The following essay was published almost a year ago, under the title “Staying in the Same Town as My Ex”. It was censored when my ex and cohort flooded the site that had published it with hate mail and threats. Other sites have generously republished the piece since, for which I am deeply grateful. The event was so traumatic for me that it never occurred to me – until now – to include the essay here. The attacks on my book and on this piece have brought me into contact with such brave and wonderful people. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has offered kindness and support in the past year.
Recently, one of my children was referred to a new doctor. Somewhat unusually, my ex came along to the appointment.
The doctor entered the room where we sat waiting, introduced herself, and greeted my child. I introduced myself as my child’s mother. “And who are you?” the doctor asked my ex. “I’m the other parent,” my ex replied stiffly. “The other parent,” the doctor echoed, laughing and nodding. I could see her assessing the situation, making the obvious assumption about our family composition: I had given birth to my child. Her “other parent” was my former lesbian partner. Half right. Sketching in our child’s medical profile the doctor asked some questions about her brother and sister, and we provided the necessary information.
“But do they have the same father?” the doctor inquired. What she meant but didn’t say was, “Do they have the same sperm donor?”
“Yes,” we said in unison. What we meant but didn’t say was, “Yes, and you are looking at him.”
A funny thing happened on the way to my becoming a single mom.
My husband and I got together in our teens. More than 20 years and three children later, he decided to live the rest of his life as a woman. Our marriage melted along with his masculinity. I went through the anguish any woman might over the unexpected demise of a long and happy marriage. I faced the usual potpourri of dread–of penury, isolation–when I contemplated raising three children alone, the youngest still in diapers. Worse, I felt crushed by a sense that the reason for my marriage’s demise said something so terrible about me it would be intolerable to remain in a place in which it was public knowledge. Exactly what it said, I wasn’t sure. Maybe that was part of what made it so awful.
Everything was changing. I thought that where my children and I lived would have to change right along with it. But I love where I live. More importantly, my children are fiercely attached to it. They like that when my friends spot them in town without me, they want to know who they are with and what they are up to. They like knowing the trees that are tapped for our syrup and the chickens providing our eggs. They like noticing the way the flocks of turkeys who usually tie up traffic on our roads seem to go into hiding just before Thanksgiving each year only to reappear when it’s safely over.
Still. Weren’t we fighting a losing battle, hanging onto a place just because it was where we had once been happy? I couldn’t go, but how could I stay?
Finally someone offered the most profound insight into my situation I have heard to date, uttering the words that set me free from this stalemate: “You aren’t the first woman to marry a jerk, and you won’t be the last.”
She was saying I had nothing to be ashamed of. My ex’s choices didn’t reflect badly on me. When a guy dumps a wife and young children for another woman, people–the wife in question, certainly–are more likely to think, “What a jerk!” than, “What a hero!” Why should it be any different just because the other woman is the guy?
I’ve stayed–so far. As long I remain I can’t ever get entirely away from my past, but then maybe I don’t want to. It’s mine, after all. Everything my eyes rest on, every Fall Foliage banner, every coffee shop and playground, recalls some moment of my children’s lives, some treasure I never want to lose. I was happy before. I’m happy now. I’ve made a new life without leaving. Astoundingly, I’ve moved on without leaving home.
On the other hand, I also can’t get entirely away from my ex’s presence. There’s no upside to that one. I can’t know when, not if but when, my ex will pop up somewhere or sometime I least expect him.
Last December I was behind the wheel of a pickup truck, a little before 9 in the morning, after delivering my children to their schools. I was headed downhill on a narrow winding road, a horse pasture on the other side of the fence on my left. There is an entrance to the pasture at the bottom of the hill but few vehicles stop there. I was expecting a 40 mile an hour shot down the hill, through the tiny town center and up another hill to where I live, what National Public Radio calls my local member station muttering sedately at the outskirts of my attention all the while. Then two things happened.
My former husband was in the truck. That is, his voice was in the truck. His odd, grown-male-straining-for-the-uppermost-register-of-his-voice voice. Saying his name. Saying, “What the holidays mean to me is–.”
I reached the knob in time to spare myself anything further. I didn’t learn what the holidays mean to my ex. Presumably not celebrating with his family. Not the intention, unfulfilled yearly, to make it to the lighting of the town menorah. Not the intention, always fulfilled, to light every menorah we own at least one night of Hanukkah. Not the turns around a frozen pond in skates bought long ago for other feet. Not New Year’s Eve in front of the fire, at least one child struggling to remain head up and eyes open. Not these things he isn’t around for.
The radio station was engaged in a December campaign, trite but previously benign, of playing the voices of area residents saying Feliz Navidad or Happy Solstice. I was engaged in a December campaign of tuning them out. Why my former husband? How did they choose him? In their efforts to be inclusive did they feel that merely by airing his voice, regardless of what he said, they could have a demographic covered? I couldn’t think about it right then. I was too busy stomping on the brake, trying not to rear-end the truck in front of me that had, in the split second I was devoting to my radio knob, stopped at the pasture gate. I just made it.
Usually the omnipresence of Bing Crosby and the Chipmunks is enough reason to avoid the radio this time of year. Now I had another. In subsequent days I had several opportunities to lunge for the dial. Friends caught the spot and shared their unique takes on it. “My husband said he heard your ex on the radio advertising himself,” one reported. “Why would he be advertising himself?” she wondered. “My husband said whatever the reason was, if he gets any money out of it he hopes he will give some of it to his family.”
So yes, my ex recurs like Christmas carols. But I don’t have to let him drown out the rest of my life. I knew the holidays would soon be over, and the echoes of his voice along with them.