When I first heard my ex-husband say the D word, I wanted to disappear. I imagined taking flight from my anguished body and leaving him, myself, and the whole world behind while I soared unnoticed between treetops overhead. Every time he pronounced that horrible word, DIVORCE, I pictured myself air-borne, weightless, and invisible. If I were invisible, he wouldn’t be able to divorce me. But gradually, I had to come back down from my lofted position in the imaginary sky. I couldn’t hide, or disappear, or magically become invisible to the world. I would have to live in it, and face the stark unavoidable reality that he wanted to leave. And everyone would know, and they would all have to see me suffer. I couldn’t take refuge in autonomy, because we did not live in New York City or Los Angeles. We lived in a town of a thousand people, and there was nowhere for me to hide.
Living in a small town, I have been able to keep very few secrets about myself. I will never forget my first week in town, when my ex and I stayed in the village inn for a weekend while I interviewed for a job. When I returned to our room that evening, the innkeeper was waiting to congratulate me on getting my new position. Apparently he and several others knew I had been hired even before I did. And that’s the nature of small town life. It has it’s perks, of course. I love that my neighbors would notice right away if I were ever kidnapped. I appreciate that I can walk easily and without traffic to my bank, post office, grocery store, and wine shop and everyone will know me and say hello. I like seeing familiar faces and parking wherever and however I want. And I like the quiet. But in a divorce, I’ve discovered that living in a small town definitely has its drawbacks.
Living Where There is Nowhere to Hide
After my ex moved out of our apartment in the center of town, I avoided people as much as possible. I knew I couldn’t so much as stop in for a coffee without questioning glances and potentially a prying attempt to ask if I was ok. I was not ok, and did not want to be asked. But again, autonomy is not a part of small town charm. I am lucky enough to work from home, but eventually I had to face the looks and the questions and the unasked-for tips and suggestions about what my next step should be. People suggested everything from pets to jobs and even dating sites. I discovered that some of my neighbors felt sorry for me, some applauded my newfound freedom, and others felt I was entirely to blame. Everyone had an opinion.
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The other difficulty with small town divorce is that if your former spouse chooses to stay nearby, you will cross paths. And that can be hard. I remember running into my ex-husband one afternoon when I was on a first, very awkward date. We had decided at the last minute to drop in at my local coffee shop, not knowing my ex would be there at the first table beside the entryway. There were fumbled handshakes, and stuttered explanations about our daily agenda that wouldn’t normally need explaining. I left the coffee shop that day with cold espresso, contemplating a move to the city. I dreamed of getting lost among a crowded Manhattan street, where no one knew about my divorce or my suffering or even my name. It was the only way I could truly disappear.
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Deciding to Stay - No Matter Where You Go, there You Are
And yet, I have stayed. I stay because I have figured out after all this heartbreak that even if I can hide in a crowd, I cannot hide from myself. Is this why they say, ‘no matter where you go, there you are?’ Because whether you are seen on a Saturday morning at the farmer’s market by that girl you know took your ex’s side (we’ll call her Jocelyn) or you’re invisible in a parade of strangers in Times Square - you have to go to sleep with yourself. You have to live with yourself, and wake up alone with yourself, and face a world where Mr. and Mrs. (Scott, let’s say) no longer exist as a married couple. I decided that in this world, I was going to have to reinvent myself. And my small town was just going to have to get to know me all over again.
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Our first instinct when we experience something painful is to run away. But if no matter where you go, there you are, then you may as well save yourself the moving expenses. There are always going to be the Jocelyns of the world, and they live in every town. But at least in my town, there are also friends who cut basil for me from their garden, and who let me borrow their car if mine breaks down. There is my friend Melissa reading in her shop window in the afternoon, and “the committee” of retirees sharing town stories in the square, their small dogs lounging at their feet. There is Kamilla sweeping up rose petals at the florist’s, a clock tower chiming three, and little pink houses.