This Couple Got Divorced—and Then Something Totally Unexpected Happened
Until recently, I lived on the top floor of a Harlem brownstone, my ex-husband lived on the bottom floor, and the neighbors between us were lawyers (not ours). We no longer shared a last name, but we did share our 3-year-old son and a mailman who left a rubber-banded stack in our lobby each day. I’d flip through my ex’s Amazon deliveries to find my student loan statements. I didn’t know if we’d ever get back together, but I did know he was eligible for a 0 percent interest credit card.
When we married in 2012, we knew the risk of putting on wedding rings was that we might one day take them off. When that risk became our reality, we were determined, for our son’s sake, to divorce differently. He refused to be a weekend-only father; I refused to be an ex-wife who communicated solely via voice mails or voodoo dolls. For two years, we shuffled our boy back and forth. We went to therapy separately and together, and saw our marriage for what it was: mostly a failure.
I was starting a graduate program and needed a place near campus. We agreed that any extra minutes in my schedule should be spent with our son rather than on a subway. While apartment hunting, we stumbled upon a building with both a top and bottom floor for rent. The price was right, the light was good, and we were feeling optimistic. We signed one-year leases and thought, How bad could it be?
On move-in day, we sat on our stoop and tried to define a structure. We exchanged keys, but promised not to peek. We agreed that romantic partners would not be invited over. Instead, we could get a hotel room (his suggestion) or remain celibate (mine). We knew boundaries would be blurry, but vowed to keep a healthy distance.
It turned out that any distance, healthy or otherwise, was impossible. He heard when I came and went, my heels heavy on the 45 steps between us. On nights I made dinner, he would call upstairs to say “Smells good,” and I’d bring down leftovers. Every night when he headed home from work, he’d text, “On my way, need anything?” I’d respond, “No, thanks.” It took living together again to make me less dependent on him; it took us not being married for him to become more considerate of me.
Sometimes I'd watch him leave in a suit, knowing he'd dressed for someone else. Sometimes the housekeeper mixed our laundry (because she wanted to save water) and sneaked one of his shirts into my stack (because she wanted to save our relationship). If I was feeling nostalgic or lonely or both, I'd put it on, inhaling the lavender detergent, a trace of his cologne, and the sweet odor of our son's sweat. This is what our divorce smelled like. It was, to me, proof of a family intact.
There's a moment after a breakup when you're supposed to say goodbye and go in opposite directions. To do so, someone has to turn and start walking away. Neither of us did. We still wanted to bear witness to the other's life, long after we’d asked a judge to grant us the freedom not to.
Our friends and family were confused and amused, wondering how it would end. I told them living together let me pursue my education and still be the mother I wanted to be. I didn't tell them that being my ex's neighbor made me miss being his wife. I told them that our living situation forced us to be kind and careful. I didn't tell them that this kindness and care erased much of the damage we'd done. I told them that of course it was messy and confusing. I didn't tell them that I would rather have a complicated life near him than a simpler one without him.
When our leases were up, we let them go and searched for a new home together—a place where we could become the partners we were finally ready to be.
Jessica Ciencin Henriquez is a writer living in New York City.
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