When I first met my future husband, we were both married to other people: he, to another woman; I, to myself. While he and his ex-wife fought over the car, the cat and the toothpick-holder, I couldn’t resist some pride in the fact that my own marital parting was comparatively civilized.
I took only my most personal possessions, leaving behind the rent-controlled flat with hardwood floors, stained glass, commodious bathroom, garden-view balcony, and on-site laundry, all on a tree-lined street in a prized neighborhood. Alimony was not demanded, but, as an investment in future peace, I gave myself a week in Florence. My divorce had the appearance of being relatively simple: We had no children, pets or real estate, no betrayals to avenge, no venom to inject. While my future husband and his former spouse rendered the telephone irrelevant by shouting loudly enough to hear each other across town, myself and I managed a pleasant, almost businesslike, regard for each other, just as the enlightened-divorce books recommend. When, over the occasional coffee—or glass of wine—her fingers would brush across mine and we’d broach the topic of our breakup, we were not tragic or condemning, but merely incredulous: Had we truly severed ourselves forever? Was this what we both wanted?
After the wedding, my husband’s legal battles—and triple-digit-per- hour rancor—with his former spouse continued. Once, when the phone woke me after midnight, I told her it was too late to be calling. She, in turn, wanted to know who was I to answer his line anyway? My husband was inured to her by then, but my former mate grasped the import right away, summoned forth my righteous fury and then managed to defuse it by pointing out the absurdity of the scene—lifted from showdown TV, we decided—so that I could unclamp my jaws and finally fall asleep.
Meanwhile, my husband forged a polite wariness with my ex, each of them smugly certain I’d be better off without the other. “Jealous,” she concluded, when he complained that I was more mocking and sardonic, even cruel, under her influence. True, she had an uncanny talent for showing up when the home seas were roughest, but I don’t know how I would have survived without her sympathetic smirks, corroborative eye- rolls and foil-wrapped bars of pure, dark chocolate. I tried not to admit that our minds had never quite untwined, that I craved her reliable accord and comedic rescue. Nights when my husband was working downstairs in his studio, she and I tangled legs and whispered in the dark. With her, my woes were justified; my meaning, clear. My ex needed no preface or translation and could comprehend me to a depth that my current spouse did not.
One night shortly after our third anniversary, my husband and I had a fight about the historical Jesus or the evils of corporatism or the way I parked the car in the garage. I hurled his lovingly purchased long-stem roses onto the floor as he slammed the front door behind himself, duffel in hand. By then I had been talking to my ex almost every night, openly speaking of all that I missed: her lazing around the flat, half-naked and fully absorbed in a lugubrious nineteenth-century novel; her turning up the R&B and spinning me around the kitchen amid the elaborate preparations of her latest stew-pot wonder; her even temper and undefended lightness; the two of us climbing the tall peak and reaching it as one, raunchy fantasies unencumbered by questions of loyalty or the pursuit of pregnancy. She and I had argued, but in my memory, at least, were never fiercely enraged or deeply wounded by each other. Leaving my first marriage was a mistake, I admitted to the bathroom mirror, when, after two hours, the roses were still on the floor and my husband hadn’t returned. My ex poured me a brandy. I gulped and trembled, collapsing in her arms. Could I possibly be forgiven? Would she consider taking me back after this?
If my husband predicted that I would grow tired of myself, he was kind enough not to say so. Indeed, the more I tried to avoid my former love, the more she haunted me—subway windows, the message machine in my office, framed photos on the hall table. I could not so much as apply lipstick without her insipid kissy-mouth puckering at me. Bereft of solitude, I came to understand my first marriage as a clingy, frightened thing, proud and narcissistic. I sought solace one sleepless night in a clear, scalding bath, but even there, her troubled face stared up at me. “Have you nothing to do but gaze into my eyes?” I demanded, her disheveled hair and reddened cheeks a mockery of my own. I wept and yet the tears ran down her face. I turned slightly away; she did the same. I charged her with fawnery—laughing at my every quip, flattering my most egregious pontifications with an obsequious nod—but even then, she replied with a paltry, infuriating echo. I drained the tub, relishing the gravity of her slow retreat, then crawled into bed with my husband. Time would surely separate him from me when our love was most rich, leaving me to myself quite soon enough.