Three hundred square feet
Our separation was meant to last but a month, but then she didn’t want me back. I had been living in an awful extended-stay hotel, digging a big financial hole by paying the rent with a credit card. I still held out some hope we’d reconcile but the road back looked long. So I looked for an apartment I could afford while still supporting my family in our home. Thank God my paychecks covered my family’s needs with some left over.
But the leftovers afforded me very little. My choices were few, mostly in bad neighborhoods. The apartments were always small and usually broken down. I ended up choosing the place that was closest to my children. It was especially tiny – just three hundred square feet.
Three photographs capture almost all of it. One wall contained built-in storage and a Murphy bed. A friend gave me the TV.
Around the corner was a tiny kitchen and a tinier bathroom.
Looking out from the kitchen and across the Murphy bed, the outer wall was five steps away. The folding chairs and my exercise ball were my only furniture. The eight-dollar Wal-Mart floor lamp was my main light source.
The carpet was stained, the bathroom door had a deep gouge in it, the electric heater was very loud, and I could feel the springs in the thin mattress (heaven knows how many had slept on it before me), but the place became home, whether I liked it or not.
We couldn’t pull our marriage back together, and my wife filed for divorce. Our case ended up going to trial, and because the court was badly backlogged I ended up living in this apartment for 18 months.
And so I came to terms with my marriage’s end here, with many nights spent lying awake in anguish and anger over losing my family. I wished I had the luxury to focus on healing, but I still had to work a demanding job to pay for everything, be a father to my children, do considerable preparation for the trial, and manage difficult interactions with my soon-to-be ex-wife.
The maxim about how to boil a frog says that if you plop him in boiling water he’ll jump out, but if you cover him in cold water and heat him gradually he’ll cook to death. Similarly, I did not realize how much our destructive marriage consumed us until my wife did me the favor of ejecting me from the hot water. The stress had been intense, to the point of compromising my health. But the separation traded stress for stress, the likes of which I had never known. I suffered from chronic insomnia; I lost 20 pounds. Were it not for a web of friends and family who prayed for me and took my phone calls at all hours of the day, I do not think I would have made it through.
Because of them, I was able to begin regaining the inner strength I had lost. I had compromised my integrity so often in the marriage, sometimes from my shortcomings and sometimes in desperation to keep my family together, that I had utterly lost myself. Through that my relationships with my sons had stalled and were decaying. I began the hard work of rebuilding.
My little apartment was the safe place I needed to do the work. That’s ironic, because the apartment complex wasn’t really a safe place. A steady stream of people, eyes darting about nervously, visited two apartments across the way looking for a fix. And it was whispered that a prostitution ring was being run out of a few apartments at the back of the complex. Yet the two likely drug dealers were respectful and occasionally congenial when we encountered each other in the parking lot (where they both parked immaculate white Caddies loaded with gold trim). And one of the alleged prostitutes kept knocking on my door at all hours asking for money until I said, “Are you hungry? If so, I’ll take you to the store and buy you whatever you need,” which chased her away for good. But otherwise none of the funny business touched me. Except for jump-starting a few cars when word got around that I had cables, and being awakened late one night to call an ambulance for a neighbor who had taken badly ill but could not afford a phone, I was left alone. The place was as quiet as a tomb, the silence broken only occasionally when a washing machine went off balance in the laundry room next door. Not sleeping gave me time to do the work, and having few amenities at home and so little money made it hard for me to distract myself or run away. So I buckled down, took a hard look at how far out of true I had gone, and made slow but steady progress back to myself.
Slowly, things started to get better. I learned to accept the pain and let go of my marriage. I found ways to snatch a little serenity here and there. I started to manage the stress more effectively. I began to look forward to my future. And best of all, I started to get tight with my sons again. We used to fold up the Murphy bed and play a rough game on the floor where I’d get on my knees, the boys would try to run past me, and I’d reach out and tackle them on their way by. The boys called the game “Attack Dad,” but I never figured out whether they thought they were attacking Dad or I was the Attack Dad. I can’t explain it, but that game was a tonic for us, almost singlehandedly restoring trust and good feelings.
I drive by this apartment complex a lot today; it’s on the way to church and the grocery store. Sometimes as we pass the boys remark on a memory of our days there. They sometimes say how they hated sleeping on bedrolls on the floor, but more often they bring up Attack Dad or some other good memory from those days. I thought I had left the apartment with more good memories than bad, feeling predominantly grateful for it and how much I grew during that time. Yet not long ago when I stumbled upon the photos I’ve shared here, my mind and body flooded with echoes of the pain I felt then. It took several days for the shock to subside and for me to regain my center. This has forcefully reminded me just how far I’ve come from the crushing stress I faced for so long and its effects on me. I am amazed now that I was able to function in those early months in the apartment. I have no explanation other than I had to be in God’s hand.
I’ve shared very little here about my five-year journey since the separation. My blog has mostly been about who I’ve become since those awful days – it’s an expression of the joy I feel in having found myself again. I’m not sure why I feel compelled to share this story with you now. But here it is, and I hope it provides some context for the rest of what I write here.