We are two months and two hundred thousand dollars into the new build when you say it. The foundation has been poured already. Framing will start soon. Then a roof. Then walls.
It’s a snow day in December. Schools are closed, the girls are playing quietly in the living room, and I’m in the kitchen of our current home, on a child-sized stool, breathing into the phone while you admit that the reason you’ve stopped wearing your wedding ring is not, as you had told me, because the style no longer suits you. It is, in fact, our marriage that no longer suits you.
There was a house on the new property before. A brown, creaky, shingled shack that had been there since the 1940s and would have to come down.
“After we get the okay from the town, we’ll demo the old house and clear the land to start digging the new foundation,” the builder told us. I pictured the two of us watching the demo together from the sidewalk, bundled up, coffees in hand, greeting new neighbors, toasting our future.
But on the morning of the demo, it was just me, standing on the street, watching the excavator tear into wallpapered rooms, shoveling out the guts of someone else’s home to make space for ours.
“Where’s your husband?” the builder asked.
“Work,” I told him. “He had to work. I’ll send him a video. He’ll like that.” But I kept my phone jammed into the pocket of my coat, fingers pinching through the inner liner to my thigh. You weren’t there, so I kept that moment for myself.
There are tiny people in the next room so I rage quietly, and then I cry quietly, and then I pull myself together enough to make stop-motion videos with them all afternoon. I put them to bed and sink into a chair, and by the time you come through the door, it feels as if a fifty-pound mass has been excised from my chest. It’s a live, pulsing ball of fear and anger that has been growing inside of me for so long, I can no longer discern the parts of myself that existed before it. But there it sits now, on the kitchen table between us: exposed and vulnerable.
“What do we do about the new build?” I ask. “Do we finish it? Sell it? Finish it, then sell it?”
You scan my face, trying to determine if I’m angry or resolved or if I’ve gone cold. I do that, you know; I go cold sometimes. My eyes narrow and focus. My words cut. I go for the jugular, you tell me. You’re waiting for it now.
But there’s a calmness that’s come over me. I’ve been holding on so long, keeping control, watching my words. Tiptoeing around arguments, around our triggers, our sore spots. Now, suddenly, I find my fists unclenched, my shoulders dropped. Something loosening, lifting, shifting back where it should be. There’s freedom in the letting go, in the hearing of truth, in the facing of facts. There’s fear, too. Financial fear, fear for the kids, fear of the unknown. But suddenly, even the unknown feels a little like freedom.
“I don’t know,” you say. “Maybe we finish it and move in? See what happens?”
“Okay,” I say. “Maybe.”
The truth? I called my best friend the night before our wedding. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, I know. This was the secret City Hall wedding, a year before the big one in the country.
“You’re really going to do this?” she’d asked.
“Why not?” I’d said. I was still a student then, about to lose my health insurance. You wanted to buy a starter house. “It makes sense. It’s just a little sooner than we planned.”
I pictured us walking down the steps of City Hall, hand in hand, holding our marriage certificate and this beautiful secret. A romantic gesture of love and commitment so precious and private, it was only for us. The planned wedding would be a spectacle for our families, for the photos. This would be our day.
After the ceremony, I thought we’d have brunch at Balthazar. Spend the day celebrating in Central Park, maybe midday sex, dinner downtown. We could do all the classic New York things we never had time for anymore.
But when we left City Hall as husband and wife, you took my hand and gave me a twenty. “Look, I know it’s shitty timing,” you said, “but I can’t skip work today. Why don’t you take a cab home? Do something nice for yourself this afternoon.”
“Seriously?” I asked. I watched another newlywed couple come down the front steps, a group of friends standing below them, cheering, snapping pictures. They held their joint hands in the air.
“I’ll make it up to you,” you swore. “We’ll celebrate this weekend, I promise. Besides, this isn’t the real thing, right? This is only paperwork. Next year is the one that counts.”
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe.”
I visit the house daily. Drywall is going up. Rooms are starting to take shape. The kitchen. The family room. The girls’ bathroom. Our bedroom. No, my bedroom?
I choose tile. A gray Moroccan zellige for the master bath. A sleek, white penny round for the first-floor shower. The kitchen table at the current house is covered in swatches and samples, catalogs and chips.
“What do you think about this color for the family room walls?” I ask. “Paper White.”
You tilt your head, stare at the painted strip in my hand. “Whatever you want.”
Friends wonder, “How’s the house coming along? You must be so thrilled.”
We haven’t told anyone the truth. I’m not sure we know yet what the truth is. Who will be moving in, who will be sleeping where. If this house will hold things together or if there’s actually nothing left here to build on.
Siding is installed. Insulation blown. “I want it airtight,” you say to the builder.
Still, fear seeps back in. Doubt. The kids are so young.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I tell my therapist. “Not to our girls, to our family.” I picture us sitting down with our six-year old, hands on her knees, tear-streamed cheeks as we tell her the news.
“And the house,” I say. “We’re going to lose this beautiful new house before we even get to live in it.”
“You can’t stay in a marriage for a house,” she tells me.
“I know,” I cry. “But maybe I’ve been thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe we, I don’t know, redefine the terms of our marriage. Open it up, live together but not really be together, you know? We all get the house, the girls have two parents, I’ll be taken care of, he’ll have everything handled at home. Kind of a business arrangement. Everyone benefits.”
She looks at me skeptically. “And how is that any different from the way it is now?”
I start tracking your involvement, your level of enthusiasm. You spend three weeks debating generators. Which one has the most power, the best price tag, the smallest footprint in the yard. I think you wouldn’t be so invested in a generator if you weren’t planning on living in the house.
“We should go with the Generac,” you tell me one night after dinner. You slide your phone across the table to show me a photo. “It starts up quickly. Won’t be too much of an eyesore.” I picture us curled together on the couch, snow piling up outside, the lights going out, the Generac kicking in.
Wood flooring arrives. Wide-plank white oak with the faintest of grain. “It’s gorgeous,” I tell you one night before bed, “you should stop by the house tomorrow and take a look.”
You shrug. Roll over to face the wall. “Maybe next week,” you say, switching off your lamp.
We will all move into the new house, we decide. For now. We’ll see how it goes. Only, sometimes I can’t actually tell what it is I’m hoping for, which version of life scares me less.
Last summer, you gave me a birthday card with a corny little poem inside. Underappreciated, often irritated, but about to be… luxuriated. There was a printed receipt for a private room at a yoga retreat in the Berkshires. A weekend away by myself. “You deserve it,” you told me.
Right before the new build began, I booked my trip. Traded my private room for a triple and took two friends with me. The leaves had started to fall. The mountains were half bare-branches, half fiery-reds.
I woke at 6 a.m. each morning for yoga in a cathedral-like room with tall, peaked ceilings, morning sun streaming in from skylights above. I stretched and chanted, quietly cried. When the hour was up, I threw on my jacket and burst out into the cold. Moved swiftly through the woods, over streams, up the mountainside, stopping only when I hit the end of a trail or the edge of the lake.
It was the most alive I’d felt in years. A beautiful gift, truly.
On the last day, we took a workshop called, “The Future You.” We lay on the floor, swaddled in yoga blankets and afternoon sun, while an instructor led us through a guided meditation, meant to stir up an image of the future life we really wanted. The one buried inside, hidden and waiting. Trapped under layers of protection, expectation.
The instructor’s voice was low and soothing. As she spoke, I felt my body relax and settle, my mind sink into an altered state, somewhere between sleep and awake. And suddenly there I was, sitting at a long oak table in a clean white room with large, sunlit windows. The girls were playing somewhere off to the right, and in front of me, on the table, was my computer, a blank page open on the screen. I was writing again, or about to write, for the first time in years, and I felt ready. Calm and pure and unburdened. And well, love, I looked around, and you weren’t there.
The instructor talked us out of our trance. She told us to take the notepad and pens to our left, to write our future yous. I scribbled furiously, got it all down. The white room, the girls playing, the open computer, the absence of you. Then I folded the sheet and tucked it away in my suitcase. When I got home, I thought about leaving it out on the kitchen table for you to find and read, for the conversation to finally start. But I was scared. Instead, I slid it into a bag in the back of my closet, where you wouldn’t think to look. I held onto the truth, and I waited. For the new build to begin. For something to shift. For a grand gesture. For you to say it first.
We will all move into the new build together, and then you will move out. Slowly. In stages. First, to the guest room. Then, to the city, a few nights a week. Then, for good.
I will keep your side of the closet empty. And then I will start to fill it. My sweaters will creep onto your custom shelves, my jewelry into your velvet-lined drawers.
I will sit at the white-oak kitchen island and marvel at the way the morning sun filters in through the window. At the clean white walls and the wide-plank floors. I’ll gaze proudly at the slab of hand-picked quartz that runs up behind the stove. At the brass sconces flown in from France. The long window seat that spans the living room wall.
I’ll leave open spaces for the girls to play in. I’ll set up a writing table close by.
And I will wonder how long I have here. Six months? A year? Maybe two?
It’s a beautiful home. Well-built. All details carefully considered. But in the end, it’s just a house. And, you know, it was never really ours to begin with.
Rumpus original art by Elly Lonon.