There’s No Such Thing As a ‘Dream Life’

Photos of beautiful homes don’t always tell the full story.

brownstone-in-new-york
Photo by Busà Photography/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Medium.com.

Not long after marrying the man I would go on to divorce, I bought a Brooklyn brownstone that satisfied all my most fetishistic Brooklyn brownstone fantasies, and made me feel — in a way that only buying a Brooklyn Brownstone can make a certain kind of striving, creatively ambitious New Yorker feel — as though I had achieved a big old piece of the dream. The place was in far Carroll Gardens just off of Court Street, on a block of classic houses, and even from the outside it felt grand, with its black iron gate and hulking balustrades leading up to arched double front doors. The block was almost a cliché of the authentic you’re-in-Brooklyn-now trope: tree-lined, with kids playing catch, and an old Italian guy sweeping the sidewalk. I would learn soon enough that the old guy was really mean and the children a menace. But on that first Sunday afternoon, when I wandered over from my Boerum Hill rental on a hunch to attend the Open House, it all felt as though it was part of one perfectly charming package.

The house was a touch narrower than the others, but so perfect inside that you didn’t even notice. There were four floors, fireplaces in most every room, and a massive kitchen on the garden floor with Miele and Sub Zero everything. There was an epic walk-in closet in the bedroom, big enough even to accommodate my ever-expanding wardrobe. The garden — the focal point of so many of my most obsessive brownstone reveries — was like the perfect little mini-backyard, with a spray of roses growing on one fence that would go on survive my extreme neglect.

The turnout for the Open House had been healthy, and there were dozens of people drifting through the rooms — well-put-together post-brunch young marrieds from Manhattan, harried Brooklyn parents in sweats and clogs trying to get a good look at the original ceiling fixtures while keeping their sticky, restless children in check. Suddenly, I felt an arch loathing for them all. They couldn’t have this house. These exquisite original moldings would be mine. I wanted it so much I was practically vibrating.

And crazily enough, I could have it. My lifestyle had undergone a serious seismic shift when had I became (the rather unlikely) editor of a fashion magazine, due not just to an uptick in salary, but also to the astonishing number of perks that came attached to the job. I had a generous clothing allowance, and was allowed to lease the car of my choice. I also had a driver — a very nice Israeli man named Avi — assigned to bring me to and from work and wherever else I might need to venture. All of my air travel now took place in the first class cabin, a wondrous place with warm nuts and sundaes after dinner, and so much legroom that I’d often try, on those early flights out to the west coast, to touch the seat in front of me with my toes, and — to my vast delight — never could. When I arrived at my destination, I stayed at the very nicest hotels; the type of place where a bowl of fresh fruit, or perhaps flowers — or, at the Chicago Four Seasons, where the manager was a big fan of the magazine, cookies with the most recent cover printed on them in icing — awaited me upon arrival. But possibly the best perk of all — and definitely the most famous one — was access to very favorable home loans. Like, insanely favorable. Nobody didn’t take the loan, pretty much. It was just part of what you did.

My husband, who had gone out to play basketball with some guys from the neighborhood that afternoon, was surprised to come home and learn I had found us a house. I had been lying in wait for him to arrive, and the moment I heard his keys turn in the door downstairs — we lived in the top half of a duplex — I pounced.

“I saw this house in Carroll Gardens and it’s totally perfect and we have to buy it,” I said. “And we have to hurry if you want to see it because the Open House ends at four.” It was 3:35. I had on my jacket, ready to go.

He was still standing downstairs in the foyer, the basketball poised at his hip. He looked up at me where I stood at the top of the steps with his half-amused, half-annoyed look — the one that meant he wasn’t actually any percentage amused — and said, “When did we start looking for a new place?”

“Oh, I know, but you won’t believe how perfect it is and it’s not going to last.”

He was, between the two of us, the more likely to think this type of thing through — to deliberate carefully, endlessly, and excruciatingly. He did this with absolutely everything in life he wasn’t immediately and unreservedly in favor of, which included, as far as I could tell, everything except the Jets and the Mets.

I, on the other hand, was the bulldozer. The goer-with-my-gut. It would be nice to tell you that we in some way complimented each other with our different styles, but sadly, this was just item number one on the giant combination platter of reasons he became the man I would go on to divorce.

We had gotten together when I was 34, and in possession of a dating resume that included a string of very smart men with brilliant careers who made lousy boyfriends. Fascinating, funny people you would feel fortunate to be seated next to at a dinner party, but to a one, quite awful at love. Selfish lovers who produced award-winning documentaries. Novelists with mommy issues. Creative directors who never called when they said they would. I decided that what I needed was a regular boyfriend. Like a teacher, I told my friends. I informed one of the brilliant but awful ex-boyfriends — we’d occasionally get together for sex when one of us was feeling lonely — that I was going to go to my ten-year reunion at Oberlin to find somebody who’d had a crush on me in college and make him my husband. The brilliant but awful ex-boyfriend laughed — I didn’t blame him, it sounded like a joke — but I was dead serious. And in Ohio on Memorial Day Weekend of 1998, the man I would go on to divorce came over to say hi at a barbecue, and that was pretty much that.

He was a teacher. He was a nice guy. He was kind of a jock, which was pretty exotic — and a poet, which was especially exotic in combination with the jock part. And he had demonstrated good taste in music, correctly identifying the CD playing on my stereo as Elliott Smith when he came to pick me up for our first date — the type of thing that meant more to me at the time than I care to admit. I spent much of my 20s and 30s writing about rock, and bad taste in music was the biggest deal killer going for me. I’d almost just as soon find out a potential boyfriend was pro-life than learn he’d caught Dave Matthews the last time he was in town.

But aside from that, my husband passed none of the “cool tests” my brother Mike always accused me of unjustly subjecting perfectly good potential boyfriends to. He had a deathly earnest streak, for instance, and his sense of humor was more goofy than arch. He dressed blandly, like the kid from the Long Island suburbs trying to look urban that he was. He was smart and extremely well-read, and yet not especially sophisticated. But at the time, I decided that not caring about any of this indicated a newfound maturity in me.

That there was no spark whatsoever I chose to ignore. Just as I overlooked a catalogue of little things that bothered me, like the fact that he bobbed his head when he thought he was being clever, and said “yadda yadda yadda” in casual conversation (of course, love is so blind and crazy and arbitrary that neither of these last two would probably have bothered me at all were I ever truly into him; I was in my late twenties madly in love with a man who broke my heart horribly, and who — I realized upon encountering him years later, after the spell had broken — had really bad breath. At the time, besotted, I had just chosen to register it as part of his natural scent).

But I hung on anyway. There had just been so many awful boyfriends and almost-boyfriends, and aborted romantic weekends on Martha’s Vineyard with emotionally unavailable man-children, and work crushes, and really shabbily handled breakups followed by flowers and ill-advised do-overs. There had been making out on the street after a book party with a guy who turned out to have a girlfriend, and there had been the guy I met at a party and moved in with so he could turn me into his mother. There had been the scary crazy stalker, and there had been that one really fucked-up near-miss date rape incident. There had been even more than that. And I was finished.

All I needed, I told myself, was something easy, solid and steady. So I overlooked ever-mounting evidence that he also wasn’t maybe the nicest guy, and pushed first for a commitment, then for us to move in together, and then — as demurely as my bulldozing self could manage — for marriage.

We closed on the house in Carroll Gardens quickly and moved right in: the place was in such pristine shape there was no need for renovations. I thought I might hire an interior designer to help me decorate, because that seemed like what a fashion magazine editor in chief in possession of a brand new brownstone should do. But also because I’d never been fantastic at pulling a place together myself. You are either the type of person who just wakes up knowing that vases look nice in a cluster, or you are the type whose boldest design statement is by default the recycling pile, and I have always very much fallen into the latter category. So I called a noted interior designer/lifestyle guru/bon vivant with whom I shared mutual friends, and was pleased when he wanted to take the job. “Oh Kim, j’taime the idea. We will make it genius,” he promised. The bon vivant loved to stud his conversations with French — more in a knowing, ironic way than out of pretense. He had gone to Brown.

The front room of the parlor floor we painted the most perfect tomato red, because I had always wanted a red room — an impulse I was pleased to note met with full approval from the designer and his team. We hung a Herman Miller pendant chandelier from the ceiling, and had an Eames womb chair in there too, upholstered in the iciest blue. For contrast, we kept the room’s built-in bookshelves, which a previous owner had taken care to make authentic to the house’s era, and one of the vivant’s staff, a sweet boy named Leslie, found a glossy black antique oriental parson’s table at an antique store on Atlantic, and that was somehow perfect in there too. The overall effect was very Munsters meets NASA, in the very most excellent possible way.

And the whole house sort of followed from there: classic midcentury pieces — like an Eames surfboard coffee table in the living room, for instance — balanced by African gourd-shaped lamps and two impossibly low and deep leather sofas from the bon vivant’s own furniture line. The sofas weren’t the most practical things — sitting upright in them was a challenge because you sank so far back — but they looked fantastic. There was a powder room on the ground floor with the wildest space-age German vintage wallpaper, and seagrass wallpaper in the bedroom. And throughout the house were custom pieces — drapes headboards, consoles — all, in their own distinct ways, completely right for the spaces they inhabited.

I felt fortunate to live in rooms that were so beautifully composed. It was all completely my taste, but nothing I could ever had conjured myself, and it felt like such a cool trick that you could actually pay somebody to do that for you.

Less cool, unfortunately, was actual life in the Brooklyn house. The first problem was the place itself. There was so much room — too much room for two people by far — and yet there was not one spot in the entire house that felt comfortable or warm to me. Like home. The living room was beautiful, but the real thoroughfare of the house was the ground floor, and somehow, traveling up a floor to relax after work, instead of just plopping down at the kitchen table — with its stylish-but-none-too-comfortable midcentury chairs — never felt quite intuitive. The red room was dead space — the books lived there, but aside from that, there was really no reason to ever enter it. One afternoon, my husband settled into the womb chair to read a New Yorker, and that New Yorker stayed on stool next to the chair for the next six months.

Our marriage was similarly hollow, and considering it in contrast to the very grand house we inhabited pained me. In a way that is nobody’s fault, we just didn’t gel as a couple. We never really did couple things, like cook for each other, or cook ever. The kitchen was never without a few prop onions and some garlic, but dinner was always takeout from the West Indian place on Atlantic or Middle Eastern from Smith Street, or maybe something I’d have Avi pick up on the way home. We’d never make plans together unless they were with others. Our Saturdays were spent in separate pursuits, always. And at night, every night, instead of coming to bed when I did, he would stay up for hours, his computer screen faintly glowing in the bedroom across the hall.

Increasingly, we fought. He disliked it when I mentioned anything about work at home; he got angry when, out with friends, the attention shifted to the topic of my job, and it got to the point where I became anxious if anyone brought it up. He became fiercely critical of stupid things, alighting particularly vehemently on my toilet paper consumption, which he found excessive. It is hard enough to keep the mystery alive in the best of marriages; when your husband is confronting you mid-pee and shouting “DO YOU REALLY NEED TO USE ALL OF THAT?” you can pretty much kiss it goodbye forever.

I developed a desperate — though unconsummated — crush on a man who worked at another magazine in the building and with whom I had a monthly lunch date, for which I always took care to dress especially well — simply because he was so unfailingly polite and seemed interested in what I had to say. It wasn’t just that when he opened doors for me I realized that my husband never opened doors for me — although there was certainly that — or that at the end of the meal he’d always help me on with my coat. But he liked to hear me talk about the magazine — actually wanted to hear more — and, in a way that breaks my heart to consider now, made me feel infinitely more special than I did at home by doing very, very little at all.

The crush passed, time passed. I fell into a funk that wouldn’t lift.

I started smoking on the sly, sneaking cigarettes in the backyard while my husband graded papers at night, or in my private bathroom at work — it was so supremely well-ventilated that nobody ever caught on. Avi let me smoke in the car, and I’d pop out to Bryant Park once or twice a day for a change of scenery, and before I knew it I was closing back in on a habit.

Then one day, because I was by then 39 and it seemed like a good idea, I went in for a baseline mammogram, and they found something. The tiniest a speck of cancer, practically just a hint. The “good” kind, as everybody kept reminding me. But even though they had removed it all during the biopsy, there would be surgery on the margins, and radiation after that. My husband was supportive in all the right ways, going to doctor’s meetings with me and taking copious notes, but we were fighting constantly: On the street, in front of friends, and once — memorably — in yoga class. So I suppose that’s why, when we found out that the beginning of my radiation was scheduled for a few days after he was supposed to leave for an artist’s residency in Washington state, I told him to go anyway.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t see why not. All I’m going to be is maybe a little tired, and I can deal with that on my own just fine.”

“Well only if you’re sure.”

The way I saw it was this: radiation doesn’t make you sick like chemo does, so it wasn’t like I needed him there. And I was so unhappy with our shared life that it felt like his absence would be a change, and any change was good.

I do recall asking him a few times if he thought it was at all strange that we were both okay with him leaving for a residency while I was starting radiation. And each time his answer was unequivocal:

“No, not at all. This was my year to focus on myself and my work and I don’t see why that should change.”

So he took off, and I started radiation, and once all of my friends and loved ones found out what was going on to say that ‘the shit hit the fan’ would be would be to understate by a factor of about infinity the level of rage our decision generated.

I told him to go, it was true. I gave him permission. But he went. He was writing poems on an island in Puget Sound while I spent every morning in the charmless confines of the basement of the Beth Israel Phillips Ambulatory Care Center, waiting my turn to climb on a cold metal slab, slip off the top half of my hospital gown, and get dosed. The more I thought about it, the more horrified I became. Neither of my brothers would do that; neither of his brothers would. I polled the men I knew, and even those who sought to defend him had to admit they wouldn’t either. We fought every evening on the phone, bitterly and at length.

When he came home in late February, in time for my 40th birthday, and the last few weeks of treatment, I told him that I needed him to skip his next residency, set for mid-March, so we could work on our marriage. But I was pretty sure by then it was only a matter of time before I left. That February revealed its own set of truths about my husband — his disconnectedness, his selfishness — but I was beginning to understand what it said about me too. That I had no idea what a real marriage was like, or how married people always show up for each other. Always. I thought about the really happily married couples I knew, and I realized that if I stayed with my husband, I was telling myself I didn’t deserve to be as happy as they were.

By May, I was living at the Mercer Hotel.

The house was sold. I moved to a rental on lower Fifth Avenue while the divorce played out, and was relieved to immediately feel at home in my new apartment. Which had nothing to do with the place — it was quite nice, but not especially cozy and on a remarkably loud corner — and everything to do with it being all mine.

A few years after selling the house, I received a package at work. It was the bon vivant’s first coffee table book, warmly signed. I was giving it a quick flip-through when I saw something that looked awfully familiar: it was the red room from the brownstone in Brooklyn. And on the facing page, my old living room, with the two long, low sofas and the African gourd lamps. For a moment, I hadn’t recognized those pictures as my home, the place where I had lived while I was still married. The rooms had never felt particularly warm, and here they looked especially vacant: of any soul, all memories. I remembered how naked I felt when buyers came to tour the house once we put it up for sale; how obvious it was that the life of a typical Brooklyn family was not being lived there — that the three small bedrooms on the top floor hadn’t been filled with children and wouldn’t be — and I felt, for a moment, naked once more. But of course it was nothing the casual reader would ever pick up on, and that’s when I realized that a spell had been lifted: never again would I envy the lives of people whose homes I saw in books or magazines, no matter how perfect they may have appeared. Because mine looked pretty nice in those pages too.

Kim France writes the blog Girls of a Certain Age and is the founding editor of Lucky magazine.