Between deciding to divorce and the day my husband moved out of the house, there was a six-month stretch in which he was sleeping in my daughter’s room and my son was sleeping in my room and our kids were playing musical beds to ensure that my husband and I weren’t sleeping together. We barely spoke those six months except to argue over everything from milk expiration dates to how we were splitting up the phone bill, occupying a communal area the way in which college roomates with zero compatibility—think chemical engineering major paired with hippie potter in the fine arts school—are lumped together through a random college dorm lottery system.
We were married, but we weren’t married, trapped in a nameless liminal space where our identity as a family was murky at best. If divorce felt like Dante’s 9th circle of Hell, the months-long separation period while cohabiting under the same roof recalled a Viking funeral. Our marriage lay in a boat, set aflame as it drifted off to sea, awaiting its arrival at Valhalla.
Ten months after my soon-to-be-ex-husband took up residence in an apartment building 1.2 miles down the street, the world erupted into a fiery petri dish bubbling with viral plague. We were not yet divorced—Covid-related closure of the courts had stalled our paperwork—but the margins of married life were receding as if water ebbing to and from shore. Sometimes, it continued to lap at our feet. Eventually, our separation found its own rocky groove, a mathematical percentile of messy division. We spent 87% of the time fighting over custodial arrangements, the other 13% was dedicated to passing our kids’ Ritalin and forgotten gymnastics leotards back and forth.
We were not yet not a family. But we were not the one we had been.
Summer came, camps were cancelled, and our children, quarantined for four-and-a-half months at that point, had watched a collective total of 10,000 YouTube and TikTok videos. They were cranky and inconsolable, ricocheting off one another like moths in a beaker lit aflame. Tzvia, our mercurial tweenage daughter, had morphed into a raging hellion. And Sam, our autistic thirteen year-old son, was unravelling under the pressure and stress of a loudly imploding world; his anxiety and depression had spiked to a boiling point. Early on in the pandemic, I walked outside into our tiny fenced-in backyard to find Sam lighting a wooden table on fire. Weeks later, he stuck a fork inside an electrical socket and ignited a bright, ashy spark that burnt my computer charging cord to a crisp. Minutes later, a trio of firefighters arrived at our doorstep.
Desperate for a change of scenery, my ex and I agreed that we had to do something. Mid-July, we took advantage of our temporary work-from-home set-ups, arranged precautionary COVID-19 tests in Los Angeles, and hightailed it back east where the coronavirus numbers were starting to flatten. I flew with the kids to Boston; My ex left a week later for Burlington,Vermont.
In Boston, the kids and I spent two weeks with my parents, mostly zipping through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru for strawberry Coolattas and swimming during our reserved two-hour block at the local JCC where the local yentas in skirted bathing suits barraged me with endless questions about my impending divorce. Then the kids and I road-tripped to Vermont, blasting Borns’ “Electric Love” as we pulled into Shelburne. There, my soon-to-be-ex-husband, our kids, their cousins, and my soon-to-be ex-in-laws (we need another word: been laws?) would be staying for a week at their family home, perched high atop a leafy hill overlooking fertile cow fields exploding with grass and the golden shimmer of Lake Champlain.
I booked a room at a nearby hotel where I would stay for two nights, getting my fill of maple creemees and roosters clucking at dawn. A week later, my ex would return the kids to Boston.
But once in Vermont, the impracticalities of this pandemic-era plan soon became clear. My ex’s sister was quarantined with her husband, daughter and my 80 year-old, immunocompromised soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law in the property’s main house; My ex was staying in the one-bedroom “tiny house” on the front lawn, several yards away. Until their tests came back negative, our kids weren’t permitted inside the main house, and vice versa. Both kids were screaming to go in different directions. Our son needed a parent around; our daughter needed a parent around. And while the hotel where I’d booked a reservation was implementing coronavirus safety protocols, no place was completely failsafe.
Finally, my soon-to-be ex-husband relented: “You can stay two nights in the tiny home.”
Then he pointed me down the hall toward his mother’s empty bedroom, a tidy square space painted eggshell white with seascape-themed watercolor paintings and sheer fabric curtains like something out of a Virginia Woolf novel.
My ex was not thrilled with this arrangement—that, he made clear. He needed me to stay and help with the kids, but he didn’t want to need me to stay: “Two nights only,” he repeated. As I passed my soon-to-be ex-husband in the kitchen, he sucked in his stomach in an exaggerated curve, his body forming a hard ‘C’ so as not to make contact. Later, walking along Shelburne Beach as I followed behind with towels, he flicked his wrist to shoo me away. In the check-out line at Trader Joe’s, he picked a fight over money. As we were pulling out of the supermarket parking lot, our daughter threw a bottle of water at her father, triggered and traumatized by the last decade-plus of dysfunction.
Did I mention he had a new girlfriend back home in California?
Over the next two days, my soon-to-be ex-husband did his best to ignore me and I followed him around the tiny house, desperate for attention, willing him to act like my husband and not like somebody about to divorce me after 14 years of a loud, messy, combustible marriage. It was our first time sleeping under the same roof in about 15 months—us, the kids—and, to me at least, it didn’t feel uncomfortable. It felt familiar, in the way being a family does, even when being a family is difficult, even when it feels like a nightmare. But it did remind me of why we made the choice to actually break up, after years of merely threatening to do so in the presence of myriad couples counselors—one of whom became so frustrated with us, he fired us on the spot and kicked us out of his office.
In the tiny living room, I scrolled through instant messages on my ex’s iPhone, spying on texts with his girlfriend: “Miss you sweetie.” He’d never called me sweetie—ever. I told him his financial problems were all his fault; he accused me of being “impossible.” We were swimming in the lake when he asked if the guy with whom I’d been corresponding on JSwipe knew that I was “large?” It was his go-to jab, always followed by an “I’m kidding,” and one that had never been funny, not since I gained 70 pounds during the pregnancy of our daughter and went from being skinny to zaftig, which is really just a Yiddish euphemism for fat.
Despite all this, I was planted in denial. I didn’t want to be alone in life, and I was terrible at saying goodbye, no matter how bad things got. The worse they got, in fact, the harder I fought to make things better. In our 15 years together, my ex and I had weathered drug addiction, rehabs, death, unemployment, raising a special needs child. I had no interest in adding divorce to this depressing repertoire. Standing in the kitchenette rinsing a pint of fresh-picked strawberries in the sink, I again asked my soon-to-be ex-husband if he wanted to stay married. No, he answered.
Two days passed. Kids and I were coronavirus-free, and I was due to drive back to Boston. And I should have wanted to go. But I did not want to go. Because even if my relationship with my soon-to-be ex-husband was on par with icebergs jostling for space in the Arctic, I liked my been laws, I liked their friends; I’d been coming here for 14 summers. I’d known my nephew since he was five, my niece since she was born. There was nothing ex about them. There was a global pandemic, we had a monster for president. The earth was in a fragile, perilous state. Who knew when we might be able to spend time together again? Why should our divorce be the reason I can’t take photographs of my kids and their cousins toasting s’mores in the backyard of their grandmother’s house, licking melted marshmallows off their fingers?
In the end, it was my soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law who insisted that I stay.
Over the next five days, My ex took Sam golfing while Tzvia did her cousin’s make-up and biked circles around the neighborhood. My ex took Tzvia to the Shelburne Country Store where she filled up a brown paper bag with Nerds and rock candy and I drove Sam down to the LaPlatte River Nature Park where we hiked across mossy trails and trekked through swampy puddles and my nephew taught Sam how to fish. Sam’s soft, small hands gripped the bottom end of the pole and he pulled, pulled, pulled as a copper-colored bass wiggled and writhed, flapping its fins, water spritzing everywhere. My nephew slid a silver hook from the fish’s gaping mouth, and we watched as it thrashed its way through the pea-green river, swimming toward freedom. Later that week, my ex and I and our kids and their cousins and Fozzy, the family’s Muppet-like Moyen with wild russet curls, scampered through the woods and swam in a cool, freshwater gorge. As we scaled the mulch-blanketed mountain path back toward the car, my soon-to-be ex-husband held my hand to steady my balance and make sure I didn’t fall.
Sometimes, he said mean things. Sometimes, so did I. And when I couldn’t take it anymore, I retreated to his mother’s room, wrapping myself in a white cloud-like blanket. Eventually, we’d regroup, and things would shift and we’d head to the backyard and lather pads of butter on ears of corn and watch the sun sink to a flash of red.
On our last day together, we visited the grave of my ex’s brother, who died in 2013 in a cliff jumping accident in Lake Champlain. We had problems, but really our marriage ended after my brother-in-law died. That was the last time my then-husband ever said, “I love you.” Seven years later, Sam and Tzvia placed smooth black stones atop their uncle’s grave, per Jewish custom. I cried for a moment and my soon-to-be ex-husband, also for a moment, placed his hand on my shoulder. Quickly, he pulled it away. We seemed to have completed a cycle. Our children had just spent seven days with both parents living under the same roof for the first time in well over a year. Maybe we would—and could—do it again.
We never would have planned this. We were terrible at planning things. And even if we had tried to plan this, it never would have worked out. But here we were, standing in a cemetery—together. Weeping over what we had lost; grateful about what we still had. Things felt over—really, really over. I would not be asking to stay married.
For us, it was the end. For our family, perhaps it signaled the start of a new type of beginning.
Peak Jewish Divorcee is a bi-weekly column charting the (mis)adventures of a Jewish, newly single working mom in Los Angeles.