Extreme stress wreaks havoc on one’s memory. Everything I’m describing took place less than three years ago (is that right, is that even possible? Was it four? Jesus. I am nearly 43; we rented the apartment the week of my 40th birthday. So, yes, less than three. It does not seem possible that it has been that long; it also does not seem possible for so much to have changed in such a short time.) But writing about the divorce in chronological order turns out to be much more difficult than I thought; for one thing, it’s hard to be sure I’m doing justice to what occurred, telling the truth and only the truth, leaving nothing out, adding nothing in. I keep worrying I’m messing something up. I have no journal to refer to, because my husband was reading my journal (or trying to) during the most dreadful, high-pitched months of separation, so eventually I stopped writing. I’ve got no other primary sources–even my outgoing emails were severely self-censored. I was also drinking way too much, which is hardly an aid to cogent recall. So forgive me if I lose my train of thought, or sometimes double back over things, and please tell me if you think I’ve whitewashed anything worth delving into, or if I’ve simply left something vital out. My own memory is not to be trusted.
I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes trying to remember just how our first and only session with the mediator began. I believe that she and I faced each other, with her desk between us, while my husband sat as far away from me as he could, at the end of a sofa on the other side of the room. Probably my husband and I were meant to sit together, but I could not bear the proximity. Just being in the same room with him made me queasy with anxiety; after four months of passing like ships in the night, I found that I could barely bring myself to look at him, could hardly hear the mediator through the roaring in my ears. It seemed ridiculous even at the time–I had lived half my life with this man, slept next to him for thousands of nights, borne his children! But I would have signed away all our money without question, as well as the house, the cars, furniture, everything except the kids and the dog–I’d beg for custody, then go on the lam, I figured–if I could have fled the mediator’s office that moment without looking back.
She started asking simple questions in her kind, soft voice–what we did for a living, whether we had children, how old they were, how we thought they were handling the separation. I found it almost impossible to answer with my husband glowering in the background. He wrung his hands ceaselessly, staring at the wall. The mediator gently persisted. How long had we been separated? What were our biggest concerns in the divorce? What did we feel we needed help with?
Well, sitting in the same room might be a good start, I thought. How, pray tell, will we ever manage to get divorced if we can’t even sit in the same room together?
But we were paying for the session, and I could not bear the thought of still more money–we did nothing but waste money, it seemed–swirling uselessly down the drain. So I answered, ending every sentence with a pathetic “Right?” and a desperate glance at my husband, who nodded angrily, but said nothing. We had, I told her, been living separately since February. We had shared an apartment and gone back and forth (“Oh, birdnesting!” she said, writing on her legal pad) for a few months, until that became impossible to sustain. The children were doing quite well. We agreed about them, just as we now agreed that divorce was inevitable. (“Right?” I said, again and again. “Right?”)
We had been together for a very long time, I explained. “How long?” the mediator asked, and my voice caught and broke as I told her. Seventeen years, I said, married for thirteen. We had started out as college students. Every single thing we had we’d accumulated together, from the house right down to the bathmat from Target on the stupid bathroom floor. Who would get the bathmat, and who would pay for the other person to buy a new one? We had absolutely no idea where to start.
Looking back it seems preposterous. You may think I’m using the bathmat as a symbol; in point of fact (though we were not so far gone as to actually discuss it in the mediator’s office, at two hundred dollars an hour) both my husband and I were quite worried about the bathmat. Did the bathmat stay with the house, or did my husband get to take it with him? Was it unfair for him to take it, or unfair for me to buy a nice brand new one while he made do with the old? Was the marital bathmat an asset or a liability, a victory (I got the bathmat!) or an insult (oh, sure, leave ME the old bathmat, thanks a bunch.) The beginning of divorce is marked by a profound lack of perspective. You don’t know what you’ll need in your new life. How can you, when you haven’t the foggiest idea what that new life will entail? I kept thinking of Steve Martin in The Jerk, padding through his house with his pants around his ankles, grabbing this thermos and that chair and this paddle ball and whatever else he could carry, because he was leaving, and those particular items were All He Needed.
We have no clue, no fucking clue, I chanted in my head, as the mediator’s questions became more focused on finances, and as my husband, who knew what she was talking about, began to speak up. Look at us–we’re like children. I don’t even know what our MORTGAGE payments are, for crying out loud. I have never filed a tax return. I have no idea how much money we have in any of our accounts. I have no idea how much money I need to live on every month. We have no business getting divorced–christ, we apparently had no business even being married. It’s amazing that we’ve managed to function in the world at all.
“How accustomed are you both to talking about money?” the mediator asked. My husband and I laughed together for the first time.
“Obviously, not at all,” I said. “We’ve always agreed about money. We never talk about it.”
“What words come into your mind when you think about getting divorced?” she asked my husband, in her kind voice.
“Anger. Betrayal,” he said. He did not look up.
“And what words come into your mind?” she asked, turning to me.
“Anger, I suppose,” I said. Anger was his purview, of course–he’d staked it out, right from the beginning. But the mediator had no way of knowing that only he was allowed to feel anger. “Sadness, of course,” I went on. “And guilt.”
The mediator began to straighten her desk, a signal that our session was almost over. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t think the two of you are quite ready, or quite right, for mediation.”