Of Love and Home Depot

A romance forged in a big box store.

Long-distance relationships are tricky. You talk on the phone or Skype almost every day, but you see your significant other in his natural habitat only rarely, instead seeing him on his best behavior in unfamiliar environments. And when you do finally find out what your significant other’s natural habitat is, you might wish you never knew.

That natural habitat for my boyfriend, James, just happens to be large and orange and full of lumber and S-pipes and Behr brand paint. My boyfriend loves The Home Depot. No, I take it back: He’s obsessed with The Home Depot, so much so that I worried for awhile that a nice foxy lady carpenter with long brown hair — oh, say, maybe someone like Amy Wynn Pastor from TLC’s Trading Spaces — would stand a much better chance at being his soul-mate than I.

“See, then you could have tiny, tool-belted babies,” I’d say, realizing too late that I was probably selling this idea too strongly.

“Nah,” he’d respond, in between sips of Dr Pepper, “they make everything on that show with particle board.” Then he’d go back to watching Major League Soccer or football or whatever other infernally boring sport he was watching at the time.

I was still learning then that his love of The Home Depot wasn’t so much an inclination as it was a tradition. Most weekends, he, his mom, his dad, his sister, and sometimes his brother, spend hours tooling around, visiting not one, or two, but three Home Depots, shuttling the thruways of the Baltimore-Washington corridor with a sort of family contentment that’s so wonderful I know I’d break it if I were along for the trip. (“Are we done yet? We’re going to ANOTHER one? Yes, it is a travesty that 1 x 8s are not actually 1 x 8.”). I can’t help it: I’m the sort of girl who needs a regularly scheduled cookie or nap, and if I can’t have either of those, I’d better have some Henry James in hand.

We are so different. Me: Liberal, book-loving, reality-show-watching academic with an overabundance of student loans and freshmen papers to grade and underabundance of liquid funds. My biggest turn-on: Long, windy conversations on 18th century rhetoric and contemporary poetry. James, on the other hand, is a darn Republican, owns his own house, claims he doesn’t read, plays kickball on the Washington Mall, likes his meat to have gristle, and was thrilled to get Woodworking Magazine for his 26th birthday. His biggest turn-on: Me in a thong, although designing his new mantle may be a close second. And then there’s the real division, the 700 miles between us, him in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and me in East Central Illinois, stranded between soybeans and well … soybeans.

Not everything about our long-distance love affair has been bad. It is nice to have my own space and my own friends. I also wouldn’t rate too low having the remote control to myself. And it helped us, at least, get closer faster — since there’s definitely no one else I talk to for two hours each night. But the rest of it isn’t very fun or pleasant, and even those pesky you’d-never-have-thought-of-this-as-a-problem problems cause strife.

For example: What is a liberal, Protestant, book-loving, used-to-be-vegetarian supposed to do when her Republican, Catholic, pretends-he-never-reads (but owns a copy of Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered) meat-lover boyfriend comes to town, especially when the stark winter winds are burnishing the east central Illinois prairie, skinning you as they blow?

The options are few:

  • Get movies out of the library. Free, but he may boycott if I suggest Dreamgirls or Raise the Red Lantern ever again.
  • Go to my Student Union’s LGBT fundraiser, the Drag Ball. Suggest I go as a man cross-dressing as a female and he goes as a woman cross-dressing as a man. (Then again, maybe not …)
  • Go to the local coffee shop and do work — reading for quals, drafting conference papers, or grading, grading, grading — while he makes small talk with the natives.
  • Take him to my church. (“I’ve just discovered they’re Calvinists!”)
  • Visit one of the two local Wal-Marts so he can see first-hand where next year’s Christmas present is coming from.

It’s a little easier when I visit him, as my family lives less than an hour away and a few of my friends are in the area, but it’s still tricky to be shifting back and forth. I was convinced in the beginning that we couldn’t possibly make it work; how could it, with both of us coming from entirely different worlds?

My friend Jen is the one who told me I was in love. It was summer, and I was at James’s house, looking at his sad, overgrown backyard. I would have argued at the time that it was my mother’s sense of propriety in me that led me to volunteer to weed and mulch his shrub beds, yanking up unruly maple saplings, but Jen said otherwise.

“You? Doing yard work?” She seemed to think this was hilarious, and laughed for a good five minutes. Rough. All this because in high school “we” painted my bathroom, which means she painted and I talked while holding a brush, and in middle school, “we” planted flowers in her parents’ front yard, which means she had the trowel and the dirty fingernails while I talked and held the tulip bulbs. “This must be true love.”

And so last June James and I went off to Home Depot for the first time together to get mulch for his back yard — but not until after he looked at lawnmowers and struck up a conversation with the Home Depot guy about how electric ones are terrible and don’t have enough power and, by the way, what’s his theory on the best way to keep the cutting blade sharp?

A few months ago James sent me a video clip of a couple who had their wedding in the garden department of a Wal-Mart. They’d apparently worked, met, and fell in love there. I was back in Illinois, missing him; James was in Maryland, teasing me over the phone that Wal-Mart would be a perfect place for a wedding.

“Yeah, right,” I said. But then I thought about it — about those stacks of mulch we stood beside while debating what color he should get for his shrub beds, me secretly hoping he’d say black or red, not brown, brown would clash terribly with his brick house; about how wonderful it was that day, for both of us to be there together, doing something so seemingly normal and unimportant, but what we rarely get to do together — running pointless errands on ordinary days.

And then I thought about it some more: the smell of pansies and orchids and seedling tomatoes in those plastic containers, still damp from the last watering, set on wooden pallets; how my father could weave me through the young, and under the arch of hanging baskets by the front outdoor register before we passed the plastic pond-basin for sale with spitting frog fountain and resin lily pad, with our friends and family lined up along rows of 4-in-1 apple and Tree Town willow, and it seemed … nice. Very nice, in fact.

“Definitely not Wal-Mart,” I said, “But there’s always The Home Depot.”

Article © 2010 by Heather Blain