When I first told others that my husband, Andrej, was living in my garage, they thought I spoke metaphorically – that he was “in my bad books,” as they say, or that he was “in the doghouse” for bad behaviour. We really weren’t on bad terms at all; our separation had been peaceably carried out.
So when I shook my head and said, “No, really, he lives there,” most people looked somewhat puzzled, then disturbed. I suppose that was a natural response. Only my father was visibly pleased, predictably, and in a way that only my father could be.
“So,” he said, nodding self-righteously. “That’s what the bum deserves – disgraziato. To live in a woman’s garage!” He had his reasons for such contempt, even if I disagreed with him.
I had met Andrej over ten years ago at my father’s store, Ernesto’s Hardware. Not a very imaginative name, yet everyone in the Italian community came to know and to trust my father through his business. His name and his reputation were what counted. My father boasted he was a self-made man; he had come over from Italy and set up shop and made his own business successful. He was rightly proud about that.
As a child, I was fascinated by the store: the various metal parts, tools, brushes, paints, and other knick-knacks that stocked the shelves. As his only daughter, I was not permitted to work there. Instead, I would go in and play with these items and listen to my father, who whistled with complex trills, more beautifully than anyone else I had ever heard, then and since. Sometimes, I would sit on a stool behind the counter and watch him, a stocky and strong man, as he worked and whistled. I wondered how my father could make sense of the odds and ends he sold there. I could never decipher much about their purpose beyond the beauty of sound I would elicit from them when I played with them. Some of his customers didn’t know their purpose either. I would try to pay close attention when my father would unpack the secrets of these parts, yet I never understood well. To me, he was a magician, conjuring up for others what could be done with these things.
While his thick, wavy curls were still a striking blue-black, my father had taken Andrej in as an assistant. He had initially – and unusually – hired him to do some menial tasks in his hardware store. I say “unusual” because it was more typical to have hired one of the sons of his Italian friends; for reasons that even my father never divulged, he liked him enough or felt sorry enough to give him a job. Without a son, my father needed someone who might eventually look after the store; at least, that was the logic I used when I became involved with Andrej.
It wasn’t long after he was hired that he began to pay special attention to me. He had a beautiful, resonant voice, unlike any other I had ever heard. He was extremely polite with those who came into the store, so he was eventually permitted to move beyond tidying the store to waiting on customers. He explained patiently how to use glues, what kind of nails to buy, how to make repairs to virtually anything asked of him; when language failed, as it often did because he spoke little to no Italian, he gestured elaborately. My father seemed to like him immensely.
It is possible that Andrej had hopes of working his way up into my father’s books. Instead, he made his way into my bed. That would work just as well, I had thought.
It didn’t. My father never quite forgave him for it.
We didn’t tell my father right away, of course, but when he discovered Andrej and I were planning to get married, he was outraged almost to the point of not speaking to me. It was bad enough he wasn’t Italian, he fumed, but he wasn’t Catholic either. His auburn hair and awkwardly tall frame gave away his non-Italian status: Andrej was, in fact, Polish. He was also agnostic. My father couldn’t forgive him for such transgressions – not being Italian, not being Catholic. He would never become accustomed to the idea. Even when I was engaged and still lived with my father, he would mutter to me about it at night. “Lui non è buono, Miranda,” he would say as he looked over his accounting books, which he subsequently withheld from Andrej. If Andrej had had ideas about taking over my father’s business, they stopped when he took up with me.
My father firmly believed marriage was forever. Certain things were sacred – including his favourite pasta dish, the one I still tried to make as my mother had so frequently done before she died when I was only twelve. So, when Andrej and I were separated three years after our marriage, my father was humiliated. He brooded and went around playing the part of the injured hero from some lesser-known opera. His imported sense of Italian pride and Catholic decency, and his immaculate reputation had been hurt. But he also felt vindicated and gloated. “I told you he was no good,” he initially said, shaking his by then greying curls knowingly. “You should have married a Catholic.”
To make our separation official, I moved back home with my father. That’s when he began bringing from work stories he had heard about other Italians in Woodbridge who had sons and daughters going through divorces.
“Hey, remember the girl – what’s her name – Lucia, just down the street? They have two kids – remember her? Her husband left her and the kids. Just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“Lucky I didn’t have kids, I guess,” I said.
“To be a grandfather,” he replied wistfully. “Non sono così fortunato.” It was hard to win any argument against my father.
On another occasion he asked, “Do you remember that nice couple we met at your uncle Sylvio’s wedding? The ones sitting at our table?”
“You mean the ones who kept bragging about their condo in Florida and her 2.5 karat engagement ring?”
“And what did Andrej buy you?”
I wouldn’t answer that one. Andrej was dirt poor when we married; working at the store wasn’t the most lucrative position. And so he couldn’t afford the appropriate bargaining chip – a very expensive ring – among other things. My father unswervingly believed that only a non-Catholic non-Italian would be so cheap with his daughter.
“Anyway, that couple is getting a divorce too. He found her with another man. And the other man was his best friend!”
“I guess a large diamond is no guarantee of a good marriage.” I couldn’t resist the opportunity of gaining an advantage.
“And I guess a small one is no guarantee either,” he retorted, his dark eyes squinting their meaning at me.
I asked him if he wanted an espresso ristretto and left it at that. It was always like this – he found comfort in knowing that the children of his Italian friends and other members of our community had also suffered disastrous marriages, but he wouldn’t let me forget mine either. It was just his way.
It was hard, then, to explain why I allowed Andrej to stay in the garage of the semi-detached house I bought later – with some help from my father, of course, who had withheld that financial help from us when we were married as a register of his disapproval. Andrej and I had lived in an apartment in downtown Toronto; now he lived in an even smaller one by himself. He had been struggling to get his own business going and so he began to use my garage as a secondary workplace. He bought mysterious equipment to make some kind of tool – I never understood exactly what it was – and he was unable to accommodate that equipment in the small apartment in which he then lived.
I never quite understood his work; it was a different language to me – guttural, unsophisticated, even barbaric. He swore it had a music of its own, if I only listened closely enough. Since I eventually became a high school teacher of music, I loved the arts and all its wonders; but he was as seemingly uninterested in my work as I was in his. It naturally followed that, after three years of marriage, we had little to say to each other. Most of the communication, I suppose, had been physical.
But still he tried to explain to me the nature of this new machinery, this new business. He said he needed the space in my garage to set up the equipment. I could have said no, but there didn’t seem to be any reason not to let him. I also felt I owed him something, although I had considered that we were both responsible for our marriage falling apart. After a while, as it began to get warm in the spring and the winter’s fierceness ebbed away, he began to move smaller things in – a small suitcase of clothes, some toiletries, a radio. I gave voice to some protest about these small invasions, although not enough to stop him from proceeding.
And, anyway, by July, I began to find some small comfort in his being there regularly. I liked the fact that he was there when I needed help with odd jobs around the house. I reasoned that, aside from using the space in the garage, he really would only come in to use the bathroom on occasion. Besides, when he worked on his machinery, I began to enjoy sitting on the bottom step of a small ladder; I was mesmerized by the rhythm of his movements, his long arms making beautiful strokes. He would often work late into the evenings, so I took up making supper and bringing it out to him as he worked, and then, later, sipping iced coffee and watching while he smiled and squinted at me through the dust thrown up in the garage. I loved hearing the quiet hushed sound as he wiped down the shelves upon which he was seemingly organizing the chaos of things he had brought with him.
We still didn’t talk much. One evening, though, I told him my father didn’t approve of his being there. He smiled grimly and said, “You’ve never been so different from your father, Miranda.”
I was stunned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? I am letting you work in my garage, Andrej!”
He merely shrugged. I registered my hostility by brusquely leaving him to his work and refrained from visiting him for about a week.
But then came the day when I arrived home to find that Andrej had set up a cot in the corner of the garage.
“The ‘No Means No’ campaign is clearly taking effect here,” I said, mildly irritated.
He smiled without saying anything – he had always been a man of few words. He turned away to straighten up a red blanket over the cot and raise the volume of the radio.
And so my visits to the garage continued.
It didn’t occur to me that his presence there might cause problems until about August, when I brought out some iced coffee for him.
“I have a date tonight,” I said. I did and I felt, understandably, somewhat anxious. I had been seeing this man long enough so that I expected him to stay over and I didn’t want to explain to him that my husband had taken up living in my garage. I waited a few moments. Andrej didn’t turn around, so I left him to work on his machinery.
When my date arrived later that evening, I found myself explaining, “My husband is living in my garage.” My date looked as if either he needed a strong drink or I needed one. He glanced at the front entrance, as if he were trying to figure out how to back away through the doorway slowly. No sudden moves, I thought I heard him thinking.
“No, no – it’s okay,” I assured him. “We’re not …” I hesitated. I couldn’t say we were divorced; we had never filed for one. Although we also didn’t live together, it was almost true that we did. And I refused to admit we weren’t sleeping together, although we weren’t, because, thinking of my bed, I realized I didn’t want to put that thought in my date’s mind and shut out any possibility of heading in just that direction later on.
“We’ve been separated for some time. This is just a convenient temporary arrangement,” I finally said. My date nodded sympathetically. If he didn’t really understand, he didn’t let on. One of those nice Italian boys, the kind my father would have approved of, he sat at the table and was complimentary about all I had prepared. For reasons that defied me, I felt thoroughly bored.
I took him to bed anyway. I hoped that he’d be better there than at the supper table. He was.
And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the cot in the garage. With all the windows wide open in the summer heat, I found myself initially curbing my expressions of sexual pleasure for fear I had an audience of one not far out of earshot. Then, oddly, perhaps because I was thinking of that audience of one, I begin to perform really well – long, healthy moans that would have made a porn star blush. I never heard from my date again; my career as a porn star was short-lived.
“Dammit, Andrej!” I found myself shrieking at him a few days later upon returning home and finding him painting some equipment in the garage. “Why are you still here?” I yelled and kicked viciously at an open can of paint. It didn’t tip, but slammed into the table between us. Paint splashed up in the air. Then, in the most admirable cascade, it fell – everywhere. Andrej even had globs of paint on his face. Looking down, I saw droplets all over my black silk skirt.
My outburst was followed by a long silence , except for the steady hum of a light-bulb dangling from the ceiling. Andrej used a rag to wipe some of the paint slowly from his face.
“I don’t know,” he finally said musingly. He studied me quietly for a moment. “Maybe I don’t want to leave.” He smiled slightly but, in part because of the paint that had splashed up on the lenses of his glasses and in part because of the light refracting from the ceiling bulb, I could see neither his eyes nor the intention that might have been there. He went back to cleaning up the spilt paint.
“I’m making iced coffee,” I finally remarked. “Can I bring you some?”
He was carefully studying the can of paint he was re-sealing when he slowly said, “When I’m done here, I’ll come in.”
Linda Morra, an Associate Professor at Bishop’s University, specializes in Canadian Literature and women’s writing. She currently lives in Montreal. “My Husband Lives in My Garage” received Honourable Mention in the 5th annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest.