When our kids were small, my husband and I realized our California dream of buying a house. It wasn’t a huge, perfect house, but it was ours, which made it feel kind of perfect at the time. It was a small, Spanish-style house built in the ’40’s with a great yard, a pool, and a garage my husband planned to convert to an office/man room. We dreamed of knocking down walls, expanding the kitchen, and building a second story master suite. We loved our mellow neighborhood of Sunset Park with its wonderful, older neighbors who had bought their houses back in the day for $35,000—a fraction of what we paid at the height of the housing bubble in 2007.
When we split up it was not by mutual agreement—my husband left me. So the kids and I stayed put in our house. With all the change happening in my life, I could not handle any more disruption. I clung to this house that the kids and I loved so. The lousy plumbing, the impractical floor plan, the tiny kitchen and outdated bathrooms were just part of the package.
My ex rented an apartment that was pretty small for one dad and two growing boys. We didn’t have a well-defined custody arrangement, and he basically came by the house almost every day—doing laundry, spending weekends with the kids.
I was torn; I knew it was good for the boys to see their dad, and I was trying to be compassionate and keep the family together in some new way. But having him around was hard on me.
He still considered my post-marriage home his home base, despite the fact that he also had a place of his own, for which I did not possess a key.
This felt something like the dynamic in our marriage—he asserted his way; I acquiesced. While our custody arrangement allowed me to go out a few nights a week, I didn’t really have a space of my own to return to. God forbid I wanted to ask a man over; my ex-husband might be hanging out in the living room, or stopping by in the morning.
I felt not only abandoned, but also controlled. My ex and I were no longer sleeping together, so I was living with the remnants of our dysfunctional marriage, without some key benefits. One night as I looked out on the twinkly café lights in the backyard, I thought about how the house contained me physically, and emotionally.
As the months wore on, tension between my ex and me escalated. There were many ugly moments. I came to realize, as I had suspected, that he’d been having an affair while we were married, and with someone we had both known for a long time.
As we began to sort out our finances, one new problem arose in stark clarity: we couldn’t afford to keep the house, regardless of whether or not we were fighting about how much he hung around in it.
We had to sell. We considered every other option first, scenarios in which one of us would buy the other out, or I would move out, and we’d rent the house to some other family for a year. But no matter how we added and moved numbers from column to column, needing to maintain two separate households meant neither of us could afford this one.
We listed the house with realtor friends. When I saw the pictures the photographer took, it was surreal. The house looked amazing. And soon, it would no longer be mine.
On Tuesday following the first open house, a handful of people came to see the house for the second time. Even though I had chosen the realtor and set up the whole thing, having potential buyers return felt violating. How dare they come through, poking around my private things, trooping through my kids’ rooms? It felt awful.
My divorced friends assured me that once we sold, I’d be thrilled to have my own space. When my friend Hollie told me I might really liked apartment living, I got kind of pissed off.
I owned a house in Sunset Park! I loved my ’hood. I loved my yard. It had been a dream for so long. And though I was no longer living a dream in that house, I just could not see her point.
We had two offers within one week. We accepted the second one. I joined Westside Rentals and signed up for Rad Pad and Zillow. I also stocked up on Rodney Strong merlot. A few times I found myself wandering around the house in my white bathrobe, daunted by the task of how to go about packing and moving out of the home I’d been living in for nearly a decade. I felt like Miss Havisham—a relic from another time, pacing the halls of her declining home in denial of the unpleasant realities closing in.
One evening, the shadows on the wall of my ex’s “man room” grew longer as I sat cross-legged on the floor, poring through crates of photos from the ’70’s and ’80’s, and memorabilia and journals. I was trying so hard to adhere to the packing advice of my current “life guru” Marie Kondo of tidying-up fame. Kondo says never to linger over photo albums or memorabilia—that kind of behavior is for beginners. Apparently I was a hopeless beginner. There I was, sipping the Rodney Strong, going through boxes of my past. I completely lost track of time.
I picked up a random black journal and read an entry dated 1993. It was a detailed account of the night my husband and I first hooked up. We had been friends and writing partners for two and a half months until that night. I read the account of that evening, spellbound by this re-acquaintance with my history. We’d gone out with a group to celebrate my writing partner’s birthday.
He’d had more than a few Patron silver margaritas, and somehow it was understood that he’d come back to my place, since he was in no shape to drive. As I read, the details flooded back. My studio apartment had been very small. We had passed out on the bed. Nothing more went down that night.
But in the morning, I remembered as I read, I woke to the sound of the television. He had turned on a football game. As I drifted in and out of sleep, the announcer used the word “penetration” about half a dozen times. He and I drifted closer together. He caressed my arm. The diary entry detailed what happened next. The things we said and did to each other. How the whole morning unfolded.
I closed the journal and sat on the floor in my soon-to-be-former house. I felt like I’d taken a perilous trip down memory lane. In finding this journal, I had slipped through a wormhole of my current despair and tumbled, head over heels, into my former carefree youth.
Lying awake in bed later that night, I wondered: was finding the diary a curse or a gift?
I had been so angry, so hurt by the end of our marriage, the affair, the whole thing. I’d focused only on the bad parts of history—what hadn’t been working for years, why we were wrong for each other, why I should be glad to be free. But the feelings in my diary were so hopeful and romantic. I had been in love with this man, and for real reasons. Though we eventually grew apart, there had been a time—and a pretty long one—during which we were right for each other.
Seeing my own handwriting spelling it out helped me appreciate what we had.
I wasn’t going to be able to move on and get over this divorce if all I did was trash my ex and listen to Ben Fold’s “Song for the Dumped.”
Part of my journey, I realized, was regaining appreciation for the good years. Yes, also acknowledging the hard ones, but accepting all of it. Only then would I be able to let go and move on.
When I finally settled into my new, far smaller apartment, I discovered that Hollie and my other divorced friends were right. There was forward motion in my life—moving away from the past, moving West—even farther West—closer to the beach! Yes, the house had held family history; we’d laid down roots there. But when I got the keys to my own apartment, I felt I held my independence right there in my hand. Just as the old house had contained the old me, the new apartment would allow space for the new me to grow.
I loved the blank-slate aspect of the new apartment, the new white paint. I envisioned what I would do with the space, how I would decorate it and make it my own. I emulated my favorite tear-sheets from apartmenttherapy.com, and created an art/plant wall with family pictures, my son’s amazing photography, and eclectic finds from the thrift shop. I bought two new funky lit-up signs from my favorite antique store on Lincoln Boulevard—one says, “exit” and the other says, “CA.”
I unpacked all my favorite books that I never had space to display in the house, and I displayed them all in a large square IKEA shelf, along with some colored vases.
I decided to give the two bedrooms to the boys, using the living room as my studio apartment. I was worried I would really miss having my own bedroom, but the space was so gorgeous with a fireplace and a huge wall of windows, it turned out to be my favorite space in the apartment. I haven’t closed the shades yet, because I absolutely love going to sleep and waking up to an unobstructed view of Santa Monica Canyon.
Two weeks after moving out, I returned to our old married house to pick up a Petco package. When I walked up the driveway, there was the porch, the Petco box, the door, but not much else remained. The house had been gutted.
Unbelievably, I felt okay about this. Seeing the house torn up so drastically confirmed for me how ready I’d been to move on, and how little sentiment remained tied up in this house. My marriage had been gutted, as well. I was entering an era of refurnishing, rebuilding, opening up lighter and brighter possibilities.
As for that faded black diary, I packed it away with dozens of photo albums that I would not have space for in my new, smaller place. I would keep them all nearby, downstairs in my storage space. Knowing they were still with me felt comforting. I thought of the iconic shot at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Pandora’s Box is closed again and wheeled away into a cavernous facility with thousands of other indistinguishable crates, where it will fade into the background, while holding an important piece of history.
If I wanted to open up that Pandora’s Box, to remember what was good about the past, that option is available to me. But I bought a lovely new leather-bound diary, and at the moment I am far more interested in writing the next chapter.
Rebecca Cullen is a television writer and mother of two in Los Angeles who recently separated from her husband, after 20 years of marriage. She's now writing about her new single life.