The Day I Left
I felt a strange sensation inside my chest. It was relief.
The day that I walked into my new apartment, I clutched the keys in my hand, creating small red ridges on my fingers, as if releasing them might make my new home disappear. My Volvo station wagon was still packed to the gills in the driveway, but I had no desire to start hauling my meager possessions up to the second floor - yet. First, I had to go inside and look around. It had only been a few days earlier that I had found it, briefly spending minutes inside before rushing back to the real estate agent’s office to sign the lease. It hadn’t mattered what it looked like at the time. It was affordable and vacant - my top two criteria. Now, as I opened the door at the top of the stairs and walked into the empty kitchen, I felt a strange sensation inside my chest. It was relief.
The apartment was small and oddly laid out, a rental property carved out of the top floor of an old colonial on Main Street. The entire bottom floor was one of our town’s dentist offices. Five-feet-tall wood-framed windows encircled the main rooms - no curtains on any of them and only a few of them had shades affixed. But the apartment was surrounded by trees, so there was a semblance of privacy, even though in January the trees were black stick drawings against a stark gray winter sky. Industrial grade blue carpeting covered the uneven floors except in the kitchen, and there were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a weird little space off the living room that would work as a third bedroom for my son. At least it had a door. At six, he was the smallest of us, followed by my twelve-year-old daughter, then me. I would take the smallest bedroom off the kitchen, she would get the one normal-sized bedroom and we would all live together in our second floor aerie above the town Green. One big happy, new family - now that I had moved out of our home and away from my marriage.
That day, the morning after my daughter’s birthday sleepover, I had packed up the car as unobtrusively as possible so as not to upset the sleepy girls still at the party. I must have been crazy to move out that day, but it was the only day everyone was occupied. I was driven by the urgent desire to get out after having spent the past seven months living in a dramatic, tragic collapse of a relationship. Looking back, I don’t think my husband thought I would do it – which not only made me even more determined to flee but gave me the window of opportunity to get away. I took as many of my personal belongings as I could stuff in the car, knowing that I would hardly be allowed back in the house to retrieve anything else once I had gone. To this day, I still don’t have my high school year book, pictures of the kids when they were small or any number of personal mementos that are now more forgotten than remembered. Anything left in the house that had even hinted at belonging to me was sold off by my ex-husband at a garage sale a couple of years later. Whatever I had in that car would be what I had - and that was that.
So, on this cold January day, I walked into my new life. I was 34-years-old with two young children working as a church secretary. What the hell was I thinking? I went back down the stairs to the car and wrestled the coffee maker out of the back seat, grabbed the one bag of groceries I scavenged from the house and went back upstairs to make a pot of coffee. Once the coffee was brewing and I had stowed a couple of essentials in the fridge, I started opening cupboards and drawers as if some magic would provide me with what I would need to make this work. But they were empty. Just like all the closets, shelves and cabinets everywhere else in the place. I flipped on ceiling lights and flipped them off again - I’d have to be more frugal with utilities now. I went back into the kitchen. Painted pastel pink, it was bright and pleasant. Even though it was small, it had enough room for at least a table for three. Too bad I hadn’t managed to cram such a thing into the car. The kitchen’s design followed that of the rest of this quirky apartment; next to the fridge was a “sit-in” pantry, although I wouldn’t know that until I moved my children into the apartment a few days later. My son climbed into it and shut the doors, causing several tense moments of thinking that he had wandered back down the stairs and into the busy street.
I fixed coffee in my favorite mug and walked with it into the dining/living room and sat down cross-legged against the wall under one of those five foot windows. That strange sensation of relief returned but this time it was accompanied by another sensation. I was smiling. A feeling almost sensual in nature enveloped me and I knew at that moment I had made the right decision. All the pain of what had been and all the fear of what was to come was nothing compared to the feeling that right then, sitting there on the floor of my new home, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I don’t know if it was the day that changed my life or if it’s more accurate to say that that day my life changed, but every day since then, I have been a different person.
At first, that tenuous knowledge was all that I had to hold onto as I tried to make a life for my kids that wouldn’t make them feel like they were ripped out of their home - which they were. The divorce was acrimonious and frustrating and they were innocents stuck in the middle - as much as I tried to prevent it. Our friends in the small town in which we lived took sides - his. Peyton Place never looked so friendly until I decided to spit in convention’s face by splitting up with my husband. When friends divorce, it can make people look at their own marriages and that can be uncomfortable. Better to just slip happily into denial and point fingers at whoever caused this unpleasant distraction. That would be me. My apartment in the treetops became my home and my sanctuary. All the challenges I had anticipated in planning my escape were nothing compared to the actual ordeals I had to endure. And maybe if I had known exactly what was coming my way, I might have taken the denial route myself. But I naively and desperately fled, figuring I could handle it all. As it turns out - I could.
Over the years, I’ve relived this day through the different images in my mind. The bare windows looking out on a cold and gray January day. Fragrant coffee brewing on the bare counter. My empty bedroom that wouldn’t even contain a bed until almost two months later. But what is the most clear and as accessible to me now as it was fifteen years ago is the sensation of relief and freedom. Mark Twain once wrote, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” That was certainly true of my actions that day, because I was terrified. None of my thoughts about what I was doing that day contained the word ‘courage’. There were many other words that day: crazy, irresponsible, insane, anxious and sad. But in addition, there was wonder, excitement, relief and ‘finally’. If I ever doubt my actions that day, I have only to look at my children. Grownups now at 29 and 23, they are two of the most delightful, caring, funny, loving people I know. I don’t know who they’d be now if I hadn’t walked through that door and concocted a whole new life from the one we all thought we’d be living, but I am grateful to know who they are – and who I am – today.