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Illustration of a woman surrounded by cans of different colors of paint.

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My Color Story

One reluctant homeowner’s journey into the heart of darkness: a Benjamin Moore paint color wheel

You have to understand that I was never going to have a home. You have to understand that I spent my adulthood seated at dinner tables, fashioning a neutral and blithely interested face for myself as other adults who were renovating houses they had purchased discussed fixtures and permits and contractors. You have to understand that I had chosen a career and a life and a location that would ensure that I never owned a house, and so this information swirled around me but didn’t involve me.

You have to understand that I was at peace with this—that the other people at the table, the other people on the earth, they were all lawyers and hedge fund managers and compliance officers and marketers, and all those lives sounded like fates worse than actual death, and so the price I paid was to be a perpetual renter—to not have a right and true stake in the world. You have to understand that to be at peace about never owning a home is a hard-won thing in this country, where the economy collapsed because others couldn’t accept that they were like me, which is to say broke, and I had a lot of pride in my acceptance of our financial situation. You have to understand how I convinced myself that there was freedom in never having to make these decisions. "Look, Claude," I said to my husband, "We’re so lucky we can pack up and leave to, I don’t know, live in France for a year if we want to." (We have still not been to France together.)

You have to understand those things so that you understand what comes next, which is a story about chaos and tears and drugs that all centers around what color to paint some walls. An existential crisis over paint colors sounds trite. Maybe it is, I don’t know. It was important at the time. You have to understand: It was important at the time.

Pity me: I grew up in a broken home where my mother had taken us away from our big house on Long Island and moved us to the Escape from New York section of Brooklyn, which was "We’re Gonna Rain On You, Warriors"-adjacent. We rented homes and taped up our posters and when we left we patched where the tape had lifted the off-white paint. We didn’t replace tile when it broke. We simply lived on a year-to-year basis and kept things clean and didn’t allow the facts to define us. The fact being that we weren’t poor, as my mother told us, we were broke. Poor was a lifestyle; broke was a state of confusion, a fall from something else, a bewilderment—something that, no matter how long it lasted, we should never accept as permanent.

Once, we moved to a new apartment and my mother was allowed to pick the color of the new carpet and tile. She chose light gray. It got dirty so quickly. Gray was the worst. Let’s call this foreshadowing.

As a result of all this detachment work, homeownership for me was not important, at least not the way it was important to others. My husband’s parents refused to ever even have a child until they owned a house—until they owned it outright—and so his parents were 106 when they had him. My husband, their son, didn’t want to live that way, but the lessons we learn when we’re young, well, they’re always there at the bottom of even the most reasonable arguments.

Claude and I lived in a rental in LA, off-white walls and 1981-era, Formica-face cabinets that filled me with dread, and I had chosen the place because it came with a chandelier that reminded me of my grandmother’s. My grandparents were renters, too.

One day our accountant stopped my husband in the street and told him he thought we could afford a mortgage, and Claude had picket fences in his eyes and he said, "We can buy! We can buy!" This was in 2006, and I asked him by what logic people like us ever get to buy a home, and he tried to explain the accountant’s spreadsheet, and I tried to explain back to him that actually we were broke and had no business even having this conversation. I was never going to fall for a predatory loan. I was a journalist; I married a journalist. The facts of the spreadsheet fell apart under my coldhearted questioning and he relented.

Illustration of a house split up into different sections and colors.

So we rented and we rented and we rented and then finally Claude got his dream job in New Jersey covering all manner of corrupt politics, and we moved to New Jersey and we stayed in a rental. Only for the first time we were in a rental in a state where the laws favor landlords, and the landlord was a nightmare—you’ve never even considered how ruinous a landlord or a nightmare can be—and so we gave in and we bought a house. We bought it under duress from someone who appeared to be very ambivalent about selling it. We bought it to get the hell out of the rental and because there’s nothing else to rent because you just don’t really rent a house in that section of New Jersey. We bought it because it’s literally the last house standing on the market, as it had been the season before, because it’s such a dump.

But the houses here cost like an eighth of a house in Los Angeles, or a twentieth of an apartment in New York, and there were backyards. I went to a tiny town with a street’s worth of businesses and I looked down the road and a kid sent over from central casting was riding his bike right down the middle of the street. My heart had been harpooned. Then I looked up and I was buying a house. I was buying a house!

Now, remember the duress under which I’m buying the house. Remember that my husband is now a political reporter and it’s 2015 and he’s following our governor as he campaigns in states that are not New Jersey. Remember that I am alone, the children number two, I’m working full time and there is so much to do to this house before we move in. We only have six weeks between closing and having to GTFO of our rental situation, and I have to earn 60,000 freelance dollars just to cover the costs of making the place inhabitable, forget fixing the fireplace. Remember that the dice are loaded and the bullets are in the chamber and there are tension metaphors I don’t even know yet. Between closing and move-in my stomach hurts and my skin feels cold and my blood feels see-through.

You have to understand all these things to understand what happened next, how the simple act of picking paint colors for my new home brought me to my knees.

My near-younger sister is an interior designer with a booming business in Brooklyn. She told me that when I finally bought a house, she would do my colors.

My whole life I had never allowed myself to fantasize about what I would do if I had a house. My mother, she is an epic window shopper. My father chooses to live on a rented estate in a part of Long Island that is called "tony" by people who don’t know better words. I wanted nothing I didn’t already have. My sister has the same parents, but she loves beauty. Beauty for me has always felt frivolous and out of reach.

I had only ever thought about paint colors twice before in my life. One: When my mother moved into her dream home, seven years in the constructing, she told us we could each pick our bedroom colors. I chose a muted royal blue that my mother said seemed aggressive, but ultimately, later, admitted was the best choice. My older sister, a veterinarian, chose the same color her scrubs came in—a coincidence—so that when she was sitting on her bed in them she appeared to be a floating head amid surgical green. My youngest sister was six and asked for My Little Pony pink. My near-youngest sister, the designer, asked for an antique white that looked elegant with her mahogany furniture.

Two: The other time was in college, when my sister and I went to France together and got into so many fights that one day I abandoned her and went off by myself to Giverny. I saw Monet’s kitchen, which was cornflower blue and yellow. I said that one day when I owned a home, which would be a large apartment in the West Village, or maybe the Hamptons house I’d have, or the cottage in Connecticut, I would like a kitchen just like that. I’d take people through and say in an unrehearsed way, "I chose the colors because I fell in love with them at Giverny." The sophistication of tossing that one off felt astounding. I couldn’t wait.

Anyway, my sister came to my shithole rental and sat with her binder and took a deep and professional breath and asked me to describe how I wanted to feel in my new house. "I don’t know," I told her, "warm?" She wrote down warm. "Safe?" She wrote down safe. "Welcome?" She wrote down welcome. If I’m being honest, I was maybe confusing how I wanted to feel when I received my bill for the mortgage.

"What about beiges?" she asked me. "What about taupes?" And we looked through a thousand colors and she began to tell me what a color story was. A color story is a, actually, now that I’m writing this, I think perhaps we could see where things went wrong. I don’t really know. She tried to explain, and I didn’t really understand, but now I see that it’s an unfolding of a thing, a process by which a person entering your house can sense the intention you’re trying to transmit through decor.

But is it a story the colors tell about you? Is it a story you tell about the house, through the colors?

Since the seller of my house wouldn’t let us in after the inspection was over, I had to rely on Zillow pictures for my sister to see the layout of the house. I wanted a new color in each room. Kelly green here! Turquoise there! My sister triple-blinked and moved her head to the side maybe 15 degrees and pressed her lips together and explained to me that what I was describing was even more aggressive than some of the day care centers she has helped design. In my new house, you could see every room on the first floor from every other room. We had to be a little tamer. We had to let the colors unfold.

"I have nothing against an accent wall," she said.

"What’s an accent wall?"

"It’s a wall that has a different, complementary color. It could be subtly different. It could be opposing in a bold way. But it’s part of the same room."

"So more colors to pick?"

"Don’t think of it that way." She was kindly warning me that I was leaning toward a funhouse psycho buffoonery and I closed my eyes and pictured it all large and she was right.

But we still had to pick. And then there were colors that needed to match the colors. And then there were colors to accent the second set of colors. I felt the panic rise up in me, and my sister, who is different from me but so much of me that when we laugh I can’t discern her voice from mine, said, "It’s going to be okay."

She reminded me that I wanted people to feel warm and safe in my house, so she showed me some more. They were a category of color that I will call here—and keep in mind that if you have not yet realized I’ve never taken a color theory class you aren’t reading closely enough—biological colors. I call them that because they remind me of the putrid things that flow from a body: Browns with yellows beneath them; grays that have browns beneath them; yellows that are based in an MRI green; whites that feel like they have pus running through. So I call them biological; my sister and the other art school grads call them warm.

A thing that is probably apt to mention here, so that I don’t draw a pall over my sister’s good name, is that I have a pretty solid OCD diagnosis and my OCD takes the form of a fear of identifying somewhat neutral things—some foods, music, words, certain chemical terms, colors—as purely biological (alas, we could not all be handwashers). This manifests in me as a belief that I know is probably not true (but no one has been able to prove it to me yet) that a connected system of tissue and artery and blood bubbles beneath the surface of innocuous material. So that’s why Mocha Brown reminded me of surgery and Byzantine Taupe reminded me of IBS and so on.

"The biological colors are out," I said. My sister nodded, trying to figure out what set me off this particular time and work around it. "What about these rich purples?" Oooh, purple. Except purple, the deep mulberry she was describing, was an imposter color in my estimation. Its lighter versions didn’t appear in nature. It would mess with my color story. There is something disturbing to me about the colors that are imposters—hot pinks and putrid yellows. I like them for their drama and their disruption and their purpose, but my life is chaotic. I do not want to fight against disruption every day.

"You don’t need a lighter color then," my sister said. And I thought and thought and realized a) that I liked this purple color; b) that I’d seen this color before; c) that that color was the color on the walls of the house already; d) that I liked it because I already knew what it looked like on the walls; e) that the notion of repainting the house as I’d found it was letting the seller of my house own it in some way for the rest of my life; f) that I had to put a stake in the house and make it mine, that I had to learn how to own a house.

"You’re spiraling," said my sister. "Let’s take a breath."

Diagnosed mental illness aside. Issues of chest-beating ownership aside. The issue of paint was welling up in me and it became clear to me, after my sister suggested it to me in these exact words, that perhaps this wasn’t about paint.

Right, I told her. It’s about the immense pressure of this whole thing. It’s about the choice I already made—I bought the house. It was hard to pick a place and to know that I was settling. It was hard to think of myself as of a certain city. I had been born in New York and raised there and was hoping to die there having only taken brief, close-ended forays out of it.

But I’d met my husband and moved to Los Angeles under the mistaken belief that life is long. I hated every day of my 10 years there and my only comfort was that I didn’t really live there; I rented there. When he got the job offer in New Jersey, we jumped at it. I missed my family. I missed the East. I hated the defensive optimism of the West Coast. I hated the weather. (Yes, I hated the weather, come at me.) And I had gotten so used to not being of a place, but being merely in a place—a tourist. This was the gradual wearing-down process of a person who was from New York and willingly moved to New Jersey. In just 10 years in an irony vacuum, you’d come around, too!

All this to say that it was a really big decision to settle somewhere—to decide that my hat will be hung and my shingle put out. Yes, we were sort of forced into it by the Voldemort of a landlord we had. But also, now 20 years into living outside my mother’s house, and six past the housing market crisis, I finally understood that the restrictions of renting are similar to owning—you can’t pick up and leave when you want to just because you only have a lease—and that even as we owned, we all actually rented until the place was ours outright.

So yes, I was annoyed. I didn’t want to make another decision. The first had been excruciating. I had imagined that home-shopping might be fun. It wasn’t. It was wrought with fear and indecision and dirty looks and resentment. I resented how expensive New Jersey could be. I resented how tall my husband is, which made it so he couldn’t walk through half the Colonials without hitting his head. I had been depleted of fun. Plus, my new shithole needed so much work. I had to take any freelance job offered to me in order to keep us above the pile of bills, while my husband was nowhere to be found in the name of primary coverage.

"Where are you now, Claude?" I asked.

"I’m in Iowa. I’m at an underpass in Iowa and there’s a hurricane passing me by. You’ve never seen anything like it."

"Yes, okay, but what colors should we paint the walls? Hello? Hello?"

So yes, there was mental illness to blame. And spousal abandonment. And fatigue. And brokeness. But also I was so ill-prepared. The natural self-defense I’d created by never really caring had made it so that I never looked at the colors of people’s walls in either admiration or revulsion.

An illustration of a woman and her house floating in a large can of paint.

The only positive experience I can drum up in service of paint colors involves a hotel in Palm Springs. It was called the Saguaro, and outside and inside it was painted in the most pleasing lollipop colors: lavender, purple, lime, orange, yellow. Claude and I sat at the pool and looked up at the colors and I felt them infiltrate my cornea, then my retina, then my brain, then my soul. These were the colors I wanted to look at, but I didn’t think that my house should be a day care center, like my sister said. I couldn’t remember any house where I’d ever noticed the colors, and I didn’t know if that meant that you weren’t supposed to notice the colors, or if it was yet another symptom of how damaged I was, that I couldn’t see the details of what surrounded me when my actual trade was to see the details of what surrounded me. Willful blindness, it’s called, maybe. But maybe it’s just self-protection. I guess that was the toughest part: Was I supposed to have been planning this my whole life?

There was a ticking clock on this decision. We’d given notice to Voldemort and now had six weeks to do the floors, remove drywall from the basement, rewire the kitchen so that it had an actual light, try to figure out what the death smell was and how we could get rid of it—the basic compromises of a person who can’t afford a house staged like a Pottery Barn catalog. We had six weeks, and the floors would take a week, and the walls had to be leveled down from years of shitty paint jobs, and I had to make a decision so the contractors could get to work.

A few days later, I went to my sister’s house and we looked through her Benjamin Moore color wheels. I wondered if Vintage Charm and Pebble Creek would make my house look too much like a teenage girl’s bedroom in the 1980s. What if I did Juniper Green and then another wall that was Narragansett Green (which is actually navy) and the rest white?

"Like a Ralph Lauren catalog?" she asked.

We talked about grays, and how my couch is gray and everyone has gray, and gray is boring, and also I felt like it was too trendy but also I felt like it was too sad.

She kept pulling up some of her biological colors—Greenfield Pumpkin and Mystic Gold—and I kept looking at her like she was betraying me.

"It’s a very personal thing," she tried.

Then I remembered Giverny. "What about a yellow kitchen?" I asked.

"Yellow is hard. It’s always too bright." But it couldn’t be. Yellow would be so sunny and warm. And wasn’t the whole point now that there were no restrictions? That this was mine?

Okay, I said. We’ll table the yellow. What if I did a few shades of aqua? She reminded me of what our older sister’s room looked like, how surgical. The problem was I couldn’t picture what anything looked like writ large over a room. The Benjamin Moore color stories were all beautiful, but what would they look like spread out, and how could you choose, and what if this mattered far more than I thought it did? I had been coerced into buying a house. I had no choice. I could forgive myself for that. What about the paint? Could I forgive myself for the paint?

My sister gave me a long look and sighed and left the room. She came back a minute later with a new fan deck of colors. We’d only been dealing with the Classic colors. We were moving beyond. This, she expected, would give me hope. "Look at all the colors," she said. "How could you not love some of them?" But now there were even more to choose from, and I asked her if she had any pasta and I ate it all.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love the colors, or didn’t know what colors I loved. It’s that I didn’t exactly know what colors for a house were supposed to do: Were they supposed to represent you in some way? Or were they just supposed to be something you liked looking at?

And once you did pick: Would I have to live with a decision I made in haste? Would I be surrounded by regret?

The only decision I had made at that point was that I probably wanted to do a green accent wall (but which wall would be the accent wall?) and a navy and a white. I felt okay about it. I liked Ralph Lauren catalogs. But the next day I went to interview someone at a golf club, which was green and white, and realized I could not spend my life in a Colonial that looked like a golf club. I called my sister up and I told her to abort the preppy palette. I told her not to hate me. I told her it wasn’t anything she did. I told her I was sorry.

Here is a strange thing: Over the course of this process, the thing I never did was look online for houses and setups that I liked. I was so immune to the notion of looking at what other people have in order to ascertain what I wanted that it didn’t occur to me. I mean, I knew it was available—the internet generally is—but it was anathema to me to look at homes with the goal of want. Want is its own separate emotion, and I was afraid it would leave a hole in me. Because if I faced down the barrel of want, I’d realize that I had settled on a house I didn’t love and that I was making a huge mistake. That I picked the wrong place, the wrong block, the wrong neighborhood, the wrong town, the wrong state.

"It’s just paint, Taffy," my sister said. "It’s going to be okay. No matter what you do, it’s going to be okay." This wasn’t the first time she’d said it, but I think by then she had stopped believing it.

The contractor called. If I didn’t pick within a day, we couldn’t move in on time, which meant we wouldn’t move out on time. I called my sister and asked for a palette of beiges. She sent them over and I sent them to the contractor and I was immediately filled with self-loathing. The thing was, I had to get on a plane that night and head to San Francisco on a story.

The paint was settled. It is okay to be beige. When you’re beige, you can surprise people. I am someone who mostly dresses in unostentatious neutrals—I wear a uniform of mostly Gap and, lately, Ann Taylor—nothing outrageous that would spark discussion. I have always thought of myself as having an unruly personality, and at some point I realized you cannot be someone with an unruly personality who dresses very interestingly without risking being a living, breathing Joan Cusack of a character. People with bright and interesting colors, they are the kinds who are constantly swinging their nipple tassels in an effort to get you to notice them. I am better than that. I am. And yet.

On the plane, I finished a draft of something and decided to wait out the ride by watching TV. I watched black-ish, and the kitchen on that show has a bright baby blue backsplash and gray walls and other shades of blue. It looked so beautiful and fresh and settled. It looked sophisticated and perfect. And in me welled the explosive beginnings of a feeling I knew well by now: regret.

I began to panic. My contractor had purchased the hundreds of dollars in paint. I had to get off the plane and warn him. I hooked onto the Wi-Fi, but it didn’t work, so I got a vodka and tried to cope. What if they were painting right now? What if they’d started?

I landed and called the contractor. "It’s really late, Taffy," he said. But I knew that. What I wanted to know was had they started. "Yes, we started."

"You have to stop."

He was kind, my contractor, and by then had realized, as everyone but me had, that this wasn’t a matter of paint colors to me. It was a matter of life or death to me. I told him I couldn’t live with myself if I yielded to neutrals from fear. He told me I had to figure out the colors by the next evening or I risked not moving in on time. My blood ran cold. I was so sick of my blood running cold by then I can’t tell you. I knew no good decision could be made from such a state. I decided to sleep on it.

Here is the thing, though: That particular story was that I was set to cover a marijuana convention. I knew what was expected of me for that story, gonzo-wise, and I had this notion that after a day of participatory journalism, embedding in my subject, if you will, that I would be able to make a decision. I would maybe be relaxed enough to see things clearly.

I entered the convention. I did what I had to do. And time went by in a way I hadn’t imagined it would. I had taken a hit of something, then, seized with hunger, had tried all the candy samples, not really registering that the candy was filled with pot, too. I received an urgent text from the contractor: Where were those colors? Where were the colors, Taffy?

Picture this: I’m in a disgusting convention hall with bright white walls, fluorescent lights, what is essentially the young-20s extras cast of the Thriller video milling around, ahem, investigating innovations in the field. Meanwhile, who was I to make fun of them? I was days away from my 40th birthday and unable to figure out exactly how stoned one could get and still be able to make a good decision. In my panic, I adjourned to a folding chair where an old hippie was screaming about the cops, man, but from a stage, and it was actually a seminar about running a delivery business. Again, who was I to judge? Through the smoke I pulled up a Benjamin Moore palette on my phone. I wanted the bright blue from black-ish. I wanted the grays. Yes, finally I wanted the grays. And with the realization that maybe a lot of people have gray, but also it’s pretty, I picked Winter White and Moonshine and Sea Haze and Misty Teal, which was like an aqua.

You sure about these, he texted. I guess I deserve that, I answered. Yes.

And everything was good and I ate two hamburgers that night.

I arrived home, eager to see the progress of the house. The painters had started on the dining room, which was a dark gray that looked like mud with a green undertone. In the kitchen was not a light blue, like I thought I had chosen, but an aqua. My bedroom was Linen White with a Sea Glass accent wall, and the minute I saw it I realized that I don’t like accent walls, that they only existed in my mind so that I could choose more colors and not narrow them down. The kids had Linen White with accent walls that they’d chosen quickly and without drama (Big Country Blue for the older one; Orange Sky for the younger). Both colors had a pus-filled biological feel to them.

I sat at the bottom of the stairs and I cried in a way I hadn’t in many years: hiccups and gasps, as the painters tried to politely ignore me. What had I done? I called my husband, I don’t know where he was, but I called him. I told him I couldn’t live in this house with these colors. I told him it would make me miserable and it would cost hundreds of dollars to redo, that the total at this point was thousands. He told me to just fix it. He told me this was my home now and I had to decide and also that I had to fix it. I told him one day I would write something for the amount of money that it cost us, and he said he already knew that.

Illustration of a woman painting stripes on a wall.

I spoke with the contractor, and he said that they could do the switch, but there would be overtime and it would be touch and go. I told him to do it. I went online and I looked at homes that were done, and I tried not to let other people’s homes mean anything about me.

Have you decided yet, the contractor asked me. At this point if you scrolled up through our texts that question had been asked so many times. He had been so kind. He had never let me know that this had been frustrating for him, though how could it not have been? Sure, there’s money involved, but it couldn’t be that you got into this business to have the same guys paint the same walls over and over.

I told him I’d know by evening. I went to a paint store and shelled out for a few samples of grays. I went to my new house after the workers had left and I painted versions of the grays all over the wall. I stood there, alone in the house, among the drop cloths and the temporary lights, and I found myself alone for the first time inside this thing I had decided on. Yes, I had made a rushed and hasty decision on the house. But it was a nice house. We would be happy here.

I found a gray called Smoke Gray, and when I looked at it on the wall I picked it because it seemed as ambivalent about itself as I was—was it a blue? Was it a lavender? I picked Silvery Moon to complement it. And I picked a bright and putrid yellow for my office, and it was beautiful. I picked a paler yellow, Pale Moon, for my kitchen, and now somewhat regret it because I think that I chose it because I was afraid that my sister was right about yellows. I chose the Smoke Gray and Silvery Moon for the upstairs, too. I considered an accent wall, but when I looked into the Smoke Gray in the patch on my wall, I saw it contained so much more than just one color. I wanted to see it at every angle, in every light. It was beautiful.

It took a week to paint the house, and I spent each of those days and nights dreaming of paint. I awoke with dread that I had made a terrible decision. One day it was raining and I freaked out that I had condemned us to grayness in our life like the grayness in our sky. I tossed the old questions around in my head again: What does your paint color mean about you? I think that’s what was most upsetting. That if paint means anything about you, then it also means that those rentals meant something about me. And if that were true, then my apathy meant something about me, too.

But still, you have to understand that I never had a home.

I entered the house following a text that my contractor sent saying that it was ready, that there was just a second coat being applied, but I could see. The work was almost done.

I walked in and you will never believe how I fell in love. The darkness of Smoke Gray added depth and importance to the rooms. Silvery Moon created a lightness from which the brick fireplace could emerge, and at a certain angle, you could see Smoke Gray and Pale Moon against Silvery Moon, and I knew I had done it right. Grays! Grays? Grays!

I had done it right! My first task as a homeowner, I had done it. I deserved to live here, amid the beauty. I had passed some kind of test. I had made a choice, and over the coming months I would lie in my bed or sit on the couch and I would stare deep into my colors, knowing that they were mine. It was mine. I had begun the hard work of eradicating the people who had lived here before. I had begun the hard work of setting myself into this space and living in it and taking it for all its flaws. I had made it a place for myself and for my family.

There is a white my sister chose called Super White. It is the brightest of the whites that Benjamin Moore has. She chose it for the fireplace and the moldings and ceilings in the semi-gloss. "It’s just what you do," she said. "You paint those things white." And I took that as truth, and I never challenged it, and I’m so glad I never did.

At night, still, I would marvel at how the whites make the other colors even more beautiful than they had been. I would say to my husband, who was finally home, "Didn’t I do this well? Didn’t I choose well?" and he would tell me I did, and he would never bring up the mistakes I’d made, and how much they’d cost. We were home finally, and it didn’t much matter anymore.


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