart and Ex owned down the street. SE and I hauled trash out, replaced walls and talked about the day we’d be able to replace the roof and ancient furnaces, creating what should have been the foundations of a real home.
But four Novembers later, fed up with a stepdaughter who was no longer a cute 11-year-old, a wife who didn’t make enough money for his taste and a house that needed too much work, SE told me he was leaving me. He also shared, for the first time, the degree to which he “hated” our house. This came as a surprise, since SE’s main comment about the house until then was that he had never imagined being able to own one.
Meanwhile, two blocks down the street, Sweetheart and Ex were also breaking up. Their marriage – which had looked as perfect as their house did from where I sat – turned out to be in serious trouble, which made me sad. They had met as teenagers, started dating two years later, moved in together when he was 20 and married four years after that.
I took dance classes from Ex, but I felt closer to Sweetheart, because we’d been talking for a longer time and because, outside of class (where she was a gifted and patient teacher), Ex was a little scary. She was bright, charismatic and sparkly, but she was also volatile. She trashed her male in-laws with an intensity that I found unsettling, particularly as her father-in-law and his wife, who lived around the corner, seemed pleasant and gentle. Worse, she wasn’t shy about lashing out at Sweetheart. Their interactions reminded me of my first marriage with the roles reversed. She was an overbearing bully; he was sullen and passive-aggressive. I liked Sweetheart and I liked Ex, but I didn’t much care for Ex’s husband and I really didn’t like Sweetheart’s wife.
By May, everyone was divorced. Sweetheart and Second Ex had left the neighborhood and Ex and I had custody of our respective houses.
In June, I invited them both to a small birthday party at my place. Ex didn’t come. Sweetheart did. By the end of summer, we were a couple. Their divorce was final, but she had not finished signing some of the more important post-divorce legal documents, and Sweetheart asked me not to say anything before that was done. So began an uncomfortable – and mercifully short – chapter in which I withheld information that would end our friendship and cause Ex to question every aspect of our shared past. I broke the news about Sweetheart and me to her with a five-sentence letter that I slipped in her mailbox. (Feel free to call me a coward.)
Ex made an angry phone call to Sweetheart, after which she didn’t talk to either one of us for the next three years. In the interim, I took care of my house.
When Sweetheart moved in a year later it had a new roof, an electrical upgrade, a high-efficiency furnace and new ductwork. And then, a “For Sale” sign went up on Ex’s front lawn at the same time that I got an insurance settlement that was just the right amount for another round of improvements or a 20 percent down payment. Sweetheart sent her an e-mail asking if she’d consider selling him the house. She would and did.
Suddenly I was packing to move into the house where my not-husband spent the last 10 years of his marriage to someone else. I was excited about the interior staircase, a kitchen with cabinets, bedrooms with doors and closets and a working fireplace. But I was also nervous. Would the Ghost of Marriage Past haunt us? Sweetheart had openly mourned for parts of the life he had with Ex.
Talking myself down
Because the house had consistently played a starring role in what he was sad to lose, I didn’t think living there would be a problem for him. But I wondered about me. They had spent a lot of time and money decorating, and she has a beautiful eye for design and color. In collaboration with Sweetheart, she picked paint and sewed curtains. They chose light fixtures and granite slabs for the counters in the pantry. He’d built an arbor and landscaped the front and back yards with native plants and trees. They threw parties they never had to clean up for because the house was always clean. Their dishes matched and were all complete sets. Their furniture was leather and beautiful.
In contrast, my decorating skills compare favorably only to a four-year-old with a blank wall and a set of finger paints. My furniture comes from estate sales, and my skills with a needle and thread pretty much begin and end at button replacement. So I was both excited and apprehensive about moving in to their house until I asked myself, if given the opportunity, would I have hired Ex to decorate my home. That the answer was an unequivocal yes was reassuring. Still, there seemed to be a whiff of “Single White Female” about the whole thing (minus the bondage and killing, of course).
And then Sweetheart got the keys to our new home and found The Box of Unmentionables. Luckily, I was on my way to a therapy appointment when he called to tell me about it, adding that he’d put it in a box, which I mistakenly processed as “thrown away.” I explained to my shrink what he’d found, and asked the question that was on my mind – “What was that about?” Her reaction was to give me a look that made me think of someone sucking lemon wedges next to a landfill and make a comment about control issues.
Because I thought he’d tossed it, I was not my best self when, after the third long day of unpacking after work, I reached into a box and pulled out Ex’s leather cutaway bra. Over the next two days the emotional temperature in the house rose. (Sweetheart: “It’s just underwear. You’re creeped out by underwear.”) (Memo to self: You are? If so, why? And if not, what about this *is* creeping you out?) Was her message meant for him? For me? Or both of us? Was she calling me a slut? Telling him he wasn’t the only man on the planet? Or sending some convoluted message that only Freud could figure out?
To quiet the thoughts bumping around in my head, I started imagining decorating a Christmas tree with the contents of the box, which I had been a little squeamish about inspecting further. Two days later, I was ready. As it turned out, the bra and accompanying thong were really the only non-mainstream garments. The others were slips and stockings – keepers all, and a nightie that will look great on my friend Michele.
Laughter, presents & a life lesson
That night, when Sweetheart’s brother stopped by, he asked if Ex had left anything behind. When I pulled the bra out of the box, it was a reverse Cheshire cat moment. (Future) Brother-In-Law’s face was still there, but the expression had been wiped clean, replaced by vacant eyes and a jaw gone slack. It was a sincere and spontaneous display of solidarity and comfort that shook loose everything I’d been feeling. BIL’s reaction and my response – to freely laugh my head off about something that had so confused me — may rank as the best laugh of my life. It was certainly the most healing.
The next day, I offered the bra to a woman who is working her way through college as an exotic dancer. When I gave it to her, she was quietly awestruck. “It’s way better than I imagined,” she said.
My dancer pal also explained that the bra was Dominatrix wear, and no self-respecting Dom would never wear a tiny bottom with that kind of top. I gave her the whole set anyway. She called a few days later to let me know she’d tried the bra on. It fits perfectly. She’s saving up for leather shorts.