How I Broke Up With My Clothes (and My Walk-in Closet)

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Photo: Bloomimage/Corbis

For a precious, fleeting period in my adulthood, I had a walk-in closet. This was during what I think of as my Mary Tyler Moore years, a decade in which I was single and had a good job, which afforded me a roomy rental apartment in a great neighborhood. This apartment had antique-pine floorboards and a fireplace; the bedroom had windows on three sides overlooking sunny Brooklyn gardens. In late summer, morning glories climbed up to my second-floor windows and bloomed there — including at the one in my closet.

The closet, approximately eight feet long and six feet wide, had probably once served as a nursery or a maid’s room, but a hundred years later, by the time I moved in, its function as a storage space was firmly established. Two long rods, one high and one low, spanned its length and were bolted into the walls. A ledge for shoes protruded from the baseboards. When I lived in that apartment, I was the kind of person who went on lots of dates, ate sushi for lunch, took cabs whenever my feet were cold, and paid weekly for both a shrink and a personal trainer. Although I never mistook myself for Carrie Bradshaw, I also never thought twice about paying retail. My closet was neat and brimming, each item a souvenir of a past impulse or overpowering need: the green snakeskin cowboy boots I purchased in celebration of the first article I ever sold for money; the pink-sherbet Donna Karan mohair turtleneck I bought because its price tag shocked my mother.

My life resembled the rom-coms of the era — Bridget Jones comes to mind — and the closet played a crucial supporting role. Before any significant occasion, I would enter the closet and peruse my wardrobe — my vintage Dior blazer with epaulettes, my ironic pleated knee-length skirts, my Lilly Pulitzer minidress, and my cashmere cardigans in rainbow colors — with the shrewd serenity of a curator scanning her collection. For a business meeting, I might choose from among several Agnès B. suits, and to a wedding I might wear a gray-violet silk Morgane Le Fay dress with an empire waist that skimmed my body like butterfly wings. On dates, depending on the date, I could wear motorcycle boots and a sequined top or gray satin slip dress or a flowered thrift-store blouse that looked like an Italian grandma’s tablecloth. And, as befitted that time in my life, about once a quarter I would arrive home after a grueling date and cry myself silly, possessed with the certainty that I would wind up alone.

Of course, I eventually met a man so bookish that he kept the volumes that didn’t fit on his shelves in his oven; of course we fell in love; of course we got married. And of course he moved into my Mary Tyler Moore apartment bringing half his crap with him. For about a year, I was able to maintain the fantasy that nothing much had changed. He hung a few shirts and a tuxedo in my walk-in closet, and we put his dresser by the front door, where it doubled as a place to dump our keys. I kept going to the trainer and to the shrink, and taking taxis, and leafing through my wardrobe like Gollum fingering his precious. The clothes were my history, my identity. I bought them with my own money in order to adorn myself for the life I’d created. They were mine. They still reflected me. Didn’t they?

I broke up with my walk-in closet on a cold day in October, about two months before I was due to give birth. I had already suffered the humiliation of morphing from a woman who wore heels on the subway to one who wore pants with elastic waists and slip-on shoes and pastel-colored blouses that inevitably made even the most sophisticated adult female look exactly like a marshmallow. But it had also become clear that while my good job might have afforded me a sweet one-bedroom rental and sufficient disposable income to buy full-priced shoes, it did not generate the kind of cash we needed — even when combined with my husband’s income — for a down payment on a “family” apartment in our great neighborhood. The solution was obvious:  The walk-in closet had to become the baby’s room. It had a window, after all — a luxury many babies in New York City never attain. My husband and his designer friend would paint it. But first, I had to empty it.

I laid out all the clothes on the bed. There were piles and piles and piles of them. A linen minidress with a halter top that I wore with crocodile platform sandals. A short brown pencil skirt I wore with pearls. A royal-blue tennis skirt a friend gave me for my birthday. Sailor shirts from the Army Navy store in navy wool and white canvas. Black suede boots with industrial zippers and three-inch heels. I had a pair of skinny brown ultrasuede pants that I wore all the time and black leather pants I never wore and a leather skirt that I wore occasionally but most memorably when I saw Prince in concert. I had a black cotton Girbaud dress with a boatneck and a ballet skirt that fastened up the back and made me feel like a Degas dancer. I had green velvet jeans.

Let me just say that I wanted that baby more than anything. Fiercely and without a shred of ambivalence. But the realities of New York real estate forced me to confront brutally in single afternoon what other women may come to comprehend more gradually: I was leaving my old self behind. Not just the clothes and the taxis, but all that liberty, all that post-date narrative drama, all those Saturday mornings lying in bed with coffee until I felt like getting up, all those weekend walkabouts with friends, in which Chinatown morphed into coffee, morphed into shopping, then yoga, then drinks, then dinner, then bed. Another person might have sorted through the piles in a measured or rational way: Keep. Sell. Give away. Another person might have understood better than I did at that moment that getting married and having a baby didn’t mean that one changed, overnight, into an entirely different creature. But for me, it was like walking away from a lover on the street and never looking back, bracing for an uncharted future but already missing the comfortable past. I had protected my autonomy much as another woman, in another era, might have protected her virginity, and dismantling the closet meant, undeniably, that I was giving it away for good. Really, I could hardly bear it. I shoved all those clothes in garbage bags and brought them to the Salvation Army, where I got a receipt for $200 to be deducted from my taxes. A handful of the best things — the Morgane Le Fay dress among them — I gave to a colleague at work.

The day my husband and his friend painted my walk-in closet I stayed away. And when I finally came home, we did that thing that you see in movies. I closed my eyes and my husband led me by the hand to the archeological site of my past life. I opened. The ceiling was now a blue-night sky, the magic hour, scattered all over with golden stars. The walls were painted seashell pink and alive with cheerful insects: a buzzing bee, a flittering butterfly, a lady bug. The dome of the overhead light shone like the moon, and a string of Christmas lights twinkled on a high shelf, where a few stuffed animals awaited our child. And there, hanging from same clothing bar where my outfits had hung, was the tiniest dress you ever saw, a gift from my husband to the girl we were about to have. I did what any human person would do at that moment: I cried.

Mostly I wear jeans these days; I wouldn’t change my life for anything, and that gray slip dress never suited me anyway. But every once in a while I think with longing, as one sometimes does of an old boyfriend, of one or two of the items I consigned to the garbage bags that afternoon. Lately, I’ve been fixated on a black T-shirt dress, thigh-length, with a wide white horizontal stripe that I wore on a date with a guy who spoke baby talk on the phone. The guy was beyond ridiculous, but the dress was awesome. And I felt awesome in it.