There are no good divorce stories, I reminded myself while sealing my brewkettle with plastic wrap after putting it in a twenty-seven gallon plastic storage bin.
My divorce absolutely wrecked me when it happened. It’s haunted me intensely ever since. Maybe I should have seen it coming. Whether it was my fault or her fault or no one’s fault, I hadn’t. What one counselor has called “ruminations” have haunted me ever since: things I should have known, understood, acted upon. I didn’t, she left me, and my regrets have been my steadfast companions ever since.
Despite some profound upward financial mobility we’d started to enjoy about a year before she left, the house we’d bought in 2007 got caught up in the Great Recession. We were underwater by nearly $150,000 a year after buying the home. For a decade, we’d paid the mortgage and watched the market inch ever so slowly back upwards. I made a frustrating quarterly ritual of comparing our Zillow estimate to the balance on the mortgage statement. Nevertheless, she finished her college degree and found much improved employment, and combined with some professional successes on my part, gave us a much-improved lifestyle that last year together.
When I’d been unhappy with my own job, she’d urged me to switch employment. “We don’t need all this money, we don’t need this big house with a room we never use, we don’t need all this stuff,” she’d say. She’d bought me the homebrew kit in part to offer me a hobby, a way to take my mind off of the stress of litigation. She’d been very pleased when I took to the art of amateur zymurgy.
But letting go of the house would have been a bigger hit on our credit than I was willing to take. Besides, a 1,550 square foot 3+2 house was, in my opinion, just the right size for a middle-aged married couple with two dogs, two cats, and no kids. So long as we could make the mortgage, we’d eventually get on top, and apparently I cared about doing that more than she did.
Other things happened, which are beyond the scope of this essay. She moved out, saying that she didn’t want to have things. She took basically just her clothing and the bed from the spare bedroom. After a time she took the cats. As for the house, she said, “I want off the note.” She had fanciful ideas about being free of burdens and obligations and possessions and debts and just being free. Even the manageable debt we’d carried — had weighed on her as had me, but differently. When she left me, her attitude was minimalist beyond “Bohemian,” and verged upon ascetic.
I continued to live in the house, surrounded by the possession she had rejected as harmful to her happiness. Within, there’s a lot of stuff we accumulated over fourteen years together.
Not a day has gone by since she left that I haven’t at least choked up and lost the ability to focus on anything other than what I’d lost. From time to time, I find reminders of what used to be despite my attempts to purge them from view: only a few days ago while cleaning I found a love note she had written and hidden for me to stumble upon. Oft inspired by such chance discoveries, my demons have taunted me with my failures as a spouse, and they do not distinguish between the real failures and the ones I have imagined for my own self-flagellation.
Friends and soon enough, professional counselors, all suggested that I try to double-down my focus on work, but this didn’t do me much good. If anything, my periodic frustrations with facets of my position felt magnified, not diminished. Despite liking my clients and co-workers, I was just going through the motions. The firm’s partners responded to my inquiries about the future with indications that there would never be any advancement from the position I was in. If they weren’t ever going to offer me health insurance, they sure as hell weren’t going to ever offer me equity or even profit-sharing. I’d peaked the career path available to me: the only way up was to go out.
Now, one professional goal that I’d wanted, my entire adult life, was judicial appointment. I’d had my shot at just about the same time that my then-wife had got her new job. I made the first cut, but then washed out after bombing my second-cut interview. Never again would my chances be that good — my own practice was changing. It was the dozens of fast-paced trials a day that had made me a good candidate for judicial office. By the time I emerged from my depression enough to consider judicial office again, my docket involved fewer, bigger cases, slower-moving, higher-stakes litigation than what I had handled three years previous.
My professional dreams frustrated, and my personal life rendered ash. No wonder I was depressed, lonely, hopeless. Hopelessness is to depression as dry wood is to fire. It’s hard to say just when I fell into that pit, but having fallen, I found the walls upon which I have to climb out steep and slick.
My ex signed over sole title of the house to me as part of our divorce settlement. As it happened, we met to do that on the anniversary of her leaving me. Her new boyfriend, identified furtively as a “roommate,” waited in the car while we signed the paperwork completing her obligations with respect to the house she and I once bought, but it stung all the same to see that she had enjoyed post-marital romantic success. She told me that they live in a 3+2 house in a nearby city, about the same size as mine. No doubt, it’s filled with the stuff she took, stuff she’s acquired since then, and his stuff.
That evening was the tipping point. I’d lived a full year as an emotional zombie shambling soullessly through a landscape of ghosts. The angel of epiphany sang to me: “There’s no future here for you. Not at work, not at home, nowhere. It’s time to go.” I protested back: “O bringer of this epiphany, won’t I carry my demons with me?” “Yes,” she replied, “but the demons won’t be as powerful without all these ghosts.”
Two weeks later, one of the resumes I had been sending out elicited a job interview, which elicited an offer. The compensation promised was reasonable though not extravagant, and there appeared to be the possibility of using this position to launch towards further advancement in the future. More importantly, it was a shot at a new life in a new, more urban part of Southern California. A new social setting. I accepted the offer and gave my notice the same day.
I’ve said that my only regret is leaving so many good friends behind, but this isn’t exactly true. There’s also the fact that my new position is not one that will involve direct litigation. As a result, this career step will likely will spike my judicial ambitions forever. I shall need to find a different dream to pursue.
I’ve listed the house for sale. So maybe I can name “re-attaining ownership of a single-family home” as my dream and goal.
Urban housing options near my new work offer about 60% less of the living space I’ve become accustomed to. I’ll have no yard, and cramped parking. That feels like a step backwards on the arc of life, and another strike against my pride. At least the bulk of the places I’ve seen are dog-friendly, and there are quality places to live within walking distance of my future office.
It’s garage sale time. I’ve undertaken to liquidate the bulk of my possessions, keeping only those objects which I absolutely need and will use in my new, much smaller circumstances. Like all people confronting a move in Southern California, needs must I also shoulder the quandary of what will I do with my refrigerator? I don’t know exactly where I’m going to move to, after all; how big is the slot in my new home’s kitchen?
The ruthless ethic of “lose it if you don’t use it” ought to govern my behavior for a garage sale. Countless things that have given me pleasure, which memorialize former good times, or which I’ve kept anticipating they’d one day be useful, will all find their way onto my driveway.
My homebrewing equipment, though, I plan to place in storage. My friend owns acreage nearby; like everyone else up here who has acreage, he’s somehow acquired a shipping container for use as a storage unit. Thus, the wrap on the plastic bin, to keep the desert dust from infiltrating the bin while I live elsewhere. Thus, I propose to hang on to the possibility of one day renewing a hobby that began with a kind-hearted gift from my then-wife during happier times past.
The phoenix rises from its own ashes, according to the story, but every depiction of this myth suggests that the bird is reduced completely to ash first before its resurrection. I’ve not yet been reduced completely to ash. As I prepare for it, the garage sale feels like another phase of this ritual immolation.
Perhaps one day I shall once again own a free-standing house and brew beer in my back yard. But that dream looks far away when I look at the price of housing in the big city. So maybe I should just sell the brewing equipment, too, on the principle “lose it if you aren’t going to use it.” I found SCUBA gear in my garage rafters last night, which I haven’t used since before I even met my ex-wife. That makes me wonder about whether it’s realistic that I will ever again brew my own beer and whether I’m wasting effort and time lining a storage bin with plastic wrap rather than selling off the equipment in this weekend’s garage sale. I’ve not decided yet.
Either way, my dog and I will now undertake the kind of quasi-bohemian, semi-monastic, peripatetic existence that my ex-wife said she wanted when she left me, but failed to achieve, while she now lives the sort of life that I wanted, but failed, to preserve with her.
Image by John Beagle