He still has the flipper, I said. The fucking flipper I loved.
What do you mean, a flipper? asked Melissa.
You know, you flip a pancake or a veggie burger.
Oh, you mean a spatula, she said.
But I liked flipper better. It’s what I always call it.
It contains the word that has managed to upend my life in my late forties—the word flip, as in to cause to turn over with sudden, sharp movement.
As in, my ex-husband flip-flopped on our marriage.
He flipped on his wedding vows.
He flopped on our marriage, as in flopping into an extra-marital relationship with a 29-year-old from his masters degree in counseling program, the schooling I made monthly payments with from my second job.
Then I flipped out and wanted my stuff back.
First of all, I wanted my flipper, the essential utensil in the constellation of my kitchen, the star of my culinary show.
We separated a year ago when my ex accidentally sent me a voice text that was meant for this brand-new, shiny 29-year-old from his school cohort.
Gosh, I thought, listening to the voice text while driving on the freeway in the car.
He never leaves voice memos!
How lovely—this is such a fun voice memo!
I hope he liked the lasagna I made him for lunch! And the edit I did on his paper!
He sounds so light and airy, so jocular, downright carefree!
Wait, did he just give me the word-for-word advice about my boss that I had given him yesterday?
Wait, was this even for me?
Wait, I don’t work as a receptionist in an acupuncturist office.
Wait, this voice text is for someone else….um, for his…girlfriend?
Meanwhile, his actual wife, that would be me, almost drove our Subaru Outback off the freeway into a ditch as the intended destination became clear to me of his stroll-in-the-park stream of consciousness voice text.
Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.
The voice text was not meant for me.
After 17 years, he was no longer meant for me.
After 17 years, I was no longer meant for him.
I served him divorce papers and moved out.
Into a shitty studio with brown shag carpet and a kitchenette, a word that was way cuter than it implied—it meant no burners, no oven, just a toaster oven.
I couldn’t even have a hot plate because it was a fire hazard.
Oh my god, what was I going to eat?
How did my ex end up with the Vitamix from my Aunt Margo?
Where the fuck is the compact Dyson Animal vacuum?
Where is my beloved flipper?!
Fast forward to a year later.
Each with our own storage unit.
Him renting a room in a house.
Me in a studio above a garage.
But my ex and I never fully finished an intentional community property division.
We agreed preemptively in the Marital Settlement Agreement that whatever we individually had in our homes and storage units was now exclusively ours.
We will get to that, we both said.
First things first, we both said.
We can work that out peacefully, we both said.
Here we were, six months later; me prepared to get arrested for breaking and entering because he had not, and would not, give me back the flipper.
That was my flipper, I said.
It was in the stocking from your mother two Christmases ago, I said.
It was the one kitchen utensil I looked forward to using, I said.
You don’t cook, Elaine, said my ex, his right eyebrow cocked in curiosity.
It was a gift from my mother to both of us, he said.
And I need it for my van, he said.
And it’s called a spatula, he said.
Fuck you, I said. It’s a flipper.
My ex had just decided to give up the room in the house he was renting and live out of a newly-purchased Sprinter van, surely bought with the cash I had to fork over in the divorce to pay him off—just to be able to keep my own retirement accounts.
What was mine, anyway?
What did mine even mean?
That’s perfect for your new 29-year-old girlfriend, I thought.
Maybe you could drive the van to Pez conventions, have gummy worm eating contests, do hilarious TikToks together, and go get woke in some camp at Burning Man.
Oh wait, Burning Man was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Just like we were cancelled.
My ex had taken off to pick up his van in Arizona where it had broken down.
He paid for the van in Dallas and paid thousands more in Tucson when the engine broke down on his way back to California.
He said the person he bought it from—and the mechanic he hired to check it out—didn’t let him know there were any problems with the engine and there was no legal recourse for that misrepresentation.
That’s rich, I thought to myself, considering he didn’t let me know there were any problems with his commitment to our marriage and there was no legal recourse for that misrepresentation.
I guess you got cheated, I said. A cheater got cheated.
I don’t believe in that, he said, quick to dismiss the so-obvious karmic circle at hand, the spiritual elephant in the living room now masquerading as a broken van engine.
It didn’t matter.
The bag marked “Cheater” belonged to him at baggage claim.
He might never be able to claim it and may just watch it go around and around on that conveyer belt—denying all the pain and chaos and disruption his extra baggage wielded for me—but it would always be there with his name on it. That wasn’t mine.
I just wanted the flipper back.
I didn’t want a new one.
It was perfect.
Thin and light, aluminum, with a red handle.
It scraped cookies off a cookie sheet like magic, like when we made hot cookies while watching Game of Thrones together on Sunday night.
It was big enough to flip a palm-sized pancake on Sunday morning when my ex made the bacon and eggs and I did the gluten-free pancakes for him with blueberries and chocolate chips—his favorite.
I wasn’t inclined to just flop on the flipper.
He had taken too much. Seventeen years of my life. My youth.
Besides the flipper, he also had the grill and the lawnmower, which caused me to steam and froth over like the cheap rice cooker he took from the discard pile.
The grill had been at my house, too, when we separated.
I claimed it, took it, had it.
In a moment of weakness, when he moved into his new place in the fall, I gave it back to him—as a loan, as a temporary gesture of my magnanimity.
We were not divorced yet and wouldn’t even start the paperwork for a few months.
I told my friend Melissa about the absconded grill.
I mean, he’s living in a fucking van all summer and he’s not even going to use it!
I almost squealed, the complete unfairness of this whole thing collapsing in my psyche, visualizing him and his new girlfriend living out of this Sprinter van.
She’s 29? She missed the 80’s. She doesn’t even know Duran Duran, said Melissa. Forget her. And him. We have no time for that.
That was precisely it—I feared I was out of time.
To rebuild a life.
To fall in love again.
To have a child.
His new girlfriend probably didn’t have diminished ovarian reserve, I thought, with an image of my ex and I crying and planting in our yard a hot pink dwarf azalea that my Mom sent us when we had our second miscarriage, when we lost our little girl.
Meanwhile, I was living like a college student with a beanbag in a studio apartment above a garage, going through the beginning of menopause alone. I hadn’t had a period since the weekend of what would have been our 12th wedding anniversary.
During what were apparently night sweats, I turned the window AC unit on full blast at a bracing 68 degrees. I thought night sweats were made up and not a real thing.
All these women my age were going on about how their middle age had released the mythical Kraken. But this middle age menopause monster would be smaller than it looked when it rose from the lake, right? Wouldn’t the hot flashes be much less than they were advertised—just like my marriage was less than it was advertised?
Forsaking all others.
In sickness and in health.
Until death do us part.
But now, I was waking up in my unicorn-print Garnet Hill sheets wet from head to toe, like I had just gone diving at a full tilt off the deep end. Which I guess I had.
I was just like the plants he unceremoniously dumped on my lawn.
In old soil. With a cracked pot. Neglected. Abandoned. Constricted. Left for dead.
Elaine, listen, said Melissa. I have never seen you grill. Honey, when did you get the grill?
In 2008, I said.
Okay, you had it for 12 years, she said. Have you ever used the grill by yourself?
I thought about it, scoured my brain as finely as that perfect flipper scoured a cast iron skillet.
Well, no, I said.
Actually, I had not—independently of my ex—used the grill.
Not one time.
I was scared of the propane tank. I always thought it would explode.
And then I would end up the BBQ meat, the char of the evening.
So, sweetheart, said Melissa. If you have never used the grill, don’t you think it’s okay if you just let it go?
Omg. Could she be right? Her logic was flawless.
And who needed another grill when I was getting hormonally grilled from the inside out—burning away all traces of my marriage, the past, and my youth.
Still, I found a small pivot.
But he also has the lawnmower! I said.
He has all the big-ticket items, I said. It’s just not fair.
The biggest ticket item he had was his new girlfriend.
The biggest ticket item of all: his potential happiness.
Now friend, said Melissa. One more thing…I hate to put too fine a point on this, but….do you have a lawn?
Well, no, I said. No, I don’t currently happen to have a lawn.
I felt my entrenchment in this argument slipping, the soil of my rationale eroding as my imaginary arms flew up in the air and I went off the emotional cliff of my own despair, surfing the dirt, then facedown, mouth full of dirt, clinging to the cliffside.
It’s not fair, I wailed, spitting out dirt and clinging, clinging, clinging.
Clinging to the emotional cliff and to the pain and to the flipper and to the grill, and to the lawnmower and to the marriage and to him and to the vows he spoke at our wedding—handsome and shiny and smiling in his tuxedo, clinging to the memory.
He’s replaced me, replaced everything, I wailed.
Honey, said Melissa. I think you may need to let it all go.
Watching myself from the vantage point of a hawk—clinging to this eroded cliff—I saw the futility of my grip, the outrageousness of trying to have any control at all.
So, I let go.
And I fell, terrified, falling and tumbling and rolling down the erosion of my past until I fell face-up onto the beach of the present moment, the fresh tides licked my dirt-covered body clean, washing the dirt back into the ocean where my pain and the past would be composted, recycled, given back to the ocean herself for disposal.
I lay spread eagle on the sand, scared and yet awake.
Right now, don’t you just have redwood chips and a cement patio? said Melissa, bringing me back from my reverie.
Yeah, okay, that’s right, I said, still washed up and shaking. I mean, for now.
But someday I want to have a lawn again.
Yes, sweetheart, said Melissa. And when you do, I’ll buy you another lawnmower.
Like the rootball of all eleven plants that I inherited when I divorced him.
Just this week, I sat in my new side yard and hacked away at these rootballs, talking to the plants, trying to soothe them and myself, trying to coax us all to freedom.
One plant had an infestation of spiders and needed careful tending, the little nature baby bulbs gently washed with soap and water and repotted in fresh soil.
Nature babies, I say to them when I water them from my brand new green plastic watering can.
I curled up into a rootball and cried.
I could free myself, too. I could feel it inside of me, this freedom, cutting myself from everything I clung to in the past, all the old roots and old dirt washed away.
My body was halting its monthly cycle, but my spirit was starting a brand new one. Instead of relying on external heat from some used grill, my body was now forging an internal heat—I was generating my own fire, becoming an authority of my own vitality, a woman who fully loved herself and could stand on her own in the world.
Let’s go get you a new spatula, said Melissa. That you actually need.
We went to Gelsen’s grocery store and bought a gorgeous new flipper in bright yellow, the happiest color I had ever seen. It looked nothing like my old flipper.
This color yellow is so amazing….like an egg sunny side up, said Melissa.
You know what Van Gogh said about this color? The color yellow can charm God.
I looked at the bright yellow brand-new flipper in my hand as I freed it with scissors from its packaging.
Could I flip being depressed to being happy?
Could I flip this sadness back to joy?
Could I flip being bound to being free?
Melissa dropped me off, and I went upstairs and took out the crumpled list of the community property items we still hadn’t resolved and that I was trying to get back.
There were codes for my house or his house—now van—for my storage unit or his.
The first column was marked Mine.
The next column was marked His.
Next was a Sold column with the price, the cash to be divided between us.
And the last column was Donate/Giveaway/Free.
Everything had a cost. But not everything was mine.
With my yellow flipper in hand, I threw away that list in the trash can that had flipped from being mine to ours then back to mine again, and I carried my sunny spatula into my sunny kitchen, unbound and ready to make any damn thing I want.
First published in Hags on Fire (June 2020). Reprinted with permission of the author.
Elaine Gale is an award-winning journalist and writer who covered religion as part of the "God Squad" for the Los Angeles Times, was an advice columnist and pop culture reporter for the Star Tribune, and started her writing career at the Boston Phoenix and the Utne Reader. Now, she's a tenured professor at California State University, Sacramento, with a doctorate in communication from University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her one-woman show, ONE GOOD EGG, was most recently performed off-Broadway. www.onegoodeggshow.com