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Beginning again when a home falls apart

Building and destroying and building again wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined

My mother constructed two businesses while training for marathons and mile-long swims across the Chesapeake Bay. She cultivated and maintains friendships that span decades, states, and nicknames like “Lifeblood” or “the Oracle.” She created a home with a revolving door of friends and siblings of friends, an environment of organized chaos that ran on equal parts whimsy and true dysfunction. My mother is a woman who builds.

So it was all the more disorienting when it became clear her dexterity would not be of use in her marriage, which splintered in a series of acrimonious separations over the course of 10 years, and repeatedly left her unraveling, then restoring, the life she had built. During her second (but not last) break from my father, when I was 12, we moved into a rental where she slept in a corner bedroom across the hall from my two younger sisters and me. Her bed was a meeting point to discuss, yell, cry, nap, and watch Blockbuster rentals. The most memorable was Under the Tuscan Sun.

In the movie, Diane Lane plays a writer who flees a devastating divorce with an impulsive trip to Italy. She one-ups her own heartbroken spontaneity by purchasing a decrepit villa in Tuscany. Lane is quickly overwhelmed by the home’s issues: a sole, rusted faucet nicks her but doesn’t spout water; bugs are everywhere; plaster and roof and load-bearing pieces of infrastructure are falling apart.

My mother loved that movie. It terrified me. We watched it enough for me to know that what I saw—Lane, struggling in an empty villa on her own; my mother, crying in bed—was something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

I would build, but never something too precious to destroy. I would create, but never get used to doing so with someone else. There was a danger in that. Becoming too comfortable with companionship makes one ineffectual on their own.

My mother wept into the phone for hours, and I made a vow to never find myself fixing up the villa in Italy.

But last July, I wound up in an empty apartment staring down an unconstructed bed frame. The New Orleans heat was relentless, but I kept the air conditioning off. I was trying to save money. I had lost a fair amount of it when my ex-boyfriend sold our furniture and used the profits to fly himself to Hawaii to be with someone else.

I sold only the bed, which had been a housewarming present from my mother. He had constructed the frame in our backyard blocks from the Mississippi River two falls earlier, among the orange and Japanese plum trees and a covering of fallen elephant ear leaves.

He had also, I realized, helped me move or construct every bed I’d had in the last six years: my sister’s old twin we hauled into my car in North Carolina; the double from my college house he took to D.C. and then New Orleans; the spring frame we disassembled in my windowless attic room in D.C. and replaced with an Ikea bed.

For years, I accumulated a checklist of things that I believed confirmed my own independence and the fact that I was un-Under the Tuscan Sun-able. I collected these moments like talismans: I lived in four cities with random roommates; I traveled three continents alone; I built networks of friends and kept those connections taut; I ate and drank and ran and explored alone.

I chose houses that never felt like home, which made it easier to avoid hammering together the type of life my mother and Diane Lane had to painfully deconstruct. A summer spent on the floor of a friend’s apartment along the Susquehanna River. Two weeks in an RV in a backyard in Catalonia. A month working for my stay in a dusty hotel in Wadi Musa, Jordan.

I had watched Diane Lane yelp when she discovered a snake while chopping down ivy. I had listened to my mother argue over custody. Not for me, I declared, and continued stacking these hollow accolades like beads on a rosary I thumbed for confidence. That will never be me!

But transience is tiring, so I drove down south, and there I settled among the palm trees into something that felt so comfortable I didn’t realize it was rotting from within.

I had once been resolute I would never bend to someone else’s will. I’d never be forced to doubt my instincts. When my gut told me to go, I would go.

But I didn’t go. I became someone I didn’t recognize; someone who made and accepted excuses; someone who had never built her own bed. Those totems I collected proved to be no more than wishful superstitions that meant little once I found myself distrusting my judgment, and my sense of self, because of someone else’s words. Holding off on building the type of home I would hate to lose made me more irrationally attached to the one I finally found, despite its flaws.

Tumbling into the gap between my self-perception and reality hurt much more than losing my relationship. Climbing out of the gap seemed even more daunting.

The bed was delivered right around the time I finally stopped waking up with my heart pounding in my throat. I was crying less, and drinking less, and finally signed a lease after a month crashing on friends’ couches. I moved farther from the river and closer to the lake, where there were fewer banana plants and more lizards, and for weeks I slept on a borrowed air mattress. The bed was my first piece of furniture. When it arrived, I struggled to drag it into the house without scuffing the tile floors.

Three years earlier, I’d arrived in New Orleans with only my clothes and books. I started over with just the same. I had three forks, four mugs, and no plates. One evening, I attempted a wine-fueled shade installation and ended up with a crooked curtain. I was undeniably in the middle of my Diane Lane montage in the storyboard of this breakup, minus the sprawling Tuscan property and the Italian men helping to reset my electricity. Years ago, I had resented the ways in which I saw post-separation resilience portrayed on-screen and around me. Now I understood why my mother had found so much comfort in the visuals of Lane retiling her own bathroom, and in the tactile motions of making a space.

The bed frame involved just four steps and two separate parts. Building it was exceedingly simple, and when constructed, it looked more like an upturned dog crate than a place of rest. But I reveled in a moment I had dreaded, and dragged the process out over one humid afternoon.

I hung up photos of rain-soaked streets at dawn and drawings from former students. A Craigslist ad led me to a decades-old, possibly haunted wooden dresser carved with stars, which I covered with oyster shells. I indulged in the mundane actions of remaking a home. Building and destroying and building again wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined. Diane Lane’s frustrated renovations had never been a sign of weakness; they were the opposite. A process I had sworn to avoid 15 years ago became the process through which I regained control.

Jacqueline Kantor is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans. She’s written for The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, The Ringer, Vice, Jezebel, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.