Ms. Magazine
So...Are You Two Together?
You share a home and a life with your best girlfriend. What do you call that?

- What?
- Just the Facts
- Word: No
- Women to Watch

Uppity Woman
A puppet maker on a mission.
- Unconscionable Care
- Cardinal Sins
- Healthnotes
Life and Death in Iraq
Our reporter goes inside Iraq to learn firsthand what sanctions have done to the lives of women.
Did the Women's Museum Wimp Out?
While many have raved about the new Women's Museum in Dalls, others say it soft-pedals the details of the struggle for women's rights.
Portfolio: Eyes of the Beholder
African American women photographers turn the "gaze" inside out.
Breaking from Tradition: Two Great Singers from Mali.
My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell by Gwendolyn Brooks

Ms News

Editor's Page: Mothering Our Mothers

-A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom
-Freedom's Daughters, by Lynne Olson
-Kamikaze Lust, by Lauren Sanders
-Manmade Breast Cancers, by Zillah Eisenstein
-Smell, by Radhika Jha

-First Person: Slut, Interrupted
-Columns: Daisy Hernandez, Patricia Smith and Gloria Steinem
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Liz is explaining the situation to some guy in customer service.
"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.

In the 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 scamper.

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 should be.

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 some wheels.

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"? She did.

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.

Liz's 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.

But 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.

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 married."

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.

Liz 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."

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.