An Empty Space
(originally published in the Boston Globe, Dec. 4, 2011)
I look around me and see a very large living room.
This condo I live in never used to seem so big. In fact, it once seemed much too small for two people. Seven years ago when we decided it was time to move out of our big Victorian house and leave snow shoveling and lawn mowing to someone else, Franco and I looked at many condos and my comment about every one of them was: “It’s too small.”
Now I rattle around in this place from one end to the other. There are too many choices: I can sit in that chair by the window or on the small sofa across the room or on any part of the big couch that I want to, because Franco is no longer sitting in his spot next to me. I can sit at the dining table or never sit there at all. I can keep sleeping on my side of the bed, or sometimes sleep on his, or even in the middle. There is no one to share this space with now.
What single person needs three bathrooms? The condo we chose happens to be a duplex, with one bathroom downstairs and one each for the two bedrooms upstairs. When Franco was here and very ill, we were glad to have the one downstairs, so he didn’t have to climb the stairs. We had so much bathroom equipment then that we might have qualified for a rest home: the raised toilet seat, the commode in the middle of the bedroom, just in case, the walker to get back and forth to the bathroom. I gave all those things to the nursing home up the street. Now I feel as if I am in the VIP suite of some fancy hotel with an overload of amenities.
And then there is the kitchen, the very same that made me say to Franco when we first looked at the condo: “How are you ever going to cook anything in this place?”
We had given up his enormous well-equipped kitchen, set in a greenhouse with floor to ceiling windows and loads of flowering plants. Many recipes had been tested in that gorgeous kitchen for Franco’s show on WGBH called Romagnolis’ Table – the very first television show on Italian food. Many videos had been shot in that kitchen on subjects such as how to make pasta by hand, how to make a timbalo or bolognese sauce, and many other splendid Italian dishes.
This tiny excuse for a kitchen doesn’t even have a gas stove, because there is only electricity in this building. Totally unacceptable for a real cook. We both learned to cook on it anyway, because we had to. Now it sits there practically unused. Every once in a while, I get up the courage to invite friends to dinner and can’t remember which cabinet contains the pots and pans I need.
“Why not try to make this place your own?” some friends say. “Move the furniture around or buy new things. Paint each room a different color. Put new pictures on the walls.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” I reply. “Maybe later.”
And, I think, what is “my own” anyway? Even though I was already in my sixties when I met Franco, I had just recently bought and moved into the only house I had ever owned. “His own” was the gorgeous Victorian in which he had resided for 40 years. After we decided to live together, we each wrote down what we thought were the pros and cons of living in his house or my house. I found that piece of paper the other day, still in my desk drawer: among the pros for me was that my house was right near the Red Line subway stop, and that I had just about finished fixing it up so it would become the way I wanted it to be. Franco didn’t need to write down many pros for his house; it was clearly more beautiful, with all its Victorian detail intact, and that enormous kitchen with all that history about his cooking show. But the pièce de résistance came when I stayed at his house for the weekend and he made a fire in the bedroom fireplace. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen a house that had a fireplace in the bedroom, let alone one that really worked. The sheet of paper with the pros and cons on it suddenly became unnecessary and a few months later I moved in with Franco.
This condo is the only place we lived in that was truly “ours.”
I like to look around and know that Franco would still find it a familiar place, to look at the paintings and photographs that we looked at together in the places they’ve always been … watching that flat screen television that I bought on a whim, the one he teased me about because it was so big, but soon was quite happy to watch … the couch in the exact same place we sat on it together … the terrace we looked out on, with the same flowers planted in the same pots that Franco first planted them in.
And no matter what part of the bed I sleep on at night, I still reach out to the other side and move my hand around the sheet, longing to find him there beside me.