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When you stay

…the rooms hadn’t been emptied so much as they’d been manhandled into a patchier version of themselves.  The sofa and dining tables and the better armchairs still in place, it was smaller items–desk lamps, cheap bookshelves, a butcher board chopping block–that would suddenly reveal themselves as not there.  You’d try to set down a glass of water while watching TV and realize the end table was missing.  Kitchen supplies would be thinned out in a way that, oddly, was both insignificant and highly irritating; the flour sifter would be gone from the cupboard, the preferred salad tongs absent, the “good napkins” no longer folded in the drawer on top of the less good ones.

Meghan Daum, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

I wanted to write this as a cheery little ode to staying in the marital residence, and as I started writing, all the sadness and despair that came (for me) with staying in the house rose up and overwhelmed me.  Divorce is such a tangled mess of misery, thwarted desire and grief–it’s nearly impossible to spin it, as I’d like to, into a nice little narrative thread.  I wanted to separate, and my husband did not.  I wanted to move out, and my husband did not.  I would have left, if it had not been for the children, whom he would not allow me to take, and whom I could not fathom leaving (I have written this before, but to me–and remember, I had been the main parent since both were born, never working more than a few hours a day, always wrangling my obligations so that I was home whenever they were–there was a huge difference between “My parents separated when we were five and eleven” and “My mom moved out when we were five and eleven.” In short, I couldn’t leave them.)

In the end, and to his immense credit (and my immense gratitude, even now, though I still want to move out, and the house, which will not sell, is a millstone around my neck) my husband agreed that it was the best thing for the kids if I stayed in the house, which–after a brief period of miserable birdnesting–is what I did.

And he moved into a giant, haphazardly furnished house across town.

I’d bought a bunch of basic stuff for the apartment we’d shared in tandem for four months, and filled out the rest of that cute little abode (god, I loved that apartment, I really did) with extra bits of furniture and whatnot from friends’ basements and attics. It seemed logical that whatever was in that apartment should go with him to his new place…except that our friends wanted their stuff back, so there went the kitchen table.  “I want the kitchen table,” he said, referring to the kitchen table in the marital house.

I was so grateful that he was gone that I gave him whatever he asked for, whatever he needed.

Well, not whatever.  My ex-husband, moving into what felt like a vacuum, wanted to take a good bit of the furniture with him.  I balked.  The house was what it was, and we were trying to create the illusion of SOME kind of stability for the children, and if he took the Ikea bookcases, then I would simply have to buy another set.  It would be easier and infinitely more practical, I told him, if he simply got bookshelves directly from the source, instead of de-booking ours, loading them into the car, then moving and re-booking them.  This made me sound and feel like an insensitive asshole who was unwilling to share.  (For the record, we were sharing the expenses of moving/re-furnishing etc.  So it wasn’t a question of making him pay for new things while I kept the old things for free.)

My ex-husband is a creature of extreme habit.  He likes things the way they ARE.  He was the kind of child who ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every single day for lunch for fifteen years.  Therefore, he wanted his new house to approximate the old house as closely as possible.  He set his new bedroom up using all the furniture from the marital bedroom, in as close to the same configuration as the marital bedroom as he could manage.  (This struck me as both deeply creepy and utterly predictable.)  So, if he couldn’t have the old house, he wanted as much stuff from the old house as he could get, plunked down right where it SHOULD be in the new house.  Make sense?

The stuff in the old house isn’t so great.  It’s all hand-me-down furniture from my family, basically–threadbare sofas covered by perpetually rumpled indian bedspreads, crooked and scratched end tables, things scavenged from my parents’ basements, things found curbside with “Take me!  I’m Free!” signs taped to them.

I did not want to argue over anything, but I balked at the thought of half-emptying the house.  Perhaps is was pure laziness; perhaps it was laziness masquerading as concern for the children, whose, you know, ENVIRONMENT we were trying to preserve.

“Fight over no things, and no abstractions,” a divorced friend of mine told me.  But what do you mean, I begged him, late at night, in the birdnesting apartment, with the phone pressed desperately to my ear.  “I don’t know,” he confessed.  “It’s something my father told me, right before my divorce.”  I wept.  And in the end we did fight–in our own bizarrely silent and long-married way–over things, and we studiously avoided fighting over abstractions.  I started writing this with the intention of giving advice.  I realize I have nothing practical to offer, nothing practical to give.

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