I keep having traumatic I’m-back-in-the-marital-house dreams. It’s funny, because they’ve all but replaced the I’m-back-in-the-marriage dreams, which became less frequent as time went on but never went away…until I moved into my new house, and then they did. Sometimes I drive by the marital house just to make sure it’s still standing–one never knows, and I do still own half of the place–and just navigating the familiar streets makes my heart pound unpleasantly. I love that I live on the other side of town. I love the way the kids and I fit perfectly into our new digs. And I love that my ex-husband has never been inside my new house, has no reason to come in, doesn’t know what it looks like or where I’ve put anything or what I see when I lie in bed at night.
It’s not our bed. He got our bed, and I got the smaller bed we’d bought for the apartment we alternated living in when we first separated. He’s never slept in my bed.
Seven years ago my marriage began to fall apart. There was the phone call from the wife of the soccer coach I’d flirted with, telling my ex-husband that she thought we had had an affair. We hadn’t. But we probably would have, at some point, had the soccer coach not left his email open for her to read, had she not confronted me months earlier. I barely knew the guy, the soccer coach–it was not a leave-your-husband kind of flirtation. I’m not trying to excuse myself, I’m simply telling you what happened. I committed one type of betrayal, and my ex-husband went berserk, and this went on for a year, more than a year, till finally the inevitable occurred and we split up.
It’s funny. It could easily have gone the other way. But when I look back at my marriage now I am struck by the fact that I had crushes on other men, had both innocent and not-so-innocent flirtations throughout our entire relationship. I thought this was normal–I even thought it was harmless. I assumed my ex-husband had the same thing going on in his lab, with other scientists he knew and would see at meetings. I knew there were a few women who liked him, who flirted with him, and I’d tease him about it. I assumed he flirted back. I also assumed that this sort of thing didn’t really matter, that a long marriage with two children was solid enough to bear the weight of a few light crushes. I was, apparently, wrong. (I don’t mean I was wrong in general, just in the context of my particular marriage, which could bear the weight of no light crushes, apparently.) And I was also wrong to assume that everyone falls in half-love over and over again, despite being married or seriously committed.
I’ve been with my current boyfriend for years, and I have no desire to cheat on him. At all. Perhaps this is just middle age; perhaps I learned my lesson; but perhaps I am different with him than I was with my ex-husband. Perhaps I was actually looking for a way out of my marriage for much longer than I thought. Perhaps I knew all along that my ex-husband wasn’t the man I wanted to be with forever. Did I sabotage the marriage deliberately? Did I want, somehow, to end up right where I am now–out of the house we bought together, alone with my kids, with a man who is more suited to me than my ex-husband ever was, working hard, making my own money, making my own way?
I remember one of my professors in college–we were reading Faulkner–telling the class that the body renews itself every seven years. It’s a nifty concept, isn’t it? I can tell myself that my ex-husband doesn’t know me any more, has never touched this new me, the person I’ve evolved into. I can hardly remember having sex with him. His body and mannerisms and voice and the way he looks are alien to me now, finally. When I see him I recoil without meaning to. I used to hold myself carefully apart in his presence, because his familiarity drew me like some fatal magnet. I knew him so well. I knew exactly what it would feel like to collapse into his arms. I couldn’t quite look at him, because I was so afraid I’d see the person I’d loved, that I’d be submerged in memories. Two children, three pregnancies, three houses, one dog, eighteen years of living together. And now I feel I’ve finally broken free.
I have a new car. I bought it on New Year’s Eve, and I love it. I love that my ex-husband has never driven it, never sat in it, and that I have no memories of sitting next to him looking out through the same windshield as we drove along. “Oh, god, I know exactly what you mean,” said my divorced friend in California. “I even like getting rid of pairs of socks, or a running bra, that I wore when I was married. I think, ‘He’s never seen me in this running bra’ and I feel wonderful.”
Seven years ago my ex-husband came straight home from work in the middle of the day and demanded access to my email account. I would say that everything fell apart after that, but it’s not precisely true. Things did fall apart, but I did not. I will be forty-five next month. I have never been–the concept is bland, but the feeling is not–happier in my entire life.