We arrive in separate cars and leave in separate cars. It’s as if we are perpetrating some illicit act and avoiding being seen as a couple. But that’s endless miles from the reality. We had to rush to two different schools to get kids from both. We were two harried and ever-on-the-brink-of-late multitasking moms – but we were an incredible, enmeshed romantic duo as well.
We ran to town for a meeting with an architect we had hired (not a young, brilliant upstart but a tried and true name with his own firm of young, brilliant upstarts beneath him). The meeting was about adding a mudroom and a bedroom to the vintage 1828 house we had purchased the previous winter and moved into (with our five children) the previous spring. Throughout the meeting, my partner, Beatrice ran the show. She was confident and skilled in design and building. Her ex-husband had been a decent but unsuccessful architect, and she had often concepted his work with him from his early days when he was a true beginner, to his later years when he had lost interest in the craft but had attempted to uphold the façade that he was working. I was impressed and largely silent. (Both unusual states of being for me.)
I had only lived in small spaces before this house. I always loved inhabiting small spaces. They were manageable long before I understood just how significant and attribute manageable could be. I was single when I bought my first studio apartment and illegally built it into a neat one-bedroom. My second and third apartments were in the same pre-war building as each other. The first had the killer, original bathtub in which my 5’9″ frame could completely submerge without my head or feet coming even close to grazing the slipper, sloping edges. I would turn off all the lights in the apartment and float there for long periods of time until the perfect temperature water turned tepid and beckoned my attention. It was the 1980s and I had friends seeking the same sensation in various sensory deprivation tanks that were available throughout the city for one hundred dollars an hour. Even though the purveyors of these experiences promised, in fine print and on subway ads, lots of “chlorine and sea salt and fresh water in each tank,” when anyone checked in with me about my interest level in these experiences, I’d explain that one couldn’t pay me $1,000 to float naked for even five minutes in a glorified tub shared by hundreds of random New York bodies a week.
I loved my private pre-war tub. And I loved the small, perfect apartment which surrounded it. I subsequently loved the next apartment, down the hall, for which my (then) fiancé convinced me to trade in the small, perfect apartment. That new replacement apartment, albeit still a one-bedroom, had a dollop more square footage, and an amazing working fireplace. Still, the new apartment was plenty small – and became even smaller when I divided the living room in half to create a bedroom for my newborn son.
Around the same era, I also owned a lovely, small house in the country. My fiancé, once he became my husband, had insisted we needed a weekend home. And while I didn’t embrace the philosophy of having an entirely separate home for two out of seven days a week, I did love how small the lovely, small house was. Listed as “four bedrooms,”it was really an attic atop two bedrooms so diminutive, they should have been combined into one room that could then be labeled “small.” I never combined or divided rooms in this house, though, and although its scale begged for an addition, I never added onto it either. Rather, space was created when my marriage fell apart and my husband moved out.
That was my history of my adult-inhabited spaces until Beatrice and I bought the house on High Street. We had gone out only a few times with our real estate broker – someone with whom I had gone to high school and therefore loosely trusted – before he took me aside after I kept referencing the sort of house I’d prefer seeing…and said pointedly, “Listen, Jennifer, you need to update. You’re about to be a family of seven. You need space – and lots of it. Enough with the ‘small!”
The broker found us space, but not lots of it, in a house a tad too ancient for our tastes, but in breezy walking distance of the main street of a historic village. Originally a whaling town, still surrounded by water and loaded with carefully preserved original charm, the village looked like a postcard and behaved like a Norman Rockwell painting. Beatrice and I wanted to give that charming village childhood, and its close proximity from our house, to our children. Would being able to walk or scooter themselves a few safe blocks to buy homemade ice cream or get a perfect slice of pizza captivate Beatrice’s older children enough to assuage living through their original nuclear family’s demise and our newly minted revision? Would the five-and-dime, with its mechanical fire engine ride, or the cozy bookstore where they already remembered my son’s name and book favorites, charm him enough to help him emotionally move on from his former house – the lovely, small one with the tree house I had given him for his second birthday (and been unable to take along to the new house for zoning reasons)? Probably not. Surely not. But we were desperately committed to making their young lives feel as good as we could make them feel.
That’s where the extra bedroom we were building came in: although Beatrice had three girls very close in age, no two of them wanted to share a room. Friends were comfortable telling us we were indulgent, even ridiculous…that kids share bedrooms and kids adjust to all kinds of things. Some of those friends whispered to be that the girls were spoiled and sharing rooms would help. Some other friends told us we should consolidate the kids’ schools (we were in three different school systems at the time) so our schedules and car rides could be made simpler. We were big fans of simple, but these and many other unsolicited suggestions mostly solidified our feeling that the subtle specifics of our particular family were more unique that most readily grasped or that we were fond of publicly dissecting. We were an incredibly normal family within our own sphere, but the outside world knew the kids had two gay moms as parents, and we knew that world didn’t perceive us as normal, or average, and that our kids moved through at outside world, with its spoken and unspoken judgements, on a daily basis.
It was the middle daughter, the tomboy, insisting we build her “a boy’s room,” who bunked with her younger brother while we figured out how to do that financially and politically. The mudroom was a less loaded undertaking, and friends seemed to approve of that addition. A mudroom was one of those things Beatrice simply insisted we needed and I went along with, assuming she knew about such things, and assuming my former high school friend-turned-real-estate-broker was right (about my needing to update).
So each week for months, plans were drawn on thin, oversized pieces of paper, and then Beatrice and the architect would make sketches and notes on even thinner pieces of paper placed on top of the first pieces. When details got to a level where Beatrice and the architect agreed, these would be committed to thicker pieces of paper with blue, computer-generated drawings. The computer program displayed people in the rooms – adults and kids. The only contribution I offered during the entire process was that I requested the architect change the adult man and woman standing cooking in the kitchen and lounging in the master bedroom to two women. He turned it over to his subordinates who said that they “could try” to make that change but that I should understand the computer program they were using simply produced it this way. I suggested they try hard. Eventuality the adult male figure was removed and a second adult female became represented in the plans we would review each week. Both females looked identical, though – like genetic twins cohabitating in some strange sci-fi cartoon. I didn’t complain any further, thought, predicting I wouldn’t be able to push the architects, or the technology of the time, much beyond what I had already accomplished.
The completion of the bedroom and mudroom was going to take four months and about $100,000. Beatrice and I split the cost of the renovations, the architect, the house. We split the cost of the two cars we had bought, which waited outside for us like getaway vehicles poised to speed towards the kids’ various schools for end-of-day pickups. Splitting such large amounts of money, putting both our names on checks, mortgages, stationery, and car leases reinforced our feelings of being a real couple moving through the world – and we were. We were not married, though, and that sometimes felt like an old-fashioned formality and sometimes felt like an unpleasant impossibility. We had been so busy joining our lives and households – and trying to ensure the kids’ happiness during the transition – that there had been little time to contemplate a version of a marriage. Our being unmarried was one of the subtle ways our kids were different from their friends. Our being unmarried for reasons of illegality was a point we didn’t dwell on in front of them, but we knew it weighed on their consciousness. If we were, “just like everyone else,” why weren’t we just like everyone else? Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the United States, but legality wasn’t the first stop in my unconscious, (much the way that our physically procreating was an impossibility, yet while Beatrice and I were having sex, I had often flash-wondered if we were creating a baby before I remembered that we could not, in fact, biologically do so). I so intrinsically knew we were average; it always took a news report, a newspaper article, or a debate on TV to remind me that we weren’t considered so. I knew some couples who had had wedding ceremonies without the legal overlay, but that felt like a defeat to me… like grown-ups playing a child’s game of “wedding.” Of course, same-sex marriage was legal in Canada – plenty of gay couples from the United States were getting married there. I wondered if we went to Canada whether I would feel even more average as I walked through my day. If we moved our family to Canada, would our kids feel a palpable shift in people’s attitudes and be so happy in their day-to-day lives that they wouldn’t mind sharing bedrooms?
That day, as we left the architect’s office and I got into my car, I put on NPR as I usually did. That was back when Beatrice and I drove separately more than we drove together, and back when the children were still all too young to commandeer a front seat and the easy access it imbued to reset all our preset stations. The decision had just come down on Goodridge v. Department of Public Health – the Massachusetts State Supreme Court case that would either allow Massachusett’s same-sex couples to marry legally or not. I had only barely followed the case on public radio in my car between jujitsu drop-offs and soccer pickups. My son would tolerate and sometimes enjoy NPR. But my new stepchildren used it as part of a supporting argument against me… so I was listening to news less than I liked, and attempting to enjoy the artist 50 Cent as an evolution and an olive branch. I immediately froze at the reporter’s first mention of “Massachusetts Supreme Court steps,” knowing what was to follow. Idling in place and putting my entire energy into listening instead of reversing out of my parking spot (as I should have done to be on-time), I was thankful to be alone. The correspondent reported the court ruling; the plaintiffs, seven same-sex couples, had won the landmark case! These couples, and any other residents of their state interested in doing so, could get married. I reversed and started driving toward my son and stepdaughter’s middle school when the reporter began interviewing the beside-themselves-with-joy cheering bystanders who had gathered for hours on the courthouse steps to await the decision.
Never historically an activist, that day I was also too rushed, too otherwise consumed with the constant melee of my own intense microscopic life, to fully digest the huge historic watershed that had just occurred. If we told the kids at dinner, I don’t remember any significant questions or conversation surrounding it. Later that night, once the kids had all gone to bed and the candlelight was still aglow, if, in fact, Beatrice clinked her whine glass to my beer bottle in celebration, I honestly can’t recall.
It would be a few more months before I could organize my emotions surrounding the overall significance of what was happening in history and how it specifically touched our lives. At that moment, I was trying hard to negotiate the fine line between not arriving late for children getting out of school and trying not to get stopped for speeding in doing so. This tightrope act might have made my heart race a little, as it often did during those taut days. Or maybe I was just excited.