The Ex-Files

About two years into my marriage, I walked into the living room of our small apartment and saw my wife sitting on the couch. She looked at me. There was nothing dramatic in the way she looked at me, her features were the same, yet this was another face entirely. A face I'd never seen. I remember it as a face stripped raw -- the face of her face, it seemed. I'm not certain anymore that my perception was true, but this is how it appeared to me at the time. She seemed suddenly a stranger. Eerily so, because everything else about this stranger was more than familiar, was a part of me, except her expression -- and, in particular, her eyes.

As soon as we spoke, the stranger disappeared and the woman I thought I knew came back into focus. I don't remember what we said then, but I remember what I did next. I went into my writing-room and closed the door behind me. (It was the biggest room in that four-room apartment, which tells you much of what you need to know about the marriage.) I sat down, disoriented, baffled, wondering how during our years of intimacy I had never seen that face. And I said aloud to myself: "Who is she?"

The question frightened me. That's putting it mildly. I didn't think to ask whether the difference was possibly in me that day. (Which tells you something else you need to know about the marriage -- my side of it, anyway.) Didn't even ask why I was frightened. Not that "Who is she?" was such a bad question. I should have asked it long before. But my fear overwhelmed that crucial question, and drove me far from the possibility of an answer. In fact, I was so frightened that I instantly forgot the real question and made a lot of "meaning" out of it.

That's what I do for a living. I'm a writer; I affix meanings to moments -- often too quickly, by reflex. One makes a lot of excuses for such things, but the truth is: There are corruptions inherent in every profession, and to leap (or retreat) into "meaning" is one of the corruptions of mine. For it is no small crime to cram a moment with meaning as a substitute for experiencing that moment. I didn't know this then. I didn't know that most writing is just an attempt to control the unpredictable reverberations of an experience -- to put a stamp on it, own it in some way, and then (not incidentally) sell it. So I would make a kind of legend of any event, replete with footnotes -- psychological, mythological, sociological, and most of them, in retrospect, more or less illogical. Oh, they sounded impressive in conversation, my little meanings, and they looked good in print, but so what? They didn't help much in the long run, and that is the only test, isn't it? Because while I could speak and write some good words, I didn't know how to do the words. Which is to say: I didn't know myself. I was afraid to know myself.

It is not possible to know another person when you are afraid to know yourself.

So, to realize I did not know my wife was especially terrifying, because something in me sensed that I could only know her by first facing myself. I wasn't ready for that. My terror kept me from knowing both of us.

No marriage can survive that much unknowing.

As I write this I'm not interested in remembering the contortions of meaning by which I momentarily escaped what I had seen (or thought I'd seen) in our living room. I'm also not interested in trying to interpret her part in our break-up. I don't feel competent to do that. I didn't understand her enough when we were in the same room; so what can I know years after we split? I'm only concerned, now, with holding in my memory the unmasked face of the woman I loved and had married, and my fear of that face.

I realize now that my fear was a form of respect -- it measured the depth of my real respect for her, as opposed to my imagined respect. "Any human touch can change you," James Baldwin once wrote. My fear gauged both her capacity to change me, and my terror of that possibility. When you live in a profound and almost willed ignorance about yourself, then change is far more frightening than it would be if you stood on firmer ground. For not to know yourself is not to know where your real boundaries are, so you remain in constant fear of losing or giving away your soul.

The soul is the only real medium of exchange. Every other currency is counterfeit. How much of your soul you're willing to know, willing to live out, willing to give; how much of another's you're willing to face, to partake of -- that is the measure of how much you're alive. I didn't know where my honest self began or ended, didn't know what in me was real and what was faked, so I was always suspicious of what I was giving and terrified of what I might be losing. Not knowing these things about myself, how could I sense them in a lover? I would see little pieces of the other, and from those pieces I'd concoct, invent, a lover who suited me -- until that person's reality would intrude upon my concoction, and then I'd be angry and afraid. "Who is she?" The real question was: "Who am I?" But, as I've said, I wasn't ready for that question. I pretended to be, and pretended well, but somewhere within, I knew I was faking. Somewhere within, we always know.

I thought I'd married in order to change, and to commit to love and to being loved, and I had; but secretly, as it were, I'd also married to find a haven, find some safety. I had not yet accepted that safety is not a human possibility. Even if you manage to fortify yourself against the world, nothing in creation can protect you from yourself. So my second impulse (safety) undercut the first (love) -- because, as with most people, "safety" for me meant some illusion of control. I sought to control my household, as though that would protect me from something. And what I couldn't control I ignored, or ran from, or tried to stamp down. In other words, I tried to control everything but myself, while running from myself at the same time. This makes for a lot of tripping over one's own feet.

I don't know what my wife and stepson were doing during all this, because after a while, I couldn't see them very well. My impression is that toward the end we were falling all over each other like blind people in a burning building. Not that there weren't moments of sudden, transcendent beauty between us -- moments when (to carry the blind metaphor to its conclusion) we saw with our fingers rather than our eyes. But such moments became increasingly rare. For me, our beautiful interludes became emblems of what usually wasn't there, rather than what could be there if I'd trusted my fingers.

I couldn't forgive myself for the lacks in the marriage, and I've since learned that when you can't forgive yourself you have the devil's own time forgiving anyone else. I couldn't blame my wife and boy (I wasn't that much of a fool), so I blamed myself and blamed this thing that seemed to be none of us and all of us at once: the marriage.

I was 37 when I married, and it's too late to be embarrassed at the fact that I hadn't yet grown up. If I'd been behaving like a grown-up, I might have realized that when I saw that face -- when, for a moment, I let myself realize that I did not yet know my wife -- that is when the marriage might have had a chance truly to begin. For not until the illusions of knowing are stripped away does anything really begin. A braver, more mature, more intelligent man might have committed then and there to the real marriage, instead of the marriage we'd been trying to invent. As it was, my behavior went from difficult to impossible. She was willing to endure that behavior longer than I. In other words, she was willing to do the work that may or may not have kept us married. But I had become impossible to myself, I couldn't bear myself any longer, couldn't bear who I'd become in that marriage, couldn't bear who I was and who I wasn't. So, in as destructive a way as I could manage, I ended it. I ran as fast and as irreversibly as my obsessions and neuroses could carry me.

What did that consist of? Just imagine most of the mistakes a resourceful man can make when he's running from himself. I was suicidal, I was sexually obsessed with other women, I drank too much, I couldn't really hear what other people said to me, I went into debt, I sold out my talent. Not only the marriage but some cherished friendships got caught in the crossfire that year. And my first novel got bad reviews, and just around then my mother died, and you know how it is about favorite sons and their mothers, and... who would want to hear this? Oprah?

There are thousands of stories just like mine, millions, enacted in trailer parks and penthouses from sea to polluted sea. I wish I could claim that there was something special about my behavior, but the forms my desperation took were common. Let's just say that it was time, finally, to be a grown-up, and that I was using every weapon in my arsenal to avoid that distinction.

The Greek poet George Seferis has a line: "I watched you with all the light and darkness I have." I've come to believe that's the most we can ask of ourselves and each other.

But I was on the run and you can't do that on the run -- whether you run to booze and other lovers, or to the television, or to the fortress against fear that is all so many mean when they say "God." n

Continued in two weeks.

(A version of this series will appear in Men on Divorce -- The Other Side of the Story, edited by Penny Kaganoff and Susan Spano, Harcourt Brace & Co., January 1997.)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Letters at 3AM
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
"I'm not quitting. I'm turning," says Michael Ventura in his final column

Michael Ventura, Nov. 14, 2014

Letters at 3am: The World 
That Calls Itself
Letters at 3am: The World That Calls Itself "the World"
We're capable of so much – and look what we've settled for

Michael Ventura, Oct. 31, 2014

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle