I’ll always remember that Dumpster Day was in September of 1997, because it occurred on the same day that my girls—ages nine, ten, and fifteen—left me for the first time after our separation to go stay with their dad. The sky was the same kind of turquoise as it had been the day Steve and I married on the roof of the Hotel Washington, overlooking the White House, exactly eighteen years earlier.
I was keeping it a secret from the children that the Miss America contest would be on television that night; I planned to videotape the program and watch it with them—after they returned to me—the way we always had. (I know, I’m a lowbrow.)
Dumpster Day was a gift from my builder to my neighbors for tolerating all the mess and racket created by the remodeling of our new home. They invited everyone to toss whatever they wanted into the dumpster that had sat in front of my house all summer.
My friend Lucy from around the corner came by empty-handed. She just wanted to check out the dumpster scene and say hi. But instead of saying hi, she greeted us with a sunny, “Will you ladies be watching Miss America tonight?”
“Oh, goodie!” the girls squealed. My entire body caved in, as though Lucy had just shoved a vacuum cleaner nozzle down my throat and sucked out my insides.
I managed to maintain my composure until after hugs, kisses, and waves good-bye. As my wee trio rode away in their father’s car for the seven-minute ride to his house, I stood by the dumpster waving until they disappeared from sight. Back in my empty house the only thing that seemed to notice me was the intercom I had bought as a fun way to summon the kids to dinner. In utter silence it stared at me with its two little dots of scarlet light, like eyes that had cried themselves red.
A half hour into my folded-over-in-anguish position, an idea floated into my consciousness. I would watch Miss America with the only other people I knew who would be enthusiastic: my parents.
I dialed and my “Hi Mom” echoed in the hollow living room.
Soon I was on an Amtrak train, watching the Northeast Corridor whiz by through watery eyes, boo hooing steadily during the two-hour trip to Philly. I wept enough to last the rest of my life, which may explain why I am no longer much of a crier.
At the rail station, I brightened when I spotted my dad’s blue cap and silver Toyota. Dad and I arrived at the apartment and, as though I had entered a cliché: my aproned mom was skimming fat from a pot of chicken soup.
The whole Dumpster Day experience, including watching the pageant winner get crowned in my parents’ cozy nest, taught me two things. One was that my divorce would allow me to spend quality time with my mom and dad that I never would have had otherwise. Two was that no matter how ugly the divorce became, no matter how distraught I became in the process, I would know I had made it through something worse; I had made it through Dumpster Day.
What dreadful experience have you had that you use to remind yourself that things could always be worse?
LOTS ABOUT MARRIAGE AND RELATIONSHIPS IN MY NEW MEMOIR . . .
“A first-rate personal essayist, Susan Orlins delivers the goods time and again. Underneath her self-mocking voice, her abundant humor, her brio, there is the serious candor of a moralist who worries the problems that won’t go away.”
–PHILLIP LOPATE, author and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay
“Susan Orlins is America’s funniest neurotic since Woody Allen. Just be careful you don’t crack a rib reading Confessions of a Worrywart.”
–PATRICIA VOLK, author of Stuffed and Shocked