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Coupling

Keeping Up Appearances

My home looked beautiful, but what about the state of my marriage?

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June 13, 2008

'What about these?" I ask my boyfriend, pulling a swath of green-and-gold silk from the display rack.

"I think I like the burgundy better," he says.

"Really? Huh."

We're at IKEA, choosing curtains for my new condo - the condo that we'll be sharing in another week. Can we live with burgundy (read: purple) curtains, I wonder, or will the novelty fade after a few months? Does the color clash with the purple in the living room's stained-glass window? Is the fabric machine-washable? All important considerations, and yet all ultimately inane. The real question is whether we can live with each other.

This isn't my first attempt at cohabitation, nor at home decoration. Nearly a decade earlier, I was at Crate and Barrel, scanning cream-colored-china cereal bowls into my electronic wedding registry. My fiance and I, then in our early 20s, lingered over the silverware display, debating at length which fork looked best with which plate. We weighed tumblers in our palms, discussing with intensity the feel of the glass.

We got everything we wanted for our wedding and then some, but it wasn't enough. As my husband single-handedly renovated first our condo and later our house, I pored over decorating magazines and taped to our walls a kaleidoscope of paint swatches with names like Blue Agave, Squash Blossom, and Regal Red. He spent hours in the garage crafting a set of bookshelves worthy of New Yankee Workshop. I fussed over bed linens, convinced that if a toile accent pillow was arranged just so, our marriage, too, would be perfect.

When I eventually left at age 30, I made a list of what to take with me, dividing our assets by whose cousin had given us that blue glass vase (his) and whose guilt (mine) was strong enough to abandon her favorite colander along with her husband. Never mind that I ate more pasta than he did; he deserved well-drained penne, too. If I had not been the bigger person in our marriage, I thought, at least I could be in my departure. I left behind the silverware in favor of a sole fork, spoon, and knife.

As I set up house alone in a tiny mouse-infested apartment, I resolved to concentrate on substance, not style. But my former forays into decorating perfection were hard to forget. On the ride to and from my new apartment every day, I passed a tile shop. My ex and I had once spent several long evenings at a similar store, comparing bathroom tiles until we had narrowed the search to two nearly identical slabs of beige, unable to agree on which would look best in our walk-in shower. That renovated bathroom no doubt helped sell our condo, and the tiles are probably still there. They, like the whirlpool tub and kitchen cabinets, have outlasted their original owners' relationship.

I can't say the same for other design choices. Not long after our divorce, I returned to the house I'd once shared with my ex to pick up some boxes. The shelves he'd built looked sparse without my books; only a smattering of home improvement manuals and a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien remained. And he'd wasted no time in repainting the bedroom and bathroom. The bright blue and dark plum I'd chosen had been covered with taupe.

What, I wondered, was the point of any of it? The tile, the paint, the Saturday afternoons at Home Depot - none of it had mattered in the end. Four years, several moves, and another relationship later, I've realized what's important, and it isn't making your life into a page out of Architectural Digest. Real life is messy, cluttered, often in need of a good mopping - but a lot more vibrant, too.

So my boyfriend and I place our books on the shelving unit we assembled together - his guides to Japanese manga drawing and collection of New Yorker cartoons and my Anais Nin diaries and worn copy of The Bell Jar - and hope for the best. As for those purple curtains? They took a little getting used to at first. But now it seems as if they've belonged here all along.

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