NOVEMBER 11, 2020
SURE, IT WAS EXACERBATED. Who isn’t fighting with their spouse, their children, their mother on the phone, quarantined and alone, wanting talk of any kind?
Everyone is fighting — our space is too small. My husband stays in the office while my older daughter yells at me and my younger daughter asks and asks and asks to play.
When we first heard the news, I couldn’t imagine getting through one day in the house, stuck and anxious without the energy to entertain. Like all of you — all of us — and yet, some of you will come out still married.
People say that when the virus ends there will be many divorces. Not yet, as the courts are still closed. All the couples are waiting for the doors to open, and then the numbers will go up. I can’t get my wedding ring off of my finger.
When we got engaged, my husband and I drove out to Long Island to have the ring sized by an old Diamond District guy who had injured himself and couldn’t make it back to his shop. He invited us to his home, and we went.
I knew the kind of man he was as soon as I saw the pictures of his son on his wall. His son, who no longer spoke to him. I used to have lots of opinions.
When he was finished sizing, the ring was still big. His quiet wife showed me her ring finger in the kitchen, and the way it had morphed her skin, denting it above the web.
“It’s good to get it a bit big,” she said, and I laughed, asking my then-fiancée why everyone presumed I would get fat.
When it was time to pay, I took out my checkbook and my fiancée took out his. We were splitting the cost, which did not bother me. I was in love.
“Oh, no,” the jeweler said when I handed him my payment.
“Shhh,” said his wife.
I was relieved that my fiancée hadn’t heard that the jeweler thought he should pay for all of it. Again, I looked at the photos of his son in military gear on the wall and wondered if he was schizophrenic. Sometimes you can see the son in the father.
Not that the diamond guy was that. He was just full of ideas, and talented and brilliant, inventing new ways to make jewelry, and one of the finest artisans in the field.
But his house didn’t show it. His wife’s ring didn’t show it. The only reason I knew about him is that my first husband had found him to make my first engagement ring.
There you have it. I’m 44 and a two-time divorcee. All the reasons this happened make sense if you look at the factors, the days, and the years, and yet when I hear the phrase, when I say it, it sounds like I’m talking about someone else. I’ve had two beautiful rings, but I sold the diamond from the first one when I left my first husband to avoid taking my father’s advice and going on food stamps.
I can’t get my second ring off my finger. Windex, I read. The dental floss trick. I told my small daughter I might have to get it cut off and she said, sadly, that that was not what I should do. I thought about the other ring, the first ring, and how, even diamond-less, it was beautiful. I planned to save it for my older daughter. If I didn’t save this ring, what would my younger one do?
One truth is: Probably nothing. Everyone on both sides of both of my daughters’ families have been divorced. I can’t imagine how my daughters will one day fall in love after seeing all this mess — all this heartache. But like pregnancy, like having a child, like getting married and getting divorced, you can’t ever really know it until it is your own. When my daughters fall in love it won’t look like the love lost that they have witnessed. It will feel like something new.
My first husband and I honeymooned in Sardinia. We fought, made up, and fought again. He got an earache halfway through from swimmer’s ear. We met another couple who were veterinarians but seemed to think that they knew how to treat him. They said with authority he should do this and that, but they were used to dog’s ears. Or cats.
I have lovely pictures from our honeymoon, and I used to have an amazing tea set we bought there, but my first husband got it in the divorce. When I was leaving, he also made me sign a paper saying that I was giving him the TV in exchange for the engagement ring. My mother had bought me the TV. The fact that he thought the TV and the ring were a fair trade at that point, was not a surprise. I took my daughter and left.
And then years of worry, of fear. Years sitting and waiting on the hard benches in family court. Years afraid of losing my daughter. Years of lawyers, one who whispered to me outside the courtroom, “It’s all about the money for you, huh?” The same lawyer and my lawyer getting into a standing fight, their chests together as we sat in the small room of the judge’s assistant, trying to settle without a trial.
I can hear my daughter’s cries with the air conditioner on and the door closed. I wake up, even if she is still in her room, confused from a night terror, on another floor. When I go to her, she’s crying for me, but when I try to hold her, she pushes me away, climbing around her bed, frantically looking for a way out. When I finally hold her for long enough, she lies back down, tears still falling as she sleeps. She remembers none of it in the morning.
My parents stayed together for the kids. They fought quietly, behind two sets of doors that they installed to do so. When they divorced, their friends were shocked. One said, “They deserve Oscars.” No one knew.
I’ve tried not to be like that. I’ve tried to be myself the same inside the house and out. But look where it’s gotten me. All the awards I won are from high school.
The saddest thing is to see the love and hope, and then to know the ending. To see pictures of my beautiful mother at 19 with a rose stem in her mouth, the red of the rose yellowed from the lighting below, my father the photographer.
I have so many pictures. When I left my first husband, I put all of them into a box and sealed it. For (my daughter) when she is ready, I wrote on a piece of paper before taping up the top.
When will she be ready to see her parents on their wedding day, her father looking so happy, although really he was just drunk? He was such a nice drunk, I never noticed how much he was drinking. I had a boyfriend in college that was like that too. I should have known, I should have known. It was the sober times that sucked.
My older daughter has only one memory from before we left her dad. It is vague, but something about coming out of the bathroom with toilet paper in her hand. She said we had all laughed together: my three-year-old daughter, my then-husband and myself.
Before my first husband and I had our daughter, when I was pregnant and settled in my marriage/family plan, he decided he wanted to compete in a discus event for over-30s upstate. I was encouraging. My mom bought him a discus. He said he was going to go to the park at dawn each morning to practice. But he never did.
At the event, he came in third out of three competitors. He got a medal, and I never told anyone that he had come in last. I had learned from my mother that men were fragile. Despite the way they might seem.
Not that I am some kind of authority on anything. I am a two-time divorcee.
My second husband, my COVID-19 husband, my sweet and gentle husband who is the love of my life, is a more complex story. But the point is, each divorce is very different. There was no COVID-19 the first time.
With my second husband, our couples’ therapist once said in a way that sounded surprised or in awe, that despite all of our very real and unsolvable problems, he was amazed that we still wanted to be together. We kept together through weekly sessions, the therapist ultimately asking to see us separately as we were not making any progress, blaming each other, unable to bend. When we finally decided to separate, I asked the therapist if he saw it coming. “It was impossible from the start,” he said, which startled me. And all that time I had been worried we were depressing him.
Right now, I am at an Airbnb in Connecticut on July 4. There are fireworks and my two daughters from two separate husbands are sleeping on different floors. My younger daughter sleeps on the third floor beneath a circular window; my older one sleeps in a room with a balcony right outside the sliding glass door. The fireworks are quieter than they are in the city.
Is it that other people just stay together, furious at each other, anxious in each other’s presence, no longer remembering the selves that held rose stems between their teeth? Does everyone stay for the children, and then the grandchildren, slowly watching as their fingers swell, their husbands stoop, their skin crinkles but their laps pause, always ready for a new baby to hold?
A long time ago, I learned that despite how fragile a man might be when the doors are closed and the two of you are alone in bed, none of that is to be repeated outside the room, and that everyone knew this but me. Like a lot of things, I think. It is the same feeling I had when I had a baby and learned that if you didn’t bring a paper and ink to make a placenta print, no one was going to do it for you.
Half-groggy from my epidural, and from hours of labor in which my second daughter’s heart rate was dangerously high, the placenta was a surprise. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it when I had my first daughter, but for some reason the placenta was placed before me this time.
It looked like the Tree of Life. Like the one that they had on the front wall of my childhood synagogue. You had to pay in order to have your families’ name printed on a gold plaque which someone calligraphed and someone nailed so that it looked like leaves on the branches.
Rachel Sherman is the author of the short story collection The First Hurt (Open City Books, 2006). She teaches fiction in the MFA Program at Columbia University and leads the Ditmas Writing Workshops. Her novel, Living Room (Open City Books, 2009), was commended for its “perfect pacing” by The New York Times Book Review.