My dad and I did not have a name for it. We did not call it “thrifting” or “bargain-hunting,” because our actions had no basis in saving money and were by no stretch of the imagination efficient. We were not looking for deals, but rather the particular thrill that comes with driving to a neighboring town and examining the kind of junk that they had.
Our destinations were flea markets in southern Vermont and nearby New York counties. I can still see their layouts vividly when I close my eyes. It was the late 1990s: I was entering adolescence, and my dad drove a 1971 Saab. The interior of the Saab had a dark, carriage-like smell, betraying the vehicle’s utilitarian purpose. When I think about those day trips, I think of riding in that baby-blue car with the windows rolled down, feeling detached from modern society, as if we were on a secret pilgrimage where the destination was not the destination; the purpose was not the purpose. It is not that we were completely aimless — my dad was an expert at finding and valuing old cameras and antique daguerreotypes in velvet-adorned frames — but that we did not exactly care whether the day produced any significant findings.
We would park, usually in a roped-off field, and walk toward the entrance to the flea market, where there waited for us a wonderland of lost trinkets, petrified leather, artificially aged “country cottage” furniture, taxidermy squirrels, and more. The junk was laid out on tables and tarps, as far as we could see, while sunburned vendors sat under RV awnings, shouting that we could take the whole stack of records, or the entire jar of marbles, for twenty bucks. There was no rhyme or reason to the pricing, no sense of continuity when it came to condition, manufacture date, or collectability. Cassette and VHS tapes already had a doomed, sun-faded look about them, while other things aged more garishly, like the California Raisins themed memorabilia.
Most of the time I would shadow my dad as he moved methodically along the tables, only occasionally veering off by myself, not daring to touch anything for fear that a vendor would perceive this as interest and try to whittle down my resolve. I knew nothing about cameras, but there were plenty of other noteworthy objects, and it was clear to me that my dad was an authority on their value as well. It seemed that his system of determination relied on one of two factors: 1) Is it rare? 2) Does it have personality? I did not have enough experience to judge the former, so that left me with the latter “test,” which struck me as equally impossible to decide, like a word problem on a math quiz. Sometimes my tastes aligned with my dad’s, but other times I missed the mark, and while my dad was never unfairly outspoken about why he did not think the bejewelled My Little Pony or the crushed cow-plop of a velvet hat were worthy of attention, I felt his disapproval all the same. This disapproval was directed solely at the object in question and never at me personally (although maybe playfully at my judgement) but, being the sensitive and devout people pleaser that I was, I learned quickly to share my opinions with caution and, to a degree, to keep them tucked away from myself. The approach had its benefits; wandering among musty, unfamiliar objects that you have no intention of buying, and with only a vague and distant notion of whether you even like them, is a peaceful, somewhat spiritual experience. You start to accept it all without desire. You want nothing; reject nothing.
In 2010, I got married, graduated from college, and became pregnant with my first child. At the age of twenty-four, it seemed that I was hurdling into adulthood as fast I could, and with complete disregard for my own sense of purpose. Pregnancy was hard on my body and, as a cruel addition, I somehow contracted a painful and debilitating intestinal parasite that had me awake throughout the night with cramps that my body has so far only matched in the throes of unmedicated childbirth. However, because I had not yet experienced childbirth, and was apparently inept at describing my agony, my doctors dismissed the problem as first-time pregnancy jitters. I did not get validation for my pain until much later, when a strapping young football player in my town contracted the same illness and was floored by it. I remember a nurse in the maternity ward relaying the story to me, emphasizing how tough this young man was, but how the pain in his stomach was so bad it had him literally “crying for his mommy.”
“You weren’t kidding, huh?” the nurse said to me.
“No. I wasn’t.”
It did not help that the backdrop to all of this was a marriage that was already tense and emotionally distant. I did not feel connected to my husband, and the guilt I felt for being unwell caused me to withdraw from him even further — but also from myself. Recently, I revisited some diary entries from this time, one read: “I don’t know how much longer [my husband] can go without sleep.” There was no mention of my own suffering.
When spring arrived, after a round of antibiotics had me back on my feet, my dad and I started going to flea markets again. It was a welcome diversion from lying on the couch, binge-watching episodes of House, feeling a deep sense of camaraderie whenever someone raised their eyebrows and said the word, “parasite.” Also, by then I had developed a modestly sized pregnant belly that I thought — in a new and pain-free burst of appreciation for life — looked cute in maternity jeans. As I strolled by the oriental rugs, the chipped wash basins, the Kewpie dolls, and the rows and rows of collectable Loony Tunes glassware, I wondered if, now that I had a house and a growing family, I should want some of these things, or at least find room for them in my domestic fantasies. But I could already see that the antique highchair would be a nightmare to clean, the tea set would collect dust in the cupboard, and although I thought that the kitschy chalkware skunk was adorable, I did not have any meaningful reason for liking it. I imagined returning home with any of these items and facing the look of complete incomprehension on my husband’s face, followed by his irritation when I inevitably failed to put them to use. It was as if the moment I found something interesting, any desire to own it was quashed by the knowledge that my life could not sustain superfluidity of any kind. My house, I knew, was already a mess, so any additional attempt at charm or décor would be misguided, lost in the chaos, and at the very least, undeserved. My energy was also low, and just the thought of buying something — even something as inconsequential as a pin or a glass marble — then finding a place to put it, keeping track of its existence, was paralyzing.
I stopped going to flea markets after that. By 2013 I was raising two small children, and the demands that this put on my mind and body resulted in a pared down, survivalist, way of living. There was hardly room for joy, because joy meant excess — of time, money, or energy — and I had nothing extra to give. A child’s birthday party, for example, seemed to me a recipe for personal destruction, one exhausting step at a time: the house would need cleaning, there was shopping to be done, invitations to send, extra laundry to do, and I would have to bake a cake (which really meant having a backup cake ready when the first inevitably stuck to the pan and crumbled). On the day of the party, I might then realize that I forgot to clean out the garage, and that I had nowhere to hang the piñata, which was already a point of stress, because I had bought it at Walmart, and many of the parents who would be coming were from a different socioeconomic background and were more educated than me, and I feared that they would judge me for it. And then it would be over, everyone crashing from the piñata sugar, and I would have to clean it all up.
Maybe this does not sound traumatic, but it was the mindset with which I was operating every day, when faced with the basic demands of child rearing. Any notion of “vacation” or “fun” or “self-care” was, in my eyes, a bewildering construct. I used to think that this was because I was not a good mother/wife/friend. After all, I saw other women succeeding in these roles while also balancing a career, or with twice as many children, or while managing health problems, disabilities, etc. I had also discovered a new hatred for materialism at this point, watching my house fill up with cheap toys and gadgets that my husband’s family had bought for the children — crafts, puzzles, building sets — that all came with a hundred little pieces that I now had to find a way to organize and manage. I was overwhelmed. I stopped buying things for myself, including clothing, shampoo, books, jewelry, and writing supplies, because my own was the only materialistic avenue that I had control over. I wore dirty Muck Boots to the grocery store, left over from my college job as a barn manager. I fixed my glasses with tape, superglued the soles of my shoes, and rolled up the sleeves of my sweaters to hide the holes. Still, my life piled up around me. I was drowning in it.
From the beginning, there were many signs that my marriage was not a healthy one, most of which I had become good at denying, or explaining away, to myself and to friends and family. My husband and I did not spend much time together, we did not bring the kids on family outings, our parenting philosophies were incompatible, and our home life had a kind of shabbiness to it that embarrassed me. This last symptom did not, at the time, strike me as directly connected to the state of my marriage, but rather as proof of my own laziness, anxiety, and utter incompetence when it came to making a house a “home.” It was not just the accumulation of toys and plastic things that overwhelmed me, but also the notion that people usually hang pictures on the wall, plant flowers in the garden, dust the bookshelf so that you did not have a sneezing fit every time you wanted to read something. How did they do this? How did other people make time for small gestures of comfort and beauty? I decided that it must be my extreme, narrow-minded focus on “becoming a writer” that led me to disregard what others considered domestic necessities. I am over here composing the perfect sentence, I thought, while you, mere mortal, are fussing over a flower arrangement.
But I was not thriving as a writer. I was waking up at 3:00 AM to wrestle with a lifeless novel comprised of slow, crustaceous sentences that had no plot. By the time the kids woke up at 6:00, I was lucky if I had managed 200 words. My brain felt like that dollar spit out so many times by the vending machine, that you keep ironing against the corner, even though you know that it is hopeless.
By the summer of 2018, I had decided to leave my husband. It was sudden like that: I was changed, and I was leaving. My decision was so abrupt that some family members were sure that I had lost my mind. This was not true, and beside the point, but to their credit, there was certainly a glimmer of madness to my childishly headstrong declaration that I had “never been happy in my life.”
“Bullshit,” my naysayers refuted, my use of hyperbole their only required proof. I knew how silly it sounded. I knew that I only helped discredit myself every time I tried to explain that I had been living a lie, that my marriage had been doomed from the beginning. But something had broken inside me that would not be stitched back together with polite phrasing and common sense. I was not going to go to therapy and discover that the solution to my crisis was simple, that I need not blow my life apart with divorce, when something like a spa day or a new hobby would do the trick. Somehow this notion reminded me of the doctor who told me to practice “getting used to the discomfort,” when I was suffering from the intestinal parasite, because my constant insistence that the pain was unbearable must have gotten lost in translation.
In a way, physical pain and unhappiness are similar. You say to a trusted person, “I am in pain,” or “I am unhappy,” and they might, with the best intentions, look at your symptoms, or examine your circumstances, and tell you that you are wrong. You might then live another week, another year, another decade, in misery until the pressure becomes too great and you are forced to make a change. I know that people who recover from chronic pain or fatigue often experience huge epiphanies in otherwise small moments. A day where you can get down into the dirt and plant a bulb, or stand for an hour at your child’s school assembly, or walk to your mailbox without getting tired, takes on a sense of immensity that cannot be measured objectively. These small triumphs easily outweigh the more clichéd hallmarks of health and success, i.e., running a marathon or climbing a mountain. I believe that the same can be said for unhappiness, that you can live such a long time within an accepted sphere of disappointment and struggle, that when you escape it, the outside world is too vast to comprehend all at once. You must acclimate to it in small steps, flex your newfound optimism in small acts of will. After I left my marriage, there were so many of these opportunities, but strangely enough it was a return to the flea markets of my childhood that would prove to be the most profound.
In 2019, my boyfriend Jamie and I were both healing from long, unfulfilling marriages, with pending divorces that would leave us both, respectively, without a house. This, however, did not stop us from combing through the furniture and bric-a-brac of flea markets and thrift stores as if we were proud homeowners. We were — and still are — dreamers. Our headlong rush into a committed relationship was, like my divorce, highly contested by certain family members. We were accused of puppy love, infatuation, and naiveté, as if these traits were cardinal sins. But it did not matter to us. We had so many dreams, and we wanted everything: the 1960s’ needlepoint, the Formica kitchen clock, the wacky anthropomorphized radishes, the horrendous orange throw pillow, the strange, the garish, the mysterious, the beautiful. For the first time in my life, I was roaming through the junk and seeing possibilities instead of certain failure. There were broken Christmas ornaments and lonely little buttons that needed a home, and I could provide it, because my new life, post-divorce, was overflowing with love.
“Look at this” I might say to Jamie, holding up the worst lamp that you can imagine, and he would put his arms around me and say, “Let’s buy it for our foyer.”
I could list all the ways that my divorce has made me a better mother, a more successful writer, and a more compassionate friend, but like the person who recovers from illness and then scales Mt. Everest, there is something lost in the grandiosity of these claims. I have become more capable, and more resilient, not because I discovered the newest copyrighted self-help mind acrobatics, but because I stopped lying to myself. As it turns out, I did not need to con my brain into writing a novel by making calculated changes to my schedule, just as I did not need to train my body to deal with excruciating pain when a bottle of antibiotics would do the trick. Likewise, I did not figure out how to survive a child’s birthday party by carefully allotting my time and energy, nor did I cure my messy habits by implementing a Marie Kondo inspired purge. In fact, I started doing the opposite: living in full excess at a time when I had the least to spare.
In August of 2019, on my thirty-third birthday. Jamie and I spent the day going to flea markets and thrift stores in and around Brattleboro, Vermont. We had marvelled over the usual suspects: mysterious antique containers marked: SALVE; a crude blackened baby cradle that was obviously cursed; and all the wretched, but hopelessly endearing cross-eyed dog figurines. We bought each other framed pictures to hang in the house that we did not yet own, but that we had already envisioned. There were statues and wardrobes and tall, ornate lamps that we promised to come back for. We said to each other that we would build an extra room in our fantasy house, just for the haunted cradle, which we would fill with sundry black, cursed objects to appease its spirit. It was the kind of idle and extravagant dreaming that I had been denying myself for too long.
On the drive home, we passed a sign for a garage sale. We were halfway up the mountain between Brattleboro and Wilmington, along a winding highway that was dangerous to pull out on, much less attempt a full turnaround. But Jamie wanted to go, as one last stop before home. We parked in front of a squat ranch-style house and walked toward the open garage, where we found a small hoard of cheap jewelry, “collectable” toys and board games, and some teddy bears that looked like they came from a claw machine. We made conversation with the owner, who seemed to treat this garage sale as if it were a serious business venture, even going as far as to claim that she and her husband would be retiring from the sale of some highly sought-after item that I do not recall, nor do I believe existed based on the sample merchandise. But Jamie and I had taken the risk already, so we looked closely at what was there, determined to find some hidden gem, which was how I found the ridiculous piece of gumball machine jewelry that would become one of my most valued possessions. It was a necklace: a pinched, cutesy koala on a chain with weird, mold-green stones trapped beneath a layer of resin. The woman wanted six dollars for it, making a vague claim that the kitty litter stones were rare. Jamie looked at me.
“Do you want this?” he asked, with no hint of irony or judgement. I considered the unreasonable price and the absurdity of the necklace, and the strangest thing happened: I was overcome with a sense of giddiness and self-love, as if by accepting my irrational desire for the runty koala, I was also accepting myself, wholly and unconditionally. In that moment, I had nothing to prove; Jamie was not going to love me less based on my poor taste, or my guilelessness. In fact, he was right there, ready to buy it for me at full price. I know how this sounds — as if I am trying to wrap my message into a perfectly compact moment of clarity — but it happened, just like that. I felt it all, I understood what it meant, and I promised myself that I was done holding back. I was done denying myself happiness, even if my version of happiness was weird, or confusing, or downright foolhardy.
So, I told Jamie, “Yes,” and I turned so that he could close the clasp behind my neck. “I want it,” I said. “I really do.”