I looked at forty-three apartments from Brooklyn to Alphabet City before I signed a lease on our new home. Mine and my son’s new home, the one we would live in without his father because our relationship was over and it was time for our living situation to reflect that reality.
We finalized a move-in date and I willed my body to finish what my mind had already started; I separated my life from his. I asked the Whole Foods on the corner for a few extra boxes and towel wrapped each precious thing I wanted to carry over from one chapter of my life to the next: the jewelry box, the picture frames, the journals. In the corner of the closet, I left my wedding ring and the shoebox of letters that had been written back when my ex and I were so blindly in love we didn’t seem to notice that we were too different or just not enough of the same. If I’m being honest, I’d always known our relationship would end, the same way one knows they’re going to get a cold. A tickle in the back of the throat, the divorce was inevitable; it was only a matter of when.
But I stayed because I was young and because I was scared that I couldn’t give my son the same security that his father had given us both. I grew up Colombian and Christian; it was etched into my belief system that I needed a man to keep me safe, to pay the bills, to validate my worth. I had no idea if I could be enough on my own because I’d never been alone long enough to find out.
But that was about to change. I made sure to wipe down and dust off every single thing I planned to bring with me to our new house—this was a tip my mother had given me when I was younger. I come from a long line of women who have left. My grandmother held her own breath and with three children, she immigrated to this country to rebuild her life. My aunt did the same with her two boys. My mother left the same man three times because sometimes independence doesn’t stick immediately. All of these women knew what it was like to walk into an empty home and seek out solace from the smallest things, like pulling out clean dishes to eat take out on the floor. “Oh, and pack a shower curtain somewhere you’ll find it,” my mother told me, “trust me, you’ll need that shower after moving day.” Deep breath. Bubble wrap. Pack up. Rebuild.
I gathered up everything that was mine and half of what belonged to my son and for six days straight, I taped boxes closed and marked up the contents of our new life in sharpie: Bedding. Books. Board Games. On the seventh day I went to therapy.
While I cried into the last of her Kleenex, she reminded me of something I’d long forgotten: “You can do this,” she said. And of course, I could. I’d done this before: started over, started fresh, left a man I loved and created an existence without his fingerprints on it. But this time was different. I wasn’t a twenty-something, high on optimism and fortune cookie clichés. This time, there was a little boy who was relying on me to be strong enough to make a life for us both.
My therapist did exactly what I needed her to do, she told me the harsh truth: “Your child doesn’t care about the nice things you own, he doesn’t care about how much money you make, he only cares that you’re there and that you’re solid,” she said. And of course, she was right but when night comes it doesn’t matter who is right about what, at night you forget what you know.
I cried myself to sleep, and in the morning, I picked up our keys.
The landlord let me in and showed me how to turn on the heat, turn off the lights and double lock the doors. The second he left, I reminded myself of what I already knew: You can do this. Deep breath. Bubble wrap. Unpack. Rebuild.
My hands went to work, hanging up pictures on freshly painted walls. I repotted the plants my ex was constantly reminding me to water. I stacked dishes and folded linens and when I opened the last box I saw that all but one of my coffee mugs had shattered. I took it as the first sign of my newfound single life; at least the universe had enough sense of humor to keep me caffeinated while I began this growth.
I unrolled rugs and hung up art and when it started to get dark, I invited friends over. They brought wine and Chinese and together we assembled a table and reassembled my bed. We sang too loudly and laughed too hard but it felt like something forming. A memory being made. And after midnight when they left, even though I was exhausted, I remembered what my mother had said. “You’ll want a shower after…” My fingers were covered in wood glue and my hands were sore from hammering. I strung up the shower curtain and waited for the pipes to warm up. The second the hot water hit my skin, I felt relief, I felt accomplished, I did not feel like crying.
The next day, when the house was as ready as it would ever be, my son came over to stay with me. He did two things that made me love him more than I ever had in the six years since he was born: He suggested we name our house and made a rule that we would have to greet it every time we came home. “Boho house,” he said because it was both of our house and no one else’s.
Together, we smudged the halls with Palo Santo and we said out loud what we hoped our life would be like here in this new place. “This is where we put our Christmas tree,” he said. “This is where we will set up our art station, over here is our reading nook and this will be our thinking seat…”
Since we moved in, I’ve spent a lot of mornings in that thinking seat. While he’s still asleep, I make coffee and fill my one and only mug. I think about the love that fills this house, and I think about how the plants have doubled in size, and how the fridge is covered in memories that didn’t exist a year ago. I think about how many books I still have to read in that nook and I smile about how sweet it is that my son swings in the hammock by the window every morning before school.
I didn’t need to see forty-two places before finding something that I liked, it wasn’t about floor plans or favored views. I was hesitating because I had been holding onto something that was comfortable. Something I knew wasn’t working. Something I knew wasn’t healthy, or whole or right. I was holding onto something I knew was not for me.
So, when I saw apartment forty-three I said to myself, If I don’t pick this one, I will never leave. If I never leave, then I will never let go of this relationship. If I never let go of this relationship, I will never know if I am enough on my own.
It turns out I am. And my sweet, sweet, starting over, friend, you are too.