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When my husband leaves me, he doesn't even realize it's our anniversary. Not our wedding anniversary. It's 20 years to the day we became a couple, when my 17-year-old self called to invite him to a New Year's Eve party I was throwing solely to see him while I was home for winter break.
It was during that phone call that we finally spoke of the fact that I'd been in love with him since I was 12 years old. I held my breath as he revealed that despite our four-year age difference, he could finally see the possibility of a future for the two of us.
Twenty years and two children later, the only man I've ever loved walks out our front door for the last time, closing it softly behind him.
Now it's "my" front door. One that from now on my husband -- let's call him M. -- will knock on when he comes to pick up our boys, instead of simply entering, to enfold me.
It's easy to recount the moment that a frayed rope finally splits in two. It's so much harder to explain what caused that first microscopic tear, which made room for the next two hundred, which made room for the next two thousand.
Could it really be that a marriage ends because one person usually feels like staying in and the other feels like going to the movies (and would it kill you to see a movie with subtitles before we die)? Because one is a saver and the other a spender? Because one wants to make a big deal out of Valentine's Day and the other forgets, and it's not the one you think? Because one really wants to read in bed, and the other really wants to not read, and it's late and I'm so tired and do we have to discuss this again right now? Could it really be?
Just as the beginning of a marriage is not one moment -- the kiss at the end of the ceremony -- neither is its conclusion as simple as the kiss-off at the end. The disentangling of two lives is a series of moments, each more surreal than the next. This is the story of those moments.August 2, 2008
M. and I are alone in the family room, arguing over something so insignificant that I can't even recall it.
It's not particularly heated.
He looks at me and says, "I want a divorce."
"Okay," I reply.
This isn't the first time either of us has brought up divorce. We knew we'd have to consider it if the silence and stonewalling didn't stop. But this is the first time that one of us truly initiated it.
M. wilts on the chair across from me and reveals that he has already seen a lawyer. This, more than anything, shocks me. This shows intent. This is premeditated.
Getting a divorce requires collecting information. I need a guide to this foreign land, a Lonely Planet Guide to Divorce, or a Let's Go: Hell. In my bedroom late at night, I scour websites for information on custody, child support, alimony. I don't understand the jargon. It occurs to me that getting a divorce is not unlike being diagnosed with a terrible disease. You have to learn a new language you had hoped to go your whole life never knowing. You have to hire experts and pay them lots of money. You have to deny, rage, bargain, despair, accept.
The computer screen blurs. I clear out my search history and switch off what used to be our bedside lamp.
M. is asleep across the hall in what we refer to as his "office" but which now contains a bed.October 4, 2009
I'm driving the boys to a birthday party about 20 minutes from home. M. was supposed to come along, too, but at the last minute he backed out -- he had errands to run. At a stoplight a block from the party I happen to see a man who walks like M. emerge from the door of an apartment building. He holds a sheaf of rental literature. I see, but I don't really see, that this man is wearing the jeans I bought him last month. The car behind me honks. My foot somehow knows to press the pedal.December 7, 2009
M. comes home from work early so we can get the legal separation agreement notarized at the bank. He's agreed to almost everything I asked. We split our assets; he'll financially support me and the boys, then 5 and 8, until they graduate from high school. He'll pay for college. Essentially, he honors the pact the two of us made during our happier days -- that I'd be a stay-at-home mom until the kids grew up.
We share legal custody. I get sole physical custody, but the boys will spend three nights a week with him. M. gets to work around the clock to support two households instead of one. His every moment is accounted for; meanwhile, I get free time while the kids are at school and when they're with him. "All this," I inform M., with too little appreciation for what it's costing him to do right by me and our sons, "is the price you'll pay for your freedom."December 23, 2009
We deliver The Speech to the kids as we rehearsed it yesterday with a therapist. Our story is that the divorce is not M.'s fault. Nor is it mine. We simply failed, together. Fate handed us lemonade and we somehow turned it into lemons.
Later we take the boys to M.'s new apartment. I'm shocked at what a great job he's done decorating. There's an exquisite leather couch in the living room, the kind I always vetoed because it was too expensive.
Tonight M. will spend his first night in his new home. Tomorrow morning he'll pick up the boys from my house and take them to spend their first night with him, in the new apartment that Santa brought our family this year.December 29, 2009
In an attempt to pull myself together I decide to go work out at the gym. I get in the car but it won't start. The battery is dead because I left the interior light on. This is where I'd normally call my husband, but this isn't his problem. Also, I don't have a husband.
I walk next door, where four recent college grads -- Dave, Nate, Larry, and Laurence -- live. Laurence is home and sweetly offers to jump the car. Between tries, we stand facing each other, and for some reason I blurt out, "I've never had to deal with this alone before. My husband just left me."
Poor Laurence is stunned. We have exchanged just a few smiles and hellos in the six months we've been neighbors. He reassures me that M. will certainly be back. When I shake my head, he becomes more determined than ever to bring my car back to life.
Later, during the record blizzards of 2010, Laurence and his roommates, unbidden, shovel me out after every snowstorm. They accept nothing in return but some meager offerings of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.January 5, 2010
One of the first things I do to flex my independence is to cancel my TV service. I've never been a fan, but with another adult in the house, you can hardly make such decisions unilaterally. Now I can, so I do.
Many friends exhibit more disbelief over the end of my TV service than the end of my marriage. Makes sense, I guess. Half of us eventually ditch our spouses. But who gets rid of her TV?
I'm at the Gap, where I stumble upon a clearance rack with a dozen pairs of men's pants marked 90 percent off. Five of them are in M.'s size.
I've been buying his clothes since we were engaged. The day M. showed up at my parents' house to ask them for my hand in marriage, he was wearing acid-washed jeans with a matching jacket. After that day he let me take over his wardrobe.
The pants are $4.99 each. I take them off the rack. I put them back on the rack. I take them off again. What's the etiquette of buying clothes for a man whose earnings pay your credit card bill; who is still your husband, but not really? I take the pants to the register.
Later I call a friend and tell her what I've done. I ask her if it's weird. "Yes," she sputters. "Don't give them to him."
"I couldn't not buy them for $5!" I reason. "If I hadn't bought these, then the next time he needed pants he would have bought them for $50 each, and that would have been $250 less that could have been spent on our kids."
Silence. "Okay," I sigh. "It's weird." In the end we decide that the kids will give the pants to M. for Father's Day.February 20, 2010
M. is proving himself to be the best ex-husband a girl could ever hope for. It's not just that the checks arrive on time. It's that he e-mails me pictures and updates of the kids when they're with him. It had always been my job to make sure the boys saw their grandparents regularly, but now he takes the kids to visit his parents weekly -- and he stops by my parents' house on the way home. He even invites my parents to spend time with the kids at his apartment. I explode in frustration: "Why are you doing all of this now? Why weren't you this great when we were married?"March 21, 2010
I've been on Facebook for six months and only recently discovered, quite by accident, that M. is on it, too. In an unhinged moment of trying to show how evolved I am, I send him a friend request. He e-mails me saying he'll accept the request -- as long as I don't mind seeing that his status is listed as "single."
I don't reply.April 3, 2010
A friend is visiting while the kids are with M. "You look good," she says. "Everyone who's heard about your divorce has been surprised, because they say you've never looked better."
"I've never felt better," I tell her honestly. "In these last few months I'm happier than I've ever been. I've been trying to put a name on this strange, unfamiliar feeling of lightness. I think it's called 'absence of suffering.'"
I do cry sometimes, I tell her, but they're cleansing tears -- not the black tears of depression.
"Well, whatever it is, keep it up," she says. "It's nice to have the old you back."April 5, 2010
While spinning on the tire swing at the park, my younger son throws up. He's not feeling well, and the pediatrician is available in two hours. Just enough time that it makes no sense to go back to my house, when we're already so close to M.'s apartment and to the doctor's office. I call M., and we head to his place.
We usually do the handoffs at my house, so this is only the third time that all of us have been here. I deposit my son in the tub, then throw his clothes in the washer. I fill up the load from the hamper next to it. And I reflexively empty the dryer.
M. is sitting just a few feet away. "You don't have to do my laundry," he says.
"I'm not." But I am. I'm doing my kid's laundry, and my husband's laundry, in a home where their things belong, and I don't. Silently, I start crying and turn my back to M. so he won't see. But I can't turn my head too far, because then my son may be able to see me from the bathroom. So I keep my head at that funny, twisted angle, hunched over the washing machine, and sob.Today
The past two years haven't been easy -- for me, for my children, for their father. Time does not heal all wounds. But it has allowed for scar tissue to form, enough so that the wound no longer requires my constant attention. Though we've lost so much, M. and I have developed a beautiful and cooperative parenting relationship -- and even a friendship.
Still, the divorce was a death. It was the burial of family photographs with four people in them. It was the burial of my head leaning on M.'s shoulder as we watch our sons get married. It was the burial of a love that lived so deep in my bones that it was the actual marrow of my existence. It was the burial of M. holding my hand when I'm 79 and he's 83 as we sit on our old green upholstered couch, debating the cost of generic versus brand name, while he's wearing the pants I bought him, pulled halfway up his chest.
R. M. Yaqub's writing was featured in the most recent volume of The Best American Essays anthology series. She lives with her two sons in Maryland. If you think you've met her future husband, drop us a line.
She's ready to meet him.