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In our Winter issue, we published Mieko Kanai’s “Tap Water,” a story whose remarkable first sentence spills across more than two pages and describes the interior of the narrator’s new apartment as if it were the architecture of her emotional landscape. Who among us has not resolved to stop obsessing over some small piece of our home, only to fail? Inspired by Kanai’s story, we’re launching a series called Home Improvements, in which writers consider the aspects of their homes, gardens, and interior design that have driven them to distraction.
The second time I met my boyfriend, S., he told me was getting divorced. I thought, Great. I liked the way it sounded. We were in our late twenties and so it made him and by extension me seem original, and I like people who have made mistakes. To me the marriage sounded unserious, and therefore unthreatening: it was a visa marriage, granted one that came out of a relationship. They met at work, were married after about a year, and divorced bitterly after fewer than three. I have never met his ex-wife but initially I pictured someone stylish and ethereal, and he had said she was a bit older so she was perhaps intimidating in that sense but, ultimately, good company.
The problems started with her stuff. For a brief period before they broke up, they both lived together in the house where he, and now sometimes I, live. Meaning that, as a result of the divorce happening long-distance in a kind of pandemic limbo period, and us meeting very soon after it, for the early stretch of our relationship many of her things were still in the house just outside of Belfast.
After the second or third time I stumbled across a wicker handbag or a drawer of beauty products or, once, underwear (polyester), I became alert to her things, seeking out and cataloguing items like they were pieces of evidence from a crime scene. Brown spray bottles labeled “citrus cleaner” and “disinfectent” [sic], with labels printed using a label maker. Patent beige open-toed stilettos with brittle-looking heels. Clothes, a couple of dresses, all slightly floral; she is thinner than me. A set of very large—I consider them comically large—cocktail glasses. A crate-size box of “environmentally friendly” toilet rolls with marketing copy reading “who gives a crap,” addressed to Mrs. T (Mrs.!). Wedding photos, in desktop frames bought from Next. A cheerful book on adult crafting for mental health. I could keep going, and for months, talking to friends, I did, until I could feel them start to try to edge me toward other topics or edge themselves away from this one.
But then there were her plates. They were a set of around ten, made by her as gifts for him, vaguely artisanal craft-fair pieces in speckled white and muted blue. There is not a way to say this without sounding like a snob, but it feels relevant that she was not a potter or ceramicist in the sense that she made money from it or did it prolifically, or that the pieces she made were fully functional for their intended use. Pottery was an aspiration, a hobby that might become something more, and the plates reflected this. Tasteful but not imaginative, each one was a clear attempt at an ideal of a plate: marginally different sizes, visibly honed edges, glazes dripping slightly over rims.
It was obvious that the rest of her things had to go, but the plates felt different. They were undeniably hers—as her creations they represented maybe the truest essence of her—but they were not quite her possessions; she had given them to him as gifts. It felt like the healthy thing to do was accept them. Everyone has a past. And so they stayed stacked in their drawer. Still, they grated on me, and I looked for ways to belittle them. It helped that there is a type of woman who gets into pottery.
Long after I assumed that all her stuff was gone, I found an easel. Mockingly, “What did she paint?” “She’d been able to make these amazing paintings as a child, so she was trying to—” “Don’t most children paint things?” “No, I mean I saw these, they really were incredible. But she could never do it again as an adult.” I pictured him in her family home, being taken up to the attic to admire a series of paintings done by a child, his role closer to that of a parent, awed by a drawing they can stick on the fridge, than to that of a lover or a husband. I thought of the plates, the base of each one stamped with a K for her name.
One day, by chance, I was served his divorce papers. Well, nearly. A bald man came to the door and asked to speak to S., who was not home. I said: “Not sure, I don’t know.” Later, when S. was home, the man came back and, even with the passport copy he’d been given to help identify S., he seemed a little startled by how young my boyfriend is. The man gestured at me as he came inside and said, “I’m sure she’ll be happy about this,” and I could tell he thought it was funny. I do too. As they both stood at the table, the man turning each page and pointing at where to sign, I sat pretending to read, biting back laughter at the pageantry of it all. I looked it up: you don’t even need to serve divorce papers in the UK, so this really was a statement. I could see her sipping a fruity cocktail at a waterfront bar in Brisbane, dressed up for the occasion: I served divorce papers today. I thought about my parents’ divorce, the sheer hostility of twenty years, a house, four kids. Something happens to men at this age, it’s like a chemical switch. What was the point of it all? All that time that turned out to be wasted and now all of a sudden I am old, what was I holding on for but I did it for you, for my children. I thought about the plates.
At yet another wistful dinner with his parents where his mother will go out of her way to get me on my own so she can tell me how very painful his divorce is, for all of them of course, and how, though he was “absolutely mad about her,” he has to “learn to start letting her go,” I start to feel irritation—no, I mean fury. She is wrapping him up in tape marked “damaged goods” and handing him to me, a companion, to fix. Why does K. get to be the whirlwind? I say, “I’m going to get a glass of water,” and walk through the parents’ garden and into their large open plan kitchen. I start opening cupboards and turning plates upside down to see if they have their own set of K’s. I’m not sure what I will do if I find them.
I wrote a different version of this once. In it, I break a plate by accident while washing up (I am a big enough person to use the plates day-to-day), and in that accidental act I realize that they are just plates, that they’re breakable, so I set about a subtle campaign to cleanse the house of the plates very slowly, over months or even years: “Whoops! That’s another plate gone, aren’t I clumsy!” Of course, life is usually uglier. How it really went: another argument about another one of her things, I tear down the stairs, I lift a plate from the kitchen drawer, hold it up and smash it on the floor. Then another and another, lift and break, lift and break. In my memory of it I am laughing, I am screaming with joy and release. S. stands back, silent, until finally, as I go to lift another, he reaches one arm forward and says, “They’re gone. You’re just breaking every plate we have now.”
Holly Connolly is a writer based in London and Belfast.