The week that I moved out, away from my two small daughters and my confused husband, I bought a used car. This was my first large purchase as a single adult. It took a combination of loans and a slice of the last bit of my father’s inheritance, but I pulled it off. I couldn’t know that the car had been in an earlier accident and would spring a leak the following year, that water would slosh on the floor of it. But it wouldn’t have mattered much if I’d known; it allowed me to leave.
Well, sort of leave.
For a time I couldn’t decide whether I actually lived separately from my husband. Maybe the new apartment was more like an annex of our house. After all, it was only a couple of blocks away, down the street and around the corner. I went to the house daily, to tend to the girls, sometimes even to eat meals with them all.
Then, when I drove back to my own place, I brazenly left off my seatbelt. The car’s timer gave me just the right interval – about sixty seconds – to get to my driveway before it beeped at me to buckle up. I took this as proof that I was still safely close to the mothership, and as validation that I had gotten away with something.
To the girls, I played up the proximity between their homes. Yes, I had to leave them for a while and go to “the um-partment” (as they called it), but they’d be coming over soon and I was so nearby. Only around the corner!
My four year-old, crying at the door, said, “Mommy? If I leaned out the window and called for you really loud, would you hear me?”
This query sent me to my bed for the rest of the day. In fact, I spent many, many hours curled under the covers in those months, closing my eyes to the consequences of my actions.
For weeks after I moved, whenever I stepped outside the door of my apartment, I anxiously scanned left and right. I slipped into my car quickly. “I don’t want to be seen,” I said to my sister on the phone. “Everyone hates me for doing this.”
She told me emphatically that I’d done nothing wrong. And while I didn’t believe her, I couldn’t deny that in many ways I felt better. A years-long depression was gradually thawing. I was lighting up with ideas for work, with hope about who I might become in the world.
My exit, just about the first, went “ker-plunk” in my circle of family and friends. It rippled through as some others began to announce their own splits. Many of their circumstances were more complex and bitter than my experience. Still, people called me for advice and reassurance, which I eagerly provided. I began to feel more like a pioneer than an outcast.
My children were resilient. They loved the apartment and their new beds and the puppy that their father got for them at his house. A few months after I left, maybe a year, I looked around me and noticed we were all okay. More or less.
On the spring day that my husband and I stood in a court room and agreed with the magistrate that our marriage was “irretrievably broken,” I thought I might pass out from anxiety. But we decided to go get some lunch together, and we ate by the river, and I relaxed. He told me about a woman he’d met. This stung, but I knew I had to let him try to be happy.
My now-ex drove me home in the family station wagon. It was solely his car now, I guessed. In fact, I had a shiny new one to replace the leaky clunker I’d bought at first. We stood by our cars in the driveway of my apartment and hugged goodbye.
I had met him when I was 21. And now I was really gone, and he had let me go, like a sad parent seeing off his wayward child.
Or maybe I was seeing him off. I stood back and waved, and watched him drive around the corner to live his life. Then I turned to my own.