It’s been less than a month that I can say I am officially “retired”. The reality of a significant reduction in annual income hasn’t quite set in. I tell myself I shouldn’t be doing this every time I reach for my VISA card to buy something on-line. This week it was a beautiful teak patio table, big enough to sit the whole family, and matching benches. They were half price at Pottery Barn, probably because I’m one of the only folks who plans for summer living on my backyard deck when the temperature is -5 degrees on a January day. They haven’t been delivered yet, but I envisioned Adia and Mei Lee sitting out there on a hot summer day with their crayons spread out, eating snacks grandma has prepared, while Ethel cools herself at our feet, laying in the shade of the umbrella.
I’ve always been good at “visioning” my future and then doing whatever it takes to get me there. It took at least 3 years of “visioning” the process of retiring to an affordable but charming house, in Vermont, in close proximity to the glories of nature that one always associates with Vermont life, before that vision became my reality. All the associated benefits I imagined; the more frequent visits with my daughter and her daughters -my granddaughters- the closer relationship with her husband, the relief from the constant stress of running a very demanding business, time to write, and think, and read, have all actually occurred. The one thing I hadn’t envisioned was life without a partner – life in a house, that you made a home, alone. I’d taken RG for granted. After all, we’d been “together” – more or less- for 28 years – and actually living together, owning property together, for 18 of those years. It is so hard to deconstruct that relationship. It was an organic thing. We never really discussed it, the “relationship” – it just was. I knew he had developed a very strong connection to Fresh Pond, the reservation and largest open/nature space in our crowded city of Cambridge, when we bought that townhouse on Huron Ave, right across the street. RG always had an interest in examining our environment, no matter where we lived, through his photography. In the early days, digital hadn’t taken over so he was dependent on film. The cost of developing, the need to sort and keep prints, - just the physical space required to do this, kept his obsessions in check.
But that all changed with the advent of digital, now the flood gates opened, the sky’s the limit – or rather cyber space seemed to have no limits, so there were no checks on the number of photos he could take in a day – the only restraints were his time. Given that I was the one with the structured life, the one with a demanding job, with one who traveled around the world, the one who had to catch cabs in total darkness in order to make that 6 a.m. flight to Taipei – or wherever- this system that evolved, permitted him the luxury of fluid, open-ended, time. He stayed home. He worked at home. He took care of the dog when I wasn’t there. I was the one acutely aware of the demands of time, society, and the laws of the land; that you had to pay your bills on time to keep the heat on, and the mortgage paid. That’s not to say that he didn’t contribute, financially. He did, but his contributions were made at his own discretion, unencumbered by the demands of time.
This ability to seemingly float through life unencumbered by time is perhaps the defining quality of his character. It was there in our relationship right from the very beginning, and in the beginning it proved to be most seductive. Especially for someone like me, who is constantly feeling the pressure of time, always worried that I’m not using it wisely, that I should be more productive, that while I am doing one thing, I should be doing 3 or 4 other things, so I try to do them all at once.
I think it was on our first real “date” that RG seduced me with time, the leisurely, unfettered experience of a moment or situation or simply being with someone that becomes so engaging, the pressures of time melt away. In my case it was a lunch hour, that lasted till dinner. By the time I made it back to my office, the lights were out and everyone had gone home for the day.
Whenever you were with RG, you felt that he had nowhere else to be, but with you, and that his being with you could last as long as you wanted it to last. Well, this seduction continued almost 30 years, until nearly all of RG’s time was hijacked by his compulsion to record, in pictures, the flotsam and jetsam of his life, as he experienced it, in what became a walk that stretched more than 4 hours, every day, of every week, of every year.
As long as I was working, and traveling, I made excuses for the fact that we no longer went anywhere together (unless it was somewhere we could walk to and could fit in to his scheduled 4+ hour walk and photo shoot around “the Pond”.) In the 7 years we lived at Fresh Pond Place, RG developed a network of friends (predominantly dogs) and, as he constantly reminded me, “admirers” (both dogs and people), that he encountered on these walks. Sometimes I would get to know some of these folks too but my availability was much more limited, and my contact, superficial. The remainder of his time, following the “The Walk”, was spent organizing and uploading the 400+ pictures (and later video) he took every day, onto web sites like flickr and smugmug, which he made available for all the world (hopefully) to see. Our “together time” was focused around the dinner table. I have always loved to cook and found the making of dinner to be the way I was still able to connect with RG. He loved to eat, and relished everything I made. Cooking dinner became the only time of the day when I was not under tremendous stress.
As his knowledge of the flora and fauna of Fresh Pond Reservation grew, so did his desire to capture it in greater detail. In order to do that, he had to buy ever more expensive camera equipment. No one wore out cameras faster than RG. I never questioned his expenditures and he never questioned mine. We kept separate bank accounts. I always paid all the bills, on time. RG contributed what he considered to be his fair share of household expenses, and I accepted that. We never argued about money, and this worked, as long as no one objected to the status quo.
But bearing the pressures of time was beginning to take it’s toll on me. When I faced the fact that I was soon to turn 65 and that I no longer wanted to carry all the psychological weight of our household, that I didn’t want to work at this demanding, high powered job till I died, that I was feeling sick with the stress of the ever increasing financial demands of living in an elite condo community that proved to be an economic black hole – sucking us dry…I started envisioning a way out, for both of us.
I knew from the beginning that RG was no businessman and he lived, by all standards, an “unconventional life”. This worked when we were younger (we didn’t know each other when we were truly young) however, it was clear when I discovered RG had not paid any taxes in all the years he was self-employed…that he ran the risk of getting into some major trouble with the IRS if he ever tried to claim Social Security benefits, that having his name on any of our joint assets, was a real liability. I discussed this with him and while he seemed to be in denial about the ramifications of this state of affairs, he agreed (reluctantly) that I could put our house up for sale. All during this period, I spent nearly every spare moment looking at property on the internet. I eagerly tempted him with charming looking (affordable) homes in Vermont, nestled in or near beautiful parks or nature reserves, on lakes or ponds, or with glorious mountain views. Initially he seemed interested, but than said the choice was up to me. While I’d hoped we’d actually pick our future home together, I assumed the burden of selling our house and finding us a new one. After all, it was my vision, not his, but I figured he just didn’t have the energy to resist. He did not present any viable alternative.
We had been through the ritualistic agony of preparing a home for sale before, the staging required to present a pristine environment that could stand-up to the critical scrutiny of all those unknown but hopeful future homeowners who traipsed through at every Sunday’s open house. Unfortunately, the one who did all the staging, was me. I painted the outdated wallpaper in our first floor bathroom, got new lamps when the realtor said the rooms looked too dark, made sure there wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen, hid every sign that actual people lived in our house from Monday to Saturday, between the open houses. The fact that we also had our very large, newly adopted, but much loved dog to contend with just added another layer of work to the demands of the situation, but we managed. As long as RG was still able to start and finish his daily excursion around “the Pond”, everything else was just an annoyance he did his best to ignore, and ignoring was apparently something he became expert at.
After several weeks of back to back open houses, we were ready to take just about any offer within reason, and we did in deed get an offer we couldn’t refuse. When the closing date was locked for early June, I thought “holy shit”…now I really have to get serious and find us a place to live or we’ll be out on the street. I had developed a relationship with a realtor in Vermont who was recommended to us by our Cambridge broker. Several times a month, I’d hop the Greyhound bus at South Station to take the 5 hour trip to Burlington to look at houses. Thanks to my faithful Blackberry I could still run the office from the confines of my bus seat. It helped that I only felt REALLY productive when engaged in 3-4 tasks at once.
I was beginning to get a sense of where we could survive without a car, given the fact that neither of us had a license. I’d seen a couple of almost acceptable, affordable places but on this particular trip I felt I had to make a decision. There was one promising house, I’d found it myself, online, and asked my broker if he could show it to me. This was in early April. There was still some snow on the ground. It was in an area called the “New North End”. My broker had tried to discourage me from considering houses here. He thought it was too far from downtown for someone without a car.
It was the last house on our scheduled tour for the day. An 1880’s carriage house, set back off the main road, it had been gut rehabbed and designed as a dwelling around 1986. As we pulled into the drive it looked promising. Surrounded by a white picket fence with a dense line of shrubbery in the front that protected a wall of floor to ceiling windows from public view. As soon as I walked in the front door, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Wide beam ceiling, salvaged from the original structure, open modern floor plan, newer kitchen and appliances, 2 and ½ baths, raised brick hearth in the living room, beautiful original woodwork and two good sized bedrooms with cathedral ceilings and 2 baths on the second floor. When the broker told me the additional side yard that was unfenced was included with the property, that clinched it. As we pulled out I noted there was a bus stop right at the end of the driveway. And much to my at this point ecstatic surprise, there was a shopping center closer than the one I had spent seven years walking to in Cambridge. I had already known that Ethan Allen Park was just a block away and the beaches and bike path along Lake Champlain were equally close by. Plenty of new ground for both RG and our dog to explore. Or so I thought.
I told the broker I wanted to make an offer. He was pretty happy to hear that, so we headed back to his office. He took me into the conference room and left for a few minutes to get some papers. In the meantime, I pulled out my cell phone and gave RG a call. “Hi, I’m so excited, I found us the ideal house!” – dead silence, then, in a voice I barely recognized “What do you mean “us”?”. I was stunned, panicked by the full meaning, concentrated in one word that RG seemed to spit at me – “us” – as though the past 3 decades of life together never existed, as though I was delusional to even consider “us”, as if he was not present or conscious of all that had happened in the past 6 months, to use the word “us” as if it were a curse.
I was shaking with an emotion I still find hard to describe, perhaps disbelief comes closest. When we disconnected, I went on autopilot. My ability to envision my future took hold and I moved forward as though nothing had happened. I made an offer I had calculated would be accepted. For months I’d been fiddling with the numbers that represented how viable our financial future would be; a plan that would allow us to pay off our existing mortgage, and would leave a few thousand for wiggle room, these transactions always have “hidden costs” and I didn’t want to be stuck down the road with expenses we couldn’t handle. RG chose not to engage himself in such mundane affairs. He always left the financial finagling to me. It served him well. In the past, whenever left to his own devises he seemed to descend to a state teetering on homelessness. When I returned from Europe in 1993 he was being evicted from his apartment for non-payment of rent. He had neglected to inform me of that fact when he said I could stay with him.
I managed to get myself a job (admittedly-he had faxed me the Boston Globe Want Ads for this position while I was still in Germany) and an apartment of my own, to save myself from having to live in a cardboard box on the street. I had left him to deal with his eviction problem on his own – falling back on my mother’s philosophy “you made your bed, now you will have to lay in it.”
A few weeks went by and I chose not to have any contact with him. I’d lost all respect. The guy’s a helpless, irresponsible child and his well being is not my responsibility (so I told myself). I’m starting a new life, independent of him and all his fringy ideas that never seem to bring any financial rewards. He seems so detached from reality – who does he think is going to take care of him if he can’t take care of himself?
One day, after I was safely ensconced in my new Somerville apartment, I was walking down Mass Ave. near MIT, when who should I see shuffling down the street, but RG. He seemed to be unaware that I was approaching him from the opposite direction. I called out. We stopped nearly face to face. I asked him how he was doing. He looked more disheveled than usual. He said “fine” but seemed reluctant to look me in the eye. “Where are you staying?” I ask. “Around” he answers. I press for details. Although he doesn’t provide much in the way of further information, I surmise he is couch surfing, just looking for places to sleep with friends. I wonder how he can mange without a permanent computer hook up - after all, any hope he has of generating some viable income is dependent on his computer, and in 1993 they were still pretty bulky pieces of equipment not so portable as they are now.
He seemed so forlorn, but stiff. I put my arms around him, my eyes watered, and I invited him over to dinner. He said he’d come. Kiss of death… Being with him over dinner made me realize that I missed him. Had it not been for him I never would have discovered Friedrichshof, would never have learned German, would never have lived in a commune outside of Vienna, would never have known Otto Muehl, would never have had the most incredible experiences of my entire life, traipsing around Europe for the past 5 years. I owed him something for all that.
As long as my name was already on the lease, and I had a steady job, and as long as I wasn’t dependent on him for any of the practical things in life, I could offer him a place to stay. My landlord, Mr Francione, wasn’t too happy to hear that “a man” was moving in shortly after I’d signed the lease to the second floor of his two family house as a “single, professional woman”. He and his wife, a conservative Italian Catholic family, owned the house and lived on the first floor. It was a bit awkward for me at first but I always had a way with people and could “sell myself” in order to get what I wanted. They didn’t object too loudly when RG’s friend, Duncan, pulled up to the house on a hot summer afternoon with RG’s stuff in the back of his pick-up, and helped RG haul his computer and a few meager pieces of furniture, up the narrow staircase to my cozy second floor apartment.
RG seemed happy, content and relieved. He could always manage to make me laugh. I felt good about the whole affair. Living alone was no fun. Besides, I loved to cook dinner and it was better for me if I had someone always there to share it with.