This is What My Meticulous Landlord has Inadvertently Taught Me About Love and Relationships

At first he seemed a little hesitant about what our relationship was (we must have been his first lesbian tenants), but he was always kind.
Publish date:
August 3, 2015
marriage, love, commitment

“No problem, no problem,” Giovanni repeated, his personal refrain ringing through the phone.

By now I knew that it didn’t matter what I’d asked. To Giovanni, there is never a problem. I had called Giovanni to ask if him he’d help us hang our newly-framed wedding certificate. He had answered, agreed instantly, insisted he’d come over tomorrow, thus defying every stereotype of a disinterested Boston landlord.

“Don’t worry,” he said on the phone. “I’ll bring the level, stud finder, and drill. It’s no problem, Katharine, no problem.”

I had no idea why we’d need so many tools, but I have learned to trust him.

“Maybe he thinks we’re those kind of lesbians,” I said, remembering with Clare about how one time, after fixing our heat, he had texted us a picture of the part that had been replaced. “You know, the kind that like tools.”

Before we had Giovanni, Clare and I lived separately. Our previous landlords had been those kind of landlords. Clare’s landlord only arrived when squirrels, which had infested the walls, needed removal from the slanted, drafty house. He came in, haggard yet stunningly determined for a man who had never shown care towards the house before; when he caught the squirrel, he asked if Clare wanted to say a few parting words to it. She glared at the squirrel and then the landlord.

I never met my Jamaica Plain landlord; he accepted rent only in cash or money order, and never once came by, even when our apartment was robbed.

In that year of living separately, we grew together, huddled anxiously in my apartment post-robbery and laying awake restlessly in hers, waiting for the squirrels to tire of chewing the insulation. We found comfort in each other and counted down until we could share a place of our own, far from these landlords.

After two years of dating, Clare and I moved in together. The apartment was filled with giddy laughter. No more squirrels, which were far less likely to appear in the bustling North End than Clare’s Somerville place. No more worries, as I decided that no one would climb to the fourth floor to steal a laptop. On the day we moved in together, we finally felt we could laugh at the homes where we had started. Those were not homes at all, we decided, but rites of passage that we had survived. Best of all, our new landlord was different.

At first he seemed a little hesitant about what our relationship was (we must have been his first lesbian tenants), but he was always kind. He would avoid any reference to our relationship with the awkward yet typical pleasantries such as, "How's your... roommate?" and "Tell ... Clare I said hello." The long pauses suggested that he was trying, really trying, to understand us.

Within weeks of moving in, we realized we’d see a lot of Giovanni. His mom, who spoke Italian almost exclusively, lived in the basement unit and he’d visit her daily. He’d stop us in the stairwell, ask how things were going, and share stories of how he’d renovated our apartment himself.

“I raised my kids in here, ya know?” he said, the day he came by to check out a problem with our drain. “I re-did all of this. Those were my walls. I re-did this whole bathroom. I built this shower. I remember when that apartment didn’t even have a shower!”

Later, he showed us YouTube videos of his kids’ piano recitals. When our smoke alarms acted up, he texted us YouTube videos of troubleshooting smoke alarm issues. He was proud of his building and his family.

Living together wasn't all laughter; before we moved in together, the conflicts we had faced as a couple had always been outward, directed at landlords, roommates, and squirrels. When we finally lived together, we had our first arguments. I began my first year of full-time English teaching at a middle school; my days were exhausting and I came home with little energy for anything and more work than I could handle. Clare began her first year in finance, leaving behind her work in LGBT activism for socially responsible investing. While Clare’s workday shortened, she struggled to navigate a new work environment and a new field.

We were both short on patience. For the first time in our two-year relationship, we began to feel strained. Yet, we wanted this to work, even if it felt harder than it had before. So with friends and family gathered, we married. At the end of the ceremony, everyone signed a Quaker wedding certificate, as witness to our commitment.

A few months afterwards, we had our certificate professionally framed. An artist had handcrafted it, with paper-cut trees surrounding our calligraphied promise. However, layers of careful matting and framing doubled it in size. We didn’t know how to hang it. We considered our options. Left to my own devices in my life before Clare, I would have hung the marriage certificate on my own, using a single nail and a hammer, no doubt causing the twenty-pound and $400 symbol of our love to crash to the ground. If Clare had done it, she would have spent six months planning, fretting, and eventually asking friends for assistance in a stressful affair. Staring at the frame, knowing ourselves better as a couple than we had before, we knew what to do. We called Giovanni.

“No problem, no problem,” he said. “I’ll be right over.”

Reliable as ever, he arrived after work on Monday, still dressed in his postal uniform.

“See what you’ve gotta do is…” he began, detailing the process, pulling out the tape measure, sizing up the frame and the wall in front of him. Carefully he measured. He drew lines in pencil. He studied the wall. He erased his lines and began again. He found the studs, inserted the screws, and positioned the frame slowly, meticulously. When we lifted it up as a trial, it was off by 1/8 of an inch.

“It looks great,” I said, relieved that it was securely fastened. Now, I thought, we could move on.

“No, no,” he replied. “You have to do it right. When you’ve got something this special, you’ve got to do it right.”

So he measured, adjusted, measured, and smiled.

“That’s better.”

Staring with Clare and Giovanni at the certificate, I smiled, too, reflecting on what was meant to be the perfect symbol of our commitment to each other.

But as Giovanni measured the wall one more time, I noticed he wasn’t focused on the certificate. He cared about the wall. The time he had put into it, the care he continued to show it, with every repair and measurement checked, that is love; the foundation, sometimes dull and requiring patience and tools Clare and I will spend a lifetime learning, that is the work of love we have to learn to do together to keep our home strong.