When I got divorced and left Los Angeles almost six years ago, going back for a visit has always been surreal. My job producing commercials took me there every three months or so, forcing me to confront a life I once led, from a different perspective.
It also forced a spotlight onto my emotional healing and the progress I was making. The first time I got into a rental car, rather than my beat up Saab which I sold upon moving, and drove up La Cienega Blvd. towards the Hollywood Hills where I used to live, the thick knot that inhabited my chest would expand, engulfing me in a surreal melancholy and sense of loss. Checking into a hotel with my new coworkers, who weren’t privy to my past or the knowledge that I was in a way “home,” although it was no longer my home, created a disconnect that I knew I’d get over in time, but was palatable nonetheless. Every café, intersection, even the perfumed scent of bougainvillea, elicited a jarring memory of a moment I had shared with my ex-husband, and there was no way around it.
Part of me was compelled to confront it. For the first three trips I made out there, I’d find myself steering my car up into the hills, towards my old house. When my husband and I bought it had been in shambles, and we had lovingly renovated every inch of it: we built a deck, paved the driveway, and installed a colorful orange tiled “kid’s bathroom.”
The house was still there, now inhabited by a family. I’d slouch down in the seat of my rental car, parked in front of the house across the street and stare at my old house. I was a voyeur of a stranger’s life, merged with – in a way sprouted from – my old life. The house looked the same, yet foreign; the driveway now jammed with a Volvo station wagon, a child’s pink bicycle, and a baby carriage.
I didn’t confess to anyone (until now, publicly!) that I had done that. When I asked myself why I willingly put myself through that, I think it was because I needed the concrete evidence that that life had existed. That it wasn’t an intangible memory that existed solely in my mind – in my past.
You could say that in the way divorce is compared to a kind of death, it’s not necessarily different than pulling out pictures of a lost loved one, as a reminder, or more so, to honor a past life that once was. I was also in the midst of writing my novel, based on that experience, and I suspect I did that to activate some kind of sorrow so that I could feel it in the present and write from that place. That might sound masochistic – like sticking a fork into your own heart – but there was no stopping me from that trancelike endeavor.
As the trips became more frequent, the sorrowful cloud began to dissipate. And as my colleagues became my close friends who understood what I had been through, it got easier. One of my coworkers, a confidante, surprised me one day. “Do we have some time before callbacks?” he said. “I want to see your old house.” I was shocked, but willing. Driving by the house with a friend from my new life in the passenger seat, and watching his reaction (“Wow, I get it now. You had this whole other life before us!”) gave me a sense of validation. But it also made me realize that I was no longer sad. I felt nothing but pride. I was proud to realize that I had finally moved on. That wasn’t my last trip to LA, but it was the last time I saw my house.
I now have a new job, which hasn’t required me to travel to LA, except this weekend. It’s been nine months since I’ve been back, and this time I’m not here with my coworker pals. I’m here alone; a businesswoman staying at a hotel on a business trip. Again, the changes I’ve made, and the life I am living in NYC is thrown into sharp contrast with the life I would have had had I stayed in LA. My LA friends are now married, living in pretty houses. Some of them have kids. Seeing couples my age at lunch, with their toddlers in the seat beside them, makes me think of the almost life I would have had; had I stayed married to my ex-husband, and stayed in my old house.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was strange, and that a new kind of melancholy didn’t possess me. The inevitable questions swirled: What happened? I was so close to having a certain kind of life, wasn’t I? Was I just a few years away, or even months, from having the kind of life where the strollers in the driveway could have been my own?
I realized that the timing, as always, is noteworthy. As I bid a final farewell to the life I didn’t lead, memorialized by the four walls of a house that is no longer my own, I am beginning to embrace my new life in NYC, and a new apartment that I will be moving into that is mine, and mine alone.
We make choices in life that are born out of the present moment. When we make them, we consider the impact it might have on our future, but that future is hypothetical. It is a hypothetical path that we cannot travel down if we are to choose a different one. It’s like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I was obsessed with as a child, where you are “the star of your own story,” and there are forty possible endings. We choose our own adventure, and once we do, the other choice and its consequences fall away. And we have to live with that.
But it doesn’t mean that sometimes we can’t play the “what if” game. It is human to wonder how different our lives would look had we stayed put – had we not encountered the people or events that spun us in another direction. But that choice is ours, and in turn, the reward comes in the form of a new experience. Life is short, but it is also long, and while we can only live out one possible ending, there are infinite choices we can make along the way.
As long as we learn to embrace those decisions – and make the most of them.