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Alternately (updated)

May 17, 2010

I’ve been gone since last Wednesday, when I flew the coop-to-be for my boyfriend’s apartment. Never believe anyone who says you can’t outrun your problems–if you hole up in someone else’s lair and treat your phone, when it rings, as if it were a poisonous snake, your problems can’t find you! For two straight days I loafed spectacularly, managing to hit the exact sweet spot between doing some of the things I was required to do and neglecting to do others while reading a novel and eating cookies in my boyfriend’s bed. (He was at work, poor sucker.) At some point I did venture forth, blinking a little in the sun. A museum was visited. A friend was lunched with. There was idle talk of going to the movies. And to think, it wasn’t even Saturday yet.

On Saturday we drove out to the country and spent the night with a couple of my friends–friends from college, who started out as my ex-husband’s friends and then gradually, over the years, became mostly mine. They gallantly shepherded us to a talk by a sculptor they know (strange coincidence: I went to boarding school with his wife) and then to a small gathering, then a larger gathering, then home, where we lolled in their hot tub for a while. Some of us went to bed, and some stayed up talking till two, and the next morning was sunny and gorgeous. The parties the night before were hosted by artists, and their ramshackle, beautiful houses and yards comforted me. It’s awfully nice to be reminded that I’m not the only middle-aged person who still has Indian bedspreads covering holes and stains on her hand-me-down furniture. It doesn’t do the heart good to hang around yuppies if you aren’t one yourself.

Of course I now have a whole new set of cravings for the imaginary house my boyfriend and I will someday inhabit, including a working claw-footed bathtub nestled outside in a lilac hedge; a studio with weathered gray walls; a clever arbor built of wood, surplus camo netting, and vines; a clothesline; beach roses, irises, tulips, and carefully pruned apple trees; outdoor showers shaded by climbing roses; wisteria; poppies. Baltimore Orioles kept landing in the trees. I talked a lot about chickens, which went over very well (thank you for your advice–I am properly inspired)…artists are a chicken-friendly group. The weekend made me greedy for the future, and nostalgic also for my past–not the past with my college friends, though that was part of it, but my childhood with my writer stepfather and my amazingly game mother. We lived in all kinds of funky little places, shabby houses in beautiful surroundings, and we burned wood for fuel (and even, in Montana, in the stove she cooked on!) and hung everything outside to dry (in the winter, my younger siblings’ diapers would freeze on the line). My mom taught herself to knit and bake bread and even can the vegetables she grew in her massive garden in Colorado. There were the chickens, of course. And my parents had interesting, bohemian friends who came and went and befriended me separately, as if the twenty or so year age difference between us didn’t exist. This was how I grew up, and it’s not how I live any more.

The weekend reminded me again of a vague feeling I’ve had for a while–the feeling that I got off track, somehow, living the way I lived for nearly two decades. Again, I’m not sure how it happened, when and why the kind of life I always thought I wanted, always assumed I’d have, split off from the life I ended up with. A few years ago, one of my old boyfriends (he’s now a Buddhist monk) grew exasperated with my whining and said, “Look, it’s not as if the Suburban Housewife Fairy showed up and waved her wand and poof! there was the Volvo in the driveway and the yellow lab and two kids and the husband off at work…where were you when decisions were being made? Surely you had some control over all of this?”

He’s right, and it’s churlish to complain. The best way to look at it is thus: I now have a chance to dial things back, to start over and indulge bohemian fantasies my ex-husband didn’t share. He’d never have gone for chickens. He didn’t like to garden. He had no interest in building things, and he’d have hated the thought of an outdoor bathtub. I could go on and on, but what’s the point?

He took the kids to look at the dream cottage this weekend, while I was away. They came home from school today all excited. “Dad says you probably won’t sell the house, and even if you get an offer right now it won’t be in time for you to move by July first,” my younger son said, matter-of-factly. I can’t make up my mind whether this is a calculated bit of obnoxiousness–my ex-husband’s subtle way of edging me out of any kind of claim I might have on the cottage–or whether it’s something overheard (perhaps the realtor said it?) and repeated out of context. The kids described every room in the cottage (which reminds me much more of the places I visited this weekend than, say, my sprawling monster of a house.) I mentioned a spot I’d noticed in the corner of the cottage’s yard that I thought would be perfect for a cactus garden–my kids like cacti–and their faces lit up, and they started chattering about it. Oh, now I’ve gone and given it away, I thought, ungenerously. Oh, I could bite my tongue out.

Part of why I want to leave this place is to start the fuck over. I know that moving three blocks away into a smaller house isn’t exactly joining the Peace Corps; however, I want somewhere that doesn’t remind me so much of the marriage, and I want somewhere MINE. I don’t want to own, I want to rent. I got word today that my mild-mannered professor tenant may in fact have gotten a job out of state; while that’s wonderful news for her, it means I’ve got to find someone else if I intend to turn the heat on at all this winter. This house is too big. It’s old and decrepit, so there’s always THAT, I suppose. At any minute something crucial could break or collapse, and maybe I’d be reduced to living in a shed in the yard and hanging my laundry out to dry in any case.

“The cottage is going to be so great,” the kids kept saying. Meanwhile I walked around my house feeling something was a tiny bit off, until I realized that someone–my ex, obviously–had come into the house (to drop off cleats!) while I was driving home this morning, and had, once again, rifled through my bookcases. Plenty of our books are technically marital acquisitions, but I have begged him not to take things while I’m gone. Unless some realtor or Person Who Won’t Buy My House happened to take The Foucault Reader and replace it half-assedly on another shelf (to fill a gap, I’m thinking–and which book is now gone? It makes me crazy that I can’t remember what was there), then my ex came in, as he has many times in the past, and helped himself to whatever he wanted. Confronting him gets me nowhere; he’ll deny it or say, “Oh, I thought I told you. Sorry. I’ll bring it back when I’m finished.” And as I’ve said before, fighting is what you do when you’re married. The whole point of divorce, it seems to me, is that you never have to fight with the person you’re severed from, ever again, unless you really want to.

(Updated to add: This morning, my younger son started to put on yesterday’s socks. “Oh, get some new ones from the drawer,” I said, “because your feet get SO smelly, and we just did all that laundry, remember? So there should be a million pairs.” “Not a million,” he said. “Dad and I came and got a bunch of pairs and some shirts and pants and stuff because he says all the socks migrate over to your house.”

His bedroom–and mine–are all the way up on the third floor. My house has become a multi-floor shopping experience. Like a department store.

I’m trying to figure out the logic here. Kid has two feet. He goes to his father’s wearing two socks. He comes home wearing two socks. I buy all the clothes, so I buy new socks from time to time, but other than that, migration seems impossible.

I am on the verge of losing my sang-froid. Though we just HAD this very argument a few weeks ago, I kid you not. This is unimportant in the big picture, I suppose–but why does it drive me out of my fucking mind?)

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 6:29 am

    The description of your childhood haunts and houses was deeply satisfying. Lovely.
    I can see (again) why you wanted that cottage. Never mind, it will happen, ex-husband notwithstanding – maybe somewhere else. Keep the faith.

  2. Camilla permalink
    May 18, 2010 3:54 pm

    If this is really a pattern, take some pictures of the bookshelves?

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2010 4:03 pm

      Totally a pattern, and not just with books, and a thing I’ve brought up several times. But yes, I’ve thought of the picture thing–seemed a bit paranoid/J. Edgar Hoover-ish (me waving photos, screeching about how he stole books…) I can tie myself up in all kinds of knots about it, because I still feel guilty, feel that the stuff is half his (even if it’s not, and even if I’ve made it clear he can have whatever he asks for, provided he asks and doesn’t take, etc). Every time I confront him about something he’s taken he apologizes and says he didn’t think I’d mind, meant to tell me, thought he had told me, won’t do it again. And then does it again.

      • Camilla permalink
        May 18, 2010 7:40 pm

        Yeah, it doesn’t really address the dysfunction of the situation, but the trick of leaving behind (when traveling) a photocopy of the contents of one’s wallet once really saved my bacon, so I’m a fan of that sort of record keeping.

        I get very upset about losing items (even valueless items) and find that working out a “remedy” of some form often puts the obsession to rest. In this case, I’d go through the exercise of taking some digital photos, and phrase it as a spell to prevent future fretting.

        I think it would be a little off to wave photos around, but much less so to use a camera to fake having a really precise memory.

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        May 18, 2010 7:45 pm

        That’s genius. And I DO have a really precise memory. Especially with photos to back it up.

        Mostly I’m just bummed he didn’t take the damned Foucault instead of whatever else it was.

  3. May 18, 2010 4:20 pm

    I know this vague off-track feeling you are writing about and I love the response from the old boyfriend. I have the same feeling and I don’t even live in the suburbs. I am constantly reminding myself to trend toward the bohemian because we will never achieve yuppie-hood and being a yuppie wanna-be is surely worse. Alas, the capitalist tide is strong and deep.

  4. May 18, 2010 7:39 pm

    I really like the concept of a somewhat bohemian lifestyle and live in an area on the East Coast that is Bohemian Central. I am sometimes envious of friends who live in other places and are waaaaaay better off, financially, than my husband and I are but when I remind myself that a bohemian-ish lifestyle is really more me, I lose (some of) that sense of envy. I’m not, and don’t want to be, a Stepford wife or live in a gated community. I talked with my therapist about this last Saturday and she helped me think about what is at the core of this envy and it’s really about the financial security these friends appear to have and the lack of worry and stress (from my perspective) related to money. THAT is what is truly appealing, not the bland 3,000 sf house decorated straight out of the Pottery Barn. Mrs. G., you are so right – yuppie wanna-be isn’t a pretty color on me.

    IB – can you change or add locks to your doors? Even if the house technically still belongs to the two of you, how is it okay for him to be traipsing through it when he no longer lives there? I’m assuming you don’t have access to his house in that same way. Then, if he wants something from the house, he needs to ask for it.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2010 7:50 pm

      In theory, yes. In practice, no, because some child or other is always forgetting some item or other. I don’t go into his house–I send the kids in to get their stuff–unless I have to. But if I’m away and the kids are with him and someone left a baseball mitt on the kitchen table…well, you know.

  5. Celeste permalink
    May 18, 2010 8:49 pm

    I think I’d relocate the books behind a locked door in the sprawling house, declaring all of them mine from here on out. Possession, nine-tenths, blah blah. I know the unease you’re talking about regarding the missing book, and I’d want it not to happen again. I think this puts you in a position of control rather than a defensive position of taking photos.

    Hopefully it’s only books and not other items. I wonder if he plays klepto at other peoples’ houses.

  6. May 18, 2010 11:56 pm

    The descriptions of your childhood are so lovely. Funnily enough, sounds much like the life I am living now in New Zealand. I guess my parents were sort of bohemians in their way. They were more like 70s and 80s versions of David Brooks’ bobos. xo’s

  7. Apple permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:07 am

    I think Rebekah is right – you should change your locks. This is a violation of your privacy, your space, your home. And the fact that he helps himself to anything is completely unacceptable – whether it be a child’s socks or your books. If there is something that is his or hasn’t been divided yet, he can ask you for it and you can give it to him the next time he drops off the kids.

    As for the kids forgetting stuff, I think it is important for you to teach them to plan ahead. I know they are young, but it is time to start. And guess what? If they forget something, dad can either get a second one for his house, or they can deal until you can meet someone at the house to retrieve the forgotten item. (Also, you could hide a key outside the house in case a REAL emergency item is left, like the one and only stuffed animal they can’t sleep without, and you are away!).

    I don’t mean to sound harsh; I just don’t think he belongs in your home when you are not there. It crosses the line.

  8. May 19, 2010 10:55 am

    I think I’m with the above commenter about boundaries, and about him not entering your house when you are not there. We struggle with forgotten items too….but my ex does not have keys to my house (nor will he ever have keys) and I do not have keys to his house (and yes, it happens often and there are major tantrums, but we try to make lists that are posted on the door to help us remember everything, and natural consequences are that if you forget it, it’s your own damn fault and maybe next time you will not forget it). The truth is, your ex consistently abuses the privilege of having access to your house when you are not there, despite saying otherwise. I know in your situation, your kids have their own keys to the house, so therefore it’s impossible to really limit access, but perhaps you need to get an attorney involved and spell out how inappropriate it is for him to enter your house, riffle through your things, all without your knowledge or consent. I empathize about your position on not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to make things harder for the kids, but I truly believe this is out of bounds here and you need to draw a line in the sand. And coming over to take socks is not the same as swinging by to pick up a forgotten mitt or hockey stick. Truth be told, if a mitt is forgotten, go buy another freaking baseball mitt. Go buy some freaking socks if you need them. That’s what money is for – to solve your immediate problems. He should not be in your house, taking things from your house, when you are not there. Period. And you should not be entertaining ideas of how to accommodate his inappropriate behavior (taking photographs of your bookshelves? You are not Harriet the Spy, and have better things to do with your time). You don’t have to be a bitch about it, but surely he can grasp the fact that your house is not a free alternative to shopping at Target. Also, there are places called Public Libraries. I hear they rent books to anyone who is interested – FOR FREE! Surely that can tide him over until you return and he can ASK you to look on your bookshelves for one of his books.

  9. Mary permalink
    May 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    change the locks!It’s creepy that he can come in any time he wants and your not home. Tell him to find walmart and get his own socks.

  10. Celeste permalink
    May 19, 2010 7:20 pm

    Heartily agreeing with all who said he has crossed the line into wildly inappropriate. Change the locks and consider it payback for renting the cottage out from underneath you. I think you’ll get your sangfroid back, and just in time.

    Get one of these fabulous new smartkey locks while you’re at it; if you ever need to swap again, you make new keys and reprogram the lock rather than having a handyman work on the door again.

  11. May 21, 2010 7:28 am

    I don’t advocate escalating this by getting new locks or taking photos but it is time to divide the books and anything else where he feels that the things are as much his as yours. It is also time to have more kids stuff at his house so there are spare socks etc when the first pair gets wet or lost or whatever. Probably also time to move to the cottage mark 2 so he won’t know where anything is to take hopefully.

  12. May 21, 2010 10:12 am

    I think your ex still thinks he’s married to you, that you share… stuff, if not daily moments in each other’s presence.

    Makes one want to fwow up.

    And, oh, the recognition of current life as not the one you assumed would happen – very, very familiar. I keep shaking my head at my minivan and wondering why it’s not a Jeep, better equipped for driving over African deserts.

  13. May 21, 2010 11:19 pm

    Oh, lord. How familiar. In the case of my ex, it was a control thing. A “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.” thing. Except we can stop them. Change the locks. If necessary have your lawyer write his lawyer a letter with a “cease and desist” order. What he’s doing is disrespectful and an invasion of your privacy.

    Or, start dropping by his place and lifting random things and see if he understands the concept then.

  14. January 6, 2011 3:34 pm

    Commenting ages after the fact to say, oh, I so know that off-track feeling. Oh, desperately so. The worst of it is I can PINPOINT exactly when I first felt it going off the rails (or, really, onto the rails, where up until then it had been delightfully off in the brambles)–riding my bike down Mountain Avenue the morning after my husband and I signed the contract for our first house. Do I really want this? I thought. Do I really want to live here, in this suburban Front-Range town? Do I really want to own a house? And I was pretty sure that the answer was no. But I kept going, and here we are.

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