Let’s say one day you wake up, and it’s the day you’re scheduled to go to mediation with your ex-husband. But wait, no: He’s still officially your husband, which is why you’re going to mediation. The whole name thing, what to call him, has been tricky. You notice the date: three days shy of the 25th anniversary of your first kiss, the preferred anniversary because it felt more significant to both of you than your wedding day. It’s also three days shy of Hitler’s birthday. You used to joke about that, having your first kiss on Hitler’s birthday.
Now it feels like an omen.
At this point the two of you have been separated for a year and a half, and he lives across the country, and there aren’t any good relational nouns for such a person that you know of in the English language. So you go with ex.
On the morning in question, pre-mediation—you believe in mediation, in not going to war with the father of your children, if possible, although certain well-meaning friends have been making you second guess this—you’re standing naked in front of your closet, confused. You’re allowed to wear jeans to your own place of employment, but jeans don’t feel right for a meeting with your divorce lawyer in a fancy book-lined office. You’re slightly damp from the shower, shivering a bit. Your robe is hanging on the bathroom door, just out of reach. Should you grab it? Nah. It’s late. Just make a decision already and put on some clothes.
Your ex gave you that robe. You told him that’s what you wanted for your birthday, but still, he picked out a nice one. Soft yellow cotton, with a thick white terry interior. He had it shipped to the apartment, like any other package, so you opened it by accident. Sometimes catching sight of it now, hanging from the hook on the bathroom door, stabs at you.
The hurt always comes on suddenly, without warning, like the grief over your father, who died too early. Stupid things can trigger it. The sight of that robe. The Sleeping Gypsy at MoMA. Moss. Your father taught you about moss: how it grows, why it grows where it grows. Every time you see moss, you feel intense sadness. Do you know how much moss there is in the world? Too much.
Maybe you should get a new robe.
You’re still standing naked in front of your closet, inert. You’re pondering not only what to put on your body for a day at the lawyer’s but also what kind of armor might handle the slings and arrows of the rest of your life. Kevlar, you think. I should really find a thick Kevlar suit. You catch a glimpse of your naked body in the mirror.
Seriously, you think, who will ever love that. The saggy crinkling where the babies once were, like the surface of a sunken soufflé. Breasts with no purpose now other than growing small masses, like the one that caused you so much grief last year. What are they still doing there? They’re like the guests at the end of the party who can’t take the hint that it’s time to leave. Still, they’re yours. Slightly deflated and defeated, but fine. In certain bras they look decent enough. Sorry, breasts. You didn’t mean to insult them. They and their heavy symbolism can stick around and finish off the punch.
You turn halfway around, the better to see your ass. It used to be your least favorite part of your body. Now, comparatively, it doesn’t offend. Gravity has been kinder to it than to the other planes of your body. Its roundness is a welcome oasis in an otherwise Daliesque landscape. Dali’s dripping clocks live inside you too now, you’re sure, secretly ticking. You just can’t see them the same way you see your clavicles, which jut out like a hanger upon which the rest of your skin has been draped.
Skin and bones, your mother used to say. Lucky you, with that metabolism. Luck is not the word you would have chosen, but you’ve always been angular. Except for that brief moment in college, during the cafeteria food years, when you were round. You didn’t like the feeling of being round. You could actually feel the extra heaviness when you danced, walked, made love. You went on your first and last diet to get rid of the roundness. Then that parasite in Afghanistan made sure you’d never be round again except during your pregnancies, when you embraced your orblike self wholeheartedly. Recently, the stress of separation made you practically skeletal.
It was interesting being a little rounder and softer in college. It felt like being a different person. People—especially the male ones—treated you differently. You felt simultaneously more approachable and less fuckable: a paradox.
You met your ex at the tail end of the round years. You felt approachable and fuckable. Photos from that year, 1990, show you at your most sublime. After that, it all went downhill. Whatever beauty to which you might have once laid claim faded. As did the love for your ex, which unraveled in fits and starts. Things started to go downhill as early as 1995, the year your first child was born. You realized that, though technically partnered, you were on your own.
But you believed in marriage, in the vows you’d made. You were determined to make it work. Divorce meant giving up, and that wasn’t who you wanted to be. Plus there were children, for heaven’s sake. You engaged the help of couples therapists; you went on dates. Part of you today wonders how much of your love was more about chemistry: two 24-year-olds in Paris, at the height of their youth in the city of love. It seemed so right at the time. A storybook romance, the perfect myth. In retrospect, the fault lines were all there, from day one.
The cream top, you think. I’ll wear the sleeveless cream top to my divorce. It’s comfortable and airy yet conservative enough for a lawyer’s office. You’ll pair it with the blue corduroy skirt and that white cashmere cardigan your friend Abby gave you for your birthday. Cashmere will feel soft against the rest of your skin. Plus you love Abby. One should feel softness and a friend’s love during a hard, lonely moment.
The cream top, however, has a flaw. Namely, the zipper running up the back. You’d forgotten about that part. You’re standing there in your underwear, reaching behind you, trying to zip up that zipper, to no avail. You break into a sweat trying to contort yourself in such a way that your left hand can hold the two sides of the zipper closed at the top while the right hand zips up from the bottom. Your ex—your husband, whatever he’s called—he used to zip it for you. Sometimes you had to ask several times, but he’d do it. Eventually.
You stop trying for a moment, exasperated. Plenty of other tops in that closet would work perfectly well with the blue corduroy skirt, but you are determined to zip up that zipper yourself. You stare at your reflection in the mirror accusatorily: stubborn motherfucker. The marriage was untenable from where you stood, but your willfulness was probably no picnic for him either.
Still, you are who you are. Better to accept that than to try to quash or deny it. You are a stubborn, willful motherfucker. So be it. Whoever comes along next will have to deal with that. If anyone.
The zipper must be conquered.
Nina Simone’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” pops up on your Spotify playlist. It’s a soulful, haunting version of a normally jaunty song. A man appears in your mind’s eye when you hear this. A new friend for whom you feel that quickening of the heart you instantly recognized as love. But love at this juncture, what with everyone’s kids and their wounded psyches, sits at the far end of a mine-strewn field. Love will never be easy again. You may never have someone to come home to. You understand this, even if you don’t want to accept it. You start to tear up. Just a little. Nothing dramatic. Just a few tears—a mixture of grief, loneliness, and hope—on the morning of your divorce mediation. You’re allowed these tears. For heaven’s sake, you are allowed.
Sing it, Nina. You grab a tissue. The moment passes.
You reach behind you one last time and finally zip up that goddamned zipper as both Simone’s voice and the melody build to a stunning crescendo. It feels triumphant, like having climbed a mountain. You make a fist pump, even. Woot! Amazing, isn’t it, how little it takes to feel good these days: a beautiful song, a zipped zipper, hope. That’s one of the benefits of having been stripped down to nothing.
Another is not caring what others think. People have been saying some nasty things of late. Truly nasty. About your finances. Your sex life. Your work. Your real friends tell you about these things, because they were appalled on your behalf. Seriously, you say, don’t worry about it. You have become nearly Christlike in your ability to turn the other cheek.
Except with your ex. He still riles you and perhaps always will.
You head downtown in your conservative cream top to discuss important things with this ex, who has flown in for the meeting with the lawyer and to see the kids. It’s been four months since his last trip. You are tired from your many jobs and from single parenting. You have not had a vacation in nine months. You’re about to have your first weekend alone, without any childcare responsibilities, in what feels like forever. You will spend it working on an overdue script, but still: It’s yours. You are grateful for this.
The two of you, you and your ex, actually take the subway down to the lawyer’s office together and walk east across Central Park the rest of the way, as if you were on a date. You’re trying to be a grown-up about this, even if inside you sometimes feel like a 3-year-old on the verge of a tantrum. You have so much you want to say to him, but it’s too late. There’s really nothing left to say or do at this point other than to divide up the debt and the French advertising posters and figure out if you can convince him to move back to New York.
The little one still needs a father, the mediator tells him, in so many words. Things are said in response to this that make you want to hurl yourself out a window. It suddenly feels stuffy in that book-lined conference room. But the lawyer is witty and emotionally well-attuned. She notices your discomfort and knows exactly how to deal with it, even if your ex doesn’t. In a nutshell, this is why you’re getting divorced.
“Let’s all stand up and do some breathing exercises,” says the lawyer. “Try to keep ourselves focused on what’s important, OK?” You remove Abby’s sweater. It’s too hot in that room for a sweater, no matter how soft. You’re down to the cream top. It’s airy and light, with space between your skin and the fabric. It’s cut simply, on the bias: the perfect top to wear on a day of intense complication and bias. Mediation means you have to keep your cool and stay calm. As much as you are sweating and want to rend your clothing.
You hug your bare arms. Self-love and self-care have become your new mantra. You are noticing, as if for the first time, what you are made of. You are both soft and hard. Destroyed and brand new. You had to zip yourself into your own chrysalis to understand this.
You breathe in. You breathe out. You are readying yourself for rebirth. Kevlar? No. That’s the wrong approach. Soon enough, you will unzip yourself and fly back out into the world, unarmed.
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