“We can live better together financially than we can apart,” my boyfriend said, nervously. “Is that awful?”
I didn’t think so. Neither did our therapist. It wasn’t the only reason we were together. It was simply an advantage. Besides, we had been through so much — financially — already.
We met in San Francisco in the late 1990s. Moving in together was as much a financial decision as a romantic one. We were both living in unhappy roommate situations. Why rent two separate studios — all either of us could afford — when we could stay in my two-bedroom garden apartment, which spilled out on to a mess of wildflowers?
My roommate moved out on a Tuesday, my boyfriend in on Wednesday. On Thursday, his largest contract pulled the plug, leaving him essentially unemployed, but without any of the benefits. A day later I was informed my contract also had not been renewed.
In less than a week, we had moved from honeymoon period to survival mode. Like most difficult circumstances facing a couple, the situation could either bring us together or tear us apart. That crisis made us stronger; we took on a scrappy “us against the world” mentality.
By the time we found ourselves reading lists on the therapist’s couch, we were more than back on our feet — me riding the tech wave of the Bay Area, him directing a vocational education program.
By the time our marriage ended, 15 years after those fragile financial beginnings, we were living in Seattle. He worked as a doctor. I was a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.
Aside from the emotional pain of dissolving a long-term relationship, we both knew that living apart would be financially challenging — especially for me. It was obvious. He agreed to give me three years of generous spousal support and the 15-year-old Honda Civic we shared — a black hatchback with 150,000 miles on it. I drove back to Chicago, where we had spent the years of his residency and I had fallen in love with the city.
At the age of 42, I lived alone for the first time. My massage clients were thrilled by my return, as were my Weight Watchers members. In many ways, I slipped back into my old life. Except this time I was alone.
Alone when my mattress was delivered — a Tempurpedic knockoff from Overstock.com, rolled up and left in the vestibule — which I pulled up the stairs to my apartment. Alone when an unmerciful Chicago winter pummeled my car with snow that, much as I tried, I could not seem to dig out of. Alone with the manual to my new cellphone.
Alone, I discovered, I was much more capable than I had realized. I enjoyed living solo. And when I needed help, I could ask for it, as evidenced by my February 2015 Facebook posting: “Damsel in Distress. Will Pay To Have Honda Dug Out.” Two men — friends of friends — had the job done in 30 minutes, refusing to accept anything more than a cup of coffee.
But financially, I still wasn’t making it. While collecting spousal support, I looked for steadier, better-paying work. But I didn’t find it.
As my bank account dwindled, I began working with a career counselor. Ultimately I decided to move to Spain — a country that promised warmer winters, a lower cost of living and plenty of work for people who could teach English. I found a school that offered a student visa program, allowing me to legally live and work part-time in the European Union. I’d always dreamed of living overseas and hadn’t done it. Now was my chance.
I sold everything. The memory-foam mattress I had dragged up the stairs by myself. The dining table my friend Tom had built for me. The car I had driven cross-country. I stored my bike, my massage table and a few boxes of books in a friend’s attic and bought a one-way ticket to Madrid.
That was nearly 11 months ago. I teach English to adults in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evenings. I live in a lovely flat near the opera with an 83-year-old former U.N. translator who plays the piano. I sleep in a twin bed.
I’ve spent time in Portugal, Prague and Poland. The south of Spain, the north of Africa. Budapest. Cologne. Nice. I’ve learned enough Spanish to converse with the green grocer, Paco, who picks out ripe apricots and figs for me.
My friends are from Sydney, Johannesburg, London and Paris. A few are from the United States.
It has been a grand adventure. And it’s been possible only because I found myself suddenly single and seemingly unable to support myself in Chicago.
However, I am not earning as much as I had hoped. At times, I feel isolated by my lack of language skills. And most of all, Madrid is not my home.
My friend Spencer has asked what I want when I return to Chicago in a few weeks. The answer has come slowly: To live alone again — and still be able to comfortably feed and clothe myself. Travel some and save some. I want to live as well alone as I could “together.”