There were mornings when I awakened in Peter’s bedroom and looked out his grimy windows at the parking lot of his apartment complex and thought of my beautiful floor-through in San Francisco, overlooking Ghirardelli Square and the fog-shrouded bay. And I would wonder, What have I done? Leaving a handsome six-figure man alone in a city crawling with single women? Was I out of my mind?
No, not really. The deal was that he seemed as discontented as I with the snooty provincialism of the Bay Area, and that I would find a job in New York and he would follow when his pension was vested. In the meantime, we would use gobs of air miles to see each other every two weeks. Part of my rent could be claimed as an expense for him since he wouldn’t have to stay in hotels in the city on business.
In less than a year, the deal came crashing down like a Tenderloin tenement in an earthquake.
So of course I sought out a therapist to help me make the transition from shakily married to newly divorced. Lee came highly recommended by a friend and was the last and best shrink I’ve ever had (like every good New Yorker, I’ve done my time on the couch). Practical and plainspoken, with a lilting Caribbean accent, she wore second-hand designer clothes from a store on Madison Avenue (one I remember she called her Pocahontas outfit, a leather vest and skirt festooned with fringes and beads). In spite of—or perhaps because of—a glossy black wig and false teeth, Lee was a dead ringer for Diana Ross. What she teased out of me were incidents of low-level abuse (being told, for example, “you’re nothing but a rip-off artist” and “you’ve been lost your whole life”). Those and an indifferent attitude in bed were what drove me out of San Francisco, she claimed, not homesickness or a need to find fulfilling work.
“Ah-nee,” said Lee, sucking on the long brown Mores that would eventually kill her, “if you really loved that man, you would stay with him in the bunkers of Beirut.”
Nonetheless I was in a kind of shock and mourning for about two years after the divorce was final. Lee, who had worked with children from abusive households, noted that even they often didn’t want to be separated from the only homes they had known.
She ran by me her Bad Dog Theory of Marriage, which went something like this: Let’s suppose you’ve never owned a dog before and you adopt one from the pound or a breeder or wherever. You and the dog get along fine for a few years; indeed you are affectionate and loving and snuggle together at every opportunity. And then gradually the dog turns nasty on you, snapping and cringing from your overtures. Maybe you go into pet therapy together, to no avail. Finally one day the dog runs away or finds a new mistress. On some level, you may be glad to have him out of your life; on another, you’re not sure of what went wrong. Either way, you grieve.
Lee didn’t spend much time sifting through the family dynamics or second guessing his motives for wanting to end the marriage. She was practical and bossy. At one point, she noticed that I have a hearing problem (partial deafness since childhood, which was getting worse over the years). “Ah-nee,” she said, “I think you are reading lips and I want you to get a hearing aid. And you get him to pay for it. If you’d been hearing half the things that man said to you, you’d have been out the door years ago.”
She was thoroughly approving of my having a man I couldn’t possibly fall in love with (a “fuck buddy,” she called him—the first time I’d heard this term) but wasn’t interested in knowing much about Peter. Nor did she did she care to examine the curious sexual bond that seemed to persist when there was not much going on in the head and heart.
Peter was so unlike the men I’d been attracted to in the past—who were generally smart and ambitious and upwardly mobile—that I had no way of understanding the chemistry between us. But there it was. Something subcutaneous, something strange and primal. After I’d returned from a weeklong press trip, I met him at a Broadway theater for a production of “The Night of the Iguana.” We were barely half an hour into the first act when we went tearing back to his apartment.
I didn’t feel particularly good about the situation and said to him, “You know I’m not in love with you. I think I’m just using you for sex.”
“Go ahead and use me,” said he, grinning.
To the best of my recollection, we never had discussions about the “relationship” or broached the topic of living together, but at some point I realized I should probably introduce him to my parents and so took him out to Montauk for a weekend when they were in residence for the summer. I had to stifle incredulous laughter when Peter got down on bended knee to present my mother with a box of chocolates.
Later she confided: “He’s a very nice young man, dear, but I don’t think he has much of a future.”
“Mom,” I said, “he’s forty-six. The future is now.”
In March of 1996, I suffered near-fatal kidney failure, most likely from the toxic mix of a leftover lamb chop, a blood pressure medication I didn’t need, and the drug my doctor prescribed for what he diagnosed as food poisoning. When I nearly passed out on the can, it was Peter who called the doctor and then the ambulance, and it was Peter who was at my bedside for days after I got out of the ICU. But it was my ex, I yearned for. I called him and whimpered, “Get me out of here.” Even my mother called him. After I was discharged from the hospital, and a nephrologist pronounced me on the mend, he took me to Florida for a few days while he was on business there.
I was too weak to do much of anything. Mostly I lazed in the kiddie pool, watching the older women exercising in the big pool, and slept while my ex-husband devoted his time to the phone and his laptop (a familiar scenario and therefore possibly comforting).
Peter raised no objections, and when I returned, we resumed our peculiar liaison.
By then I had quit my staff job at ARTnews (mainly because I can’t stand offices and wanted to write for other publications), and I had no shortage of assignments, from venues as diverse as Architectural Digest and Smithsonian. Though I’d given up on writing for women’s magazines, I stayed in touch with an old boss, Wendy, who had been the editor in chief of a short-lived venture called Savvy: The Magazine for Executive Women, where I’d cut my editorial teeth in the ‘80s. We had far-ranging and often side-splitting conversations about men, middle age, the nature of the universe, and back to men.
In the course of one of these, the kind where you stretch out on the couch and yak circumlocutiously for what seems hours, I happened to remark, “You know, we’re so damn funny we should be on the radio, like the Car Talk guys.”
A few days later, she emailed (because by the mid-‘90s, AOL or Hotmail or Yahoo had grabbed almost everyone I knew). “You have to fly out here now. We have a radio show!” She was then in Portland, OR, in the process of divorcing her third husband. She and her publicist—Wendy had morphed from editor to motivational speaker—had convinced the station manager of a local AM affiliate to give us a six-month trial on the air.
Holy crap! Why not? This could be fun. I should take a week to check this out. It was never too soon for a midlife crisis.
Peter, as he always did when I went off on one adventure or another, raised no objections and indeed obligingly took care of the cat. It’s entirely possible I was being a frightfully selfish bitch. But I had been called worse, including “rip-off artist.”