Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remove a wall, invigorate a marriage

The tension is palpable. Can you feel it? Gaze upon this pristine expanse of white wall between our dated but functional kitchen and our dark and dreary dining room--but don't get attached to it because starting tomorrow, it'll be gone.

Not entirely gone. We're very noncommittal remodelers and like to draw out the decision-making process for as long as possible, so we're only taking out the top half of the wall, enough to move ductwork and wiring and experiment with just how open we want the space to be. We're on the verge of compromise here: I like an open floor plan, and Alex prefers a bit of separation between kitchen and dining. In this particular case, he should certainly have more say because he's the primary cook in the house. Look at the difference between his sliced cucumbers on the right and mine:

He etched in a pretty design on the skin of the cuke using a lemon zester or something. And this was just for a family dinner, not for guests! I don't bust out the fancy gadgets except when company comes over.

Cucumbers aside, remodeling is one of those things couples do that really smacks of optimism--or naivete. But in our case, let's call it optimism, because Alex and I have been down this road many times before, from the back-breaking work of constructing a brick patio at our first house to the huge tasks of refinishing the attic and remodeling the kitchen in our second house, with myriad other projects of varying complexity in between. Alex does the bulk of the work because he has a better idea of what he's doing. I help with things like planning, prep, demo, clean up, and painting, but he does pretty much everything else--with me at his shoulder asking questions, being annoying, and generally getting on his nerves. And when the going gets particularly dirty, I whisk SB away to safer, cleaner climes. Again, it seems like domestic work falling along gender lines (see my earlier post "Home-living over books and snack?")

But one thing in our marriage that seems to be genderless is the way that our dreams play out on the very structure of our houses. In much the same way that we daydreamed aloud about our shared future before we moved to Portland and while I was pregnant, we also dream (and argue and disagree and concede) together about our houses. We've done this so many times that we can predict each other's concerns before they're voiced, and sometimes rush into a quarrel without even articulating the problem. We know each other's aesthetics, politely acknowledge them, then make impassioned pleas for our own. We bicker and hold grudges and make up--or agree to disagree for the time being: when Alex showed me a mock up for how our new kitchen layout would look, I bit my lip and grimaced, and he smiled and closed his laptop. Remodeling has become a kind of proving ground for our marriage.

And this is where optimism comes in: We don't just move forward again on another project with the simple faith that we'll weather several weeks of disarray, of cracked moldings and shards of plaster, of the inevitable hurt feelings and misunderstandings followed by cold stony silences. We move forward in the face of all that. We move forward anticipating how the eastern light from the kitchen windows will dance on the dining room table at breakfast, whether by way of a large pass-through or a completely opened space. We move forward feeling grateful and lucky that after fifteen years together we're still in motion at all--moving in roughly the same direction, toward the same general end.

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