“Was fiction ever so true? . . . Here is divorce rendered by an emotional naturalist. And pass it on: She’s funny.” —Sandra Scofield “Susan Dundon captures the nuances of relationships so skillfully that anyone who is—or hopes to be, or has been, or never wants to be—married will find some points of identification with Emily’s homespun wisdom.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer “Rich and funny stuff.” —Ellen Goodman “Full of those little moments that leave one thinking, Yes! It was exactly that way for me.” —Alain De Botton
|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
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About the Author
Susan Dundon was a columnist for more than ten years for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writing both for the style section and the Op-Ed pages. She has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” column and Town & Country. She lives in Philadelphia (with her second husband) and is working on a collection of essays. Visit her website at www.susandundon.com.
Read an Excerpt
To My Ex-Husband
By Susan Dundon
William Morrow and Co., Inc.Copyright © 2007 Susan Dundon
All rights reserved.
The other night I walked up the road to the house where you and the children and I used to stay in the summer. There was a nearly full moon and the stars were out. So much light gave the house an eerie, one-dimensional aspect, like a stage set. I stole up the driveway and saw the new tenants through the window of the sun porch, their shoulders hunched over fans of playing cards.
Beyond them, in the living room, I saw all of us — you, me, Annie, and Peter, just as we used to be on those cold, foggy evenings in front of the fire, engrossed in our own game of Go Fish. It was all so clear, Peter in his habitual baseball cap, and Annie, with those strawberry wisps that she was forever letting grow pinned back by about eight barrettes. My throat ached. How I wanted to go in, sit down with my family, and take up my cards, as though I'd just returned from the kitchen with more coffee. How I wanted, if only for a few moments, for the years to fall away so we could be back there as we were.
I can't say how long I lingered. But suddenly someone appeared at the door, and I spun around and ran, bounding breathlessly behind my shadow like a thief.
I was getting married the next day. I know. You're thinking, "How bizarre." What a way to spend the night before your wedding. But perhaps that visit served a purpose, a ceremonial crossing from one life into another.
I always thought that when people got married a second time there was this great divide, that a curtain came down over the past and there you were, neatly contained in the present. Unfortunately, it isn't like that at all, but messier, everything running together in this awful river of confusion. Events carry me along, while every now and then my memory catches on something, such as the night Peter was born, and I'm trapped, like a clump of leaves that can't work its way back into the mainstream. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm one of those people who's haunted by history, who will never be truly released from it.
I'm like Jane Bannister, now eight months pregnant. I ran into her recently at the grocery store, and we got into one of those conversations that only women can have just before closing time while frantically sifting through the dinner options. In the midst of giving serious consideration to a package of calf's liver, she looked straight at me and said, "I was in love with my first husband right up until the day I married Michael."
So I was about to be married again. But I did not believe that the man I was going to marry would be my husband. You were my husband, would always be my husband. And then there would be this other man, the man I'd live with.
Funny — it wasn't that long ago that I couldn't imagine living with anyone but you, couldn't imagine establishing that kind of intimacy all over again, reinventing another private vocabulary of silly names and gestures, exquisitely articulate only to us. And then marriage would mean that I'd have to be naked at times, unclothed in full view of another man, at the age of forty-seven, with my semicentennial soon to come screeching down the track like a runaway locomotive.
The real tug of history, I suspect, is the familiarity, the acceptance. You knew me when I didn't come upholstered with broken capillaries and other assorted dermatological excesses. Tucked in some fond corner of your memory was the Original Woman, the unweathered me. But Edward — bless him! — actually fell in love with this decrepit pile, complete with all the attendant middle-aged features. But, of course, as my periodontist, how could he complain? It was the very fact of my deterioration that brought us together. What sweet thoughts he must have had as, week after week, he cut away at my gums while I lay back, bleeding into my paper bib, the tears gathering in the corners of my eyes.
"You can rinse now," he'd say more tenderly, I suspected, than was his custom. From the beginning it was a relationship based on trust. He would spare me the humiliation, the cost to my vanity, of losing my teeth; I would pay him regularly, in modest, for-writers-only installments. "My mouth," I told him finally, "is yours."
The operative word for the wedding was "understated." We were getting married, but we didn't want to draw too much attention to the fact. Who but somebody who's done this before would get married on the front lawn of a summer rental, wearing a beige dress?
Thanks to the drought, I blended right in with the grass. Anyone watching from more than fifteen feet away would have seen a string of pearls and a gold bracelet waving uncertainly through the air beside a man in a blue suit.
Early that morning, as I, the blushing bride, was out gathering daisies, I couldn't help reflecting on how different this was from our wedding. I don't mean just the size of it, although it has been somewhat instructional, not to mention economical, to find that I am currently in touch with precisely four of the two hundred and fifty people present at our wedding, and that two of those are members of my immediate family. There is no safety in numbers when it comes to witnesses to wedding vows. Odd, though, that this time I was more nervous than I was in 1964. In 1964 I didn't have enough imagination to be nervous. I was someone, remember, who thought she was avant-garde because she wore a black turtleneck jersey.
Certainly things were simpler then. You packed up your mattress and your cinder-block bookshelves and you got married. Now there were two halves of two different property settlements, two conflicting universes, plus two sets of children, teenagers, no less, each operating with vastly different gene pools.
Not that anyone could easily accept, in addition to unplanned offspring, many of Edward's beloved possessions. Among them his bathrobe, a multicolored kaleidoscopic nightmare with a shawl collar trimmed in yellow braid. This to hang on the back of my bathroom door. But in the last year, as his partner-in-residence, I had already managed to absorb the overload. Was there a choice? Edward was a package deal. He came with all the standard equipment, plus extras. I could accept all or none.
But I wondered, now that the deed was done: Did one send out stepmother announcements? Officially, I was an item in transition. Delivered: To writer Emily Moore, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, in Philadelphia, August 19, 1989.
The empty nest in which I had looked forward to spreading out was mighty full again, an object lesson in reality. Edward had stepped down off the screen, like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and completed the metamorphosis from romantic hero to father, a man encumbered with a sixteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old, plus the requisite number of high-fidelity sound systems, portable telephones, posters, and what every extended family needs, a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid as they appeared in D.O.A.
Was I equal to this task? Of course not. Next to actually being pregnant, this was the worst thing that could happen to a woman of my age and psychological limitations. I have frankly regarded it as punishment for my sins. Women didn't get away with it, did they? From the Bible to The Good Mother, a woman didn't venture outside her marriage, even to enter into another, without paying a price.
I thought of none of this at four o'clock that Saturday afternoon. What I thought of was you. I was happy, and I knew I was doing what was right for me. But in my perverse fashion I wanted you there because I wanted you to see that for yourself. After years of agony and uncertainty, I was finally shutting the door on us. I knew that you would never again be my friend, that the loss would be painful and permanent, that every day for the rest of my life your name would form itself at some unsuspecting moment at the back of my mind, and I would mourn the time when I had you to talk to.
As you can see, this is not the first time I've written to you since we separated in that dreadful 1984. There are roughly five years' worth of uncensored thoughts here. My intentions were to send them as I wrote them, but somehow I never did. I'm glad now that I hung on to them. This seems a better time; we've moved on. Besides which, all that is contained here belongs as much to you as to me.
Twenty-five years ago we started out on a wonderful adventure. It's still inconceivable, still excruciating, that the adventure has ended. But it has, and in the process much has happened to alter my view of you, of me, and of our life together.
You may think that much, or possibly even all, of what I say in these pages is inappropriate, or represents a wanton disregard of feelings, or may simply be of no interest. Please understand that I wasn't concerned with being appropriate or interesting. Nor did I want to hurt you. I wanted to tell you my side of things; I wanted you to know what it was like. Whatever these — call them notes on my life — mean now, they began as my refuge. They were the way I went on living.CHAPTER 2
Nina called bright and early this morning to see how I was bearing up on the first morning of my life as a separatee. I was trying to sound brave, but I found myself actually laughing into the telephone. "You won't believe this," I said. "Nick forgot his ties."
I told her how you'd come to pick up Annie for school in a navy blazer and black turtleneck, looking like a bruise, because you didn't have any ties in your apartment. You'd apparently had a rough night and didn't see the humor in it. But already it seemed to me that everything we did fell into this hilariously classical mode. Like my father calling my mother the night after he moved out to ask her if there was something wrong with an egg that didn't float when you dropped it into a saucepan of water.
Nina thought it was funny. Nina is going to keep me sane. Nina, Dr. Bloom, and Dickens.
I got a letter from Peter this morning, the first he's written to me as a college student. I ripped it open with the same eagerness I had when he wrote from camp, and I had the same sickening feeling when I read it as I did then, crying at the kitchen table. It was almost as if he'd written those very words — "I want to come home. p.s. I men what I say in this leter" — though of course you can't say that when you're nineteen. You write down the data: How many hours in the registration line, how many courses you're taking, which ones. So the letter that devastates your mother is the letter you don't write. You don't write what it feels like to start down the road to college, leaving the people and the place that have been the core of your whole life just as it's all going up in flames behind you.
However much trouble he's having adjusting, I'm probably having more. It's hard to lose both the men in your life at the same time. I very much needed him to say that he thought he had chosen the right school, that he thought he'd be happy, but also that he missed me, that he missed home. But, for him, there's no home home. We've robbed him of that. He can't even be homesick. The very idea of home makes him sick, I'm sure of it. That Peter's a private person, sensitive and self-contained, makes it worse. Crying or shouting or kicking the furniture would have been facile, insubstantial for him, and would have trivialized his pain. I wish he hadn't appeared to take the news so well. It makes me nervous.
The men in my life don't say much, do they? We have a working relationship on the phone, you and I. Like Peter, we deal with the data. But there is the unspoken other life that runs concurrently beneath the surface. That's the real life, and the reason I write to you.
It was probably the summer we were reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. That's the way I remember time now, by what we were reading. Other people have a Proustian sense of smell that makes them remember, or they have a visual memory of, say, the way the light looks in different seasons. I have some of those associations. Honeysuckle will always remind me of June evenings when I was little and allowed to stay up late and play on the swing until my father came home. With me, though, it's mostly books. Books define the summer, and summer has been the barometer of our marriage, the time when anything menacing lurking in the background is apt to be felt.
I was thinking about this yesterday in Annie's room. If there were anything I wanted to forget about our life together, it would be a mistake to go in that room. It's all there, tacked to her walls: baby pictures of her and Peter; pictures of the two of them in the bathtub; of playing at the beach; of setting off for camp; ballet class; prom nights; family portraits in which Dickens usually occupies center stage, his paw casually flopped across one of the children's legs.
Annie has gone rummaging through the family archives, those dusty, curled snapshots we never got around to organizing, and has even come up with some surprising ones of us: you as an infant bundled up in a baby carriage with a large stuffed rabbit; me at about eight, tomboy and future mom, astride a wooden railing in full cowboy attire.
This was Annie's world, her mother and father, her big brother, her friends, and her dog. It was our world, too, a perfectly wonderful world. But sometime in the last couple of years, between Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Heartburn, something started going bad at the core. There are no photographs of that disparity, no hint of when it was that the imperceptible evolution first began, and one of us wound up wanting something different.
I couldn't leave Annie's room for the longest time. I was wallowing in the past, wondering: How did we get from there to here? How could we possibly have gone from that magical, snowy night in Boston when Peter was born to this day, and the next day, and the next, when you won't be coming home for dinner?
With respect to the question everybody asks everybody but me — "Did he leave her, or did she leave him?" — I'm thinking of getting a bumper sticker. On the other hand, I might be putting myself at a disadvantage. "He left me" is the badge of the undesirable. No one wants a woman who's been dumped. But a man? The word is barely out before lines form with the thousands of women who want to kiss it all better.
You think I exaggerate, but I can quote you actual statistics. If one thinks of life as a game of musical chairs, there are roughly eight million women who don't have a place to sit down when the music stops.
Meantime, I've been to a party! (Having found myself suddenly in such social demand, I had to beg off on a second invitation, to attend a candida support group sponsored by the health-food store.)
So this was my first, albeit rather exclusive, party. I say "exclusive" because it was hosted by none other than Isabel Lyons, who is, as you know, another local rejectee, as were all of the other guests. A stellar group. Had I left you, I would never have been invited. So there was that one prerequisite, the perception being that we were all abandoned, emotionally devastated, sexually deprived, middle-aged women suffering from terminal loneliness who were desperate for something to do.
"The important thing," Isabel had said when she called, "is to keep busy."
As it happened, I had been quite busy, busy at not being any of those things. Frankly, I didn't want to be linked with the Victims. That wasn't the way I saw myself, as somebody to feel sorry for. They were all running out and buying The Road Less Traveled, whereas I got more out of Miss Manners's "Advice to the Rejectee." " ... A broken heart is a miserably unpleasant thing," she writes, "making one feel ugly and unattractive, an enormous disadvantage when courting others."
That was the next step, wasn't it? Courting? One day, I might be ready. In the meantime, if I felt ugly and unattractive, it was only in your presence. When you said you were leaving, that was when my modesty returned. I was suddenly shy getting dressed. My body cast me in shame, as it had when I was thirteen and nothing seemed to be growing according to the normal plan. The horrors of the girls' locker room returned, and, once again, I became deft at sliding one garment out from under another. The nightgown was over my head before the shirt slipped off my shoulders.
There were the three months before you actually left, three months in which I never let my body out from under cover, never let you see all that had turned unlovable. I was still your wife. But I was diminished by being naked in a room with a man who no longer wanted me.
Excerpted from To My Ex-Husband by Susan Dundon. Copyright © 2007 Susan Dundon. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow and Co., Inc..
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