How I Demolished My Life
A home-improvement story
I had wanted, I thought, soapstone counters and a farmhouse sink. I had wanted an island and a breakfast nook and two narrow, vertical cabinets on either side of the stove; one could be for cutting boards and one could be for baking sheets. I followed a cabinetry company called Plain English on Instagram and screenshotted its pantries, which came in paint colors like Kipper and Boiled Egg. Plain English cost a fortune, but around a corner in the back of its New York showroom you could check out the budget version, called British Standard. But it cost a fortune too. I wished there was a budget British Standard. I wished there was a room behind that room, the cabinets getting flimsier and flimsier until a door opened and let me back into my own shitty American kitchen, just as it was.
My husband talked to the architect; my husband talked to the builder. And I kept paring the plans down, down, making them cheaper, making them simpler. I nixed the island and found a stainless-steel worktable at a restaurant-supply store online for $299. I started fantasizing about replacing the counters with two-by-fours on sawhorses and hanging the pots from nails on the wall. Slowly, I realized, I didn’t want this kitchen. Slowly, I realized, I didn’t want this life.
I didn’t want to renovate. I wanted to get divorced.
For a while I had thought—I was quite certain—that I loved our home. It was a mushroomy white with peeling gray shutters, which sounds unappealing but looked just right in the green Pennsylvania clearing where it sat. It had a big fireplace for Christmas stockings and more than enough room for our three kids to grow up in. Even that kitchen—which had the ambiance of an alley and filled with smoke every time I cooked—bothered me more in theory than in practice. There was no counter space, and the light above the sink suffered from some kind of electrical issue. No matter how many times we replaced the bulb, it flickered and went out.
But the upkeep: oh my God, the upkeep. I hired a woman named Luba to clean once a week. I loved talking with her. She was full of sensible advice, like how I should really stop washing the cleaning rags along with the children’s clothes, because the chemicals could irritate their skin. She was likewise full of conspiracy theories and evangelical religion. She was worried about microchips in COVID-19 vaccines. Humanity had a few more years, she thought, probably seven. Then: apocalypse.
Even with Luba’s help, the house was chaos. I could never keep the children and their mess corralled. Toys and books were always underfoot. The crumbs—they were everywhere. I knew I was lucky to have all these crumbs and the house to keep them in. To have Luba to help. Still. If our kitchen became a murder scene, a forensic investigator could have told the story of my days with those crumbs. Three percent blue Play-Doh; 10 percent toast; 87 percent Honey Nut Cheerios dust: This was who I was.
I would vacuum whenever there were so many crumbs that I had to brush them from my bare feet before getting into bed. I disliked the work of vacuuming—the tripping cord, the dumb bump-bumping around sofa legs—but I liked the sound of the sucked-up crumbs, that little clatter. After, for about seven minutes, the house could have belonged to anyone—a flight attendant, a bachelor, a Russian oligarch. Then another Cheerio would fall to the floor.
There’s an essay I love called “Making House,” by Rachel Cusk. She wrote about a friend of hers who “runs her house with admirable laxity … In the kitchen, you frequently feel a distinct crunching sensation from the debris underfoot.” The children’s rooms are “so neglected they have acquired a kind of wilderness beauty, like untouched landscapes.” This mother feels no shame about the mess; she’s free. And I wanted to be like that—to make the home, instead of the home making me.
But the crumbs got me down. I sometimes felt that they were a metaphor, that as I got older I was being ground down under the heel of my own life. All I could do was settle into the carpet.
I didn’t have a secret life. But I had a secret dream life—which might have been worse. I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself. Everything I experienced—relationships, reality, my understanding of my own identity and desires—were filtered through him before I could access them. The worst part was that it wasn’t remotely his fault; this is probably exactly what I asked him to do when we were 21 and first in love, even if I never said it out loud. To shelter me from the elements; to be caring and broad-shouldered. But now it was like I was always on my tiptoes, trying to see around him. I couldn’t see, but I could imagine. I started imagining other lives. Other homes.
What is it with divorced women and real estate? After the terrible conversation when I told my husband how I felt, and that I didn’t think I could change how I felt, I read Dana Spiotta’s new book, Wayward, about a woman who realizes she wants to leave her marriage only after she impulsively buys a fixer-upper. I read Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, about imagining into existence a home of her own after her children are grown and gone. Meanwhile, I called the real-estate agent who’d sold us our house to tell her that we probably needed to put it back on the market, and she told me all about her own divorce—how long she’d stayed, how hard it was to go, and how she still, decades later, sometimes wondered whether it was the right thing to do. Don’t worry about the house, she said; it’ll sell. This happens all the time.
I wanted to be thinking about art and sex and politics and the patriarchy. How much of my life—I mean the architecture of my life, but also its essence, my soul, my mind—had I built around my husband? Who could I be if I wasn’t his wife? Maybe I would microdose. Maybe I would have sex with women. Maybe I would write a book. Not a book about real estate!
But there wasn’t time to think about the big questions. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I agreed: We had to get out of Pennsylvania. It was too painful; neither of us could bear to sleep in the house. We decided to move back to New York, where we’d lived when we were younger and where our friends and work and community still were. We had to rent apartments and fill them with the bare minimum of clothes and Legos; we had to get the kids registered for day care and school before September; we had to sell the house.
I split the knives and forks in half. I packed two pots, two pans, the coffee maker, and a cookie sheet that turned out to be too big for the new apartment’s tiny oven. I’d been pregnant or nursing for most of the past seven years and had finally lost all that baby weight, so my closet was full of drapey clothes that no longer fit. I gave them to Luba, and she mailed them to a church in Ukraine. I sold the dining-room table; my mom took the nursery rocking chair. I emptied the fridge and pulled the trash cans to the curb. That life was gone.
I hadn’t needed to renovate a kitchen; I’d spent seven years renovating myself. My children, the three pregnancies—a literal gut renovation. A major addition, and then a subtraction, and then the strange misshapen aftermath. The giant boobs of breastfeeding that seemed borrowed from another woman’s body entirely and were eventually returned to the mothers of the universe. And then the whole thing again, and again. And now finally my own winnowed, older body, which still feels foreign to me. I had been a house for my family, and now I was empty.
We moved the kids into a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Their father and I split our time between the kids’ place and a one-bedroom garden apartment that friends of ours owned nearby—two nights on, two nights off. This setup is called “nesting”—a cute word for a depressing arrangement. But it was cheaper than having two bigger apartments, and we hoped it would make the transition easier on the kids.
There were days when the magnitude of what I’d done bore down on me. I kept wondering if I’d feel regret, or remorse. It is hard to admit this—it makes me cold, as cold a woman as my ex-husband sometimes suspects I am—but I didn’t. I felt raw, and I liked it. There was nothing between me and the world. It was as if I’d been wearing sunglasses and then taken them off, and suddenly everything looked different. Not better or worse, just clearer, harsher. Cold wind on my face.
I had caused so much upheaval, so much suffering, and for what? He asked me that, at first, again and again: For what? So I could put my face in the wind. So I could see the sun’s glare. I didn’t say that out loud.
But houseless, husbandless, half the nights childless, I had never felt so exposed, out there on the cliff face of single life. I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared, but I was. Twice, trying to keep track of the kids in the park by myself, I lost my oldest son. He ran ahead to the playground, and I lost him. I looked and looked, and then I shouted his name, and then I panicked. One time, someone else’s husband finally helped me find him. Honey, help that poor woman, his wife probably told him. They felt sorry for me and I didn’t care—I was abject with gratitude. I knelt and took my son’s shoulders in my hands and shook him gently, and talked in my serious, quaking voice about how we needed to be safer.
At that moment I missed, acutely, the comforts of our Pennsylvania yard, the quiet street, the swing set that was only our own. Last summer there was a fawn in our backyard, day after day in the tall grass. A doe will leave her baby while she forages, and the baby will stay right there, perfectly camouflaged, until she finally comes back, her mouth stuffed with clover. The fawn was so fragile, I could hardly bear to look at it. My son is only 6. He doesn’t know the worst that can happen. I don’t want him to know. Do I? I admire his confidence, but I sometimes wonder if he could use a little more of that animal intelligence—by which I mean, I guess, fear.
By late fall, to my huge relief, we had an offer on the house. When the deal went through, my ex and I agreed that we could afford our own separate places. I started to wonder: What would I do with the apartment when it became my apartment?
Up until then, the space had been blank, impartial. It hadn’t seemed right to decorate, to hang anything on the walls, as long as the kids’ father and I were sharing it. I had exerted so much of my will on his world already. Besides, I wanted to let go of the idea that the home I made defined me, that I was made more real by homemaking. And yet there was truth to it. So much of homemaking is plainly material: dishwasher pods and blackout curtains and crumb control. But so much is storytelling. Maybe what I really wanted was new things—things only I had chosen, things that would make my hidden self come into view.
I was a little embarrassed about this; it felt hypocritical. Still, thinking of the future, I bought a few prints. One was an illustration of a man gazing up at a giant wall of cubbies, like at a museum gift shop or a nursery school. The cubbies were filled with objects: a nautilus, a hat, a small volcano. It was called Everything in Its Right Place. I kept it under the toddler’s crib.
We told the kids what was up, and the older two seemed to understand: Mom would have a place, and Dad would have a place, and both places would be theirs. We would all be just a few minutes apart, I said. This would be convenient, obviously, but I felt strongly about it for a deeper reason: I wanted them to feel at home in both apartments, but even more so I wanted them to feel at home in the blocks between—to feel part of their neighborhood, of the public school and the park and the sidewalks and the city beyond.
By breaking up our family, I’d taken something from my kids that they were never going to get back. Naturally, I thought about this a lot. There was nothing I could give them to make up for it, except, maybe, a way of being in the world: of being open to it, and open in it.
The kids didn’t care about soapstone counters or what kinds of hinges were on their cabinets. More and more, I understood that what I wanted for them was public, not private, spaces. Maybe they would know from the beginning, in a way I hadn’t, that they didn’t have to own the playground to share it: monkey bars polished by thousands of hands, the secret shaded rooms under the slides, the parents filling water balloons for any passing children.
All that fall, we barely went home. We lived from playground to playground to park, on a diet of peanut-butter sandwiches and ice-cream-truck soft serve. On my nights alone, I caught up with old friends, frantically made new friends, said way too much about my personal life over drinks with colleagues. Out in the city, I felt solid: a capable woman taking care of her family.
It was harder to hold on to that confidence inside the home, where, I guess, I still expected a husband to be.
One day, walking down the street, my oldest asked me, “Mom, do you have any fantasies?”
“Um …” I stalled. “I have fantasies, but they’re sort of personal. Do you have any fantasies?”
“Yeah,” he said, “sure. Like a horseshoe is good luck.”
I laughed but it made sense. He’d mixed up fantasy and superstition. I often felt in those months that there was something fantastic about our lives, that by uprooting us from the solidity of the house, I had made us freer but also, somehow, less real. Secretly, by not having a husband, I suspected I was getting away with something. I had an irrational fear that if I lost my temper at the kids, or struggled to make rent, or drank too much white wine, or even admitted that I was having a really hard time, the Marriage Police would knock on my door. “Sorry, ma’am,” they’d say. “You just can’t hack it.” They’d hand me my summons. I’d have to go crawling back to Pennsylvania.
In December, I did have to go back to Pennsylvania. It was the week of the closing date, and I had to clean out the last of our things.
I’d left at the end of summer and now the trees were bare, but the place looked as beautiful as ever. People have so many superstitions about happy homes, so many traditions. The horseshoe above the entryway, the mezuzah by the door. Here’s another: No one wants to buy a house where something sad has happened. One of the first pieces of advice our real-estate agent gave me was that no one needed to know that our marriage was ending. We’ll just say you’re moving for work, she told me (which, to be clear, was also true! Living in New York was better for our careers). Make sure your husband keeps some clothes in the closet, she said.
I get what people are afraid of. But the ghost of my marriage doesn’t live in that house. Those stones are almost 200 years old—they’ve stood through way more storms than mine. The ghost of my marriage, if it lives at all, lives with me, following me around drearily, shooting me sad looks. Like my mother, it casts a disappointed eye around the small apartment, at the empty walls, asking, “Really?”
Inside the house, I tackled the closets first. I took out the blazers, the shirts and ties, hanging there so symbolically. It occurred to me that this might be the last time I would ever fold his clothes; I tried to do it gently. I had thought I would do some writing there: box up the things and then let out my feelings. But the packing took hours, and by nine at night my back was killing me, and the movers would be there so early in the morning. I lay down in the dark house and, like I had for so many years as a wife, wrote nothing.
The next day, back in Brooklyn, I decorated for Christmas. We didn’t have a fireplace anymore, so I nailed some twine to the wall behind the couch and hung the stockings there. Then I rushed out to buy a tree. I thought it would be hard to carry it by myself, but it wasn’t, not very. I screwed it into the stand and strung the lights and ran out of time to vacuum the needles. Walking the kids back from after-school care in the blue December dark, I said there was a surprise at home. They ran ahead and stopped short outside our building. They looked at the tree, glowing in the window, and I looked at them.
Maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe I’m not free of anything and I just want different objects, a different home, maybe someday—admit it—a different man. Maybe I’m starting the same story all over again. “For what?” you’d ask me, and you’d be right.
But I don’t think so. I think I’m making something new.
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