Lost in Renovation: Braving a Tour Of Domestic Duty

Everybody’s choice for villain of the year, beating out even Charlize Theron’s brilliant and ghastly portrayal of a serial murderer in Monster , is the unseen wife in Lost in Translation . She’s perceived as a domestic witch, obsessed with redecorating her husband’s study while the poor guy is having an existential meltdown halfway around the world. There she is, FedExing rug samples to his Tokyo hotel, calling him at all hours, wanting to know whether he prefers claret or burgundy, while he’s bleary-eyed from insomnia, stumbling against a language barrier and the career-humiliation of “acting” in whiskey commercials. No wonder (goes the unspoken message) that he turns for sympathy to a recently married young woman. A woman not only young enough to be his daughter, but whose wifeliness has yet to run up against those domestic responsibilities that furrow the brow and blight the marital romance. (Actually it’s blighted, but not from an overload of domesticity.)

But having just gone through some redecorating of my own, during which I eagerly besought-well, begged, badgered and insisted on-my husband’s opinion, I sympathized. We’ve had an apartment on the beach since the 1970′s, and other than the occasional repainting, haven’t altered so much as a light fixture or stick of furniture. This to the dismay of my mother, whose oft-repeated maxim was the importance of making at least one improvement every year so a property wouldn’t deteriorate all at once. To be truthful, I had made one foray into Home Depot territory, and we were still living with the resulting casualty: a new lavatory cabinet which, because I’d mismeasured, half-covered the toilet-paper dispenser.

But things were different now. Mother had died and left a small legacy-nothing grand, not enough to buy a real house, but enough to spruce up the apartment. I got the number of an interior decorator and, one recent afternoon, dropped by her office on the Montauk Highway to make an appointment. There was no one there except a man (her husband, it turned out) who was snoozing away on the chintz sofa in the showroom. When, after a few telephone calls, the decorator came to our apartment, she looked around, trying to keep the expression of disapproval off her face. I remained resolutely unintimidated. Decorating’s not my thing. I’m a writer (I tell myself), not a homemaker, entitled to live in bohemian, slovenly style. Decorating, at least until my recent conversion, was one area in which I felt no aspirations, no emotional investment, no pride and-there being no sense of dereliction-no guilt. The woman asked how long we’d been there. I said the 70′s. She looked at the rusting light switches and said, “Sixties.” I would have been crushed if she herself- a polite little woman with graying hair and a shirtwaist dress-had cut a more haute décor figure, instead of reminding me of my mother and her WASP-lady generation.

In fact, I had no idea that chrome plates were the sort of thing that went out of fashion. I’d simply never noticed. Our apartment, though small, faces the beach-a panoramic view which has served, gloriously, as both art and décor, enabling me to blind myself to the dinginess within. The condos had started out as rustic in their modesty: no dishwashers, no air conditioners. But everyone had “improved,” some in very un-beachy and rather glitzy ways. I was determined to keep it simple, an objective that proved almost impossible to achieve once I was fully ensconced in the project. A new floor: Should I go down to the original wood, put in tiles, vinyl or-the newest thing-a Pergo faux-wood floor? I decided on the Pergo, known as a floating floor-but, I wondered, would it float away with the next tidal wave? And what color should it be? White, to keep the apartment’s lightness? Tan, to bring out the wood look? Or a sort of blond in-between? Then, the counter (or “countertop,” as they say in the trade) that serves as a bar. This introduced another perplexing range of choices: marble, granite, tile, Formica or (the newest) Corian-the faux stone. There were the pluses and minuses to consider, and much visiting of showrooms. Then, of course, new cabinets. Ditto multiple choices-wood, Formica, etc. At least I could stick with my Venetian blinds rather than go into the intricacies of “window treatments.”

Now I realized that I needed a contractor. The one I hired was always going from one place to another on Long Island, reachable only by cell phone and, due to a very poor service provider (deliberate on his part, I’m convinced), impossible to communicate with. Naturally, I had no desire to make all these decisions alone, and wanted my husband to share the anxiety and obsession with me. I now had three samples of Pergo flooring. If my husband had gone to Tokyo or Australia at that moment, I’d have sent the three planks to his hotel-the white, the tan and the in-between-telling him to imagine each one over a large space, which makes the effect darker. And should they be laid parallel to, or against, the light? Perhaps pondering the aesthetics of flooring would give him something interesting to think about, so he’d stop feeling sorry for himself. Or, if not interesting, soporific. It’s his floor, after all, and his big feet will be walking on it.

Men-at least all the husband-type men I know, as opposed to those glam shopaholic metrosexuals of current urban legend-detest shopping. Bad enough when it’s something for their personal maintenance, but for the house? One dear friend, having been led by his wife to the umpteenth lighting emporium, finally put his foot down. “No more sconces!” he wailed. We women, in turn, get mad at our significant others for not taking an interest and sharing the burden. How infuriating that these partners of ours can withdraw into their cocoons of indifference-and when they finally do turn their ponderous brains to the problem and honor us with a preference, have forgotten all about it moments later.

But our anger conceals a kind of envy: If only we could compartmentalize that way, deal with things and then move on, not lie awake nights worrying. On some level, even as I resent my husband’s single-mindedness, I love the fact that when he finally puts fingers to typewriter, he can concentrate through thick and thin. He’s my alter ego, his concentration and purposefulness validating my own ambitions and forgiving my domestic inadequacies. Work is the priority I embrace, if never quite as singly as he. After all, as the Man of the House, his career is on the line in a way that mine is not. I get to do-have to do-all the other stuff, which is both pleasure and burden. I never have to be completely judged by my work. But then, if I’m not judged by my work, will I then be held to account as decorator and homemaker, acquitted or convicted for my taste in flooring, fixtures and countertops?