by Keith Hoffman
The greatest source of friction between my fiancé Saul and me is Hope.
I’m not trying to be all esoteric. I really mean that literally.
Before I met Saul I hired a cleaning lady and her name is Hope.
Now it was a big deal for me to get a cleaning lady. When I moved to the higher rents of New York City from Los Angeles, I decided to forego having one even though I was obsessively worried about my house smelling like old dog and cat since I indeed had both of those creatures at the time.
I am pretty sure this obsession came from when I was a kid and perpetually embarrassed to invite people inside the walls of my home. You could never predict when one of my older hippy siblings would be smoking pot while singing along to Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes in our faux-paneled music room, or my mother would be weeding in the backyard in an age-inappropriate bikini, or one of our 19 cats would be giving birth or peeing on the bean bag chair.
After my father died, my mom decided to throw all convention aside when it came to child-rearing which was quite disturbing to this conventional 7-year-old living in a conventional subdivision.
So Hope made me feel safe. Hope made me feel like I was home. (Yes, I’m still talking about the cleaning lady. )
The only problem with Hope was that she loved to move things.
I don’t mean mixing the butter knife with the forks or putting my t-shirts in my pants drawer. Hope would put the butter knife in the pants drawer and my t-shirts in an old plastic bag behind the couch. The 2-day period after she cleaned was like a scavenger hunt for my own possessions.
But it didn’t stop there. Hope also liked to rearrange my furniture. She would move the kitchen table to a different angle or switch the end tables to opposite sides of the couch. The first week I liked what she did telling myself the Feng Shui of the room was flowing much better. But then I was surprised to see that she moved all my furniture yet again the next time she cleaned–some of it back to its original place and some to a completely new location.
Every single time the apartment she cleaned she would rearrange the furniture.
This was clearly some type of obsessive-compulsive acting out on her part.
And for some reason after Saul moved in, this quirk of hers made him crazy.
What I found amusing, Saul found insanity-inducing. Every time he discovered a freshly washed juice glass lined up next to our potted spider plant or his mail placed neatly in a box next to my birth certificate he became unhinged.
“Can’t you see the humor in it?” I would ask sounding what I believed to be extremely evolved.
But he couldn’t.
I attributed this inability to rise to the occasion to his own unresolved childhood issues but he can write about this in his own blog.
Every time something went missing in the house things got tense.
“Where is the cat? “
“Uh…I think she’s in the back yard!” I would answer afraid Hope had placed her in the the closet with cleaning supplies.
But for some reason I wouldn’t budge even though we bickered over and over about it. I refused to let go of Hope.
It wasn’t just that she cooked us menudo–a delicious Filipino dish from her native country (the first time she told us she was bringing menudo I thought she might be referring to the famous boy band that spawned Ricky Martin–naturally I was quite intrigued). And it wasn’t just that she baked cupcakes for my birthday.
It felt like letting go of Hope was on some level of letting go of the security of my home. Yes, Saul and I were creating our own home but you give up a lot when you decide to share your life. Sometimes you are giving up lonely Saturday nights and sometimes you are giving up the freedom to pay a cleaning lady to lose all your stuff.
Hope did not help her cause on the morning she asked us about our dog walker who she had run into during her previous visit. (Yes, life is quite challenging when you are managing a household staff).
“Sir,” she asked Saul and me very sweetly. “Is your dog walker a faggot?”
“Is he a faggot?” she asked if she were questioning whether he had blue eyes.
“Hope, that is not a nice thing to say about someone.” Saul replied patiently.
Saul taught English as a second language so he was a bit more used to these cultural clashes.
“It’s not?” Hope replied innocently. “My husband says it all the time. When we are on the subway he will say, ‘Look at those faggots,’” she continued before concluding, “I like them. ”
Saul and I walked out of the apartment a bit shell-shocked.
I had a lot of questions running through my head…
- Can you keep a cleaning lady who calls people faggots no matter how innocently?
- Did she really not know we were gay?
- What was she thinking when she made up our only bed and dusted the Tyne Daly Gypsy poster?
A few months later Saul finally convinced me to let go of Hope—at least for one week.
He was putting together an art show for a gallery space in charming and quaint New Hope Pennsylvania, which is one of our favorite towns and where we most likely will end up living.
Yes, I get it. No Hope…New Hope….the universe is trying to teach me something here but it is still being too subtle for my taste.
Anyway this art show was a big deal.
Saul had only begun seriously painting less than a year ago. It began as a way to get out of his head, which he will be the first to tell you can be a very dangerous place to dwell. And the passion that started with a simple paint-by-number set grew into what has to be almost a hundred paintings that now cover our bedroom, living room, kitchen and backyard.
“Can you guarantee she won’t move or mess up one of my paintings?”
This was a trick question. It’s a little like asking if I can promise a small child won’t touch a pile of Reese’s Pieces or a junkie will refuse cocaine and a prostitute. The temptation for Hope to move things was bigger than the three of us.
“Okay, okay this one time we will cancel Hope. But don’t blame me if people accuse our bookshelves of being dusty,” I concluded ominously.
it was hard to give up this last piece of my freedom (or at least that is how it felt). My identity was taking a bit of a hit lately.
I had always been the star. Well, at least in my own mind.
I mean c’mon…I hosted a show about Bigfoot. I would do anything to get attention.
But now suddenly I was the just good wife. The man behind the man. Saul was stepping to center stage and this was his time to shine.
Meanwhile I am in the middle of trying to figure out my own life. Do I want to stay in New York the rest of my life? Do I really want to move to a small town? Would I like one more career before I kick the bucket or am too old to care? And if the answer is yes to any of these questions when do I make these changes? What will this next chapter look like? And how exactly do I turn the page?
Just like both Saul’s and my identities changed a little when we went from being single to being a couple—I was discovering that when one person in the relationship changes significantly, both of you change—and you better figure out how to do it for the mutual benefit of both.
That’s what I didn’t understand for so many years. I thought once you became a couple that was it. You were done. Your goal had been accomplished.
And now Saul was changing big time and he was doing it at a rapid pace. His art had gone from unique and colorful flowers, to fashionable women, to religious icons, to faces (his father had looked at his earlier work and pronounced that Saul didn’t know how to draw faces—boy did he show him—nothing like a little parental doubt to get the creative juices flowing).
Now his art was becoming decidedly gay. His show was going to be up during New Hope’s Gay Pride Weekend so he was expressly doing some pieces for that audience.
But when he showed me his portrait of two bearded men kissing I have to admit I was a little squeamish.
Does it have to be so gay I asked?
I thought of old high school friends who were more conservative than me who would see pictures on Facebook. I thought of people I had met through my job in the deep south who knew I was gay but in an innocuous Paul Lynde/Richard Simmons/Lance Bass kind of way not in-your-face HBO Looking kind of way.
But this was Saul’s show and I was the good wife (I loved that series by the way even if I didn’t understand the finale).
I would support my partner’s art show no matter how much internal homophobia it stirred up in me and I would hope for the best.
It’s the third weekend of the four-week run of Saul’s show and by every standard it’s going amazingly well.
Not only have we made good friends in the New Hope community but also he has sold several paintings which is not really something you expect to do when you are starting out as an artist. He has sold to people he knows and to total strangers. Every time someone wants to buy a piece of art he asks me if I really want to get rid of it and I remind him he is making art to share with others not to hoard in our tiny apartment like Vivien Maier. (If you haven’t seen the documentary about this odd nanny who took thousands and thousands of beautiful photographs only to lock them in boxes in her room I highly recommend it)
But tonight Saul’s luck may have run out and hoarding the rest of his art might be our only option.
It’s what is supposed to be the biggest night of his run at the gallery. It’s the night of the Artist’s Reception and it’s the Saturday evening of Gay Pride Weekend—the evening when Saul was told he would sell most of his paintings.
And it is pouring down steady torrential rain.
I was in charge of the reception and had spent much of the day buying flavored popcorn from a local shop and and tons of cheese and wine and candy from the only big grocery store in town–all the while praying the rain would hold out.
But at 6pm sharp as the reception begins, this unwelcome intruder thundered into town and looked like it was going nowhere any time soon.
New Hope is a town that is run by the weather. When it’s good the town is vibrant and when its bad people disappear like cockroaches after a light is turned on (although to be perfectly clear the people of New Hope are nothing like cockroaches).
Saul and I had been having anxious and apocalyptic visions all day that we will be disgraced and mortified while sitting dejectedly in an empty echoing room full of his art with a card table spread full of rotting, uneaten food. To up the anxiety level one more notch my brother Paul, his partner Donna and my cousin Vicky have driven almost an entire day from the Midwest to help us out so we will have actual witnesses to our abject humiliation. “Maybe for Facebook we can Photoshop the two us in the middle of some Bernie rally and say it’s the reception,” I almost suggest but think better of it.
But somehow–against all odds–people begin trailing in. They are waterlogged and soaked but happy to be in a safe space. It may not be jam-packed busy but it is never embarrassing.
And best of all people are actually buying art.
I again play the good wife making sure wine cups are full and Saul is directed to speak with interested art buyers. “Avoid the crazy man putting free cheese in his pocket at 7 o’clock and chat up the wealthy cultured lesbians at 12:o’clock I would mutter as I gently shoved him in the right direction.
Towards the end of the night I notice a woman and her college-age son coming in for the second time. They were in the gallery earlier with the father but now he is nowhere to be seen.
I quickly alert Saul to their arrival. If they made their way back in this tragic weather they must be on a mission.
As I nervously chomp on Gourmet Buffalo Wing-flavored popcorn, I watch Saul, the mother and her son intensely debate between two paintings. Finally Saul calls me over to help.
I am told the two are trying to decide between Saul’s painting of a man alone looking down at a party or two men sharing an intimate kiss.
The first one is sad and lonely. The second is much more joyful. And it is also the exact same one that gave me a self-loathing homophobic jolt when Saul showed it to me.
The three of them ask my opinion and it seems clear the kid is almost longing for the second painting.
“I’m not trying to make a sale” I say. “But you should buy the painting you really love.”
I can’t help but notice the somewhat pained expression in the mother’s eyes as her lips purse tensely. I step away with Saul and we tell them to take their time.
The moment we are out of earshot Saul tells me what just happened.
As Saul approached them a few minutes earlier the 19-year-old was telling his mom he wanted the painting of the two men kissing.
“But what will the guys think at the frat?” his mom asked worriedly.
“I’ll keep it in my room,” he replied but his mother was not reassured.
“But what if you have a girl over?” she pressed on. “She might not understand. She might not think you are straight.”
“Maybe I’m not straight?” he replied. “Is it okay if I tell you I I’m bi?”
This last question is not asked in defiance or anger. It is an honest plaintive question from a boy to his mother.
And now that Saul tells me this I understood the expression on his mother’s face.
It was not a look of horror.
It was a look of wow this really happening right here and right now.
Her hopes for her son’s future were changing right before her eyes.
As the rain continued the two kept deliberating. I could see the mother wanted her son to take something anything but that overtly intimate painting. It was all happening just too fast for her.
“What about this one?” she asks trying to get me on her side.
“Um…I think that one will really confuse people,” I tell her honestly.
Finally, they leave with their choice carefully wrapped in several layers to protect it from the weather and maybe from a few other things.
“Your father doesn’t have to know what’s inside” she whispers to her son conspiratorially.
And they leave a blank space on the wall where two men joyfully kissing used to be.
Hope: (n): a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
What we hope for constantly changes.
I thought a cleaning lady would bring me my longed for sense of home but instead it came from a fiance with a beard and a brave talent who liked household items to stay in their right and proper place.
Saul hoped for an artist reception full of successful art buyers with lots of money but instead he got a rainy night where his art inspired a boy to tell his truth to his mother.
The mother hoped for happiness for her son and may have helped him take a step towards it but not in the way she hoped for.
And her son hoped to find intimacy and found it–but probably not quite the way he imagined.
In the end hope is an illusion no more real than that paint and canvas is flesh and blood. And whenever our hopes are realized we discover they are more fluid and elusive than we thought and only seem to give birth to more hope.
So maybe instead of spending so much precious energy desiring those “certain thing to happen”, maybe we could spend just a little more time wallowing in what we already have…
A son’s courageous truth
A mother’s achingly honest relationship
Saul’s evocative talent.
And my loving home.
Because in the end….what we have is so very precious and so very fragile.
About the author: Keith Hoffman writes a blog and is looking for someone to clean his home twice a month…or not.