While muddling through the pre-settlement negotiations, I had numerous occasions to remember the last house my ex-husband and I sold. It was in Berkeley, a lovely little cottage on a hill with a balcony deck that overlooked Mt. Tam and San Francisco and the Golden Gate, and a Meyer lemon tree in the postage-stamp back yard. We sold it to a friend of one of my cousins. “Hey, my friend wants to buy your house,” my cousin said, and we said, “Groovy, man,” (because that’s how everyone talks in California) and my cousin said, “So, like, how much do you want for it?” and we named a price and my cousin said, “That’s righteous,” and we said, “Sweet!” and then the friend bought it. No hassle. No realtor. No haggling over inspections. In fact, we got a 25K termite report at one point, and my cousin’s friend said, “Dude! Let’s just pretend we never saw that.”
It was totally chill and mellow, in other words. Nothing like selling a house on the uptight East Coast, which turned out to be (as the Californians say), way harsh and a beating.
At first, everything seemed run-of-the-mill. There were some standard-issue old house problems that ran the gamut from big deal (a partially collapsed sewer line; termites in the garage; asbestos in the basement) to no big deal (a few outlets not up to code; a minor leak; a bit of repainting). But even the big deal problems were really only a question of throwing money at various workmen, and throwing money heedlessly into the great gaping maw of the marital house is something I grew accustomed to years ago. More vexing were the issues that actually required my participation. The seller wanted everything out of the garage (so un-California, so uncool) so I dragged my poor boyfriend over there the minute he foolishly drove down to visit. “How bad can it be?” I said, cheerfully, hustling him out of his car and directly into mine. “I mean, we took everything out when I moved, remember?” Except for the garden tools and a hose and a couple of busted plastic bins and some deflated basketballs and a broken lawnmower and that old tarp with the spiders and some wood and the refrigerator that stopped working and those dangerous chemicals and my sister’s antique furniture and the paint cans and the two dead car batteries that I left as a favor to the tenants, who might have needed to use them, I thought.
One of the garage doors wouldn’t budge at all. The other rolled reluctantly up, creaking, and I was hit by a stale wave of muddy air, a wet and dirty stench that ambushed me like all the dark despair of homeownership distilled into a few miserable breaths. There are no lights–no electricity, even–in the garage. We stood there, my boyfriend and I, blinking, waiting for our eyes to adjust. Slowly, the outline of a tremendous mountain took shape.
There were chairs and tables and a sofa on its side, all of which looked vaguely familiar. There was a coffee table leaning up against a side table propped on top of a couple of teetering sawhorses. There were all these doors–doors! Screen doors, metal doors, wooden doors, closet doors–and pieces of a dismantled Ikea bunkbed. There was a giant Thule top-of-the-car pod, which looked exactly like the giant Thule pod my ex-husband and I used to own, but that he’d asked for after we split up. There were splintered pieces of flooring from the guest bedroom, and plastic buckets of what looked like concrete, and bins of old jars and what looked to be a bunch of broken flowerpots I vaguely remembered stashing before I moved. My boyfriend looked at me. “Maybe that’s the renters’ top-of-the-car pod,” I said in a tiny, daunted voice.
It felt like the return of the repressed. Surely I had gotten rid of that ugly upholstered chair? I actually remembered putting it out on the curb, returning it to the great curb-furniture gods, I’d joked at the time, whence it came. Live by the curb, die by the curb. From the curb we are born, to the curb we all return. I’d found it during the last year of my marriage–it and a mate, a matched set, set out with a “FREE” sign taped to them down the street–and rushed over with the car to pick them up, thrilled by the windfall. When we separated, my ex-husband had taken one (the better one, the one without the stain) and left me the other. But hadn’t I put mine back out on the curb? Had it waddled back, somehow, and hidden itself away in the garage?
Deep in my subconscious, something stirred. Where had I seen that sofa before? It wasn’t mine, was it? Nor was that coffee table, but it looked so familiar. My boyfriend was poking around, checking out the car pod. “This is actually worth something,” he said. “These things cost money.” I was preoccupied. The wicker chair, for instance, with its seat all splintery and the paint peeling off in dreadful dandruffy flakes. I’d bought it with my mother years ago, at Pier One, and brought it home triumphantly. I’d nursed my younger son in it on the porch. It was the same chair, no question about it, but what was it doing in the garage?
We left that day in defeat. I couldn’t face any of it. And I was furious at myself for letting it all come to this. What the fuck was my problem, anyway? I’d had a dumpster parked in front of the house for weeks before I moved out! Why on earth had I saved that stupid broken wicker chair? Now there was too much snow to put anything out on the curb, and I didn’t even have my big old Volvo any more to haul anything to the dump. I’d have to pay someone to remove everything, and it seemed like the very last straw. We were closing in two weeks. There were a million things to do. I’d never get it all coordinated, and the damned snow wouldn’t stop falling, and it wouldn’t stop freezing, and the tree guy couldn’t come when he said he was going to, and there was all sorts of confusion with the plumber, and eventually I just sort of folded my anxiety about the garage into all the other million things I was anxious about.
It was a shitty, shitty time. I felt terrible for the tenants, who were besieged by radiator guys and radon inspectors and sewer guys every five minutes, and I hated having to talk to my ex-husband multiple times a day. On the face of it, things were fine. We were both a little giddy, a little incredulous that things were finally moving toward a sale, but it wasn’t exactly restful to have to interact with him more than I had at any time since the end of our marriage. In fact, being in the realtor’s office with him, the day we heard all the offers and decided which one to accept, reminded me of nothing so much as the day we got divorced. There we were, sitting around a table with a bunch of professionals, signing things and initialing them, on the cusp of something new. Finances were front and center. There was paperwork up the wazoo. There were tasks to be divvied up. “I’ll deal with all the crap in the garage,” I said, in a moment of generous fellow-feeling. He nodded, and the realtor and I got to chatting about the termite man and the radon inspection, and eventually we all went home.
In the middle of the night, I sat bolt upright in bed. I knew where I’d seen all that furniture before. It was my ex-husband’s. The chair, the wicker, the tables, the pod. All of it–some ours, some acquired post-split–had once resided in the Cottage Formerly Known as Dream, and must not have made the cut when he moved again. He’d snuck it back into our old garage without saying a word last summer, the dirty snake in the grass.
I was furious. What did he think, that the Debris Fairy was just going to show up and spirit it all away? All night, I ground my teeth in rage. The worst part was, I couldn’t even yell at him about it, couldn’t even insist he cope, because he’d skipped town. He’d taken his girlfriend away for a week in a cottage on the Outer Banks, and by the time he was due to return it would be too late.
All week, I brooded and stewed. By the time I met the hauling-away guy at the garage (he was very nice, it turned out, and all I had to do was point at things and pay him) the little speech I’d prepared for my ex-husband’s return was a triumphant masterpiece of passive-aggressive discourse, dripping with sarcasm, drowning in hauteur. I spent a lot of time practicing it between the hours of three and five a.m. Meanwhile, my new best friend the realtor and I hit the ground running every morning, tracking down radiator specialists, soothing tenants, getting estimates from tree guys, and sweet-talking inspectors. It’s funny–in retrospect it doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, it’s not like I had to fix all the radiators myself or anything. But being at the mercy of various professionals (who can, and sometimes do, show up late or not at all or drop off the planet altogether) coupled with a firm deadline made me frantic, and the uncertainty of it all drove me nuts. Things kept going wrong. The movers my sister hired to cart away her antique furniture showed up six hours late on a freezing night in the pouring rain. The termite damage in the garage turned out to be much worse than originally thought. Two days before closing, the radiators on the third floor still didn’t work. No one could figure out what was wrong. Then the plumber got offended that the realtor had called in reinforcements for help with the radiators, and I had to talk him off a ledge.
In the middle of all this, my older son turned eighteen.
You know, as much as it annoys me when my ex-husband drops the ball on dealing with the kids, I do get a little codependent fix out of it. When, for instance, he comes back after time away and doesn’t make any effort to tweak the custody schedule to make up the days he missed, I don’t ever insist–I like being with the kids, and I really like feeling superior to my ex-husband, so it’s win-win. But motherhood demands self-sacrifice, and if it’s someone’s birthday, a big-deal birthday, the last birthday at home before heading off to college, and if the kid in question might have his feelings hurt by not seeing or hearing from his father…well, then I’ll selflessly waive my need to feel smug. The day before my son’s birthday, my ex-husband sent me a text asking if I had made any plans. When I wrote that yeah, I was going to cook supper and make a cake and so on, no big deal, nothing set in stone, he didn’t write back.
I stared at my phone a while, waiting. A million possible scenarios came to mind-they could have breakfast together! Lunch! It was spring break–they could spend the day hanging out! My son could take the train to my ex-husband’s lab, even! Or I could drop him off! I waited and waited. My fingers itched to text. “You know what’s lame about this?” consoling-windows friend said, when I finally called her to complain. “The kid’s eighteen. Presumably an interested party could call and ask him what he wants to do for his birthday. Directly.”
Which my ex-husband, to his credit, finally did later that afternoon. I was stirring cake batter and both kids were hovering around, acting goofy, angling to lick the spoon, when my older son’s phone buzzed. “Oh, hi, Dad!” he said, cheerfully. “Oh, that’s so nice. Yeah, it’s been a great day so far. Yeah, I think Mom has a plan for tonight. She’s making me a cake and all, and we’re just going to chill at home. Yeah, no, I’ll see you on Wednesday like normal. Oh, Thursday? You have a dinner Wednesday? Okay! See you then. Thanks! Love you!” He hung up and stuck a finger in the icing bowl, grinning at me. “Like we wouldn’t already have plans,” he said, in an affectionately-fed-up tone. “Dad’s a goofball.”
All was well, in other words. They’d see their father on Thursday. And be back to stay with me–it was my weekend, after all–on Friday. Which was the day we were scheduled to close. “Tonight’s the last night I’ll have to wake up worried about the house,” I told myself at bedtime. And it was, never mind that I got a frantic text from the realtor as I was walking to her office five minutes before closing–with the buyer and my ex-husband already there–about a last-minute crisis that had me hyperventilating into my sleeve as I rushed to the ATM to withdraw enough cash to pay a fixer–don’t fucking ask, okay? You didn’t see anything–so that the deal could go through. Which it did. I couldn’t believe it. So amazed and happy was I, as I signed my name to the dotted line and melted in a puddle of relief, that I forgot about my excellently honed bitter speech about the garage and the abandoned furniture. I even forgot the codicil I’d specially crafted the night before, about proper birthday behavior and the delicate feelings of our elder son. Who cares, who cares, who cares, I practically sang. The realtor hugged me. I hugged the buyer. My ex-husband stood on the sidelines, as happy as he ever gets. It was done. It was over. I was–we all were–finally free.
I walked home about six inches above the sidewalk, got in the car, and drove to pick up the kids. “Guess what?” my older son said, the minute he got in the front seat. “Dad’s getting married!”