The Anal-Retentive Architect, Part Two

Everything in its place

In contrast to the Montauk house, Tom’s apartment was cunningly planned, coherently decorated, and up-to-the-minute in its appliances and accoutrements. Located in a renovated high-rise near the Flatiron Building, the space was basically not much more than a long oversized shoebox with a master bedroom and bath, and a dining ell, converted to a second bedroom. But Tom had demarcated the long room with almost military precision, using bookcases as dividers, so that he had a small living area, a dining “room,” and a “den” with a huge flat-screen TV. In furnishings, he inclined toward Mid-Century Modern and Bauhaus, with black-leather Corbu chairs and a sofa. In the den, he had the classic Eames lounge chair and Ottoman; the dining table and chairs were also by the Eameses, small and compact but perfectly fine for me to use as a desk.

Having written for Architectural Digest, I was not hugely blown away, but after living with Jeff, I marveled at a man who knew how to put socks in drawers and dishes in cabinets.

I began spending more time at his apartment, working there in the mornings, and at the gallery in the afternoon. (Sherman, by then, had been sent to Florida to live with my parents in Florida, who could provide a more stable environment for a cat than I did). Soon after leaving Vashon, I landed a contract to write a four-volume encyclopedia of art for high-school students (which I dubbed the “forced march through art history” and the “never-ending homework assignment”), but I was also writing for ARTnews and for some reason remember vividly a long conversation with David Hockney, from Tom’s apartment, when he first proposed his argument that many of the Old Masters used optical devices. And I was reviewing on a steady basis, dragging Tom to galleries and museum previews (he loved design shows but was frankly baffled by contemporary art).

Oh, the things you discover, living with a person day to day! Especially when he’s not around. His closets and drawers were absurdly neat, all the khaki pants and jeans arranged just so on special hangers, the white oxford-cloth shirts neatly divided from the blue and checked shirts. The shoes in their shoe trees on special racks in the clothes closet. The kitchen cabinets contained lazy Susans and Rubbermaid dividers, Dansk serving pieces, and black stoneware dishes. Even the Tupperware, neatly stacked, assumed a Bauhaus severity.

The bookshelves held recent volumes on architecture, none of which appeared to have been read, and tchotchkes—like a crystal snow globe, antique piggy bank, and a small-scale model of a Stutz Bearcat—artfully placed at intervals on the shelves. Occasionally I would re-arrange the knickknacks, just to see if he would notice, but if he did, he never commented.

At some point that summer, we had cocktails with his sister and her husband, who were on their way to Europe, and she made a point of leaning close to me and whispering, “Be very careful not to leave closet doors open.” Later I would realize she wasn’t kidding.

I generally used the bathroom off the guest ell to shower and whatnot, and I tried to be very careful about keeping toiletries and make-up in drawers, as well as hanging up my robe and nightie on the hooks provided. One morning I spread the towels to dry over the rod after showering and returned a couple of hours later to find them neatly folded, though still damp, with the washcloth arranged just so over the center, the smaller square echoing the bigger square, like a mini Josef Albers in terrycloth.

Soon after we settled into couplehood, when I started cooking in the apartment, I bought a cheap four-sided box grater for hard cheeses from the supermarket. It disappeared to the nether regions of a cabinet and took me a while to locate—I’m  guessing because its design was too pedestrian.

It was Tom’s routine, after he returned from work, to pour himself a stiff shot of Absolut and park in front of the cable news, scarfing down peanuts, pouring another shot, and falling asleep without dinner. That was a habit I soon dedicated myself to breaking. We ate out a lot, but at home I cooked seafood and lean meats and healthy salads. I urged him to join me at the excellent gym in the basement of his building and for a time at least we were two happy health nuts, except for the occasional joint.

We spent weekends for part of that summer in Montauk, where Tom threw himself into minor home renovations, like hanging new curtains and replacing the doors on the shed. One of my parents’ neighbors was so approving she called my mother in Florida to report about what a mensch I’d snagged.

He was such a nice man, a round and rosy and loving man, and for a while we were companionable and content, seldom arguing, boffing regularly but with no great passion or energy, at least on my part.

Why could I not work up the breathless yearning rapture I’d felt for Jeff and my ex when I first met him? Did rapture come with a sell-by date? Was I simply too old?

Shortly before I met Tom, I noticed an ad in The New Yorker for drawing and painting workshops in Provence. Without investigating too deeply, I signed on. I was still smarting from The Year of Living Stupidly and felt I owed myself a proper vacation, a fun trip, preferably with a friend or a group, since I couldn’t imagine a man on the horizon at that point. I had always loved to draw, though I was never much good at it, and I had always wanted to see Provence. This seemed the perfect remedy. I still had plenty of air miles from the divorce, and the tuition, as I recall, was not particularly steep.

When I told Tom about the trip, he said he wanted to join me but had no interest in venturing into the countryside with a bunch of middle-aged wannabe Impressionists. So we agreed that I would spend a week with the group, and then the two of us would peel off for our own travels in the south of France.

The headquarters for this adventure was in a region known as the Drôme or the Drôme Provencale, and it’s not clear from my online present-day research if it’s even technically part of Provence, but it is about 1.5 hours north of the heavily touristed parts of the region, like Arles or Aix en Provence. I flew into Charles de Gaulle, took the TGV to a tiny town called Menerbès, and got picked up for the half-hour drive to the chateau that would house moi-même and my fellow students.

This was not the sort of building that comes to mind when you think “chateau,” though it was it was big enough, and in its heyday might have been quite appealing as the residence of a provincial striver like Madame Bovary. But the paint was flaking off both its exterior and the shutters, which were the bright Provençale blue that seems unique to the region. The interior, too, had seen better days, with a run-down bar and a television that seemed tuned perpetually to American TV (I’m remembering endless reruns of Dallas). Our rooms were comfortable, though, with generous-sized beds and individual bathrooms that held charming claw-footed tubs.

And we were in Provence! Surrounded by gentle mountains and fields of sunflowers and lavender. The air was so soft it was like a velvet caress against your skin and that first night the stars did their sparkling starry thing, straight out of van Gogh.

It was on that first night, too, that we were introduced to kirs (white wine and crème de cassis) and our flame-haired instructor from Virginia, who reminded me of my sturdy no-nonsense gym teacher from high school in New York. She’d brought her own claque of five or six retirement-age acolytes, whose cackling drawl in the breakfast room each morning was so deafening I turned off my hearing aid and kept as far from the group as possible.

After dinner, our teacher—let us call her Scarlett—gave a slide talk to show us her paintings, and that’s when I began to have serious misgivings about the wisdom of this so-called vacation. She worked mostly in watercolor, in a style I would describe as “terrifyingly competent.” Her subjects were the exteriors of once-grand Southern mansions, lush gardens with the occasional picturesque gazebo or scarecrow, and beach scenes showing little white kids at play. In fact. there were lots of paintings of little white kids, mostly blond, though I remember one—and I swear this is true—with a little Black boy off to one side, strumming a banjo.

Well, what the hell. It was only a week till Tom arrived.

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