I write at an old cherry wood desk. It’s heavy and difficult to move, scarred, the stain is flaking off, initials etched into the surface. The desk has seen better days but it’s still beautiful. There’s a shelf that attaches to the top, making for more height and book storage, but for now the shelf rests in the bedroom, for it would block my view of the great leafy tree out our second story window. And I like to watch the leaves blow and spy on hummingbirds when I can’t think of anything to write.
Dan wants the desk gone.
Part of it is that he wants me to have something “nicer.” Something to help me stay “organized.” Which is valid. Our one-bedroom apartment has next to no storage space and we have a mountain of immigration documents we need to keep track of (Dan is Canadian).
But it’s also—I know—because my ex gave me the desk.
The relationship had already imploded when he bought it for me. I had already moved out of his apartment. His gifts had always been extravagant. Plane tickets to Mexico the first month. A sewing machine—a good one—for Christmas, the second month.
When I moved out, I had nothing. Nothing but a cheap, stiff bed that made my joints ache. I was at work when he texted me:
Do you need a desk?
By that, I knew he was standing in front of one. I knew I should call him and tell him not to buy it. That I couldn’t accept it. But I knew he would buy me something far more amazing than I would ever buy myself. So I texted him back:
There are only four drawers that will never hold all of my desk-ly things. Three on the side and one wide, shallow one that sits over my knees and near-overflows with handwritten notes, old birthday cards, love letters from Dan. And one card from the ex. There’s a lovely pink bird on the front of the card and a letterpress ribbon that reads, “Sorry I’ve been such an asshole.”
I found the note in a suitcase—the last suitcase of my things collected from his apartment that he dropped off with the security man at my office building. He did not pop in to say goodbye. He did not want to see me. This was shortly after I confessed I had started seeing Dan, and even though the ex and I weren’t together, even though I hadn’t technically done anything wrong, I knew very well I was stomping all over his heart. I had given him hope, after all, I had accepted the desk. That’s when he said all of the terrible things—terrible things I deserved—he apologized for in the card. We only spoke once after that, over three years ago now.
I woke at 5 every morning to write at my desk for two hours before work while I was writing my thesis this past fall. After work, I returned. At every spare moment I could find, I came back, I sat down, I wrote and re-wrote. Dan cooked our meals, did the dishes, the laundry. He would come over to kiss my cheek and I would tilt my screen down so he couldn’t see. For months, I was home, but I was gone, a mystery.
Now, I pay my bills here. I apply for jobs and waste hours on the internet. I write things. Delete them. I try writing them again and they’re still bad. My janky old laptop blew a fuse and I can no longer charge the battery—it has to be plugged into the wall.
Sometimes I throw my hands in the air in despair. “I’m not getting anything done!” I’ll cry. “I’m a horrible writer.” “I have nothing to say.” “It’s hopeless.” Etc.
Dan will sigh. He thinks my writing is beautiful and always tells me so. “You should try getting out of the house,” he suggests. But what if I can’t find an outlet? And the teeniest noise—a pencil tapping, cellphone chatter, the wrong music, the gurgle of an espresso machine—drives me mad and scatters my words. My words are quiet creatures that live somewhere in the back corners of my brain. I have to sit quietly, in silence, and search for them. Sometimes they reveal themselves. And sometimes they don’t. But at least here, at home, at my desk with my leafy tree, I know I’ll have the space to look.
I should not have fallen in love with the ex. But I did. I had never been in love before. I was a shy, good Minnesota girl and I used him as an excuse to do things I had previously known as “bad.” He gave me permission to stop worrying so much about where I was going and how I was going to get there. He didn’t have rules. He never made apologies. He would take me to sushi on a Tuesday night and order us two large Sapporo’s and a bottle of wine, just to get us started. We went to underground parties and took drugs. He was fiercely sure of our love—more sure than I had ever been of anything.
I knew when I met his brother and his father for the first time after staying up all night before doing ecstasy that it probably wouldn’t work out. And I knew that the minute I broke up with him, I would go back to living a slightly less thrilling, slightly less terrifying life. A life that made sense to me.
I was training for a half marathon when he bought me the desk. I pulled on my running clothes after work. He texted me: Downstairs.
He stood in front of his forest green Toyota Tacoma—in dark sunglasses, wavy black hair spilling out from underneath his beanie—and the desk towered up behind him.
“I have to run,” I said.
“How will you get it up the stairs?”
“I’ll find a way,” he said. And then, with the just a hint of his hot temper, “I always do.”
When I got home from the run, the desk was set up, looking west toward the ocean. The ex was gone. I later got booted from that apartment by a crazy roommate.
Now I live in an apartment filled with things Dan and I have collected together. Furniture, books, art. Now, I have a home. I’m married. I’ve completed graduate school. I’m back to worrying about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.
The other week, a friend and I sat on my couch just next to my desk. She told me her husband got upset when she mentioned that an old fling had contacted her and she responded. I pointed to my desk. Did she know the ex gave it to me? Could I explain clearly why I kept it? I tried.
When a relationship ends, we don’t just lose that person, we lose the person we were in that relationship. We lose that particular set of freedoms and frustrations. And we’ll never have it again.
We try to dust ourselves off and make ourselves new. For ourselves. For new lovers.
But just because things end doesn’t mean that those people and those parts of our life cease to be a part of us.
I wanted to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but really I didn’t.
At my desk, I am my secret, solitary self. I am still a wife, a friend, maybe someday a mother, but this is my space and here, I am a writer. A writer who is a lot like this desk. Scarred, with an imperfect past and many missteps. Brimming with more ideas than I can keep track of or organize appropriately. Who is still trying to figure it all out. A writer who has this old thing and can’t afford a new one. A writer because I dream here, think here, and procrastinate here…but mostly because I write here.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.