Salmon a.k.a. Unmarried

My house guests are calling me a freak. They’re laughing as they say it and I’m laughing, too, because I knew it was coming and, frankly, I’ve been called worse. I just told them about my evening’s dinner plans and they can’t get their heads around why I’d want to spend Friday night at the home of a happily married man and his three kids, whose wife, by the way, is out of town. “I love his cooking?” I say, hoping the statement, if posed as a question, might encourage empathy on their part, or at least an end to the ribbing.

For years, I’ve been getting grief from relatives and friends about this guy. He and I talk on the phone several times a week, meet for coffee on occasion (we go Dutch), email and text regularly. He knows and likes my boyfriend; even gave a bicycle to my boyfriend’s son. His wife and I buy each other gifts.

I can’t tell you exactly when our relationship evolved into the mature and thoroughly enjoyable union it is, only that I dreamed for years of this very thing with this very man. This man whose kids are my kids. Whose house was once my house, too. This man I was married to for 21 years.

I can tell you, from my professional life writing about relationships, and my personal life living in the middle of many, that we aren’t the only exes navigating this peculiarly pleasant state, once released from the bonds of holy matrimony.

I can tell you, too, that while I have never bought Ritalin from the neighbor boy, (or propositioned him for sex) I might as well have from the reactions I get when sharing the unseemly news that my ex and I get along well, that we live six blocks apart and celebrate holidays and our kids’ birthdays together.

That is so weird! Your kids must be so confused! You must secretly want to get back together!

No. No. And really no. What we wanted, actually, was to get on with the tasks of daily living with our imperfect selves, and more important, our precious children’s selves, in as few shards as possible. Early on, when our grief was big and ugly and unshakable, we had no idea how to get to this place. Didn’t, in fact, know that it existed in the world.

Now that we’re here, we’re like those obnoxious couples who just returned from a 10-day Alaskan cruise: You HAVE to experience it for yourselves!

I can hear you out there screaming. You will NEVER EVER !! give that bastard the satisfaction. And I am here to push back. I am here to tell you that it may take months — or years — and many co-pays to a baseball team of therapists. But, if you can get to the other side, you will breathe more deeply than you have in years. You will be able to focus on what matters, what you really want, always wanted, from your life going forward. Your children will be far better off. Your whites will be whiter, too.
A story: I’m standing in front of my open refrigerator, studying the possibilities. I am now living in an arrangement known as “bird-nesting.” This is when a married couple, too frightened and confused to fully pull the plug, decides to separate, but still has one ounce of wherewithal left to keep the kids’ needs front and center. Instead of moving them from hysterical house to hysterical house, the parents move in and out of the family home and, in our case, a one-bedroom condo a few blocks away.

We’ve been at this for months, experimenting with not being a union. Tonight, though, I know it’s over. I know it’s over because of the plump piece of salmon, seasoned with rosemary and olive oil, wrapped in plastic on one of the nifty glass plates we purchased in a hurry from IKEA to set up this second home. In theory, our deal is that we move in and out of this condo like members of the Cat in the Hat team. You’d never know either of us had been here. In practice, he forgot to clean up. Hence, the salmon. My ex has a lot of fine qualities, in addition to the ones that tempted me to kill him, but the one I miss most is his ability to cook like Bobby Flay. Apparently, he’s cooking for someone else now.

The million-dollar question is: Am I going to be a Big Girl and eat it anyway? I promise to answer that, but first, a brief history of how we got here.
We met on a blind date and married on the late side (I was nearly 27, he was 31), ready to commit, eager to start a family. We were good people from good families with similar religious upbringings. But looking back, I realize that the noise between us began even before marriage, a low rumble we ignored effectively. I needed lots of space. He felt abandoned. I was an extrovert who thrived on friends and social engagements. He thrived on ideas, preferring to stay home to create, fix, think. I couldn’t balance my checkbook and, recklessly, didn’t care. He had an advanced degree in finance and cared very much.

We carried on. Kids keep couples busy. Jobs keep couples busy. Societal and familial pressures keep couples busy, and married, too.

As our three children grew older, the rumble grew to a roar. We were fighting all the time, exhausting each other. But we refused to say the D word. Instead, we began a painstaking journey to save our marriage because we were going to save our marriage. Maybe we just suffered from lousy communication. We’d get better! For a year, we carved out two hours every Sunday to practice the art of talking to one another without feeling small and bad, filling notebooks with Harville Hendrix-y dialogues and ‘I’ phrases. “When I hear XXX, I feel YYY.” Every time we spoke those words, though, the tensions between us grew closer to snapping.

Still, we hung tight, shifted to another strategy. We’d stop expecting so much. All marriages experience libido shifts, job and money stresses, boredom, fantasies about other people…Right?

Eventually, though, even people who knew us best and loved us most were starting to believe that our struggles weren’t acute, but chronic. As one of our most perceptive marriage therapists asked us, “Has the milk been out too long?” In other words, how many years can two good people run on emotional empty before somebody tries to fill up elsewhere?

The questions roared inside our heads, accompanied by a constant drum beat: Our kids. Our kids. What about our kids? Ultimately, we decided that staying was riskier than leaving. We needed to end the power struggle and free each other. We knew it, and yet, we cried all the time.

People often tell me that we can have this enviable (and odd) post-marital relationship because each of us wanted to divorce. I respond with a challenge: Imagine a patient who is chronically ill. The patient is, in fact, dying and you know it. But you love this patient with all your heart and for years you do everything you can to keep this patient alive. You seek out the finest experts, no matter the cost. You read every handbook. You try experimental therapies. On the patient’s good days, and there are many good days, you celebrate and tell yourselves, “See! It’s going to be all right!” Then the patient relapses and you are forced, ultimately, to face the truth.

When the patient dies, I assure you that the grief is no less wrenching, the blame no gentler. On brave days, when I look back at my voluminous journal entries from those dark days, I cannot believe that despondent person was me.

“…instead of my usual “you-fucker” phone call, I just left and cried in my car…”
“…had every anxiety dream in the book last night. Planes crashing. Wounded people…”
“I feel myself getting more and more crazy inside…”
I’m going to bust your other big belief, too: “You can do this because there was no affair.” But I do know people, not lots of people, admittedly, but people who do get to this place despite heart-breaking infidelity. It’s because they finally understand that the “other person” is rarely the reason. The reason is you and you, who did not know how to love the other in the way he or she longed to be loved.

The marriage of my friend, Max, imploded after his wife confessed to an affair with a co-worker she believed was her soul mate. In the early days, I called him long-distance twice a day to make sure he was getting out of bed. I reminded him to eat but he didn’t listen, dropping 25 pounds in three weeks. His grief was so thick he could barely breathe through it. “I never wanted to see her again,” he said, “but we had this child together.”

Slowly, they worked their way back to a civil co-parenting relationship. They moved five blocks apart, threw birthday parties together, even shopped for groceries together on occasion. And over the years what had been merely civil began to seem genuinely pleasant. Today, both are in better-fitting relationships, and they interact like old friends, free of the passion, yes, but of any hint of anger, too. Their son is a well-adjusted, focused teenager keen on, and non-judgmental about, the complexities of human relationships. If I hadn’t observed them – seen what they could do – I would never have believed it possible.

The key to getting there is what we tell our kids: Practice, practice, practice. Show up at the soccer game or the wedding of mutual friends (but get a fabulous facial first, if it helps). Keep your distance. Smile. Then, bolt, have a drink. Next time, sit closer, maybe a row back, smile. Say hello. Then go home and scream into your pillow. I swear to you it does get easier.

The first time we all had Thanksgiving together at the home that was once mine and was now shared by my ex’es fiance, I smiled, ate nearly all the sweet potatoes, drank too much and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I still laugh at this journal entry: “For a few days, I wanted to end all the kumbaya shit.”

It was no easier for her, certain as she was that he and I were going to fall back into each other’s arms at any minute (never happened). The first time she saw me pulling up in my car at the house to pick up the kids, she took off running. (She laughs about that now).

Today, I honestly look forward to our extended family gatherings. And that’s what we’ve become. An extended family. It’s still awkward at times, and we know that there are boundaries we must never cross. When they announced their engagement, many friends asked me if I would attend the wedding. In fact, my ex asked me if he was supposed to invite me. We could have pulled it off, but why? It was her day. Instead, I hosted family members at my house and listened to my 10-year-old daughter share Every Single Detail, responding with great big oohs! And ahhs!. But when my ex’es new step-daughter married eight months later, I was among the small number of honored guests. I had a blast, drinking, dancing, sharing their joy. Nothing quite like a family wedding where you don’t have to plan or pay for a thing.

We do Thanksgiving and Hanukkah together with everybody’s kids. But when I turned 50, I threw myself a big bash with a swing band and fabulous Greek food and told him I wasn’t inviting him. Boundaries. He laughed and bought me an expensive bottle of wine.

Sometimes, I still hurt. I wonder why he never drank coffee with me (“Hot, brown water,” he called it) but he now owns a fancy coffee maker for their forays with big mugs onto their backyard patio. I wonder when his bad knees that prevented him from running with me turned strong enough to run several times a week with her. Mostly, though, I feel grateful for the bigger stuff, like a son who thanked us at a family holiday dinner because “none of my friends has what I have.”

Here’s what I think: I think that life is too short to be pissed off forever. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be pissed off at all. I’m all for it. I think you should be so pissed off, or so despondent, that your ribs rattle, you lose sleep, lose your voice from screaming, hate him, long for him, then hate him some more. I think it’s fine to have airplane crash fantasies.

But then you need to pick the date when you’re going to stop all that. When you stop losing yourself. When you start again to remember who you are and what you want. Now. Because holding that grudge forever is “rather like eating rat poison and thinking the rat will die.” That’s from Pema Chodron’s book, “The Places That Scare You,” and it’s my favorite quote these days.

The place that scares me most is the sad and lonely place I left inside my soul. I don’t plan to return. Yes, I gave up the family home and bought myself a far smaller condo. Yes, I have to be more careful with my money these days, but who doesn’t?

The biggest reward is that when I finally was at my best, when I finally knew what kind of love I wanted, I walked into a bar one day to meet a man I’d been fixed up with by that modern matchmaker, Yahoo Personals. We’ve been together, happily, for four years.

Therapists like to say that marriage has three truths — his, hers and the one in between. As the years pass, the fog is lifting around that last truth. But there is only clarity about how my ex and I are moving forward. I can still count on the man I spent half my life with.

So, about that salmon.

Yes, I ate it. Mostly. I pulled it out of the fridge, placed it on the counter and chopped it into little pieces. Then I added it to a salad. It was delicious.

I didn’t throw it all away. I took the best parts of it and made it mine.