The Great Escape

Photo: Gail Albert Halaban

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 Even when Wharton was writing this attitude was outdated, and yet somehow I feel a hint of it still: the same stigma mingled with fascination.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.

Photo: Gail Albert Halaban

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.

I have been out at a party. I have a new dress that I have worn out to the party. The next day, I have a slightly pleasurable depleted feeling, as I push my daughter, who is eating a scone in her stroller, on the twenty-minute walk to school in the morning. Later, I am out to Cobb salads on the Upper East Side with a relative who is slightly older than me. She is expressing her view that it is immature for me to be out late at parties; it is undignified for me to be floating through the night like I was in my twenties. She points out furthermore that I have a small child, a fact that I have not, in all of the hullabaloo, forgotten. Here again is the hostility toward the blurring lines, toward the drifting out of categories that, I should in my defense point out, I didn’t choose.

Recently, one of my friends ran into an acquaintance of mine at a party. She leaned into him, hand on his arm, and whispered in a confidential tone, “How’s Katie?” He said, “She’s great. She is having a great time teaching.” This acquaintance leaned in closer, eyes widening: “But how is she really?” My friend, a little subversive of the usual pieties, said, “I think she is the happiest woman in New York.” Untrue, of course. But still, one appreciates the gesture.

And one does have to wonder about this prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does this imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? (The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse. As Warwick Deeping, a novelist of the twenties, observed, “Those who have made a success of marriage can be gentler to the failures.”) I have noticed the couples most interested in the grand tour of my tragedy are often in couples therapy. They are often couples in that phase where they hire a babysitter once a week so that they can sit across from each other at a restaurant and distract themselves from the vast distance, the dullness, that has risen up between them with the bustle of menus and waiters. For whatever reason, it is extremely important for these couples to believe that once you are outside of marriage, you have fallen into the abyss. Furthermore, they are extremely interested in watching you, limbs flailing, as you are falling. But what if you, say, refuse to fall?

I begin to notice that when I am a little bit happy, there is nearly always someone there to tell me that I should be serious. That I should be focusing on my situation. That I should be worrying about my child. There is nearly always someone to deftly reel any subject I have ranged onto back to the question of whether my daughter is okay. I, of course, am always ready to worry about whether she is okay. But I wonder if it is truly in her best interest to embrace the philosophy of perpetual worry people seem to be encouraging. Wouldn’t it be better to take her to the zoo?

When The Age of Innocence came out in 1920, the advertising leaflets began with the provocative tagline “Was She Justified in Seeking a Divorce?” And of course it is still this question that needs to be answered. There may have been a time in the seventies when divorce was too acceptable, and even had a certain amount of cachet, but now we are back to older moral attitudes. There is still the unspoken assumption that if you worked a little bit harder, if you went to a therapist, if you tried a little harder to get along, you could have made it work, for the kids.

Someone I know almost left her husband several years ago. She had always been one of those women unusually invested in the orderliness of her life, in the outward emanations of her various perfections: her sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, her children in their excellent schools, her scrupulously planned vacations. In thinking about her dilemma, she said, at one point, “I am not the kind of person who gets divorced! I am the kind of person who looks down on people who get divorced.” This is perhaps more honest than most people would care to be on this subject. We don’t normally quite say this out loud.

I can’t help thinking that this particular form of moral disapproval is related to our current madness about child-rearing, our desire for $900 Bugaboo strollers, Oeuf toddler beds, organic hand-milled baby food, and French classes for toddlers, not to mention sign-language classes for babies so that they can communicate before they can be bothered to learn to speak: in short, our strange, hopeless obsession with the perfectibility of childhood. We seem to be laboring under the fashionable illusion that if we put everything into making our children’s lives ostensibly perfect, then they will be. And those of us who have separated or divorced have rather spectacularly failed in creating that perfect environment. The true stigma of divorce is that of failing as a parent.

On a tour of my daughter’s preschool, during the question-and-answer period, one of the fathers raises his hand. He noticed a basket of pale-yellow biscuits being passed around to the fours during snack time. “What was in those cookies? Are they organic? Do they have sugar? And are the children just, um, allowed to eat as many as they want?” The headmistress of the school looks amused. No, they are not organic. Yes, they are allowed to take as many as they want. She smiles benevolently at this father. She is used to our generation’s interest in controlling our children’s lives. I remember the parties my parents threw in Nantucket, the grown-ups eating and drinking wine in the house, sometimes spilling out into the garden to smoke, the children running around outside, in bathing suits and sweatshirts, hunting frogs, picking the petals off the yellow roses to make beds for the frogs, and no one worrying about exactly when we went to bed or what we were eating. Was that environment a little more forgiving of the alternative, of the house, the family that didn’t look quite the same? I imagine it was.

We seem to be laboring under the illusion that we can make our children’s lives perfect. And those of us who have divorced have rather spectacularly failed to create that perfect environment.

In any event, the largely unspoken taboo against divorce involves the largely unspoken accusation that you are somehow behaving recklessly toward your children. But every now and then, and in different ways, someone just says it. Which is how I find myself with my most committedly bohemian, childless friend, sitting on my sofa quoting me statistics of studies that he can’t quite name or define about how terrible divorce is for children. I look at him: a week of stubble, longish hair, corduroys. He has been working on a novel for the fifteen years since college; he still sleeps until four in afternoon; it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that his entire life is a monument to the refusal of adult responsibility, and yet even he is issuing grave warnings on parenting. (He is himself a child of divorce, which may account for his near religious zeal on the subject.) I cautiously mention that in certain instances it might be better for a child if their parents don’t stay in an unhappy situation. He quickly tells me that I am deluding myself, that this is a selfish platitude that parents always use to reassure themselves. He refers back to the sinister and shadowy studies. I would, again very cautiously, mention that my own child seems just for the moment to be thriving. But the evidence of the senses is not what is required here.

I have no doubt that in an ideal world, a child grows up with two happy parents under one roof. But by the time you are even contemplating divorce, you are no longer living in that ideal world and probably haven’t been for a very long time. There are no true studies, of course, on the children of parents who have stayed together when they shouldn’t have, no control group to tell us about the secret damage of that situation. And then, of course, there are times when the dissolution of marriage is simply unstoppable. As the novelist Theodore Dreiser put it in a 1930 essay, “God certainly has joined some peculiar creatures.”

The reason this particular form of moralism is so pernicious, of course, is that it plays to your own deepest fears: You are failing at the one thing in the world that matters. To the outside eye, my daughter seemed to adapt fairly quickly to the new situation. She likes when her father takes her to look at the boats on the way to school; she likes when he plays cards with her for hours at a time. But it’s hard to know. She is only 3. She still believes that if you drink out of someone’s straw, you will become them. I can tell her elaborate bedtime stories about living on the moon. I can give her a big, warm, chaotic extended family. I can find her a tiny replica of a doctor’s examination table for her eleven babies. And yet I can’t give her an intact, ordinary home. Will her unorthodox childhood offer up its own consolations? I hope so.

Last New Year’s eve, even the happiest couples around me, who’ve been married for three, four, five years, seemed to be suffering a certain angst. Should they go out to a restaurant alone? Should they go to a couples’ dinner party? Should they just go to a movie and pretend that it wasn’t New Year’s Eve? There is, of course, built into New Year’s Eve, at midnight, a moment when you confront the issue of romantic intensity, the passage of time as it works on a marriage. But this year, I find myself in a slightly different world. I am walking down the street to meet a British man whom I have been seeing for about a month. He is also, by some accidental twist, the person on earth I most want to talk to. And while my life resembles in no outward form the way I would like it to look, the night is cold, the scraggly trees are glittering in the street lamps, the lights are on in the brownstones, and this is exactly the night I want to have.

After her own divorce, Edith Wharton wrote to one of her closest friends that she would “eat the world leaf by leaf.” There are mornings when my 3-year-old pads out, in her cherry pajamas, and climbs into bed with me, and puts her face right next to mine, and I open my eyes, and her eyes are one inch away from mine, and I get out of bed and lift her up, and carry her into the kitchen, and put her on the counter, and she presses the buttons on the coffee machine, and this feels like enough. (Others will be quick to point out—others have been quick to point out—that this kind of closeness is unhealthy, that she and I are too connected. And to that I offer only that if you take out the unhealthy closeness, the pathological intimacies, you will have taken out many of life’s wilder joys.)

One morning, my daughter and I go to look at our new house, which is a construction site. There is a layer of dust over everything, the honey-colored, wide-planked floors, the white-marble fireplaces. There are boards with nails coming out of them, paint flaking off the tin ceilings, and an old, rusted refrigerator sitting in the middle of the parlor. There is a hole in the wall between the windows where a mirror has been taken down. A house in this state looks exposed, vulnerable. From somewhere, our contractor has unearthed a tricycle. Before I am able to prevent it, my daughter is on the tricycle. She is careering through the rooms, which to her way of thinking should all be purple. What will happen in these rooms? Who will I sit with on my sofa drinking wine and talking about the day, the sky blackening outside the tall windows? My daughter rides over to me and is still for a minute. Outside I see a seagull perched on our front gate, en route, perhaps, from the Gowanus Canal to somewhere more promising.

The Great Escape