She had always liked this moment of turning onto her block, the sense of naming her place: New York City, Brooklyn, Warren Street, and into her now-lost home of more than a decade.
It was almost 6 p.m. when Sylvie got to the house. The movers had been there all day, she assumed. The co-op had to be empty and broom-clean tonight, as the new owners were more than ready to move in tomorrow, after begging for an earlier move date all that month.
Doug hadn’t called, not that she had any reason to expect that anymore. And she had already made enough headway on disentangling from their fourteen-year marriage to resist picking up the phone to call him and check.
Even more difficult than their separation – which finally came after what had to be one of the longest declines ever – losing this home was breaking her heart. She had poured loving effort into bringing the old brownstone rooms to a homey, simple elegance. But more than that, it had been her sanctuary; just being in its embrace was joy itself. Until it wasn’t, and even this beloved place could no longer temper the desolation of what their life together had become.
She had moved out in June, into a small nearby apartment. It was too much rent for her strained resources, but leaving the neighborhood, this village within Brooklyn that she had come to love like no other place in her life, was more that she could deal with. And so, she stayed, paycheck to paycheck until the co-op sale would be truly done, and her share in the bank.
Doug had remained in the co-op until the end of summer, when an adjunct professorship post would take him to Oregon. And for the first time, she was about to find herself on her own in the city.
She saw the moving van in front of their house, and bits of what had been her furniture sitting on the street. At her first footstep inside, the expressions on the movers’ faces – exhausted, beleaguered, cranky – confirmed what she already surmised. Despite months to get organized and pack, and several days that she and Doug had been able to work together on dismantling the household, he had left most of his own packing until the very end.
If she hadn’t been so weary, she might have gasped. The place looked ransacked, more like the victim of a frantic evacuation than a planned move. A pile of debris in the kitchen told the forensics of exasperation: assorted Tupperware, what seemed to be the contents of the medicine cabinet, vases, unlaundered shirts. With far too much stuff and out of time, Doug seemed to have adopted a cut and run tactic.
One mover, opening a kitchen cabinet drawer, seemed about to cry at the shambles of match books, thumb tacks, jar lids, and hardened Whiteout, apparently the last straw of a long and trying day. He emitted something between a groan and a curse, and uncaring of Sylvie watching, grabbed the drawer and dumped the contents into a box which he taped shut and carried down the stairs.
Doug came in from the back rooms, close behind the mover in charge and looking, she noted with a bit of satisfaction, a little sheepish as the boss explained the additional charges Doug was about to pay. Not my problem anymore, Sylvie managed to tell herself.
She grabbed a garbage bag and started in. Her new apartment had almost no storage space, but with strong scavenger genes inherited from both parents, she couldn’t resist saving a few items. Perfectly good sandpaper in various grades. Doug’s mother’s cake carrier. A can of Deep Woods Off, despite the fact that she was rarely if ever in the woods, deep or sparse.
As daylight faded, the movers finished at last. Doug handed over what looked like copious amounts of cash, and the truck pulled away. He looked thoroughly done in, Sylvie thought, as if all the air was about to leave his body. Suddenly she felt famished. “Want to order a pizza?” she asked.
They cleaned and hauled garbage until the pizza arrived, then climbed out onto the fire escape to eat. This had always been one of her favorite spots. Often, she would take a cup of tea or a glass of wine out there and do nothing but sit and enjoy the birdsong and whatever was blooming in the backyards, or find the few stars available in Brooklyn’s night skies.
They talked a bit, about the neighborhood and a new restaurant on Smith Street that they each liked, especially the little garden out back. “Okay,” she said; “So I can’t afford any kind of vacation or travel now, but I can go to places like that and treat myself once in a while.”
“Or do like me,” Doug said. “After my qualifying exam I bought a bag of dope and smoked every night.”
“When was that? I don’t remember that.”
“A few years ago.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said. “Or maybe I just got pissed off and didn’t say anything.”
“You did that a lot.”
“I had reason to.”
They went inside, added the pizza box to the last of the trash, and took everything out to the garbage cans. Sylvie gathered the things she had rescued. Doug picked up his bags, about to leave for wherever it was he was staying in Manhattan. The next woman’s place, she supposed. Somehow, Doug still seemed to think she didn’t know, but she knew. Better her than me, Sylvie told herself.
“Would you like to come over and see Zoe?” she asked. Their ancient cat had been in slowly failing health for some time, but the extent of her debilitation wasn’t apparent until she’d been uprooted and moved into the strange new world of Sylvie’s apartment. Removed from the place where every corner and inch were in deep memory, it was soon obvious that the poor dear was also mostly blind, bumping into chairs and taking a small eternity to cross from one room to another. Sylvie felt a sting of guilt every time she watched.
The apartment was stuffy, and Sylvie opened windows to let in some night air. “Would you like a drink?” she said; “I have Scotch.”
“Sounds good,” Doug said, picking up Zoe and sitting on the sofa, talking to her gently. “What a nicens Zoe-cat you are,” he said; “Such a nicens catgirl.” Sylvie felt her throat tighten as she poured the whiskey.
They didn’t talk much. She rocked gently in the antique rocking chair from that former Yeshiva turned second-hand furniture store on Atlantic Avenue years ago, when Atlantic was still a good bet for bargains. (She had made sure she got the living room furniture, each piece she’d acquired over the years).
Doug stroked Zoe. “I can’t believe how fast she’s gone downhill,” he said.
Sylvie did not respond. Nor did she question whether her silence came from the long habit of not standing up for herself or was just a last refusal to be baited. Spent as she was, she realized it didn’t feel like either and made a mental note that her therapist would find this interesting. And then heard her therapist’s voice, gentle: It wasn’t all about her. Not this time.
Their glasses were empty. “Well,” Doug said; “Should we go say goodbye to the house?” They walked the few blocks in silence, the August night quiet and still. It had been a mild summer, weather-wise an easy summer.
The key sounded loud in the door lock; their footsteps audible in the empty space. Without a word, they went their own ways through the rooms, slowly taking their leave. Doug coming from the back of the house, she from the front, they found themselves meeting in the large kitchen/dining room, the room that had been the center of the parties they’d thrown over the years, one thing they had done well together.
They looked at each other. Sylvie said, “There’s really nothing more to say, is there?” They stepped toward each other and then were in each other’s embrace. She kissed his cheek, each of them crying quietly. Releasing each other finally, they locked the door and walked down the stairs and out into the street. He caught a cab towards Manhattan, and she started down Warren Street to the place she was learning to call home.
Margaret Morth is immersed in a life-long passion for catching and writing stories. Writer’s Digest awarded a 2022 Honorable Mention for her story, “To Beat the Band.” Her work has also appeared in TulipTree Review and North Dakota Horizons. She has an M.A. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.