If I'd had any way of knowing that things were--as Lily Tomlin once said--going to get a whole lot worse before they got worse, I'm not sure how well I would have slept that night. But seven very difficult months later, I did leave my husband. When I finally made that decision, I thought the worst of it was over. This only shows how little I knew about divorce.
There was once a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. Two women talking, one saying to the other: "If you really want to get to know someone, you have to divorce him." Of course, my experience was the opposite. I would say that if you really want to STOP knowing someone, you have to divorce him. Or her. Because this is what happened between me and my husband. I believe that we shocked each other by how swiftly we went from being the people who knew each other best in the world to being a pair of the most mutually incomprehensible strangers who ever lived. At the bottom of that strangeness was the abysmal fact that we were both doing something the other person would never have conceived possible; he never dreamed I would actually leave him, and
I never in my wildest imagination thought he would make it so difficult for me to go.
It was my most sincere belief when I left my husband that we could settle our practical affairs in a few hours with a calculator, some common sense and a bit of goodwill toward the person we'd once loved. My initial suggestion was that we sell the house and divide all the assets fifty-fifty; it never occurred to me we'd proceed in any other way. He didn't find this suggestion fair. So I upped my offer, even suggesting this different kind of fifty- fifty split: What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame? But not even that offer would bring a settlement. Now I was at a loss. How do you negotiate once you've offered everything? I could do nothing now but wait for his counterproposal. My guilt at having left him forbade me from thinking I should be allowed to keep even a dime of the money I'd made in the last decade. Moreover, my newfound spirituality made it essential to me that we not battle. So this was my position--I would neither defend myself from him, nor would I fight him. For the longest time, against the counsel of all who cared about me, I resisted even consulting a lawyer, because I considered even that to be an act of war. I wanted to be all Gandhi about this. I wanted to be all Nelson Mandela about this. Not realizing at the time that both Gandhi and Mandela were lawyers.
Months passed. My life hung in limbo as I waited to be released, waited to see what the terms would be. We were living separately (he had moved into our Manhattan apartment), but nothing was resolved. Bills piled up, careers stalled, the house fell into ruin and my husband's silences were broken only by his occasional communications reminding me what a criminal jerk I was.
And then there was David.
All the complications and traumas of those ugly divorce years were multiplied by the drama of David--the guy I fell in love with as I was taking leave of my marriage. Did I say that I "fell in love" with David? What I meant to say is that I dove out of my marriage and into David's arms exactly the same way a cartoon circus performer dives off a high
platform and into a small cup of water, vanishing completely. I clung to David for escape from marriage as if he were the last helicopter pulling out of Saigon. I inflicted upon him my every hope for my salvation and happiness. And, yes, I did love him. But if I could think of a stronger word than "desperately" to describe how I loved David, I would use that word here, and desperate love is always the toughest way to do it.
I moved right in with David after I left my husband. He was--is--a gorgeous young man. A born New Yorker, an actor and writer, with those brown liquid-center Italian eyes that have always (have I already mentioned this?) unstitched me. Street-smart, independent, egetarian, foulmouthed, spiritual, seductive. A rebel poet-Yogi from Yonkers. God's own sexy rookie shortstop. Bigger than life. Bigger than big. Or at least he was to me. The first time my best friend Susan heard me talking about him, she took one look at the high fever in my face and said to me, "Oh my God, baby, you are in so much trouble."
David and I met because he was performing in a play based on short stories I'd written. He was playing a character I had invented, which is somewhat telling. In desperate love, it's always like this, isn't it? In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding that they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.
But, oh, we had such a great time together during those early months when he was still my romantic hero and I was still his living dream. It was excitement and compatibility like I'd never imagined. We invented our own language. We went on day trips and road trips. We hiked to the top of things, swam to the bottom of other things, planned the journeys across the world we would take together. We had more fun waiting in line together at the Department of Motor Vehicles than most couples have on their honey- moons. We gave each other the same nickname, so there would be no separation between us. We made goals, vows, promises and dinner together. He read books to me, and he did my laundry. (The first time that happened, I called Susan to report the marvel in astonishment, like I'd just seen a camel using a pay phone. I said, "A man just did my laundry! And he even hand-washed my delicates!" And she repeated: "Oh my God, baby, you are in so much trouble.")
The first summer of Liz and David looked like the falling-in-love montage of every romantic movie you've ever seen, right down to the splashing in the surf and the running hand-in-hand through the golden meadows at twilight. At this time I was still thinking my divorce might actually proceed gracefully, though I was giving my husband the summer off from talking about it so we could both cool down. Anyway, it was so easy not to think about all that loss in the midst of such happiness. Then that summer
(otherwise known as "the reprieve") ended.
On September 9, 2001, I met with my husband face-to-face for the last time, not realizing that every future meeting would necessitate lawyers between us, to mediate. We had dinner in a restaurant. I tried to talk about our separation, but all we did was fight. He let me know that I was a liar and a traitor and that he hated me and would never speak to me again. Two mornings later I woke up after a troubled night's sleep to find that hijacked airplanes were crashing into the two tallest buildings of my city, as everything invincible that had once stood together now became a smoldering avalanche of ruin. I called my husband to make sure he was safe and we wept together over this disaster, but I did not go to him. During that week, when everyone in New York City dropped animosity in deference to the larger tragedy at hand, I still did not go back to my husband. Which is how we both knew it was very, very over.
It's not much of an exaggeration to say that I did not sleep again for the next four months. I thought I had fallen to bits before, but now (in harmony with the apparent collapse of the entire world) my life really turned to smash. I wince now to think of what I imposed on David during those months we lived together, right after 9/11 and my separation from my husband. Imagine his surprise to discover that the happiest, most confident woman he'd ever met was actually--when you got her alone--a murky hole of bottomless grief. Once again, I could not stop crying. This is when he started to retreat, and that's when I saw the other side of my passionate romantic hero--the David who was solitary as a castaway, cool to the touch, in need of more personal space than a herd of American bison.
David's sudden emotional back-stepping probably would've been a catastrophe for me even under the best of circumstances, given that I am the planet's most affectionate life- form (something like a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle), but this was my very worst of circumstances. I was despondent and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy, and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, "Where are you going? What happened to us?"
(Dating tip: Men LOVE this.)
The fact is, I had become addicted to David (in my defense, he had fostered this, being something of a "man-fatale"), and now that his attention was wavering, I was suffering
the easily foreseeable consequences. Addiction is the hallmark of every infatuation-based love story. It all begins when the object of your adoration bestows upon you a heady, hallucinogenic dose of something you never even dared to admit that you wanted--an emotional speedball, perhaps, of thunderous love and roiling excitement. Soon you start craving that intense attention, with the hungry obsession of any junkie. When the drug is withheld, you promptly turn sick, crazy and depleted (not to mention resentful of the dealer who encouraged this addiction in the first place but who now refuses to pony up the good stuff anymore--despite the fact that you know he has it hidden somewhere, goddamn it, because he used to give it to you for free). Next stage finds you skinny and shaking in a corner, certain only that you would sell your soul or rob your neighbors just to have that thing even one more time. Meanwhile, the object of your adoration has now become repulsed by you. He looks at you like you're someone he's never met before, much less someone he once loved with high passion. The irony is, you can hardly blame him. I mean, check yourself out. You're a pathetic mess, unrecognizable even to your own eyes.
So that's it. You have now reached infatuation's final destination--the complete and merciless devaluation of self.
The fact that I can even write calmly about this today is mighty evidence of time's healing powers, because I didn't take it well as it was happening. To be losing David right after the failure of my marriage, and right after the terrorizing of my city, and right during the worst ugliness of divorce (a life experience my friend Brian has compared to "having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years") . . . well, this was simply too much.
David and I continued to have our bouts of fun and compatibility during the days, but at night, in his bed, I became the only survivor of a nuclear winter as he visibly retreated from me, more every day, as though I were infectious. I came to fear nighttime like it was a torturer's cellar. I would lie there beside David's beautiful, inaccessible sleeping body and I would spin into a panic of loneliness and meticulously detailed suicidal thoughts. Every part of my body pained me. I felt like I was some kind of primitive springloaded machine, placed under far more tension than it had ever been built to sustain, about to blast apart at great danger to anyone standing nearby. I imagined my body parts flying off my torso in order to escape the volcanic core of unhappiness that had become: me. Most mornings, David would wake to find me sleeping fitfully on the floor beside his bed, huddled on a pile of bathroom towels, like a dog.
"What happened now?" he would ask--another man thoroughly exhausted by me. I think I lost something like thirty pounds during that time.