The Divorce Rental: A Life Change Gets Reflected in Housing Choices, or Lack Thereof

Illustration by Julia Breckenreid

The woman who wants to rent my apartment has a bright smile. It’s a sunny day, and we’re standing in the alley outside my Laguna Beach home. That would seem a reason to smile. She’s moving into this tall cupboard of a place behind my house. It has lofty peaked beams, a stand-up kitchen, a shoebox living room, and a rustic fireplace.

The women who have lived in my apartment always have bright smiles. Optimism mixed with fear, a dash of bitterness, and a scatter of hurt and loss. I’ve had male tenants, too. Their smiles were wry, with a crust of anger and a pinch of pain. It’s the same emotional divorce mix I know well.

“Maybe I’ll have my interior designer friend help me with paint colors,” the new renter says. “My old place was white, too, but this is more of a cream.”

I nod. “Yes, this is the reliable old Swiss Coffee you see all over Newport Beach.”

“Yeah, it’s nice! But I’m thinking with the cool tones in my furniture, I need a brighter white.” She looks at me, and I say, “Sure, that would be great.”

Paint colors are important here. Salt-sanded by beach breezes, the location is great but the place isn’t luxe. Yet it’s the set piece for a new and different life. Paint will help make it her own. She hasn’t mentioned the slightly scuffed cabinets and old flowered tile. “It’s Laguna Beach,” shrug the locals, willing to sacrifice for their geographic supremacy. But newly separated wives with elevated tastes are not used to rental funk.

“Also, do you mind if I change a few things? I found some nice bronze hardware that would match my decor a little better, if that’s OK.”

“Absolutely fine,” I tell her. If burnished surfaces ease her adjustment, I’m for them.

“My girls are going to love it here,” she adds warmly. “They’re excited since it’s closer to the waves. But my outdoor carpet might be too big for the patio, so can I leave it outside? Just ’til I see if it fits.”

“Sure. It’s a lovely paisley pattern,” I say.

For a moment the warm sun fades and I recall my own moving day. Not into this spacious house—a tourist-luring street charmer in need of a handyman—but to a less beguiling spot.

I’d been a married woman in a large home on Back Bay in Newport Beach. Real estate is destiny in California, and mine looked perfect. Those houses drape the water’s edge like sparkling gems on a necklace. Whenever divorce made its subtle appearance, women tried to hang onto their homes and upscale ways, pretending to be fine. Or they would simply disappear, rubbed from the play-date patina of the park.  

But as we neared 10 years of marriage, when California courts can award longer support payments, my lawyer husband wanted my son and me out. I thought I’d just cross the line at the school pickup gate, join the working, single parents who stood across from moms like me. The groups were formed by economic path, with apartments on one side, homes on the other. The house remained his. Nearby rentals were expensive. And our 7-year-old son’s special needs left me unable to work. When my husband suddenly produced a condo down payment, I accepted my fate and started packing.

My hopes were modest: a little yard on a safe street. But the burning real estate market left my dreams charred. Divorcing Newport Beach moms typically arc toward the 55 Freeway; so goodbye wide streets and floral landscapes, hello age-mellowed tracts and unaffordable new townhomes. Nothing looked pretty at my price point. Custom marble and granite countertops became Home Depot tile; old, brown wood trim; and bumpy popcorn ceilings. I entered mud-colored bedrooms with broken closets and dirty carpets. Turning on dusty lamps illuminated thin spiders resting in peace—the things you see in other people’s transitions that you don’t want reflected in your own.

The dingy places bothered me. Losing nice things can feel like defeat. Upgrades tend to grow on you. But a house isn’t identity, and I always knew that. Smooth walls, crown moldings, and white carpet don’t guarantee a happy life.

Finally, 89 steps behind a convenience store by the freeway, I found a condo. It had a lime-green kitchen, red hallway, and dark-chocolate bedroom. The place also had a lofty ceiling, teeny living room, small fireplace, a second bedroom, plus a patio the length of a sidelong glance. On a rainy New Year’s Day, I moved in.

Like my potential tenant, I split from someone who could afford to shed his castoffs, so I came with furnishings ill-suited to apartment scale. When you flee an economically secure marriage, you feel an urge to pack the stuff, knowing its dollar value but uncertain of your own. But there was no room for Wedgwood china for 10, stuffed leather chairs, custom drapes, and large paintings. The movers pushed the neat mass in the garage as rain streamed down my face. My car, which would turn out not to be mine—with a cracked steering column that could have killed us—would stay in the elements. And the down payment? I’d later be sued to give it back or lose time with my child. Such are the skills of some Orange County attorneys.

I had the condo painted before we moved in. The serene cream color gently smothered the green and melted the chocolate walls like syrup disappearing in milk. Then suddenly it was my home. Here I made small breakfasts for my son, acquired date clothing and dates to wear it on, repressed tears until my throat hurt, and had a near-nervous breakdown from legal stress.

Eighteen months later, I found a wiry, blue-eyed athlete tying a rose to my door. He lived in his own divorce apartment behind a grocery store loading dock. He didn’t care about paint or furniture—he liked throw pillows on the floor. He preferred to bake pies and drive his fast car. The thin walls of his place were a novelty to me, and bees built a nest in his chimney. But we were dazzlingly in love.

Soon we blended his three girls with their new sister-pestering brother in a beige stucco rental off Pacific Coast Highway. Rainfall crept under the living room window, but the sun glowed on the walls. We bought a new sofa big enough for six, and the kids lolled around with sandy feet. There were bikes and beach bonfires, burnt cookies, and pizza nights. We were better than we’d ever imagined.

With hearts and wallets healing, we spotted a house in Laguna Beach, its faded chic unloved during a few low-market years. My eyes went straight to the carved religious mantel, floral beams, and tired white walls. The long, flat bathtub resembled a baptismal font. Rumored to have been built by director Orson Welles for movie star Rita Hayworth’s declining years, it had a pink sink and faux gas lamps that sent the electrician running. But we didn’t care about provenance. We changed the mantel and bath, but kept the provincial charm. Our new blue paint is honeymoon-inspired.

And the rental unit? It has a purpose we hadn’t foreseen. Sure, it helps pay our mortgage, but we take less than we could. We’d rather have good people, digging out from their personal landslides. The heavy furniture and packed garage means our latest tenant has a journey of her own.

“It’s a good-luck apartment,” I tell her, as she shades her eyes with a ringless hand. The sun shines on passing neighbors who kindly avoid her until it’s time for a welcome. “One tenant had kids, met someone great, and got engaged.”

She smiles more brightly, practically beaming. I’m not sure she believes me, or could, with a borrowed car in the driveway and a dream home in the rearview mirror. But that’s OK. It’s not about the house or the apartment. It’s about the inner rooms we live in, filled with loneliness, failure, and fear. She must sit in those foreboding rooms and feel their power, then find a door that leads to hope. And this place—with its shaded patio, iron staircase, and slightly dripping bathtub
faucet—will do just fine.

Christina Adams, MFA, is a writer, international speaker, and author of a memoir about autism. Find out more at christinaadamsauthor.com.

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