AFTER SEVERAL MONTHS OF DATING, we had arrived at the moment of truth. We had dined, danced, seen films and sunsets together; I had cooked for him, he had cooked for me, and now we were drinking peach daiquiris he'd whipped up in the blender. Weeks ago, we had compared sexual histories and negotiated the delicate conversation about the AIDS epidemic. Now we were listening to Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" and we were not discussing sports shoes. We were gazing into each other's eyes. Within the hour, I felt sure, Harry and I would enter his bedroom.
Every woman knows the crucial significance of this juncture in a relationship. I was about to find out how this man decorated the most intimate room in his house. Would it be the minimalist Sam Shepard/Georgia O'Keeffe desert fantasy look with Indian rugs on the walls, cactuses on the windowsills and bleached bones strewn about the floor? Would it be high tech -- all electronic equipment and hard angles, a cyborg's heaven? Would it be the sports scene with the stationary bicycle, running shorts hanging on the doorknob and duck decoy telephone? Or would his room simply look like it had slipped into the San Andreas fault at the wrong moment?
You can ascertain certain things from looking at a man's kitchen. What kind of spices does he have? Does he have any pots and pans? Are there jars and jars of barbecue sauce but only one tea bag? These are important considerations. But the bedroom offers clues to the inner man.
Ask any man you know to describe his bedroom and he'll probably get paranoid. "Why should I care how it looks? I just sleep there," he'll say defensively. But a woman knows that the state of a man's bedroom reflects his character and personality more reliably than the nature of his work, his political affiliations or the way he treats his ex-wife. A man's bedroom is a Rorschach of the soul.
Though much has been written about the "new man," one look at the symbolism revealed in his bedroom decor tells the story: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Any woman over 21 has horror stories. There's the guy who hangs his framed Harvard diploma over the bed. Or the guy with the black lacquer platform bed, red satin sheets and smoky, gold-flecked mirrors along the wall. Or the one with the gun rack over his bed and enough dust kitties continued on page 42 continued from page 27 lying around to open a pet shop.
Women see bedrooms as places to soothe the spirit; men see bedrooms as places to engage in sex and sleep. Most men equate interest in interior design with homosexuality. Their feeble efforts at decorating their rooms are less statements of style than cries for help. Unless they hire professionals to duplicate the look of a Paco Rabanne ad, men will toss and turn at night in rooms that reflect all the subtle sensibilities of an inner-city Burger King.
Most women, on the other hand, will pick out the finest room in the house to make into the bedroom. It must be large, sunny, with lots of windows. Upon moving into a small apartment, a woman will often choose the largest room to sleep in, settling for a cramped public area before she'll compromise her need for private space. Men never do this, even when they must sleep in alcoves. A woman with limited funds will make the best of things by finding quilts at country auctions and decorating the walls with inexpensive prints. Men without money simply spend a lot of time out of the apartment.
Like other gender differences, men's fear of feathering the nest begins in childhood. Little boys aren't taught to be as repulsed by disarray as are little girls. A girl's room may not always be drop-dead orderly, but it will show some attempt at charm. Tiny tea parties will be in progress; stuffed animals will be neatly arranged on the bed. Boys' bedrooms are filled with booby traps -- multiple-vehicle toy truck accidents, hockey sticks and motor parts -- posters of football players and cages full of mangy, hungry gerbils. A boy is happiest when his room resembles post-nuclear chaos. A girl is happiest when her room looks like Barbie lives there.
Young men are not much different from little boys. Their bedrooms are filled with neon Schlitz logos, posters of girls in bathing suits or less, "Yield" signs filched on infamous road trips, crushed cigarette packs and oily pizza carryout boxes. A guy's first bachelor apartment is usually shared with several roommates whose ideas about interior design begin and end with large plastic trash cans carefully placed in every room. "No matter where you're sitting at any point in time," explains one man new to independent living, "you can toss an empty."
As men mature, you might expect their approach to housekeeping to become a little more sophisticated. After all, many of them trade in their toaster ovens for Cuisinarts sometime around the big three-o and begin bragging about their dan-dan noodles and their chili recipes. But their bedrooms remain hovels, tidied up only in anticipation of sexual conquest, if then. "Usually I try to spend the night at my girlfriend's place," one grown man admits, "but if we have to stay at my apartment, I just sweep up the floors and keep the lights down."
Men who marry gladly allow their wives to take responsibility for interior decor. Wives choose bureaus and armoires, coordinate linens with drapes and sort clothes dumped on the bed after husbands have allegedly done the laundry. Long-term bachelors eventually split into two camps. One school reads Sports Illustrated in bed and allows used copies to accumulate where they land. At the end of a month, those bedrooms look like recycling centers. The other reads The New Republic and files back issues in alphabetical order in folders kept in bedrooms that seem more like offices. The slobs believe disorder implies masculinity; the obsessives have heart attacks if anyone tries to adjust the sound on the tape deck.
I wasn't thinking about all these things as I crossed the threshold into Harry's bedroom, but in the morning I took a good look around. Sun poured into the room through plain gauze curtains onto whitewashed walls. Directly across from the bed stood an oak dresser with an assortment of laundered socks on top and a Matt Groening cartoon tucked into one corner of the mirror. A collection of neckties (some hideous) hung from pegs on the inside of the open closet door. What I could see of the closet's interior was not frightening.
On the bedside table was an issue of Granta, an issue of People, a movie tie-in paperback of Tough Guys Don't Dance and a collection of Richard Ford short stories. There was a nice muted bedspread on the bed and enough pillows for someone to sit up and feel comfortable reading. This was a bedroom in which I could feel at home. Harry was one of those rare men who don't rely exclusively on women to bring comfort into their lives. His room revealed that he knew something about how to nurture himself, that he wouldn't depend on a woman to shoulder all his emotional burdens for him and that he might even be capable of nurturing her, too.
Just then, Harry emerged from the shower. I smiled at him; he came over to the bed. "You know, I was just thinking about your car," he said. "You can tell a lot about a woman by the way she keeps her car . . . " ::