Two years ago last month, my ex-husband and I separated.
The whole thing still seems impossible, even surreal–looking back, I have no idea how we managed. I was not thinking cogently and I daresay we were incredibly, unbelievably lucky–as ghastly as it was, we did come out of it, for the most part, with all of our f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact. I have forgotten many of the specifics; in an attempt to remind myself of the proper chronology I began reading old emails and my journal, but had to stop. Even though my emails and journal were self-censored at the time (my ex-husband was reading them, or trying to) they are too upsetting to revisit right now. I have to squint a little, or glance at the whole experience sideways, like Perseus slaying the Gorgon. At any rate, here begins my cockeyed view of what happened to us, of what we did; may it be read by someone else presently staring down the barrel of divorce.
If I may be so pompous as to offer a single platitude, the most important thing to cling to is flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all way to end a marriage, any more than there is a single way to fall in love, to raise your children, to mourn the dead, to worship whatever deity you choose. There is only crossing your fingers while trying to cause the least damage overall, hoping to preserve whatever shards of decency you manage to pluck from the ruins.
The true beginning of the very end came when my ex-husband, who had read my journal a few months prior and determined that I was, in fact, in love with someone else, demanded to know why the odometer on my car showed I had driven an extra thirty miles that day. After weeks–no, months–no, two entire years (if you count the fictive affair, to which my ex-husband reacted as if it were a real one) of having my phone policed, my email checked, my physical whereabouts monitored, and every word out of my mouth picked over for clues, I snapped. I told my ex-husband that the marriage was over, that I was taking up residence in the guest room, and that we needed to figure out what came next.
What came next was a nightmare, though what had come before was arguably worse. Although I had wanted to separate shortly after he read my journal and the truth came out, he begged me to stay for a few more months, for him, for me, for the children. The psychiatrist we were both seeing at that point (separately–my ex-husband and I agreed we would rather be boiled in oil than attend “couples therapy”) ordered me to stick it out through the holidays. Watch your drinking, she advised; watch his. She said she was concerned he might try to kill himself. I never quite believed her–I still don’t–but maybe I was too close to judge. Nearly everyone I spoke to agreed with the psychiatrist, including my very own mother, who added that she also worried he might kill ME. I didn’t believe her, either, though apparently he told her, in a tearful conversation, that he wished I would get hit by a bus. Which isn’t quite the same as killing someone, and by the time I heard about it, I’d been wishing he’d get hit by a bus for months. It didn’t seem like anything to get all worked up about.
However, one does not want to make the mistake of pooh-poohing sage counsel and ending up with–or becoming–a corpse. And let us consider the facts: my ex-husband’s father drank himself to death at 37, and there are numerous male suicides on both sides of his family, including one hideous wife/child/husband murder/suicide. So I spent Christmas and New Year’s with him at my mother-in-law’s house across the country. She knew what was going on, and kept pressing theater tickets on us, offering to take the kids off our hands. My ex-husband was in rare form, showering me with gifts and attention, asking, every five seconds, “See, is this so bad? This isn’t so bad, is it?” At night, after he finally drifted off in a miasma of alcohol fumes, I slithered out of bed to sit up late in the living room, trying to knit my older son a scarf in his school colors, and finish a humorous (!) essay for an anthology. The scarf was a mess of tangles; I turned the essay in six months late.
He drove us past our old house, the house we’d sold before moving East, and I couldn’t look at it, had to stare out the passenger window gulping back sobs, eyes burning with unshed tears. “Remember how you loved it there?” he said softly. “Remember how happy we were?” I couldn’t answer, couldn’t speak. Yes, I do. Yes, we were. Yes.