A Woman’s Work: Home Economics* (*I Took Woodworking Instead)

Carolita Johnson tallies the costs and benefits of love and cohabitation as a woman artist living in a patriarchy.

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

 

By the time I was 44 I’d never lived with a boyfriend, a fact that I, a woman living under a patriarchy and not getting any younger, sometimes thought should be bothering me more, but which didn’t.

I even had fond memories of a day when I was 41 and freshly dumped, on which I woke up alone in bed, stretched out, and had a remarkable, quite unexpected realization…

I loved not having to wonder what mood my boyfriend would wake up in next to me, or worry that I didn’t have the right boyfriend-food in my kitchen, or if I was going to be the right “me” or the wrong “me.”

It wasn’t that I minded his other girlfriend: he’d been involved with her on and off since well before we met a year earlier, when we’d talked all evening at a sake bar about art and art supplies. He’d taken me seriously as a fellow artist, something I’d never experienced before, even by then, when I was 37 years old.

It was that he minded my other boyfriend. So, he dumped me and I abandoned my plans of living six months with him in NYC and six months with my soon-to-be other ex, for life.*

*(I may have been greedy, but I wasn’t fickle.)

I’d been alone for six months in NYC when Michael resurfaced and pitched getting back together.

Newly divorced, Michael was all about going out and having fun, while I was finally knuckling down to work after a decade of traveling and experiments.

Sure, I’d missed him for a few months, but after a while, I’d found serenity.

We got back together. Some of our ups and downs over the next few years centered around his firm conviction that I would panic at 41 and scramble to have kids before it was “too late.” He already had two fully grown children.

I made it a tradition to have him ask me, every year on my birthday, if I wanted kids yet:

Another contretemps came when he decided to sublet his apartment to me and move to the country for two years, thinking he’d get more painting done. I hadn’t realized till then that he considered his brilliant cartooning career as his day-job. Unfortunately, cartooning paid less and less, which was why I, also a cartoonist, had a (sadly non-cartooning) day job, myself. Visiting him on weekends for two years ate into my cartooning and writing time. And he wasn’t painting more.

So, I said,

During the two years Michael was away, I’d been searching for my own (not illegally sublet) apartment, or a huge apartment for both of us, and had even considered moving to the country to join him. Now, I got the landlord of Michael’s old apartment to buy me out of the lease, and found us a three-bedroom apartment where we each had a workspace and our own full bathrooms — key to domestic and creative harmony.

Think we lived happily ever after? Oh, I loved him, but this isn’t just a love story. I didn’t want to live together, but I didn’t want to be apart, either. We couldn’t afford separate apartments like Frida and Diego, or Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, so our three-bedroom would have to do. This meant I’d have to learn to live with a domestic partner for the first time in my life, a position not typical for a 44-year-old woman but not uncommon for a “bachelor” of the same age.

I soon began talking like a masculine cliché.

He began to secretly chat with his ex-lover via social media, while I began Googling “all-woman communes.”

On the one hand I was like the fox from St-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”: I needed to be “tamed” for domestic bliss.

On the other hand, I was very aware of the usual ways social convention and emotional laziness can make living together more beneficial for a man than for a woman when there’s one of each in the equation.

Yet I watched it happen. It started with me doing all the work to find the apartment and negotiate the lease, laying out the full deposit myself, doing the repairs myself before we moved in, and then, once we had moved in, paying for household items he didn’t prioritize, like a sturdy, airtight trash bin that wouldn’t attract roaches or fall apart after six months.

Then, when our sheets and towels went from white to gray and my expensive work clothes got ruined in the wash, he said:

When our electric bill was exorbitant due to the 100-watt incandescent bulb on in Michael’s studio all afternoon and night, I was the one to research and invest in LED technology. LED bulbs cost $39 a pop when they first hit the market, but I figured they would pay for themselves as the years went by. I’d joke that:

This was one of the ways I had begun thinking in the long-term with him. And at the start, being the higher earner, and having the better credit rating, I even considered one day buying our apartment, which we loved. At the same time, I was worried about what I was spending now, because when I lived alone I was frugal, had paid off my credit card debt and even started a retirement fund. But we were both totally committed to our relationship by now, so it made sense betting on us being together for many years: we would work out the kinks as we went along.

When I had envisioned us moving in together, I thought we’d both save money and split chores and get more work done. But Michael never had time for the “things that don’t matter,” and even when he was willing to take on some of our domestic needs he insisted on fulfilling these together, which only added more to my to-do list, rather than shortening it. Attempting to discuss the impracticality of this approach was uncannily fruitless. I resorted to proposing we pay for grocery delivery and a twice-monthly cleaning person, anything to avoid being accused of “nagging,” or bickering like my parents had, even if it meant re-accumulating debt while I bought us time to recalibrate.

Then, once we stopped arguing, I just wanted us to enjoy our life together. We were getting older; life is so precarious. I even stopped taking as many pictures of us, just wanting to live.


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I always said the dog saved us…

I wasn’t used to the intense intimacy of living together and he wasn’t used to living with a woman as intensely autonomous and driven as me. When we found “Hammett,” named for one of our common interests, “noir” detective novels, it seemed like he was saying,

He gave us a common focus that distracted and soothed our mutual but divergent domestic worries. Hammy was a balm, an ambassador, our friend. Getting to know him together made me forget the Susan B. Anthony Womyn’s Unrest Home, and Michael began waking up in time to see me off to the subway or at least to our front door with a piece of toast wrapped in a love-note napkin. For a while, at least, he’d make sure to take his nap before I got home from work, so we’d have time together.

I eventually got him to start reimbursing me for the extra money I’d laid out over our first couple of years together. He paid it back slowly, at a rate not apace with the interest on my debt but it was better than nothing, and we began to have fun again. Truth be told, in every way except financially or domestically, we were made for each other:

Even though we were both cartoonists at the same magazine, the New Yorker, we were more likely to compete for bananas than about our cartoons.

We’d show each other our cartoons every week and tell each other which ones we loved and which ones we thought weren’t quite “there” yet.

Because of our common interests and cultural reference points, the 19-year age gap didn’t seem to matter when he was 56. But when he was 68, things began to change. First, he started smoking again.

He hurt his knee. He got a hernia. He needed a lot of dental work. He forgot things and worried he was coming down with Alzheimer’s. I began to spend all my time researching ways to keep him healthy, plotting schemes to implement them without humiliating or “bossing” him around.

I made lacto-fermented condiments for his burgers, since he wouldn’t give them up any more than his cigarettes, and composed oils, ointments and balms for his various age-related skin woes.

I added him to my gym membership for an additional charge, but he found the gym boring and stopped going. I started looking around for a cheaper neighborhood when our rent went up right after I took a pay cut in my day job, due to the recession finally reaching the last jobs and industries spared.

Even though Michael had agreed to at least begin the apartment search this time (since I’d done all the time-consuming research and footwork for our present apartment) I’d been looking at apartments in the Bronx and New Jersey, alone, out of desperation. After about six months of this, it dawned on me that wherever we went that was close to NYC we’d be priced out again within five years. Michael would be in his mid-70s by then, and where could we go from there that would be safe for an aging artist? I had to take into account that we might both be making less selling cartoons by then, and might have to fall back on his social security check during what would hopefully only be a transitional period someday if for any reason I lost my day job in the garment district before I didn’t need it anymore.

Michael would be in his studio, painting till 4am, and I’d be in bed in the dark with my iPhone, looking at rental listings, Googling “prostate,” or “prediabetic,” or “Alzheimer’s prevention” till I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, and fall asleep wondering where all my time had gone.

Then came the Obama re-election campaign, and the backlash misogyny and hostility towards immigrants felt all the more personal while I was navigating the practical reality that made my time and income and social worth lesser than Michael’s every time we reached a compromise at home.

Sometimes I felt like I was catching glimpses of the “matrix” underpinning the domestic side of our relationship: the outdated (yet all too current) organizing principles of a woman’s life that I was constantly trying, with varying degrees of success (or lack thereof), to shake off.

But when I’d try to express my anguish, Michael would perceive it as a personal attack, or accuse me of nagging. And yet, every now and then he’d break through and see what I was up against.

Only I didn’t want to be yelled at. I wanted him to make more time for me by taking over a little of what I was doing for us, and to do so on a routine basis instead of for special occasions or to placate me when I was in a “mood.”

When I look back on it now, it’s hard to understand how I, a highly educated feminist, ended up devoting myself to Michael to the detriment of my own productivity and financial security. When I brought him back to NYC, away from a community of people his own age, I’d thought it had been only to his professional and emotional benefit. Now, I wondered if I’d been right. What did I know about being a nearly 70 year-old human? I was determined to make it right if I’d been wrong.

And then, my solicitude surprised no one, not me, not him, not our friends and family. You stand by your man,you throw your own life to the wind if there’s the remotest possibility of saving him. You are rewarded with admiration and respect, if not the extra four hours in the day you really want and need. No one ever regretted taking care of the person they loved, at any price.

Even so, I wasn’t sure he’d have done as much, sacrificed as much for me — or if any man would have. I still think I was implementing a uniquely, in sociological terms, womanly strategy. But being able to articulate this to myself didn’t help in practical ways, even if it somewhat helped psychologically.

I’m not blaming Michael. He had his blind spots, but he wasn’t ungrateful. No one ever loved me with such tenderness or candor. Every night for seven years, as he closed the bedroom door after kissing me goodnight and going back to his studio to paint, he’d say:

I finally came up with a clever plan to save us money and provide for the future: moving us to a smaller city two hours away from NYC, into an old house where we’d halve our rent. In the two-month lead up to our move-in date I spent weekends there alone, ostensibly cleaning it and doing repairs, but secretly making it senior-safe for Michael. I didn’t want to humiliate him with my worries about his aging.

I still commuted to my NYC day-job, so till I made other arrangements Michael was the only one saving money, and the four-hour round trip made time even tighter. I began to consider quitting and going for broke, to concentrate on drawing and finishing the book proposal I’d begun before we shacked up. But then Michael was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer, so I quit my job and declared bankruptcy to take care of him instead.

Michael didn’t want anyone to know. I kept only a two-shift job at our local cafe a few blocks away from home because it provided pocket money and kept us from isolation.

We’d exchanged rings and called each other “husband” and “wife” for the last seven years, but I didn’t believe in marriage till he got sick and began frequenting emergency rooms, which churned up in my psyche a recurring nightmare in which he was in the hospital and I was barred from seeing him because we weren’t related.

So once his treatment was underway and his health was stable again, we planned a ceremony at the cafe for fun while we applied for and waited for the documents we needed for a marriage license. We’d planned a legal ceremony for June, the irony of us indulging in such a cliché not escaping us.

Our vows were a few verses from the song,“Come rain or come shine.”

From the start, Michael’s oncologist was optimistic. The plan was always to concentrate on keeping Michael happy and healthy enough to get through the treatment, undergo surgery in the autumn, and recover in the winter. My financial and professional recovery could wait till then. We didn’t plan on anything going wrong.

In May, something went very wrong.

In June, Michael was in the hospital.

In July, he declined further treatment and came home.

We were legally married three days before he died.

That July, I found myself alone with an old dog and enough cash for one month’s rent and groceries, just like when I’d met Michael 14 years earlier, only this time, the world was a very different place.

* * *

Carolita Johnson is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist who contributes regularly to the New Yorker.

Editor: Sari Botton