The opposite of gifted
My husband returns from Europe with so many presents. He’s never been much of a shopper, so his thoughtfulness amazes me. Pulling one gift after another from his suitcase, he shows me the treats and souvenirs he’s picked out for friends, family, and colleagues.
When the suitcase is empty I ask the obvious question: “Did you get anything for me?” Panic flashes in his eyes as he understands, too late, what he has done. (Or, rather, not done.) He snatches up a blue sweatshirt, exclaiming, “This! This is for you!” He must think I’m simple–the sweatshirt is in his size and favorite color, and he already said it was for him.
The slip is textbook Freudian: he has bought something for everyone he cares about, except me. He could not telegraph more clearly that he no longer loves me, but–incredibly–I do not register it as such. Perhaps I am simple.
The big break
Soon after, he lands a job in England–an important one. This is his big career break, and we are ecstatic.
He jets off to take up the job. I remain behind, to wind down his business, rent out our house, put things into storage, and, once that’s all taken care of, quit my own job and join him. I don’t worry that he seems in no hurry about that last part. He seems to like the idea of having a chatelaine, someone to keep the home fires burning. I am a slow learner.
My husband returns to our English home after a long work trip, travelling around Europe for six weeks. During that time he has been in contact maybe twice. Even I can see this is an ominous sign; normally he is good about keeping in touch. I hear him open the front door and trudge up the stairs with unusually heavy footfalls–and in that moment I just know. When he enters the room I can see, by the look on his face, that he has bad news of the worst kind. I think: either he has cancer, or he wants a divorce.
That night he moves in with his lover.
Betrayal, in stripes
I find one of his cell phone bills. Sharpie highlighter in hand, I draw an orange stripe across each call and text he’s made to his lover’s phone. By the time I reach the last line, the bill is mostly orange.
A tiny diamond
At the back of his dresser drawer I find a leather-bound ring box. Inside is a gold ring, set with a tiny diamond, just a chip really. The world’s smallest solitaire. It is, all too plainly, an engagement ring.
To learn that your husband has been actively planning to marry another woman, long before he’s broken things off with you, is to stumble upon a special kind of heartache. That the ring is clearly the cheapest the jeweler could make is the only consolation I have from this tawdry discovery, and a meagre one at that.
There is little to occupy me at work. This, I have discovered, is not unusual when you’re a temp. A company hires you because they “urgently” need someone to fill a “critical” role, then you end up twiddling your thumbs half the time. Normally, that is boring and frustrating, but this week, it’s perfect. I stare glassy-eyed at my computer screen, fingers motionless on the keyboard. Sometimes I go into the ladies’ bathroom, sit in a stall and cry–awful, heaving sobs that erupt from deep within me.
Bad news is hard to digest
My body, in cahoots with my brain, is in a state of shock. I have lost the desire to eat. This could not be more unlike me; I have never been too unhappy to eat. Comfort eating, scarfing giant bowls of ice cream or mashed potatoes to try and fill the well of grief inside me, I could understand. But my appetite, like my husband, has packed up and gone.
I drop two dress sizes with no effort and no hunger pangs. This turns out to be the only painless thing about the breakup.
Some helpful advice
He stops by to collect something (Maybe that ring?), and begins to explain about my wifely shortcomings. This is not by way of picking a fight. Quite the opposite: he thinks I must be desperate to know what went wrong, and thus believes he is being helpful.
He gets only as far as “You always-” before I cut him off.
“It’s not important,” I hiss, inwardly surprised by my vehemence and certainty. “If it wasn’t important enough to discuss with me before–when I could do something to fix it–it’s not important now.”
His mouth forms an O of surprise.
The medium is the message
“We’ll always be good friends,” sobs his mother over the phone. “Nothing will change between us.” His parents are devastated by the news of our breakup. We do remain good friends, as it turns out. But that Christmas, and all the ones that follow, they send just a Christmas card. This is how I come to understand that I have, subtly, been demoted.
Location, location, location
I go to see a divorce lawyer. Her office is downtown, on the second floor of an office building. As I draw near it, I notice that her office is located directly above a bridal boutique.
Cry me a river
Sitting in the lawyer’s office, telling my tale of marital woe, I begin to cry–and cannot stop. My tear ducts are like a faucet jammed on. It’s mortifying. I recall the part in Alice in Wonderland when Alice cries an ocean of her own tears, and is swept away by it. Looking around for a tissue to blot my leaky eyes, I find there are none. The lawyer, unimpressed at her weepy client, stalks off to try and find some. How can a divorce lawyer not have a box of Kleenex on her desk?
The mystery note
I return home from work to find a note in the front door: a thick wodge of paper doubled over many times and jammed into a gap near the keyhole. I am frightened of the bad news or hurtful message the note surely contains. I consider throwing it away, unread. At length I wiggle it out from the door, dreading the contents, perhaps an eviction notice. But no, the note is from one of my husband’s workmates, Harry, sympathizing about the split. He seems genuine. But at the end of the note, he gives his number, asks me to call him. So I can cry on his shoulder, I guess.
Harry is a ladies’ man, or thinks he is. I wonder if his compassion is genuine, or if the note is a cynical ploy, grooming a sad woman for a sympathy fuck.
I don’t call Harry, but the note somehow comforts me.
At work I return from an errand and, for want of anything better to do, check the Internet. An item on the Yahoo UK newsfeed says a plane has crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York. It’s an emerging story, just a few sketchy paragraphs and a thumbnail photo of a wounded skyscraper issuing a trail of smoke. Still, something feels wrong about this urban plane crash. On a hunch, I turn on the office TV and suddenly the world appears to be ending.
People gradually set aside their work and drift across the open-plan office to the large-screen TV. We watch, horrified, as a second plane crashes into the south tower. Hands clasped to mouths, tears oozing. All the while, the news ticker at the bottom of the screen reels off one hair-raising update after the next: military jets are being scrambled … a hijacked plane is heading towards the Pentagon … another has crashed into a field. Then the towers crumble and fall amid a billowing cloud of dust, and the day becomes even more surreal. My problems are a speck of dust, compared to this.
He arrives at my place one evening, haggard and distraught. He has made certain unsavory discoveries about his lover. Also, she has cooled towards him in recent weeks, been callous even. Now they have broken up, following an ugly confrontation. He too is broken up, a wreck of a man. My predominant feeling is one of tiredness–a nine-year marriage has been shattered, and for what?
I recognize her type: the huntress. Jolene has landed her man, and now the thrill of the chase over. She has tired of him.
It is ten weeks since he left.
Back to the drawing board?
He has nowhere to stay that night, so I offer him use of the spare bed. I don’t ask if he wants to give our marriage another go; I doubt that I can forgive or forget. Plus, he might reconcile for the wrong reasons–familiarity, stability–instead of the only right one: love. Lurking, too, is the suspicion that he might decline. My vanity, already savaged, can’t face being rejected by him a second time.
No, he has won his freedom, albeit at a high price. Let him have it.
The broken home
Four weeks later I leave England and fly back to our disaster of a house. The tenants stopped paying rent a few months ago. When pressed about that, they moved out. The house is trashed.
I spend many weeks renovating it. I repair and repaint every room. I dig over the neglected garden and replant it. I hire a trailer and haul trash to the dump. Tradesmen come to fix the broken wiring and hot water cylinder. Worn, stained carpet is ripped up and springy, new carpet is laid. How I wish I could repair myself like I can repair this house.
What would Jesus do?
The plumber says he knows a family who might want to buy the house. They come and inspect it. The men wear suits, the women headscarves and long denim skirts; they come from a Christian sect known for its conservative values. Later, three men return to make an offer. It’s ridiculously, insultingly low–fifty thousand dollars too low. I respond by frostily showing them the door. Having expected negotiations to ensue, they are confused by this turn of events.
“But … but you’re getting divorced!” stammers the leader of the delegation, who is clearly their strategist. “Pitch a lowball offer,” I imagine him urging. “She’ll be in debt and have to grab it!”
Indignant, I inform them I am not cash-strapped (true, for now), the divorce is amicable (essentially true), and I will be listing the house with a realtor tomorrow (absolutely true, given their contemptible offer). I stand at the open door, scorching the Christians with filthy looks as they somberly file out.
The next morning, one of them phones to offer the full asking price. Perhaps my luck is beginning to turn.
Room with a view
The house sells, its proceeds split in separate ways, just like its former owners.
The divorce papers arrive in the mail. I regard them with amazement, perplexed at how our youthful dreams have come to this: two people legally agreeing to be rid of each other.
Taking care to hide my hands, which despite scrubbing are still ingrained with house paint, I interview for a job.
My new home is a rented room in a rambling, Victorian-era house on a hill overlooking the city. It is a happy, bustling place, with six other residents. Their liveliness helps distract me from brooding on the fact that I have basically flunked my twenties, pissed them away on a man who didn’t love me–or not enough, anyway–and am starting over from scratch, this time with crow’s feet.
My room is shabby but large, with sweeping views–views which happen to encompass the house, further down the hill, in which I was married a decade ago. But I never look at that house. Instead, I raise my eyes higher, seeking out better things to focus on.