I was in class on a sweltering June day in 1997 when Jacob’s preschool teacher noticed a blister on his chest and called to tell me that he had chicken pox. Abbie had her first blisters by evening. Late June and early July are the hottest weeks of a New Mexico summer, and that day, the third Monday in June of the year when I was 26 years and not quite 3 months old, was a day to sit poolside, not a day for statistics lectures.
For all the heat and misery in that classroom, I was loathe to be called away. That spring, in our final effort to save our marriage (or to find our way out), Robert and I had started marriage counseling, and when the therapist looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”, the answer tumbled out of my mouth with no warning, no forethought, a total surprise. “I want to go back to college,” I said, and although I’d had no inkling that school was a thing I’d wanted even five minutes before I said it, I needed no time to consider. I registered Jacob and Abbie for daycare for the first time, filled out my financial aid forms, and picked up my education where I’d left it the year I fell pregnant with Jacob.
I remember the final weeks and months of my first marriage as if they happened in snapshots instead of real time. A bitter word here, a despairing moment there, and giving my scabbed, spotty children tepid oatmeal baths between stolen minutes of studying. I remember the last time Robert and I found each other’s hands under the covers, seeking comfort in what had been familiar. There were the moments when my fear for our kids made my heart thunder and my breath catch.
I hung on, even though I knew the thing was dead. If it had been broken and ugly from the beginning, it had, however briefly, been a marriage, but not anymore. By the fall of 1996, it hung, limp and breathless. By summer 1997, it had begun to smell, and we waited.
My motivations for waiting were complex and largely unconscious, but one reason I allowed it to linger as long as it did was for Abbie. She was very much my baby, and while she adored her dad, I feared that if he moved out while she was so young, she would never really bond with him.
I wanted out. In every moment, I wished for it to be over, but my fear for Jacob and Abbie knocked the breath out of me. While I knew the marriage was doomed, I couldn’t quite take that last step and ask Robert to leave. For a year, he waited for me to leave, and I waited for him to leave, and together, separately, we waited.
So it was that a marriage, long dead, ultimately ended on an impulse of anger on July 4, 1997.
I don’t remember before. I don’t remember waking, or making coffee, or changing Abbie’s diaper, or any of the first-of-the-morning activities. My memory begins in media res. I was wearing pink shorts. Jacob was naked. I was holding Abbie, my left arm wrapped around her, my left hand on her juicy thigh, and was I plugging in a fan to cool us all off? Perhaps, or maybe I was putting The Land Before Time tape into the VCR for Jacob. We had plans to go to my parents’ house in the afternoon to barbecue.
Robert (Had he been sleeping? Did I say something first?) screamed, “How can you expect to fix this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? How can you be married to me if you won’t have sex with me?”
“Why would I have sex with someone who hates me?” I screamed back.
“You know what? You’re right. I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I’m leaving. I don’t love you,” and he seemed to be testing the words and the sounds they made, and he picked up a pencil and a pad of paper, and he left.
That argument is Jacob’s sole memory of his parents marriage.
Robert came back an hour later and sat down on the couch. “Were you looking for an apartment?” I asked.
“Yes, as soon as I find a place, I’m out of here.”
“Fine,” I said, “but if you’re leaving, go now. Couch surf or something.”
He put a few things in his backpack and rode away on his motorcycle, and as soon as he was gone I took off my wedding ring and put it in my jewelry box. When our final decree of divorce was granted almost a year later, it was nothing but the punctuation. I got divorced on July 4, 1997, whatever the court records may say.
I had lost almost everything—dignity, integrity, hope, even my voice. What I had left, what I clung to as the ground under me rocked and shifted, was my love for Jacob and Abbie. I wanted nothing for myself (and oh, is that not the great mistake, that we can hope nothing for ourselves and everything for our children?) and all things for them. That they should feel secure, loved, and safe was the rock in front of me, and could I scale it? Could I climb that thing, with my fear and my shame weighing me down, holding me fast to the ground?
Eventually, not at all.
If I am clear-eyed, if I look into the past, no matter how dark that glass may be, I see that I failed.
Which is not to say that I didn’t do the best I could. I did.
Oh, how I want to flagellate myself some more. I could stay awake for a week—a month—a year, even, and whip myself raw. I could bang my head against every wall, cut myself with every available sharp thing, starve myself until I am flesh stretched over angles of bone and eat until I am immobile, and no punishment, not even my death, would change the past.
I can stay awake as many nights as I want, hurt and punish myself in all possible ways, and I will still have married a man who hurt me, and I will have hurt him. I will still have had children with that man, and we will still have hurt those children. That happened.
I did that.
In some space of my heart, I will never lay down that burden. The weight of it belongs to me and I would be faithless, even treacherous, if I cast it aside.
There is a time for everything, as the saying is, and the two years after Robert and I broke up were a time for all things. I wept, and I laughed. I broke down, and I built up. I embraced some of the wrong men, but I eventually got around to refraining from such embraces.
Not quite two years after Robert moved out, my close friends had a baby, and watching them with their sweet, wonderful new daughter, I remembered the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital. I lay our baby in his Moses basket, swaddled tight, and Robert stood over him, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so proud, I just can’t stand it. Look at him! He’s too perfect. I’m so proud,” he said, over and over.
Someone told me once that in Italian, there is a word for a person you once loved but don’t anymore. I wish there was a word in English for such a person. My relationship with Robert was never, will never be, simple or clean or easy. We were wrong together.
There was good. There was some happy. There are those two extraordinary people who would not be, had we not done our damage with each other. In that terrible, terrifying, impossible-to-reconcile juxtaposition of two realities, each true, but completely at odds with the other, I learned to live balanced atop a fence. I regret; I celebrate. I hate; I love.
For those two, for my children, those enchanting people who are flesh of my flesh, who are living their own lives and bearing their own witness to the ways their parents have succeeded and failed, for those two, I stay here, in reality. I will not hide in bitterness or fantasy. I will not blame their dad, nor will I blame myself. I claim my part; I release to Robert his, and if it lays on the ground unclaimed, so be it. I do this imperfectly, with almost no finesse or style (no points for such things, anyhow).
There are no conclusions to draw here, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.
Midmorning on the day after Robert moved out, I was kneeling in the hall, folding sheets and putting them away in the cabinet. The kids were there, playing and goofing, giggling at each other, and we were singing that little song about the hole in the lake, and the log in the hole, and the frog. All of a sudden, relief poured over me like water. He’s not coming back. I’m not married to him. We are not married anymore. I will sleep alone tonight.
For just one minute, maybe 2, surely no more, it was almost too wonderful to bear. I grabbed those two kids up and we three rolled together on the carpet and laughed.
We’ve tried to wash our hands of all of this.
We never talk of our lacking relationships,
and how we’re guilt stricken sobbing with our
heads on the floor.