Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

A Place of My Own

by Susan Amlung

So this is what it’s like to live alone, I thought contentedly as I sank into the sofa with a spoon in one hand and a pint of Häagen-Dazs java chip in the other. I wrapped my worn old robe tightly around my bare legs (ignoring the unshaven stubble) and settled in for an uninterrupted evening rereading Gail Sheehy’s Passages. I had spied it in a little bookstore on my way home. Just the thing to help me start a new stage of my life, I thought.

After 30 years of navigating the suburban sprawl, it had been a treat to walk home, browse in a neighborhood bookstore and buy fresh flowers at the corner grocery. Almost as good as going to the French bakery on 10th the morning for real crisp-on-the-outside, down-soft-on-the-inside, croissants, distant cousins to their soggy suburban simulations. And coming home from work at night swept up in the rushing human currents on the electric yellow streets was a far cry from the dark silence of returning late to the town where I had lived.

It had taken me the first quarter-century of my life to traverse the 25 miles from the Lower East Side of my childhood to the Westchester suburbs, but twice as long just to get across town to the West Village. Now, here I was, almost 50 years old, and finally in a place of my own. Well, technically it was just an informal sub-let, but I was paying for it myself and, most important, I was living by myself for the first time in my life. Having attended a commuter college and married young, I had gone straight from my parents’ home to the one I shared with my new husband.

Side by side we had built a life, complete with two kids, a rotating menagerie of pets and an old house that sucked up all our spare time and money. During those thirty years I was wife, mother, enforcer, chauffer, cleaner, cook, dog-walker, laundress, shopper, gardener, volunteer, commuter, companion, adviser, homework helper, disciplinarian, shoulder to cry on and God knows what else.

Now most of those roles were obsolete, unneeded and unwanted. The children were on their own, and even Bill, my husband, wasn’t around much, trying to keep afloat a business that was past its prime. Even when he was home, without the children to talk about and worry about together, we no longer had much to share. I was set adrift.

At first it was easy to substitute the office for home, and the demands of the job for the family responsibilities that had consumed me all those years. But the emptiness at my core persisted. Who was I now? What had happened to my marriage? Was this the life I wanted? Did I have the courage to try something else?

“I haven’t spoken to you in two weeks. Why don’t you call?”

My mother was on the phone from Florida. “So tell me what’s doing.”

“Nothing much, Ma. I guess that’s why I didn’t call. There’s not much to tell.”

“How’s the job? And the children?”

“Same as usual. The kids are fine. I don’t hear from them much. They’re involved in their lives. You know how it is.”

“You need a hobby. Why don’t you take up bridge? It’s a wonderful way to meet people and pass the time.”

I hung up dejected. Is that what I faced? Killing time until the cocktail hour brought blessed respite from boredom? Maybe at 50 it was too late to revive the dreams of my youth: being a famous dramatic stage actress who routinely reduced audiences to tears; writing a novel that everybody loved but nobody understood; ending poverty, even in Africa. But did that mean I was consigned to bridge and booze? Weren’t there other options?

A few days later, a friend at work mentioned that he was moving in with his girlfriend but was unwilling to give up his apartment just yet.

“Yes!” I thought. Here was my opportunity to try on a different life, without having to make a permanent commitment! I could live the life I used to think I wanted. Culture. Concerts, museums, theatre. Urbane friends. Witty conversation. Go where I wanted, when I wanted. Best of all, I could see if I could make it on my own. Or maybe, if it panned out, I could talk Bill into moving back to the city. Maybe that’s what our marriage needed.

“You know, I’m working late so many nights and the trek home is a drag,” I said to my colleague. “Maybe I could use your place during the week for a few months. Just until you decide what to do.”

Of course he was glad to be able to recoup his rent and we quickly came to an agreement for me to move in that weekend.

I was so excited that I even thought Bill would see the logic of it. It would be a weekend marriage. No more daily commute. And for what? To watch TV or just go straight to bed so I could get up the next morning and go back to work?

It wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t the whole truth. Somehow it seemed too silly to say that I no longer knew who I was or what kind of life I wanted. Here he was, burdened by real problems, trying to salvage an outdated business, and I was creating issues where there were none, trying to “find” myself, like an adolescent.

But he sensed there was more to it than saving travel time.

“You’re sure?” he asked when I said it wouldn’t last past spring. “This isn’t some midlife crisis? A trial separation? Some fantasy of yours, living the single life? I guess it’s pretty dull around here lately.”

My antennae quivered. I was right. It seemed childish to him. A fantasy. Was there even a touch of contempt in his voice? Midlife crisis, he called it.

Feeling defensive, I went on the offense.

“I don’t know why you care so much,” I said. “You’re never home anyway. Or if you are, you go to bed by nine, leaving me alone. You never want to go out; we’ve lost our friends. You’ll hardly notice the difference if I’m there or not.”

“Damnit!. You know what I’ve been going through with the business. Can’t you cut me an inch of slack? Everything is always about you. It would be nice if just once, you’d stop criticizing and be more supportive.”

“I want to help, honey. But if you won’t talk to me about your business problems, how can I understand what you’re going through?”

“I don’t tell you because I know you can’t take it. You panic and run away. Just like you’re doing now. Well, I can’t worry about keeping you happy right now. If I lose the business, you won’t be happy anyway.”

And with that, the subject was closed.

Packing my bags that Sunday, I was both excited and scared. This must be what going away to college would have felt like, I thought. But I was much older now and traipsing off into the unknown was more daunting.

Bill drove me downtown to help me set up the apartment. But once we were there, he was anxious to leave.

“Oh, do you have to go?” I complained. “I had hoped we could walk around, you know, explore the neighborhood a bit.”

“You’ll understand if I’m not in the mood for that,” he said pausing at the door. ” I know you’re thinking of all the fun you’re going to have in your little pad, but I don’t feel like celebrating.”

As it turned out, living alone was not nearly as difficult as I feared. Of course, the sophisticated soirees I had anticipated never materialized, but neither did I ever feel lonely. I enjoyed the quiet, free from the constant accompaniment of a TV laugh track in the background. And I especially relished the freedom to think about no one else’s needs but my own. No dog to walk, no dinner to prepare, no homework to check. No one to please but me. I subscribed to a theatre nearby and went happily by myself. A couple of times I went to a movie — one that Bill would not have wanted to see anyway. I even conquered eating alone in a restaurant; there were so many interesting places to try!

Most important, I chased the boogey man away. I discovered that I could live alone — and like it! With that relief, my anxiety about my future receded. Whatever decisions I had to make, I knew I wouldn’t make them just because I was afraid of being alone.

As winter turned to spring, however, it was clear that I was drifting, enjoying my self-centered life but still lacking direction or sense of purpose. And with my lighter summer workload, there was no longer any reason to stay in the city, at least no work-related reason.

In addition, to my surprise, I started to miss the suburbs. I missed seeing the earth stirring to life: the tightly wrapped hosta leaves bravely piercing the cold ground, the rhododendron buds showing their first blush, the early robin pecking furiously at the hard brown lawn. There was outdoor cleanup that needed to be done, fall bulbs to put in, and a bricklayer to find to replace the cracked front walk.

Being in the apartment as the days grew longer began to feel cramped and confining. I longed for the evening walks we used to take down to the harbor, the intoxicating smell of sea air, the stinging spray of salt on our faces, the glorious colors in the sunset-tinted water.

.And, as the initial exhilaration of self-empowerment faded, I found myself hungering for Bill’s physical presence and for the ballet of shared tasks and time-honored routines that we had choreographed over the years: getting a meal together, cleaning up, paying bills, catching the news. More and more often, even midweek, I took the train to Westchester after work instead of heading downtown. Bill wasn’t always home, but with my new self-reliance I was no longer so dependent on his company.

The end was anti-climactic. Gradually, I shifted my belongings back to the house. I hadn’t made the big life changes I had thought I needed. But I was more at peace with myself when I returned, more content with who I was and the life choices I’d made. I felt more like a complete and separate person, free to forge my own way when I wanted to, whether or not Bill joined me.

My being less needy seemed to free Bill, too. No longer was he burdened with the responsibility of making me happy. No longer did he feel always obligated to keep me company at home or to attend one of my work-related events. As he became more confident in my new-found independence, he even began to share his business worries with me, and to our relief, I was able to listen with empathy but not fear. We reminisced a lot, too, about trips we’d taken, people we’d known and crises we’d weathered. And with those memories as a foundation, we gradually reconstructed the love we’d had.

And so it goes. I still sometimes go to the movies by myself or to a restaurant for a solitary meal. I spend hours writing, no longer resenting the equal hours Bill spends poring over his accounts or on the phone with suppliers. And when he turns on the TV, that is my chance to retire to another room to read.
Yes, change was needed. But changing venues was not the answer. Neither did I have to lose what was good in my life. Little by little, I carved out my own space, a place of my own right there at home.

Read Susan Amlung’s bio »