The Neatness Gap


November 09, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON. — CALL IT an occupational hazard, but like most journalists I have a tendency to destroy every nice romantic fantasy with some flat-footed realism. No matter how I may suspend judgment in the darkened movie theater, by the time I reach the parking lot I am writing a postscript to the happy endings.

So I left ''White Palace'' as Susan Sarandon and James Spader were beginning their happily-ever-after. And as I was beginning my what-happens-next.

It wasn't the age gap between these two that stuck in my de-constructionist imagination, although much ado has been made of the steamy love affair between a 43-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man. When we were younger, the older woman was cast as a predatory Mrs. Robinson. Now baby boomers are Mrs. Robinson's age, and suddenly she's wise and sexy. Makes sense to me.

Nor was it the class difference between the hash slinger and the yuppie that led me to worry about the trouble ahead. Hollywood is forever telling us that class is no barrier to true love if you are earthy, good, sexy and very, very thin.

What struck one mind was the ultimate difference that has left so many more lovers in the lurch. The neatness gap.

These are the questions that Hollywood left hanging. Can Max, who straightens the fringe on his rug, find ultimate happiness with Nora, who has a half-eaten sandwich under the sofa? Can a woman who stores her dirty dishes in the sink find contentment with a man who gives her a Dustbuster as a present?

Opposites may attract when you are talking about class and age. But housekeeping? If this were a pre-nuptial quiz, the question would be: Which makes marriage happier: (A) the simultaneous orgasm or (B) the single standard of cleanliness. The answer, of course, is B. But it's much harder to achieve.

How do I know this? Needless to say, I have never left a half-eaten sandwich under the sofa. I finish the sandwich. (I leave the wrapper.)

But I belong to that group of females who are very quiet when other women complain that their husbands leave socks on the floor. Let me put it this way. My husband believes, as a matter of deep moral conviction, that clothes should be turned right side out before they go into the washing machine.

In the days before our two families blended their laundry, he lived in an apartment that could be described (by me) as Spartan-Japanese. I lived in a home that could be described (by him) as Early Childhood Chaos. With dog.

His kitchen had surfaces. Mine had them too, of course, although they hadn't made an appearance for some time. He regarded the dishwasher as something to be run. I thought of it as a convenient storage space. He liked the refrigerator clean (without anything to eat). I liked it full (of mold).

When these opposites attracted more than dust, I got weekly cleaning help. He cleaned up for the cleaning help.

We have made compromises, of course. If, for example, I leave the table during breakfast without posting a guard at my half-empty coffee cup, he accepts this as an invitation to clear the cup. If I catch him with my half-full coffee cup, I accept this as an invitation to stab him with my fork. It all works out.

We still have separate cars. You could eat off the floor of his car. You could read off the floor of mine. My husband still longs to achieve the pristine quality of nature. I still believe that nature abhors a vacuum and a vacuum cleaner.

He cannot understand how any human being -- let alone one he loves -- can walk up the stairs without picking up the shoes on the landing. I cannot believe that anyone -- let alone someone I love -- cares whether a pair of shoes is on a landing or in a closet.

Deep in the hearts of couples like us who share space but not standards, each sees this difference as a character flaw. One person's free spirit is the other's dirty slob. One person's orderliness is the other's anal-compulsive obsessiveness.

In ''White Palace,'' love conquers all this. We are led to believe that Max is loosening up when he drinks Perrier out of a bottle. We are supposed to assume that Nora is straightening up when she sets the table and brushes her hair.

Hollywood is grand for fantasy, but they have come up against something harder to resolve than age, sex, race, class or creed. In six months it won't be the wrinkles around her eyes Max finally notices. It will be the ring around the tub.

Older woman, younger man? Working class, rich? When all is said and done, neatness counts. So, too, does messiness.

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