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When a house no longer feels like a home

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Washington - Two days before Christmas, the man I thought I would marry ended our relationship. We sat facing one another – he on the long, low green couch he'd brought when he moved from Texas to Tennessee to be with me, I on the white and gray linen sofa I'd bought from a friend whose boutique was shutting down.

As he said the words that ended our relationship, I stared not at him but at a drawing on the foyer wall: a gift from my cousin, depicting me and my partner in front of my little orange house, our pets at our feet. When our talk was done, I stood up and took down the drawing. I set it in the back room, full of renovation detritus, and began to pack a bag.

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I didn't have a template for this, for making my home feel like it was mine again.

"You shouldn't be the one to leave," he told me. "It's your house."

"That's true," I said. "But this isn't home anymore."

I fled to my parents house, unpacked my things in the guest room and stayed for a month. While I was there, I made wild, half-baked plans to escape to another city – shorthand for the new life I wanted to have, one I would have to rebuild for myself. I pictured myself hiking in Denver and drinking cold craft beer in view of tall mountains. I spent two weeks in San Francisco, getting lost in a place that was as simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar as I was to myself.

When I returned to my house after Valentine's Day, my former partner had found a new place to live. The living room looked strange and empty without his green couch, and the bedroom still smelled like his dog after Belle had slept next to him in my absence.

I didn't have a template for this, for making my home feel like it was mine again. There were many places I had left, but I always knew I would never return. My childhood home after my parents signed the closing paperwork. The houseboat I'd lived on for a week in Hong Kong. The home of friends with whom an ex-boyfriend had lived while we dated. The crumbling rental where I was assaulted by someone I'd known since high school. My first college dorm room.

It was cleaner to leave and never come back. To let certain restaurants and bars and music venues fall off my regular circuit if they reminded me too much of someone who had cut me loose.

There I was in the foyer of the house I owned, the home I had once shared with a man who often told me he couldn't wait to marry the s – out of me. If it had been in any condition to rent out, I might have simply packed another suitcase and fled.

But I couldn't leave. There was work to be done.

And everywhere I looked, there was some reminder that my former partner had been here. He had been renovating the house and had gotten only as far as the demolition phase. The master bath was purged of its fixtures, the tile torn up. 

I hadn't taken a shower at home in a year, though he kept promising the new marble tile would go in soon, that the plumbing would be reconfigured for a walk-in shower to replace the old cast iron tub. 

The kitchen was missing one of its counters and there were patchy holes in the drywall where a rustic back splash once hung. The back room was piled high with boxes, including a giant 1960s stove he had bought from a young couple.

When we met, I was coming off a hard few years of personal and professional disappointments, and was clawing my way out of depression. He promised me peace of mind. When he moved in, he built a beautiful deck and pergola off the back of the house, a gesture to show that he had something to offer and the ability to follow through – qualities he felt distinguished him from the other men I'd dated. 

For our anniversary, he cut and stained new shelves and drawers for my closet. Everyone we knew commented on how happy I'd become, on the way I glowed and grinned now that this man was in my life.

The progress on the house stalled so slowly it was almost imperceptible, just as our relationship was falling apart. There was always some excuse for a project not to move forward – our single-income budget after he lost his job, travel plans, my grueling graduate program, his long hours doing work trade at a local farm. I didn't even notice the way the things I loved most about the house and myself were getting stripped away, from the ability to host dinner parties and take long baths to my own sense of confidence.

"Don't you have anything to say?" he asked me as he ended things.

"For once I don't have any words," I said, shaking my head.

Eventually, I started putting the house back together. Family friends stepped in to finish the renovation. A handy cousin happened to need a place to live, and moved in with his many hammers and saws. He put the doors and drawers back on to the kitchen cabinets, mowed the lawn and planted flowers.

As the kitchen counter tops went back in, and the rotten siding was repaired, I stopped researching apartments in Denver and San Francisco. I wore dark red lipstick and grew out my hair. I watched the cats play in the back yard and the buds unfurl on the trees. I became generous again, and open.

I took long, hot baths. Where my ex's green sofa once sat, I put a fig tree in a white ceramic pot. In the back room that had once been a cluttered tomb of renovation materials, my cousin moved in his dressers and bed. We go for long hikes and drink cold beer together. The house has become a home again, and I've recovered my sense of self.

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