In graduate school, when I left the man I was engaged to but not in love with I moved into a dark little house that had for years belonged to a woman named Frieda. I didn’t know Frieda but I loved the signs of her that remained in her house.
The green and red-tiled kitchen floor, the red countertops, the pink bathroom. Frieda had moved to an assisted living facility and I was renting her house. I didn’t think she would mind if I slapped a few coats of paint on the walls of the living room, which was paneled in dark wood.
I was unspeakably poor but somehow found the money for a few gallons of paint and I spent the first few nights in my new house alone, painting and mentally whitewashing the past two years.
I took down the dark curtains and let in the white light of a Eugene winter. I cleaned the kitchen and stocked the cabinets with the things I liked to eat: tomato soup, saltines, pasta, cookies.
I packed the fridge with cheese, lots of cheese. Feta, havarti, Gouda and some yellow kind with chives that I would cut into slivers and eat with olives. I filled the crisper with lettuce, spinach and good, dark beer.
Some nights when I stared at the walls I’d painted flat white that first week I would think they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
Sometimes I think that house saved me. It did, indeed, have a lock on the door when that ex-fiancé came knocking in various fits of rage. But it also had plenty of space for me and my expanding sense of self.
Somewhere amid the paint fumes, the boxes of old canning jars and handkerchiefs Frieda left behind I found a backbone, a will to get my life in order.
And by the end of that year I was in the habit of shuffling across the red and green tiles in the kitchen to make my coffee at 7 a.m. I would take the dog out then sit at my writing desk in my living room and write until noon. After a break, I edited until 3 p.m.
Then I would go for a run, meet friends or read in my backyard. I finished my master’s thesis, graduated and moved in with friends in the country. I left that little house behind but I’ve never forgotten what having my own space did for me and I’ve longed for it ever since.
I do not long to be alone in the way I was that year. But I’ve wanted a room, a corner, a desk that is mine. A place where I can stack books I’d like to read, books I love, pictures of my sister and brother when they were children, notes Seth’s written over the years, Eliza’s tiny and hands and feet in plaster.
A place where I can go to touch those things and that spot in me that loves them. A place to recharge, to surf the Internet for nothing in particular, to take a deep breath when the world seems to be zipping past my ears.
When we bought our house north of Missoula five years ago I staked a claim on a little outbuilding that housed our well pump. The pump house is about 150 square feet and the well only takes up one corner of it. We’ve talked since we bought the house about turning it into an office but it’s always fallen down the list of to dos.
A few months ago, before a new baby was in the picture, Seth and I took Eliza for a walk down the dirt road we live on and I nearly had what my mother would call a conniption.
“I work from home,” I told Seth, “and I’m not going to be able to keep my job for long if I don’t get organized. I live in my car and I have stacks of papers everywhere. I can’t find anything.
Eliza plays in my file box, she taps my keyboard with her drum mallet. I am at capacity for what I can do without having a place to write, to work. I can’t take on anymore assignments like this.”
I was at a fever pitch. I told him that some days, while Eliza is sleeping in the car seat, I cruise around town looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot where I can get a signal from the driver’s seat.
I find a parking place, put the car in park, push my seat back and work or write until she wakes up and we have to keep moving. I am flexible but I’m not superhuman. If we are going to make this live-in-the-rural-West-work-for-ourselves thing work I needed a change. Enough was enough, I said.
“We’ll it sounds like we need to make the pump house a priority,” he said. And just like that we started cooking up a plan.
He’d have to frame the floor and the walls, find a window, fix the roof. It wasn’t a small job but it could be done, he said. There were kinks to work out like the wiring, the heat but he started sketching things out.
I alternated between feelings of extreme guilt (Why should we spend the time and money just for a place for me? Couldn’t we use the cash for something else for the whole family?
Was it really fair for Seth to have to build me an office? Am I that high maintenance? ) and near elation (It will have two windows! An amazing view! A door!).
Seth, who is a carpenter, took the first week of September off from the business he owns and worked on the pump house. First he framed the floor, then put in the walls, the insulation, the windows, the sheetrock.
An electrician came and wired the pump, the heater, the light. Then lweast weekend Seth and I sanded, primed and painted the walls and ceiling.
On a Sunday night, I rolled the last coat of paint onto the walls by myself and I thought of all the other times I’ve done this. Painting in low light, slowly making a space my own. I remember painting the living room of our house red and how it seemed like the only choice.
I still love the color of that room. I remembered painting my room in college, covering up peach walls that someone, at some point, thought were a good idea. And I remembered those chilly nights in Eugene, painting the walls in Frieda’s living room.
As I sit now in what was the pump house (I’m working on a proper name for my new spot), it smells like fresh paint, like change, like something close to tending.
I’ve moved past those feelings of guilt. It’s all a part of the give and take of relationships. I needed a spot to myself; Seth may need a climbing trip to Chile one day. Sometimes we both need to find our center and we do it different ways.
When the red and green floor tiles came in, we’ll laid a pattern on the floor and called it finished. And I hope I’ll shuffle out here, coffee in hand, for years and let, if even for a little while, the world whiz right past me.
Jennifer Savage lives, writes and mothers from her tiny house in Missoula, Montana. She writes about all this at jennifer-savage.com.