Sundays used to find me reading the New York Times Vows column on my hand-me-down four-poster bed. The sunlight shone through the mesh and bars of my fire-escape-covered window, making a lacy pattern on my duvet that mimicked the gown of some quirky or blue-blooded bride. Sentimental tears inevitably flowed. People get married all the time, but those featured in the Vows column seemed especially to go through a portal into Happily Ever After.
I was a jaded and cynical 27-year-old who came of age in the swinging ‘90s of dot-com-boom Manhattan. But on Sundays, I reverted back to fairy tale, believing during those few minutes that love could creep in, in the form of a good and handsome man, and complete me.
I did meet and fall in love, within a matter of months, with a man who seemed the epitome of both good and handsome. My dad and my therapist both urged me to marry him, and what more did I need to hear? My eggs had begun to vibrate in my ovaries. They, along with my heart and my desire to walk down the aisle in a white confection, were telling me it was showtime.
When I finally co-starred in my own Vows Column, I was shocked at all of the people who called me, ecstatic by association.
On my honeymoon, I called my sister from a phone booth in Burgundy, cows grazing across the narrow road, so she could read it to me. I pumped francs into the slot as an old plump woman bicycled past, the morning’s fresh baguettes in her basket.
I was relieved to find that a quote from my husband’s pranksterish coworker, who’d drunkenly told reporter Lois Smith Brady that the groom liked to come over, get zooted on marijuana, and take all of his clothes off, did not make it in. And, luckily, half the column was not taken up by my mother’s overly frank reminiscences.
Yet it turned out we were really only happily married for a few hours. On my wedding night, my husband and I got into a fight in the taxi on the way home from our reception while the rain poured down and the chassis labored under the weight of wedding gifts. I don’t recall what started the argument, but I do remember that the new, impatient way he barked at me was both a surface hurt and one that sank underground and hollowed out our marriage’s foundation from the inside.
He was dear, charming, sweet, sensitive, tender, and thoughtful 98 percent of the time, but the lava of his volcanic anger, when it erupted, left ash and scorched earth all over our marital landscape. I staunchly believed that a couple should never go to bed angry. But that proved a luxury outside my grasp. Sleep quenched his rages, not rapprochement. The first time he went to sleep mid-argument I poured a cup of water on his head. He staggered to his feet, swearing. For a moment, I thought that he might kill me. He was lost, wet, and exhausted. I was desperate, grieving, lovelorn. He didn’t kill me, we did go to bed mad, and it was not the last time. I had to let go of that rule. It met its match in our dynamic. But breaking it still creamed us.
I put my energy into motherhood (two children) and throwing dinner parties. I breastfed on demand, kissed booboos, folded stacks of little undershirts, and cooked four-course meals.
He raged; I had crushes. I could keep my crushes a secret, and I also went a step further and kept his rages a secret. We probably should have brought both into the open, in therapy, for starters. I thought my crushes were harmless-the byproduct of monogamy. Keeping things spicy, sublimating desire. He thought his rages were harmless-that we were a married couple having arguments like every other married couple, and I was making a big deal out of nothing. As long as I felt like a nothing, that was a workable description. But I usually didn’t.
I started to realize that the only thing that was keeping me in this relationship was my fear of divorce. But that was like not eating my soup because I was afraid of having an empty bowl. There was no way around it. I had to go through it. As I moved out, I cobbled each day together miraculously and found it good. I was struck by the difference between how I thought I would feel, and how good I felt. I even felt OK about telling my folks, who cried. High on freedom, I took it in stride. Most of the people who asked, “How are you?” were told, “We’re living in two different houses now.” They reacted as if I had said that I’d found a lump. “But it’s fine!” I’d hasten to add. “It’s a good thing.” My son’s friend’s mom called up. “I hear things are … awry,” she proceeded delicately. “No,” I rejoined tartly. “Actually, for the first time in years, they’re not.”
Divorce was complex, rich, a mixed bag, a windfall. It was multifaceted and infinitely layered. Divorce was rad in the sense of “affecting the basic nature or most important features of something,” “making changes of a sweeping or extreme nature,” and “excellent, admirable, or awe-inspiring.”
I thought that there must be other women out there having the same epiphany, and being an editor by vocation, I decided to put together an anthology. It just so happened that the publisher who fished my proposal from the slush pile had filed for divorce that very week. Within a few months, I had stories from a wide array of women. One had left a polygamous marriage. Another divorcée met a woman online, and moved to Finland to marry her. An artist in her 60s got married at a time when she couldn’t get a credit card without a husband, and a sassy twentysomething shared how happily she takes out her own trash-in red pumps.
There are indeed second acts in American lives, surprisingly lavish in their use of song and dance. When you’re told that you can’t get there from here, keep asking.
Portrait of bride by Stockbyte/Getty Images.