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The Great Escape

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On one of the hottest days of summer, I emerge from the train from Amagansett with my 3-year-old daughter in my arms, both of us covered in a layer of dust, and also coated in sixteen different kinds of stickiness, including a bottle of lemonade toppled on the train. My daughter, meanwhile, has a cold, her nose running, in addition to pink eye, and we are making our way home. I am balancing her on one hip and carrying our luggage on the other arm. All of a sudden, I see two very close friends bounding toward us with their giant dog, baby strapped in a Björn on the husband’s chest. “How are you?” comes the inevitable question. The giant dog leaps up. My daughter is terrified of the dog. She cringes into my chest. Her big bloodshot eyes emanate absolute disillusion with any hope this tattered, dissolute world has to offer. I want to say, “We’re fine! She’s just afraid of the dog!” But then I see the tableau. We are a Walker Evans photograph of Appalachia: dirty sundresses, baby’s nose running, matted hair. We are fulfilling every idea the world has of us. We are falling apart!

Lest there be any ambiguity on this subject: I am in no way one of those formidable, independent women who stride through the streets of our city. I am barely competent at any household task. I have never been able to drive a car. I have in my adult life displayed almost no capacity to be alone for even a matter of days. And yet here I am, nearly a year into my new life.

There is something that happens when you burn your entire life down. The feeling is raw, close to the bone, jangly, nervous, productive.

I once wrote an entire book about how one shouldn’t reach for easy feminist interpretations of the world. And yet, even to me it seems that there is some residual sexism at work: While a woman outside of marriage is still considered a vulnerable and troubling figure, a man is granted a higher measure of autonomy. My husband, for instance, hasn’t been receiving quite this level of solicitude. I don’t think we are nearly as quick to assume that divorced men are falling into a life of despondency. I don’t think that we are as concerned about what will happen to them, that we are filled with this exquisite worry over their situation. We assume they will marry again, and until they do, we assume they’re fine.

I am not trying here to make the outlandish case that I am purely happy. When you leave someone, there is always a small funeral going on in the back of your head. But there are also peculiar elations to this particular phase of life. It reminds me of college and shortly afterward, when you walk down the street feeling every single thing, bad and good, more vividly than you do in a more comfortable stage of life, when your feelings are more muffled. It can, of course, be hard to reconcile this overstrong feeling with the rhythms of life with a child. When I stay up until four in the morning because I have too much energy to fall asleep, because I am thinking, again like a college student, and then have to wake up with my daughter at 6:30 and make French toast, my body is, to say the least, perplexed.

There is something that happens when you burn your entire life down, which is the release of a strange jittery energy. The feeling is raw, close to the bone, jangly, nervous, productive. I have never, for instance, focused more on my writing or thought more clearly than in this particular time. Would I give up the book I wrote for a couple of years of happiness? Of course. But there are consolations to this kind of unhappiness; there are strange, felicitous side effects. This is one of the very few times in adult life when you have a chance to invent yourself. There is in the furious nihilism of losing someone, in the depths of how destroyed you are, a sense of terrifying openness, of absolute possibility. And if one is honest, this feeling can be perversely pleasurable.

One of the disturbing things about my marriage’s breaking up, it turns out, is the feeling that I have lost a significant chunk of time to unhappiness. This may be why I don’t want to give myself the “time” that people seem to think I need to recover. This may be why I don’t want to wait for some ideal future when my attachments arrange themselves into a more conventional pattern. At a certain point, all you have are these raw, transitional hours: This is your life, and you may as well enjoy it.


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