After painting every wall and floor in every room, I turned to the big-ticket items. I converted the kitchen into a girlie paradise, installing shelves for my cake-stand collection. I hung old-timey aprons on wooden hooks. I had the marble countertop installed, a creamy, speckled white. I tacked up a Tammy Wynette poster. Right beside the giant, retro-pink refrigerator.
"It looks like a cupcake," my younger daughter said giddily when the fridge arrived.
"I love it!" her sister squealed. "Can we put it in our room?"
The bathrooms got a similar makeover. So too the previously unfinished basement, which I converted into an office with French doors that opened onto a rose-covered trellis and patio I built with salvage brick found on the back acres. I laid the bricks in the shape of a giant, rustic heart. Deliberately and diligently, the entire property was purged of masculinity.
"You should rename it Estrogen Farm," my friend Melina quipped.
Maybe I will, I thought. After eight years of marriage, it was exhilarating to break free of the impulse to accommodate, heady to make every decision myself. Even if those decisions were only about cabinet hardware and which Martha Stewart color to paint the wainscoting.
Ten months into the renovation, after I'd spent three weeks researching gazebo wood, I realized I had a problem. I had become obsessed. My remodeling projects were consuming me. I had no social life, unless you counted my relationship with Sherwin-Williams. I had drained my savings and was thousands of dollars in the hole. Restoration isn't cheap, especially hurried restoration. In a little under a year, I had achieved the look I wanted. My house was stunning. Perfect. Down to the last doorknob. I'd made my house exactly what I thought I'd always wanted, only to discover that, while it mattered, it mattered less than I imagined it would. The hollowness was still there. I was just hollow in an exquisitely decorated place.
Instead of processing this insight, I went gazebo shopping. Wandering around the sale lots, walking in and out of the structures, I imagined gazebo picnics with my girls on warm fall nights, and lolling on a gazebo sleeping cot during the heat of summer. But agreeable as those images were, they did not fill me with the expected tranquillity. Instead, I was overcome with dread. I stood there, encircled by wood and white lattice, and felt, for the first time, completely alone.
Gazebos are like miniature houses. Having finished mine, I was already unconsciously trying to start on another. This epiphany was rapidly followed by a series of even more unpleasant realizations. Like: If I had a real life, I probably wouldn't care so much about the perfect schoolhouse light fixture with original glass. Like: If I had the self-esteem I thought I had, I probably wouldn't need to design my environment like a set. My house had become my alibi. How could anyone leave someone who was able to make a home this handsome? And then there was the hardest truth—that I had, in the great feminine tradition, used the lure of homemaking to distract me from dealing with the ugly stuff simmering inside. The ugliest of which was guilt.