Antonia Malchik’s essays and articles have been published in The Boston Globe, The Jabberwock Review, Creative Nonfiction, BuzzFeed Ideas, many other newspapers and literary journals, and are scheduled in The Washington Post,ParentMap, and elsewhere. She worked formerly as a journalist in Austria and Australia, and is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People. More about her writing can be found on her website. She recently moved back to her native Montana with her husband and two children, and is building a sustainable house she hopes to fall in love with.
We’d both had more wine than we should have, which was probably why I blurted it out.
“You have to choose,” I said. “Me or the house.”
“Are you saying,” asked my husband, “that if we don’t move you’ll leave?” Light hit his glasses, reflecting to obscure his lovely, intelligent green eyes, the same way it had when he first appeared at my dorm room door sixteen years ago and all I knew of him was how tall he was. How had we gotten to this point?
I wanted the argument to be my husband’s fault. He was, after all, the one who’d turned down nearly forty houses before falling for this one, with its mature forest at the back, all the privacy we wanted, and a chance to design our own kitchen from scratch. While I got tired and grumpy and reminded myself that I’d always wanted to live in a simple cabin in the woods, my husband had sat patiently—even enthusiastically—through hours of choosing countertops and kitchen cabinets and tile and paint colors. He pushed for the riding lawn mower and hi-hat lighting all over the place. When we finally moved in, almost nothing about our house or our lifestyle represented how I’d once pictured my life unfolding.
Not everyone is as attached to the idea of home as I am. Not everyone finds that their sense of self is twined over and through the rhythms of their household, the chores and pace that yearn toward Anne Shirley’s Green Gables, or feels that their physical home—its shape and flow, the way it lies on the land and harbors its residents—is something alive, something integral to their sense of rootedness and self. But I do. I need to feel that my home and I speak the same language, like it’s a kindred spirit.
My husband and I lived in a house that I could not love, and I was shriveling up in it.
At least that’s what I thought. My ache for a home that felt like home was what had led to the argument in which, out of desperation, I threatened to leave if we didn’t move. But the problem turned out to be bigger than that.
I spent a long time being an It Girl–the kind that Gillian Flynn’s main character Amy in Gone Girl describes: the girl who makes lovers happy by morphing into whatever image fits their fantasies: sexy geek, homemaking hippie, snarky and spontaneous flirt. With a wide repertoire and a willingness to please, I’d been all of these and more. Successful It Girl-ness meant that I always had a second skin on around people, especially significant others, which I could only maintain by retreating back into the skin of my true self: an introvert who always had her nose stuck in a book.
The problem is, being a successful It Girl is not conducive to a stable long-term relationship.
My husband and I married after we’d known each other only a few months, when he was twenty-six and I was twenty-two. Looking back from a steadier age, marriage was another adventure for me. It meant having someone to travel with, share jokes. I wasn’t even aware then that I played different roles for different people; I had no practice being myself unless I was by myself. I’d spent so long adapting to others’ needs that I had little understanding of who I was. You can’t sustain a marriage if half the partnership refuses to be a whole person.
We had one thing going for us: we loved each other. Somewhere at the very beginning, before we were engaged, I knew instinctively that this was different from my other relationships, or at least that he was different. One evening a few months after we’d met, I sat on the floor of his bedroom, tears streaming down my face, and told him every crappy detail of my life, all the bits that I’d hidden from other guys to give them their perfect-fit girlfriend: how my mom used to hit my father with anything handy—a heavy plastic cooler, a pair of scissors—and had once forced him to build a device so that she could give him electric shocks. I shook as I spoke, never having been honest with anyone, ever, about what went on behind the doors of the houses I’d grown up in. Everything about who I’d always been fought against pulling out even these few small details, and I didn’t know—I still don’t know—why it felt so necessary to be honest with this person I’d only recently met. “She used to call me ‘manipulative,’ and ‘bitch’ from when I was very little,” I told him, “and would yell at me until I couldn’t get her voice out of my head. She used to say, ‘Children should respect and fear their parents.’”
I shook still when I told him about the neighbor’s son who’d molested me when I was eight, and when, at seventeen, I’d angrily mentioned it to my mother, she said she’d known.
“Why didn’t you do anything?” I’d asked. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about it,” she’d said.
I told him how lying felt as natural to me as breathing because it was the only way I’d ever been able to protect myself.
He listened and held me, Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background of his chilly room. I still don’t understand why I opened up, but being honest gave us a foundation when things got shaky later. He fell in love with the part of me that wasn’t an It Girl, even if neither of us were sure of what that was, even if everything about that person felt broken and damaged, and I fell in love with him.
The house, which we bought eleven years ago in upstate New York, is three thousand square feet set on nearly four acres. It eats up all our income, takes forever to clean, and bakes so hot in the summer that I whimper indoors, in the expensive and environment-killing air conditioning, from May through September.
Once, several weeks before we signed the closing papers, when the walls weren’t yet dry-walled and construction debris lay everywhere, I sat on the stairs in the vaulted entryway thinking that this place would never feel like home to me.
It went downhill from there. “I never wanted this house,” I’d point out when feeling disgruntled at the time it took to clean the place, or at its absorption of all our finances. “I never wanted this life.”
“Why,” my husband eventually responded wearily, “didn’t you say so before we signed the mortgage documents?”
“Because you wanted it so badly.”
It didn’t occur to me until last year that what had brought us to this point wasn’t just my husband’s preferences, but my It Girl attitude, arguing constantly about the consequences of a decision I’d refused to participate in. Over and over I’d sat back and pushed my husband to choose what he wanted, and then seethed, silently at first but not for long—how we spent our income, what we fed ourselves and our children, how our lifestyle reflected my environmental sensibilities, every large and small aspect of our life was subject to the same It Girl cycle of sacrifice followed by resentment. I had, without realizing it, forced my husband into my mother’s position, asking him to make all the choices, and then feeling abused and misunderstood as if I were still a small child.
When I finally noticed how tired he was of the arguments over our lifestyle, and how unhappy I was with the choices I had failed to make, I had to face the messy question of what to do about it. I didn’t plan on becoming a psychopath a la Gone Girl so I could get my own way.
My childhood had left me with a lasting conviction that nothing I cared about or decided mattered, except one: home. I am a nester, a trait I’d never trotted out for an It Girl role. My childhood bedrooms were sometimes spacious, often not, but were spaces I’d always cared for like a pet. I latched onto the scrap of knowledge that home is essential to retaining any sense of self I have left. My husband had spent fifteen years with someone who acted exactly like her mother had trained her to, folding every preference deep inside herself where nobody could see it. Choosing one single thing that I cared about was a shaky first step to reintroducing both of us to who I really was.
The wine (or whine) argument ended with both of us stalking off to different bedrooms for the night, me in tears and him angry as hell. I shook as I delivered my final salvo, just as I had all those years ago in that inexplicable burst of honesty, because standing up for my own desires, claiming choices—these were not things my It Girl did. By doing so, I admitted that I was no longer looking for an out, no longer waiting to walk off somewhere to my real life. I was, essentially, telling my husband that I was committed to this one life, together.
“You don’t understand—all you have to do is exactly nothing. If you won’t even consider selling and moving, there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re issuing an ultimatum simply by refusing to do anything.”
The next morning we gave our two kids some TV and sat down together with coffee.
“I’m sorry about last night,” I said.
“Me, too.” He gripped his coffee cup and we leaned back into our opposite corners of the sofa. It was morning, no sunlight reflecting off of his glasses.
“But what I said was true.”
“You’re going to leave if we don’t sell the house and move into town?”
“No. Or not exactly. I’m not trying to threaten you, or us. But nothing about this life is mine. Nothing we have or where we live is something I chose, and I hate it.”
“You’ve made that clear.” His lips firmed in the way I knew so well, the angry downward stare of the man I loved.
“Please don’t. I’m trying to explain.” We’d been working on listening instead of getting defensive when the other person was explaining. Sometimes it worked better than others. “I want to have a good life together, that we both enjoy. But I meant it when I said that I have no power, and all you have to do is nothing to get your way. You have no idea how helpless I feel.”
We veered away from the topic for a few minutes, then came back to it, chiseling at it from different angles. My It Girl longed to scramble out and save me from this all-too-real life.
It still took months for me to begin growing up, and to articulate specific desires—a walkable community, less square footage, something more energy-efficient—and longer before my husband really started listening. The day he nodded at my case for selling and moving somewhere smaller felt like a miracle. Because, as I started to claim my choices, I realized that this was never just about the house. It was about behaving like a real person, like the equal partner I expected of both of us.
Photo credit: “End Of Day” by Donnie Nunley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.