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That Time I Tried To Build Something With My Husband

Little by little something big and solid appeared.

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Salini Perera
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I looked at the enormous pile of boards and boxes that, I hoped, would soon be a play structure for my 6-year old daughter.

“Think we can finish this before our wedding?” I asked Jeff. He looked skeptical.

When Lizzie was 3 my first marriage collapsed (as I worried the climbing structure would). A year later I met Jeff, and every weekend for a year we took turns traveling an hour to visit each other. It was like a custody arrangement, but for adults. To simplify things, we moved into a small house together. To complicate things, we bought the kit that was now in our driveway.

We lugged everything into the backyard, swore that we would love each other no matter what happened while secretly hoping that was true, and got to work.

Until then, my experience with tools involved anything I could accomplish with a small hammer, screwdriver and an ancient margarine container filled with nails. As I looked at Jeff’s heavy metal toolbox with its mysterious doodads and drill bits, I thought about my attempt to hang curtain rods, determined to do it without a level (I didn’t have one) that had left my curtains at a rakish angle.

Every weekend for more than a month, we’d get out the tools and build Lizzie’s play structure. It was slow going, but bit by bit, it started to look like the pictures on the front of the manual.

One sticky morning, Jeff looked even sexier than usual — he looked like a he-man. I’d never understood the allure of the he-man. Like adults dressing up for Halloween, it was something other people loved that I found slightly disturbing. Those rugged types who rode horses or raced cars struck me as in need of a good deodorant. I preferred bookish types. But seeing Jeff with a screwdriver, I suddenly got it. Such was the power of a tool belt: It transformed my 5-foot-11-inch, 150-pound fiancé into a macho man.

But something else happened. We had two sides built but something looked wrong.

“It’s upside down,” I said.

He grinned with the confidence of someone who has assembled half the Ikea catalogue and then frowned, and said, “Good catch.”

The thing was, he meant it. We were a team, not competitors keeping a mental scorecard.

I also developed a newfound respect for the cliched phrase “building a life together.” Little by little something big and solid appears out of thousands of tiny pieces. It’s the slow and sometimes monotonous moments that create a life together. After we built the frame, there was so much work to do that wasn’t flashy. It was like a relationship — the first part when love was new and exciting was easy and then the more difficult work begins, making it stronger so it’s able to withstand the challenges of active kids or arguments about the proper way to hang a toilet paper roll.

After my first marriage — where it felt like I was inching my way across a skyscraper beam; one wrong move and I’d tumble to the cement below — it was astonishing to discover just how easy being with someone could be. My ex and I never would have been able to build together like this for a variety of reasons — some his fault, many more mine. Back then, I was an expert at swallowing my needs, gulping my wants. It was easier to pretend we both wanted what he did. In those final years of marriage, I was very good at make-believe.

A week before our wedding we finished. I called for Lizzie. Jeff shook the slide, making sure it was secure. We held each other, hoping the thing wouldn’t collapse under her.

At the wedding, Jeff mentioned in his vows how it was clear we were meant to be together when we’d built Lizzie’s play structure without a single argument. Later, I was standing in the yard, sipping a glass of wine as a dozen kids climbed and swung. I watched a bit nervously as an older child swung vigorously. The beam wavered a bit but didn’t break. Over time, the cedar weathered, worn from years of storms, but it stood strong. Occasionally we’d have to repair a broken rung, but it stayed intact. Our relationship stood firm, too. We’ve grown and parented, fought and made up.

Our daughter — we moved from singular possessive to plural possessive long ago — is 20 and has long outgrown climbing structures. But if in the future she marries and has kids, maybe she and her partner will build one together and it will be strong. Maybe Jeff and I will get to watch, still holding hands. He says he’s holding on to his tool set as a present.