When my best friend Julie told me she was splitting with her husband, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. She’d sounded uncharacteristically tense when we talked on the phone over the past few months. We hadn’t had an in-person heart to heart since the winter before, when on her 41st birthday, she talked in desperate tones about facing the future with her husband, Dave.
Since then she had stopped complaining about her husband, hardly mentioned him at all. Our telephone conversations skittered over the surface of things – updates of her hectic job and crowded commuting days, contrasting with self-deprecating anecdotes drawn from my less eventful life – which went from a corporate whirlwind to a first-time suburban housewife – thanks to a relapse of a chronic illness about which I am often in denial. Nonetheless, courtesy of my company’s short-term disability insurance, I felt a mixture of childlike glee and adult guilt at my first laid back summer in decades.
With the anticipation of a child going on a favorite play date, I awaited seeing Julie in person for the first time in months. When I flung open the door to embrace her, standing before me was a woman with a pinched, tormented face. Her emaciated frame said it all before she delivered her news. It was painful to see her lovely, happy-go-lucky self suppressed; I was glad she was exiting a torturous situation.
She told me of her plans to divorce just before we sat down to watch a dance recital held in the Riverside Cathedral, whose majestic grey stone silhouette dominates the western shore of the upper west side of Manhattan. Four springs before, Julie and Dave were married just a few blocks east, in another great Cathedral, on a small budget but in great peripheral splendor, in one of the chapels of St. John the Divine.
Four years before, I had shopped with Julie at Laura Ashley for her wedding dress, observed her arrange the entire event elegantly but cheaply — negotiating with chaplains and cajoling florists and caterers to offer their services as wedding gifts. I’d seen her research, book, and single-handedly pay for the honeymoon.
The misty weather that day suited a ceremony in the dark cathedral. Outside, the spring foliage was bright green and new, the trees just bursting into flower. She’d instructed the minister that Children and the Will of God be mentioned during the service. To honor her husband’s Scottish heritage, bagpipers played Amazing Grace at the exit, and the sounds moistened our eyes. As if on cue, one of the peacocks that prance around the rectory burst into plumage: a good omen.
But four years later, as I look back, I see it was a false one.
At the reception, as dry ice clouded the stage, eastern flutes piped over the soundtrack, and the dance performance began. The dance’s theme centered on the ancient Greek legend of the Minotaur — the half-human, half-bull god who, the program notes explained, “represents the collective dark roots of humanity that have been denied, repressed and locked away.”
It was a bit too obvious an analogy to the realities of marriage Julie and I both knew too well — realities white-washed by images of happily ever after, Baby Gap and Range Rovers. We both knew what it was like to feel, within the framework of marriage, like the Minotaur, his dual nature a shame to be hidden by the ruling gods.
Julie and I didn’t have to talk much about the problems that killed her marriage, or the ones mine barely survived. We’d dissected them endlessly over the course of our eight year friendship, analyzing the challenge of asserting our feminist selves within the framework of marriage, deconstructing each power struggle in detail, all the while looking forward to the happy resolution when career, husband, home and child fell into place.
After the performance I drove us up to the suburbs where we now lived, and bought my friend dinner. The end of a marriage called for a solemn observance of its own.
“You know,” I confessed over our Cobb salads, “when I was cleaning out my closet, I thought of throwing out the dress I wore to your wedding.” It was a cheap, pale green catalogue dress from my days as a freelancer, when I watched every penny while saving the down-payment that finally liberated us from our suffocating New York apartment. “That was the only time I wore it,” I said. “I was only holding onto it for sentimental reasons. I guess it’s O.K. to throw it out now.” She agreed.
There was another reason I wanted to toss faded green dress — it signified bad times and I was ready to embrace a new future.
I was enviably thin in those pictures at Julie’s wedding. I smiled, but my eyes belied deep distress. If anyone had asked me then if I thought my marriage would make it, I couldn’t have answered.
At the time Julie married, I had been going through a very tough time in my own marriage, due to the financial stresses of living and trying to work with a chronic illness. Somehow, putting that pale green dress in the bag for Good Will, gave me a new sense of purpose. I wanted to believe that I could put an end to the hurt that I experienced during those four years between Julie’s wedding and her divorce dinner.
My husband and I managed to heal the emotional wounds, but overwhelmed by the strain of working full time while battling my illness, I lost my health and, leaving full time work, had to radically re-envision my future.
Julie chose another route. Since she and Dave had moved in together six years before, she’d switched jobs several times, doubling her salary to afford the modest home they’d purchased in their third year of marriage.
Dave, on the other hand, was in the same job, earning the same money, so they could barely afford their new mortgage payments. Despite her constant encouragements, which degenerated into nag-fests, Dave did not jump-start his career, see a therapist, get tested for a range of physical maladies, lift a finger around the house bought with only Julie’s money, learn to balance the checkbook, shop or cook, or get a car so Julie wouldn’t have to drive him everywhere, as if he were the teenage son she never had.
Julie tired of screaming. As she explained over our salads, she was basically a happy, peaceful, loving person. Under the current circumstances, she could no longer act kindly towards her husband. “I just see myself as an embittered old hag at 50. I want to get out while I’m still young enough to meet someone else.”
I was worried about how she would manage. Under my fiscal guidelines, she and Dave could barely afford to run a house together. She claimed she could do it on her own, for at least a month or so. Then she’d get a roommate.
Two weeks after our divorce dinner, Dave was still in the house. He couldn’t find a place he could afford. Julie dropped hints; I offered a loan to hasten his departure. I’d lent her money before, for her down payment, and she’d paid it back in full and in a timely fashion.
“All relationships have expiration dates,” she announced philosophically at our next lunch.
“You’re getting a roommate soon, right?” I said, handing her the check.
But month after month went by, and no roommate, and no loan repayment. I knew she needed time on her own, without the additional stress of sharing her home with a stranger. But I couldn’t help noticing she had money for new clothes to cheer herself up, for entertaining her young co-workers from the city, for buying wedding gifts for people she hardly knew.
Julie grew more angry and distressed at the strain of the mortgage, taxes, and unanticipated household repairs.
I dropped hints: “You could rent out your house and get a nice one bedroom and pocket the change,” I said. “You could refinance. You could use a roommate service and screen candidates. You could place an ad.”
Julie vetoed all suggestions. She was not going to move, and she was not going to get someone in off the street. Candidates referred through friends proved unacceptable: “I don’t want someone else’s – stuff – all over my house,” she spat.
Every time I talked to Julie things were worse. She descended into panicked thinking. Instead of paying $75 to have someone look at her broken dryer, she hauled wet clothes to a Laundromat for months. Why didn’t she get her new boyfriend (a handyman) to look at the malfunctioning appliance? She didn’t want to be “dependent.”
My husband invited her to my 40th birthday luncheon. I should have told him not to, because it was held at a gaudy, overpriced restaurant, attended by prosperous people whose ostentatious materialism, I knew, she would loathe.
My best Wall Street-era girlfriend boasted of having just bought two mink coats. Noting the acid downward curve of Julie’s mouth, I thought, I ought to have told her not to come. She hated these people, and she was starting to hate me, with my marital compromises, stay-at-home life, my new blond highlights.
About six months after Julie sent Dave away, she began to talk about her neighbor’s husband. “Don’t waste your time,” I told her, “flirting with married men.”
This wasn’t what I expected when I handed her a check to help speed up her divorce.
More than half a year passed without a dollar repaid. My husband and I had money stresses of our own by then, and I had to come out and ask for my loan back. Julie had just spent a weekend with millionaire friends. As I’d been talking about our own unexpectedly huge tax bill, I assumed she’d got the hint and arranged her visit to relieve me. I was wrong. Julie was livid.
“Look,” I said in my defense. “You’ve had a boyfriend for six months. Why can’t you ask him for a loan, or to move in and help with the bills?”
Julie hung up on me, furious. Within a month, I got a check for the full amount of my loan in the mail. We had no contact for a year. I finally called and learned that her handyman boyfriend was long gone, and her ex-neighbor’s husband was living with her, and that he, too was divorcing.
Sounding upbeat, but hardened, Julie dismissed my good wishes for her new relationship; she had no interest in marrying this man. He paid his share and did things around the house. His ex was awful, took the kids back to Maine. She would make use of him till the expiration date ran out.
Hanging up, I thought back to Julie’s wedding — the white dress, the lilies, the dark cathedral, the hopeful, holy words, the peacock bursting into full plume. I thought of the dance performance the night she announced her divorce.
I suppose I often see myself in marriage, indeed, in any relationship, as the Minotaur – stumbling along, half an awkward hybrid body, struggling to reconcile the ugly with the sublime. I easily forgave Julie her bad temper and outbursts at the time of her divorce, but could not forgive the home wrecking, nor could she forgive my judging her dark side.
Naively, I’d thought our friendship would outlast our marriages; I thought it would flourish forever. But like the peacock’s fan, its glory was short-lived. I thought of her declaration: “All relationships have expiration dates.”
Ours, apparently, had run out.
Featured in Rita Watson’s nationally syndicated Relationships blog: www.ritawatson.com.