The Ex-Files, Part II

So I ran. Ran as far as my obsessions and neuroses could take me. One day I had walked into my living room and literally not recognized my wife -- there was an expression on her face that I labeled "strange" because I'd never seen it, or had never let myself see it. That moment initiated a chain of events that ended in the sort of marital chaos that we all know so well, it is so common. Which says to me that what is common is our ignorance of each other, and of ourselves. James Baldwin wrote: "One can only face in others what one can face in oneself." In one line, that is the story of our lost loves and our wars. I couldn't face her because I couldn't face myself. So I ran.

It could be said with justification that I chickened out, as far as the marriage was concerned. It could also be said that I saved my life the only way that presented itself. I had some luck, you see, and found some new love. It didn't last long, but in a suicidal year it did save my life. Love can do that sometimes, remember? (My wife's love might have saved me too, but I was too far gone to let it.) Someone asked me recently if there was "any real knowing involved" in that now long-lost new love. Well -- she made me remember that there might still be something beautiful about me, and so perhaps I didn't need to die, perhaps my damaged beauty should be given another chance. Others were trying to tell me this, but, through no fault of their own, I couldn't believe them. I believed her. Is that real enough?

And, yes, she was a younger woman. And, yes, that pissed some people off and made me suspect in their eyes. Well -- you be thankful for what's saved you and I'll be thankful for what's saved me, and let's leave it at that.

It could also be said that a settled life was not my true nature, and that in trying to be married, at least as my wife and I lived the concept of marriage, I was violating my nature. My violation of myself may have been an honest mistake, but that doesn't help matters any. A man on the run from himself invites such mistakes, and, as often as not, seduces other people into helping pay for them. Not a pretty business, but at least I've given up that particular daydream -- a settled life isn't something I do well, isn't something I want enough to do well. To accept that a settled life is not your lot is to accept that every day you will be thrown entirely upon your own resources. But any life, settled or not, needs a sense of dignity to be lived well -- that is most of what growing up means, to attend to one's life with dignity, endure the lacks, relish the pleasures, and not spread the pain around too much.

As a writer, do I have a responsibility to tell all I learned from my marriage and its failure? Do you think that would do either of us any good?

For, yes, I learned so much! There must be something I can tell you. I learned so much about myself, and about life, love, God, society, work, gender, sex, honesty, you name it. But the truth is that I'm not particularly thrilled at how I learned what I learned, and I'm really not thrilled at how my education was paid for in pain by two of the people I've loved most in this world, my ex-wife and my stepson. (You might ask, "How could you leave her if you say you didn't know her?" Sorry, but if you're still asking such questions maybe you're no more grown up than I was.) What am I supposed to say? "Go, hurt other people, hurt yourself, learn about life!" You already know that.

Let's not forget (as many do when speaking of divorce) that I broke a vow -- a wedding vow that I had given with all my heart, or at least with the part of my heart that I knew about. It is a kind of death to break a vow, and you live afterwards knowing that you are the kind of person capable of breaking the most solemn promise you ever made. You can't help trusting yourself less after something like that. If you're half-honest, you at least learn to be a lot more careful about what you tell people.

Especially when you talk about love. I have come to think that the word "love" is a reckless, sweet invention -- even when it's not used as a synonym for "need." Now I try to reserve my recklessness for my writing and my vices. At the age of 50, I haven't given up on love, no matter how frayed I sound; but I think of it as word in a foreign language, the pronunciation and meaning of which I only partly understand -- a word with grammatical complications that no one has diagrammed sufficiently, and with hidden invisible letters silent as the "g" in "thought" and useless as the "c" in "pucker."

Don't mistake my tone for guilt. I don't trust guilt, at least not mine. It's usually a way to make other people feel sorry for you -- or to con them into thinking you're better than you are, for look at how much you've suffered! Don't mistake this for grief, either. Grief, in our glib Nineties jabber, is usually just another con, a socially acceptable form of guilt. And for mercy's sake, let's not talk about "growth." If it's growth to leave some lies behind, then I've grown. (Though it may be that I'm just more tired.) But growth doesn't excuse the blood on the floor. Just because I'm having a pretty good time these days; just because I know myself pretty well now; and just because I'm on pretty good terms with most of the fools I've been -- that's precisely why I don't want to pretend that crap is anything but crap.

Both literature and psychology insist that if you place your pain insightfully into an insightful story about yourself, it's supposed to help. Well, it doesn't help me. Psychotherapy has invented a new expectation called "closure," but there's no such thing as closure. Closure implies that you can shut the door on the pain of your past -- that with enough insight and a few hugs you can walk away clean. Well, you can walk away, but not clean. Not unless you want to live the rest of your life lying about your failures. There isn't any closure, there are only memories that stab you unawares and the determination to endure and to cherish whatever beauty you can find and not let your past stain the new beauty too badly.

Let's not pretend that divorce is about anything but failure. You tried something important. Whether it was reckless or silly or inspired (or all of the above), it was still important. You wanted something, or thought you did, and you went all out to get it. You broke your heart, or somebody broke it for you, or both. You behaved stupidly or badly or well -- or all of the above, by turns. You didn't know what you needed to know, until it was too late -- and you felt lucky to know it even then. You can blame gender conditioning or your parents or your religion or your education or your lack of it. You can blame your work, or your inability to find work that is truly yours. You can blame your desires. You can blame your youth or your age. You can become friends with your ex, or not. You can get vicious about the money and property, or not. You can act with dignity or compound your foolishness, or both. You can tell yourself, your friends, and your therapist great tales, and come to marvelous conclusions. But you tried something important and you failed. You hurt others, you got hurt, and you failed. You can dull yourself to the failure, get past it, or get stuck in it, but you failed. Failure is what it feels like, anyway, and I didn't come this far not to trust my feelings again.

Evading those feelings of failure with a lot of high-falutin' notions just sets you up to fail again.

Of course, failure is not confined to divorce. Many a marriage is a walking failure -- people joined in a pact not to know themselves or one another, and who try to pull that not-knowing around their home like a shield against the world. Nevertheless, to be divorced is to know you tried something and failed. Your walk changes, your talk changes, your very reflexes change. The way you make love changes. The kind of people you love changes. Yes, life is change, and you have changed anyway, and isn't that wonderful? But you have changed in a particular way, because you tried and failed in a particular way. You have changed in ways you might not have changed otherwise, for better and worse. Some people say all things happen for the best, but no one can prove that. People talk about karma, about "inner children," about all kinds of things, but no one can prove any of it. What I know is that I tried something, and that it was important to me, and that -- on its own terms, terms I thought were crucial at the time, no matter how much I've "grown" since -- it failed, I failed, we failed. Shit.

"Divorce" means carrying that around. You may carry it on your back or you may carry it in your pocket, but you carry it. It may weigh you down or you may have learned to balance it, but you carry it. It may be something you can share or something you can't, but you carry it. You can achieve the dignity of not making the same mistake again, or you can relentlessly repeat your mistake, but either way you carry it. Most things you say about it won't make much difference to anyone else (especially your ex). Others may or may not be entertained by what you say, but they'll make their own mistakes anyway, so they might as well be watching an old movie as reading about marriage or divorce. You carry it. They'll carry it. Life is about carrying stuff until you drop. (Drop dead, I mean; you never drop the stuff.) That's what the lines in your face are about. That's what that hesitation before you say the word "love" is about. n

Continued in two weeks.

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