I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads. All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.
Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.
I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).
Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.
Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.
Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.
I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.
Others I don’t.
Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.
Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.
Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.
Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.
I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.
I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.
I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.
But only once.
Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.
My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.
“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.
“You told me I get to make mistakes.”
“You made yours,” she says.
We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.
“You don’t get to say that.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.
Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.
It doesn’t sound so bad, really.
And yet, it is not my path.
I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.
“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?
“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.
“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”
Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.
Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”
I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.
Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.
I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.
I was wrong.
I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter. It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.
And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it. I’m sick. Sore throat. Heavy eyes. Headache. Exhausted. It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count. No beach and BBQ to distract me. I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.
Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year. I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago. He was in Seattle, dating another woman. We were pretty transparent about these things. At times, painfully so.
But I was coming back to Seattle. To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin. To “our life,” altered as it was.
It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.
Labor Day was a blur through tears. Then his birthday. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Our wedding anniversary. And my birthday. In quick succession.
Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do. I didn’t yet have a house.
Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support. We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.
I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house. She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.
I don’t recall his birthday or mine. Or our anniversary. What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years. A hand-carved wooden jewelry box. A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting. Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.
Halloween passed without fanfare.
Then Thanksgiving hit hard. I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend. She also told me that once invited, always invited.
Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California. Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.
Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months. We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.” We were in complete denial that he was gone.
Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP. We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11. The airport was spooky quiet.
We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle. We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same. The only constant was that we were together.
I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house. He was noticeably absent. Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up. I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone. He had already gone to bed.
I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends. Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving. My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do. I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto. He would bake. Christmas Day we would go to a movie.
We were both pretty heartsick. Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance. We found comfort talking with one another.
New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house. I didn’t make it until midnight.
The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass. My ex rented a house that backed up to a river. It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors. We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles. I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah. I never used them.
We bickered on the trails. He was a cross-country skate skier. I was not. In our early years together I took a few lessons and got moderately better. But I never really got the hang of it. We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after. Sometimes both. It worked. Until it didn’t. When I didn’t drink anymore.
That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared. I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, while he skied hard, the way he liked to.
This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another. They were sad. We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words. I blogged about it.
By March it was over. He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.
I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle. He joined us. It didn’t seem unusual at the time.
This year I celebrated twice. Once at my friend Mary Jo’s. A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street. There were 12 of us. Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests. My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me. It didn’t feel so lonely. Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.
Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t.
June 19 was the anniversary of our first date. I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.
July 4. An entire cycle completed. Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night. That will be later this month. I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.
The sun is going down. It is noisy outside. I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park. July 4 felt like a war zone.
I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met. He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce. He’s a good hugger. Nice looking. I don’t have any feelings about him. But I’d like to get to know him better.
I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.
I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob. I read, napped, wrote and napped some more. I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.
It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone. Caring for myself. Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.