Issue #6 |


piano in a dance studio

The death of her ex-husband, Will, affected Alice Wexler in an unexpected—so it was said, politely, when Alice, a psychotherapist, knew that what was meant was “shocking”—way. Alice herself was shocked. Her grief was vast and plumbless.

She and Will had not been close. They had never been close, not even during the two decades of their marriage—especially not then. But in the last few years, with their twin daughters out of college and living far away in New York City, ostensibly a time when there was no longer a reason for the two of them to be in touch except in an emergency, their relationship had changed. She would not have called it “friendship”—they did not share confidences; they did not rely on one another for support or comfort, insight or commiseration. Indeed, they rarely spoke at all of what Will would have described, in his stiff, professorial way, as “personal matters,” other than the two they shared (which was to say, Claire and Rose). But they had been meeting sometimes at a café or a bar—and recently, and only once, at a proper restaurant—“just to touch base,” as Will had put it when he called her the first time to suggest such a meeting.

By then they’d been three years divorced. On the afternoon he’d called, nearly a year had passed since they had last talked on the phone, working out the details of a visit from their daughters, who would be in town for the long Christmas weekend and had left to Will and Alice the negotiations over how they would divide their time (Rose perhaps maliciously; Claire, no doubt, because she dreaded hurting either of their feelings). The last time they’d seen each other was seven months before that, on neutral ground in Connecticut at Claire’s college graduation, a week after Rose’s in upstate New York.

That first hour over coffee had passed pleasantly, surprisingly so, Alice thought. She had agreed to meet him because she could not think of a kind way to refuse (and she was determined, always, to be kind to him once their marriage was behind them) but also out of curiosity: what would it be like to sit across a table from him now? What would they find to talk about? Or would they sit in silence, as they had for so much of their marriage?

They did not sit in silence. They made small talk and traded anecdotes and even jokes. They compared amused observations of their daughters: Claire’s new shoebox-sized but charming studio apartment, which they both had visited over the last year; Rose’s new girlfriend, a fashion model (they had both pretended not to be surprised by this: Rose’s usual predilection was for poets and aspiring filmmakers who waited tables for a living, and who dressed in flannel shirts and wore no makeup); Claire’s devotion to the cat she had lately adopted and named Eleanor Rigby.

Perhaps a month later, Will called her again. Again, they met for coffee. Again, their conversation was lighthearted, easy.

Alice’s friends disapproved. Judith Jackson, an anthropologist, divorced for over thirty years, mother of three, had told Alice flatly from the start that it was a mistake. Ruth Brownstein, a public defender who was twice divorced, had clapped a hand to her mouth when Alice spoke of seeing Will. “I don’t even know where either of my exes lives,” she said. “Or if they’ve remarried or had children. I don’t want to know.” But Ruth had not had children with her husbands. When she said goodbye to them, there was nothing to bind them—she had not looked back. “It’s different when you’ve had children with someone,” Alice told her. But was it? Natalie Walters, who had two sons, both now in their teens, told Alice she could not imagine being able to sit calmly at a table with her children’s father—her former business partner in the bookstore they had owned for years, which they had sold when they divorced—not now and not ever (“I might order a sandwich and a cup of coffee or I might just punch him in the nose”). Indeed, not one of her friends who had children was in contact with her ex unless a child was in crisis or was getting married. And not even always then.

Sofia Machado, her oldest friend, had said, “You know this makes no sense, right? All you wanted was out of that marriage, almost since the start of it.”

“I got out of the marriage,” Alice said. They were walking alongside the river where a new path had recently been laid. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon, six months before Will’s death. By then Alice’s meetings with Will had become, if not a habit, a regular, predictable occurrence. They would meet for coffee or a drink and chat amiably about restaurants they’d tried and books they’d read and what they were watching on TV. She might offer an anecdote about the self-deceiving parents of one of her young patients. He might tell a bleakly funny story about one of his colleagues, or his graduate students, who were forever falling in love with each other, with predictably disastrous results in the lab.

They had never, in all the years of their long marriage, had such conversations. Married, they had sometimes gone for days or even weeks without exchanging more than a few words concerning scheduling or household tasks or practical concerns about the girls. “I’d call us roommates,” she had once told her friend Georgie Samuelson, “but my understanding is that roommates are at least marginally sociable.” Alice herself had never had a roommate, except for Will, whom she had married in her middle thirties. Even as a college freshman, she had roomed alone, by choice.

“You did get out, yes, finally,” Sofia said. “And bloodlessly, too. Unlike me, in either one of my divorces.” Sofia and her first husband had battled over money; her second had fought her bitterly for full physical custody of their two children and then, when he lost, he moved to Seattle (for a few years he saw the children for three weeks each summer; then he had two daughters in rapid succession with his new wife and stopped seeing the boys altogether—for which, of course, her sons blamed Sofia, herself now married for the third time). Sofia stopped walking and turned to Alice, who reluctantly stopped walking too. “I’m sorry, darling, but exactly what is it you think you’re doing? Trying to undo what’s done? To rewrite the past?”

She wasn’t doing or undoing or rewriting anything, said Alice. “Don’t try to shrink the shrink,” she told her old friend. There was an ordinary human connection to be valued here, she said. “And how can that be anything but good? An ordinary human connection, at last, with someone with whom, for better or for worse, I once shared my life.”

“Shared an unhappy life,” Sofia said. “For years and years. So, yes—I’m sorry, darling—for worse. I worry for you, that’s all.”

“A life is a life,” said Alice. “Happy or unhappy. And you’re worrying over nothing.”

To read the rest of this story, please purchase a print copy of Story #6, Autumn 2019. Photo courtesy of University of Wolverhampton; view more of their work on Flickr

Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing, Dog, and Devotion, the novella collection A New and Glorious Life, and three collections of personal essays—The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song—as well as a book for children, A Girl’s Guide to Life. Her most recent book, Close-Up, was released …

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