On my first night in my barren new studio, six blocks away from the apartment I had shared with the wife I didn’t yet know was divorcing me, I crawled into bed and clicked on the Himalayan salt lamp on my nightstand. It cast a soft orange glow that I stared at from eight inches away until I eventually fell asleep. I wouldn’t sleep without it for a single night I lived there.
I never used a nightlight growing up. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid of the dark—as an adult, I still do not get in or out of bed without imagining something grabbing my ankles—but that I was embarrassed to be afraid of the dark. Yet one of the greatest gifts I got from my divorce was the gift, however fleeting, of not giving a fuck. What was sleeping with a light on, and all the vulnerability it implies, when I was weeping constantly, everywhere, or else wearing an expression that inspired strangers to gently ask if I was okay, and did I maybe need a glass of water? I was, save for a few cherished dating partners and budding friendships, alone. My family was in Canada and Australia. Most of my “friends” in Los Angeles were really just my soon-to-be-ex’s friends. I was a freelancer and barely earning more than the poverty line. My identity had been eclipsed by the idea of who I was supposed to be within the power dynamics, articulated and otherwise, within my marriage. That marriage was probably ending. Everything felt foggy and uncertain. What was sleeping with the light on?
Maybe it’s because I was trying to recreate a psychic center when I felt like I had none; maybe it’s because I grew up with not very many coping mechanisms but a lot of playing The Sims. Whatever the case, it was far easier to grapple with the material reality of moving than it was to deal with the emotional reality of separation, and so it was the material reality on which I focused.
In the limbo between the last night my ex and I slept under the same roof and my first night alone under my own, I remained in what had been our shared apartment. Because I was the one there—and, honestly, the one who cared—I made lists of wedding gifts, things we had bought together, objects that carried meaning. We had sad meetings and went through the lists. The lists did not prevent a few more months of swapping items I had mistakenly taken or forgotten. When the movers left, I raced their truck on foot to my new studio six blocks away. I planned to return for a last sweep, but as it got darker and darker out, I found I couldn’t bring myself to go back.
Any move involves a process of keeping and letting go. At first, I kept as much as I could: two out of four cups of a set. Wine glasses. One nightstand and the salt lamp that sat on it. Our dog’s most beloved chair. Art I did not actually like. What I liked did not matter, because this was temporary, because I could not believe we were getting divorced.
Our apartment together had been a gay, contemporary take on midcentury modern with a splash of Art Deco: tufted seating, vintage advertising, maps, comics and similarly graphic art arranged in gallery walls, Tiffany lamps, Eames knockoffs, hairpin legs, dinosaur sculptures, salt lamps. So my studio, as I set it up, became a gay, contemporary take on midcentury modern with a splash of Art Deco: tufted seating, graphic gallery walls, a colored glass lamp, Eames knockoffs, hairpin legs, even a tiny dinosaur sculpture. My half of the salt lamps sat on my half of the nightstands next to my bed, which was brass and had been ours. At least I got myself new bedding.
I don’t really like most of that look, especially not in my home and all at once. I’m drawn to warm minimalism, woods in complementary tones, a selective mix of metals, natural-looking fabrics, clean linens, organic shapes, aesthetic restraint. The kind of neutrals that feel quiet and calm and sturdy enough that you can fuck on the couch or spill something without worrying about it. The kind of sparseness where swapping a pillow changes the whole look of the room.
I do not like clutter, visual or physical. My style and preferences and desire for blank space were not compatible with my married household of barely restrained maximalism, so I suppressed them. In my studio, I continued to suppress them, because paying attention would make it really my home.
As the divorce became more real, I doubled down on my decor. Botanical prints! A shelf that was exactly the same as a shelf I already owned! I went to vintage flea markets and bought psychedelic-colored embroidery and broken home goods for display because they were things that would have fit into the home I didn’t want to leave.
Months later, when the paperwork began, I finally gave myself permission to make my home my own. What was I doing with all this clutter I didn’t even like? I cleaned out the books that I was holding on to only because they were inscribed. I redid the gallery walls over and over—in one case while telling a friend on the phone how much I disliked gallery walls—before allowing myself to hate both them and most of the art that composed them. I took bags and boxes to Out of the Closet. I went through everything I’d tucked away in the back of my drawers and closet and then donated that, too.
I proceeded to buy and return an escalating series of home goods. I experimented with the ’70s, with farmhouse accents, with psychedelic rainbow cactus prints. Was I a woven-wall-hanging sort of person? I was not. What about a draped-curtains-as-headboard sort of person? The plaster crumbled under the drill bit, which was for the best. What did I like? How could I tell? I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted or how I could be, but I finally knew I didn’t want anything to do with the life I had been living.
The salt lamp stayed on every night.
My breakup with that studio came slowly, then quickly. One day in February it rained and water flooded in through the bottoms of the window frames. The ceiling dripped. Wasps would come in from nowhere. So would a significant breeze. A minor earthquake spread cracks along the plaster walls. Birds lived in my heater, so I didn’t turn it on for a winter. The place was haunted. Living six blocks away from my former home had at first felt reassuring, then unremarkable, and suddenly untenable. I put the salt lamp on the floor and the nightstand it had lived on out on the curb, along with the knockoff Eames chairs. They were gone by the time I looked out the window.
Then I moved.
My first night in my first-ever one-bedroom all to myself, I sat alone in the dark and watched the wind—which, for the first time in a year and a half, I couldn’t feel through my closed windows—shake the fairy lights in the tree next door. I had gotten rid of so much and was about to use unpacked boxes as furniture for months. I was, and still am, uncertain, but it is my uncertainty and nobody else’s.
I climbed into bed and clicked off the salt lamp.