a portrait of divorce

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one Three years ago, I lived in a gleaming sterile 42-story building in midtown Manhattan. Big as it was, it was dwarfed by the Empire State Building behind it– New York has a way of offering a ready reminder that you can always have more. I never wanted to live there in the first place but I’ll admit I came to enjoy the one-on-one yoga classes, the incredible views, and the perspective that comes from living in the middle of a very big something. It was fabulous but shallow. I resented my affection for it. When my marriage started failing, I left.

two The little brownstone in Brooklyn was the epitome of hope and innocence. I believed I would check the box of legitimate adulthood by living alone for once– one short month to be exact. In that time, I’d get out of my system, whatever it was that wasn’t working, move back with my husband, and everything would be back to normal. We’d laugh about it later.

When I made the arrangements with the renter, she said “I’ll be a nice girl from California and you be a nice girl from Michigan and lets just trust each other, ok?”

It was wonderful to insert myself in a space that someone else had made theirs, it didn’t require much imagination to consider that I could make a home like this too. To this day, the smell of Dr. Bronner’s dish soap reminds me of my nascent singlehood. But I had to be out before the end of the month and, with travel for Christmas and New Years, that meant I was moving again just three weeks after moving in and no, I wasn’t ready to go back to my former life.

three Feeling adventurous and pressed for time, I moved into a basement apartment before leaving New York for the holidays. It was farther from the subway, and the quarters were dingier and dirtier, but I was testing my boundaries and I thought it would be cool to live with artists. Moving sucks but this wasn’t so bad. I could fit everything but me and my bike into a single cab and so I cycled behind, unloaded, and poof! I was moved.

Over New Years, a car accident snapped my sternum and four ribs and my eagerness for adventure morphed into an aching desire to Just. Be. Comfortable. The cool art space was frigid and soiled and the divorce papers were going through and it hurt just to breath. Before the valium prescription ran out, I was moving again.

four Up to trendy Williamsburg (almost), I found a cheap new-construction ready made with three friendly roommates, in-unit laundry and a less brutal winter draft into my bedroom. I started dating erratically, testing the patience of my wholesome roommates with an interesting rotation of whichever guys didn’t know or didn’t care that I was pre-divorce.

When my ribs healed, I rediscovered my bicycle and cherished the rides across the Williamsburg bridge, alone but surrounded, starting to be free. Detaching from my former life, I began to feel like child learning to ride for the first time without realizing no one else was holding her bike up- I was doing it myself!

But, my health wasn’t getting better and maybe even was getting worse. I remember how the sunlight cut across my basement bedroom one morning as I lay curled up in the grips of my disappointing reality. That was when the revelation came that it was time to excuse myself from my life, to find nature, to walk in it, and to do it until I was healed. I decided to use an already-planned family vacation just five weeks later to launch myself on this impulsive desperate adventure. In that small time, I quit my job, planned the trip, put everything in storage and said goodbye to the remainder of my New York life. Over those last weeks in the city, I fell in love with my life, with the possibilities it gave me, with the thrill of taking them.

five All across norther Michigan, I hiked alone and slept in my tiny tent. I bought one particular model with the romantic notion of using it as a hammock, but that lasted only about three cold nights and then it was the ground for me. I like a frameless tent­– it can only stand with tension and solid earth. I read and wrote every night in the light of my headlamp, for at least as long as it took to kill all the mosquitos that had followed me into the tent. I couldn’t sit up in my tent, let alone stand. Even if I had wanted company, there was only room for just me.

I fell asleep to the sounds of moose or coyotes or crickets or frogs. I loved the warm clear nights when I got away with not using the rain tarp. I could see stars through the mesh and in the morning I woke up slowly, taking in the branches and sky above until my bladder belly or brain forced the issue.

Most of the time, my tiny tent worked wonders, but there were the nights when I worried about getting trampled by moose, or run over by drunk drivers, or flooded in the rain. Sometimes I resented having to set ­up my bed each night and put it away each morning, but mostly it was a fulfilling chore, a sign of movement and progress. By the end of the trip, I was so lazy or so hardcore that I stopped using the sleeping pad. After six weeks on the trail, I reached the end of the road and was faced with the glaring question of what to do next.

six I moved back home with my parents. It wasn’t like I was really living there, I reasoned, since it was temporary. Then again, I definitely didn’t live anywhere else. On the trail I had considered every iteration of a possible future, trying on different options every day in an infinity of imagined lives. But making plans from the isolation of the trail was harder than I thought it would be, and, in the absence of a decision, home would have to do.

I had never felt more incredibly accomplished or more impossibly lame. On the one hand, I had just completed a 700-mile solo trip. On the other hand, I was unemployed, living with my parents and as lost as I’ve ever been on the trail. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I ripped the band-aid. I made a choice. I moved to Detroit.

The first day I drove in New York was the last day I lived there.

seven Detroit was tough from the start. I rented a bedroom in a downstairs duplex with a stranger. It was cold and lonely in a depopulated city where people tend to hole up for the winter. I was utterly new in town but I made a few friends writing and working out of a high-end coffee shop just a block away. I’ve always known that “you’re new for longer than you think” but Detroit opened up to me with faces that were quickly familiar and a rather gentle initiation period.

At $300 a month I liked to say that I paid “one zero less” than my rent had been in New York just a year before. But I wasn’t really comfortable, not ever really comfortable. I insulated the crawlspace I’ll never forget the desiccated dead rat still stuck in its mousetrap but it was still cold. There was a pig skull in the oven from the former renter, extended silence with my roommate, and I was in the midst of the terrifying work of facing my illness every day.

When I moved to Detroit, I gave myself six months to try it out. The end of that period coincided with a trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro, after which I would decide whether to plant roots or let the breeze carry me somewhere else.

eight Kili didn’t change me the way I hoped it would so I returned from Africa’s tallest peak just as I’d returned from my backpacking trip– proud but disappointed. I followed the old formula of hitting reset on my life– new job, new relationship, new apartment– but I was suddenly and surprisingly committed to the city of Detroit. I accidentally made a commitment. I remember watching the ice floes break along the Detroit river that spring and feeling proud that I’d survived winter.

My new home was a beautiful apartment with a good friend. I changed my mailing address and became a bona fide Detroit resident. From my bed I could hear the sound of foghorns from the freighters on the river. I kept busy. I biked everywhere. I got a new job, I wrote articles, I became an activist. Stability started creeping in until winter came and brought the news that I would have to move. No furniture of my own meant I had to sublet and the month-to-months don’t last forever.

nine Sometimes I tore down the walls and sometimes they tore me. My second winter in Detroit included a break up, a job loss and a forced move. My roommate’s boyfriend was moving in and I would have to go. I moved during the weekend of an inauspicious blizzard and hoped for the best. I was wary about the new accommodations but my new roommate had a good feeling about it and was very convincing. The owner had fixed up the downstairs for rent and lived upstairs in the cold with no running water. Our space was spruced with gorgeous furniture and nice detail but the feral landlord was like a caged animal looking over us.  Every interaction was tense, I was afraid to breathe.

The roommate that I had built up to soulmate status fell in love and as soon as we moved in together so I was either alone in the apartment or in the company of her violent weimaraner who bit me repeatedly. I was exhausted, but half glad, when the asshole upstairs told us to be out in 30 days.

ten In my search for the next nest, I looked at 13 apartments, houses, flats, rooms. I wanted to live everywhere and nowhere. I didn’t belong anywhere. But how do you belong before you arrive, anyway? I settled on the lower floor of a tiny Sears-catalog house in Hamtramck that was cheap enough for me to rent alone. I signed a year-long lease, with no co-signer, for the fist time in my life. My boyfriend wordlessly helped me move in. He hated it. He thought I could do better. He knew I should do better.

I stood firm for 24 hours but then panicked and told the landlords that I didn’t feel safe living there alone.

They obligingly tore up the contract. When you drive north from downtown Detroit on the highway, you’ll pass a sign that says “Welcome to Hamtramck” and then, one minute later, another will read “Welcome to Detroit.” I like to think of Hamtramck as a verb– “to quickly enter then exit. ” I was gone in two days with no lease or landing board but the house of the man whose car lugged my growing possessions around, another 40 miles up the highway to my boyfriend’s home in the country.

eleven At first, I resented my distance from Detroit, my dependence on my boyfriend, and my failure to fulfill my independence but after a week or so, I embraced my circumstances. Stability, while not of my own making, was good for me. My boyfriend and I ran in the woods, we biked, we cooked dinner. I was healthy. I even let myself fall in love.

Still, I strained at my boundaries. I wanted to be in Detroit, I wanted independence, and I wanted a relationship on the terms of choice rather than need (if such a thing exists).

twelve I moved into a large and lovely one-bedroom apartment, which I would pay for by working as an on-site property manager, or glorified superintendent. I picked up garbage from the yard, mowed the grass, negotiated a large set of keys and handled the needs of the other tenants.

My apartment would be the “model unit” for prospective renters or buyers so it had to look good. I acquired furniture for the first time since being married. I got a record player and reupholstered yard-sale chairs for my beautiful new dining room. I ate breakfast on my patio every morning, because I could.

For the first time, I was really living on my own. I was staying healthy and discovering what it was to be independent. It felt revolutionary just to pack my own lunch in the morning. Everything felt so new and I wanted to experience it on my own. I was flirting again and feeling the strain of commitment.

One day, my boyfriend helped install a shelf into my kitchen and then announced his withdrawal from the relationship on my behalf. We held each other and sobbed in the sunlight of my spacious living room but when he left, I didn’t stop him.

I loved my apartment but I knew it wouldn’t last forever. So, I bought a house for $500 at auction in hopes of fixing it up, moving, and breaking the insane cycle of turnover. I knew it was crazy but, yet,  there’s precedent for it in Detroit. I just needed time.

Time ran out more quickly than I thought because it turns out that a model unit looks better when there’s not a person in it. I got the news that I have to move again while my “three bed, no bath” home wasn’t even close to being ready.

next Since I escaped from the orbit of my marriage, my life has pulled me along an endless series of neighborhoods and roommates and circumstances and interests. Facing another move, I have to own up to the role I play in my own vagrancy. The counterpoint to my lack of commitment is lack of stability, and it’s a consequence I seem willing to accept, over and over again. I still feel overwhelmed with choice. I still wonder where I belong, Maybe I’m not done exploring yet, maybe the next place will be home.



2 Replies to “a portrait of divorce”

  1. To paraphrase Quantum Leap, “leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that her next leap… will be the leap home.”

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