By Cameron Gearen
There comes a time when you’ve seen the underside of the bus too many times. When you stand up, brush yourself off, and decide you will not be near the bus when it comes flying by. That you’ll be beside it or away from there, but not under.
Three days before our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband told me he was leaving the marriage. He had talked of being unhappy for some time. We had spent years—weekly—in the office of a marriage counselor. But this time he meant it: he planned to leave. When I asked about the timing, he said he couldn’t stand to go through with the anniversary. I cancelled the hotel, the babysitter. I couldn’t return the custom gift I’d had made for him, a drawing I commissioned by his artist cousin depicting a note that was important to us both from our first months together. If you are wondering why, of two people in the same marriage, one would be commissioning art for a gift while the other would be planning his moment of exit, then you have a good point. We were not, as they say, on the same page.
Before that, many good years.
Our two daughters and I would wait for him to come home at the end of the workday. Since I was a classroom teacher, I got home first. We would sit on the front steps of our house and watch the corner for his bike to come around it. Then there was a race and happy shouts, girls running toward their daddy, my husband: he would stop on the sidewalk and ruffle their hair, listening to their important stories about their days. Up the stairs together, all four, and into the house for dinner. Even as I write this, I can still feel how much his face, his smile, him, would melt me back then.
It’s palpable, the change. Slowly he started to withdraw his hand from mine. One day we finished an errand early and found ourselves without kids, near a favorite restaurant downtown where we had a gift certificate. I suggested we park and grab a meal, just the two of us with a stolen hour. He wanted to go back home and get our kids first. Not because the sitter had to go. Like the anniversary, he couldn’t face the meal alone with me. That’s what we did. We fetched the kids, let the sitter go, and ate as a family.
Say what you like. Maybe it was the brutal cancer treatment I did, coming on the heels of some difficult years as I recovered from childhood sexual abuse. But I’ve seen other couples with as much on their plate, strengthened by the challenges, bolstered by the hard work. I’ve seen it done—with nerve and with grace.
It was probably already too late when we started couples’ therapy.
The pattern became familiar.
Our hour with the clinician began.
My husband would point out my flaw: You don’t fight fair. Something.
I’d agree with him and hustle to change my pattern. (Who doesn’t have a flaw or three?) I’d work on it hard with my own therapist for a week or two until I could shift, show progress. I loved him and I really wanted my treasured marriage to work, so I did it.
The next week he’d agree I had addressed the original flaw and improved. But he had a new flaw for me to work on.
I shouldn’t take online quizzes. I take them sometimes, looking for an answer. What changed? When I see that he gets a 25-out-of-25 as I score him for “behavior your spouse might show if he’s having an affair,” I’m sad for us. It doesn’t ring true—I don’t believe he would cheat. He says no when I ask. In my mind, I retitle the quiz “behavior your spouse might show if he has removed himself emotionally from the marriage.”
Once we moved to Chicago, we would occasionally walk with our daughters by the looming stone building with gargoyles where we spent our wedding night almost twenty years before. I remember we’d had the penthouse suite that night and I’d stood by the leaded glass windows in the dark, watching the full moon over Lake Michigan. I’d felt full of magic and promise that night, like the luckiest girl in the world: sent off by my loving family into the arms of this perfect man.
Whenever we passed the building with the girls all those years later, in the thick of the crowd on the sidewalk, I would point my daughters up to that floor, to that night, where their parents’ official union began. He would shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk on, ahead of us, silent. They knew not to ask me what was wrong with Dad. We followed in his wake.
There were so many signs, had I wished to read them.
We married in February, my attempt to add something—our love, our anniversary—to a month that, with its gray end-of-winter, wasn’t my favorite. If I disliked February before, I now loathe it. November, the month our divorce was final, bookends the grief. The specific days within those months: February 26 the delirious beginning, November 2 the sober end. Time will return the months to me. Soon I will say to myself, What day was it again? And in this way be healed.
He was livid that I sometimes took a sticker off a piece of fruit and, instead of throwing the sticker immediately away, affixed it to the side of the kitchen sink briefly until throwing it away later. Livid.
He was upset that he had to be the one to make coffee for my visiting, out-of-town friend when he thought I should have made it for her, should have gotten up a half hour earlier.
The bad years. The last ten.
Under the bus. I lived there. Thrown or situated there of my own will. Even in that ditch, I remembered my spunky self who had lost her voice.
Among the signs, according to the Internet:
One partner creates a more private life.
The hours he stayed up with his computer after I went to bed.
His refusal to introduce me to his new friends. “I’ll be back late.”
His weekly poker game to which I wasn’t invited.
His solo appearance to his work holiday party.
His refusal to give permission for our couples’ therapist to speak to his personal therapist.
Disclaimer: Yes, people do find they are in the wrong marriage. He did.
Disclaimer: People can also leave their marriage.
Disclaimer: I’m sure I have many annoying qualities.
Disclaimer: But I have great qualities too. Loving truly and never quitting are two.
Disclaimer: Yes, he can still leave. And he did.
Disclaimer: I don’t get to understand it from his point of view. But I know how I felt. I felt finished.
On the day our divorce was final, almost twenty-four years after our wedding day, I had lunch with my mother. I think I had tuna sashimi and barely touched it, took it home. I think I had wine at two p.m. I kept insisting I was fine, but some iceberg inside me was calving. Later that day, I got an email from my now ex-husband. It was about dividing bank accounts. He said that all in court had “gone smoothly.” (In Illinois, only the one who files must go to court. I stayed home.) It had been so long and, since there was no going back or changing his mind, I did want to be free, but I couldn’t help splintering a little more as I read that note from him. We had undone what we did that beautiful, snowy, hopeful February day so long ago. He did not say there were many things I loved about being married to you. He did not say thank you for the love. I didn’t say those things either. He said that the divorce went smoothly and here are the forms I should sign to divide the assets.
I stayed for my children and because I believed we were having a “rough patch.”
I am not religious, but I believed marriage was forever. At least I believed my marriage was.
I believed in our past. We had been happy. I believed that that husband would come back.
I stayed because I loved him.
February 23, 2014. We were both watching an early hockey game on TV. The weak, February sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of our rented apartment in Chicago. Our pre-teen daughters were asleep. I was on the side of the couch closest to the wall, and he was on the side closest to the doorway. He stood and turned the TV off to make the room silent. Then he told me quietly that it was over and he was leaving. He said he was leaving.
When he graduated from his Ph.D. program the year before that, a triumph even the girls had been involved in, he didn’t want us to fly and attend the ceremony with him.
Of course we would! I said. And I bought the plane tickets.
In his blue robe and cap, in all the photos, his disappointment is evident. He didn’t want to celebrate with us. Or maybe just with me. Like the anniversary, the meal out, birthdays. Like the night of Obama’s second election when I had two VIP tickets and I took a friend because he, a huge Obama fan, preferred to stay home on that same couch. My younger daughter saw me on TV that night. I was in the front row—with a friend.
Once, when I was sobbing at the mediator several months after that fateful February morning of the hockey game and my husband was joking with her, turning on the charm, I asked him why he had filed for divorce.
At first he didn’t hear me over the laughter, so I repeated my question.
He said—smiling, directing his comment to the mediator—“Oh, you weren’t meeting my needs.”
Then they smiled together about it.
I got a lawyer.
I’m embarrassed that I tried for as long as I did.
Two years after my cancer diagnosis, I wrote in a journal that he had said to me that day: “I’m having a midlife crisis and I don’t know how I feel about you.”
It’s a tired old line. This exact line is #14 in the Internet quiz of twenty-five items.
Which doesn’t mean he was having an affair. But it does mean he was removing himself emotionally.
I thought I wouldn’t survive it, his leaving.
The man I had planned to die next to, whom I had loved with all my cells, was gone—to his weekly poker game, his friends, maybe even to his sadness. He took the dining room table and one of the cars, and he was entitled to that. The kids and I were home after school and work, on weekends, and no one would be coming back from work by bicycle just before dinner.
I especially hated the weekends I spent alone when the kids went to his house. I wrote my way through them, pages I would make sure no one ever saw but that still got me to morning. I hardly noticed as it became less acute, as I didn’t need to call a friend or force myself to go to a movie, as I could sink into the evening and know that whatever it brought would be fine. I got to know myself again. I rediscovered my natural spunk, a ferocity that had been burnished during my married years.
The idea that we won’t survive something is a failure of imagination. Now I know: I might not have survived his staying. I’m sure I would have had all the trappings of being alive and fine—but my spirit. Being on my own gave me my spirit back.
He liked to say, especially in couples’ therapy sessions, that he thought I suffered from borderline personality disorder. The first time he said it, I was worried and suggestible. That was a big claim, an incendiary one. He was “diagnosing” me with a disorder that doesn’t respond well to treatment or medication. I went back to my own therapist, with her Ph.D. and thirty years of experience, and I asked her. I asked her, crying, shrinking into the comfy green chair where I spent a lot of time these days. She laughed kindly. She said, “You have PTSD. That’s it,” referring to the fall-out of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from. Later I asked my psychiatrist as well, my glamorous runner psychiatrist who vacationed in farthest south Chile, who was also a mom: warm and compassionate, worthy of respect, who knew me well. She also swore that that was not my diagnosis.
I was reassured by their confidence. I had confidence in their confidence.
But he and I had to discuss it many times when he brought it to the couples’ therapist over and over.
A marriage starts to unravel. So many things are said, and most of them are best forgotten. But this piece, this particular grenade he lobbed and relobbed. This “claim” or “concern”: it is outside the way I believe people should be treated. It’s the thing I’ll remember, sadly, more than the father coming home by bike, more than our happy years when he still enjoyed dining out with me. I will remember this little piece of cruelty—repeated and sharp. I looked at him and wondered what in the world, who in the world? And although I didn’t know it yet, I was looking at the end. And the beginning of my spunky, messy life. Hard-won. It turned out that I could survive his leaving. I imagined it, and then I stepped toward that life, my life, the one that had been waiting for me.
CAMERON GEAREN is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Dame Magazine, Hippocampus, Ravishly, and elsewhere. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. In 2016, her book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out from Shearsman Press. On Twitter she’s @camerongearen.