I Found Closure with My Ex-Husband
G and I were sitting beside each other on a marriage counselor’s couch. The counselor asked, “What do you love about Dawn?”
I turned toward my husband, toward the adoration assumed in the question.
G twisted his mustache. “Come on. That’s not fair. Of course I love her. I just can’t think right now.”
If I had moved, my body would have shattered into pieces, the shards tinkling as they fell to the floor.
Some couples discern each other’s thoughts, which are written in a language known only to them. They answer questions simultaneously. I’d read in a pop-psychology book such couples seek therapy only to repair a temporary disruption in their lines of communication, perhaps caused by a financial disaster. The therapist helps them find a way through their grief to re-establish the original pair bond.
We were not one of those couples.
G had inherited thick wavy hair from his Hungarian father and fluent French from his Belgian mother, traits that charmed his female employees, who fluttered unnoticed around him. After he hired me, back in the 1980s, I fell in love with his tight white jeans.
He took me to hear the blues in a smoky bar where oversized speakers crowded an undersized dance floor. The soloist kissed the mic while trumpets, keyboard, and drums pounded a throbbing beat. A couple swayed in a dim corner, her fingers intertwined loosely behind his neck and his hands resting low on her hips. Pelvis spoke to pelvis in a secret language.
The singer’s mournful tone quivered up my spine. In my mind, I was swaying in the shadows, too, G’s hands pressing palm prints into my hips. I danced in my chair in anticipation of him leading me onto the dance floor. He drummed on the table and kept time with thumps that sent tremors through a puddle of beer, his chair angled away from mine, the back of his head in my peripheral vision. As he bounced with the music, and I flirted with the possibility of him, our shoulders brushed. I held mine against his for a beat.
We sat through the fast numbers and then through the slow ones. I knew right then his attention would always be riveted to music other than mine, but the blues drowned out my intuition. I stirred the wine in my plastic glass.
Blues bars bled into after-work coke-enhanced parties. Dating the boss, doing coke. Finally part of the in-crowd. A late bloomer rebelling in my thirties, I was giddy.
I convinced G we might as well get married.
He agreed. “I won’t do better than you.”
I waited to hear because you’re my soul mate.
The morning after he met my folks, I phoned my impossible-to-please mother. “He’s nice, isn’t he?” I waited to hear I want you to be happy, because you’re my favorite child.
The silent judging phone burned my ear. I twisted a lock of hair. Fuck. Her. She does not decide who I should marry.
I decided, even though I knew exactly what Mother had witnessed in her brief encounter with G. His posture set like a salesman reeling in a client. His face lacking the softness that would reassure a parent that the man in her living room has loved her daughter for lifetimes. As I held the phone, the scene in our living room played on a painful loop. With my eyes wide shut, I could see my future unhappiness unfurl like a carpet.
We held the wedding in the home of one of his employees. My parents did not come. The company had transferred him to another city; his new employees were strangers to me. I felt awkward, in a corner by myself, juggling a plate of snacks and a flute of champagne. But awkward felt normal.
The party eddied around me. Guests were having a raucous good time, including a woman in a fedora sitting on a couch beside G. With her hand on top of his. My gut sprang to attention. In my imagination, I marched over, removed the brazen hand, and wedged myself between The Fedora and my husband. In real life, I told myself the hands meant nothing. I stuffed outrage, then shame, and assumed the composure of a gracious bride. The Fedora and I exchanged smiles. I watched her watching me, her hand unmoving, her legs crossed. G had his back to her. He was joking with a buddy from the old days — as disconnected from the woman under the fedora as he was from me.
I knew right then buddies would command his loyalty more than I would, but someone shouted it was time to open presents. I downed another glass of champagne and took my place beside G, opening gag gifts and laughing till I cried.
I moved into his apartment, which he’d filled with collections: blues albums, metaphysical books, and Oriental rugs. The books bore opaque titles like Spiritual Materialism and Wake Up and Roar. Their pages were soft from use. I wished he read me as studiously as he read his books. Or as carefully as he read his rugs. He loved to explain knots per inch and how variations in surface coloration reflected the dye lots available to nomadic tribes. On his knees, he rubbed his hand across the nap of a prayer rug. Had he explored my skin, he would have learned a fingertip on my breastbone would melt me into surrender. He would have learned lips on my forehead would do the same, but he reserved his exploration for the rug.
He would have learned … might have learned … if I’d been a better teacher.
We entertained ourselves frequently enough to dull the ache that settled in the back of my throat. An afternoon shopping. We were simultaneously smitten by the come-hither emerald sheen of a velvet couch in the back of an antique store. We sank into the sofa’s overstuffed cushions, my fingers brushing his as we caressed the silken nap. We bought the couch, and for that afternoon at least, we were kindred spirits.
Etta James in concert. She moaned “… feel like sugar on the floor.” I twisted my wedding band with my thumb, as I reached for G’s hand. For that night at least, a singer’s heartache drowned out mine.
A cabin on Lake Superior. We hiked all day and gobbled down platter-sized trout in local restaurants. For a weekend at least, we were buddies.
Stevie Ray Vaughn live at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. I bought a black skirt that snugged my aerobics-muscled rear, a sequined tee that outlined breasts perked from curls with twenty-pound weights, and burgundy boots on high stacked heels that turned my walk into a strut. A spritz of Shalimar.
G said, “You look nice.”
Nice. He spoke in efficient monosyllables, while I craved honeyed verses that took their time.
I knew right then he’d always say nice, but I walked through the door he held open.
We shared housekeeping, and I fantasized we shared something deeper, a nesting instinct like eagles mated for life. While Otis Redding crooned about the tide rolling away, G swept a cotton cloth across the dining room table, caressing lemon oil into oaken contours. I emptied the dishwasher, feeling like I’d caught him with another woman. He watered plants, listening to John Lee Hooker wail about unrequited love, while I fixed dinner, unrequited in the kitchen.
In our eighteenth year of marriage, chronic back pain forced him into retirement. He became addicted to Oxycontin. Coke and pot had been party drugs, and the party had always ended when we went back to real life on Monday. Oxycontin was now his real life.
His mood swung from falling asleep mid-sentence to driving eighty through the neighborhood. He was in and out of rehab. I was in and out of a fantasy, where things returned to normal.
I found a new therapist and asked how I could be supportive through G’s treatment and recovery. Ten minutes into our first session, the counselor pointed his index finger at my third eye. “How long are you going to stay in this loveless marriage?”
The facts revealed themselves like a set of keys I’d misplaced and then discovered right in my hand.
I’m in a loveless marriage.
I can leave.
I will leave.
I got the velvet couch in the divorce.
G pressed for a post-marriage friendship. I pushed back. He was too closely associated with the spineless creature I used to be. To make friends with him, I’d have to make friends with her.
My temples throbbed whenever she wormed her way into my consciousness. How much had she hated herself, to have imposed an eighteen-year sentence of neglect, jealous of the rug G walked on? She was a coward. Escape was the only way to deal with her.
I took up eating and gained twelve pounds.
I took up meditation. Judgments about the coward swarmed through my mind like red ants.
I took up yoga. Week after week after week, I crashed out of tree pose. My teacher said, “Balance is all about your core.” I had no core. My center failed.
I gained three pounds.
In meditation, contemplation was interrupted by interrogation — the questions like field mice that hid under rocks and then darted into the light. Why is the coward still plaguing me? When will she disappear? Will she disappear?
In yoga, my teacher introduced us to handstand. “It’s fun,” she said. “I’ll hold you up. Who wants to try?” I hung back and then berated myself for timidity.
I lost two pounds.
In meditation, the teacher said, “Pay attention to sensations in your body.” Roiling analysis produced the sensation that my hair was on fire. But once, between flash points of pain, a breeze blew through my mind, cooling self-reproach by a degree.
In yoga, my teacher challenged me into new poses. The world went askew when I arched into backbend, the top of my head near the floor, my tender underbelly exposed and unprotected.
I gained nine pounds.
At a meditation retreat, we learned to send kind thoughts through the ether — mental telegraph messages to a stranger, to a friend, and to a foe. I had been estranged from the sad younger me. I’d considered her a coward, simply because she had been unhappy. Stranger, friend, and foe: They were aspects of myself. I sent kind thoughts to each of us.
In yoga, we learned eagle pose. Balanced on one foot, right leg wound around left leg, arms wound around each other, and hands in prayer position, I was twined around myself. An embrace. I squeezed my gut. The center held.
I had been a coward long before G had slipped a gold band on my finger, long before I’d slipped one on his. He hadn’t caused my unhappiness; our lifelines had simply intersected. It was time to acknowledge his humanity out loud.
I called him.
He said, “I’m surprised to hear from you. Thought you were pissed.”
“No. There are so many things I appreciate about you. You gave me music. Robert Cray before he got famous. Stevie Ray Vaughn. I never heard sounds like that. When you sent me Spiritual Materialism, I read it so many times, it fell apart.”
“That means a lot to me.”
It meant a lot to me, too. To say those things and mean them.
I called again a year later, after catching the final chords of an Etta James song on the radio.
“Hi. It’s Dawn.”
“Hey, man. Who’ziss?”
“Goddammit. I’m an asshole to not know your voice. S’fucked up, man.”
His harshness echoed my own voice, calling my younger self a coward. Was G as self-critical as I was?
“You okay?” I asked.
“I’m a junkie. Always have been.”
The inevitability caught me by surprise. “I’m sorry.” I said. The way you’re sorry when you learn a friend has cancer.
Through the eighteen years of our marriage, G had risen from promotion to promotion, never late to work, never absent. He’d managed his savings like a financier and retired with plenty. Yet he could not escape this slurred conversation at age seventy-five. He’d carried the junkie inside him like an aberrant cancer cell.
I pictured him — it seemed centuries ago — nodding out at our kitchen table. The image widened to include my younger self, grim-faced and ramrod straight in a chair beside him. Unworthy of a husband who didn’t nod out. Since birth, my DNA had pulled me inexorably to that kitchen table. I was a junkie for not-good-enough.
The phone grew warm, my palm moist.
On G’s end, a clatter and then muffles, before the phone got back into range. He asked, “What’s goin’ on?”
“Just checking on you,” I said.
Coughs punctuated sentences that trailed off into labored breathing. He hung up. He called back. “Anthony?” he said.
“No, this is Dawn.”
He was powerless over his affliction, as I had been powerless over mine.
It seemed unlikely G would live much longer, whether he succumbed to an overdose or to a heart attack. I wanted to pay last respects at his funeral when the time came, but how do you say let me know when you die?
“Glad you — ,” he said.
I waited for more, suspended in a space where the conversation ends while the connection remains open.
A neighbor discovered his body. Slumped at the dining room table we’d shared. OD.
Cleaning out his apartment, the neighbor gathered old photos for me (coke-fueled parties before we were married, company parties after) and stuffed them in a folder.
At home, the folder on my lap, I settled onto the couch, my hand absently smoothing the velvet. My fingertip circled a pin-sized hole where an ember from G’s Marlboro had fallen. Quarters had been found between these cushions; they’d heaved up misplaced keys, and once a gift tag from a ring he’d bought me. The couch had cared for my misplaced treasures until I was ready to reclaim them.