One Room, Two Views

WE had talked business all through lunch, but as we were leaving the restaurant, two of my colleagues began discussing - most uncharitably - a mutual acquaintance ``so neat that even the hangers in her closet face the same way.'' The implication was clear: Neither of these women would ever want to be that neat, not in a million years. I stayed out of the conversation; my hangers all face the same way. As I listened, I remembered a plate inscription I had seen quoted in an Enid Nemy column in the New York Times: ``A neat house has an uninteresting person in it.'' This is what my colleagues were really saying.

I had saved the Nemy column, and at home that night, I reread it. Nemy had interviewed a number of orderly types for this piece and had found most of them apologetic for their neatness - some even viewing it a character fault.

I put down the clipping to look with pleasure at my neat apartment. Apologize? Never. I dismissed the plate inscription and my colleagues' comments as defensive and might not have given the matter another thought had not my daughter and I so recently lived together for a full year in this very apartment, this studio apartment.

I am neat; my daughter, whom I dearly love, is not. For one year, while she completed course work for a graduate degree, Kris and I shared one room. How did we manage? Well, we're fond of each other, and she isn't defensive about mess. Most of the time she doesn't know it's there.

Kris and I see eye-to-eye politically; we like each other's friends, and we have similar tastes in clothes. Some people say we look alike, but when it comes to housekeeping, we most certainly do not see alike. What is apparent to me every day catches her eye only now and then. It's an episodic kind of vision. Every six weeks or so in the year we were together, Kris would open her eyes wide, look around the room, and declare, ``This place is a disaster!'' With the frenetic zeal of the newly-converted, she would clear a path, and while I might have hoped for something more wall-to-wall, I was grateful.

Early in that year, I attacked the accumulated clutter whenever she was away for a weekend - rediscovering, polishing, admiring my tabletops; clearing my couches; finding my doorknobs - but within minutes of her return, the burial mounds would once again begin to build. Bus schedules, earrings, notebooks, paper clips, would alight on the handiest flat surface, there to rest until they were needed. She found a kind of order in all this. An item left where it was dropped was somehow ``filed'' and remembered and was, therefore, retrievable.

I gave up. I had been blessed with a bonus year of her company, and I decided that for one year I didn't have to see so well either. I would maintain my oasis and for the rest, be content with the episodic whirlwinds. For most of that year, chaos was close. I was aware, but I did not focus.

About 10 days before Kris was to move out - course work completed, job secured - she experienced one of her awakenings. When the tenant of the apartment she was about to rent phoned to tell her that he wasn't moving, that he had lost out on an apartment he considered a ``sure thing,'' Kris put down the phone, announced that she couldn't move out, looked around the room with widening eyes, and declared, ``This place is a disaster!''

A few evenings later, the tenant of ``her'' apartment phoned to tell her that he had found another place: She could move in as planned. Relaying this news, she exclaimed with a blissful smile, ``I don't have to be neat. I am going to move.''

Clearly, she had been trying. Clearly, there were two of us who had been doing our best to make this work. My reward had been to hear Kris tell one friend after another, as if recounting a truly incredible feat, ``We didn't have one fight. ''

Once again, each of us has her own space. Our visits back and forth are joyous events. We laugh, talk, catch up, and always plan a dozen more projects than we have time for. The dishes do get done - sooner or later, and the beds do get made - most of the time. It's a matter of perspective.

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