Gutting the House

by Wendy Marquez

Fifteen years ago, when I was forging my way through the corporate business world, Bruce took me under his wing. An absolute charmer and master of words, he taught me his secrets for success: always put yourself in the path of opportunity, make sure you know your audience, and dare to take the weapon from your opponent's hands.

His advice worked. My career took off. And so did my heart. His blue-eyed Irish good looks and a voice as mesmerizing as a movie star cast a spell on me, and I’d lull myself to sleep at night with the names of our unborn children dancing through my head.

He showered me with more attention than any man ever had. He’d tell me I was beautiful, I’d tell him he was brilliant, and we’d both suck up the flattery like empty vacuum cleaners.

The only problem was, his bag was already full.

"Wait for me—please," he begged, his eyes looking right through me, like Superman’s did through Lois. "I’ll get the divorce done soon." An ambiguous word with multiple interpretations, "soon" came to mean three years. But those years were filled with such enchantment, I didn’t keep track of the time.

Our first summer together, we bought a small used motor boat and spent our evenings zooming around the bay at sunset, sipping wine coolers and eating potato chips with onion dip. Spontaneity became our favorite game and we played like we’d never lose, even buying a wreck of a house nestled in the woods a few months before we got married.

I was concerned about the expense, with his two daughters preparing soon for college, but he told me not to worry. "That’s my problem," he said. "Not yours."

So we gutted the house from top to bottom, vaulted the ceilings, redid the kitchen, and replaced the windows with French doors. We took out walls to make rooms larger, installed a skylight in the bathroom, and transformed an ugly soot-covered brick fireplace into a marble-tiled masterpiece. Amidst the sheet-rock dust and two-by-fours, we ate deli sandwiches and Chinese takeout, using a paint-splattered piece of plywood balanced on a chair as a table. It was the best time of my life.

We finally were married on a sunny afternoon the first weekend of September, in an intimate ceremony on Bruce’s sister’s daisy-strewn front lawn. The following month I became pregnant with Bryan, and when he was born I exchanged my leather briefcase and corporate title for cases of diapers and the joy of being called "Mama." The next year, Kevin came along, and I had everything I’d ever wanted—a beautiful home, two adorable babies, and the man of my dreams.

One day Bruce came home at two in the afternoon. "I’ve been fired," he announced. Suddenly, it was time to wake up.

He told me there’d been no warning. He thought he’d been doing well. When he blamed his boss for playing favorites, I swallowed my words, having heard this excuse from him before. I told myself that we all make mistakes and with the wisdom of his years, he’d know what to do.

It was the Recession of 1991, though, and down with the economy went most positions like the one he'd lost, and with two families to support, he wouldn’t settle for less than his worth. So he decided to go into insurance sales where there’d be no boss breathing down his neck, and although it would be straight commission—no salary—his success would be in his own hands.

"I can make six figures in this business," he assured me, "but it will take some time to get going." We cashed in his 401K to tide us over until he hit it big. "Give me six months," he said. "I can feel it."

Gazing into his Superman eyes, I could feel it too.

But six months later, the bills were stacked two feet high on the dining-room table and I couldn’t buy a gallon of milk without digging into our winter coat pockets for loose change. I stood by the French doors overlooking our wooded back yard and watched the sun come up for the fourth morning in a row, shivering in the August heat as if someone had thrown a bucket of ice water on my head.

I knew I had no choice.

"I’m going back to work," I said, shaking Bruce awake. "At least until you get on your feet." I pulled my leather briefcase out of storage and headed back to corporate chaos, my two precious boys in full-time day care and my heart in a drawer.

"I’ll hit my stride soon," he assured as I walked out the door that first morning.

Soon. That wonderful word.

My life became grueling. With ten-hour executive days and six-hour homemaker nights, I’d pass out on Sunday afternoons, too exhausted to play with the boys, and awaken in a daze hours later with Bruce standing over me. "What’s for dinner?" he’d ask.

I’d brace myself for another week’s ride.

"I’ve got a really big prospect that’ll come through in May," he’d say. But when May came, he’d tell me July. In July, he’d promise October and soon it was January and a new year to dream. He’d "forget" to pay his quarterly taxes—stating that he didn’t earn enough to worry—and April would bring nothing but an IRS debt.

I took a new job to get a big raise. As a bonus, I got really sick. I’d wake up with a migraine that lasted all day on top of a cold that I’d had for three months. My hair hung limply, my skin bloomed blotches, and my eyelashes all fell out. I’d look in the mirror and wonder where I’d gone, but had little time for concern until the day palpitations took over as I raced to a meeting in my car. "I’ll need to reschedule," I cried through my cell phone, and drove to the emergency room instead.

"You’ve got a serious infection and a worse case of stress," the doctor said, prescribing a strong antibiotic. "Don’t think you’re off the hook," he said, when he saw the relief in my eyes. "Stress like this can do you in."

"I’m so sorry," Bruce said. "I know I haven’t been pulling my weight." He found an insurance agent with a solid track record who was willing to be his partner. Bruce would prospect, the partner would close, and they’d split their earnings 50/50. We hired a cleaning service, paid off some bills, and took the boys to Disney World to celebrate.

But six months later the partnership failed. Bruce took thousands of dollars from our joint account, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and then refused to tell me how much he owed. "I can’t remember," he said. When I called him a liar, he insisted I was wrong. "It’s not you I’ve been lying to," he said. "It’s me. I should have told you not to put me on too high a pedestal. I knew it would be a long drop down."

"Why have you changed so much?" I cried.

He looked at me with those puppy dog eyes. "I’m not the one who has changed," he said. "You have."

If only our marriage had been a piece of sheet rock.

I moved into a tiny apartment a few miles away and took the boys with me, allowing Bruce to share custody half-time. "You think you’re a hot shot, but I’ve got the house," he gloated. Whenever I drove past, I’d stare straight ahead so I wouldn’t see the white wicker rocking chair out of the corner of my eye.

But Bruce was on a self-destruct mission.

He "forgot" to pay his taxes once again and the IRS threatened to put a lien on the house. This time I refused to bail him out and saved myself instead, borrowing from my retirement plan to pay off the mortgage. I got the house; he got off the hook. As we sat in my attorney’s office passing documents back and forth, I cringed when he flashed his phony smile as if to say we’d simply agreed to alternate vacations.

Afterwards, I sat in my idling car in the empty parking lot. "I did it!" I said to the flock of birds perched on the telephone wires. "I won." And I knew I had, but I wasn’t sure what. I was unable to comprehend where ten years of my life had gone.

It’s been three years now. And I’ve arrived.

A few months ago Bruce bought me a copy of Gail Sheehy’s book, Men’s Passages. "You really should look through it," he said. "It doesn’t make what I did right, but it sure gives some answers about why." I thanked him and put the book at the back of a shelf, not giving it another thought until I came across it last week while dusting.

"He’s not my problem anymore," I declared to the book jacket as I sprayed it with Pledge. Then I tossed it in the basement for next spring’s garage sale.

I’ve recently noticed that the paint on the porch is peeling and the backyard French door is in need of repair. But the dining-room table is clear of bills, there’s food in the fridge, and I don’t owe a penny to anyone.

There’s even a new man in my life.

I’ll never forget the day soon after I met him when, with a bashful grin, he confessed, "being with you is like a dream."

"I suggest you make sure your eyes are wide open," I said, poking him in the ribs. These days, I dream only when I’m sleeping.

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