After I left an abusive seven-year marriage with $200 in my checking account and struggled for months towards a settlement, he kept the house, the car, the appliances, and almost all of the furniture. I got some cash, my clothes, my personal possessions, and my library. He refused to pay the postage to mail my engagement and wedding rings to my new address.
After a transitional stay with a generous family member, I prepared to move into a new place. There were a lot of things I didn’t have.
So, one winter afternoon, I drove in a borrowed car to the store and pushed a large shopping cart inside. I grabbed bed pillows, blue damask-stripe sheets and pillowcases in my favorite Egyptian cotton, and a duvet and soft dark-blue duvet-cover. I added a pair of beautiful rusty-orange decorative pillows and a warm tan microfiber throw. I got an off-brand memory foam mattress topper. Then, because I was moving into Philly, I added top-quality bedbug-proof pillow and mattress covers. I got a ceramic soap dispenser and toothbrush holder. I saw a small white-and-gray-scrolled runner rug and threw that in, too. Then a bright purple bathroom rug begged to join the pile (I never would have been able to get it when I was married), and I found a matching set of towels.
By the time I got near the register, the plush tower was teetering out of my cart, and for the first time, I felt a concrete enthusiasm about the future. A future I could actually see. Not a fancy one. But starting with sheets I wanted to sleep on and blankets to match.
The cashier’s side-eye seemed to pop harder with each item she rung up. She began to shake her head and snort, and finally the words came out of her mouth.
“It must be nice to just go buy everything you want,” she said.
Standing at the register, wallet in hand, my eyes prickled. I told myself that 32-year-old people do not cry in the middle of Bed Bath and Beyond. Yes, I was making a large purchase. Definitely more than I’d spent on myself at any one time in my entire life, not counting medical expenses or flights to visit my in-laws overseas.
From behind the pile of my new rugs and towels, blankets and pillows, I blinked tears back and told the cashier, in as few words as possible, why I was buying those things. Her demeanor changed in an instant. She congratulated me for getting out. She called someone to help me load my new things in the car. She wished me luck.
The biggest fallacy about divorce is that life doesn’t start again until you find somebody new. Mine started again when I was grocery shopping one day and realized I could choose whatever food I wanted, with no-one to criticize me.
It started again when I signed a stack of papers in my lawyer’s office while she fiddled with a jammed copy machine, and I crammed sodden Kleenex to my eyes, alone on the long trolley ride home. It started again when I chose a terrier mix at an adoption fair and she rested her chin on my knee while I drove home. It started again when my new roommate sent me nasty texts for taking his dry pants out of the dryer when I needed to use it.
A fellow 30-something divorced woman told me the biggest challenge of life after the split was “finding things I like just because they make me happy. Deriving satisfaction, joy, pleasure, from something that doesn’t involve making someone else happy.” That’s a lesson you learn day by day in an independent life.
“An apartment on my own was so damn liberating,” another recently split friend said.
Finding a new place post-divorce consumed me for months. Besides the Roxborough storage unit where my books lived for over a year, I went through five addresses in about two years, bouncing from my married home in suburban Ambler to the Philly neighborhoods of Mt. Airy (staying with my aunt), Hawthorne (subletting from my cousin), the border of Cedar Park and Kingsessing (beautiful trees; terrible landlord), and then East Passyunk.
I worked and I dated and I went to therapy, but one thing that stands out about those transitional years is wrangling all that stuff from place to place, even after mad purges landed ten years of notebooks in the recycling, a third of my books in a Free Library donation drop-off, and bags of clothing packed up for the thrift. If I could have afforded it, I might have thrown away or donated what little I took out of the marriage, except for my books.
A modest IKEA spree outfitted me with a mattress and bedstead; a desk and chair and filing cabinets; lamps and a shower curtain. I bought a funky green coffee table off my West Philly roommates when they moved to Atlanta with their Boston terrier, and I ordered a long gray couch when I got to South Philly. My mom bought me a wooden dining room table for a song at a Maryland estate sale. It looks funny with my folding chairs, but my roommates don’t seem to mind.
“The ‘stuff’ is the part that has lasted the longest for me,” a friend said of moving out after an eight-year partnership. “Just about everything I owned had memories of that relationship.” And it’s not like you can just pitch it all and start over: As I found, going down to one income means you need to keep a lot of your stuff, whether you like it or not.
When I look at the one small thrift-purchased bureau I took out of my married house, it’s like I can still see the hair balm my ex used to keep in the top right drawer. There is a glass vase of smooth stones in my living room that somehow perfectly match the new-to-me coffee table, the couch, and the turquoise curtains left behind by he of the angry dryer pants, and I remember the sunny October day my ex and I collected the stones on a northern California beach.
“It’s been five years, and I’m still working on replacing things with stuff that won’t remind me of my previous life,” my friend said. She finally threw out some favorite Christmas decorations last year, “because every time I got them out, I thought about where they were or how they were set up in my old life … I’ve realized more and more that there are other things out there that can bring me joy without the sour memories.”
On the other hand, stuff can be what pulls us through. Another friend told me that the key to completing her agonizing decision to leave her long-term relationship was something she stumbled on in a thrift store. Once she had secured a new lease for herself, but before she had mustered the courage to tell her partner she was leaving, she went shopping at Habitat for Humanity’s Resource Exchange for furniture. She didn’t find any she wanted, “But I did find this set of four crystal wine glasses,” delicate things with flowers etched on them—something her partner never would have let her have.
“I bought those glasses for my new place. For my new life, where I was going to be a girly as I wanted.” A purple bedroom, a ballet motif, “and dammit, wine glasses etched with flowers.” She stashed the bag with the glasses in the closet for a week, and renewed her resolve every time she looked at it, even though her self-esteem was so low after six years living with her partner (despite an ivy-league education and ten-year career) that she wasn’t sure she could handle utility accounts on her own.
“That bag with the little flower wine glasses helped me to follow through on what was a gut-wrenching decision,” she said. “Every time I hold one or hand one to a guest, I’m reminded of the very good decision I made, how much better and richer my life is now … and most important, that I can stand on my own.”