How do you soothe yourself? A drink? A pastry? A wank? I employ various techniques, including A Big Tidy. (A small tidy involves cleaning and rearranging my ornaments into fetching “tablescapes”, a big tidy involves bin bags.)
My flat has odd closet arrangements consisting of two Edinburgh presses, those deceptive doors that open onto a space only ten inches deep, making them unsuitable for hanging clothes. In the hallway is a massive closet that the previous owners fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelving, since augmented with my old, inadequate book cases. When we first bought the flat this closet also housed a freezer, but that shuffled off its mortal coils not long after. Some of my neighbours have turned these closets into tiny offices — begging the question: where the hell do they put their stuff?
Every couple of years I have a clear out, but this time I’ve really gone for broke. Out went the roll of carpet remnants. Out went the mostly empty paint tins. Out went my ex-husband’s maps of western Scotland (to a good home, I assure you). Out went my collection of empty boxes, kept because, “I might move,” or sell my treasures via eBay or Etsy, and need a dozen shoe boxes for postal purposes.
I kept my old journals and a box of vinyl I’d forgotten I possessed. I kept an assortment of luggage. I kept the bonkers white Christmas tree bought to appease my ex one year. I kept the tools and cleaning supplies (even the rusty saw) and (all) my spare hangers. But the space feels spacious for a change. I keep flinging the door open, turning on the light and admiring it.
Such is the state of my self-esteem that filling three heavy bin bags and making four trips up and down the stairs to recycle a mountain of cardboard feels like an achievement worth marking. I understand symbolism well enough to recognise that these visits to the closet also represent a psychological shift.
Emboldened, I tackled the living room press, throwing out broken picture frames, “floppy” discs, operating instructions to devices long since recycled, ugly pillow covers, and more. I kept the Tiffany’s box containing the ashes of two late, lamented cats. (Yes, I did ship them with my belongings when I moved to the UK.) I kept the box of family photos and documents that my uncle’s widow sent me — eternal mysteries, since there’s no one left to help me decipher them. I kept un-broken picture frames, DVDs, and the shovel (no idea where it came from, and I’ve never seen it in use).
At the bottom of the closet in a bulging plastic envelope were all the letters, cards and printouts of emails that I received from my ex-husband during our courtship and marriage. I’d kept them on the basis of: Even though it went badly wrong, some day I will find solace in remembering that I was loved.
Would I? Would I really?
I recently read Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s essay about abuse in the New Statesman (highly recommended: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/helen-s-story-abuse-archers-reminds-me-my-own-so-i-m-willing-her-leave).
It stirred up painful recollections of my marriage. (To be honest, you don’t need that big of a spoon for this task.)
I won’t go into particulars, except to say that physical abuse was largely absent, but I lived through a decade of emotional abuse and mind games, which left scars and an indelible tattoo of shame: I’m smart. How did it happen to me?
This September marks the tenth anniversary since my ex moved out. Never mind that the official paperwork occurred some two years later, I mark this as my deliverance, the moment we finally split up after years of mutual unhappiness. This autumn the anniversary will be something to celebrate, as it’ll mark the date when I’ve been free of him the same length of time that I was with him. We met late May 1996, married September 1997, and very consciously uncoupled in September of 2006.
This autumn the scales balance again and he is erased. Mostly.
True, the nightmares no longer plague me with the same intensity. I used to dream that he was back, and since I’d allowed him through the door, he’d be staying for good. I’d wake with a pounding heart, screeching and terrified because my evil subconscious loves reminding me that I share the responsibility for my prolonged unhappiness. I married him. No one forced me.
I married him knowing there were problems, foolishly thinking they were solvable. I married him, as my friends will testify, because he wooed me with letters and calls that said all the right things, things I’d always wanted a man to say to and about me.
When people ask even now if I know what he’s up to, I say that the great thing about not having kids is that over means over. We are not in touch. We don’t run into each other even in the small town that is Edinburgh. That part is bliss.
I looked at the bulging envelope and sentiment abandoned me. Instead of seeing memories I saw garbage, and garbage gets dumped. I don’t own a paper shredder, but I have open fires. With matches in hand, I slowly, deliberately, set our history alight.
There was no temptation to reread a word of it, but sometimes I caught sight of an endearment, a pet name, a sweet salutation. The words I’d hoped would one day bring me comfort cut through me like knives. It was worse than reading angry denouncements. They weren’t lies, I’ll credit him with that much, but I think early on he sussed what I needed and wanted, and lavished it on me, until I’d gone too far to extricate myself. That was his special cleverness. Even when we were married I’d joke, “If only he’d use his impressive intuitive powers for good.”
It took ages to burn all that paper and left an unholy mess. It took two days to get round to buying a dustpan and brush, what with one thing or another. Yesterday I swept the fireplace clean, wiped down the Victorian tiles, the grate, the hearthstone, and my glass fire screen, then I stood back to admire it.
At moments such as these I hear the voice of that little woman in Poltergeist, bragging, “This house is clean.” Remember what happened next? I know better than to think this is the matter resolved.
My psyche is not a clean, well-lit room. I’ll never fully exorcise the toxins that built up during my marriage — they are far older and more deeply embedded than that. But for now, at least I know that when I open the closet door, nothing horrible will tumble out.