(This is the first in a short series of posts)

No one is going to believe you that BOTH your husbands were crazy, Paul tells me, No one is going to want to be with a woman who has had two husbands.

I’m not suggesting you are crazy, I say quietly, for the five hundred, seventy-five thousandth time.

No one is going to believe you.

I am exhausted.

It is early December, and the night before, I have driven out to Westchester because my friend JRA has let me know that her husband, my friend Pete, is sick and has gone into hospital. Pete has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, so colds and flus sometimes quickly escalate to pneumonia. He has had a few bouts with respiratory illness over the years, and in the event that JRA is called to the hospital overnight, I go to her house for moral support and to stay with Lady H…just in case.

There is a Sameness and a Difference in the case of Pete’s illness this time. A Sameness because he has had pneumonia before. A Difference because this came on so suddenly and with such a high fever that it feels…not the same.

But everything is fine overnight, and I am driving back to the city before the sun so I can have my mane blown out before my company Christmas party. I am listening to Merry Christmas, Darling, on repeat in my Volkswagen Jetta – a far cry from the days when I was driving back from the burbs listening to Merry Christmas, Darling in my Jaguar.

Everything is different.

The ensuing day is long, and my hair looks good, and I am cautious not to drink too much at the party because I tell JRA, If anything changes, call me!

Before sunrise on Saturday morning, the phone rings, and I am on the road back to Westchester. Pete is critically ill, and has gone into cardiac arrest, and things Do Not Look good. I arrive at the hospital to take instruction and to take care of Lady H for the day. I pull out my ever-ready Moleskine and I jot down where I need to go and when.

Then we get into my Jetta and I drive JRA back to her house because in her hurry to get to Pete overnight, she has driven to the hospital without her glasses. I wonder, briefly, what it would be like to love someone so much that I would to drive to him without my glasses.

I never miss Andrew, my first husband, on a normal day. But this is not a normal day. And I think about how, many years ago as JRA and Pete were getting together, Andrew had clucked softly and mused about the Inevitability of It All. Later, I had laughed with JRA about how Andrew and I hadn’t made it, but my friendship with JRA had. Andrew and I had had a Plan for Being There For JRA when these sorts of inevitabilities arose – he was the planner, not me, Semper Paratus and all that bullshit – but now here I was and he was not.

The main thing today is getting Lady H from place to place – taking her to breakfast; her music lesson; maybe a playdate; a birthday party in the evening – and being home for the delivery of JRA’s Christmas Tree. Her parents are coming down from Boston but I am coordinating logistics until the family can arrive and take over. I am back and forth; up and down; over around and through.

As I drive around Scarsdale playing Christmas music, I think about calling Andrew, but I remember that I don’t know his phone number. We only call each other in the office and I can find his office number on the internet. I want to scream at him: Where are you? Why am I driving this Jetta and not my beloved Jaguar in that stupid red that you made us get that I got all those speeding tickets in? Remind me again of what the plan was: How did I get here?

But I don’t know how to reach him and everything feels broken.

I have been running errands and chauffeuring Lady H around all morning. At midday, I pick Lady H up from her music lesson and since it is too early to take her to a playdate, I take her to JRA at the hospital. JRA has her record a message for Daddy because his condition is very serious. I leave my car with them in it in the hospital’s front drive to give them a moment of privacy; I walk around the corner in the freezing December mid-day and I dry-heave. I don’t know how to cry, and I don’t know how to vomit, and I don’t know how to reach my first husband, and any one of those things seems like it might be good to know how to do today.

When they are finished, I take Lady H home, and Grandma and Papa, JRA’s parents, are arriving. We cannot find the Christmas tree stand in advance of the arrival of the family Christmas tree. Grandma and I go up to the third floor to search for it – but I am unfamiliar with the crannies of JRA’s large, old home. Empty handed, we come downstairs to sit and talk, and wait. The hardest work in these situations is the waiting. Later, we scour the basement for the tree stand because the waiting is unbearable.

Families, like old houses, are complex.

Later, I take one last sweep of the third floor for the tree stand before giving up. As I stand up from the crawl space, I hit my head on the low ceiling. I see stars. I crouch down to the ground while I try to regain my balance. It is then that I text RHJ, who has been asking all day how he can be helpful. I say: Could you take the train out to Scarsdale and drive my car home?

We take Lady H to a birthday party that evening, but neither the Christmas tree nor the tree stand ever materialises. RHJ arrives to drive me home in my car. My hair is still curled from the party the night before; my head is throbbing from the bump on the beam. I still do not know what happened to my Jaguar or to Andrew’s phone number or what I am supposed to be doing now.

And all I can think is that this is not my house. And not my car. And not my husband.

How did I get here?

I am genuinely exhausted, and per usual, have a file full of drafts and no output.  Blame this on an epically weird March that bleated in like a wee lamb, and roared out like Lambert the Sheepish Lion.

But as I try to resolve some things this week leading into Easter, I suddenly remembered this:

My cheating ex-boyfriend Bill had, at one point, had abdominal surgery.  It had happened when he was a baby, and he had no memory of it.  It had, however, left him with a ghostly but impressive scar across his stomach.  In addition to the scar on his stomach, he had an abnormally perfect belly-button.

I was fascinated by this; am generally fascinated by belly-buttons.  A little known fact about me is that I had a belly-button ring from the time I was 18 until the day I separated from my husband.  Weird WASP that he was, he loved it.  I think he thought it was somehow subversive.  He had a diamond-and-sapphire in white gold belly-button ring made for me.

I don’t regret taking the jewelry out.  But sometimes I miss that flash of sparkle on my torso.

Anyway, I think navels are fascinating.  And I’m not sure what came over me one afternoon, but I somehow managed to convince Bill that his belly-button was…”fake.”

You know, I said, I am pretty sure that your belly-button is artificial.  I mean, women who have tummy-tucks have fake belly-buttons made for them.  I am sure that’s what they did to you.  People who have abdominal surgery have fake belly-buttons made all the time.

The poor kid freaked.  This went on for hours, with me explaining in excruciating detail about how he might’ve acquired an artificial belly-button, and how the doctors might’ve created one for him.  I think I might have even told him about how some people are born without belly-buttons and how they have to create special navel cavities for those people.

(NB: that’s simply not possible.  Everyone has a belly-button.  You can lose your belly-button, but you cannot not have one.)

He eventually became so horrified that he called his mother to confirm whether his belly-button was, in fact, real — or whether it was even his original belly-button.

I was in the background cackling while he was on the phone and his saintly, bemused mother explained to him that the doctors had left his umbilical cord attached while they performed his surgery, so yes, he did have his original belly-button; no the surgeons had not had to fashion him a new one; and by the way, was he drunk?

The answer was: No, Ma, not drunk.

He got off the phone; was embarrassed and horrified; and that was the end of that.

This is what I do to men.  I work them into the sort of frenzy where they become convinced that they’velost their belly-buttons.  This is probably why I don’t date.

But as I come up on the one-year mark of the car accident, and Bill not showing up at my hospital bedside, and me finding out about his indiscretions, I have to say that there were funny some moments in that relationship.

We say that the rule in my house is that you don’t mess with me (it’s typically stated in a much more succinct and hostile way, but for the sake of ladylike discourse, we’ll state it thusly).  And once I am messed with…well, hold on to your belly-buttons, boys!

I admit there are myriad impracticalities inherent in being a kayak-owning Manhattanite.

To date, this has not caused me to give up my boat.

How, you ask, did I come into possession of a kayak in the first place?

I was in my early twenties, and living in Washington, when a kayak seemed like a good idea.  I was leaving George, getting together with Andrew, and I’d gone out to San Francisco for my cousin’s wedding and to say “goodbye” to George’s family, with whom I’d always been extremely close.

George’s father caught me on the LL Bean website one night, looking at kayaks.

What are you going to do with that; with a kayak?

Row the Potomac, I think.

We looked at each other, and in an instant, he knew that I was gone.  George’s parents drove me to the Oakland Airport the next day, with Luka Bloom’s Sunny Sailor Boy playing prophetically on the car radio.  They hugged me extra hard at the departures driveway and we exchanged “I Love Yous” like we always did.  I never saw them again.

I went back to Washington, where I bought a 13.5 ft Perception Carolina kayak, and I’ve had it ever since.

Andrew had a kayak, too, and we would take them out on the lakes around Washington; out on the Potomac.  My law school experience was, in many ways, characterized by boating.  Bad day?  To the river!  Good day?  To the river! 

In winter, the river would freeze, and we’d wait for the thaw; wait for the cherry trees to bloom, and the water to rush angrily around the Three Sisters.  As the spring came, the trees in the backyard of our house in Burleith would shower our boats with blossoms and fuzz.  There was some kind of magic in the spring cleaning — the warmish day when we could justify hosing out the boats and loading them on to the car.  Then off to Thompson Boathouse in the trusty old Volvo station wagon!

We moved to New York six years ago, and the boats went to Connecticut.  I learned to kayak on Long Island Sound; retrofitted my boat with a rudder myself because the water was just a wee bit too choppy for me.  We would go out on weekends and holidays; it was the thing that kept me sane while I studied for the Bar Exam.

Watersports were the one thing that my ex-husband and I did together: sailing; kayaking.  But I am a Pisces and he had a fear of drowning, despite his skills at sea.  We were doomed — our shared interest was no match for the Atlantic.  My kayak stayed in Connecticut.

In October of this past year, the time had come for me to retrieve it.  I picked it up after I ran the Hartford Marathon — me, strong, still wearing my finisher’s medal.  I strapped the boat to the roof of a rental car.  Where does one keep a kayak in Manhattan, though?  Storage?  There were no facilities large enough.  My then-significant other offered his parents’ house on the lake, so we drove it there.  His parents were nice enough to wrap it up and store it properly; they had experience with boats.

But here’s the thing: having bought the boat out of a failed relationship; having retrieved it out of a divorce, I knew that drydocking couldn’t last forever.  The boat was mine; my responsibility; my cross to bear.  No one in their right mind was going to store it for me indefinitely without either wanting to take it from me, or wanting me for keeps.

So the time came, again, to take back the boat.  This time it was messier; the man with my boat wouldn’t return my phone calls; wouldn’t give me a straight answer about anything, least of all my kayak.  My Perception Carolina sat in purgatory.

In that boat, I had rowed my way through my breakup with George.  I had kayaked my way through my father’s grisly open-heart surgery.  I had navigated the Potomac in inclement weather in uncertain days at the end of law school and I had taken on the challenge of the Sound while terrified about the Bar Exam.  Andrew and I had faced the swells off of Pear Tree Point, together and apart, as we knew our marriage was failing.

I had given up so much in relationships in my twenties into my thirties: time, money, dogs, furniture, cars.  I had walked away from material possessions; people.  I had swallowed anger; I had kept my cool; I had tried to take the high road.

But for all these years, and all these moves, I have been kept afloat on those 13.5 feet of red-orange plastic, and I don’t plan to give it up, just yet.

And to the man standing between me and my kayak: this isn’t your life.  Those aren’t your memories.  That wasn’t your father on the table, or your mother-in-law you needed a break from.  That wasn’t you, sobbing on the Potomac when you found out your beloved grandfather was dying.

You already took everything that wasn’t nailed down.

That’s not your fucking boat.

I debated with myself, yesterday, before sending the message that asked, “Are you free? Can you call me at the office?”  I left off the “please.”

A few hours later, he called.

Hi, it’ s me.

Hi. 

I acknowledged his “me,” picking up exactly where I didn’t want to pick up — recognising the voice that I would always know.  I paused.  Then:  I ran into Jay in the dog park on Sunday.  I don’t know if you already knew that.

I didn’t.  He and I don’t talk as much as we used to.

He said that he was an avid reader of my blog.

He laughed.  What do I care about that anymore?  I’m so beyond being that…character that you crafted.  And what’s Jay going to do?  Tell our old colleagues about me? 

He said it with such disdain — presumably commenting on the caricature of him that I’d created over the years and not on my request for a call — as if nothing in the world could have mattered less to him than our former colleagues.

It struck me, suddenly, that he didn’t get it — didn’t understand why I was telling him that I’d bumped into someone we both knew.  He didn’t seem to recognise that someone was reading the writing in which I’d discussed the nature and extent of our chaotic, twisted, star-crossed relationship; that I had written about our dinners; I’d written about the dates and timing of things.

That the timing of things did not line up.

So his carelessness seemed misplaced; callous; silly.  He seemed to have forgotten that one of those inconsequential former colleagues was now his wife.

We talked for a few more moments; he asked me how I was.  I told him about being hit by the car; about being cheated on; about London.  He told me he’d bought a house in New Jersey.  He didn’t mention his spouse; their wedding; the last four months.  I told him I’d never read his last email to me; he said I should read it.  I demurred.

The confusing words started to spill out again: soulmate; seventy; future; old; us; inevitable.  I stopped him.

So he said Lunch?

I said No. 

He asked Why?

I said For the obvious reasons.

He said Sometimes lunch is just lunch.

And I said Not between us.

He laughed.  And I laughed.  Not in that nervous way, but in that way that two people do; two people who know each other by heart; two people who will never fully change.

After leaving the office, I went for a long, intense run in Central Park with my running club.  Then I called a friend to recap the conversation.

How do you tolerate that?  she asked.  How do you handle this man who comes back into your life and wants these things from  you?

It used to make me angry — so angry — and I felt devalued and devastated and my heart would break like glass.  And then I realised how much he loved me: he loved me enough not to marry me.  He loved me enough to protect me from himself.

She mulled that one over for a moment, and seemed to take the answer in stride.

It’s like a soap opera, she said, I just don’t know how you do it.

I went home, barely making it in the door before the skies opened up and the rain exploded in fat droplets all over the Upper East Side.  I was greeted, upon arrival, by a message in my inbox from him — he’d forwarded that last message; the one I’d never read:

You’re right:  part of me, a big part, is just a fool.  I’m sorry.

I went to respond directly, but delved into the past again instead.  Did I really regret nothing?  Did he really love me enough not to marry me?  I found myself flipping through  notebooks again; piecing through old papers.

And there it was:  18 July 2008 — the ticket from the parking garage from our afternoon in Westchester; the day I’d picked him up from the hospital.

Which, of course, was yesterday’s date.

As if in a dream, I tore through my old notebooks to convince myself that none of the old love letters existed.

I never saved the electronic versions of the letters Frederic and I exchanged.  I would savor them for a day or two then delete.  I once said that I had done it on principle — so that he and I could grow and change as we both recovered.  In reality, I’d done it out of fear: afraid of the meaning; afraid of the power; afraid of the void there would be when the words turned to bullets and barbs.

And these are the things you learn when you are a little girl: the world is a big scary place; men are bad; things go to shit.  Best to be out of the blast radius when the world, men, and shit all go boom.

With a high fever on Monday and Tuesday, I felt strangely compelled to convince myself of the obvious — that the remnants of the lover had been purged and that only the demon remained.  It had been a year since I last saw him; three years since that day in Westchester.

So with the thermometer between my lips — beeping — reading 104.3, I sat on the floor of my bedroom, sifting through the contents of the envelopes glued to the backs of my many black notebooks.  Was I looking for an answer?  Was I looking for more questions? I had erased him.  What more did I need to know?

But I hadn’t.

As it so happened, I had obliterated only the Very Bad Man, and the lover remained instead.  I had, over the years, printed out hard copies of the letters in which he quoted speeches and poems; I had saved the pages where we had whispered in ink our fears and insecurities.  I had held on to the promises; the jokes; the intimate things that lovers say.

I had only purged the pain.

This can’t be, I thought, fever surging and swirling; head pounding.  This was a very bad man; they had been very bad days.  In his last letter to me, he’d said that he reduced our relationship to an “episode.”  How could I have kept the joy and released the sorrow?  How could I not have learned from my mistake?

But now, the fever has broken, and I realize this: I have learned.  To take the great joy away from a painful thing, without overthinking, is a gift I never thought I’d know.  For me to have been badly stung and yet rejoice in the beautiful, permanent part of the wound — that is perhaps the greatest legacy a Very Bad Man could ever have left me.

(Part Ten in my series on my six years in New York)

A triptych on falling in and out of love in downtown Manhattan.

Spring Street, 2006

I am the Mattress Queen;
Pallets piled seventy stories high.
Pillow tops;
Feather beds;
Comforters galore.
Sealy, Serta, Spring Aire…
Silly me.  I can still feel the pea

Preference, 2008

Long hair
is for Young women
And short hair
is for Mommies
And grey hair
is for Matrons,
Silver with
age and confidence
But my hair,
Flaxen,
And grab-worthy
For cinematic streetcorner kisses–
Lexington, Park–
uptown, downtown–
My hair,
Gentleman-preferred…
Is for you.

Battery Park City, 2009 

They don’t tell you
In the basement;
In the belly;
Of the Cathedral;
Silk-lace-beads-satin-tulle pillowed at your feet,
A mock-you standing in your stead.
As you pee;
As the warm streams out of you;
Out of your marriage parts,
They don’t tell you what it feels like to have emptied yourself.

And four years later,
They don’t tell you
In the silence;
In the tundra;
Of Battery Park City–
Surviving the simulacrum of seven years together —
As you look back
and wonder,
As the life surges into you;
Back into bones and blood and complexion;
They don’t tell you that the belly-moment
Was the moment to say No.

How to Tell if You Are Loved Unconditionally

(This post is based, in part, on a much earlier blog post, here)

Six years ago this week, I lost my grandfather, who was my favorite person in this big world, and I am confident that I was his.  I called him “Bop” because when I was a baby, he would pinch my little nose between his fingers and threaten to “bop” me on the nose.  And I would squeal with delight. 

I find grief to be a very strange animal.  And I thought that it would have subsided at some point over these six years.  Instead, it is still very present, very fresh.  It has changed, morphed, shifted, but it is still a part of me in a way that I didn’t expect. 

I had a wonderful relationship with my grandfather.  He was stern sometimes; he laughed easily at things I said at times when I didn’t want him to laugh; there were times when I thought I looked fantastic and he was at the door holding up a tissue demanding I take my lipstick off.  Even when he was laughing, he made me feel like everything I said was perfect, clever and like the most amazing thing that anyone had ever said.  Even as he demanded that I wipe off my lipstick, he still made me feel like I was the most beautiful girl on the planet.

For a girl who has lived with the voice of perfectionism pounding, screaming, yelling unrelentlessly in her head — that was powerful stuff.

When I was in law school, he was diagnosed with nasopharangeal cancer, which is typically quite curable.  But he was in his 90s then, and when you are a nonagenarian, “cure” means the same thing as “palliative care.”  So our phone calls got shorter, and few days before I was to graduate from Georgetown Law, I got a phone call from my mother telling me that it wouldn’t be long.  I was on a plane to Florida shortly thereafter, but I was already too late.

It was, needless to say, not the series of phone calls I had expected to receive leading up to my law school graduation.  I think I was “too late” by his own design, but I have this very strange feeling of lack of closure over the whole thing because there was no funeral; there was no “End.”  It was just “over” — someone I had loved so ferociously disappeared without so much as a goodbye, and there was no place for me to go and honor that grief, save for a small marker in a mausoleum in central Florida.

In the early 1990s, my grandparents had moved to a town in Florida about an hour or so outside of Orlando.  In the interest of full disclosure, and without any offense to anyone, I cannot stand Orlando.  I do not like anything about Disney.  My then-future inlaws were Disney fiends, and consumed all things Disney like gluttons at a Sizzler.  I, on the other hand, used to call the airport, “God’s Waiting Room” — all the snowbirds arriving at their 179-days-a-year homes; all the Babyboomers making their Last Trips, or their Second to Last Trips — their faces drained of color and devoid of emotion. 

And then, sprinkled in there, you had a heaping serving of over-sugared, screaming children; parents too tired to fight anymore; families at the brink.

I knew that I would one day make a Last Trip.  I just didn’t ever want to consider that. 

So when I arrived in Florida, in between finishing a Partnership Tax final and walking in my law school graduation, I was tasked with going through some of my grandfather’s things.   My grandmother, then in her mid-90s, was there to greet us when we arrived.

Each of us in the family fell off to doing whatever it was we had been assigned to do — returning cable boxes; putting stuff into or taking things out of storage; sending things to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

I fell into a trance taking items out of boxes and drawers and sorting them.  As I went through my grandfather’s stuff (and the man was a packrat), the only pictures I found in his room were the ones of me.  In his box of personal papers, I found a copy of my high school graduation speech and newspaper articles about me and letters I had written him.  Each souvenir had stayed with him throughout almost 20 years of moving to successively smaller places–from Philadelphia to Florida–and they were clearly the things he thought were the most important.

I also found shoeboxes full of every drivers’ license he’d ever had; his registration card and his YMCA card from his days at the University of Alabama; prescription pill bottles containing those quarters with the state emblems on them.  My mother pressed a few of the bottles into my hands as I left the next day — “Your inheritance,” she laughed. 

A year later, almost to the day, I got another phone call, telling me that I was needed in Florida.  It was time for my real Last Trip; my grandmother was dying.  I happened to be in California for a visit, so my mother and I made the trip together.  And we sat in rooms, and we did the work of mothers and daughters, and we waited.

We had gotten there in time this time, and we stood, three generations in and around a bed, for days, keeping watch, until the end.  That was five years ago yesterday.

My grandmother, for her part, loved  me unconditionally; made me laugh; made me smile; called me “Lovey;” was the kind of woman who always dressed up for dinner, even at the very end of her life — typically a blazer, usually red, and lipstick; always with the lipstick.

So to honor my grandparents, and this wonderful love that they gave me, I put a photo of me with them in the one empty frame on the wall in my apartment that is covered with family photos.  The picture had been snapped during their last trip to California; they had come for my high school graduation.

I hadn’t looked at the picture in many years — we were all laughing.  It had been taken before my grandfather had gotten sick; before my grandmother had given up completely.  And of course, my grandmother was wearing  her red blazer.  That night that the photo was taken, my grandmother had whispered, “They say that you are not supposed to have favorites, but you have always been mine.”  She said it once more after my grandfather died, and while I probably shouldn’t write it or say it, and maybe she said it to all her grandchildren…I always held on closely to being the favorite.

They say love cannot be proved, but in the things my grandfather kept, and in the words my grandmother whispered, I found empirical evidence of how much I was loved. 

So this grief that I thought would go away…it has not ebbed, just changed.  But I am constantly reminded in these small gems of love left behind — if you have loved and been loved unconditionally, you have been given courage; strength.  And I know that this deep grief is merely one expression of this deep love, all around me.