On A Course For Peaceful Coexistence

January 20, 1991|By Clarinda Harriss Raymond

The den is a sunny room, made sunnier now by pale-yellow paint. The people who repainted the room have just passed being newlyweds. The new husband moved into the house little more than a year ago. The wife has lived there practically forever. The yellow room used to be her den. Now it is their den.

It's a strictly work-related kind of den, since both the husband and wife are academics and writers. Today's icy January sunlight glints off the plexiglass computer-disk box, angles across the vast desk top, gleams rosily in the polished wooden bookcases that cover two walls with books, and forms prisms in the latticed glass windows of the tall semi-antique secretary. Behind the little panes, where rare books are supposed to be kept, the husband's neatly rolled socks reside instead.

What could be handier, thinks the wife. He can get in a little computer time while he puts his laundry away. Centralizing his clothes in the den was a really good idea. True, it was her idea, but he didn't much like his allotted one-eighth of the master bedroom closet, and all he has to share the den closet with is the vacuum cleaner.

He calls this room the Den of Inequity.

Territory is what matters. Also history. She lived here first! She has accumulated more stuff! But human rights, justice also matter. He's her legal, legitimate, tenant-by-the-entirety husband, and he has plenty of stuff, too. Large stuff, which he keeps in perfect order -- unlike some people he could mention! They both live here now, for heaven's sake! Peaceful coexistence is the sole survival option.

Actually, their two separate histories converge at as many points as they seem to diverge. Haven't they fought on the same side for decades in the White Bread vs. White Bread trenches? In addition to white bread, there are many other common enemies to help solidify their alliance. Enemies like limp shower sprays; wasted time; weak coffee and weak poetry; lousy grammar in the mass media; elevator music.

The new husband and wife have learned to negotiate a number of heavily mined areas with relative safety. Toothpaste, for instance, a traditional paralyzer of the middle American family: He used to be a Crest man but she buys whatever brand comes in the cutest dispenser that week, and he no longer swears about it under his many-flavored breath. She thinks fresh-squeezed orange juice beats manna from heaven; he finds it "pulpy"; they pool resources to invest in big jugs of Not From Concentrate.

He has replaced her single little bitty red vitamin pill with a daily fistful of huge lecithins, zincs, B-1's, alfalfas and calciums; she grudgingly admits she feels better. Her benign neglect of garden shrubbery ("Who wants to see the house?") has grappled with his Edward Scissorhands approach to bushes; now you can see both daylight and greenery when you look out of their windows. She admits his streamlining of her Personal Space has, as the song says, let the sun shine in.

This past Christmas, the husband thought long and hard about invading her space with his main gift to her, a big, shiny-white microwave oven. He considered installing it in the tiny kitchen one afternoon while she shopped, but decided he wanted to see her unwrap the box and coo. His only worry was that he'd have to brave one of her famous mini-nervous breakdowns when she realized there was absolutely no place for the microwave oven in the kitchen, at least not as the kitchen was then arranged.

So, on Christmas Eve, after she'd finished cooing and was in full cry about where to put the damn thing and how was she ever going to get the damn dinner cooked in all the damn commotion, the husband plugged the microwave oven into the perfect niche he'd just created for it by moving some unused appliances into the basement. And lo, dinner was cooked in 5.5 minutes. She pushed the silky, silent, exquisitely high-tech buttons all by herself, with no trouble at all.

Beyond strategic compromise, the ground of the couple's skirmishes blooms here and there with oases of genuine, impassioned agreement: the forbidden pleasure of the occasional filet mignon, rare and wrapped in wicked bacon; strong poetry, preferably with strong hazelnut coffee on the side; hair-raising music, from Vivaldi to Van Halen, played at considerable volume.

At times music becomes the most sinister of all the space invaders. Times when his band rehearses at their house during her time to write. Times when her recordings of baroque flute concertos have been sounding their insidiously cheerful birdcalls all one rainy Sunday. Times like that rainy Sunday long ago when the myriad components of his tank-size stereo system invaded, inexorably, piece by enormous piece, to take over their dining room in a barely bloodless coup.

What kept the stereo invasion from escalating into full-scale war was that both parties explored an option neither had considered -- arranging the dining area diagonally. "It's simple geometry -- the diagonal of a rectangle is always longer than the sides," he pointed out. "Diagonal dining is not part of my tradition," she protested.

But now she loves being able to walk all the way around the table without bumping into things. He, in turn, loves being able to light up their meals with his fancy music machinery. And they both love the music.

CLARINDA HARRISS RAYMOND writes regularly for the magazine.

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