Tomorrow marks the official fifth birthday of Deus Ex Malcontent -- and today, I'm wrapping up the defining arc of this site over its first five years, the defining arc within my own life over the last five years. After this, I'm closing the book on this sad saga once and for all. Believe me, there's much that I still haven't disclosed, but it's best that from this point forward what's been left unsaid remains that way.
The inevitable result of everything that happened during my marriage to Jayne was a pitch-black outlook on love and relationships and an unshakable legacy of doubt and distrust. What you're about to read is one of the most bitter, tragic, and uncompromisingly grim things I've ever written -- and I also happen to think it's the best piece to ever appear on this site. If DXM was at any point intended to be a reflection of the personality and emotional bearing of its author then nothing else that's been published here reaches this extended essay's level of successful precision. This piece, for me, bleeds. And that's why it works.
Looking at it now, it provides the perfect coda to everything that's come before it over the past few days. The original version was published in July of 2009. A new introduction was added to it when it reran on January 1st of 2010. This is the final product in its entirety.
The DXM Fifth Birthday Jubilee
Number of Posts: 127
"Forever and Never, Amen" (Originally Published, 7.8.09; Republished with Preface, 1.1.10)
Preface: Hell Hath No Fury...
When Tiger Woods's storybook marriage collapsed into a shameful pile of lies, mistresses and poorly written horny text messages -- taking his squeaky-clean public persona with it -- I wanted to react like just about everyone else. I wanted to feel some sort of shock, or at the very least be mildly titillated. I wanted to, but I couldn't.
At the height of the scandal, I was getting somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-dozen e-mails a day asking why I conspicuously seemed to be avoiding the one story that the whole country was talking about, one that many thought might have helped to confirm in grand fashion the cynical take on love and marriage that I'd unleashed in July of 2009 on this site -- in a piece called "Forever and Never, Amen." A lot of readers figured I'd be reveling in the Tiger Woods affair -- or affairs -- because I would assume that it had proven an opinion that I'd taken so much flack for to be essentially right. For the record, it kind of bugs me that anyone thinks I'm that parasitic, but maybe that's the point (one I'll get to in a minute).
The reality is that, yes, the spectacular flame-out of Tiger Woods, his marriage and his image as the all-around perfect guy made me shake my head and sigh for a moment, but, no, it didn't provoke a reaction much greater than that. Why not? Because contrary to what many argued at the time I wrote my little screed on love and marriage -- that I simply hadn't yet completed the Kubler-Ross stages of heartbroken grief in the wake of my breakup with my wife Jayne and would soon find my way into the light of hope and learn to love again -- I actually believed what I said. I'm not shocked by a marriage imploding, revealing an ugly reality underneath the shiny veneer, because a commitment like that is one undertaken by human beings -- and unfortunately, human beings are inherently flawed creatures that tend to let you down again and again. I'm not saying that a marriage can never work -- just that it shouldn't come as a shock when it doesn't. Tiger Woods's marriage was never perfect to begin with -- it couldn't have been -- because he was never perfect, and neither was his wife, the physically perfect Elin Nordegren.
But that doesn't mean that Tiger Woods should get a pass for being a lying, cheating, all around rotten spouse. He took the vows, made the commitment, and then pretended that none of it mattered so long as he was getting what he wanted. And what he wanted was everything: the safety, security and comfort of a loving partner and family at home, as well as the benign image those trappings provided, and the fulfillment of an ego-driven sense of entitlement that he should be able to bed whomever he wants on the side -- much older or younger, rich or poor, married or unmarried -- just because he can. He always had a choice: He could be "Tiger Woods: Committed Family Man" or "Tiger Woods: Bachelor on the Prowl"; he could never be both, at least not without devastating someone who cared for him because she was led to believe it was relatively safe to.
So why didn't I write about any of this at the time? Read the above paragraph again and if you've paid any attention at all to the subtleties that have emerged about my marriage to Jayne over the past couple of years it'll become crystal clear.
I've never gone into excruciating detail about what happened to end my marriage to the woman I cared for more than anyone I've ever met, someone whom I truly considered to be my soulmate and my best friend and someone I, strangely, still miss terribly. I'm not sure I'm willing to go into too much detail even now. I will say this, however: I've always wanted to. I've wanted to not as a means of seeking revenge (though those who know the full story wouldn't blame me) or as a means of tipping the scales of the universe and bringing balance and justice back to a situation in which there was almost none (though, objectively, it would be justified); I've wanted to, ironically, because of the nature of some of the comments I received in response to the "Forever and Never, Amen" piece -- and really any other time that I mentioned Jayne here over the past year or so.
It can be broken down like this: Because my wife and I have lived part of our lives publicly online -- either through this site, Jayne's own blog, or via Facebook, MySpace and Twitter -- there are thousands of people who think they know us. There's nothing particularly wrong with this and I'm certainly not going to play the "woe is me" role of the perpetually misunderstood, but I've always been surprised by the number of people who draw what to them seem like logical conclusions about people based on what they find on a blog or on Facebook. In my case, I get why someone might think of me as an insufferable misanthrope, an ex-addict and generally troubled soul with a history of bad relationships and a pile of mistakes three-stories-high strewn behind him; this is the image that I tend to project through a combination of "suicidal honesty" and humorous self-deprecation. When someone reaches this assessment of me, it's not like I can blame him or her. And yet it was startling how much it affected me to find that so many people believed they had figured out Jayne's personality based on what little information she provided in the comment section here and through her blog and Facebook page. Whenever someone writes to me and says, "Well, it's obvious that Jayne is..." this or that, I always find myself confused at how they could've created such a thorough picture of her in their mind from a couple of comments posted here and there and a few photos on a profile page somewhere. Whether I think they're right or wrong in their conclusion doesn't matter; it's simply about the fact that they believe they've got her nailed -- these people who don't even know her, or me for that matter.
What I've found is that quite a few people do, in fact, buy into the face-value image. They see Jayne as lovely, charming and eminently patient (no doubt because I was always more than happy to help portray her this way) and me as secretly kind-hearted but still angry and troubled. They believe these constructs the way they believed Tiger Woods was a good guy, and not a philandering jerk. Likewise, we as humans who interact with other humans create these constructs because this is how we want to be seen. Sometimes, our assessments of ourselves are brutally honest -- sometimes they're out-and-out lies. Tiger Woods's public image was a charade and nothing more. This will be the first time I've ever come right out and said something negative about her, even in our worst moments, but in many ways so is Jayne's.
Why have I wanted so badly to tell the truth about what happened between my wife and me, given the way in which each of our images is perceived by people? Not because I wanted to punish her, but because I wanted to defend myself. I didn't want to take the blame for something I didn't do. I've screwed up relationships in the past and have made awful mistakes that have hurt myself and others.
I didn't this time. I did not destroy this marriage.
I've owned up to my past and present misdeeds and taken full responsibility for them. But the responsibility for the most contemptible behavior within my marriage to Jayne -- what ultimately destroyed it from the inside out -- wasn't mine to take.
Since I first began mentioning the issues Jayne and I were facing in our relationship, I've played a game of false-equivalence. I've gone out of my way to make our sins appear comparable -- to indirectly defend her by always making it seem as if my affronts were worthy counterparts to hers. Once again, it's strange to finally come out and say this, but nothing could be further from the truth. I made mistakes, yes -- big ones. But there isn't a sane person on Earth who, if he or she heard the story objectively, minus damning adjectives and adverbs, would come to the conclusion that I had earned the level of heartache, humiliation and outright disrespect as a husband and a human being that Jayne heaped upon me.
The fact that so much cruelty could come from someone I had faith in so completely is what left me with the lasting legacy of cynicism and mistrust that led me to write "Forever and Never, Amen." I believed in Jayne, heart and soul, because she let me know in no uncertain terms that I could. But what I believed, at least over the past few years, was a lie. It was part of a carefully crafted but ultimately phony image.
If I were to tell the truth -- if I were to let everyone see what I've seen and read what I've read -- it would damage my estranged wife's reputation on several fronts. So even though I've been thinking quite a bit lately about how two wrongs don't make a right but they do make me feel better -- and in deference to the daughter we have together -- I know that I have no choice but to keep the details to myself.
About the notion of exposure, though, I'll say this: When Elin Nordegren discovered her husband's serial deceit and infidelity, when she felt taunted by the level of arrogance required to engage in such behavior and to be openly defiant about it, she nearly killed him with a golf club. Most people said they couldn't blame her. They understood her actions and gave her a "you go, girl" for empowering herself enough to take a measure of control back from the person who was publicly humiliating her. When I even hinted at what was happening behind the scenes in my marriage, several readers became irritated with me and told me that I needed to be respectful and take the high road -- that any other response would be immature and undignified. My question is: Why?
I ask this not out of spite or indignation, but honest curiosity: Why is it recommended to allow someone who's hurt you over and over again to go on hurting you by dumping one final insult in your lap -- in this case destroying my future as a full-time father before my child even reached her first birthday -- then walking away quietly and unaccountably like nothing ever happened? It was admittedly never our business to know Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren's business, but would he ever have truly understood that what he did was wrong had he not suffered public disgrace because of it?
Understand something: I still love Jayne. I love the woman I met almost eight years ago and married almost six years ago. That woman -- that Jayne -- is for the most part gone, though. What replaced her in the final years of our relationship was something unrecognizable: someone whose uncanny capacity to guiltlessly rationalize even the most questionable acts when it came to our marriage rendered her almost admirably adept at both self-preservation and self-deception. Her excuse is that she was unhappy, and believe it or not I can honestly empathize -- but for what she did that's no excuse at all. I loved her and I loved our family and I didn't deserve to be hurt the way I was.
This is why I couldn't write about the Tiger Woods scandal initially: It hit too close to home; I wouldn't have been able to do it without bringing up my own experiences and my own pain. Maybe this morning I woke up and finally felt like I was ready to.
Jayne tells herself that breaking up our family, immediate and extended, and devastating me and others in indescribable ways was something she had to do. Understood. But writing about it -- daring to broach a subject, knowledge and feelings that have been eating me alive for months -- that's something I had to do. Like her, I feel as if I had no choice.
"Fancy a big house, some kids and a horse. I can not quite, but nearly guarantee a divorce. I think that I love you. I think that I do. So go on, mister -- make 'Miss Me' 'Mrs. You.'"
-- Zero 7, Distractions
"There's no guarantees. There's no guarantees. There's no guarantees."
-- Ryan Adams, Political Scientist (from the album Love is Hell)
Part 1: In Which Things Fall Apart
As these kinds of things go, it started off pretty standard: There was the disgraced, white male political figure, his head hung in just the right amount of requisite shame; the frenzied gaggle of vulturine media types, electricity shooting through their veins from being in the immediate presence of a human being who was about to be reduced to little more than a lifeless carcass ripe for the picking; the flashes of the strobes and the podium adorned with a bouquet of microphones. We knew the drill. We'd seen it all before and understood what was next. Another politician caught, literally, with his pants down was going to confess his sins to the American people. He'd apologize for betraying his constituents, his family, God, whomever, and stoically ask for forgiveness in exchange for a trip to sex-addict rehab with his spiritual adviser or some other such horseshit.
This was the way it worked. How it went for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and so on. It was contrition-as-theater, and we all knew the script.
But a funny thing happened when it was South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's turn to take the stage in the role of the respected leader embroiled in a career-threatening sex scandal: He went "off-book," quickly dropping the cool, practiced and thoroughly unconvincing I-let-myself-down routine in favor of being, well, human. The result was nothing short of captivating -- the public implosion, body and soul, of a man for whom public implosions wouldn't seem possible. Sanford didn't downplay his relationship with his mistress, whom he'd just spent six days with in her home country of Argentina; he eulogized it. Rather than taking the politically expedient route and reducing the other woman to an anonymous figure intruding on the sacred ground of his marriage, he did exactly the opposite -- coming apart at the seams as he admitted that he was, in fact, deeply and passionately in love with the person for whom he was willing to risk his life as he knew it. If it didn't garner a surprising pang of sympathy from the millions of Americans who'd been there, who understood what it was like to suddenly find the heart in a violent battle with all better judgment, then at the very least it deserved credit as a hell of a clever bit of misdirection.
To hear Mark Sanford tell it, Maria Belen Chapur wasn't the other woman. She was the woman. The only woman.
Since last week's startling and revealing announcement, Mark Sanford the overwhelmed inamorato has slowly begun to morph back into Mark Sanford the reptilian politician: He's admitted to having "crossed lines" with a handful of other women during his 20 year marriage and he's contradicted his own story several times. But he still can't shut up about "Maria," whom he calls his "soulmate."
"This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story," Sanford says, sounding like he's about to compose a sonnet. "A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day."
If you find this more than a little amusing -- the thought of a typically uptight and sanctimonious Republican politician suddenly drama-queening out, turning into poor, stupid lovestruck Paris, willing to bring war to Troy's doorstep in the name of the beauty who's so entranced him -- you're certainly not alone.
But you've got to wonder how Mark Sanford's wife Jenny, the mother of his children, feels about all this florid praise aimed in the direction of a woman other than herself. I'm sure it was especially stinging when the good governor said in an interview that he was trying to learn to fall back in love with his wife. That's the kind of revelation that gets a man killed in his sleep.
Still, and I realize this question will be seen as impertinent by some: Didn't she sign up for this? Didn't she know the risks inherent not simply in marrying someone with political aspirations but, to some extent, in marrying anyone? And for that matter -- didn't he? Didn't they realize that, at any point and for no discernible reason, one or the other of them could fall out of love -- or fall in love with someone else -- and walk out the front door without ever looking back?
Don't we all understand the reality by this point?
So why do we do it -- why do we get married anymore -- at all?
The Kids in the Hall once did a sketch where they compared getting married to skydiving. It ended with one of the cast-members putting America's oft-quoted marriage statistics into jarring perspective by essentially saying: Would you jump out of a plane if you knew that there was only a 50% chance of your chute opening?
As much as I wish it weren't true, and as much as I hate to drop another couple of pop culture references, the events that have taken place in my own life in the past several months have conspired to make me think quite a bit about the entire institution of marriage. To challenge my long-held perceptions about it -- and my overall belief in it and in the ability of two people to make it last these days. At the core of my cynicism: personal experience -- both direct and indirect -- with two assumptions that are rooted in undeniable fact.
First, as Chris Rock famously said, a man is only as faithful as his options -- although I'd expand that proposition to include the opposite sex as well. To some extent, we're all looking to trade up -- physically, emotionally, financially -- and the temptation of the perfect opportunity to do just that is often impossible to completely resist. (Just ask Jerry Seinfeld's wife, Jessica Sklar, who left her first, non-household-name husband immediately after their three-week Italian honeymoon to begin dating TV royalty.) And even if the opportunity never does in fact come to fruition, isn't the knowledge of this kind of innate desire a deal-breaker in and of itself? You can't spend your whole life hoping nobody better than you comes along.
Second, in the immortal words of TV's Dr. House -- everybody lies.
Everybody. No matter who you are. One way or the other, you're likely covering something up, hiding the truth from the person you claim to love, burying a deep, dark secret that, if revealed, would constitute an Extinction Level Event in your relationship. If you're not now, you probably have at some point. We tell the biggest lies to the ones we're closest to, whose lives we affect the most and who in turn have the ability to drastically affect ours. We do it to keep the peace, or, we tell ourselves, as an act of pure altruism -- to keep our partners safe from unnecessary harm, the harm that we ourselves would cause.
Some would look at Mark Sanford and say, rightly, "the balls on this guy." He actually had the colossal arrogance to ask his wife for permission to visit his paramour -- who's an ex-television news producer, incidentally, proving my well-tested theory that the TV news business grows amoral sexual predators like fruit on the vine -- after he was busted writing romantic e-mails to her. Needless to say, Jenny Sanford, having a thimble-full of self-respect, told him where to shove his burning schoolboy desire: She "politely denied" his request, then threw him out of the house when he ignored her, ditched his official tail, and went to Argentina anyway.
"It’s one thing to forgive adultery, it’s another to condone it," she says, in what's sure to become an Oprah-approved battle-cry for scorned women everywhere.
Once again, though, she had to know that this day would, in one form or another, come. She had to grasp, even from the beginning, that no matter the ostensible strength of the foundation she'd built with her husband -- years together, kids, a home, mutual friends, a joint membership at the local country club -- that it could all come crashing down and be rendered utterly meaningless at some point. That he'd be willing to betray it all for a cheap, ego-stroking thrill. Or that she might. Humans are painfully flawed creatures -- maybe too inherently flawed to make a marriage, the brass ring marriage we're taught to strive for by movies and TV commercials, work and last.
I want to believe in a love that lasts forever and can withstand anything -- the good times and bad. And for a long time I believed just that. I clung desperately, passionately to the fantasy that there was a "right person" and that being in a committed relationship with her or him -- while not without conflict, trauma, and a lot of hard work -- would be rewarding in immeasurable ways, because that person would bring out the best parts of you and you would do likewise.
I believed so strongly in that. I don't anymore.
And I'm betting that almost everyone involved in the Sanford affair -- Mark, Jenny, Maria, even Maria's stunned and betrayed boyfriend -- feels the same way.
Like everything else these days, love is a many fickled thing.
If you don't think this is true, don't worry. You'll eventually find out the hard way.
"The cruelest lies are often told in silence."
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
Part 2: In Which the Center Cannot Hold
My flight was supposed to have arrived seven hours ago. Because of the delay, which left me sitting on the floor of the Ft. Lauderdale airport cursing under my breath for most of the afternoon into evening, I'm just now pulling up to the front of the modest two-story apartment in Astoria. At one in the morning. The street, which is silent at this hour, looks and feels unnervingly different from the one I left almost three months ago. It was still winter then. The trees protruding from evenly spaced squares carved out of the sidewalk on either side of the street were eerie and skeletal the day that I took my infant daughter away from this place and off to Miami. That was the day our family officially fractured, likely never to be repaired. A month ago, I returned here with my little girl, Inara, and left her behind while I traveled back to my sad exile in South Florida. But I'm not thinking about that now. I can only remember that cold morning in April, when I kissed my wife goodbye and realized that it would probably be the last time I kissed her at all.
I heft my bag out of the cab, slam the door shut and watch as hot-red taillights disappear down the darkened street, leaving me standing there -- alone. I turn and face the home that isn't my home anymore. The place where my wife Jayne and I once hoped to make a life with our child. The place that's now hers and only hers. Closing my eyes and taking a deep, long breath, I force myself forward, onto the sidewalk and up the steps to the front door. She's left it unlocked for me. As I step inside and pull the door closed behind me, I can already make out the familiar points in the landscape of what was once my living room. At the same time, though, my mind and body involuntarily read the changes that have been made since I first left, and the result throws my equilibrium off. The surreality of the intimately recognizable and the thoroughly alien side-by-side. The life that somewhat resembles mine but most definitely isn't mine anymore.
I climb the stairs gently, trying not to make noise that might wake Jayne or the baby. The upstairs landing is lit only by a timid yellow glow coming from the bathroom. I place my bag in the room I'll be sleeping in for the next few days -- what used to be Inara's nursery, before Jayne moved the crib and changing table into her own room to accommodate a potential full-time nanny -- and take another few deep breaths, trying to work up the courage to finally see my daughter and wife after what feels like an eternity.
A few hesitant steps across the hall and I slowly push open the bedroom door, revealing the shadowy space beyond. A tousle of Jayne's chestnut hair peeks out from under the Calvin Klein comforter -- our comforter, the one we've had for years. In the rosewood crib, Inara sleeps soundly -- her tiny body rising and falling with each steady breath. I reach out to touch her, then think the better of it, instead bringing my hand up to my mouth to stifle a forlorn sigh. I close my eyes for the slightest moment and projected on the inside of my eyelids, in my mind, is the alternate universe I had hoped to one day inhabit with these two women -- my true loves. A world where I never missed a moment of Inara's life. Where Jayne and I were devoted husband and wife. Where there was light, instead of all this endless, impenetrable darkness. I open my eyes again, and that darkness is still there. I'm a ghost, standing in the middle of this perfectly still room. No one can see me or feel me. No one even knows I'm here. Forgotten, but not gone.
I burned my first marriage to the ground. Doused the whole thing in gasoline and torched it. There were times while I was doing it that I agonized over the choices I was making and the almost certain consequences they would have, but it was never enough to make me rethink the direction I'd chosen to move in. My goal wasn't specifically to destroy my wife, the woman who loved me -- her name was Abby -- but it's not as if that exculpates me in the wake of my admittedly heinous crimes.
I cheated on Abby. Cheated publicly in a way that left her utterly humiliated in front of those closest to her. Stuck the knife into her as hard and deeply as I could and callously shrugged as she gasped in shocked horror at what the man she loved was capable of. It wasn't that I didn't care about her. It wasn't that at all. It was that I cared about myself so much more.
The worst thing about it?
To this day, I can't really explain why I did what I did.
The easy answer is that I was young and, yes, staggeringly narcissistic. A rotten, cocky son-of-a-bitch more than a little obsessed with his own supposed charm. But there's more to it than that. There has to be. And I've spent years trying to nail it down because I worry that if I can't, I'll always be a hair's breadth away from doing it all over again. At the time, there were those who tried to console me with the usual platitudes about how there had to be something wrong with the relationship to cause me to betray, in such devastating fashion, the woman I purported to care for. The reality, though, is that there was nothing wrong with the relationship between me and Abby. Nothing at all. In fact, I loved her, or so I told myself, as much as it was possible for one person to love another. Abby and I had an attachment to each other that even now seems slightly otherwordly. We were more than lovers, partners, boyfriend-girlfriend and eventually husband and wife -- we were good friends, and we were even more than that. There was never a moment that I felt anything but completely comfortable around her; she was like home from the moment I met her, and our passionate and primal connection never dissipated -- not even after I tried to beat it to death with a sledgehammer.
What I did damaged Abby incalculably, it would leave her emotionally scarred for years. But despite that, she tried to forgive me and, in the short term, attempted to repair our marriage; long term, she kept in contact with me, offered a shoulder to cry on when I needed it, a sharp mind to bounce ideas off, a kind voice on the other end of a telephone line and, occasionally, a bed in which to spend a night forgetting about everything but her. Put simply, she was that rare breed which provides the one thing every married man or woman wishes and hopes for: unconditional love. A loyalty that isn't naive or simple-minded but is indomitable precisely because it's based on a firm knowledge of the truth, in all its ugliness. Abby knew full-well what she was getting herself into with me -- and she loved me anyway.
Whether or not we could have lasted had I not screwed things up so badly, who knows. I'm inclined to think that what made our relationship so special was its position -- the time and place -- in each of our lives. We were kids. Kids lead lives filled with gloriously impetuous passion and thoroughly unrealistic expectations.
In the end, regardless of everything -- or maybe because of it -- Abby and I split up.
That was marriage number one for me. There have been two more since. I'm 39 years old. Billy Joel is a fucking amateur.
The dramatic arc of my second marriage, to Kara, is well-documented. Suffice it to say, she didn't want to be married from the very beginning -- and what happened between us was more wishful thinking on both our parts than anything else. It ended in absolute catastrophe. Enough said.
The good that came from my short-lived marriage to Kara was always crystal clear in my mind: It led me, in more than simply a roundabout way, to Jayne. On the map of quantum moments in my life -- choices and even missteps small and large that altered my trajectory -- you can draw a direct path to Jayne. And for a very long time, that filled me with more joy than I ever could've imagined. That's because Jayne was a revelation. The first truly adult relationship I ever had. The first one I gave myself over to completely, committing to absolutely.
What I felt for Jayne, I've never felt for another human being. Ever.
Throughout our seven year relationship and five year marriage, she and I have seen ups and downs, trials and triumphs. I've made mistakes and have on more than one occasion kept things hidden from her that I should've been honest and forthcoming about. Once again, everybody lies, but that doesn't stop me from believing that I shouldn't have -- about anything. There's no excuse, and the ones I used to cling to -- the typical bullshit I peddled to myself in an attempt to rationalize my own feckless guile -- don't hold an ounce of water. In spite of those mistakes, however, I remained faithfully committed to the relationship. Always. I took our vows seriously, maybe even more than others might have because I had actually been through two bad marriages before. I believed in "for better or worse."
And so did Jayne -- to an extent, I suppose.
That's where the specifics will end.
There's no point in getting into gruesome detail about who did what to whom. Many of our transgressions against each other -- Jayne's and mine -- have been alluded to in the past. The end result is all that really matters, and that result is, ironically, the same as my last two marriages. I say "ironically" because my relationship with Jayne was so much more committed and so much stronger than anything I'd experienced before, and yet it all turned out strangely the same. Worse, in fact -- because this time there's a child involved. A little girl who was born just eleven months ago. Sometimes it's impossible to wrap my head around it all; the gravity of what's happened is too daunting to fully grasp.
If years ago you had told me that Jayne and I would eventually end up in the position we're in right now, I would've laughed out loud. That's how strong my faith was in us. Then again, if you had told me years ago that sweet, outwardly devoted Jayne was capable of doing some of the things she did during the second half of our marriage, I would've laughed even harder. I say this not to in any way shame her -- only to make a couple of necessary points: First, that anyone can screw up a marriage; even the most seemingly committed and genuinely kind-hearted can destroy trust from the inside out. Second, and maybe more alarmingly but certainly more pertinent when put in the context of a dedicated relationship, that I'm not sure we ever really know anyone. If you believe that everybody lies to some extent and harbors their own secrets (and I do) then it stands to reason that you'll never know someone thoroughly. That isn't a problem as long as, say, you never promise to love anyone for the rest of your life.
And what about that promise -- the one that's the very foundation of the marriage vows?
In our hyper-fragmented, single-serving, ADD culture, is it really possible to predict with any certainty that what you want now is what you'll want in ten years? Or even five years? Or five months, for that matter? Is it possible for two people to honestly grow together, in the same direction, when every bit of the daily kinetic whirlwind we inhabit at the beginning of the 21st century seems designed to pull us in a thousand different directions at once? How do two people remain in a consistent state of grace? These days, with all the choices we've been inundated with, most of us can't commit to watching one TV show for longer than a few minutes without getting bored -- and yet we're expected to decide on one person to be with for the rest of our lives?
The reality, of course, is that we don't have to decide on one person -- even if we do choose to get married. Sure, millions of us take the vows. We say the words "til death do us part." But obviously, that's more of a suggestion than an actual contract. For far too many people it's a ritual with almost no meaning or muscle behind it anymore. The "Starter Marriage," occasionally lasting all of a few months, is practically a punchline at this point, while ditching the obligation and responsibility of a long-term commitment is as simple as packing a bag, walking out the door, and making a phone call to a lawyer the next morning.
Just how far have we lowered the bar when it comes to marriage in our culture? Let's put it this way: A lot of people these days seem intent on reassuring me that my five year legally sanctioned stint with Jayne was a success because it lasted as long as it did. At the risk of getting all pedantic, neither Jayne nor I are dead -- and I certainly don't remember taking her hand five years ago and saying "til one, or both of us, gets sick of putting up with the other" do we part.
Maybe our overall relationship, in time, will be judged a success. Make no mistake, though: our marriage will never be.
If a five year marriage can be heralded as a victory, we as a society have very serious problems.
It's a cool, sunny morning and Inara's wearing the little overalls I bought for her last month while we were in Miami. She's crawling up the hall, toward me, a huge smile spread across her face. A few moments ago, she was standing and walking -- only resorting to a high-speed crawl after tripping over her own feet. I'm laying on the floor across the length of what used to be her nursery, urging her on as she races forward. When she crosses the doorway, I reach out and grab her, sitting up and pulling her in close for a hug. She laughs as I do this. I close my eyes and stroke the back of her head -- the wispy curls now growing there. I say nothing. I barely even breathe. I don't want anything to interrupt the sound of her laughter. I keep my eyes closed, because I know that if I open them the world around me will just be blurred by the tears forming in my eyes. So I listen -- and I once again imagine that alternate universe. The one where this moment goes on and on. Where I'm never apart from the little girl in my arms. Or her mother, who I wish I wasn't still in love with.
"Better make sure you're looking closely -- before you fall into your swoon."
-- Silversun Pickups, The Royal We
"It's not going to stop. It's not going to stop. It's not going to stop 'til you wise up."
-- Aimee Mann, Wise Up
Part 3: In Which Mere Apathy is Loosed Upon the World
There's already someone new. That's what she's essentially saying. When I had no idea what was going on -- when the very thought of Jayne and someone else was simply too preposterous to fathom when contrasted with her effusive expressions of love and loyalty -- the reality was even more terrible than I could've imagined. If she's now willing to actually admit that there's someone she may be interested in -- a partner in a Manhattan law firm, a Harvard grad -- then I have to assume that a courtship of some sort is already well underway. I shouldn't be shocked, and yet, strangely, I am. Even after all this time, with everything that's happened between us, it's nearly impossible to reconcile the Jayne I knew just a few years ago with the woman now standing in front of me in the kitchen of what was once our shared apartment -- the woman who seems barely willing to mourn the death of our marriage, whose veins run with liquid nitrogen when it comes to me. The cognitive dissonance is just too great. In some ways I respect that she's made decisions within her own mind and is sticking by them; in others, I consider the times in our recent history when we looked each other in the eyes and admitted that we were worth working to save and that there was too much there to simply toss aside. I think of what each of us has forgiven -- or at least claims to have.
Somewhere along the line, Jayne changed -- drastically. So did I, I suppose. Although which one of us changed for the better, if either of us did, could be debated endlessly.
She brushes past me and strides cooly into the living room -- says she doesn't want to talk about it anymore. This is the first time I've even casually brought up the subject of "us" in the two days that I've been here. And this is how it's responded to: with palpable irritation preceded by the acknowledgement of a potentially budding relationship with someone I've never met and maybe never will. Not that it's really my place to effect a tone of anger, sadness, hurt, what-have-you over such developments anymore. This was, to an extent, decided for me at some point recently -- without my even knowing it.
My shoulders slump slightly, as if all the tension in the room had been resting squarely on my back until Jayne finally walked away, lifting it. Leaving me standing there by myself -- with Inara crawling over my feet.
I keep wondering when the indentation around my left ring-finger is going to disappear. It's been almost two months since I took off my wedding band and, amazingly, tragically, its imprint on the area where it was once worn so proudly remains. It's like I have a permanent symbol of my marriage to Jayne on my finger -- which would be a very romantic notion had my marriage to Jayne been anything approaching permanent.
Throughout the course of our seven years together, I bought Jayne three separate engagement rings. The first was a gorgeous, princess-cut diamond in a vintage art deco setting. It was thoroughly originally while remaining classic and understated, and I knew it was the right ring for her the moment I laid eyes on it. While working late one night before we even got married, Jayne took off the ring to wash her hands and accidentally left it in a public bathroom; by the time she realized she'd forgotten to put it back on, the thing was probably well on its way to a 24-hour pawn shop. She was a wreck when she called to tell me -- crying uncontrollably and apologizing. I took it in stride and replaced the ring a month later with one that, while much more impressive, never really affected me the way its missing predecessor had. I eventually wound up springing for a third ring after a particularly traumatic event in our life as a married couple. I figured it would be a good way to consecrate our decision to recommit to each other -- the perfect representation of putting the past behind us and looking only toward the future.
What's interesting, though, is that for all the value and significance I placed on the ring that I put on Jayne's finger -- any of the rings, including her wedding band -- there always seemed to be a steady procession of men for whom her ring, and what it symbolized, meant absolutely nothing. I never took any sort of "deterrence factor" into consideration when deciding what to slip on Jayne's finger. I never deliberately chose something whose light was so bright that it would send the cockroaches -- or maybe wolves would be a better metaphor -- scurrying back to their holes. But to many men, many married men, the ring on her finger meant as little as the ones on their own. They wanted my wife to betray her husband just as they wanted to betray their own wives, and they were completely comfortable using every weapon in their charmingly romantic arsenals to make fantasy into reality. This kind of thing happened with shocking, enervating regularity.
Men who wanted to cheat on their wives -- with my wife.
No matter how many times I say it -- or how many different ways -- it still has the same sickening effect someplace deep inside me. It makes me feel like I need to take a shower.
I never truly understood the feeling of not simply betrayal but violation -- of everything you believe in, everything you hold dear, your sense of safety and self -- that invariably goes hand in hand with an affair, with the discovery of an entire life lived in secret. If I had, I don't think I ever would've hurt Abby the way I did. I couldn't have walked the earth in peace, safe in the knowledge that I was essentially a good person, if I had fully understood the consequences of what I was doing and still chose to do it anyway. No amount of rationalization would've provided safe harbor for my soul.
The fact is, however, that aware of the repercussions or not, millions of married people cheat. They cheat with other married people -- or with singles. They cheat with their secretaries, the people they meet at the bar, the next-door neighbor, the impressionable, and impressable, younger girls or guys they see every day -- the ones who are wonderfully free of the ability to remind them of the biggest impediments to their own egos: demands, expectations, responsibilities. We lie and cheat, in one way or another and for one reason or another. It's what humans do. The question is whether our individual marriages survive the desires that lead us to want to sleep with and seek comfort from other people (whether we're successful at doing so or not).
It seems like there's always someone else somewhere.
I have a family friend who died late last year in Chicago; he and his wife were married for more than 40 years -- an astonishing feat by any standard. But while you'd be quick to hail their union as an example of a marriage that worked, and while I have absolutely no doubt that their love for each other was incredibly strong, certain recent events have given me more to think about than I probably would've liked. A few months ago, my friend's widow inadvertently ran into a man you might call a proverbial "old flame." Apparently, the guy in question is someone she once cared for very much -- before she got married -- and as, yes, fate I suppose, would have it, they wound up hitting it off. I realize that this kind of thing happens quite a bit and that it's usually looked upon with nary a critical eye; in fact, it's typically canonized, told as a tale of true love enduring across time and distance. But what about the husband with whom she spent 41 years? Did he know that somewhere deep down, the woman he loved may have burned for another man -- that this other man at least crossed her mind on more than one occasion? I realize that we are actually human and don't shut down completely when we choose to be with one person, but what does something like this say about the authority, the necessity, of marriage?
And does it prove something else: that since we can obviously love more than one person at once, can we in fact love almost anyone if we put our minds to it -- rendering the entire concept of one-man-one-woman-forever-and-ever marriage utterly meaningless? We come together and pledge eternal love, then we split up, or one of us dies, and we eventually come together with someone new and do it all over again. We're always told that it's not the same, that each relationship has its own definitive markers, but if this is true -- then doesn't it still diminish and devalue the textbook definition of what marriage is supposed to be? When love can be transferred relatively easily from one person to another -- whether through a passionate affair or simply moving on in the wake of disaster -- is there any sense of safety left in the institution?
I was forced to spend almost every day of my relationship with Jayne trying to convince and assure her that what I felt for her was real. That what I felt for her was in fact stronger and more "true" than anything I'd experienced before. I did everything I knew how to do -- undertook Sisyphean errands both large and small. Made sweeping gestures and did the littlest things. Still, ironically coming from the kind of person Jayne claimed to be, I was constantly, bitterly reminded that I was married before. Loved before. Had, I suppose, said and done it all before.
I can't even imagine, nor do I want to, the height of the bar I'm going to have to hurdle should I ever actually find myself caring for someone again. Three marriages creates a pile of baggage even Superman couldn't leap.
Not that I'm concerned about caring again at the moment.
My previous divorce, from Kara, although an incredibly painful ordeal, can now be looked upon as quaint compared to what's ahead for me in the wake of my break-up with Jayne. The reason, one among many really, is that while Kara hurt me, the wreckage of my relationship with her didn't fundamentally change the way I looked at the world. Kara wasn't all women, and I knew that. A divorce from her wouldn't mean, in my mind, that every woman on the planet wasn't to be trusted. I knew damn well what Kara was about when I met her; I knew that an ugly split from her would be in the cards the minute I crossed her (which looking back on it makes me very, very foolish and myopic, like those people who live on cliffs in Malibu hoping they'll never get a half-inch of rain). When Kara and I imploded, I didn't look at every woman who expressed an interest in me and say, "Well, she'll just devastate me the way my ex did."
When I met Jayne, she was the sweetest, kindest, and most genuinely compassionate woman I'd ever had the pleasure of knowing. Someone who seemed to read me inside out and know precisely the right thing to say and do and when to say and do it. I could spend hours trying to adequately put into words the feeling she and I had in each other's presence. I could relate in pure poetry how I remember every single detail about so much of our time together, particularly at the beginning. I could tell you how surely I knew it was right. How I never doubted my love for her or hers for me, not for a second. How she was my best friend. I could do all of that and yet it still wouldn't be as convincing as I knew it to be in my heart and head.
I didn't want to get married again. But I absolutely wanted to marry Jayne. Honestly, and I say this with complete conviction: If she wasn't the right person, no one was. If I were to meet her today, I would say the exact same thing.
At least I would have if what eventually became of her and us hadn't.
The truly disheartening legacy of the end of my marriage to Jayne is what it's done to my peace of mind -- my willingness to trust not only others but myself. I believed Jayne absolutely, to the point of naivete even, and in the end everything I thought I knew about her, about us, was false. It's one thing when you're bitten by a snake -- quite another when you're eaten alive by a teddy-bear. By your best friend. How do you learn to trust again? What do you do when you believe that the next time, even years from now, when someone accuses you of a having a "fear of commitment," your answer will almost surely be, "No, I don't fear commitment. I just know that it's a crock of shit"?
For now, what I do is something I've never done before: not care at all.
I've never been a true cynic. An honest-to-God, devil-may-care misanthrope. I'm afraid that I may become one now. It's easier and smarter and will, I hope, keep me safe from harm. I have actually changed drastically. In ways I never wanted to. I always liked that I believed. That I had faith in love.
Now I just feel like I don't ever again want to hand someone the gun used to shoot me -- the power to leave me lost and in pieces and forced to rebuild from the ground up. I don't want anyone to be able to make a decision about my life over which I have no control. I realize how this sounds. Unrealistic at best. Ridiculous at worst. And I'm sure some will scoff at this notion and chalk it up to the predictable rhetoric of the freshly broken-hearted.
But if it makes no sense to give up on love now, when will it?
Jayne's bouncing the baby on her hip as I toss my overnight bag onto the backseat of the idling Town Car. I wipe my hands on my jeans, turn around and meet the eyes of my wife. She cracks the tiniest of bittersweet smiles -- I return the wistful look, simultaneously trying to quash the desperate emotions tearing me up inside. The ones that make me want to grab her and my child, hold them both tightly, tell Jayne that I refuse to give up and that I don't care about the better judgment of either of us -- that I'll fight to the death to save our family. I allow myself one last glimpse of that alternate universe. Then I push it out of my mind -- watch it dissolve and blow away like dust. This is my reality. It's not the reality I longed for -- the one we promised each other -- but it's the one I've been given. I never wanted to be selfish again, not after so willingly moving in the opposite direction. Not after learning the joy of putting my wife and my daughter above everything. Everything. But as I hug Inara one last time and force myself not to run a hand through Jayne's hair -- here on this sidewalk in Astoria, New York -- I realize that I have no choice but to think of myself for a while. To go back to concentrating on surviving. Detaching. Moving on. Loving my daughter, but moving on. Inara is wearing my favorite pair of her pajamas -- they have little gray elephants on them with the inscription "Once Upon a Dream" written in dainty cursive.
Once upon a dream.
I turn from my family, close my eyes in the hope of holding back the tears, and get into the car -- waving absently one last time and closing the door.
A few minutes later, as the car glides silently past St. Michael's Cemetery on the way to Laguardia Airport, I take off my sunglasses, rub the tears out of my eyes with my thumb and forefinger, and watch the gravestones through the fence as they flicker by. There are angels atop many of them. Dozens and dozens of angels, their heads turned downward. Their eyes are all closed, though. They see nothing.