In times of trouble, some people turn to cigarettes and other people turn to drink and I read books I have read a million times before. And so in the harrowing time after I separated from my husband, I reread The Age of Innocence. In the early chapters, the Countess Olenska returns from Europe, having separated from her husband, and most of fashionable New York refuses to attend a dinner thrown in her honor. Even when Wharton was writing this attitude was outdated, and yet somehow I feel a hint of it still: the same stigma mingled with fascination. I feel, suddenly, an instinctive recognition of Countess Olenska, foreign, scrutinized.
In the weeks after my husband moved out, I received an e-mail from someone offering to help me clean the house or cook, an e-mail that evokes images of dishes piling up in the sink, flies hovering around half-eaten peanut-butter sandwiches, laundry accumulating. I wonder where these nightmarish visions of our domestic situation are coming from. Why would the departure of my husband launch me and my daughter into a life of squalor? Someone else writes at around the same time: “There are no words for a catastrophe of this magnitude. I am thinking of you.” And it begins to seem as if my husband has, in fact, not moved five minutes away but died.
In these early days, I find telling anyone other than my closest friends about my separation a little draining, not because of my own emotions but because of theirs. One acquaintance has tears in her eyes. “Oh, my God! You poor thing. Is it so awful when you get home in the evening and there is no one to have dinner with? Is it so awful to have all those hours alone?” I am touched by her concern, but it also makes me feel like someone who has fallen off the edge of one of those colorful medieval maps to the place where there are only sea monsters and dragons. In the coming months, this tone will become familiar to me, ambient as it is of fatal illnesses. I am tempted to remind her and others of a useful line a friend drew my attention to from As You Like It: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
Some months later, I am sitting in Bryant Park having coffee with a professor I know. It is one of those radiant early-summer days when people flood out of their offices, taking off their jackets and cardigans. We have both been doing research in the New York Public Library, and we are in the habit of sometimes taking a break for coffee. I am in the middle of telling him that I am finally feeling a little bit better.
“I think you are cut off from your feelings,” he says. “This is a very hard time for you.”
I try again. “I think maybe the worst part is over and now I am finally going to—”
“You are very fragile right now.” His voice is gentle. He is going to be infinitely patient with me. “You have to take care of yourself.”
And the conversation goes along in this vein. He thinks that my plan to buy a house in the next few months is “too ambitious.” He thinks that the new man I am going to meet for drinks is “too soon.” He thinks I am “taking on too much.” Still that gentle tone of voice. Still stirring his espresso with a spoon. By the time we leave the park, I am half-persuaded that I will barely make it home on the subway, since undoubtedly the ride downtown is “too much,” too. I am beginning to wonder about these expectations that I am collapsing. At no other point in my life have so many people tried so hard to convince me of how miserable I am. The professor e-mails my closest friend, who is a bit surprised: “I am worried about Katie.” All of which reminds me that in The Age of Innocence, the rather powerful Countess Olenska is viewed by her peers as a “pathetic and even pitiful figure,” “an exposed and pitiful figure,” and “poor Ellen Olenska.”
It’s becoming clear to me that there is some image of the impending divorcée that I am not living up to here: hollow-eyed, bitter, harassed. Some of the more extreme sympathy I receive seems remarkably impersonal; it has less to do with me and anything I am saying than with what other people are hearing. The specifics of my experience vanish into an abstract idea about a woman’s leaving a marriage. And then there seems to be a rigid script to these conversations. If I answered the question “Is it so awful to have dinner alone?” with the honest response—actually, sometimes I make myself a salad, and feel the stretch of the evening opening up, and reach for a book I have been wanting to read, and it is less lonely than other kinds of dinners, and it is, in fact, kind of nice—it would have been almost impolite. It is counterintuitive, I know, but the true force of the loss has passed. For me, the great, unmanageable sadness came before, and this part, the starting-again part, brings along with the obvious terror its own relief, its own pleasures.