Last week, on a well-lit evening the Friday before July 4, at a bar, I met a pleasant stranger. He was my ex-husband. My sister took this photograph of me and my ex-husband and I’ve been staring at it off and on every day. Immediately after we divorced two years ago this month, I took to staring at photos also, but in a very different way, for a very different function. I’d clutch and predictably tear-stain old photos (physical pictures that were seen and developed by strangers at the Rite-Aid photo lab—we didn’t have a digital camera during our marriage). Photos of both of us grinning like idiots at each other, or else one of us grinning into the camera held by the other. I was obsessed with the happiness of love that was no longer felt, only locked into these sheets. The photos allowed me to indulge not only in lost love, but lost wifehood. Because my romantic anthem has always been the militaristically feminine shouting of Emily Dickinson:
I'm "wife"—I've finished that—
That other state—
I'm Czar—I'm "Woman" now—
It's safer so—
How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse—
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven—now—
This being comfort—then
That other kind—was pain—
But why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there!
I’m “Wife”! Stop there! To me, being a “Wife” was the same as being a czar, to the creator of a soft eclipse, leaving behind the pain of that hesitant pack of solitary years known as “Girl.” After being dumped (let’s be specific about the means of the divorce) I was once again cast behind the eclipse, back to that old familiar hurt that rendered me incapable of uttering exclamation points. I was drawn to the photos of happier wifey days like a pure addict. But soon enough, I reached a visceral threshold; I couldn’t look at the photos any more. I overloaded on memories, and the euphoria of hurt just became, hurt. The buzz flowed over the rim of my psyche, and I locked the pictures away.
The truth is, while our divorce was hurtful, it was not bitter. My ex-husband and I have met and talked since becoming strangers. We’ve even had some nice, amiable hanging out over drinks. But before last week, no one had ever documented such moments. Thank God for little sisters with brand new i-phones. I didn’t know I looked like this talking to my ex-husband. I imagined that I’d be stiffly distant, a hopelessly plastic smile tarped over my teeth. Trying hard to get over it. But in this photo, I look relaxed, I’m listening, slouch-postured as always, my hair falling towards that man with the beard, unafraid of intimacy. I don’t feel pain looking at this photo—and my ex’s new boyfriend is even in the picture! (His head looks like it’s going into my skull.) The shock of this photo: I recognize myself! I mean, I recognize the girl that I carry around in my head every day. Which is no longer “ ‘Wife’—Stop There!”
So I had been married for almost ten years before our divorce. Of course being homosexuals, we were never legally married, even though we were in San Francisco, having already been living together for a few years and wore wedding bands when Gavin Newsom started handing out marriage certificates to gay couples from City Hall. But by that time, the legal ceremony seemed to us boring, unnecessary, or too much effort for a lazy-ass couple with a comfy case of bed-death. Or perhaps we were protecting ourselves from our induction into the grand gay divorce statistic. Whatever the reason, I am no longer Wife, I am Ex-Wife, I am Ex, I am X that marks the spot. I am the girl who enjoys, rather than creates, soft eclipses. But with a difference: a girl who’s back from the vacation of marriage.
My enjoyment of the photo of me and my own ex makes me realize that I am ok being an ex. I guess the real test might be yet to come: will I cry a little this coming Monday if Tori Amos plays “Doughnut Song” during her set at the Oakland Paramount Theatre? Maybe, but if I do, big deal. That’s what Exes do. I will enjoy being an ex to the extent that I’ll embrace it as some sort of feminine identity. Yes, my ex- husband and I had our time in the sun and can never fall and be in love the way we used to be. That’s what a divorce means. But being an ex means that I can still think about these past ten years of my life—those years with him—as a part of my present. Because what significance did marriage have for us? What real role did it play in our lives? My idea of love is what the philosopher Félix Guattari abstracts from “homosexuality”: “a kind of collective set-up of enunciation, a collective way of perceiving everything that happens.” We saw things together, we spoke back together to those things we saw. And that kind of perceptive reaction to the world can’t be unlearned because your husband divorces you, and you become not only his, but simply an, ex.
Not the black widow. Not a runaway bride. Not a serial monogamist. Not a girl who needs to be married, but a girl who likes to carry the stain of marriage. Just a boy who was some guy’s wife for most of his twenties.