What he needs and what I need are almost entirely at odds.
Was I a fool to think this relationship could be saved by an upholstered storage bench? I spent weeks in deep contemplation on my go-to furniture websites, activating coupons and letting them expire, looking at measurements, colors, prices, patterns. Jonathan and I had already discussed it in couples’ therapy. The plan, sanctioned by our therapist, was to get rid of the exercise bike sitting by the living room window and replace it with an upholstered storage bench. Then I wouldn’t have to move out. Maybe.
Things hadn’t always been this dire. Our first few weeks living together — just four months prior — had been harmonious. We moved in a gentle flow, handing each other dishes, respectfully negotiating our differing opinions on how to arrange kitchen counter objects and what to do with the doublings — two paper towel holders, two toasters, two Brita pitchers.
But once we settled the minor stuff, all the other stuff that had always quietly bothered me when I was just an overnight visitor to Jonathan’s apartment suddenly screamed at me. Everything I needed to change or eradicate was now blaringly clear: the light-sucking, mood-depressing stormy sea colored gray-teal living room walls; the big brown, round, faux wood “dinosaur butthole” mirror hanging above the sofa; the slow dense creep of someone else’s consciousness in my periphery, constantly. Everything was heavy and dark and inelegant and closing in on me.
I Lived Alone, (Mostly) in Peace
Before Jonathan, I’d lived alone for over 20 years. As an introvert, I was mostly at peace, except for a periodic panic. This panic would appear with no warning and tear a shivery swath through me. Some nights, just as I was settling in with a large bowl of popcorn and Netflix, poof, there it was. Like a bitchy genie or menacing fairy with a tiny voice, she’d start screaming at me:
This is it! You’re alone for the rest of your life! Anyone you love, you’ll repel! Anyone who loves you will have no way to break into your heart! You’ll die alone!
Aside from those moments, I was okay.
I liked being alone. For better or worse.
Then, about three years ago, Jonathan stuck to me, and I stuck to him.
After twenty years of dating in New York, he was the first guy I could neither easily detach from nor sufficiently freak out enough to make bolt. As a result, I crossed two major barriers to be with him. The first was Central Park. I came from the Upper West Side, land of leafy boulevards, golden riverside sunsets, and blissfully solitary moviegoing, way the hell over to Yorkville, land of long schleps to the subway and sparse eye contact among strangers.
But it was worth it, because the second barrier was 20 years of chronically single life.
Something Was Wrong
And yet, something was wrong. Was it the basketball hoop over the closet door? The Star Trek phasers? No single thing I laid my eyes on could possibly be the source of so much wrong. Frantically, I began eliminating and relocating objects in Jonathan’s — our — apartment. If I couldn’t figure out what this wrongness was, maybe I could inadvertently toss it out, or at least redecorate it.
One by one, with monumental effort — arguing, yelling, exhaustion — Jonathan relented and let me change most of the big stuff. We moved the wide screen TV down the wall eight inches. I hung a framed poster of an abstract angel above my new, custom-made reclaimed wood desk. There were days — highly caffeinated days — when I believed all could be solved with colorful temporary wallpaper, crystalline objects, and faux furry things in the master bedroom. I’d create a luminescent cocoon, withdraw into it as needed, re-emerge as the full me, in our shared home.
And there were days I knew I couldn’t stay.
Many arguments climaxed with me standing in the hallway near our front door, whisper-yelling, “You obviously want someone very different from me.” Someone more nurturing, feminine, socially inexhaustible. “You should go find her.”
What Jonathan needs and what I need are almost entirely at odds. And I don’t just mean his preference for modern-sleek versus mine for cozy-bohemian. As an extrovert, he needs stimulation — social, video games, so much touching — and as an introvert, I need light, quiet, tranquility.
Bullied by an Old Exercise Bike
About a year into dating him, it came to me in a flash that my whole life is a prayer for tranquility, privacy, and emotional security — and a guy who’ll allow me those first two things and assure me regularly of the third. The truth is, there’s no way to quantify the emotional security Jonathan lavishes on me through all his cuddling and phone calls throughout the day. After almost three years together, I should feel secure — and entitled to my preferences and needs.
So why was I being bullied by a dust-gathering old exercise bike in the living room?
He found it on the street years ago when he was just starting to make this apartment his home, which — from the wheeling and dealing he did to get on the lease, to the horrible roommates he’d endured — was no easy task. The fact that I wasn’t much happier with the apartment than with the bike was alarming to him. Doing his best to pacify me, he promised, early last winter, that once the leaves fell off the big tree outside our window, more light would come in. The living room would be brighter, the East River view wider and more lovely.
He was right, so I let the damn bike sit there, between the sofa and the window — the handlebars vandalizing the view — month after month. I was afraid to kill his hopes that he’d one day get his back problems resolved and have time to use it.
But mostly, I was trying to assure us both that my soul’s plan was not in fact to move in with him for six months, systematically eject everything he’d worked for years to buy or had serendipitously found on the sidewalk, then move back out and leave him with a half-empty two-bedroom apartment. I promised I wouldn’t leave him in that condition.
What I couldn’t promise was that I’d ever get good at sacrificing my space and dovetailing my needs with someone else’s.
But it’s a rusted old bike — you couldn’t give it away on Craigslist — he never uses it, and replacing it with a cushioned bench would liberate the sightline. Our living room window is a Monet canvas of shifting colors, blossoms, riverscape, and silver-blue light. I could nestle in that windowed corner in the mornings, read, think, not think. Just be. No bike. No trace of Jonathan’s style and needs. Just stillness. Solitude.
At the end of our fourth session, the therapist said, “So, hopefully you’ll take that bike down to the street when you get home tonight.” We nodded, but we both knew it wouldn’t happen that way. I’d have to buy the bench first, it would have to arrive and take up space, and the bike removal would happen at the last possible minute, if it happened at all.
It took months for me to finally hit “Complete Purchase” and select a shipping preference.
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The bench arrived on an early spring day, when I was away visiting my parents in Baltimore. Jonathan sent me a picture of it by the window. It’s ivory linen. The seat cushion looks plush but sinks under my butt like a half-deflated swimming raft on the concrete by the pool. “I don’t think it’s meant to be sat on,” Jonathan said. “You’re gonna fall through one day.”
He took a picture of me the first morning I tried it out. I sat, knees up, coffee mug in hand, back leaning against the wall. The trees were thick and green again, but a slant of eastern morning light shone through the leaves and dappled the wall, my collar bone, arms, and wrists. He laughed. “It’s the only direct sun in the apartment and you’re sitting in it,” he said.
On the second ivory bench morning, I groped my way to consciousness, knowing that when my sleeping boyfriend woke up, he’d want cuddles and head scratches. I generated kindness — whispered, kissed him — and acceptance. I ignored the butthole mirror, still on the wall, and felt grateful that the walls were now three shades lighter, which, he admits, he prefers, and which, I try not to think about, is still gray and bums me out.
All these objects will come and go, like all the perfectly good furniture I’ve given away over twenty years in New York, like so many reasonable leases I declined to renew. Impermarenew. Impermanence is never easy. Love that sticks is as rare as it is imperfect and maddening. Barrier-crossing love, even more rare.
A few weeks after the bench arrived, we moved the bike to the basement. The super won’t likely ever remove it — there’s a broken glass tabletop that’s been down there for years — so it’s possible Jonathan will have access to it forever. And maybe I’ll get the painters back for one more round in the living room. And I’ll replace that mirror, too. What can’t be replaced is our love for each other.
The Compromise Is Worth It
So the work continues.
Jonathan may always long for more attention and stimulation than I have the energy to deliver, and I’ll continue to bristle against his needs. But I’m also incrementally softening to them. Even more vitally important: I’m learning to quiet the guilt (that I’m letting him down) and the fear (that he’ll leave me for someone easygoing and up-for-anything).
Still, I’ll probably always retreat to a self-nurturing stance when I’m tired or overwrought — which is fairly often — and he’ll quietly wish for me to need him more overtly, more urgently. But he knows I need him very much, and I know that he’s made compromises and overcome weighty concerns about our compatibility.
As long as the love endures, I hope we can do this dance, and keep refining the steps, for a very long time.