THE STORIES WE TELL
Nov. 27, 2006
Seventeen years have passed since my husband and I parted. Parted. There's a mild word for you. Describing an event so full of rancor and pain that even a person simply standing on the sidelines, taking in the scene, might have felt the need to shield her gaze, the way we are told to do when viewing a total eclipse of the sun.
But the bitterness gradually subsided, to the point where I could tell the story without the muscles of my face tightening into an ugly mask. My right eye no longer twitches, as it did for one whole season, beginning around October 1989 and continuing all through the long and bitter winter that followed. I seldom feel a need to talk about those days any more, (and in fact, when I meet someone still freshly divorcing, and inhabiting that terrible place where I once lived, I can spot the signs. When I do, I generally beat a hasty retreat.)
I was once such a person myself -- obsessively recounting, to my patient but no doubt weary friends, the injustices, as I perceived them, of the man I'd once loved, the father of my children, the one whose face was going to be the one I looked at as I took my last breaths, if mine wasn't that, for him, first.
I have finally gotten on with my life, as they say -- preferring to concern myself with the present and the future, rather than dissecting the failures of the past -- and things took a dramatic turn for the better when I began doing that. Still, I am well acquainted with the plot of the story, as I told it, easily a few hundred times. Title: My Divorce. Hero: Me. Villain: My ex-husband. Unfortunate witnesses: Our children, aged five, seven and eleven when the whole thing started. Now in their twenties, having survived the whole mess, with their love of us both miraculously intact.
I am a storyteller by profession, so of course I got particularly good at telling this one. When someone asked me, "how did your marriage end?" I had my answer down.
We married young, my husband and me, and with no shortage of passion going for us. He was a painter. I was a newspaper reporter. We lived in New York City, but yearned for a life in the country, a home, a family. In an era when young women were more typically focused on career advancement and personal fulfillment, I burned to be a parent, and gave birth to our first child (our daughter) at age twenty four, almost a year to the day from the night of my first date with her father. In the six years that followed, her two brothers joined her.
So we had hardly known what it was to be simply lovers and partners, before we became parents. Before making the decision to marry and have babies, we had never explored the question of who would take care of them, or who would pay the bills, but how it worked out was that I kept writing magazine articles and books, and he made beautiful art works nobody bought. We came up short a lot, and when we did, I took on more work.
I told myself this was OK with me, but it wasn't. I never even kidded myself that the other part was acceptable: I took the martyr role as the main child care provider, while he stepped in on occasion -– here's a term no woman is ever likely to use -- "to babysit." He played on a softball team, went mountain biking. I stayed home with the children, and hauled them off to his games. He had a six pack. I had stretch marks.
"When do I get to go out and just have fun on a Saturday morning?" I asked him one time.
"You wouldn't know what to do with a day to yourself if you had one," he told me, and as heartless as his words appeared, he was actually right.
We argued a lot about that, and more. No doubt I was angry, resentful, bitter -- emotions I expressed with tears, speeches, and sometimes with large and dramatic demonstrations of frustration and rage. One time I held a pair of scissors to one of my long braids, announcing, "I'm going to cut off my hair." Once I upended a bottle of beer and poured it over my head. It was not a particularly successful way to get my point across.
Finding time to do our work was always a problem. Money was always a problem. Child care was a problem. Sex was a problem. We communicated poorly. (I deluged him with words. He gave me silence.)
He gave me a pressure cooker for my birthday, when I wanted a nightgown, and flowers. He marked our tenth anniversary by replastering and painting our bedroom, when I wanted to go away someplace, other than our house. I accumulated my list of grievances, and it was a long one.
We went to counseling, without much success. We talked about separating, but were haunted by the prospect of what a split might do to our children. At night, we kept to our own sides of the mattress, and days went by sometimes, in which we hardly spoke. I kept a postcard in my desk drawer, of that famous photograph by Doisneau, showing a couple kissing in the Paris subway. I wanted to be kissed like that.
In our twelfth year of marriage -- when I was thirty five years old, and our youngest son just five -- news came that my mother had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and I left home to take care of her during what would be the last summer of her life. Before I took off, I hired two babysitters to replace me. One was a married woman with two young children of her own, hired to clean the house and do the shopping; the other (our longtime teenage babysitter) was going to entertain everyone -- play games, go on bike rides, take our kids bowling, provide the fun.
Partway through that long and painful summer of caring for my mother, I came home to see my family for a few days. Setting down my bags in the kitchen, I looked out the window to the field behind our house, and saw my children playing. And a few feet over, my husband and our beautiful young babysitter, looking at each other and laughing in a way he and I had not done in a long time.
That night, when I asked him about her, he didn't say much, but when I asked if he had fallen in love with her, he didn't deny it. I told him I wanted to save our marriage (for no better reason, I think now, than because another loss at that moment seemed intolerable), he said he was done trying to work things out. We'd been unhappy long enough.
So that fall, two hard things happened, within a week of each other. My mother died. And I moved out of our house.
And though I concealed, from our children, the part about our babysitter, all of this became a part of the story I recounted to sympathetic friends.
"I was mistreated" was my message, and of course, my friends (and the series of supportive-seeming men who came into my life over the years) all agreed that this was so.
These other men would do better, they suggested, and in many ways, many of them did, for a while anyway. These men kissed me the way that couple on the postcard did, and brought me flowers, and since we had no children together, there could be no arguments about child care, or who paid for the orthodontist. But though none of my relationships with any of these other men ended in the manner that my marriage had, neither did any other of those men go on to become my life partner. There are many ways, of course, for a relationship to fail, and infidelity, or neglect, is only one.
Here's something that happens, over the years, in the aftermath of a painful divorce. (There's a redundancy for you. A divorce.) Maybe because the actual events were so hard to live through, you stop revisiting them, and instead, you revisit only the story you have come up with, to explain what happened. The process is not unlike how the perceptions of our childhood and youth come to be based less on actual memory than on photographs in the family album -- memories of memories. In the same way, the story of how a marriage played out, and most of all, how it ended, may be obscured by the story we form to make sense of it.
I got mine down, and I hauled it out many times over the years: the part about my having to earn the money, the part about getting a pressure cooker for my birthday, and a plastering job for our anniversary, the part about walking into the house and seeing the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, baked by the babysitter.
Among the stories I recounted over the years, there was a little trilogy involving the births of our children, in which, once again, the man I'd been married to took the role of the bad guy. Our second child, our son Charlie, was born at home, and because the birth had come on with extraordinary swiftness, I had found myself about to deliver our son with the midwife still a half hour's drive away, and nobody present but my husband. He had responded to the situation by telling me he needed to step outside for a minute and have a cigarette.
It was everything a man shouldn't do with a woman in labor, and I had suffered it greatly.
The story didn't even end with my son Charlie's birth, in fact. Two years later, I would go on to say, I was once again giving birth. This time, my husband had stayed at my side, for the birth of our third child, second son. This time, nobody smoked. The trouble came after. The day after our youngest son's birth, the very day of our daughter's sixth birthday party, she took a fall on her new rollerblades and broke her arm. Two days after that, my husband took off to attend an art show in Georgia for five days, leaving me to care for a six year old in a cast, and a two year old and a newborn.
But it was what happened after that which formed the climactic moment in the story: he'd returned home, just as the rescheduled birthday party was to take place. With twenty children coming to our house next day, he'd left to go skiing -- making the observation, as he departed, that I was always hard to deal with when I was arranging a birthday party.
That afternoon, the call came from the ski slope: he'd fallen badly, and not simply broken his wrist, but shattered it. It was unclear whether my artist/athlete husband would ever have the full use of that hand again.
In the end he did, but only after expensive surgery that nearly bankrupted us, and months of recuperation during which all of his energy had gone to physical therapy and rehabilitation, with little left for our children, and nothing for me.
I always say, when talking about the art of storytelling -- fiction or nonfiction, either way -- that a crucial element is what you choose to tell and what you leave out. The filmmaker establishes point of view simply by placement of the camera: where to zoom in, how to light the actors, what music will play on the soundtrack, even. Even with documentary, we're not getting the whole story, ever. Only the story the director wants us to see. Only the story, as he or she sees it.
It took me a long time to admit this, but the same could be said of my own most well-known oeuvre, The Divorce Saga. (Most well known to myself, anyway. The one I've been telling for close to two decades now.)
The Greeks had their mythology. I had mine. There comes a point when the story takes on a life of its own, and it is hard to know the full truth anymore, if you ever did.
I know now there was another side of the story. When I told talked about the divorce, I omitted this part. Not just to keep my listeners from considering certain details, but more destructively, to keep them from my own scrutiny too.
It is the part my former husband would spin -- if he were the type to regale sympathetic listeners with a saga, himself, which he is not likely to do. And in this one, I am a less heroic figure. Not simply a long-suffering victim, but a woman who engaged in her own brand of hurtful behavior, inflicted wounds on the marriage, as damaging perhaps as those of her partner.
Rewind to the spring when I was thirty one years old, the seventh year of our marriage. Six weeks after my husband smashed his wrist -- seven weeks after the birth of our third child -- I was on a highway coming back from New York City late one Friday afternoon, with my infant son in the seat beside me.
I'm sure I was feeling neglected and put upon. I was tired from three long days of working in the city, cleaning up manuscripts for a women's magazine. It was a job I'd taken on, with a certain weariness and regret, as the medical bills for the wrist operation piled up. For three days a month, now, I made the round trip to New York City this way, to sit in an airless cubicle and ghost write articles for a magazine designed to help women take charge of their lives, even as my own spun more and more out of control.
Now the three days were finished, I was heading home with my son (a nursing baby, he came with me everywhere) and I was exhausted. And though I didn't tell myself this, no doubt I was angry too.
Just as I reached the New Haven exit, I remembered that this was the weekend of my husband's tenth Yale reunion, and that a bunch of his old friends would be there. The thought came to me to pull off the highway, have dinner, show off our baby, before heading back on the road for the last few hours of the drive home. But who knows, maybe I was thinking something else too. Maybe I was enjoying the picture of getting, from my husband's classmates, a kind of tenderness and support that had been lacking in my life with him, for a while.
One of the people in attendance at this reunion dinner was an old friend of my husband's, whose wife had recently died of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of thirty one. He and I barely knew each other. We had met at the funeral, in fact, only a few weeks earlier. He was my husband's friend, more than mine.
Now we sat together at dinner, he and I. And in a way I only came to understand, years later, we recognized each other: two lonely people, each one grieving a different kind of loss and heartbreak. His was the death of the woman he loved. Mine, the dream of the marriage I didn't have -- the kiss in the subway, and the husband who would stay home and help with the birthday party, rather than go skiing.
Over dinner, and a glass of wine, we talked about our lives, with a kind of naked trust I might not have possessed, if he weren't a new widower, and I, the mother of a newborn son. Over dessert, and a second glass of wine, he asked if he could hold my baby, and he did. By the time the meal was over, I knew I was too tired, with too much wine in me, to drive back home that night, so he walked me over to the dormitory where attendees at the reunion were housed, to find me a room.
Then we were sitting on a hard little single student cot, and then we were kissing. Then I pulled out a drawer, from the dormitory bureau, and laid it on the floor, with a folded up towel in the bottom, and set my baby son inside. Then I lay down beside the young man, still raw with grief from his wife's death, and spent the night with him.
In the morning, I drove home to my family. At her school picnic later that day, I remember my six year old daughter commenting on a red mark on my neck. It was where the widower had kissed me, the night before.
My husband's widowed classmate paid us a visit that summer, and when my husband suggested that he might like to stay on for a while with us, nobody argued. All that summer -- as my husband continued to rebuild his shattered wrist, and I cared for our newborn baby, and my other two children -- it was the widower who kept me company, coming along with me when I brought the children to the beach, or preparing dinner.
On rare occasions, we'd head out by ourselves to the waterfall down the road, or to a brook I knew, in the woods behind our house. "Affair" strikes me as an odd word for what took place that summer, but if my husband were telling the story, he could call it that. Though the better terms for what going on would be "betrayal," "abandonment." The very words I later used, in my head, to describe what he had done to me.
When the summer ended, the young widower returned to New York City, and slowly resumed his life. I stayed in my lonely marriage -- lonely for us both, I now recognize. The only indication that anything unusual had happened that summer lay in how we never talked about it, how his friend's name never came up, until the day -- a full two years later -- when my husband asked me, in the middle of an argument, if something had been going on between me and his friend that summer, and I told him yes.
We never spoke of it again, until a few years after that, when our marriage was breaking down for the last time, and we were in counseling, and I brought it up, because he hadn't. Otherwise, the fact of my infidelity lay like a piece of rotten food in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, or a pair of blood soaked gloves, in the back of a murderer's garage.
And when I think back over the many small deaths it took, before our marriage was finally, irretrievably, over, the events of what happened that long ago spring and summer, with my husband's newly-bereaved friend, are as much a part of the list as the one -- much more prominently featured over the years of my storytelling -- about the night of Charlie's birth, and the broken wrist on the ski slope, and the babysitter.
Selective editing. It transforms the story, of course, and not just for the listeners. For the teller, too. Because every time, over the years, that I recounted my version of our divorce, I locked it more firmly in place, until it was hard to remember what I had ever loved about this man, what had been good, and what aspects of what had not been good were my fault, as much or more than they were his.
Anger and bitterness breeds more of the same. I look back with huge regret now, on the years from age thirty five to forty eight or so, as having been filled with a foolish and wasteful measure of self -- righteousness and blame. The fact was, the man to whom I was once married, and I, both did a poor job of treating each other with love, a poor job of being partners to each other. We knew nothing of stepping outside of our own stories with sufficient imagination and compassion to recognize what the other person's story might have been.
Somewhere around age fifty -- having lived longer divorced from him than I did, married -- with our children in their twenties, and the son who was born the night of that costly cigarette approaching the age his father was, the night he said "Let's get married and have babies" -- something changed, finally.
I was immersed, that year, in writing the story of a woman my age who had murdered her husband after a thirty year marriage. (With a hatchet, yet.) And so I was thinking a lot about rage, and bitterness, and the stories we tell ourselves about what was going on in our lives, that may be easier to stomach than the truth.
The story of this particular woman, the murderer, was that her husband had been abusing her for years -- an idea only one of the couple's two adult sons supported, while the other laid out a very different version of what had gone on in their family all those years. And though I had entered into my exploration of the tragedy with a certain predisposition to sympathize with the wife, I ended up viewing her as a liar. Though I knew too, she probably believed her own story, she'd been spinning it so long.
It was around this time that I found myself having a conversation with a young woman going through a divorce -- and practically dripping with bile, she was so angry at her children's father. The thought came to me that I must have been a woman like her once, and I was ashamed.
I looked at my children -- at how they loved their father, and at the kind of adults they'd become, many aspects of which were easily attributable to him -- and because I loved them so much, I had to love those parts of the man who'd produced them. So many things about them -- the way they tackled demanding physical endeavor, the unconventional eye they brought to the making of art, or music, or the formation of ideas -- were things I had once loved about him. Even the part of our life that had caused me so much grief in the past -- the shakiness of our finances, over the years, and my husband's role in that -- had, in some ways, contributed to a set of values in my children that I felt proud of now: their refusal to view material success and comfort as the measure of a person's worth, or to determine his or her happiness.
I looked around, at all the trouble people I loved were struggling with: health problems and money problems, career disappointments, depression, ailing parents, sadness over what was happening in so many parts of the planet -- and the idea that I would still be sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, recounting the story some injury inflicted over two decades back, seemed petty and foolish and wasteful.
I was sick of my story. And if I were truly to hold onto the habit of talking about it, I knew, I would have to add the other part to my telling: the part that I had played in the whole mess. The betrayal that was mine.
My children had evidently forgiven me for the many years they'd lived through, of witnessing my anger at their father. It seemed fair to forgive him, then. It had never occurred to me before, but I needed his forgiveness back.
This wasn't a totally new concept, I should add. Many times, over the years, I'd imagined a scene in which some large and dramatic truce occurred between my children's father and me -- something along the lines of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.
More than once, I delivered some dramatic pronouncement: I won't talk about it any more. One time, I concocted the plan that we might all of us get into a raft, in class five rapids, and barrel down the American River together (or cross the San Francisco Bay in a kayak, to Angel Island). If we could traverse some large and chilly and even dangerous body of water, and reach dry land, maybe then it would be over, I thought, though each of my plans was rejected, ultimately, and wisely too, I suspect.
But when the sense of forgiveness finally overtook me, I felt no need for large dramatic gestures. I didn't call anyone up and talk about it. I did not notify my ex husband that a change of attitude had occurred. It was enough to know this was so.
There was a time, when people asked why my marriage ended, when I used to say, "My husband fell in love with our babysitter." But this was not the answer, any more than it would have been the answer to tell them, "I had an affair with his friend." It was never about the babysitter, or about the young widower, or about the cigarette, or about his playing softball and my folding laundry, or my earning the money and his not doing that, or my failure to recognize -- as I do now, so many years later -- that plastering the bedroom, slowly, and carefully, by the old traditional method, to mark your tenth anniversary, was in fact a beautiful gift. And one I rejected.
Though in another way, that was it precisely. What he offered, I didn't value. What I offered back, he also missed. We were two people who loved each other, I think, but we had such different ideas about how to express it. The other people we sought out (both of them long gone from our lives now) were really just a way of making the connection, somewhere, that we couldn't make with each other.
I was in Michigan recently, researching the book about the woman who murdered her husband, and talking with a young man, age nineteen, who had loved and admired the murdered man. This young man was debating whether or not to trust me enough to participate in my book. So he had agreed to meet me at a restaurant, for the purpose of putting a series of questions to me, he said.
I had supposed he'd be asking about my career, my previous books, my credentials as a journalist. So it took me by surprise when this not particularly savvy or worldly young man had begun his interview of me by asking, "Why did your marriage end?"
It was a question I'd considered a thousand times, of course, and one for which I'd supplied abundant data, over the years, in coffee shops like this one, on a few hundred blind dates and visits with friends. Now he was asking, I suppose, as a way of assessing where my loyalties might lie in the story of this particular disastrous marriage I was writing about. Maybe he wanted to know if I'd been a battered wife, and therefore, inclined to sympathize with a woman who claimed to be one, herself.
But the fact was, his question left me without words. I sat there in the coffee shop, unable to form a single sentence. Something about the openness and guilelessness about this young man's face, and the simplicity of what he was asking, made it unthinkable to haul out my old stories.
"We both screwed up," I finally told him. Nothing particularly profound there, But it was true.
Alright, he said. Then, evidently believing my story, he told me his. And we moved on from there.