Liz is explaining the situation to some guy in customer
"My roommate and I need to network our computers together,"
she's saying, seated at the other desk in the office
that we share.
The word "roommate" jumps out at me. It's an inadequate
word, but it's all we have. What else do you call two
friends who are shacked up together in a decaying Victorian,
run several businesses and one nonprofit group out of
its rooms, host political meetings under oil portraits
of Puritan and Jewish ancestors, cook kale and tofu
meals for all who stop by, go to parties as a couple,
and spend holidays with each other's families? If we
were lesbians-as people sometimes assume us to be
we would fit more neatly into a box. But we're straight.
year and a half we've lived together, I have struggled
with the namelessness of our situation. The word "roommate"
conjures up a college dorm, scuff marks on the floors
from hundreds of anonymous occupants, locks on all the
doors, the refrigerator Balkanized into zones where
you can or cannot put your food, Death Metal blasting
from the speakers down the hall. It means transience
and 20 years old. It does not mean love or family.
Words offer shelter. They help love stay. I wish for
a word that two friends could live inside, like a shingled
house with faded Persian rugs. Sometimes, in an attempt
to make our relationship sound more valid, I tell people
Liz and I are in a "Boston marriage." The usual response
is, "You're in a what?"
It's an antique phrase, dating back to the 1800s. In
Victorian times, women who wanted to maintain their
independence and freedom opted out of marriage and often
paired up to live together, acting as each other's "wives"
and "helpmeets." Henry James's 1886 novel about such
a liaison, The Bostonians, may have been the
inspiration for the term, or perhaps it was the most
glamorous female couples who made their homes in Boston,
including Sarah Orne Jewett, a novelist, and her "wife"
Annie Adams Fields, also a writer.
Were they gay? Was the "Boston marriage" simply a code
word for lesbian love? Historian Lillian Faderman says
this is impossible to determine, because nineteenth-century
women who kept diaries drew curtains over their bedroom
windows. They did not bother to mention whether their
ecstatic friendship spilled over into as Faderman
so romantically puts it "genital sex." And ladies,
especially well-to-do ones who poured tea with their
pinkies raised, were presumed to have no sex drive at
all. Women could share a bed, nuzzle in public, and
make eyes at each other, and these cooings were considered
to be as innocent as schoolgirl crushes.
So, at least in theory, the Boston marriage indicated
a platonic, albeit nerdy relationship. With ink-stained
fingers, the Victorian roommate-friends would smear
jam on thick slices of bread and then lounge across
from each other in bohemian-shabby leather armchairs
to discuss a novel-in-progress or a political speech
they'd just drafted. Their brains beat as passionately
as their hearts. The arrangement often became less a
marriage than a commune of two, complete with a political
agenda and lesson plan.
"We will work at [learning German] together we
will study everything," proposes Olive, a character
in The Bostonians, to her ladylove. Olive imagines
them enjoying "still winter evenings under the lamp,
with falling snow outside, and tea on a little table,
and successful renderings . . . of Goethe, almost the
only foreign author she cared about; for she hated the
writing of the French, in spite of the importance they
have given to women." James poked fun at Olive's bookworm
passion. But he lavished praise on his own sister Alice's
intense and committed friendship with another woman,
which he considered to be pure, a perfect devotion.
Most likely, the Boston marriage was many things to
many women: business partnership, artistic collaboration,
lesbian romance. And sometimes it was a friendship nurtured
with all the care that we usually squander on our mates
a friendship as it could be if we made it the
center of our lives.
"I am on my way through the green lane to meet you,
and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado
to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient,
till that dear Susie comes," Emily Dickinson wrote to
her friend and maybe lover Sue Gilbert.
Today I see tragedy in these words, for Sue ended up
married to Emily's brother,
and the women never had a chance to build a life around
their love. I find myself wishing I could teleport them
to our own time, so that Emily D. and her Susie might
find an apartment in San Francisco together, fly a rainbow
flag out front, shop at Good Vibrations, and delight
one another with dildos in shocking shades of pink.
And yet, it's not that simple. When I read the passionate
letters between nineteenth-century women, I become keenly
aware of what I'm missing, of how much richer Victorian
friendships must have been. While our sex lives have
ballooned in the last hundred years, our friendships
have grown stunted. Why don't I shower my favorite girls
with kisses and "mash" notes, hold hands with them as
we skip down the street, or share a sleeping bag? We
don't touch anymore. We don't dare admit how our hearts
Several years ago, I fell in love with a man because
of all he carried he would show up for the night
with five plastic bags rattling on his arm, and then
proceed to unpack, strewing possessions everywhere.
The next day, I'd find his orange juice in the refrigerator,
his sweater tucked into my bureau, a software program
installed on my computer. Night after night, he installed
himself in my apartment.
At first, every one of these discoveries charmed me
his way of saying, "I need to be with you." But
one morning, I surveyed my bedroom guy's underwear
on the floor, books about artificial intelligence stacked
on the night table, a jar of protein powder on the shelf
and realized that I had a live-in boyfriend.
And that he and I had completely different ideas about
what we wanted from a living space. He thought of an
apartment as a desktop where we could scatter papers,
coffee mugs, and computer parts. What I regarded as
a mess, he saw as a filing system that should under
no circumstances be disturbed. Meanwhile, I drove him
crazy by hosting political meetings in our living room,
inviting ten people over for dinner at the last minute.
We loved one another, but that didn't mean we should
share an apartment.
And then when our Felix-Oscar dynamic seemed
insurmountable I picked up a magazine called
Maxine and stumbled across an article that gripped
me. Written by 27-year-old Zoe Zolbrod, it celebrated
the passion that flashes up between women, even when
they are both straight: "I would meet women who I would
need to know with an urgency so crushing it gave the
crush its name. And in knowing them I would feel a rush
of power and possibility, of total self, that seemed
much more real to me than heterolove," Zolbrod wrote.
When she met her friend V, "it was like finding the
person you think you'll marry." The two moved in together.
They took care of each other, became family, called
each other "my love" and "my roommate" interchangeably.
I remember reading that article and thinking, "yes."
I adored my boyfriend, but he and I had never meshed
in the way that Zolbrod described. We tried to make
a home together, but we didn't agree on what a home
Years later, when our love fizzled into friendship and
he moved out, I made a vow to myself: I would not drift
into a domestic situation again. Instead, I would find
someone who shared my passion for turning a house into
a community center with expansive meals, weekend
guests, clean counters, flowers, art projects, activist
gatherings, a backyard garden, and a pile of old bikes
on the porch, available to anyone needing to borrow
My friend Liz seemed like the right person. And so I
proposed to her. Did she want to be a co-creator of
the performance art piece that we would call "home"?
Recently, at a party, I met a thirtysomething academic
who has settled alone in a small town outside of Boston.
"I can step right out my door and cross-country ski,"
she told me. "But I'm lonely a lot." Around us, people
sweated and threw their arms wildly in time to an old
Prince song. The academic wedged her hands into her
jeans pockets, and her eyes skated past my face and
scanned the room.
If you're lonely, get a roommate, I suggested. Move
into a group house. "No," she sighed. "I'm too old for
that. I'm set in my ways." What if you marry? I asked.
She laughed. "That's different."
She might be speaking for thousands, millions of women
all over this country. According to the U.S. Census
Bureau, one out of four households in 1995 had only
one member, a figure expected to rise sharply as the
population ages. I see the future of single women, and
frankly, it depresses the hell out of me. We're isolating
ourselves in condos and studio apartments. And why?
Sometimes because we need to bask in solitude
and that's fine. But other times, it's because we're
afraid to get too comfortable with our friends. What
if you bought a house with your best friend, opened
a joint bank account with her, raised a child? Where
would your bedmate fit into the scheme? This is where
the platonic marriage for all its loveliness
may force you to make some difficult choices
and rethink your ideas about commitment.
love, a theoretical physicist, meanders down our street
clapping. Standing beside a triple-decker house, he cocks
his head, listening to the sharp sounds reverberating
off of a vinyl-sided wall. He's designing an exercise
for the students in the "Physics of Music" class that
he's assistant-teaching. When he's done, he'll come back
inside to find Liz and me draped across the sofa, discussing
urban sprawl. We'll all make dinner together, and if I
feel like it, I might join them for a night out, or I
might head off with the guy that I'm seeing.
I date scientists too, men who understand what it is to
experiment, to question and wonder. Liz's love or mine
might sit in our kitchen scrawling equations into a notebook,
or disappear for days
to orbit with subatomic particles or speak with machines.
These men are wise enough to see that the Boston marriage
works to their advantage. Liz and I keep each other company.
Our Boston marriage has made it easier for us to enjoy
the men in our lives.
how do we commit to each other, knowing that someday
one of us may marry? One of us might fall in love with
something other than a man a solar cabin in Mexico,
a job in Tangier, a documentary film project in Florida,
a year of silence in the Berkshire woods. Any number
of things could pull us apart. We have made no promises
to each other, signed no agreements to commit. For some
reason, that seems O.K. most of the time.
sashays into the kitchen, a shopping bag crinkling under
her arm. "I bought you these," she says, "because you've
been wearing those mismatched gloves with holes in them."
For this article, I talked to many women who'd formed
platonic marriages or who'd thought about it seriously.
All of them discussed the complicated issues of commitment,
or lack thereof, between friends.
Janet calls her arrangement with Greta intentional.
"In the same vein as creating an 'intentional community,'
we have an 'intentional' living arrangement," she says.
The two high school friends, both straight women in
their early thirties, moved to Boston together five
years ago, knowing that they would share an apartment,
and a life. They eat dinner together and check in with
the how-was-your-day conversation most people expect
from a mate.
"Greta is the person I say to contact when I fill out
emergency cards," Janet tells me. "She is the first
person I would turn to if I needed help. "
And yet, the two have left their future open, and the
promises they have made to each other are full of what-ifs.
If Greta doesn't marry by the time she's 35, they might
raise a child together. It's the what-ifs that drive
many women away from closeness with each other.
One married woman, I'll call her Lisa, says she's deeply
disappointed with the way women treat their friendships
as disposable, dumping friends when an erotic partner
comes along. "Even though my friends and I used to talk
about buying a house together, we all knew at some level
that it wasn't going to work. Ultimately, we would betray
each other, find a man, marry him. I got married because
I knew everybody else was going to. If I knew I could
trust a friendship with a woman that there was
a way of making a friendship into a bona fide, future-oriented
relationship I would rather have that than be
As for me, I've come to think of commitment as something
beyond a marriage contract, a joint bank account, or
even a shared child. I know that eventually Liz and
I may drift to other houses, other cities. Yet I can
picture us reuniting at age 80, to settle down in an
old-age home together. Maybe we will have husbands,
maybe not, but we'll still be conspirators. We'll probably
harangue the youngsters who spoon spinach onto our plates
about the importance of forming a union; we'll attend
protests with signs duct-taped to our walkers; maybe
we'll write an opera and perform it using some newfangled
technology that lets us float in the air. Liz and I
are committed. We share a vision of the kind of people
we want to be and the world we want to inhabit.
"We formed a family core with the possibility of exhilaration,"
wrote Zoe Zolbrod in her article. "Yet Hallmark never
even named a goddamn holiday after us, can you believe
it?" We're not sure what to call ourselves. We have
no holidays. We don't know what our future holds. We
have only love and the story we are making up together.
I slide on the mittens, and my hands turn into fuzzy paws,
pink and red with a touch of gold. "I love them," I say,
and hug her, patting her back with my fuzz. She laughs
and shifts her eyes away, a bit embarrassed by her own
generosity. "I couldn't have my roommate going around
in shabby gloves," she says.
She uses the word "roommate." But I know what she means.
Pagan Kennedy's most recent novel is The Exes
(Scribner, 1999). She lives in Somerville, Mass.