— Elizabeth Wurtzel
“I DON’T THINK I love you anymore.”
I’m standing in the street, the phone pressed to my ear in the bitter cold when he says these words. It’s like being shot, the bullet entering my chest cleanly, leaving only the scent of sudden fire. I look down, but I am untouched. I force myself to remember to breathe. I realize that he is still talking, but his words are unintelligible. When I can finally speak, my voice is gutted, as if I’ve been scraped clean. I think of the avocado I ate that morning for breakfast, how my fork slid effortlessly into its soft, green heart with no resistance, metal tines sliding along the bottom of the shell.
“Are you going to ever apologize?” I ask, already knowing the answer. “For what you did to me?”
Even as the words leave my lips, I am aware of their absurdity. Whatever havoc I have wreaked, I have done it to myself. Willingly, in fact. Perhaps this is the cruelest knowledge of all.
“What did I do to you?” He scoffs, and even through the phone I know he is shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “Oh well.” “We had a relationship. It didn’t work out.”
His tone is matter-of-fact, and the words hang in the air like smoke. I think of my daughter safe in her bed, her cheeks rosy in sleep, her lips curled in a perfect arc of trust, and it’s as if a fire has suddenly appeared on our Brooklyn street, the flames licking the sidewalk and melting the heavy boots on my feet. I sink to the pavement, my knees burning on concrete. I can’t feel my fingers, and I put down the phone as tears flood my cheeks.
There is a shadow in my peripheral vision, and I feel the light pressure of a hand on my shoulder. We are in a global pandemic, and the mere suggestion of human interaction now frightens me — much less the directness of human touch. Startled, I look up into the face of a young Black man wearing a silver puffer coat, his head covered by a knit hat. His eyes, though they take me in warily, are kind. “Yo,” he says softly, as if I might bolt at any moment. As if I have not been literally brought to my knees. “You okay?”
I nod wordlessly. I am not okay. I will not be okay for a very long time.
“Jenny Go-Getter! How the hell are you?”
It begins in the most banal of ways: with a Facebook message. One that immediately conjures the girl I was back into existence, someone I thought I’d eradicated completely. But like a bad dream, here she is again in her crinoline skirt and bright red lips, fawning over a boy who wears fingerless black leather gloves, grinning at her over the bar as he pushes his long, wavy hair back from his face. I was 15 years old, my home life chaotic, unstable, and abusive. I escape in any way I can, flinging myself headlong into the adult world, too young for the high heels that jut my center of gravity forward or the velvet ropes in my hands that I open and close nightly. It was New York, and it was the ’80s, and it was hotel suites and Lamborghinis and ivory lines of powder sniffed from broken shards of mirror and glass vials that crunched beneath my shoes on the pavement of Alphabet City. It was breakfast at 5:00 a.m. in a tutu, a few sequins pasted over my mostly nude torso, and an ache that would never be satisfied. Those clubs, the heights of joy and the bottomless despair they offered were my entire world for three years. And in those rooms, dense with sweat and smoke, I found him. A connection I longed for that never quite came to be, despite a few nights pressed against one another, his mouth searching my own.
But then heroin became chic, ravaging familiar faces until only skeletons stared back at me. And a drug dealer whose signature were the pair of wings affixed to his back, feathers trailing behind him like a flurry of snow, was brutally murdered. And with that, I boarded a plane and flew off into the American Southwest, leaving it all behind. Years later, I would write a novel about that time, that boy, the book hitting shelves within weeks of my daughter’s birth. I held her in my arms, inhaling her scent, heavy with milk, but with a visceral undercurrent of meat, blood rare, dripping onto the whiteness of a china plate. She smelled of the very center of my body, salty and unsettling and wholly familiar. Flesh of my flesh, I breathed as I bent my head toward her with a sigh of relief, her toes lined up like a row of spring peas. I was on the other side. I could rest now. It had happened, and now it was over.
Except it wasn’t.
Our texts fly back and forth with a velocity that alarms even me, a person who has a history of jumping into intensities like a warm bath. I can almost see his words shimmering in the air moments before my phone pings with an incoming text. We are making up for lost time, I tell myself. But there is an undercurrent that pulls me in more tightly with each passing day. I check my phone compulsively, my cheeks flushing each time I see the words, “Good morning, beautiful.” I am married, he is married, and this is nostalgia, I tell myself. Once we have filled in the blanks, we will run out of things to say. On the surface, we could not be more different: he has never been to college, works with his hands, and can’t remember the last time he read an actual book. Though I do send him my novel, White Lines, the pages of which he appears in — and he reads it from cover to cover. Save the poems I will write for him early on, it is the only time in our three-and-a-half-year relationship that he will willingly read my work.
But I don’t know this yet.
In contrast, I measure my self-worth by my achievements, ticking them off on my fingers, hoping they will add up to something substantial. I am a teacher, the author of five published novels, and a ghostwriter. I have a PhD in English that took years to complete, that I fought long and hard for. This is how I anchor my place in the world — my writing, my daughter, my long marriage, the small circle of friendships I’ve established over the years. We gather our families over bottles of wine, share birthdays and holidays, raising our children as tiny savages running lawlessly in the thick of the Maine woods. And even if our recent move from Los Angeles has been a rough adjustment, I love this world I have created out of nothing, it seems, but the sheer force of my will. But at night, when my husband enters our bed without touching me, I sometimes wonder if my entire life has been a lie. I turn over and close my eyes, listen to the sound of my breathing, and push the thought away before it can take hold.
If I keep my eyes shut, maybe it will go away.
In our youth, we circle each other nightly at the club where we both work, making eye contact, then looking away, my cheeks burning each time he catches me staring. One night I brazenly sidle up to the bar and he comes over, grinning in a way that seems to light up the darkness of the room. He leans over the bar, and we talk for a few moments before he comes around to chat with me further. We huddle in a corner, and although I have no recollection of it, he tells me years later that I talked nervously, unceasingly, and to finally shut me up, he leaned forward and pulled me to him, his lips finding my own. At that moment, the room evaporates, and I cannot hear the music thudding around us. The kiss is deep and passionate and absolutely effortless, as if we were born to do this with one another. Even years later, as experienced as I will become, that kiss lives on in my memory, preserved in amber. And when we release each other, he is streaked with red, the press and lacquer of my mouth, as if I have bitten him raw.
Each time my phone pings, I tell myself that we have nothing in common, save our shared history. And it is that thought that makes what I am doing possible. I find myself telling him things my own husband does not even know about me — and he responds immediately, breathlessly, as if he’s been waiting his entire life to speak this openly. There is so much vulnerability and tenderness between us that I begin to wonder how I’ve managed to live without it for so long. My limbs surge with electricity. Colors are brighter. I have no need for food. Adrenaline races happily through my veins, filling me with warmth. And then one day, mere weeks into our correspondence, he mentions that he needs me. Needs me in his life. When I ask why, his answer steals the breath from my lungs.
“Why don’t you ask me why I need air?”
And with those words, I am lost.
Before 2017, the last time I last saw him was in his apartment. He is 19, I am 16, and we have slept together exactly twice, then drifted into other arms. Still, eventually he calls, and the next day I am sitting cross-legged on his bed in the apartment he shares with his mother on 23rd Street, waiting for him to touch me. It is late summer, and the sun streams in through the blinds, bathing us in strips of gold. I am acutely aware of the fact that this is the first time I’ve seen him in the daylight. He asks if I’m dating anyone. I shrug. “It’s not serious,” I tell him. “Not yet.” Which isn’t exactly true but feels true at this moment. He tells me about his on-again/off-again girlfriend, that they’ve recently reconciled. I shift awkwardly on the bed, unsure of why I’ve been summoned. Until he leans forward and kisses me, and the world dissolves in the heat of his mouth.
After a few moments, he pulls back. “We can’t do this,” he says abruptly.
“Do what?” I ask.
“This,” he says, not unkindly, but there is an edge to his words that I do not like. “I can’t cheat on my girlfriend. And you shouldn’t cheat on your boyfriend either.”
There’s a smugness to his voice, a note of condescension, though he tries to soften it with a crooked smile. Before I understand what’s happening, he’s leading me to the front door. Once there, we fall into each other’s arms once again, kissing madly against the flat wooden surface until he disengages completely, opening the door and practically shoving me outside. He doesn’t say goodbye as it shuts behind him.
Outside, in the abruptness of my dismissal, I blink like a startled animal in the sudden onslaught of light. This is who he is, I think. He runs.
Over 30 years later, the story will remain the same.
What I ignore to text him:
My daughter, who is only four years old and reaches for me constantly. My husband. My friends, who send texts and emails wondering where I’ve disappeared to. My private clients, whose novels sit untouched in my inbox. Most of all, I disregard the sneaking feeling in my gut that, despite the intensity of our connection — or maybe even because of it — something is very wrong. This feeling only accelerates when he confides in me that he has not touched his own wife in 10 years, sexually or otherwise. Not even to console her when both her brother and her mother succumb to illness within a year of one another.
“You didn’t hug her?” I ask, dumfounded. “After her mother died?”
Despite whatever fractured relationship exists between the two of them, I cannot conceive of this. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that if tragedy struck, there is no universe in which my husband would fail to take me in his arms. There is a pause, and I see three dots flashing on the screen as he considers what to say next.
“Of course not,” he says when he finally responds. “Why would I?”
I struggle to find words. I mention, finally, that I feel his behavior is problematic. Even then, it does not escape me that the word I’m looking for and cannot say is wrong. In this moment, as in so many others that will follow over the years, he is showing me who he really is. But I can’t see this yet. Eventually we change the subject and talk of other things, but his admission lingers, clinging to me like a virus. I want so badly to see him as I have written him in the pages of my novel: worthy of my time, my energy, my heart. I shove this information in a dark corner away from the light. I throw a blanket over it and pretend it doesn’t exist. At this moment in time, I still believe what he tells me, that his feelings for me are stronger than those he’s had for any woman — even his own wife. And despite what I now know, it does not occur to me for even one second that she is my mirror.
That eventually, he will treat me the exact same way.
It begins in September 2017, and by the time we meet again for the first time in 28 years, it is late November. I am working on a project that requires me to fly to New York. When I mention this news in passing, he immediately asks to see me. I demur, not sure if I want this — whatever it is — to suddenly be real. Although I know what he looks like now, middle-aged and bald as an egg, in my head he is still that boy I once loved, hair falling to his shoulders like silk. When I imagine what it would be like to sleep with him, it is always the 19-year-old version of him who takes center stage in my fantasies. At 49, he is still a good-looking man, but this disconnect between the past and present versions of him — of us — is something my brain can’t seem to override, no matter how hard I try.
“You look so young,” he laments each time I post a new photo on social media. And to the uncritical eye he is correct. I have always been one of those women who appear younger than their years. But I have aged in ways glaringly obvious to me each time I glance in the mirror. There are lines cobwebbing the corners of my eyes; my skin is losing its tautness day by day; and I spend hours each week in the gym trying to compensate for the effects of gravity. But no matter how hard I work I cannot outrun these things. Not completely. Nature will not be cheated, and no matter what I do, I will not look this way forever.
At 46, I am running out of time.
When the elevator doors open and I step out into the lobby of my hotel, he slinks toward me — yes, that is the word (I think it even then) — dressed all in black, a cap covering his head, and my first reaction, the one I will try to push away each time I see him in the years that follow is, No. The word repeats itself on an endless loop, and with it every alarm bell inside me begins to ring loudly, insistently. I want to run, but instead I force myself to smile.
From the very beginning, I do not want him to touch me. And in the years following this moment, whenever I see him, I will need to be slightly drunk to even allow him to hold my hand. In this first meeting, I chide myself inwardly for what I think is my awful superficiality. But deep down I know it has nothing to do with looks. It is the energy he now exudes — heavy, almost oppressive, as if a dark cloud is threatening to engulf me. It is a stark contrast from the forcefield he emitted at 19, the heat radiating from his skin that pulled me closer. Something has shifted dramatically, something that cannot be felt over text. I do not feel good in this energy. I do not want it anywhere near me.
A spiritual friend, a reader of tarot cards and a practicing witch, will nod knowingly when I mention this curious fact years later. “He’s low vibrational,” she’ll tell me. “Operating from the ego.” But much like the problem of my largely sexless marriage, this initial trepidation is something I do not want to admit to myself — any more than I want to confess that I strip nightly in my husband’s presence without garnering any reaction from him whatsoever. That in those moments, his eyes glide over my naked body as they would a chair or a piece of driftwood washed up on the shore.
But that evening in the hotel lobby, as I watch R walk toward me, my body is a warning. My body is a four-alarm fire. My body is screaming and waving its arms, frantically trying to get my attention.
Over here! It yells.
I smother it with a pillow to silence it. I paste a smile on my lips and move forward.
And with every step I take, I have already sealed my fate.
Once I return to Maine and we are safely ensconced in our text bubble, he feels like home again. We resume our frenetic communication and I forget my hesitation and confusion in the hotel lobby, chalking it up to nerves. Over the next year, I will take every red flag he shows me, and instead of running, I’ll make a blindfold out of them. Later, I will realize that my body registered the lies before my mind could comprehend them, that the man I will encounter for the next two years is not the person I believe him to be.
Only after he finally discards me will I see what was obvious all along. He crafted those texts like a magician — only slipping up here and there — showing me what he wanted me to see, mainly the romantic projections he believed about himself. My nostalgia filled in the rest. That this man who called me his baby, his soulmate, the love of his life, never really existed.
But if that’s true, did we?
The beginning of our relationship coincides with the start of the #MeToo movement. Although I was sexually assaulted years ago while in college, it is something I have never spoken of publicly. But for the first time, I begin to talk about my experience, setting my Facebook status to reflect my place in the movement.
He stripped me naked and assaulted me while I was passed out drunk on Spring Break. #MeToo
After reading my status, R texts, calling me brave. He tells me that when he was still in middle school, he lost his virginity to a babysitter, a woman in her 40s who had sex with him repeatedly. That when he tried to explain to his childhood friends how uncomfortable these encounters made him feel, they just laughed and congratulated him. He writes that besides those young boys, he has never told anyone this story before — not even his own wife. The mix of shame, confusion, and bewilderment in his texts makes my heart ache for him.
“You were a child,” I write. “This was a gross abuse of power.”
“I went along with it,” he replies.
“You couldn’t legally give consent at that age. And you must know that if you are telling me this story now.”
Eventually, he concedes, and we go on to speak of other things.
A year later, I will offhandedly categorize his experience as sexual assault, and he will respond in a way that stops me in my tracks. I am cleaning the kitchen, sponge in hand, and as I read his words, my body goes numb, freezing me into place.
“You said that,” he will write coolly. “Not me.”
“It was totally consensual. I really enjoyed it.”
It is at this moment, like so many others I will have with him over the years, that I begin to wonder just who it is I am dealing with. Now, I cannot help but wonder if the story he told me was even true. Did he fabricate it to connect with me in my moment of deepest vulnerability so that I would bond with him further? And if so, what kind of a person would do such a thing?
I will never know.
After only a few months of communication, my husband catches a glimpse of unfamiliar texts on my phone. “Who is R. K.?” he asks. I am startled, and try to brush off the conversation entirely, but Pandora’s box is now open. My husband is kind and good. Grounded and balanced. Sometimes I think I married him because he is everything I’m not. There is nothing he will not do for me or our daughter. It would be a gross understatement to say that service is his particular love language. But in this moment, the pain on his face is gut wrenching, and I hate myself for having inflicted it. I do not want to hurt him in any way, but everything that once felt safe and right about my world is now uncomfortable and constrictive, as if I have been stuffed into clothing a size too small. I spend hours fantasizing about an apartment of my own. Somewhere I can find some semblance of peace. Light streaming through tall windows. Luxurious silence.
Maybe if I clear my head, I can somehow parse fantasy from reality.
When R kisses me for the first time in nearly 30 years, it is January in New York. A storm blows in the day I leave Maine, and the flight to JFK is tumultuous, the plane hurling dramatically from side to side. I have always been a nervous flier, and it is a testament to how much I want to see him that I get on board at all. He meets me at my hotel, and we walk a few blocks to a small Italian restaurant where we split a pizza and a pasta dish. He focuses on my lips as I speak, and I can feel the light pressure of his leg under the table against my own.
When we leave it is snowing heavily, our coats immediately blanketed in white. The city is a mosaic of colored lights, the glittering snow soaking my hair. I hold his hand and we trade sidelong glances until he stops in the middle of the sidewalk. “I don’t know if this is the right place to do this but…” he says. I look over at him inquisitively, and before I can answer, he pulls me to him against the wall of a nearby building and kisses me. I am so stunned that I instinctively respond, closing my eyes in the pressure of his mouth on mine. He is kissing me as if his life depends on it, and I find myself struggling to keep up. It is nothing like our first kiss all those years ago. We are adults now, and as romantic as the moment is, I cannot lose myself in it the way I did at 15.
When he finally releases me, I’m disoriented, unsure of how much time has passed. As we stare at one another, I notice that his mouth is streaked in red, just as it was 28 years ago, with the remnants of the crimson stain I wore to dinner.
Though he works a demanding, physical job where he must use his hands, he texts me constantly. Each message I receive makes my heart race with what was, until now, the unspoken possibility of it all:
“I want to go to sleep with you, wake up with you, have adventures with you, fight with you, make love to you, fuck the shit out of you, help you, defend you, listen to your voice and have fun with you for starters. None of this is possible. I get it. So why make me say it.”
A few years later, right before he ends it, I will parrot his own words back to him, sending him almost the exact same text he’d written me so early on in our correspondence.
“I cannot imagine,” he writes in response, “ever feeling that way about you again.”
I take a job managing the fiction department at a ghostwriting agency, a position that after the first eight months of remote work, requires me to return to New York full-time. After decades of avoidance, years where I tell myself I will never step foot in the noise and grit of the city ever again, my husband and I move to Brooklyn, agreeing to separate once we are settled. When I give R the news, I tell him that I’m not moving for him, but for work. I do not want him to know how much I need him. How I am counting on him to keep his promise that despite all obstacles, we will somehow manage to make this, whatever it is, work.
My husband does not want this separation. He makes this clear without speaking the words, but by steadfastly refusing to make plans of his own. Instead, he pretends none of it is happening, turning a blind eye every time I pick up my phone. “What does he have that I don’t?” he asks once, tears filling his eyes before turning away. In such moments I am acutely, painfully aware of the fact that I am hurting the people who have loved me the longest and the deepest. That these are the most profound and important relationships of my life — and I am willfully betraying them each time my phone lights up with an incoming text.
My daughter’s green eyes dart worriedly between us, as if we are the only two solid poles in existence. But we are crumbling. My husband and I go through our days largely without speaking, still sharing meals together. But more often than not, we eat in silence.
We exist in a kind of limbo that feels like seasickness.
“You consume me. I would like to burn our clothes, shut off the world, and just be with you.”
Why do words matter so much? Why is R so easily able to say the things I’ve longed to hear from my husband for the last 15 years? “You are my best friend,” R says each time we text. “I can’t be around you without wanting to touch you.” I realize I have made a devil’s bargain in settling for a life that is good on paper, but in which I have allowed myself to become disconnected from my emotions in almost every way. I have always thought of myself as the kind of woman unafraid to risk everything. I have followed my passions blindly throughout the course of my life, even when they’ve led me to heartache. But in choosing my marriage, I have somehow, and without even realizing it, traded safety and security for deep, emotional connection. And now, I cannot seem to go a day without it.
“Love is dangerous, baby,” he tells me. “It’s the most dangerous thing there is.”
When I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror, I do not recognize myself.
“People will get hurt. Probably us.”
And as my affair with R accelerates, I lose sight of who I am entirely.
But what about his wife, his children? Did you ever think about them?
The answer is: Not much. Certainly, no more than he considered my own husband and child. “We have an understanding,” he said when questioned. So, when he was with me in New York, I assumed she knew where he was. And with whom. I believed what I wanted to believe, avoiding questions that would challenge both the web he has spun, and the narrative I have created in my own mind.
And so, when his wife seeks me out over Facebook messenger, she seems to find it amusing when I say as much. “Maybe in his mind we had an understanding,” she will reply. “But everything that has happened between u and him has been his fault. I don’t blame u,” she says more than once during the handful of conversations we will have over the years. “You owe me no allegiance. U don’t know me. He does. I blame him for being a cheater.”
But even I know that she is giving me more grace than I deserve.
She tells me things about him. Things I do not know but have sensed. That he’s a serial adulterer. A terrible father to his children. Selfish and immature. That he cannot be counted on to keep his word about even the smallest things. I watch, horrified, as the words keep coming. “You’re lucky that you’ve only had three years with him,” she writes. “To tell u the truth, u could save yourself. I’m too far gone. I’m numb. I don’t feel anything anymore.” When we sign off, I run to the bathroom and hunch over the toilet, the sting of bile in my throat. I hang onto the cold porcelain as if it is a life raft that will carry me away.
Each time we speak, she will proclaim she is done with him, that she is finally throwing him out. “Trust me,” she writes repeatedly, “my plans of life no longer include him.” But despite these assertions, he continues to text me from the home they share and the couch he sleeps on nightly.
“You should know,” she will write, a month before he ends it, “that until he helps me fix up this place and sell it, he will likely go nowhere.”
We sit in a restaurant near my usual hotel, the one I don’t have to stay at anymore now that I live in Brooklyn. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to leave,” he says flatly. “Money’s too tight.”
I have known about his financial situation for quite some time, ever since we reconnected if I am being honest. He lives paycheck to paycheck, always in debt. There is always an unpaid bill, always the threat of his cell phone being cut off, collection notices filling the mailbox. I have tried to help him enroll in college, find a better job. Learn to drive. There is always some reason why it’s impossible.
“You need to sell your condo,” I tell him more than once. “Split the proceeds with your wife and then you can separate.” He just sighs as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.
“It’s not that simple,” he says, looking away from me. “It needs a lot of work. It will take years.”
I tell him he is no closer to leaving than he was when we first reconnected. That my husband and I are separating, and that I can’t go on with things as they are. He doesn’t fight me on any of it. He doesn’t fight at all. He merely accepts my words, saying that he knows he has nothing to offer. I tell him that isn’t true, but that I feel humiliated at the situation he’s put me in. I cannot bear seeing him return home to his wife each time we part.
And inside I am furious that he will not alter even the smallest scrap of his life to keep me in it.
But only a few years later, and over the course of mere months, he will complete all outstanding repairs on the condo he and his wife own together and sell it weeks after it hits the market. He will pull up stakes and move with her down south, changing the trajectory of his life irreparably.
He will do this in secret.
Despite all we have shared, he will not even give me the courtesy of a goodbye.
The last time I ever see him is in February 2020, one month before COVID-19 hits New York. Despite my assertions that we need to move on with our lives, we cannot seem to stay away from one another. He borrows money to take the bus in from New Jersey to see me and doesn’t have enough left over to even buy a slice of pizza for dinner. We sit side by side on a park bench. I have offered to buy him a slice, but he declines, so I eat my own, then another, suddenly ravenous. Our connection remains the same: intense and passionate over text, but somewhat stilted in person. I am always excited to see him, always thinking it will be different than it is — more like the feverish delirium of our messages. But we cannot seem to reach each other face to face the way we do with words. The disconnect between the man that he is and who I need him to be is just too vast.
“You were never in love with me,” he will say near the end, “you were in love with Ethan,” referring to the name I gave his character in my book. “In person there was always something wrong with me.”
Sometimes I wonder what that must have been like for him.
A few weeks later I begin to read about the virus, and a feeling of impending doom settles over the city. Although my husband and I have been making plans to separate, we decide to return to our house in Maine for a few weeks. Just until this blows over, we tell each other. But the sinking feeling in my gut tells me I am wrong. A week before we leave, I go out to write for the afternoon at my favorite café. Inside, the atmosphere is hushed, as if the place has somehow been transformed overnight into a library — or a funeral home. Just as I am settling in, the woman seated beside me erupts in a fit of coughing, bent over, her face flushing red. I close my computer abruptly and stand up, the blood thudding in my veins as I head for the door.
The road to Maine is wet and cold. It rains continuously, and as we are too afraid of public bathrooms, we stop and urinate on the side of the road, the rain pelting our backs and shoulders. My daughter, who turned seven the day before, huddles in the backseat under a blanket. Unable to find hand sanitizer anywhere, we take a bottle of 409 from our kitchen back in Brooklyn, spraying it liberally on our hands during the drive north. By the time we reach our house in Maine seven hours later, angry red rashes creep across our palms. We arrive too late to shop for groceries, too spent to do much of anything but light a fire and go to bed. We go immediately to bed, shivering in the dark house.
The next morning my husband wakes with a fever. And so, it begins.
The days pass in a haze of headaches so severe I fear my brain will implode. My husband sequesters himself in my office above the garage, laying on a foam pad on the floor, unable to get up. This is per the recommendation of the CDC, who calls as soon as his test comes back as positive. At that point, we aren’t sure who is infected and who isn’t. But less than 24 hours after he climbs the steps to my office, my symptoms begin. Our daughter seems unaffected, full of energy. “You need to stop touching her,” the woman at the CDC tells me, which feels unbearably cruel. “She may still be negative.”
I clean incessantly, wiping down surfaces until the rash on my hands burns like they’ve been doused in gasoline and set alight. R texts often, but it feels as though he is on another planet entirely. One night he asks if he can call me, and I wait up, forcing myself to stay awake through the unbearable haze of fatigue that descends upon me every evening like clockwork.
“Are you calling,” I text after hours of silence.
“Sorry,” he replies around 2:00 a.m. “I fell asleep.”
I manage to cook, leaving meals for my husband outside the door to the office. I read my daughter stories without registering the words. I lay on the floor of our sunroom like a starfish, barely able to speak as she colors six feet away from me. My chest hurts and I am short of breath more often than not. I am so tired that I cannot even answer texts. The thought of raising my hands and pecking out words feels impossible, and my heart races like a thoroughbred, skipping frantically. I leave a series of updates on Facebook each day so that people will know we are still alive.
When my daughter cries inconsolably, I peel off her sock and rub her foot, careful to disinfect my hands before I touch her.
Months pass, with only limited improvement. Just the act of walking to the bathroom will cause my overtaxed heart to race. Three months after being infected with COVID-19, I finally see my cardiologist, who will look at me apologetically, helplessly, as his nurse schedules an echocardiogram, a cardiac MRI. “The book is still being written on COVID,” he will say. “Even if I find something wrong, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you. I’m not sure I’ll even know what to do.”
I stare at him incredulously. I am acutely aware that the last time I sat in his office for an evaluation for a benign arrhythmia, I was tanned from days at the beach, my muscles defined from my daily workouts. Now I am the color of milk, my skin slackened and soft as rotting fruit.
“So, if that happens … what? You’ll just let me die?” I ask.
“I took an oath,” he mumbles, looking away, and a feeling of rage courses through me. I pray the heat of it is enough to eradicate the virus languishing in my blood.
We return to Brooklyn in August, and our apartment, which is just as we left it before fleeing the city five months prior. It feels like a crime scene. As if something unspeakable has happened there. I immediately begin viewing other apartments, obsessed with the idea of a fresh start, as if I can wipe away the horror of the past few months with more light and a better layout.
R is not in favor of me returning to the city, a fact that surprises me. It has been five months since we have seen one another, and yet he seems in no rush. “Your body did not handle it well last time,” he writes, referring to COVID. “And with the population density there’s no avoiding it. When it blows up again it’s going to be bad.” Rationally, I know he is correct, but it still feels like a slap in the face. After being as sick as I was, and for so long, how can he not want to see me? How can he not want to hold me in his arms?
Almost immediately upon my return, we begin to argue, and in September 2021, he ends things for the first time. His behavior turns erratic. He begins to block me at the first sign of an argument, unblocking me sometimes days later and acting as if nothing has happened. This activates every insecurity I have, rips open abandonment wounds I thought were long healed. I descend into the worst version of myself, calling him from other numbers, convinced he is gone forever. The blocking and unblocking starts to feel both random and vindictive, and I cannot think clearly in the thick of it all. His wife messages me, telling me he has asked her for another chance, promising he is done with me for good. When I confront him, he flatly denies it.
“You’re taking things out of context now,” he says. “Misrepresenting things. If you think I’m such a piece of shit then stop talking to me.”
He asks for us to talk, just talk, to regain some trust between us, but I have already waited so long that adding even another hour to the equation feels intolerable. “I still love you,” he writes. “I still look at your photos every day. But if you can’t wait anymore, I understand.”
He will claim he is making a timeline to leave his wife. He will talk about getting a second job and finally learning to drive. He will promise to come and see me in Brooklyn.
He will do none of these things.
I tell him that he is a liar. A womanizer. A con man. That I cannot trust him anymore. I tell him that he’s stagnant, incapable of even the smallest of changes. That he will never amount to anything. That he is a loser. That he will sleep on his wife’s couch until he is dead.
Some of those things, as horrible as they are to say aloud or even text, turn out to be true.
But it doesn’t erase the horror of who I become in saying them.
After that awful frigid night where he ends things completely, I descend into the worst depression of my life. I walk for hours around my Brooklyn neighborhood, tears soaking my mask until it is saturated completely. In my apartment, I sit for hours in a chair, staring into space while my husband finalizes the lease on the apartment I will soon move into with my daughter. As we have agreed on shared custody, I will now see her three-and-a half days a week. I have lost my child full-time, my marriage, the entire life I’ve built for 15 years.
And there is no one to blame but myself.
Why can’t you two just work it out, my friends wonder, as if it is that simple. But trust has been violated, then eradicated completely. I believe my husband deserves better than the train wreck I have become. And, of course, there is the glaring fact that he hasn’t asked to reconcile.
“You aren’t an emotionally safe space for me anymore,” he says as he packs his things, the remnants of almost two decades, into cardboard boxes.
For the past year, improbably and against all odds, I have been writing a novel. In the worst period of my life, when things fall apart spectacularly, I find myself on deadline. So, every day I force myself to get out of bed, to sit at my desk and write. It is good to have a distraction I can lose myself in for at least a few hours. Sometimes tears stream down my face in an unending deluge as I write. I am grieving the loss of him, but what I am losing feels so much larger.
“You had so much hope,” my therapist says quietly over the phone, as we do these days in this pandemic life we are all sleepwalking through. “It’s not him you are grieving as much as the dream. That is what you can’t bear to part with. The idea he was not who he claimed, that the person you thought he was never really existed. That the relationship wasn’t what you believed. That is what you struggle with most of all.”
Even then, I do not want to believe that he is right.
R answers my texts less frequently, often with 10-hour gaps between responses. Then, he begins to leave my messages on delivered for days at a time, something he has never done before. Even so, it is clear to both of us that this is unfinished business, just as it was all those years ago when he threw me out of his apartment. But when we do speak, he is remorseless, proclaiming that he has decided to let the relationship die, to kill what remains of us. And his coldness and the lack of empathy directly mirror his wife’s warnings, the advice I did not heed.
“We have no future,” he keeps repeating defiantly, my worst nightmare fully articulated. In the beginning, when I worried aloud that we had little in common, that we’d never fit into each other’s worlds, he’d argued with me strenuously, knocking away my concerns as if they were meaningless. But now he is a broken record.
“We have no future.”
And with every repetition of those words, something inside me withers and dies.
Because if that is true, then what have I been doing all this time?
In the dead of winter, on my way to an appointment, I trip and fall, smashing the side of my head on the sidewalk and almost breaking a rib. When I try to sit up, the ground rushes up to meet me again and I almost faint. Disoriented, I somehow manage to call my husband, who arrives in minutes and rushes me to the emergency room. Because COVID is spiking in New York, no one is allowed to accompany me into the ER. I sit on a gurney, dazed and bloodied, unable to take a deep breath without a sharp pain ricocheting through my left side. I text R, telling him I am in the hospital, that I’m scared, but he doesn’t respond.
“I’m with my children,” he finally writes back. “Leave me alone.”
When I wake the next morning, there is a large, black blob obscuring the vision in my left eye. I panic, and immediately make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The blob is frightening and distracting, seeping over the whiteness of the page when I attempt to read, causing my words to swim before my eyes as I type. The ophthalmologist peers into my dilated eye, then nods, sitting back down in his chair.
“It’s a floater. It most likely happened when you hit your head,” he says with a shrug, as if it’s no big deal.
“It’s the result of trauma.”
I move into the new apartment, the top floor of a brownstone with three small bedrooms and ornate fireplace mantles in every room. The place is drenched in sunlight, freshly painted white, and glows with positive energy. When I step inside for the first time, I breathe a sigh of thanks to whatever divine force has led me here.
It is in this space that I will do the most profound healing work of my life. I struggle to find myself again now that the discrete markers of my existence have been blown to bits. My novel sells in a two-book deal to a major publisher, but it does not fix me the way I’d hoped. I date briefly, after my daughter is vaccinated, but my heart isn’t in it. For the first time in my adult life, there is no man. Only silence. I retreat into myself and rid my life of attachments that do not feel reciprocal, where I pour into the cups of others more than I receive in return. I sit in my sunny living room and journal each morning, trying to make sense of the last four years. I collect crystals and glittering talismans. I build walls of protection while trying to keep my heart open. On the nights I am alone, I steal into my daughter’s room and press her pillow to my face. I breathe in the scent of her absence, and the very act of drawing in air seems almost insurmountable.
I apologize to my husband sincerely and profusely. I cannot stop apologizing. It is as if a floodgate has opened and I am powerless to stop it. He accepts my words with a grace and kindness that moves me to tears. “I never wanted you to suffer like this,” he says, holding me in his arms, and I believe him. I focus less on R and begin instead to grieve the ending of my marriage, the damage I have done to my family. The incalculable loss of it all.
“It is not for us to figure out why R acted as he did,” my therapist tells me.
“What we need to focus on is why you were willing to tolerate it.”
When I gave this essay to a friend to read, he writes in response: “It is hard to watch you being so stupid. As I’m reading, I want to shake you awake.” I do not respond. It is hard to explain to someone whose early life was not marked by trauma that the inconsistency and abuse felt like home.
To an unhealed person, the abuse feels like going home.
Four years after it begins, I enter both of our birth dates into a natal chart generator. Given my lifelong fascination with astrology and tarot, it is madness that I have not done this even once during our four-year relationship. Perhaps, like so much of what I chose to ignore, I did not want to know.
It’s love at first sight, the great passion; they will be drawn to each other like two magnets. They will always have to see and touch each other. It must be said that this type of relationship may not last forever. It may not develop into a quiet and tender love. If they part, it is close to impossible to stay friends because of the constant reminder of the passion that once existed. It’s all or nothing with them. If they part, one will suffer greatly when the passion of the other dies. It will be a very difficult time to live through.
But what I find in his own natal chart is, in many ways, more telling:
He may lead a double life. He may have a secret love affair while having a stable relationship with his partner. Most with this aspect are highly perceptive and can keep a secret. Alternative views of relationships are likely.
It was all there from the very beginning. All I had to do was look.
Most days, I have found a state of equilibrium, an acceptance for what was and what now is. But when my daughter cries, asking why her father and I can’t live together anymore, the rage I still feel toward R returns, and I concentrate on the soft weight of her in my arms to stifle it. I know my anger is displaced, that it is not R, but myself I am furious with. Not only for what I have lost, but for the woman who was so desperate to be loved that she accepted breadcrumbs in place of a full meal. These days I try to feel compassion for her rather than rage or pity. When she cries or is afraid, I tell her she is safe. That she is beautiful and sacred. That she is enough.
The final texts I wrote R are still on delivered. He may never read them. He has chosen to erase me from his life entirely, as is his right.
I wrote this because it happened.
So there will be a record.
Jennifer Banash is the author of five novels for young adults: Silent Alarm, White Lines, Simply Irresistible, In Too Deep, and The Elite (Penguin USA and G.P. Putnam & Sons). She is also the former co-founder and editor of Impetus Press, an independent publishing house that championed works of literary fiction with a pop edge. Her new novel, The Rise and Fall of Ava Arcana, will drop spring 2023 from Lake Union Publishing.