Divorcing, a Love Story. Sort of.
How the ex and I manage a friendship
People have often asked me how I manage to stay friends with my ex-husband, to whom I was married for 16 years, but in a committed relationship for close to two decades. So I wrote the following about two years ago for “Modern Love” in The New York Times, which has rejected all my submissions. I still like it, as I still like him.
I am sitting in a Toyota dealership in Santa Fe, NM, with my ex-husband, negotiating the lease on a new car. I could be doing this myself, but there are some situations in which I feel more comfortable with a man in tow, even if he is no longer “my” man. Anything having to do with cars is one of those.
I don’t particularly care about cars—though I admit a flashy old T-bird or streamlined Packard gets my attention. I hate any visit to a repair shop and dread the diagnoses when something goes wrong because I am way out of my comfort zone.
As I am in selecting a new one when it’s time to turn in the old Corolla. I could have predicted how my ex would behave: We both spotted a sleek black hatchback on the showroom floor, and he was entranced. It looked fine to me, affordable wheels, no more, no less. The saleswoman showed us the important features: the larger screen on the dashboard, the back seats that folded flat, even the spiffy little tool kit that vaguely resembles a designer handbag.
“This is the one I want for you,” he announced.
I asked if they had the car in silver or a dark blue.
“You don’t want a silver car,” he said. “Everyone in New Mexico drives a silver car.” As, in fact, he did.
I knew better than to argue. Later, when the saleswoman went off to gather some papers, I reminded him of when we moved to Massachusetts from New York City 30 years ago, after he accepted a job that more than doubled his salary, and he offered to buy me a car: “You can have any model you want as long as it’s a Camry and as long as it’s gray.”
“I said no such thing,” he claimed.
I didn’t argue about this one either. One of the benefits of morphing from partners to friends is that the arguments, along with the theatrics, abate, or become sources for amusing recollections (like the time I dumped a bowl of salad on his head, though he now claims it was the other way around, the dispute itself long forgotten).
But I had to wonder: How did such a thing come about? How did we make this transition?
I’ve heard women say, “Oh, my husband is my best friend.” I never really bought it. If he’s your best friend, whom do you complain to about your husband?
Twenty-some years after the divorce was official—I don’t even remember the precise year, and we were by then living on separate coasts—I can recall specific incidents that seemed to me acts of friendship. When I was released from the hospital after spending five days in the ICU with fluke kidney failure in my forties, he flew me to a resort to recuperate while he was at a business conference. A few years later, when he was going through a tough time in his second marriage, I consoled him on the phone and offered what advice I could. We often met up for dinner when he was in the city, perfectly pleasant evenings on the expense account, occasionally spiked with nostalgia but no spark of romance or sexual longing. When my parents were old and ailing, he gave me the air miles to fly to Florida. We have often lent each other sums of money without keeping close track of how or when they were repaid.
Then, eight years ago, soon after he moved to Taos, NM, I came out for a visit. And a couple of more visits. By then I knew I’d have to get out of New York as rents kept rising (we’d never been smart enough to buy property when we could afford it, and a freelancer’s income scarcely kept pace).
People speculated that perhaps I was still carrying a torch—moving to the Southwest, in pursuit of another chance at couplehood with him. But I remember attending a party at one of his friend’s houses in Taos and watching a woman flirt with him hopefully, laughing and tossing her hair, and my only thought was: How strange. I am watching a woman come on to my ex-husband and I feel nothing but mild curiosity.
He was the one who found me a small and lovely house to rent; he helped me negotiate the purchase of a used Jeep (and brought the jumper cables around when the battery died). And I carted him to the dealership when it was time to let go of the miserable old crapper.
When I came down with pneumonia after a press trip to Cuba four years ago, he drove me to Urgent Care and then to the emergency room. He visited every day and brought groceries while I convalesced for two months. (I did what I could to keep him provisioned when he was sick, but there was generally a girlfriend to take care of that.)
When I started an internet publication for artists, he was there with advice and helped spread the word. (He’s run a successful website for more than a decade.)
Two years ago, the woman he’s been involved with for several years broke into the email account on his phone, discovered some affectionate correspondence between us, and tossed him out of her guest house, where he was then living. He moved in with another friend and spent most evenings at my house, miserable and stunned, watching MSNBC. (They later patched it up.)
When I briefly had a romantic interest on the East Coast, or am otherwise traveling, he takes care of my cat and house.
I still call him “honey.” He still calls me by a baby name I hate (I’ve given up asking him not to). We usually meet up for dinner and streaming twice a week. We gossip about mutual friends, discuss work dilemmas, occasionally reminisce about good times and bad, long-ago incidents that seem to have happened to completely different people. For the most part, we steer clear of discussing our separate love lives. There is warmth between us, but never any rekindling of ancient fires, which died out long ago and left no embers.
Is he my “best friend”? I don’t know. I have many friends—some close, some not—and feel like I’m too old to single out any one in particular. I still put him down as an emergency contact on medical forms.
Do I occasionally wish he were still my husband? Yes, especially when I have good news to share, a problem to solve, or am driving home to an empty house with only the cat to welcome me. I often miss those “Hi, honey, I’m home” moments. But the boundaries have become clear over time, and we respect them.
I am simply grateful to have this person still in my life, the man I met 45 years ago and with whom I shared so much time—joyous and sad, hopeful and disillusioned.
And after three patient hours at the dealership in Santa Fe, I happily let him drive the new car back to Taos.