“Will you pick the colors for the siding?” My husband’s voice is raw and tender. He pauses, then says softly, “You’ve decorated all our homes.”
I press my cell phone against my ear, and study the black and white Art Deco tiles in my mother’s kitchen backsplash. He is asking me to choose the palette for the Frank Lloyd Wright cottage he wants to build in the woods. A house I will never live in. He still doesn’t understand I’ve left. “I probably shouldn’t—it might send a mixed message,” I say. Saying no to my soon-to-be ex-husband’s request is hard for me, but my therapist insists I set boundaries and stick to them.
“I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask,” he says. After we hang up, the conversation lingers as the saddest moment in our pending divorce. It is only fitting that it involves fixing up a house, because houses were the one thing we did well together.
Why I Had to Leave
During our three decades of marriage and a real estate partnership, we sold thousands of houses, renovating and flipping and building our own home on Bayberry Lane along the way, watching it grow from a dream, then a blueprint, then a hole in the ground to a place where we raised our two children and did all the usual family things. Until, after thirty years of marriage, at 49, I decided to leave, smack in the middle of the Covid shut down. Neither one of us could quite believe it.
I think I have made a mistake, I wrote in my journal two months after my wedding night.
I should have been happy. Six years ago, after a thirty-day stint in rehab, my husband came home sober and determined to work hard on our marriage. The strong, quiet type, he expressed his love by trimming the staircase, building bookshelves with a window seat for reading, renovating the guest room. He scraped, painted, and upgraded our home with fury as if his improvements were a penance for the pain his addictions had inflicted. In the first few months post-rehab, he did everything right, going to AA meetings, joining a recovery group, trying to mend things with our son, as he diligently upgraded our home and gardens. I think he assumed our family had been saved and my pardon granted.
Yet something was missing—something I couldn’t name—something that had been buried by addiction, and also by time and regret.
My Early Dreams
As a teenager, I’d once dreamed of becoming an actress, and spent half the day in my rural Pennsylvania high school then hopping the bus to New York City for auditions, go-sees, acting classes, and bookings. I landed the cover of True Love magazine, got my picture on the front of an Ogilvie Home Perm box, screen-tested for All My Children, and filmed guest roles on several soap operas. At night, in my unheated, un air-conditioned attic bedroom, I’d imagine living the creative life of an artist, an actor, maybe a producer one day. It felt like anything was possible.
Then I met the man who would become my husband. I was 17, and I was star struck. In our small Pennsylvania town, he was charming, handsome, and famous: a local star athlete turned professional soccer player who my two soccer-playing brothers idolized. We dated one summer, broke up, then reunited two years later in a six-month, hormone-fueled, long-distance courtship. We’d never spent more than a few days together in the same city but under pressure from my old-fashioned family to be a good girl, instead of moving from New York City to Dallas to cohabitate with my lover, I married him so as not to “live in sin.”
“I think I have made a mistake,” I wrote in my journal two months after my wedding night. I was 19, thousands of miles away from home with no support system. Trying to communicate with my husband was hard. After a night of drinking with his friends, I’d tell him how sad this made me, which would spiral into a fight and then long silent spells. When I told my mother about my unhappiness, she encouraged me to try harder and not to expect my emotional needs to be filled by a man. And so began a perpetual bargain with myself: if he would stop drinking, if he would stop gambling, if he would be home for dinner, if he would talk to me, if, if, if. Whatever it was, a good wife, then—ten years into our marriage—a good mother wouldn’t give up. The weeks turned into years. Twenty-nine to be exact.
The COVID Opportunity
The final home improvement project my husband and I did together was a small stone garden wall. It was a late summer day, the air not too hot, the sun golden. We worked together, but a voice deep inside told me I wasn’t happy. That I needed more.
I left home to hunker down with my elderly mother, under the ruse that I had to take care of her.
“I am who I am. I am not changing at this age. I have no more to give,” my husband said in our last therapy session as a couple.
This felt like an ultimatum and I asked myself if I was willing to live this way another thirty or forty years. Was this as good as any marriage got?
COVID provided an opportunity, of sorts. I left home to hunker down with my elderly mother, recently discharged from the hospital, under the ruse that I had to take care of her. The world was upended, my 50th birthday loomed, and this felt like permission to reorganize my life, to begin again on the other side of this mess. I started planning my escape.
“This is your mother’s doing,” my husband told our seventeen-year-old daughter the night he took a final walk with her in the only neighborhood she had ever known. He was mad. He felt betrayed. The irony is that my husband had to come clean and be the man I always wanted him to be before I felt safe enough to admit—to him and to myself—that I had married too young, before I knew who I was. The chaos of addiction made it impossible to do anything but survive and provide for my kids, to put my head down and soldier on. My world got narrower and I acclimated, always hoping things would get better and rationalizing that an intact family was best for my children, pretending that our marriage—and our house—were perfect. My husband says the divorce is my fault, and maybe he is right, not because I want it, but because I waited so long to say so.
Selling the House
The morning our house went on the market, I primped the peonies on the kitchen table and ran the Swifter over the hardwood floors preparing for our first showing. My husband had worked all weekend to get it ready and now I had returned to dust and straighten rooms I no longer lived in. My twenty-year old son grumbled as I barged into his room and pulled up the curtain, sending the stark morning light into his messy bedroom. He was a year older than I when my show business dreams came to a screeching halt and I left the city to marry his father. My son was not supposed to be home in the crossfire of our separation, but COVID sabotaged my extensive house-selling/divorce plans.
“The house is on the market today. There’s a showing in thirty minutes.” I picked up the dozen crumpled candy wrappers from my son’s floor and two apple sauce crusted containers. “You have to get up.” I tugged on his navy-blue comforter. “Now.”
“This sucks,” he mumbled, rolled over, and then stumbled out of bed.
It did. Because I’d buried the girl with the big plans, which was my fault—not my husband’s. I was a phony. I wasn’t true to myself. And no amount of paint or carpentry could fix what was broken in me. I needed a new kind of shelter. It was time to go.
My son was not supposed to be home in the crossfire of our separation, but COVID sabotaged my plans.
Our house sold in the first hour it hit the market to the first couple who toured it for the full asking price. I didn’t attend the closing. I’d seen it all before. A young couple marrying. Or a new baby on the way. On the other side, someone divorcing. Either Champagne or tissues would be appropriate.
“It was a great neighborhood to raise children,” I tell the new owners when they drop by to see if they want any of the furniture. “This is my garden,” I tell her, pointing to the pink cone flowers and biting my lip. Distracted by her babies, the wife isn’t listening. “You don’t know what’s ahead, but listen to yourself,” I want to tell her. “Be true to yourself. Don’t lose who you are.”
My ex-husband didn’t build the cottage in the woods. Instead, he moved into a condo five minutes across town. My son is back at college. And for the first time in my adult life, I am not a homeowner. Instead, at 50, I choose to live once again on the third floor of my mother’s home, in the attic bedroom, with rooms on the second floor for my two children to visit. It has been fun renovating it, picking out the decor exactly as I want it. Everything feels familiar yet new and exciting, and ridiculous and scary at the same time. I tell friends I’ll be here a year or two or three at the most. Then I stop myself. It’s time to live in the moment. I am finally ready to figure out who I am supposed to be.
Heather Christie is the award-winning author of the young adult novel “What The Valley Knows” and the producer of the national storytelling phenomenon Listen To Your Mother, Greater Berks. Her second novel, The Lying Season, will be published in Fall 2021. You can find Heather at her website.