By Theo Pauline Nestor
When you divorce as a forty-two-year-old mother of two, you can almost see the trajectory of your dating life stretching out before you, as solid and real as your seven-year-old car and your century-old house. As you file away the notarized papers decreeing your solitude legal, you know with complete certainty that you will be totally alone for several months or maybe even a year with not even an occasional thought of your romantic future. You will meet no one of interest in your trips to the grocery store and the library, and you do not expect to.
Around the one-year mark, friends will begin to set you up, and perhaps you will dabble in online dating on the Friday evenings when your kids are with their father. You will meet someone; he will be wrong for you in ways clear to you but not to others who are just so glad to see you “getting out again.” Suffering through long dinners and Scrabble games for the promise of mediocre sex, you will deny to yourself the ways that he is only half-right and date him half-heartedly for six months, and then, suddenly but somehow expectedly, the day comes when you never hear from each other again.
Acquaintances are nice to you because they know that this is your fate, that you are, in fact, the latest member of the country’s most congested demographic—middle-aged women in want of a good man. Nice married people think of you as someone who has it worse than they do; they treat you in the manner they normally reserve for the elderly or the terminally ill, and you do in some ways depend on the disability status that being female, middle-aged, and single affords you. No one asks if you’ll be attending this year’s school auction.
But what if, in fact, your life swerves abruptly and veers away from this dreary course? What if just months after a long marriage you fall headlong in love and you are no longer an object of pity but regarded now with some strange mixture of suspicion, guarded good will, and maybe even a little envy?
I was in what I now refer to as The Winter of My Home Improvement when news of our upcoming twenty-five-year high school reunion began to circulate among my old friends. During this home improvement season of my divorce, I channeled all my disappointment, anger, and loneliness into spackling, painting, and repairing wallpaper. I would run a roller dripping with Terra Nueva pink over a dingy wall with all the force of my being and then stand back to admire, as I kept insisting, “how much better things were becoming.” I manically charged through all the tasks that I’d been perpetually waiting for someone else to do when I was married, and it was only when I was hip-deep in some job of Herculean enormity—moving a pile of rocks from one side of the yard to the other, reorganizing all the junk thrown into the basement—that I felt any of the sense of peace and contentment that I’d once been able to garner from everyday activities like making dinner or folding a basket of laundry. Whenever my ex had the kids overnight, I obliterated the nagging sensation that I’d somehow misplaced my children by cruising the aisles of the jumbo hardware stores, filling my senses with the soft pile of carpet samples and the smell of freshly cut plywood. Yet, underneath my remodeling obsessions, I was haunted by my newfound isolation, and I immediately began to look forward to the reunion as a chance to get together with friends and warm myself around the bonfire of their company.
I didn’t give the reunion that much thought, though, until late spring, when I received a reminder e-mail. I recognized Thomas’s e-mail address on the “To” list as soon as I opened the message. Our names were side by side just as our lockers had been in the eighth grade, a coincidence of alphabet once again. We didn’t talk that much back then—just a shy word or two exchanged as we spun our combination locks. It wasn’t until a couple years after high school that our big romance ignited. We got together on a cloudy summer day for coffee at the beach and ended up spending the next year tangled up in each other, drinking blackberry tea in bed and confessing our love in three countries, chasing a dream of a life of a two-artist home, a dream we were too young to really live out but too old to dismiss. It took us all of the eighties to really break up, although we were never quite the same after our fateful re-entry into the U.S. from Australia at LAX. I went through the “US passports” line at customs and he went through “All Others.” His Canadian passport was stamped but he was granted only two weeks in the U.S. before he’d have to leave the country, me, and our Santa Fe life behind. When he left for Canada two weeks later, we broke up and spent the next six years trying to make it final, opening things up at random intervals by sleeping together and then having a fight over nothing the next morning.
In the nineties we both married other people and started families. Once in a while, he’d phone me and the room would spin until I’d catch my breath. We’d talk about our daughters and family life. When his marriage broke up in ’97, we talked on the phone until I said at last that we couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for him. His marriage was sinking, but I still had mine to keep afloat.
But now I wasn’t married. And neither was he. When I saw his e-mail on the list next to my own, I thought, Well, he can certainly see my name there just as I can see his. I went to sleep that night smug and certain there’d be an e-mail from him by morning. But there wasn’t one the next day, and I noticed that but then forgot about it in almost the same instant I rushed off the computer to get the kids ready for school. Yet, a week later, when another reminder e-mail came from the reunion organizers, I couldn’t resist the desire to e-mail him. It took me fifteen minutes to write the three-line note. His reply came a few hours later: Your “locker” is still next to mine.
Within a day we were on the phone, and once we were on, we couldn’t seem to get off. One night we talked until four in the morning and the next day we finished where we’d left off the night before. We talked of our marriages and their respective demises, our daughters, our gardens, and finally what had happened between us. He invited me to visit him, and soon I was juggling my parenting schedule, school performances, babysitters, and the favors of friends to cover my life as a single mom so I could take the two ferries and the bus between my house and his.
It was rainy as I walked off the final ferry. And I was worried and nervous and obsessing about whether or not I should put down the umbrella and let my hair get wet and frizzy or should I attempt to keep the thing aloft gracefully while also taming my clumsy rolling suitcase at the long-awaited moment of our reunion. Which hand should I carry the umbrella in? Did the rolling suitcase make me look middle aged and foolish?
And then I saw him. I saw his smile first, and then we were hugging and I reached up to kiss him and he pulled back and looked at me and then kissed me and put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me towards him. The wet black umbrella sat upside down on the dock where I had dropped it. All the little things I’d been worried about seemed from another life.
* * *
I live in a city, but it’s a city of small neighborhoods that are almost as insular and self-contained as mountain villages. It is rare for me to go to the library or the grocery store without running into someone I know. “Coming out” with my new boyfriend made me feel inconceivably brazen. It was only eight months after my husband and I separated when Thomas and I walked hand-in-hand into the local burger place, and I realized that the only people who seemed to know that my husband and I had split were those I’d actually gotten around to telling. It is, in fact, much easier not to mention that you’re getting divorced to acquaintances you bump into selecting their organic celery in the produce section. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat about the comings and goings of children than to say, “Hey that’s quite the head of romaine. Did I mention that my husband and I split up?” And who notices whether you’re wearing your ring or not? We’re all in our forties, not twentysomethings gushing over newly acquired solitaires.
My Seattle community is not prone to gossip, which I suddenly realized was somewhat unfortunate. Gossip has a distinct social function— it is an efficient and effective means of disseminating information. When you want said information to remain a secret, gossip can be a nightmare, of course, but when the news is the sort that everyone will inevitably find out—such as that of a divorce—you can almost find yourself wishing that there was someone whispering, “You wouldn’t believe what I just heard,” rather than having to awkwardly say, “Oh, we’re not married anymore” and deal with their sympathy (if you’re alone) or their open disgust (if you’re holding hands with your new boyfriend). At times, I’ve wished there were some sort of newsletter in which I could post the news of my marital disaster, sparing others and myself a number of awkward moments.
Before I was divorced, I had this naÃ¯ve black-and-white view of divorce and tended to see divorced moms as something like the untouchables, a class of people whose lives had cast them into a dark and lonely sea, perpetually just out of reach of the brightly lit shores of happiness. But suddenly I was starting to look around and realize that the divorced moms weren’t inherently more miserable than the married ones and, in fact, many of the divorced moms seemed to be unapologetically happy.
I noticed another divorced mom, Kari, the first day at my daughter’s new school. She was wearing cute low-rise jeans and a ball cap and was laughing mischievously into her cellphone while the other mothers were straightening backpacks and chatting with each other. Kari and I started talking in the parking lot and quickly exchanged divorce stories. She was a year and half further into the process.
“You seem like you’re doing okay,” I ventured, hoping for some good news about the future, I suppose.
“Well,” she laughed, “I have a boyfriend. That helps!”
“You do?” I was surprised how open she was, no tone of guilt here. I lowered my voice and whispered, “So do I.”
“Co-ol!” She called out, nodding and giving me the you-go-girl look.
A few weeks later at basketball practice, one of the married mothers, Becky, was idly cleaning out her purse as a cluster of us chatted on the bleachers, only half-watching our seven-year-olds’ attempts to dribble balls down the court. Becky, sighing, passed me a Victoria’s Secret coupon from her purse’s discard pile. “Do you want this?” she asked with a sort of despair in her voice. “I’m afraid you’re the only one of us having the kind of sex that requires good underwear.”
* * *
The rule of waiting a year before introducing a new Significant Other to one’s children is apparently so pervasive in our culture of divorce that even my friend Nancy (also separated from her husband but far too sensible to become mired in the competing voices of advice books) cited the one-year rule to me as if it had been sent forth from the Ark of the Covenant.
“Aren’t you supposed to wait a year?” was her only response after I rambled on about Thomas and his latest weekend at my house with my daughters, Grace and Elizabeth.
What happened to being happy for me? “Yeah, you are,” I said. “But sometimes your life just happens and then you have to work with that.”
For a divorced mother of two, it would seem that falling in love should have a waiting period, like the purchase of a handgun. If my life had gone the route of occasional Scrabble playing and futile dating, I know the world would still be on my side, but apparently there is something deeply disturbing about a newly divorced woman slow dancing in the living room with a man other than her children’s father.
It wasn’t just my friends, though, who were concerned about my children and how best to juggle their need to have nothing more change in their lives and my need to love and be loved. I had obsessed endlessly on the phone to Thomas about how best to tell my daughters about him, how to reassure them that I was still there for them even though I was clearly—even a six-year-old could see it—crazy in love.
My eldest, Elizabeth, tended to think of this relationship as an affair I was bold enough to have out in the open for all to see. She is nine and a half and precocious, and it is with a suspicious tone—a tone not unlike the one Rita Moreno’s character uses on Natalie Wood’s when she realizes her sister has fallen for a member of the rival Jets gang—that she asked me, “So, are you ‘in love’ with him?”
She is the girl, and I the grown woman, but still I trembled a little as I nodded my head with a yes.
She looked at me with the exasperation of a mother of a teenage girl and said, “So soon?”
“It’s not like I planned for this to happen now. If I could’ve chosen a time, I would’ve waited.”
Gracie, my six-year-old, nodded and tried to make sense of it all by drawing from her far-too-extensive knowledge of Disney films. “Yeah, in the movies,” she said, “When the characters fall in love, it just happens. They don’t know it’s going to happen.”
Elizabeth turned her frustration on Grace. “Grace, can’t you see this? Mom and Dad are a match. For every person there is just one person. Dad is that person for Mom. There cannot be another person!”
Resting her head on one hand, Grace looked strangely detached, something like the Dalai Lama, as she said to Elizabeth very calmly, “I don’t believe that. I think there can be more than one. Wait here. I’ll show you.”
Grace leaned over the front porch and plucked two waxy camellia leaves from the overgrown bush that borders the house. Carefully, she tore the first in half, but before she did this she waved the one whole leaf that symbolized her parents’ intact marriage before our eyes, like the magician’s dramatic gesture of showing nothing up the sleeves. Then, she calmly demonstrated the autonomy of the two newly freed halves and the ease with which the mother half of the first leaf was able to hook up with the male half of the second torn leaf. “See how the leaf can split in two. I think,” she paused and then continued in a measured, emphatic voice, “there can be more than one true love.”
Stunned by Grace’s demonstration and by just how far beyond my reach and control things had really gone, I sat there speechless for a moment, and then Elizabeth spun on her heel and dashed to the same camellia bush to yank off another leaf.
“Well, this is what I think,” she said, looking me right in the eye as she waved her leaf in my face. “This was Mom and Dad.”
She then shred the leaf violently into minuscule pieces, shouting, “This is them now.” I was terrified of her anger and the enormity of the situation. I knew all the anger she felt was justified, and I knew too that I was the one who had set the match to this blaze of emotion. But as scary as that was to realize, I also felt genuinely relieved. Maybe now we could start to move forward. I pulled her close to me and held her for a long time while she cried and cried, and I said the words I could only hope were true: it’s okay, it’s okay, it really is okay.
* * *
The first few times that Thomas came to visit when the kids were home were at times akin to a root canal, a thing to be endured so that life could be better later on. He slept on the couch because it seemed too early for him to be sleeping in the same bed Mom and Dad had slept in together less than a year earlier. I would wake up at five in the morning and creep into the living room and lie there beside him, wishing I could freeze time and stay tucked into his arms all day, but at the first footfalls upstairs, I leaped off the couch as if I’d just received an electric shock, just as I had when I was sixteen and heard my mother start down the basement stairs to check on my boyfriend and me.
It was excruciating to watch Elizabeth struggle with how to just be around Thomas. She’d cycle through a gamut of emotions, from disdain to giddiness, in five-minute intervals that were exhausting to follow. Sometimes she would be very nice to Thomas but then glare at me or say something snide when he left the room. He’d somehow return just as I’d be telling her to smarten up, and he’d look at me surprised and come over and rub my shoulders and say something like, “Hey, easy there.” And then she’d say something like “Yeah, Mom,” even daring once to add, “Why don’t you chill?” After a few hours of this, I’d go lie down in the bedroom, Thomas would come lie down beside me, I’d go to touch him—wanting more than anything to just kiss him—but then Elizabeth would plunk into my desk chair and spin, browsing with obvious glee through my normally forbidden papers until I’d find myself shouting something like, “Hey, that’s enough!” and find myself awash in remorse and guilt.
But I also knew throughout this that if I just gave the situation enough time, love, and patience, as well as the right mixture of attention and detachment, it would improve. And it did. The day before Halloween, Thomas and Elizabeth sat on the front porch carving pumpkins in the fading afternoon light. They talked in quiet voices for a long time and when I walked by once to take out the trash, they both gave me a look warning me not to interrupt them. By the time they came in, their hands were cold and it was almost dark, and there was a shift in Elizabeth—very tiny, almost imperceptible—but still an undeniable shift.
By our second Christmas as a two-home family, Thomas has been part of our lives for six months, and it is more mind bending than working a Rubik’s cube for my ex and me to figure out how, when, and where the holiday should be celebrated, despite the legal “parenting plan” that delineates the children’s movements down to the millisecond. Somehow it’s just not as simple as “on even years the children will spend the first half of the Christmas break with their father” when Santa, stockings, and a new boyfriend are all involved.
We agree somehow that Thomas will stay at my place (alone) Christmas morning, and I will come to my ex’s (where Santa has been smart enough to scout out the children and the stockings, which normally reside with me) and watch the kids open their gifts there. But then on the twenty-fourth, Thomas and I are dropping something off for the kids when Elizabeth rushes down her dad’s front steps.
“Mama, Thomas can’t stay at home alone on Christmas morning. It’s not right. I want him to come over here.”
I look up the stairs and I meet the gaze of their dad and ask with a shoulder shrug, “What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. Both of us know that’s not true.
The next morning Thomas and I walk hand-in-hand to the house where the man who used to be my husband and my two children wait for us. Inside, we will drink hot chocolate and eat muffins and then we will notice the stockings. Beside the four matching ones of a Christmas mouse, reindeer, penguin, and bear that our family has used for years, there is a new stocking, a fifth one made late last night by a nine-year-old girl who would never want anyone to feel left out.
Author’s Note: The other day Thomas and I took a walk at the beach with the girls. We sat down for a moment on a bench so Elizabeth could adjust her roller blades. When they were tightened, she leaned back into Thomas and rested her head momentarily on his chest. It was one of those breathtaking gestures that is so small and yet undeniable in its significance. Neither Thomas nor I said a word but our eyes met in that split second before she scrambled back up to her feet and began to glide along the path once again.
Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg.
Brain, Child (Fall, 2005)
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