When Richard and I met at a book party almost three years ago, he was at the tail end of a long marriage. What first drew us together was our love of style. That night I chatted so openly with him because I believed he was gay. He was wearing a purple Lanvin suit with a floral tie, a polka-dotted pocket square and striped socks. I couldn’t believe that a man who dressed so well could actually be straight.
It wasn’t until after our third “date” (he wore a blue window-paned suit and red shoes) that I began to realize that he wasn’t interested in being my stylish gay friend, but my stylish boyfriend.
Everything blossomed. We spent weekends vintage shopping, he flew out to join me when I traveled for work, he would stay over at my place for days on end. But something was amiss. He never wanted me to visit his apartment.
I wondered what he was hiding — a second family, a love of taxidermy, a mother? It all seemed especially odd as this man with such incredible personal style would surely live in the chicest of pads.
Talking him into inviting me over was a lengthy process. He swerved my requests constantly or offered frustrating platitudes like, “One day, darling.” I could see that it was a sensitive subject for him and, not wishing to rock the love boat, I allowed this dynamic to continue for an entire year before something inside me snapped.
I had an upcoming day filled with Manhattan-based appointments and I asked him if I could use his apartment between meetings rather than schlepping back to my Brooklyn pad in between. I saw the dodge coming as he began to shift in his chair. I broke, my request turning into an infuriated demand. This time he relented. He stood up from his chair and gathered his coat and bag, claiming he needed to “tidy the place up a little” before I arrived the next day. I wondered if I’d ever see him again, but I had his address, or at least the address he’d given me.
Entering the building, I was greeted by a doorman. This boded well. I rode the elevator to the seventh floor and as I stepped out and moved along the corridor, Richard’s face appeared through the crack of an apartment door.
“Please don’t judge me,” he quietly pleaded.
“Of course I won’t judge you, how bad can it be?” I responded.
Stepping inside, I was met by a scene reminiscent of the TV show “Hoarders.” He needn’t have worried about me saying anything because words truly failed me. The blinds were drawn and no lights were on, but in the darkness I could make out very little floor space underneath endless piles of… stuff. He had to guide me through it by the hand. He led me into the small galley kitchen, which resembled a community theatre set of a 1980s kitchen. Faux-wood laminate cabinets hung off the walls at crooked angles and a fridge that had presumably once been white was gray. The “Mad Men”-style apartment I’d envisioned had been replaced with the reality that this was the apartment of an actual madman.
None of it made sense. This was a man who matched his eyeglass frames to his socks. This was a man who agreed that leopard print was a neutral. This was a man who once suggested I’d look good in red, to which I scoffed, tried on the red dress he’d picked out, twirled before the mirror and wore the dress to a party the very next day. This was a man of exquisite tastes. Or was he?
Five minutes in that storage-unit-masquerading-as-an-apartment was all I could manage the first time, but I’m no quitter. I came back the next day and made the first of what would turn out to be a string of demands. This one was simple: Turn the lights on.
With the full scope of the situation revealed to me by a flickering overhead light, I wasn’t really sure how to react. I was horrified, but so was he. What could I say that he didn’t already know? I was standing in the smoldering ruins of a marriage, a compulsive shopping habit stemming from his diagnosed OCD, and a giant relationship hurdle I wasn’t sure I could clear. We shut the door on the apartment and I didn’t return for a month.
Humans are very adaptable, and it’s true that you can get used to anything given enough time. Little by little, I started to stay over at his chaotic apartment. I couldn’t find anything in the mess so it meant that I was waited on hand and foot by my continually embarrassed boyfriend. The surroundings were insufferable, but it was fun to be brought coffee and sandwiches as I tapped away on my laptop in the middle of the bed, the only area that was clear.
If outwardly I was understanding, inside I was plotting. I just needed a window of opportunity to enact my dastardly plan, and that moment arrived one weekend when Richard announced he’d be heading out of town for the day to visit his family. I knew what this meant for me: hours alone in this nightmarish place and access to cleaning products. What I was planning was risky, but someone needed to break the hex on this apartment. I didn’t have a sage stick, but I did have Fantastik.
As he left the apartment he eyed me suspiciously. “There’s coffee in the pot,” he said.
“Great. Should I ever find it, I’ll drink it,” I replied with a wink.
He sighed and moved toward the elevator wearing an eggplant-colored vest over a Pucci shirt with burnt-orange pants, an ensemble only he could pull off so nonchalantly. As the apartment door clicked shut, I spun around like a Bond villainess. I think I was actually rubbing my hands together.
It took me 45 minutes to locate the vacuum cleaner, but once I found it I was cleaning those floors like a drugged-up 1950s housewife. I put clothes in the closets, I put books on shelves and wiped years of dust off of old photo frames. Anything clearly garbage was bagged up and slowly but surely, parquet floor tiles began to emerge before me.
I wish I could say that my cleaning spell resembled one of those montage scenes in the movies, the kind where we see a whirlwind of activity underscored by Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and that ends in a sparkling apartment. Alas, this would take more than one afternoon, plus I’d run out of Windex.
Later that evening, when I heard the key in the lock, I braced myself. I had no idea what his reaction would be. I hoped he’d fall to his knees in gratitude, but I’m a realist and change is hard.
“What have you done?” was his first question, his face full of anxiety. “I had a system! How will I find anything now?”
I almost laughed, but thought better of it. An evening of sulking and heavy sighing on his part ensued, and I figured I had gone too far. I left for my own apartment that night and realized that my actions were perhaps invasive and cruel. I sent an apology text that went unanswered. Concerned for the state of our relationship, I returned to his apartment the next day with a rehearsed apology speech, only to run into him in the lobby pulling a handcart piled high with boxes. He smiled at me.
“I’m taking all of these to Housing Works,” he said proudly.
It’s been six months since my “cleaning spell” and progress has been made. Not only can we now walk about without falling over things, but some treasures have been unearthed.
One thing I will say in praise of never throwing anything away is that his apartment is truly a museum of his life, even if mostly the life he had before we met. I’ve spent evenings with him reading through sweet love letters from 30 years ago, leafing through his art school projects and holding old slides up to the (now clean) windows. We even found an article a former girlfriend had written about him in Cosmopolitan in 1981 titled “The Terribly Tidy Man.” The irony was not lost on us, and I’m considering contacting her to collaborate on a before and after book.
I know more about Richard through sifting the contents of his apartment than I ever could have hoped to by simply hearing him reminisce. Though photos of his ex-wife now reside in drawers, I would never have him throw them out. He loved her once, and who am I to discard love? All the experiences he’s had in his life have formed him into the sweet, nutty man I love now. I don’t wish to destroy this museum, only curate it. Some things on display, others in the archives.
The place also needs to be repainted. This will be difficult for him, I predict, but we’ll do it together, not when he’s out of town.