42 Days in Reno
Story by Susan Rebecca White
I used to employ a spin on an old Mother Goose rhyme to describe the dynamic between my husband and me: that when we were good we were very, very good but when we were bad we were horrid.
The good in our marriage kept us holding on for seven years and a thousand second chances, culminating in a last-ditch effort to start afresh in Reno, Nev., where my husband had been offered a good job at the state university. We moved to Reno from my native Atlanta, where we lived in Inman Park, neighborhood of tall trees and old homes. Inman Park was charming as could be, though we paid through the nose for the privilege of living there.
I confess I did not think Reno would be very charming, imagining it instead as a sort of a B-side Las Vegas. But Reno surprised me. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, with Lake Tahoe only 45 minutes away, locals described it as “the high desert,” meaning trees and green things could grow there. Its downtown was tacky, sure, but in a neon-kitschy-wink-wink sort of a way, exemplified by the wood paneled steakhouse on the ground floor of Harrah’s, where almost any dish you wanted could be served flambé.
My husband and I rented a bungalow in the Old Southwest, Reno’s first established neighborhood, a grid of tree-lined streets dotted with adorable pre-war homes, with not one but two good coffee houses within walking distance. Reno was cheap and quirky and attracted weird, artistic types, like our neighbor who had a guillotine in his front yard and had somehow attached dozens of decoy ravens to his rooftop. His life was his art, dude, as was true of most of our neighbors, many of them folks who first voyaged to Nevada to attend Burning Man, and then just sort of stayed around.
Before my husband accepted the job I had already committed to a bunch of author events back east, and so I spent much of my time flying back and forth across the country. Because Reno suited my husband well — he loved it from day one — and the gypsy lifestyle suited me, I believed that we had finally found harmony in our marriage, had finally turned away from the finish line of divorce we’d been moving toward for so long. And then suddenly — or so it seemed at the time — our union ended over a dispute at a coffee shop, specifically, a fight over the fact that when my husband and I went to get coffee together that first morning I was back in town after having been away for three weeks, he left me at the counter to join a group of friends he had made in my absence, sitting down with them at a table with no empty chair for me. I went and stood by them, uncertain what to do. “There’s a stool over there,” someone said, pointing across the cafe. That not one of the men at the table offered to fetch it for me, that I had to walk across the packed coffee house, and then hoist the stool over my head in order not to knock anyone out with its legs as I weaved back through the crowded tables, probably galled me, a Southern woman, more than anything else. Perhaps a nice, sturdy girl from somewhere like Wyoming wouldn’t have thought a thing of it.
Whereas I had been excited about reconnecting with my husband over coffee, instead I blinked back tears while listening to a gentle giant of a man I did not know talk about renovating his kitchen. I did a lot of head nodding, a lot of mumbling of “uh huhs.” Finally, it was time to go. My husband had a faculty meeting that began in 30 minutes. Because we only had one car in Reno, I would drive him to the university each morning so I could have the car for the rest of the day.
I did not start the engine, but instead told him that my feelings had been hurt when he sat at a table without a chair for me on this, my first morning back. Over the course of our marriage we had spent a retirement fund’s worth of money on couples’ therapy, learning how to speak with one another respectfully during conflict. We had gotten pretty good at doing so, but suffice it to say that on that morning we did not have a couples’ therapy-inspired conversation of mutual sharing and mirroring of each others’ needs. Instead my hurt feelings unleashed a startling rage in him, a rage that could not be tempered, a rage that lasted for days. I could give you a post-mortem analysis of why I think this happened, of what was really going on to make him so mad. I could explain how our relationship dynamic had shifted over the years, how we had begun as mentor and mentee and had never been able to figure out how we worked as equals. I could trot out past wrongs I did to my husband, of which there were plenty, to show my culpability in our eventual dissolution. But nothing sums up the end of our marriage better than the metaphor inherent in our last fight: There was no room for me at the table in this new place where we had moved. My husband did not want me there. He was done.
And soon I was done, too.
My immediate impulse was to hire movers, take our best furniture, the wedding crystal and china, the silver, the dog, and all of the money in our savings account. But that was probably not the best solution. Such rashness would lead to a terrible divorce. But simply boarding a plane and disappearing wasn’t prudent either. For one thing, I needed to figure out my finances for that summer. Just a few weeks before everything blew up I had received a large check, the most money I had ever earned at one time, but it had all gone to pay that past year’s income tax bill, plus our combined credit card debt, of which there had been a lot. It had felt fantastic to pay those bills off. The problem was I had no money left over, and I had no more income coming for months. My husband had the steady salary, which we used to live on. My piecemeal salary filled in the holes. Before I left we needed to figure out how we were going to handle money over the summer, while we adjusted to being separated, figured out what to do with the house we still owned in Atlanta, figured out just how the hell one goes about getting a divorce.
It was a strange and lonely time, those last two weeks in Reno, sorting through all of that stuff. I rented a car so I could, in modern day Virginia Woolf parlance, have a vehicle of my own. I got a $27-a-night hotel room at the Golden Nugget, so I would have a refuge when needed. My room at the Nugget had a stained brown velour bedspread and sad floral wallpaper. The bed sunk in the middle and the view was of the parking lot, but I could breathe there. I went every afternoon, watched The Barefoot Contessa and then Giada. Sometimes I would call my therapist, who talked me through strategy, reminding me again and again that there was a profound difference between a good and a bad divorce, and that how I handled myself during this critical time would, in large part, determine what kind we had.
A few days into this strange new world of afternoons at The Nugget and nights not sleeping on the couch, my mom called, expecting, surely, to hear what had become my standard updates on the surprising charm of Reno, Nev. Instead I told her that my marriage had blown up, that it was very confusing and very scary and I needed her to come help me move out. It was one more step toward making the end real. I had spent a great deal of energy pretending to my parents, to everyone, really, that my marriage was okay. Tempestuous, maybe, but ultimately good. But on that day I told the truth to my mother — and father — who, surely signaled by her, had picked up the other receiver.
My mom agreed to come. The next day I stayed on the phone with my dad while he spliced in a ticketing agent from Delta. She confirmed my mother’s arrival time, and I secured a ticket for my return flight to Atlanta, on a seat next to Mom. At the end of the conversation I had to state that yes, I wanted to purchase a one-way ticket leaving Reno, Nev., for Atlanta, Ga., at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of April 29th. I started weeping as I answered in the affirmative.
“Our daughter is going through a hard time,” explained my father to the ticket agent, and I took comfort in the possessive pronoun, hearing the echo of “beloved” in his voice. Our daughter. Our daughter. Our beloved daughter.
The day my mom was to arrive in Reno to help me pack up was the same day my husband was to drive to San Francisco for a business trip. It was also his birthday. Once plans were in place for me to leave, things calmed down between the two of us, and as long as we were formal and overly polite with each other, we got along more or less okay. We had even gone to a nice restaurant, a French bistro, the night before, toasting both his birth and the memory of our marriage with champagne. It was a temporary moment of connection between us. At dinner we held hands and spoke about the parts of our marriage that had been very, very good — all of the travel, and the stimulating conversations over fabulous meals, and the books we had each written, and the wonderful, lovely animals we had jointly acquired. Toward the end of the meal he told me that he hoped our marriage hadn’t precluded my becoming a mother, that he hoped if I wanted children I would get to have them one day. I started crying and he started crying.
The next day, my husband drove off to San Francisco, and I drove the rental car to the airport to pick up my mom. I caught sight of her, walking down the terminal, before she saw me. At 66 she is still stylish and pretty, with a wide smile that shows the Lauren Hutton gap between her two front teeth. She wears her blonde hair in a pixie cut, and on that day she wore a scarf draped over a soft, soft T-shirt, along with sensible shoes. I was so very glad to see my mom, walking toward me, joining me in this strange place. She did not look distraught. She looked capable. She was capable. I drove her to the darling 1928 bungalow my husband and I had rented, pointing out pretty houses along the way, as if she had come for a social visit, which, being Southern, she kind of turned the experience into.
“I know these next few days are going to be hard,” my mom said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves as much as possible. Go out to dinner. Get a glass of wine.” We packed boxes all that first day, then went and ate a nice meal at a local restaurant, enjoying not just a glass of wine but a whole bottle. The next day we drove the packed boxes to the UPS store to be shipped, some to Atlanta, some to New York, where I had already sublet an apartment, as my husband and I had planned to live in Manhattan over his summer break. Mom convinced me to take the sterling silverware, reasoning that I had brought it into the marriage with me, having acquired it before I was a bride, and that my husband wouldn’t care about it anyway, especially if I bought him a new set of stainless flatware from Target before I left. At the UPS store, paying extra to insure the silver, it occurred to me how very Southern I was. That while almost everything else seemed expendable, I wasn’t, by God, going to let my Yankee husband hold onto my 10 place settings of Buttercup by Gorham.
A partial list of the items I did leave behind: my winter clothes, the cookbooks, the Cuisinart, the crystal, the china, the silver candlestick holders, the picture frames, the wedding albums, the honeymoon album, the Kitchen Aid mixer, the cast iron skillets, the Dutch oven, the queen-sized bed, the new brown velvet sofa the dog had already claimed as her own. The dog. The cat. The old-fashioned front porch glider, the great little vanity table I had scored at a secondhand shop, complete with a swiveling mirror and lots of small drawers for makeup. My bike. Hundreds and hundreds of books. I shed possessions like old skin, but along with the sterling silver flatware, I took my jewelry, including my wedding rings. They were light and easy to carry, and they had been expensive. The rings were yellow gold with 18 tiny diamonds in each, the engagement ring centered by a diamond solitaire, nestled in a delicate filigree setting.
The diamonds were said to be “conflict-free,” the rings were forged in an antique Victorian dye press and sold in the hippie town of Mendocino, Calif., where my husband and I had honeymooned. I had once loved those rings, couldn’t imagine anything prettier. Back in Atlanta after my exodus from Reno, I kept them in the top drawer of the chest of drawers in my childhood bedroom, but when I went on up to New York two weeks later, I took the rings with me, not to wear, but to sell for cash. I was so worried about money. I had to turn in a novel before I got any more from my publishing house, and all I had lined up for work in the fall was an adjunct teaching position, which falls firmly under the category “labor of love.”
A month or so later, living in New York, on a day when I was feeling particularly desperate about finances, I pulled out every piece of jewelry I owned: the engagement ring and wedding band, the diamond studs my father gave me one year for Christmas, several gold necklaces, two gold and diamond bracelets, both gifts from my husband. I did some research on the Internet, found a diamond dealer in midtown by the name of Kalman who was supposed to be reputable, and gave him a call, asking if I could make an appointment for him to assess my jewelry. “There’s no time like the present, sweetheart,” he said. “Come on down.”
Going on my dad’s advice that the less you appear to need money, the more readily it will be offered to you, I decided to dress for the diamond dealer like a woman of means. I put on my one nice black dress, reserved for funerals, and added black heels. I wore my hair in a chignon, and was liberal with eyeliner and blush. And then I put on every piece of jewelry I could attach to my body: the earrings, the necklaces, the bracelets, the rings. I left the apartment, laden with precious metals, but instead of hailing a taxi to take me to the diamond district I walked to the subway. I didn’t have money to take a cab. If I did, I wouldn’t have been selling my jewelry.
I made it off the subway with no event, and walked to 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth, where the gold and diamond brokers had storefronts. It occurred to me that I was only a few blocks away from the literary agency where both my husband’s and my agents worked. My husband had not yet told anyone that we had split up, and I imagined his agent catching me, all decked out in the diamond district, and somehow knowing what I was up to, as if I were a child doing something naughty. I quickly made my way through the crowds and the neon lights, looking for Kalman’s shop. Not seeing his office anywhere, I rang him again on the phone. “You’re too late, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m packing up.”
“But I’m here!” I implored. He let loose a long sigh before acquiescing.
“I’ll stay five more minutes,” he said. Before hanging up I asked him to give me explicit directions to his office, and as soon as he did I realized it was on the second and not the first floor. I entered his building, walked up a flight of stairs, which led to a warren of offices. At the end was Kalman’s, his door open. Kalman was tiny, ancient and bald. I hurried to his doorway, calling out how sorry I was that I was late. He waved away my apology, motioned for me to hand him my jewelry. I took it all off, piece by piece. Plunk, plunk, plunk, I plunked it all down on Kalman’s desk. He in turn plunked it all onto his scale.
It was at that moment that I realized it did not matter that my wedding band was handmade in California by an artisan who probably ate an omelet made from organic eggs before crafting my delicate ring. I realized that when selling jewelry all that counts is the size of the rock, and that my middle sister, who insisted on nothing smaller than a full carat when she got engaged, was probably the smartest of us all. Kalman weighed everything, and then looked at the ring’s diamond solitaire under a magnifying glass.
“Look, I shouldn’t do this, it’s too much, and I’m killing myself here, but it’s the end of the day, so I tell you what: I’ll give you $2,500 for everything.”
But that’s not enough, I thought. I asked him how much for just the wedding ring set.
Once again he studied the solitaire under his loupe. “$1,500,” he said. “Firm.” I left the rings on his desk while reclaiming the rest of the jewelry, piece by piece, mulling as I ran a gold hook through the hole in each of my ears, as I attached clasps on gold necklaces, as I slid the bracelets back onto my wrists. I could walk away with $1,500 cash, which I needed. But it would mean never seeing those rings again. And while there was nothing in me that wanted to remain in my marriage, I was not yet ready to hand the symbol of it over to a dealer who would pop out the diamond and melt down the gold.
“I need to wait,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” Kalman said, shrugging. He rolled a gold necklace — one of his, not mine — into a mole-colored cloth, then deposited it within the small safe at his feet. He dropped another cloth over the loupe and stood, ready to leave. I walked out of the office with him, stood awkwardly beside him as he shut the door.
And at that moment I had the sudden urge to explain myself, to let this man know that I was not cavalier about the dissolution of my marriage. That I had tried. That I had tried so hard. That I had bent, that I had softened. That I had said over and over again: I am flawed and you are flawed but if we can love each other’s broken pieces, we can help each other heal. But it did not work. It simply didn’t work. Maybe we were never a good match, or maybe we broke each other too many times in the beginning and, like Humpty Dumpty, could never be put back together again. Who knows? But I needed Kalman to know I tried. And so I heard myself saying, “Listen, I’m not just here casually. I mean, I’m here because I’m in a bad situation.”
Kalman looked up from the doorknob, which he was locking with one of the many keys on his gigantic key ring. “Sweetheart,” he said, “shit happens.”
And with that he turned and walked down the hall. I followed him down the stairs and then he turned in one direction and I turned in another and even though I hadn’t sold any of my jewelry, even though it was still fastened to my ears, my neck, my wrists, I felt lighter. This man, I realized, had seen it all, and in the grand scheme of things, a seven-year marriage breaking up with no kids was not that big of a deal. Shit happens. What are you gonna do about it? This seemed to me to be the truest explanation of the end of my marriage that I could come up with thus far. Shit happens. And if you have a mom who will fly to Reno to help pull you out of it, reminding you to grab the silver in the process, well, lucky you.
Want to Leave the South? Too Bad.
Tracy Thompson's 2012 book, "The New Mind of the South," was a tremendous inspiration for us as we were planning The Bitter Southerner. Like us, Thompson is a Southern native who made the decision to leave the South, to see it more clearly through the lens of distance. Some of us — like The Bitter Southerner crew — left and then returned. Others, like Thompson, left the South and stayed gone. But now, Thompson wonders, in the age of social media, is it possible to leave at all? Next week, we bring you a new essay from Thompson that explores whether the South has become the Hotel California — as in, "You can never leave."