Building a Heterogenous Home
By: Ofelia Brooks
When I heard my husband Brandon’s phone buzz, and he answered with recognition, I would try to determine who was calling.
It could be his sister who lived five miles away or his parents five hours away. My heart raced.
If he said, “Oh not doing much,” and inquired, “What about you?” I held my breath.
If he followed up with, “You’re in the neighborhood?” my jaw locked. Sister.
At that point I stopped listening and began going over my options for the near future. Stated errands to run? Nope. Warning of possible weekend work? Also negative. My only choice was to activate The Action Plan: accept the inevitable, clean up, and calm down by drinking alcohol.
By the time Brandon hung up, two blankets were folded, two plates washed, and I was checking if we had enough tequila for me to have at least two margaritas.
After five years together, this is what happened whenever Brandon’s family or friends dropped by unannounced and he reflexively invited them in.
Since my first date with Brandon, I had known how different we were, so I had anticipated some relationship challenges. I am a Black, Latine, first-generation woman. Brandon is a white man seven whose roots go four generations back in Wisconsin. We also had differences in class, cultural references, politics, pastimes, and religion.
I thought I was prepared for the ways that these differences would play out. I was used to being around different people—at least as far as race and class were concerned—having grown up poor in a majority white, upper class suburb and attended ivy league schools.
I knew I would have to constantly educate Brandon about race, including on the burden of having to constantly educate him. Brandon was a good student. Well before last summer’s protests for Black lives, he had added “White Fragility” to his reading list.
I anticipated the challenges brought on by our differences would surface when we were around family, and planned accordingly. I got used to the lopsided number of family dinners, vacations, and gifts. I always had my hair washed, dried, and styled before family visits, so I didn’t need to explain why I couldn’t do this or that activity because “Wash Day” is, indeed, a day long. I even volunteered to explain at a joint family Thanksgiving what “the itis” was short for while my family masked their snickering with coughs.
But there were differences I couldn’t plan for because I didn’t know they existed. I hadn’t seen or read about this particular problem in popular culture. I couldn’t ask my few married family or friends for advice, either because most of the marriages I knew about in media and real life were homogenous in some central element. Michelle and Barack were both Black; Chrissy Teigan and John Legend both rich.
So, per the advice of no one, I came up with The Action Plan.
It worked until we purchased a condo. We skipped an expensive wedding and honeymoon so we could buy immediately. We wanted to show off our new home.
That’s when I found out I couldn’t activate The Action Plan every time someone dropped by, which happened frequently in the beginning. And, despite my belief that The Action Plan would allow me to go unnoticed among Brandon’s stereotypically Wisconsin family, apparently his mom had asked him more than once, “Why is Ofelia always drinking?”
One day in couple’s therapy, after another fight about visitors, our therapist gave us homework: “Talk about your childhood experience with people coming over and what you want your experience as a married couple to be when that happens.”
My childhood memories came flooding back.
I grew up in a house with 10 people: me, my mom, siblings, grandma, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Half of us had bedrooms. Those who didn’t slept in the living room.
When I was six, a friend was supposed to come over one afternoon. Minutes before she was to arrive, I looked around the living room at the mattresses on crates and my family members with their eyes closed and mouths open. I was in a frenzy. Why was everyone still sleeping? Where would my friend and I play? I prayed silently that my relatives would wake up and get out of the living room.
That friend didn’t make it for some reason I don’t remember. But I do remember not wanting to feel like that ever again. I vowed never to ask friends over again.
Instead, I went to friends’ houses. Their houses looked like the ones on TV, which only made my shame grow. Our house never looked like Full House. We didn’t have placemats, couch pillows, plants, or bookcases. In my adolescent brain I rationalized: I didn’t like the way our house looked, and I didn’t want anybody to see it.
On the rare occasions when someone came over, I tried to make our house look like one on TV. I made sure the bathrooms had toilet paper. I put away bed pillows and sheets and all evidence that people slept in the living room.
This continued into my adulthood with my own apartment. I took pleasure in getting ready for guests’ arrival. I’d clean the place from top to bottom. I’d make the bed, straighten the couch pillows, and place fresh flowers on the coffee table.
I had wanted to be a homeowner since the day my friend was supposed to come over while the house slept.
When Brandon moved in with me, I learned not everyone prepared for guests the way I did. He frequently invited over friends passing through our neighborhood. I panicked every visit—was there a full roll of toilet paper in the bathroom?
I knew Brandon had no such concern. The most planning I ever saw him do was to ask on the way home from brunch if folks wanted to “come up” and “hang out.” It was rare to get that much notice. We were usually lying around in sweatpants, hadn’t even brushed our teeth, and Brandon would tell me his friends were outside. I lost count how often I sprang up off the couch and started folding blankets and clearing cups off the coffee table.
I cannot believe I now live in a place that does look like Full House. For our household of two, there are three bedrooms. For the abundant supply of toilet paper, there are three bathrooms. We have art, rugs, plants, placemats, and even a bowl of fake fruit on the kitchen table. I tell my six-year-old-self, You did it!
In therapy, I divulged to Brandon what I believed to be the root of the problem: “Your way of having people over is not what I know and it’s not what I like. It’s not what I would choose for myself now that I finally have the choice.”
For Brandon, the only emotion associated with having people over was pleasure. Having to plan or prepare for guests felt unnecessary and constraining to him.
We left several therapy sessions, stuck. This difference seemed too ingrained for either of us to move.
Brandon’s phone continued to buzz. But after my big reveal in therapy, I no longer suppressed the panic, or prayed it away, or Action Planned my way out of it. I just felt it—for Brandon, and sometimes even our guests to see.
One weekend, I heard Brandon’s phone buzz and, as usual, my whole body tightened. Then I realized Brandon was speaking to me. “Is it cool if my family stops by…in an hour?”
I let go everything that was clenched.
As I straightened up the living room and resisted beelining to our home bar, I realized that we hadn’t yet addressed the second part of the therapy homework: what we wanted. I wanted to stand firm in my belief that panic was only prevented with plans made weeks in advance and hours of preparation. But Brandon delaying his family by one hour showed me that change, even if small, was possible. And standing firm meant being stuck.
Another Saturday, Brandon and I were predictably lying around in sweatpants when my mom called. She was on her way to our place to drop off something for me.
“Thanks, I’ll come down in ten,” I said.
My mind returned to the therapy homework. I thought about Brandon’s small step toward empathy, toward me. So I slogged through the panic, toward him.
Then I slogged through what I had been avoiding: the pain.
But next came, unexpectedly, the joy.
I remembered my mom awakening from her midday slumber and making the whole house breakfast. And everyone laughing and making their best arguments for the last cinnamon roll.
I called my mom back. “Do you want to…come up and hang out?”
Surprised, she nevertheless accepted the invitation.
I walked back to the living room to tell Brandon. He was up and folding the couch blankets.
Ofelia Brooks (she/her) is a Black, Latiné, first-generation writer and lawyer. Her recent or forthcoming work appears in Drunk Monkeys, Cutleaf, Diem, Amplify, and Honeyfire.
You can find Ofelia @ofeliabrooksesq on Twitter and Instagram, and at ofeliabrooksesq.com.