Judy and I started to have serious roommate problems the summer right before our wedding. We decided to move in together one month before the ceremony, and Judy found a two bedroom house on Murray Hill Drive a bit north of the intersection of Harshman Rd. and Woodman. We were a half mile away from the western edge of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and gigantic bombers rattled our windows when they came in for a landing. The house had a laundry room, an attic, kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms as well as a large garden full of snapdragons, lilies, poppies and black-eyed-susans in the back yard.
I made one bedroom my studio. I crammed in a large bookshelf, a kitchen table for still life set ups, my easel, painting supplies and a box of still life props. We pushed two twin beds side by side in the other bedroom. It had been a child’s. There was a plastic light switch cover on the wall by the door of Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse.
The day we moved in we encountered one problem after another. Judy’s roommate Diane left town for the day when Judy moved out. Diane’s cat developed abandonment issues and kept getting in my way. She curled around my legs if I paused while carrying a box, and blocked the back steps leading down to an alley where my station wagon was parked. I almost tripped on her a few times, and finally nudged her gently aside with my foot. The cat took offense and disappeared under a bush. Judy wasn’t too happy with me. The cat was declawed and could have been torn to shreds by the underfed guard dogs her next door neighbors kept chained in their back yard. The cat tried to bite Judy when she reached into the leaves to pull her out, and Judy went into the house, grabbed oven mitts and pulled it out of its hiding place. We had loaded the last box, so Judy tossed the cat into the kitchen, threw the mitts in after, closed and locked the door, and slid her set of the keys under the door. Judy wondered what Diane would think when she returned home and found the mitts in the middle of the floor.
I had a superstition about cars. It seemed that whenever I filled the tank my car broke down, so I never put in more than a few dollars. Judy had noticed my reluctance to buy a lot of gas at any one time and told me to top off the tank that day for the many back and forth trips we would be making. When we pulled up to the house on Murray Hill she noticed a puddle of fluid spreading under the rear of my Pinto. I bent down and sniffed and realized that gas was leaking out, and that there must be a hole high up on the side of the tank. Judy refused to ride in the car any more until the tank was fixed, and didn’t want me to drive a potential death bomb. I called a garage and was told that the cost of repairing the tank was about half of what I had paid for the car.
Judy had a little, aquamarine Suburu that was normally dependable. We went out for some groceries after a makeshift supper, and her car broke down at the intersection of Smithville and Linden Ave. I pushed it into the parking lot of a convenience store, but the clerk wouldn’t let us leave it there. We found a pay phone and had it towed to a garage on Smithville a few blocks from our house. As we walked a mile back to our new home we found plenty to argue about. We were hot, tired and annoyed with each other.
I found other ways to bother Judy in the coming weeks. I cooked recipes I had learned from my mother and added lots of onions to our supper dishes. Judy came down with intense abdominal cramps after eating my Texas hash, chili, spaghetti and fried potatoes. She also objected when I mixed my painting solutions of paint thinner, linseed oil and varnish in glass jars on our kitchen table. She pointed out the obvious fact that eating on a surface coated with toxic chemicals would be bad for our health. I took note of her requests and quartered the amount of onions I put in my recipes and mixed my solutions outside on the back steps. She had seemed eager to marry me before we moved in together, but I grew ever more worried that I might pull off enough boneheaded maneuvers to drive her away before the appointed day. I had been living with men who didn’t demand much of anything from me beyond very basic, sanitary maintenance of my surroundings and prompt payment of rent. I didn’t know if Judy had any faith left that I was trainable in the art of civilized living.
My parents, who had never visited me while I lived away from home, decided to stop by at random moments. We had lied to them about sharing a house before our wedding day: our official story was that I was the sole resident and Judy, while moving a few things in ahead of time, was still living at Diane’s. (My mother was an old school Catholic dead set against anything premarital activities beyond kissing and holding hands.) Judy and I would be sitting on the sofa after supper enjoying a few moments of privacy and peace when we’d hear the brakes of my Dad’s car squeal by the curb. We’d dash around throwing Judy’s bras, panties and assorted bits of laundry under the bed or behind boxes left over from the move. We’d answer the door out of breath with guilty and exasperated looks on our faces.
I had to leave for work one night about a half hour after they showed up unannounced. My Pinto still hadn’t been repaired, and I drove away in Judy’s Subaru to go to the hospital. Judy was left to answer my mother’s nonchalant questions about how she was going to go to Diane’s if I had the only working car. My sister reported that my parents had figured out our deception after that visit, and that my mother had asked her, “Do you think that the two of them are doing anything wrong?” I smiled and told Carla that we were doing it just right.
Judy and I took care of a lot of the preparations for the wedding and reception ourselves as Judy’s parents lived 12 hours away. Judy made her bouquet from flowers picked from our garden, and I drew illustrations and designs for our invitations. We drove to Maine for a long honeymoon trip that ended up being more about endurance than romance, and I was happy when we came back home and returned to our normal routines. I was eager to get to know Judy on a daily basis.
Judy had never shared a bedroom before with a man, and one night I woke up and heard her crying. I put an arm around her and asked what was wrong, and she told me that she couldn’t sleep, that she hadn’t been able to get a good night’s sleep ever since we moved in together. She told me that I breathed too loudly. I spent the next few weeks trying to breathe softly as I fell asleep. Judy finally asked me one night why I was holding my breath. “I’m trying to breathe more softly,” I told her. She sighed and said, “I was just trying to be polite. You snore.” I sighed and took a deep breath.
I began to paint still lifes of objects I picked up by the side of the road, at flea markets and second hand stores. The best one featured a carburetor, a pink cloth, a shot glass and a toy pistol. I thought of it as portrait of sorts of my father, and I remember spending long hours studying the effects of light striking the surfaces of the table and the motley objects. I felt like I was exploring a world that had been hiding in plain sight as I studied a fading tone reflected off the surface of a glass, as I tried to mix a warm gray that captured the color transition from a rusty patch to a cold and shiny area on a piece of metal.
I usually took a break about midday and rode a bicycle down to a grocery store about a mile away. I started supper for Judy later on in the afternoon, and when she came home we would eat and talk for hours.
We went for walks in the neighborhood and discovered that our part of town got increasingly dodgy the further down Third Street we wandered. Men sat out on their stoops during the day in warmer weather and sipped from bottles wrapped in paper bags. They looked grizzled and hollow eyed, and didn’t welcome a greeting or friendly nod. Around Christmas I passed through a block just east of downtown and noticed a house with a black wreath on its front door. A sign in the window read “Have a Merry Christmas. We won’t. Bobby died.”
Judy and I went out on a cold day in January after it had snowed, and we heard children yelling and laughing as they played. We turned a corner and came to a park with a baseball field down a slope from the parking lot. Kids were sledding down the hill to the diamond below, and parents stood talking in clusters around metal drums with logs burning inside. The orange light from the fires contrasted beautifully with the long, blue shadows on the snow. Folks warmed themselves from time to time by the barrels and passed around Styrofoam cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Judy and I enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie amongst the parents, but knew that we didn’t really belong. We wouldn’t be staying much longer in Dayton, in this neighborhood, and our children were still a distant dream.
Judy was in the process of finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Dayton. We planned to move to Delaware in February if everything went well. She got up early one morning to go to her lab to do one more experiment. Her advisor had been dropping hints about tearing apart a crucial piece of machinery that Judy needed to finish her research. She set up the equipment before Dr. Geiger arrived, and stayed at her post guarding it until she had the required data. She even timed her bathroom breaks for Geiger’s appointments outside the lab, not trusting that he wouldn’t dismantle the machinery while her experiment was still running. He seemed oblivious to her urgent need to get out of his lab and start her professional career elsewhere. At times it seemed like he was purposely sabotaging her in order to hold onto an intelligent, trustworthy lab assistant.
Judy decided to write her thesis at home. She sat in the living room while I painted in my studio. I was working on a series that required a lot of intense focus. Judy was a nervous eater when she wrote, and would compulsively dig into a bag of chips or cookies and crunch, crunch, crunch as she scribbled and typed. I closed my door but could still hear rustle, rustle, crunch, crunch coming from the living room at regular intervals. The repetitive sounds disrupted my concentration and eventually drove me crazy. I burst out of the studio and yelled, “Stop that!” Judy was unhappily surprised when I explained how annoying her habit was, and was probably offended. The next day I heard her setting up for another writing session and the sound of her cutting something soft on a cutting board in the kitchen. I peeked out from behind my studio door and saw that she had a plate of cheddar slices. She was indulging in her habit but with a quieter fix. I waited until I heard her begin to eat and write, and leaped out of the studio and cried, “Stop that! You’re making too much noise eating that, that CHEESE!” I pointed to her plate in mock outrage and gave her my sternest look of condemnation (eyebrows arched, nostrils flared, eyes bulging out). Judy stared at me wide eyed. “Are you trying to drive me mad? MAD??” I added with a theatrical wave of my arm, and then she started to laugh.
Judy survived her thesis defense with little help and some hindrance from Geiger. We began to pack up the house, and I quit my job at the hospital. We moved on a gray day in February, and as we drove out of town I thought about how I would miss my family and worried about the challenges we would be facing in a strange city on the east coast. I had never lived anywhere else but Dayton and had no idea what it would be like to move to a place where I knew no one but Judy.
As we took the exit off of I75 onto I70 and headed to Columbus I wanted to turn around and head back to our little home on Murray Hill. It had served as our honeymoon hideaway, as an oasis of happiness. I believed that we would have other times together that would be peaceful and full of contentment, but already knew that our six months there had been special.