under submission

Even after our divorce, I didn’t meet my ex-husband’s new wife for three years, well after they had finally married and I had taken back my maiden name. Holding her close, he protected her—and he was right to do so, for I hated her more fiercely than I could begin to measure.

He and I had lived together for twenty-three years and had been married for eighteen of those. We were raising two teenaged children. I let myself believe that we were happy—even as we moved apart into a mutual silence we both continued to ignore. When the depressive side of my bipolar illness worsened, I made a suicide attempt, but upon my return home from the mental hospital a few weeks later, I discovered I could no longer turn to my husband for support. Looking into his eyes was like looking into a mirror: I saw only my own drawn face reflected there. We were both alone, even as we slept in the same bed.

We began weekly sessions with a marital therapist that were grueling. Mostly, I sobbed my way through both truth and rejection, as he told me why he no longer wanted to live with me. The psychologist treating us said to me in private that a high-powered man generally uses his job as a substitute mistress. If I gave him time, she promised, his interest in the marriage would return. But time proved her wrong—instead of returning, he left.

Through friends who obviously did not understand my angst at being put aside, I heard he now reveled in a freedom not enjoyed since college. Soon he was keeping company with one particular woman. She was a different sort of “trophy” catch, the grapevine said, beautiful and high-powered, smart and successful—the perfect match for a smart and successful man. Of a modern generation, she held three Ivy League graduate degrees and had dedicated herself to her career. Now she was ready for more.

Over the next year, he and I sat next to each other at attorneys’ tables as we moved through the rigors of the blameless divorce we fancy in the U.S. today. My divorce was different than my own parents’ vicious split twenty-six years before; theirs had been rife with accusations, anger and culpability. Despite our civilized attitudes with one another, my husband was now hurting me just as grievously as my mother hurt my father when she left him back in 1972. The anguish over being deserted never changes.

My soon-to-be “ex” was aloof during our wrestlings over alimony—though we had no issues with the shared custody we both wanted for our children. However, at the same time there was also a peculiar kind of ambiguity in his approach to me: it was a love for the history and the happier times we had shared, I would later realize, rather than desire for me as a woman, or for our marriage as a recoverable union.

But that ambiguity led me to hope once again for a reconciliation. Even our attorneys, sensing it, urged us to reunite. I continued to count on time to bring him back, though the legal process ground inexorably forward, even while I heard of the places to which his new paramour and he were happily traveling: visiting one of our children who was spending a semester in France, going to the Olympics in Australia with friends who had once been our friends. Yet, on the night we met to sign the final papers,we both cried and then hugged each other long and hard.

Scalded by that remembered love, I fled the home in which we had raised our children and sold my share to him, buying a smaller house in another town. Together they moved in, and so my children were able to sleep in their childhood bedrooms during his custody every other week. In time, he married her.

Yet, after a while, my devastation over his remarriage started to change, and my feelings about his new wife also began to ease, though it was a slow evolution. Hatred gradually gave way to jealousy and jealousy gradually shifted to a new emotion I was hard put to name. I heard different kinds of stories about his new wife now, coming from my children instead of the neighbors. They told me that only hours before her wedding, she had helped my absentminded eldest find the pair of black socks needed to match a suit, and later showed my industrious youngest how to iron a rumpled shirt collar before that first foray into the world of dating.

Back from their honeymoon, she began to teach herself how to cook, so that on their weeks with the kids she could feed them something other than pizza. She was good at offering both counsel and succor, and little by little, she became a Mom away from Mom. Reluctantly, I began to realize that, as much as I might resent it, she was supporting my children emotionally in ways for which I should only be grateful.

Ordinarily when I picked the kids up at their house, I stayed in my car and honked the horn, nervous that I might encounter her. But one day, several years after they had married, I came in the drive to give my youngest a ride back to my place, and when I arrived I did not sound the horn. With legs shaky beneath me, I made my way up to the stoop and rang the bell.

She opened the door. Somehow, she did not look surprised.

I put out my hand, and she grasped it with firmness.

“Thanks for taking such good care of my kids,” I said.

“I love them, too,” she replied.

Somehow her affection didn’t bother me anymore. I felt glad that she loved them, in her own way. She had no children of her own: now she shared mine. “I’ve thought we should meet for quite a while.”

She smiled and with that expression, I suddenly saw her quiet kind of charm: she was not at all the hard schemer I had envisioned. And with that revelation came the start of a new decade between us.

In 2009, I remarried with joy, in a white wedding dress that symbolized to me the virtue of an old life refreshed rather than the purity of a life just begun. I had healed, I realized. In accepting her, I had accepted the divorce, and in accepting the divorce I had embarked anew. I renovated my home on the hill and grew happy living in it. My ex and I discovered we could once again have lunch together and enjoy reminiscing about other times. Our spouses felt secure enough to support our reborn friendship.

The two of them began to come over at Christmas-time for drinks and to vicariously enjoy our decorations for a holiday they did not celebrate; when I started to raise Dalmatians and each new litter of puppies arrived in our whelping box, they scooped up the fragile creatures in their hands and exclaimed over the miracle of such a beginning. Eventually they asked me to help them interview a breeder for the kind of dog they had chosen, and the three of us went together to visit the prospective sire and dam.

Time went on and she sometimes confided in me and I in her. We conferred by phone and by email. We had lunch on our own, and discussed not only the challenges our family of six naturally encountered, but our personal lives as well. Without even realizing it, we had become friends of a sort—distant in some ways and yet intimate in others. I might never go shopping or to the movies with her, yet I would share with her some of my most private thoughts. Family had initially bound us together, but ultimately it was we who had taken the risk of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with each other.

At the 100th birthday celebration of my former father-in-law, to which my husband and I had been invited, I embraced my former rival at the front door of the house where I had once been mistress, and brought her a ceramic pot of orchids I had planted myself. At dinner, I sat to her left, while she sat in my old spot at the head of the table, in the dining room whose paint color remained the shade I had chosen nearly a decade and a half before. Where once I had been hostess, now I was a welcome guest.

My ex still sat at the foot of the table that had once hosted our Christmas dinners and Seder rituals. But this time it was not he who drew my attention. As I sat there that night conversing with her, I was not certain he even began to understand the extraordinary path onto which love had led us. He knew we were all comfortable again, and for him, that was enough. What I remarked upon was that we, his former and current wives, together applauded our mutual centenarian father-in-law as amiably as sisters who got along. Not even the wisdom of his father’s hundred years could have brought about the kind of sea change we had created for ourselves.

Sitting at my old dinner table seemed odd, but it did not rankle. No longer did I feel pain at having been replaced. Instead, there was only the wonder that came from recognizing how much we all had gained—rather than how much I had lost. Forgiveness had brought me peace. And in that peace, friendship and love took root and held fast.

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