Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Eventually, when you move to kiss her, your wife will turn away from you. For now, though, she is only distracted and quiet. Tell yourself it’s nothing. The last couple of years, the diapers and breast-feeding — she needs a little room, that’s all. A little time to herself. You can understand. You can wait a while longer. Keep working on the house. Make plans for the summer. Drink too much, but remind yourself that this is wine country, after all, and at forty you should get to know a Zinfandel from a Cabernet. When both kids are asleep upstairs and your wife is taking a bath, stand on the front porch and take long, deep breaths. “Gourmet air” is what you like to call it, this coastal night breeze, so sweet with lavender and rosemary. Consider yourself lucky. Stand under the stars without that old feeling of insignificance. Part of what you get when you own your own home, in addition to a mortgage-interest tax deduction, is a feeling of significance and a vast starry sky.
This is the house you both wanted: classic white clapboard with two stories and a view of the valley. The night old Mrs. Anderson accepted your offer on it, you went to bed, but neither of you could sleep. After talking for a while about all the renovations you would make, you both got up and turned on the lights in the living room. You opened the good bottle of champagne and sat on the couch to make lists. Your wife’s enthusiasm is one of the traits you fell in love with.
She’s always been a good student, a responsible daughter, a solid and professional nurse. Talk to her. She’s not sure why she hasn’t been herself lately. When she asks if you know what love is, she takes your inability to come up with a definition to mean that you don’t. It’s important to her that you not know what love is. Sunlight from the front windows warms the dark wood floor, and the air just above it wiggles. Wonder why.
You used to read books together, laugh at the same comedians, listen to music. You could be comfortable in silence, too, enjoying the crackle of the fire in winter and the contented hum of the window fan in July. She could lose herself in her garden, spending hours making raised beds, filling them with leaf mold and compost, and then transplanting trays of fragile seedlings from the potting shed. She covered them at night, and when the tomatoes and artichokes had aphids, she sprayed the undersides of their leaves one at a time.
A few days later talk to her again. Be reassuring. Maybe she should see a therapist? Say, “The most important thing is for all of us to be happy — isn’t that what we’ve always said? Everyone goes through phases, you know.”
She begins to see a therapist once a week, and every time she comes home from a session, she is farther and farther away. Guess at what might be the cause of her unhappiness. Spend extra time with the kids so she can pursue a hobby in the evenings. At thirty-five she’s still athletic. Put a fence around the garden while the kids play in the sandbox. Respect her privacy and trust that she’ll tell you what’s wrong when she figures it out. Perhaps you should be doing something different, better, but she won’t say what. Don’t go overboard, but from time to time bring her a Starbucks mocha, her favorite. Be ready.
This is how it happens: As a family you spend the day with her cousins from Upstate New York, who have come to do the California vacation. Disneyland, Universal Studios, lots of smiling at the sunny hot-springs pool. When you sit down next to your wife, she immediately moves to check on the kids in a way that hurts your feelings. That evening put the children to sleep and notice the smallness of their backs, your hand flat against their warm flannel pajamas. Tell yourself that you will pin a note to your wife’s jacket the next time she goes to her therapist, asking the therapist to call and explain to you what’s going on. Tiptoe out of the room. It is quiet at the bottom of the stairs. There’s no sound from the kitchen, and the living room is empty. The door to the hall bathroom is closed. Wait a moment before tapping lightly. Tentatively it opens. See your wife standing in the dark holding a glass of red wine.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” she says.
What happens next becomes one of those memories you will keep forever in the jumbled garage of your mind. Talk with her on the couch until late. Feel protective of her. Cry with her. When people ask how she told you, say it was simple: she said, “I think I’m gay.”
In the middle of the night there are no answers, not even any suitable questions. Lie dumbstruck in the enormous space of that unknowing. Try to see your part in this. Stand at the mirror and comb through a list of possibilities: not smart enough, not romantic enough. You have known rejection, but its teeth were never this long or this sharp. Worse, there’s nothing you can do — no marriage-counseling tricks or exercises for this, no apologizing or atonement. This is not happening to the two of you together. Let a couple of days go by. Realize there’s only one way to find out if it’s true, and she knows it. There’s only one way to tell for sure if she’s a lesbian.
A week later she is getting ready to go out. On a date. Meanwhile the children have to be bathed. Big Bird, with his bright-yellow feathers, is waving to you from the front of a shampoo bottle. The kids, two and four, are in the tub, a couple of chubby, soapy, slippery toddlers babbling and splashing in the echoey bathroom.
When she says she thinks she’s gay, it means she knows she’s gay. When she says she thinks she’s in love with a woman, it means that in her heart she has already left you. If you want to verify what your gut already knows, then watch: Watch her eyes veer away when she tells you she doesn’t think she’ll be out late. Watch her tell the children good night, bending over the tub to give them a kiss, inadvertently revealing the hem of her red lace underwear. Watch the space where she was just standing, nothing there now but a trace of her best perfume. From the window watch her headlights sweep across the yard. Watch yourself. Watch yourself.
Morning. You hardly slept. Your eyes are tangles of spidery nests, your mind a worn-out radio. Try to listen to the news, to find out what happened yesterday and what tomorrow’s weather will be, but the kids fuss at the breakfast table. They both start to wail, their delicate lashes glistening with tears, their mouths dark smears. Feel like an actor playing a domestic scene using these props: a pastel-green terry-cloth bib; an overturned bowl of oatmeal and blueberries; a boy and a girl, two and four.
On Sunday show up early at the local library for a meditation group. The regulars begin to arrive after you. The library is closed, but they say Charlie has the key. In a few minutes Charlie comes and opens the door. Stand at the edge of the gray carpet while the others turn on the lights and adjust the thermostat and unstack chairs, arranging them in a circle. They know each other’s names and ask yours.
Discover it’s true that when you begin to meditate, the mind seems more active than usual, not less. Don’t be discouraged. The others jokingly call it “monkey mind.” Simply notice the thoughts that you weren’t aware of before. Watch the mind struggle. When you see that your thoughts have wandered, bring attention gently back to the breath. Remember second grade. See yourself in the school cafeteria, breaking a Twinkie in half. You squish the broken end onto your nose and say, “Look at me!” so that the small girl named Penny will pay attention to you. It works. Her sparkling eyes are on you. She doesn’t like you, never will, but your heart suddenly gasps with love. Then comes the sound of all the other children laughing.
Pull yourself together. Consider the mountain, unaffected by winter wind and snow, spring storms, and blistering summer sun. In all seasons and conditions, the mountain remains steadfast. When the chime sounds after half an hour, feel more grounded. Afterward sip chamomile tea and explain to the others how you heard about this group, how you found them. When you get home, climb the stairs, sit down at the top, and sob into your hands. This is the opposite of everything you ever wanted.
© Laura J. Wellner
Try to be supportive when she cuts her hair short, and again when she cuts it even shorter. Make friendly conversation with her girlfriend, even though the two of you have nothing in common but the weather. Go through the motions. Open the mail and pay the bills. Mow the yard. They’re already moving in together. She tells you a joke: What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul. Stand by the sunken stack of sippy cups and colored bowls and blink while the world stares foggily back at you through the kitchen window.
The children will spend equal time with each of you. When she has them for a three-day stretch, fold their laundry into piles. Once in a while bury your face in a miniature shirt, still warm from the dryer. Steel yourself for evening. In an empty house like this you can sit on the couch for a long time, listening to the light bulbs.
It could be worse, people remind you. It could be worse.
She never wanted to hurt you. So try not to notice the hickies or what a poor job she does hiding her giddy love. Drive alone with the windows up and scream so loud you make yourself cough. Do it again. Hundred-year-old oak trees line the shoulder of the road, so sturdy their branches would barely tremble even if you struck one of their massive trunks at your current speed. Concentrate on the center line. Leave your seat belt buckled.
Her therapist says it’s not uncommon for a woman to realize well into adulthood that her sexual orientation has shifted. “Lesbian-come-lately” is the term she uses. It’s meant to be light and breezy, with a kind of well, whaddya know tone. More than once you are told that sexual orientation isn’t black and white, that it slides around between the poles of hetero and homo. In every conversation about it someone uses the word fluid. In the Saturday sunlight of backyard parties, wander among your married friends, all of them like subtle variations on the same couple: ball caps and designer sunglasses, one hand holding a drink. The women lean toward each other, touching and cooing over babies. Their husbands stand like fence posts, ignorant of what might be happening. Start to see everything this way.
Some of them feel bold enough to ask if you noticed any signs. One says she has a cousin like that in Arizona. Another remembers the Kinsey Scale of sexual orientation from a class she took in college. But the Kinsey Scale doesn’t explain those who leapfrog from one end to the other with no stops between. Sneer inwardly at their naiveté. They shrug and say, “Who could have known?” Their eyes say, How could you not have known?
To fill the gap in conversation, one of them says it’s easier for women because they’re more about connection and inclusivity. Their affections are more fluid.
Forget the Raymond Chandler novel on the bedside table and study a Buddhist nun’s book, looking for clues to your life in Sanskrit terms. It is the nature of sudden loss to interrupt whatever you had planned, the nun says. Anything you intended, anything you had vaguely come to expect — those were the seeds of your current suffering.
Find a therapist of your own, a man named Doug with a soft, raspy voice who whispers to you that grief comes in waves. After a handful of appointments, let him know you won’t be coming back. You both agree that nothing is going to help except time, and even that won’t help much. Go to the beach and walk past the fire pits and dog walkers. Notice that the wind sounds like flapping cloth or fanned flames. Listen to the waves roll in.
Try to be open-minded. People grow and change, and what responsibility do any of us have to one another, really? Surely we have a right to pursue our own personal destinies if we have any rights at all. Last week she told you she’s simply discovered that her sexual attraction is to women now. And you countered that if you suddenly discovered an attraction to bookish college girls, would it be understandable for you to act on such a fluidity of affection? She said that would be different. Consider the possibility that she’s right, and it’s only you who can’t see how.
Decide late one night to post your questions on an online forum called the Straight Spouse Network. In the morning find responses: “Don’t try to understand it; you’ll drive yourself crazy.” “Get on with your life.” “Take care of those children.”
The good news is you’re all healthy: you, her, the kids. And you aren’t the only person in the world to face crushing disappointment. Still, you have to admit to a serious lapse: the most important thing you could know about the closest relationship in your life was completely hidden from you. How could you have been so blind? How could she? We have the faith of fools because it would be too cumbersome to go through life asking for proof of all we believe and then cross-examining every witness. We hold certain beliefs because we need them to get us through the day, not because we know they’re true. Stand again outside the threshold of what used to be your dream home and search the vast, starry sky. Think of everything you don’t know for certain. Don’t leave anything out.
Become one of the regulars at the Sunday-morning meditation group. The irony doesn’t escape you: the way you cling to this practice of nonattachment. Don’t get caught up in it. Don’t try to fix the situation. The Buddhist nun says that instability is fertile ground for spiritual growth. Close your eyes and breathe. Let the ego rest.
Later, when it’s clear that it takes two people to keep a house like yours, buy a stack of cardboard boxes. Stop trying to see your role in what happened. There isn’t one. You were written out of her script, that’s all. Dress the kids, make cream of wheat, find lost shoes, and get their eyedrops to land between blinks. Put hats and sunscreen on them and take them to ride their trikes beside the fountain in the park. They pedal tipsy circles along the misty lip of the basin. Round and round, one question keeps outrunning an answer: Is she really gay, or does she only think she’s gay? You asked her once. “Why would I make this up?” she asked. That’s a point you can’t argue. First, she had to tell her family and friends and co-workers that she’s gay, which is an unpopular announcement to make, especially given the cultural pressure to be a “good mom.” Second, like you, she now has the children only 50 percent of the time. You’ll both miss half their childhoods.
Lug the kids’ tricycles back to the car. Cook dinner and do the dishes, give baths and read bedtime stories — you, who never dreamed of having children until you met her. Surprise yourself that you can do this so capably alone.
Was she ever straight? You could wrestle with that question for years. Search the wedding photos as you pack them into boxes. Any couple might look like a romantic match cutting into a snow-white cake. Nothing about her earrings could have told you. Nor her grandmother’s necklace, nor her makeup. Neither her beautiful smile nor her long blond hair could have hinted at anything. When you started dating, you thought it was charming that she had her own power drill. Would a more perceptive man have called the whole thing off? What about the time you discovered she wasn’t helpless when a cabinet hinge came loose? From now on, if a woman wears her hair short, what should you make of it? No, stop scanning a mental list of stereotypes for clues that might have tipped you off. You’ll drive yourself crazy.
It’s taken you this long to learn that nothing lasts. You heard this before and took it as dreary philosophy, but the fact of impermanence now resides undeniably in you like a shadow on an X-ray. Thoughts replace other thoughts. People appear and fade. Entire solar systems may disappear into dark pockets of space. So hold lightly to the world, wary of everything and everyone. Nurture a deep suspicion of anything that is expected to happen. Any plans beyond today are no more solid than a snowman in August. Have faith that you can live without faith. Meanwhile read to the children, pull splinters, and don’t forget when the tooth fairy is supposed to come. On the odd occasion remember a day when, back in the old house, she stopped by to pick up the kids, and she left you with a hug, saying, “I am so sorry.” And what could you have said that made any sense except “I know, I know”?
At the end of Jim Ringley’s “What You Don’t Know for Certain” [March 2015], I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. He describes his pain and frustration so vividly. There is beauty in the essay as well: not holding on to animosity, letting go, acceptance.