Untethered: On Miss Havisham-Style Decision-Making

Welcome to Untethered, a new column by me, a person who has basically never been single in their whole adult life. Herein, I’m publicly committing to, above all else, dating myself and building community around me not based on the relationship escalator — for the indefinite future. I’m curious about what that looks like, genuinely, and hope you’ll explore that with me!


I’ve been sleeping in my office, right next to the shelves where I keep Autostraddle Plus perks and shipping supplies, since mid-June. The first night I rolled out my camping mat onto the old pine floor, I tried to self-soothe by watching more of The Ultimatum (the queer one). This is, in fact, not comfort TV. My ex and I worked out a separation agreement over the course of those months and signed it in August. Just this past Saturday, she moved out, and I slept in my bed again for the first time in almost three months.

She left whatever she didn’t want, discards from our life together and from her life before we knew each other. There’s a motorcycle helmet in a box. We’ve never ridden a motorcycle together — that’s a different ex. I have to go through each room, throw away and donate things, take debris from our interrupted home reno to the dump, re-sort and rearrange whatever’s left. I need more lamps.

At least this room has an overhead light, I think to myself while turning a light on to take a look. The fixture sparks, and the light goes out with a plink. This room also has no outlets. Now I don’t know how long it will be dark in there. Until I can get to it, I guess. What I really need is an electrician.

Deciding to stay in the house I’ve lived in since 2019 came from a series of factors: a chance encounter with someone at a gathering who said she had hoped to buy a house here but now can’t afford it, knowing people who are only able to buy houses because they’re getting foreclosures and gutting them themselves, living in shells they painstakingly re-build. My house is, while relatively affordable and in need of work, not a gut job. Then there was this column, and the challenges I set for myself, to put myself out there, to go to events, to make new friends and try new activities. (Like, guys, update: I think I might really like kickboxing?) As my therapist said, “Pittsburgh is really autistic and queer.” And Pittsburgh is so full of cool people trying their best that, in spite of its hellish infrastructure and systemic problems, it’s also my home of eight years. In unusual-to-Pittsburgh circumstances, both of my longest-term exes have also left the city and the state, so even though I might see mutual friends or acquaintances, I’ll never run into them. When I’m crossing a steel bridge or re-reading familiar graffiti in a bathroom, it’s comforting to know when out and about, in terms of my exes, at most, I’m only going to encounter ghosts.

And now the house is quiet, except for its ghosts. I woke up this morning to the bells I have hung on the front door jangling. No one was at the door, nor could anyone have walked through. Correction: I woke up from an hour nap I managed to squeeze in after breakfast and before work because, for the past two nights, I’ve only been able to sleep for about three hours.

A lot of what I’m remembering is Mya, my dog, who died just over a year ago in July 2022, in my arms, on the kitchen floor. It was 7 a.m., and she had given me one last wag, one last faint flick of her paws before she went. I held her while she got stiff and cold, and then my ex and I got her cleaned up and brushed, lit a candle in her dog bowl, and held space for her. I could not call the vet until 9 a.m. When I called, the vet told us they could cremate her, but that we would need to bring her in. We would have to bring an 80 pound [dead] dog down over 20 front steps and load her in the back of my old Subaru. My ex and I wrapped Mya in a blanket. I tucked one of her favorite stuffed toys (which she was gentle with and so kept forever) in between her paws. Then, we carried her down the front steps, concealed in the blanket.

It looked, friends, like two queers were disposing of an 80 pound body. I know this because someone waiting at the bus stop saw us come down the stairs with a body wrapped in a blanket, promptly turned on her heel, looked the other way, and minded her business with her back completely away from us, tucked as far around the corner as she could go without missing her bus. I still laugh about that.

I’m not used to staying in one living space for this long. I know it’s something people do, that they walk past — in some cases — a space where someone died or a cabinet that got chipped when two kids who are now grown were wrestling or their grandmother’s favorite sitting spot for decades after these events. It’s not a practice I’ve had to keep. Now, it seems like it might be. Right now, it feels like I’ve chosen to shroud myself in all of my recent past, to wear the scraps of my past relationship around me like Miss Havisham wears her wedding dress.

I know the worst of this initial wave will pass. These thoughts have only seeped in through the cracks because the newness of the quiet let them in. The hum of the refrigerator and the squeak of the breaks of the city bus on its route are not enough to keep them out right now, but in time, I think I’ll fill the space with more of the current, living, breathing me.

Part of this unease is rooted in the fact that I’ve never lived alone. I’ve always had roommates or a partner, people to please and consider and work around. But I made this choice because I knew I needed the space. I have old patterns of letting myself get smaller in a living space, of trying to please other people and then wondering why I don’t feel comfortable even hanging a picture up.

Now, no one can hear me talk to myself (except Bill the Actual Ghost, I guess), and no one cares if I want to pace around endlessly. The other day, after an informal kickboxing lesson in a friend’s garage, I cleared the kitchen floor so I could practice. No one needed the kitchen for anything else. Once in a while, I remember to relax my shoulders. I can work from different rooms, now, and I don’t wake up in the same room I work in. It doesn’t matter if I need to turn the light on at 3 am. and read. I’m not bothering anyone but myself. If I get a shred of a minute, I think I’m going to start putting together a pinterest page so that I can think about slowly decorating the place, over time. Right now, it’s all books on the floor and upturned boxes and empty echoing walls with outlets that don’t work and studs that need to be crow-barred off and cracks that need to be patched, but I’m dreaming of dark themes and whimsical touches, maybe finding some furniture on garbage days and at estate sales, and figuring out how I want to organize my bookshelves. I’ll also have to find a spot for this painting of Mya (by Riese’s girlfriend Gretchen).

a painting of Mya, a gorgeous floofy malamute mix doggo

Painting by Gretchen

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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is a Team Writer for Autostraddle (formerly Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director and For Them's Membership and Editorial Ops person.) They write nonfiction both creative — and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret longform project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 229 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. i so enjoy reading this column in general but my brain short circuited at “And now the house is quiet, except for its ghosts.” i desperately want that to be the first line of a novel.

    also, i’ve had the privilege of living alone my entire post-undergrad life and even though sometimes it’s lonely / hard / logistically difficult, it does indeed mean i can bake bread at 3 am, and it’s forced me to become a hell of a lot more competent around the house than when i lived with roommates and did in fact occasionally ask them to open jars for me. i live for the mundane elation at my newfound basic competence when i, like, successfully evict an uninvited lizard roommate or perform the endless tiny repairs inherent in staving off entropy, and invite you to rejoice in those victories as well!

  2. Ghosts various perhaps, but you’re making a great job of making your own home there.
    I moved into a new place by myself 6 months ago, not easy to have a sense of home there. Totally relate to the mixed experience of living by oneself, for me that came after living with others for my entire life, until middle age.
    Inspiring, comforting writing, hope you get that for yourself too.

    • I’ve picked up yoga and gardening in the year since my wife left. Our divorce was finalised a month ago. I stayed in the house we bought and decorated and renovated and were raising our kids in, and it’s been really difficult some days. But I’m starting to redecorate, chuck out things she chose and I didn’t like, and making the place mine and the kids’. And while our split was pretty amicable, and we’re great co-parents, staying in the house (finances, stability for the kids) has been surprisingly tough. But it gets easier, and you will heal. Yay for kickboxing!

  3. i’m so excited for you to make your space your own! (and of course to see the updates) i know it was the somber moment, but the thought of you all carrying Mya’s body and the woman on the bus stop gave me a little bit of a chuckle. it feels almost sitcom-like

  4. Wow, this is honest to god spooky, how much it sounds like my own life. Last summer, my ex blew up our lives, leaving me with the house we’d bought and fixed up and decorated together (and 4 pets, until she eventually took most of them off my hands…) I genuinely thought about selling the place- I couldn’t imagine living here without her- but it would have been financial suicide. Now, just over a year later, it’s finally starting to feel like MY house. I’ve just painted 3 different rooms, I buy funky furniture that I love without having to ask anyone else’s opinion, and I get up and go to sleep whenever the hell I want. I love living alone (with the one dog I ended up keeping, who is the absolute best thing I could have gotten out of the experience). There are still ghosts that live here with me for sure, but I think I’m slowly becoming friends with them. Your writing is beautiful, thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Jay, thank you so much for the kind words. It’s really encouraging to hear from someone who’s a year or so further along in a similar process. I’m glad that the place is feeling more like a home, that the ghosts are feeling more like friends.

  5. I am green with envy at the idea of an ex-free city since my ex (and the person she left me for) still live in my tiny town, but I cannot imagine going through this kind of breakup so soon after a dog’s death—my animals have been the foundation and scaffolding of my mental health for the past year. Major props to you for getting through it with just kickboxing and Bob the ghost. (And thank you for the very funny scene of some rando at a bus stop trying not to get involved in two queers’ efforts to dispose of a body.)

    • <3 <3 <3 Thank you Laurie. My dog was (and is) so near and dear to me. It was an extremely difficult loss for both me and my ex. And the mental health scaffolding definitely took a hit, but am getting there!

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