The day my husband and I told our nine-year-old son we were separating, he went into his bedroom and pushed all the furniture in front of the door. The two of us stood in the hallway and listened to his toy chest scrape across the floorboards, wishing there was a grown-up version of this barricading. Some strategy for keeping ourselves exactly where we were—at least geographically.
Our small family were castaways of San Francisco’s real estate wars. We’d traded our five-bedroom Victorian in an upscale neighborhood—a soul-crushingly expensive house I blamed for much of what had gone wrong in our marriage—for the three-unit building in an undiscovered part of town we now occupied. Though to be fair, we occupied only the top two apartments. The ground-floor flat—the one with its own entrance, the second bathroom, and the nice yard—we rented to tenants to help pay the mortgage.
It turns out, however, that real estate can’t fix what’s wrong with your marriage. Barely two years after loading up a van with all of our belongings and driving them up and over three San Francisco hills, here we stood outside our son’s bedroom door listening to him move furniture—and desperately not wanting to move any of our own. Not when the rest of our lives felt uprooted.
And so we didn’t. That night, my husband slept in the guest room of the top floor apartment—the one we’d been using for our offices—while I slept in the bedroom of the middle apartment—the one we’d been living in, at least until then. And the next day, we decided he would move upstairs.
We told ourselves it would be temporary. That we were doing it for our son. Until he got used to the idea of us separating. And until we were ready to think about selling. Because that’s the thing about San Francisco real estate—it’s rare for one person in a marriage to be able to afford to buy the other out. Temporary, because divorced people don’t live in the same building.
We converted my office upstairs into a second bedroom for our son, and my soon-to-be ex-husband came down and packed up his clothes, the sharp knives, and most of the decent cookware. I went out and bought him a dining table.
Over a bottle of break-up wine, we established house rules. Though we would have keys to the others’ apartments, we wouldn’t use them without permission. And once we began dating, we agreed we wouldn’t bring anyone home unless the relationship was venturing into the territory of serious. We would also give each other some warning. Because who wants to run into your ex’s new lover while you’re putting out the recycling?
Much of this arrangement turned out to be tremendously convenient. If our son forgot his soccer cleats or his homework or his backpack at one our apartments—an almost daily occurrence—retrieving any of these items did not even involve putting on a coat. And if I wanted to cut up a tomato, I knew where I could find a sharp knife.
Some of it, though, edged into awkwardness. After a seventeen-year marriage, I required an emotional time-out. My ex-husband appeared to be made of more resilient romantic stuff. Not very long after he moved to the upper apartment, I began to be startled awake two or three times a week by the 4 a.m. creaking of his shoes on the hundred-year-old staircase outside my bedroom wall. Finally, I went out and bought a white noise machine.
It was I who brought home the first person venturing into the territory of serious. This was two years after my ex-husband and I decided to separate. Because of course, we never sold the three-unit building in the now beginning-to-be-gentrified neighborhood, never moved out of it.
The night before this man was to come to dinner, I gave my ex-husband the warning we had agreed to. “Just to prepare you,” I told him. “Just so you’re not surprised.”
It was after midnight when my phone rang.
“I’m having a heart attack,” my ex-husband said.
“Are you sure?”
Four hours later, when the emergency room doctor confirmed it had been a panic attack, I asked my ex-husband if it was at all possible, if there was any chance, his symptoms had had anything to do with the man who was venturing into the territory of serious.
“You think so?” my ex-husband said.
As the years went by the benefits of our living arrangement surpassed any of the awkwardness. There were the small daily instances. If I ran out of olive oil or an egg, needed help changing a bulb in one of the oddball light fixtures of which our old house had an impressive number, I knew I could call upstairs. But more important were the larger ways we came to count on one other. When my ex-husband broke his collarbone and his girlfriend couldn’t produce the proper ID to pick up his pain medication, I drove to the pharmacy. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the man I was living with—the one who had ventured into the territory of serious and come to dinner—was too stunned by his own emotions to remember to bring home food, my ex-husband went for take-out.
And when my relationship with that man ended in a spectacular mess, it was my ex-husband who put me in a car and drove me to my favorite place in the wine country—which he knew, because we had been there together. It was he who made me drink too much Cabernet, who told me jokes in funny voices until I started laughing.
The year our son turned nineteen, the three of us went to Italy together. I’d gotten an assignment to write about a bicycling tour for families with college-aged kids. My ex-husband came along to shoot the pictures—sharing a room with our son. It was the first time we had traveled together since we’d separated, and the other families on the tour—all long-married couples—were fascinated. By the fact we were traveling together. By how well we got along.
In a Roman coffee bar my ex-husband and I had a fight. It was the kind of argument we’d been having all our married lives. The kind of argument an introvert and an extrovert have when they navigate the world together. Me, making my point quietly but sternly to the marble counter. My ex-husband shouting and waving his arms, putting on a performance for the Romans throwing back their morning espresso. Almost comforting in its familiarity.
Outside in the muggy heat of June, we stormed off in separate directions. Me, to the produce market where we’d been headed. Him—I can’t say for certain. Most likely to circle around the block, follow me to make sure I didn’t get lost because he knows I have no sense of direction. And because forty-five minutes later, he caught up with me in the market to shoot the pictures I needed and remind me I didn’t have the key to the apartment we’d rented.
Not long ago, I started dating someone new. This new man and I were in a movie theater, waiting for the show to start when I got a text from my ex-husband asking about his salad bowl.
“You and your ex have a real relationship,” this new man said.
“I would hardly call this sexting,” I told him.
“That’s still a relationship.” He pointed to my phone.
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. My ex-husband and I have never once considered getting back together—living a floor away from someone will remind you of all the reasons you no longer live with them. But lately, I think I know what he had been getting at.
When my relationship with this new man ended, I was left broken-hearted and with no plans for an important birthday.
“Tell me what you want,” my ex-husband asked.
“Not to be alone.”
On the morning of that birthday, my ex-husband rented a van and filled it with our closest friends—some of the people I love most in the world, including our twenty-one-year-old son. He drove us to Point Reyes, to the start of my favorite hike—which he knew, because we’d hiked it together. The group of us sat in the bright coastal sunshine drinking wine and eating twelve kinds of fancy cheese, and when we finished, we walked a trail riotous with wildflowers. It was exactly what I had wanted. Exactly what I had needed.
It’s true that real estate can’t save a marriage. But it might be equally true that it can save a relationship. The geography of our lives has allowed my ex-husband and I to create a relationship that’s more intimate than friendship and possibly, more durable than marriage. After twelve post-marriage years of sharing a roof, we’ve developed a closeness that has nothing to do with physical proximity. A happy consequence of barricading ourselves behind our own front door.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.