Birdhouses

I’m a climber/adventure chick. I camp out and hike and road trip alone. I hang out with a crew of boys who are like brothers to me. I have a lot of male insight into how crazy women can appear to men, how irrational and demanding wives can seem. I didn’t want to be that kind of girl: worried, angry, controlling, needy.

In the months after our second wedding anniversary, when Dave started coming home late, short-tempered and aloof, I was careful not to take it personally.

We had a routine. We woke up early and ate waffles or eggs. I worked, writing at home or waiting tables at The Ginger Man restaurant, while Dave went off to his nine-to-five construction job. I cooked dinner each evening, so it was ready just after Dave got home.

We relished the normalcy of our life together. We got a kick out of acting out such a typical husband and wife routine. Our DIY punk rock approach to life was tempered by these mainstream habits.

In the two years since we married, Dave and I had mellowed out. We were acting the part of maturing adults instead of wild early twenty-somethings. Still, to me, it seemed that Dave took his maturity to the extreme. He was suddenly acting much older. He came home from work exhausted and would sometimes go straight to bed after our early dinner.

Dave had always been a late-night creator. He’d always worked hard at multiple jobs and still had time and energy to make art. So this was unusual.

He was grumpy, too. He complained about his job, about being worn-out, about being bored.

It was all out of character. Dave was engaged in the mainstream aspects of life he’d always avoided: a regular job, a regular sleep schedule, moneymaking, watching TV.

He was too tired or concerned about money to make plans on the weekend. His lack of energy seemed strange for someone who was only thirty-two.

***

Time and patience didn’t seem to help Dave as I’d hoped. As the months passed, scenes in our day-to-day life became surreal flashes I couldn’t understand or quite believe were actually happening. Was Dave really this weird? Were our lives truly abnormal? These flashes made my brain blurry. I doubted myself. As time went on, I sensed something other than typical marital unrest was going on.

When winter turned the corner into the new year, he went from being aloof and unconcerned about time to seeming to lose giant chunks of it.

He went from being a few minutes late every once in a while to having an unpredictable schedule.

Instead of coming straight home at the 5 p.m. quitting time to eat dinner with me, he’d wander in sometimes earlier than 5 p.m. and sometimes as late as 7 p.m. When he was late, he didn’t answer my calls to his cell phone.

When I asked Dave about it, his answers were vague.

“Dave! Why are you so late?” I’d ask. “What have you been doing?”

“Oh, just this, that, and the other thing,” he’d reply.

One morning late in a week when he hadn’t been coming home on time, I tried talking to Dave about his plans for the evening.

“Are you going to come home and have dinner with me tonight?” I asked.

“Of course. What are you gonna make?” he asked sweetly.

“If you’ll show up on time, I’ll make you whatever you want,” I answered, half sincere and half antagonistic.

“Will you make that seafood stuff? The recipe from your mom’s cookbook that’s not very healthy?” Dave requested.

In a time when Dave was withdrawn and hard to drag an answer out of, I was pleased he had an opinion.

“You got it,” I said. “So, I’ll see you 5:30ish?”

5:30 p.m. came and went. The seafood stuff from my mom’s cookbook sat on the table until it got cold. It was after 7 p.m. when Dave did come in.

I stood angrily beside the neatly set table.

“What?” Dave asked. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Don’t you remember your dinner request? You told me you wouldn’t be late.”

“I’m not,” Dave said. “I’m not late. What’d you make?”

“Dave! What the fuck?” I shouted. “Where have you been? What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Amelia.”

I started working dinner shifts at The Ginger Man because I was tired of being stood up by my husband night after night. All of Albany seemed to dine at The Ginger Man, with its inspired menus and deep wine list. It looked like a little slice of Paris on Albany’s scruffy streets, with inviting windows and a bright, coppery wine bar. The atmosphere seemed to put people in high spirits. It became a bright spot for me, too, and I found friendship and support there.

One thing that made gauging Dave’s state of mind difficult was that he was a complete character. He prided himself on doing things the wrong way, on being a troublemaker and an instigator. He was a talented and moody artist, a Gemini. As long as I’d known Dave he’d had a short attention span and would interrupt. He didn’t put stock in social niceties or protocols. But these qualities were intensifying ever so slowly.

I trusted Dave. I didn’t believe he was lying or deceiving me. Dave was faithful and committed. Throughout our time together, he expressed his disgust for his father’s infidelity. Dave would confront his friends if he ever suspected they weren’t faithful or respectful to their girlfriends or wives.

I couldn’t figure out what was causing him to be so inconsiderate. I was growing more and more discontent and concerned. I started countless discussions and fights trying to get to the root of Dave’s strange behavior. He was either completely baffled, like when he missed the seafood dinner, or irritated by my constant complaints.

He continued obsessing over his screenplay and music, but he wasn’t producing any finished artwork.

Then came Dave’s birdhouse obsession. He was keeping notebooks with measurements and diagrams about building birdhouses. He explained his craft to almost everyone, and offered to build birdhouses for many friends and family members. Sometimes he wanted to start a birdhouse business; sometimes he wanted to do it just for fun.

As a carpenter, he always had wood around. He had a shop on our back porch, and he’d go out there to cut and measure scraps of wood. He left pieces of paper with scribbled measurements around the house and in the car. However, in three years of birdhouse talk, Dave only actually constructed three birdhouses.

Dave was always bringing up his birdhouses and it frustrated me. I wrote poetry about it, lines like “He’s measuring straight lines and angles because he’s broken and can’t fix himself,” and “Building a warm house for a bird while girl’s out in the cold.”

I felt the irony of Dave’s obsession. He was investing so much energy and thought into these little houses while our already-built life was breaking apart.

After Dave carried on about his birdhouses to some friends one night, they shared my frustration and concern. None of us knew what to make of his behavior or what could—or should—be done about it.

Our best guess was that stubborn Dave was having a meltdown because of repressed childhood traumas. He was pouring himself into his art to escape, or to work through, emotional distress.

Dave had always relished his outlaw, outsider background. Now, I realized it must have taken an enormous will to spin those dark years into a positive. I wondered if some of the negative was catching up to him. I asked Dave to consider seeing a therapist or counselor. He refused and insisted everything was fine.