My lover and I have a secret house

Neither our kids nor my husband knows of our bungalow -- and I'd like to keep it that way.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 22, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My question: My partner and I bought a house and we've kept it a secret from our kids and my ex-husband. Should we spill the beans?

I have been divorced, amicably, for two years, after 23 years of marriage. My ex-husband bought a new home and I stayed in our old one, a 3,600-square-foot house in an upscale suburban subdivision.

When my husband and I first separated, I insisted on staying in the house, and pushed hard for a divorce settlement that would make it financially possible for me to do so. My ex made $180,000 a year while I was mainly a stay-at-home mom with an irregular income from freelance writing. Having the house made me feel secure and was less disruptive for my 15-year-old daughter, who divides her time evenly between her father's house and mine. My son is a junior in college here in town and rents a place with two friends.

I'm grateful to have a roof over my head, and realize that for many people, my big suburban house represents the American dream. Over time, though, and as I've become more financially secure with a good job, I have yearned for a different home -- something smaller and more manageable, within walking distance to work and shopping, with lower utility bills and a more diverse neighborhood. I am also in a committed relationship now; my partner moved here with her 20-year-old son from out of state and has lived with us for almost nine months. I would like to live somewhere that feels less like the house of my failed marriage and more like a fresh start. My daughter, however, is not looking for a fresh start, and understandably so. She has lived in our house since she was 4 and loves it. Any talk of moving sends her into weeping hysterics.

Several months ago my partner and I found a house (in the same town and school district) that fits our criteria, and we made an offer. My daughter became so distraught that I decided to withdraw the offer; I lost the earnest money and grieved for weeks over the loss of the house, but I couldn't bear to see my daughter so upset. I realized that while I was eager to move forward with my life and make new memories in a new place, she wanted to preserve as much of her old world as possible. I felt that I'd already dismantled enough of her life simply by getting divorced from her father. I didn't want to do any more damage.

Three months ago another house came on the market, an 800-square-foot bungalow in a neighborhood that is somewhat rundown but also charming, within walking distance to work, downtown and all the arts attractions. Newly renovated from foundation to roof, the cottage has cherry floors, a new kitchen and high ceilings. My partner and I fell in love with it and bought it; the price was cheap enough so that, factoring in her income, we can actually afford both houses.

We live there about three days a week when my daughter is with her dad. One of the joys of this little house is that it's a true sanctuary. Because we bought the place already furnished, everything at the old house remains exactly the same; I haven't moved a stick of furniture. Our hope is to maintain both houses at least until my daughter is in college, then sell the big house and either stay at the bungalow or find a new place altogether.

We have three kids and one ex-husband between us and not one of them knows about our new house. It's clean, it's quiet, it's completely ours. No one stops by to make a mess or make demands. It is heaven.

People have counseled me to wait for a few years and then buy a house. I feel compelled to confide that I am frequently motivated by the sense that I may be running out of time. I am 49 years old. My father died when he was 41, and my mother developed dementia in her early 60s. I'm just not particularly confident that I've got lots of years left and, as a result, don't really like having to wait until later for things that are important to me now.

This is a small town and news travels fast, so it's a miracle my ex-husband and kids haven't found out about the house, not even after the local paper published my name in the "property transactions" column. Part of me wants to tell them just to share my excitement, but I know in my heart that it will lead to more hysterics: My daughter is likely to scream: How could you buy a house without telling me? Where will I sleep? Does this mean you're going to sell the other house? And my ex-husband will tell me we're crazy for buying it, that it's a waste of money when we already have a perfectly good house; and God knows what other shaming, accusatory things he's likely to say. (Incidentally, I think both of our 20-year-old sons will be cool with it and, possibly, even happy for us.)

My partner has wanted to keep the house secret as long as possible because right now it's a source of joy and a real haven -- but it won't be for long once everyone knows.

My question for you is: Is there any good reason to tell them now -- preemptively -- before they find out through the grapevine?

Thanks, in advance, for your wise counsel.

Resident of Secret House

Dear Resident of Secret House,

I say no, do not tell them. Deny it. Even when they find out, deny it. Even when someone waves the property notice in your face: Deny it.

Deny it, deny it, deny it.

Some careful readers will add this opinion to the growing pile of exhibits testifying to my mental unfitness to opine on matters of consequence to others. But, I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, how else is the essential virtue of this house to be protected against the bumbling predations of cement-head literalists who do not understand that a house is a dream and that dreams are the property of a private self? How else am I to cheer on a person such as yourself who has found a happiness as unconventional as it is true to your spirit? How else am I to pay tribute to one who has charmed me so? By saying, No, woman, be sensible!? How else am I to honor a life that wishes so much to be lived, a life long abraded by the cruel erosion of common sense that wears down our dreams like blown sand on a brightly painted house? There you have been standing all these years in the corrosive wind of your husband's anger, losing your lustrous skin by micrometers, and now, as if by magic, you find a secret house of love.

I say deny that the house exists as long as you can and thus test the power of a dream to resist an army.

As you say, you may not have much time. About this too, I agree: Time slinks away with our jewels in the night.

So cherish it as long as you can. If to cherish it is to deny it, then deny it.

Now, as the high wind of my fancy dwindles and my eyes come to rest on the mortgages and codicils of common sense I will admit this much to the court: I live in dreams and metaphor. I bring to concrete matters a liquid, dreaming hope. So if you must, hear my impractical urgings as more metaphor than commandment. If only in your spirit, deny to those who would harm you that the house exists even as you live in it physically as much as you care to, living there your other, cleaner, truer, more honest life.

One more thing. No matter what the husband and the lawyers say when your arrangement is discovered and your denials fall on deaf ears:

Keep the big house for your daughter. Keep the little bungalow for you and your lover. And keep a journal, sitting in a sunny window with your tea and some modest flowers picked from the garden.

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