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When my ex-husband and I embarked on our road to divorce, we had finally reached that sweet spot in the real estate department of married life. After returning to the United States from an overseas military tour where we lived in base housing, we bought our own home where the kids could run around in the back yard, where we could paint the walls whatever color we wanted. While the house wasn’t perfect, it was 2,100 square feet of the story of us.

But then that story ended, and I moved out. Buying a house was out of the question. And in the area I wanted to relocate to, even renting a house was beyond my price range. I took a tour of an apartment complex within walking distance of the schools I wanted my children to attend. I left with a signed lease and a move-in date for my 1,300-square-foot single-mom bachelorette pad.

Shortly after I moved in, I realized my apartment complex was full of people in transition. The apartments were filled with people trying to figure out what was next in their lives, and I was one of them. There were military families who wouldn’t be stationed there more than a couple of years. There were newlyweds who were saving up to buy their first house. And lots of people like me who were recently separated or divorced.

I didn’t want to be in transition forever, so I put an expiration date on my apartment: three years. For three years, I would save up, explore neighborhoods I liked and find a more permanent place. Most important, I was giving myself three years to figure out who I was, to rediscover the woman who had gotten lost somewhere deep within a slowly failing 13-year marriage, while at the same time not pressuring myself to rush into the unknown. Three years seemed like long enough to recover emotionally and financially — and figure out a new life plan — but short enough to avoid getting so comfortable there that I might never leave.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the apartment. I was actually very fond of the place: My apartment had a deck overlooking a lake with fountains; the complex had a kid-friendly pool, bark parks for my dog and it was a short walk to the beach. I was thankful I could afford such a place and that my particular unit was available when I needed it.

I was also grateful for my neighbors, other transients who befriended me when I needed them the most. These people were my tribe when I felt like I had no one and belonged nowhere. They may not have all been my friends, and most I will never see again, but they all taught me something that I put in my back pocket for later. There was the military spouse who came over with her kids for pizza and wine while her husband was deployed so that we could forget our loneliness. There was the fun and confident divorced woman who taught me how to online date. There was the downstairs neighbor who gave me advice on, well, everything and always checked up on me, even when I didn’t know I needed checking on. There was the personal trainer mom of three who let me cry on her shoulder and always had a positive outlook and a hug to share. There was another military spouse who didn’t let a wheelchair keep her from playing sled hockey; the resident dog walker; the pool attendant; the first guy who hit on me; the moms at the bus stop; the family of the boy who became my son’s best friend; my next-door neighbor, who checked himself out of rehab early and overdosed his first night home; and the kind, new next-door neighbors, who probably didn’t know why their unit was available.

I watched people come and go in that apartment complex for more than 2 ½ years before I felt the itch to house-hunt. By that point, I knew what neighborhood I wanted to live in. I had pinched pennies and had saved a decent amount of money. I had a serious boyfriend I wanted to share a home with, and who wanted to share a home with me. And by that point, mere weeks from my apartment expiration date, I reached my goal. I had rediscovered the old me. I had figured out who I was. I knew what was next in my life.

Three years and one month after I moved into that transition apartment, it was my turn to move out. That serious boyfriend and I found a beautiful home that gave the kids even more space than they once had and allowed me to start fresh, carrying with me the wisdom of my apartment tribe of transients.

Just as I closed the door on memories when I moved out of my marital home, I left my apartment stained with memories of sadness, uncertainty, determination, adventure and independence. That three-year expiration date was the perfect motivation for me to do the self-discovery I needed — before I moved out and moved on.

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