Ping! An email drops into my inbox. “You’ve got mail.” Unfortunately these words don’t signal the start of a cosy Meg-Ryanish evening, giggling over a cute online flirtation that begins with chatting in your pyjamas in separate houses and ends up in one magical Manhattan bed.
My email is not from the adorable Tom Hanks. It’s from the Ex-Husband. After 10 years of chatting and laughing, our communication has shrunk to three words. “You’ve got mail.” Whenever they ping in, I have to gather my courage, pull on my boots, grit my teeth and march back to my old home.
Like other newly separated couples, we’re all at sea as to how to proceed. Our joint rental contract has remained exactly that: joint. Neither of us knows how to resolve the dilemma of who gets an open-plan central-city flat with views of a beautiful 1930s East Berlin theatre on one side and the glittering disco-ball of the TV tower on the other – with rent fixed at old-time rates, before Berlin became super-hot property for music moguls and foreign investors.
So I go on perching in a tiny temporary shoebox, and my husband continues to live on a goldmine, and nothing is resolved, and my post still gets delivered to my old address. Which means I have to step back into my old life to retrieve it.
Apparently you have to do something 27 times before it becomes routine. This is only my fifth mail pickup, and it feels anything but normal. The closer I get to my much-missed home, the more nervous I become. Sliding the key into the lock, pushing open the high arched door: familiar, yet so strange.
I dart quickly into the communal hallway and open the letterbox, dreading meeting any of the neighbours who haven’t realised I’ve moved out. “Why haven’t we met at the recycling bins recently? Oh, haven’t you heard? I’m getting divorced! Yes, happens to one in two of us, you know… Sort of like real-life recycling, haha…”
Once outside I cross the street and stare upwards, trying to see what’s changed. There’s a new cactus on the windowsill – right beside my beloved orchid, a gift from my tango-dancing friend.
It may not be Dante’s nine circles of hell, though I do feel quite fiery thinking of everything I’ve left behind which my husband is now enjoying. But it’s definitely limbo. I’m stalking my old life, not yet slotted into my new one.
Clutching my mail, I head back to what I must stop thinking of as the Shoebox and should start thinking of as ‘Home’. I stop for coffee at the café on my corner.
I have been a regular here for so many years that the baristas have learnt to make real long blacks, Kiwi-style.
Under the roar of the coffee machine, Petra whispers, “Look who’s here!” I glance surreptitiously at the middle-aged bearded man at the bar. “Michael Stipe!” she hisses. She’s right! It’s Mr. R.E.M! He steps back, lands squarely on my foot and apologises profusely. “Oh, it’s quite alright!” I smile, as ‘Shiny Happy People’ starts up in my head: ‘Throw your love around, love me, love me!’ Of course it’s quite alright! It’s unlikely anyone this famous will stand on my foot again.
From behind me, a familiar cough: another bearded middle-aged man – but not another American rock god. I meet Petra’s eyes and know what she’s thinking. Something along the lines of ‘f*ing hell’. Because it’s my ex-husband, stalking his old life.
In the words of the song, ‘Whoa, here we go!’ Or there, to be precise, I don’t go. I’m pinned to the spot, long-blacked and limbo’d, caught between a rockstar and a hard place. Even if this happened 27 times – well, it still wouldn’t feel normal.
Words by: Sarah Quigley
Photographs by: Getty Images and Supplied