Too Close for Comfort
When I first walked in all I could say was, "Wow." Maryanne explained that the apartment, with its view of Washington National Cathedral, had been the building architect's gift to his mistress. Maryanne had moved in 12 years earlier, after an ugly divorce.
"I like your paintings," I said, eyeing the big, unframed canvases. Craigslist had advertised an international artist looking to share a historic two-bedroom, two-bathroom in the heart of Adams Morgan. I told her I was trying to publish my first book of poems.
"Are you really interested?" she asked. "This could work." In this city, real estate is an aphrodisiac. After sharing cider and an hour of conversation, we agreed to move in together.
We were both aspiring to make a living as artists, and we each needed the break in rent. Beyond that, we had little in common. Maryanne was 20 years older. She didn't date or drink; I liked neat Scotch and scruffy men. Yet we slowly bonded. I was in awe of her crazy travel stories, her recipes from Paris and Cairo. Her kitchen cabinets overflowed with exotic spices and grains. My idea of cooking was canned kidney beans microwaved over spinach.
She decided I needed mothering, though my real mother lived only 20 minutes away. I'd often go to my family house for ribs and grilled vegetables, served with a generous helping of my mom's latest money worries. That was the trade: She cooked, I listened. Sometimes I'd come home to find a whole second dinner waiting on the stove. "Dig in," Maryanne would say.
If I demurred, saying I'd already eaten, she'd look crestfallen. "Look at this roast chicken," she'd say. "Just have a nibble?" So I'd fix a plate. We might drink mint tea instead of white wine, and her topic of worry might be grant applications rather than roofer's bills. Still, it was too much to digest in one day.
"Why does she push food on me?" I asked my mom. "Do I need to chip in for groceries?"
"No, hon," my mom said. "She just hates cooking for one."
For some months I'd had an on-again, off-again boyfriend, a great kisser who made me laugh. But I couldn't get past his moody silences or the depressing state of his bachelor pad, which lacked even a coffee table. "I'm going to end it," I told Maryanne.
After the breakup, wondering if I'd made a mistake, I turned to my roommate for distraction. We became each other's Saturday night date. Maryanne would light candles and put on Stevie Wonder. As I shuffled pages of my book manuscript, she turned our glass-topped table into a palette, rolling out the tubes of paint and singing along to "Superstition." At 2 in the morning we would drink chamomile and creep off to deep sleep in our beds. What did I need the boyfriend for? I was creating a home without him.
Months passed. Over breakfast, I complained to a friend about the household drudgery caused by decomposing vegetables Maryanne had left in the fridge, greasy pans she'd left on the stove. She'd reluctantly taken a job teaching art in an elementary school, which meant she was in bed by 9 p.m. "I never see her anymore," I said. "We're like strangers."
"Aren't you strangers?" my friend asked. "Making it work with a roommate can be as draining as making it work with a husband. But what are you working toward?"
Her question shook me. Maryanne and I had shared Sunday dinners, a love of art, a penchant for fresh flowers. Yet if I heard my roommate crying behind her bedroom door, I didn't knock. I'd never asked about her brother's death, or the baby's car seat stored in my closet. We'd never gone on a road trip together.
We were coming up on our three-year anniversary, but this wasn't a relationship. I had let a real relationship -- painful, complicated, but real -- fall away. I had chosen something easier: a cocoon of intimacy with someone close, but not too close.
I told my ex I wanted to give it one more try. By mid-February we stood in a Dupont Circle apartment, signing a lease together. I would have to break the news to Maryanne that night if I wanted to use the "two weeks' notice" clause and save myself from March rent. She would be crushed, and not just by the financial burden. I was abandoning her. "I've had tons of roommates over the years," she'd told me once. "You're the one I was waiting for all that time."
When I walked in all the lights were off. She wasn't home. On top of the day's mail rested a note, woven from strips of red and pink construction paper and trimmed into a heart shape.
"Happy Valentine's Day," it said in gold-lettered cursive. "Love, M."
I was doing the right thing. But sometimes the right thing isn't the pretty flutter of liftoff; sometimes it's the messy split of a cocoon's filament. Sometimes it's standing in a dark kitchen, holding someone else's heart in your hand.