Two guys are out in the backyard banging around, building a work space, a studio. One is lean with dark hair; the other stockier, his gray hair clipped close to his skull. I hear their laughter over the sound of the air compressor for the nail gun. The siding is going up.
They started this job more than a year ago. Most homeowners would be annoyed at how long it’s taking. I’m not. They’re building it for free. They’re building it for me.
I bring them water. I kiss one good night but not the other. One is my boyfriend of 10 years. The other is my husband. My husband and I actually consider ourselves exes, but we never divorced. We still love each other, just not romantically. We have lived together all these years under the same roof, although not the same bedroom.
What happened was this: 15 years ago, I woke up in the night, nudged him awake and said, “I need your permission to have an affair.”
Our then 2-year-old son had just left the family bed. My husband and I were alone again with a gaping hole where passion should be. We had tried to bring it back through counseling, sex therapy and lingerie. I needed the dance of knee against knee under the table. I needed an unabashed, open-mouthed kiss. So we came to an agreement.
“I don’t want to know,” he said. “Don’t bring it home.”
This went on for several years. I met men at hotels and at their homes in the hills.
Then, I met a new guy at a bar in the Mission District, the perfect place to meet before a one-night stand. Except I fell for him the moment he handed me a red Gerber daisy. I fell for the small gap between his teeth. I touched his hand by feigning interest in the ring he had made from a bicycle spoke. We loved the same obscure music.
Days later, he waltzed with me on Berkeley Pier, my gloves arranged in his breast pocket like a kerchief. He created a rabbit out of a squeegee and a towel and made me laugh at its antics.
The afternoon I chose to tell my husband, light streamed into our yellow kitchen. Our son was in his room, playing with Hogwarts toys.
“This wasn’t our agreement,” he said. We discussed it calmly. One of us mentioned divorce. One of us said, “Should we move apart?” Then it was silent again.
I was a child of divorce. When I came home from school, the house was empty. My mother worked an hour away and didn’t get home until after 6.
I saw my father on Sundays, sometimes. He would take us to car shows or to buy fish for our aquarium. I don’t think he ever wanted children. He wasn’t interested in talking to me about books or cheerleading. He once jokingly tossed me over the side of a boat, saying, “That’s how you learn to swim!”
My siblings were wild, sneaking out to parties in the woods. I grew up mostly alone. I dreamed of having a family to travel with or joke together over dinner.
I had this now. We made Lego villages, played music, sang out of tune. We stopped for smiley-face pancakes when we drove to San Diego to see my in-laws. We took up a whole row on the airplane, creating our own happy world of snacks, cartoons and surprises for our son.
I couldn’t imagine not waking up in the house with my child, having to drop him off at his father’s house, not kissing his sleepy cheeks every night.
I wanted my family. And I wanted my boyfriend.
When I suggested we could be roommates, my husband agreed. I clung to the idea like a life raft.
We ordered another bed and turned my husband’s office into a second bedroom. I didn’t know if it was possible to create a new kind of family, but like a child who pushes against the boundaries of her parents’ rigid rules, I wanted to find out.
Months later, I said, “I want to introduce him to our son.”
“If you bring someone else in,” my husband said, “we need to move apart. I don’t want to meet him.”
Weeks passed. Then my husband said, “Wild Side West. 5:30. Wednesday night.”
I don’t remember if I drove to that meeting with my husband or my boyfriend. I do remember sitting in the beer garden with sweat on my forehead.
We sat in a little triangle, my husband sitting stiffly and my boyfriend leaning back as if to give us more room. I perched on a rickety stool. We could have been in a lawyer’s office, drawing up papers.
The moment was about a child. The conversation was about who we are to this boy. Who will we be to him and to each other? How do we trust?
We set a meeting for the playground the following week. We three adults had planned it out carefully. My son and I would be playing on the monkey bars. My boyfriend would show up and I would introduce him as my friend.
When he arrived, he was carrying an old radio and some tools. He had remembered from our conversations that my son loved to disassemble electronics.
My boyfriend juggled two screwdrivers and a wrench and made my son laugh. He smiled and said, “Hey buddy, want to take this thing apart with me?”
When this began, we still lived in a large apartment in the Mission; there was room for privacy the nights my boyfriend stayed over. It was awkward at first, but as the years passed we spent more time as a foursome — cooking, playing board games.
Twice a year we all traveled to my mother’s house in Ohio, along with my husband’s parents, spending two weeks in a flurry of card games, water balloon fights and lingering meals.
Then the owner of our apartment decided to sell and offered us an enormous sum of money to surrender our rent-controlled lease. In most places, that money could have bought us a house. In the Bay Area, it wasn’t even a down payment. The only place we could afford was half the size of our apartment. There wouldn’t be room for home offices, most of our furniture or my boyfriend.
At the new house, my beau built a platform so I could store the mattress beneath a raised office, but it never felt right. It wasn’t sexy to sleep with him under piles of papers and the glow of the computer screen saver.
One day when he and I were lying in the trundle bed staring up at a jumble of cords, he said, “Let’s talk about building you a studio.” But I didn’t have the money.
“We could scavenge what we need,” he said. “If we start by building a foundation, maybe it will come together even if we don’t see how it can work.”
The backyard was a mess of dirt, broken bottles and rusty metal when he began digging. He patiently began clearing it out. One day my husband donned work gloves and jumped in, too. When we ran out of scavenged materials, my husband generously purchased supplies.
Months of Sundays passed to the synchronized beat of hammers and the sound of music and laughter as the framing was built. My husband taught me how to use the nail gun. My boyfriend took pictures as I nailed on the avocado-green siding. There’s a selfie of the three of us grinning from behind our dust masks, covered with flecks of fiberglass on the day we stuffed insulation into the walls.
Those two men painstakingly installed layers of drywall, reaching their long arms to the ceiling over and over. Before they hung the last piece, I hid gold dollar coins inside next to the studs and a photo of three generations of people who are related in ways there aren’t words for.
They left the beautiful thick beam in the ceiling exposed. After you walk into the studio and admire the golden light and the warm oak floors, that exposed beam catches your eye. It’s the through line, reminding me of our love for our son.
We wanted this child to grow up in a happy household. That beam was strong enough to convince us all to hold onto the vision. It’s like a dream I have had countless times in which I discover a room in my house that I didn’t know was there.
That’s our life now. We are building a family without a blueprint.
Sherry Richert Belul, who lives in San Francisco, is the author of “Say it Now: 33 Creative Ways to Say I Love You to the Most Important People in Your Life,” due out in May.
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