I left my marriage to a woman two and a half years ago to live my life as an openly gay man. My decision to leave was a painful one. It took me a long time to finally decide that I had to go. I had gone back and forth about leaving the marriage for months. A turning point came in a therapy session. I came into the session despondent, unable to hold a simple conversation. The therapist, expressing his alarm and concern, suggested that I go on antidepressant medication. That session was a wake-up call for me. I had no intention of going on antidepressant drugs. I knew at that moment that I really needed to leave the marriage.
Shortly after coming out to my wife a year earlier, I had told her that I wanted to leave the marriage. She told me that she had not signed up to raise our child alone and wanted me to stay, at least until our son was through the eleventh grade of high school. So I stayed for another year and a half. It was the most painful period of my life
In the winter of 2013, I began to plan my move. My son was in eleventh grade and I intended to move out of the house after he completed the school year. I began apartment hunting in April. My living space has always been important to me and I looked for a place that I would feel at home and could build my new life. I looked at numerous apartments. I thought about what furniture I would take. I imagined my new life in each of the apartments I visited, and finally chose an apartment complex I really liked.
Around this same time, my parents sold a summer home in Vermont that they had bought in the 1970s. My mother wanted each of her children to take pieces of furniture, so as to remember the place. I told her, that in addition to a chest of drawers, I would take everything in the kitchen except the pots and pans, always having loved the blue and white motif she picked for the stoneware dishes and mugs. She wanted to know, why did I want the contents of the kitchen? I made up an excuse about never having enough silverware and dishes, and so the entire contents of the kitchen were packed up and delivered to my house to sit in my basement until I was ready to move
Finally, I selected an apartment in the complex I had picked, signed a lease that began in May of 2013, and begun to plan my move for mid-June. To understand the rest of this story you must understand that I am a planner. I think through every detail of a project. So, true to form, I began to review the contents of my house, over and over again in my mind, thinking about what I would take and what I would leave.
As I prepared to move, I had this crazy notion that since my wife and son would stay in the house, I wanted to take as few things as possible so that the house would not look different. I would think, “How can I take the Chinese vase, (given to me by my parents years before my marriage after their trip to China), off the mantle. The vase looks so perfect in the room. What will fill the space if I take the vase?” Another item I thought about was a beautiful 19th-century American armoire that was my first significant furniture purchase when I was still in college. “How can I take the armoire? What will fill the space if I take it? It makes the room look beautiful.”
My obsession with what I would not take went down to the items sitting on my sink in the master bathroom. I felt that if I took the matching toothbrush holder, soap dispenser, soap dish, and tissue box cover, along with the hand-painted wooden waste bin, my vanity area would look empty. I wanted to steal away in the night and have everything look as if I never left. It was an odd, confused way of seeing things. Now I was about to walk out on my wife and son, and as much as I looked forward to my new life, I wanted their world to remain unchanged.
As it began to get close to my move date I tried to have a conversation with my wife about the things I planned to take. She looked at me, tears in her eyes. “I do not care about any of these things. Take whatever you want.” In the end, I took all the items on my side of the bathroom that I had obsessed about for weeks. I did not take other things like the Chinese vase, the armoire, of some of the collectibles I had bought that sat in our living room, thinking that when we eventually sold the house, I would take all these things.
My move was planned for a Saturday in mid-June. The week of the move my wife adamantly refused to let me pack anything until she left for the weekend on the Friday of that week. I was unable to do any packing the entire week before my move. That Friday I left work early, came home, and began packing in a fast-paced frenzy. I had a large wooden multi-piece desk and file drawer piece of furniture, another item I had not planned to take, but changed my mind at the last minute. The desk and cabinetry had to be emptied and disassembled. I had all of my clothes to pack. It was a long crazy afternoon and night of packing. The next morning the movers came and moved me to my new apartment.
I have been back to my house many times since. I have had dinners with my wife and son in the house. I have spent the last two Thanksgivings with my wife and son, her family, my family, and her old friends. Tomorrow will be the third Thanksgiving I will spend in this way, only none of my family will be attending. My father is unable to make the trip this year following his heart surgery a few months ago. My birth family is all gathering in Philadelphia to be near my parents.
Yesterday my brother and his family came to Washington, D.C. for a short visit and stayed overnight at my house with my wife and son. We all met at a restaurant for dinner and then headed over to the house. As I sat in the family room, I noticed, as I have many times before, the Chinese vase on the mantle. I began to think, for the hundredth time, “I should have taken the vase when I moved out of the house.” Then I looked around the room and had similar thoughts about the armoire. Then my mind went to the living room and I thought about some of the collectibles that I had bought over the years still sitting on display.
I am at the point in my life where I do not feel the need to amass and collect things. I want to have less, not more. So this desire for the vase is not about collecting stuff. I don’t need the vase on the mantle. I have no place in my apartment to even put the vase. The vase is meaningful as one of the first adult gifts my parents gave me when I was still in college, but it does not have deep sentimental value. What I feel is that tricky space people go through when they have separated from their marriage. After years of everything being ‘ours’, the family belongings get separated into ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ and I feel this need, that I am not proud of, to protect and make sure I get what is mine in the house.
In the last year, my wife has begun to slowly rearrange the living room and the family room. Whenever I have gone back to the house and found things different, it has been disconcerting. My wife has also begun to refer to the house as her house, yet I pay all the bills. It is a strange time.
I am on good enough terms with my wife that I can come to the house and attend events like Thanksgiving. I walk through all the familiar rooms, but it is no longer my home. Yesterday I noticed that many of the photographs spread around the family room that had included me had been moved, either out of the room or behind other pictures. There are very few pictures of me left in the family room. These things I notice but I do not comment or say anything about it to my wife. I am just an observer of the slowly changing decorations and arrangements of the rooms.
So for now, I will leave the vase on the mantle. I will leave the armoire in the corner. I will leave all the other items where I have left them. But as my wife and I move forward towards divorce, I think we need to begin talking about the items in the house. It is time to disassemble this montage, frozen in time, but slowly changing and evolving.