Divorce and Modern Love

Last Wednesday I got divorced and did not get published in The New York Times. Not that the two had anything to do with one another, but there is a connection if I may explain:

That morning, I was at the county court house trying to parallel park at a meter. As luck would have it David, my near-ex, was parking just a few cars away from me, and I bummed a few quarters from him.

“Put it in the settlement,” he joked without a smile.

We arrived at the court house in order to put the final seal on our divorce. Since we decided to do it ourselves (or more precisely I did it all myself) we paid a minimal fee, had no attorneys involved and had no need for so much as a mediator. Over the years people gave me all different advice about our approach – but most felt it couldn’t be done.

“You can’t get a divorce without a lawyer! Not when you have kids and a house!”

It kind of reminded me of all those who said, “You can’t give birth at home! Not without a doctor or drugs!”

Yet, here we were – getting a divorce without so much as even dialing a divorce attorney’s number. I confess, I dragged my heels about the whole thing, taking months to complete the task. It wasn’t due to emotional reasons but because I couldn’t bear to fill out all the forms or sift through the pages of legal documents. Some pages had to be notarized, there were zillions of copies to be made – it was all confusing and boring. Eventually a court date was set and our case was to be heard before a judge. David joined me, though he wasn’t required to, in case I had forgotten his signature on some key document.

We waited together on a bench, chatting about our lives in a general sense. I was fighting a lingering cold, so I was anxious to get this all over with. Finally we were permitted to enter the court room and we both decided to sit on the first bench, which was ominously marked “PRISONERS”.

And so we sat and continued our conversation. Each time I coughed David instinctively pounded my back – which gave me a surprising pang of sentimentality. I remembered that when we first dated I liked that he automatically patted my back if I was coughing. It actually helped alleviate the spasm and made me think he was a caring and sweet guy.

Not that he wasn’t a caring and sweet guy – just that I interpreted that action prematurely, perhaps. In any case, we patiently waited our turn before the judge. I warned David a few times to spit out his gum – a courtroom no-no – but he didn’t listen. When we were called to the table the first thing the bailiff did was make him spit the gum into a tissue. I saw the judge snicker when I scolded, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from Judge Judy??”

She quickly went over our paperwork and had us agree aloud to some of the divorce and custody terms. It was fairly simple and we exchanged glances and chuckled a few times. In the end she said, “Well, I can see that you two get along well, and believe me, I don’t find that too often here, as you can imagine. You’ve agreed upon a very even split and it’s clear you’re placing your children as a priority. They’re very fortunate.”

We smiled and nodded in agreement.

She added, “Okay then…any questions?”

David raised his finger up in the air.

“Uh…are we divorced yet?”

She laughed and told him to be patient, the papers just needed processing.

We left the prisoner pew then sat together again on the hallway bench; eventually our documents were completed.

Then David did something unexpected. First he joked, “Is this the part where we kiss?” as though it was a wedding ritual in reverse. He gave me a hug and said, with a note of sadness in his voice, “Well, thanks a lot…it was nice being married to you. Please invite me to your next wedding, okay?”

I felt something rise in me -- a wave of sentiment and melancholy. But I refused to give it any strength…I pushed it away telling myself that it was ridiculous to get maudlin over a mere piece of paper. Yet, aren’t we similarly moved by the act of marriage? The couple’s connection is no different before the words “I do” escape them, yet the moment the deal is sealed, we have a surge of emotion. Perhaps I should have allowed myself a moment of silence...of bereavement or grief. I ignored my feelings reasoning instead that things were long past that stage; this was a mere legal technicality.

I didn’t have time to theorize; I was anxious to get home and nap before going about my day.

Once in bed, surrounded by my books, papers, and laptop I turned off my phone and closed my eyes. I had not stopped thinking about my essay submission to the Times and was expecting an answer this very week (based on the timeframe dictated in their return email message). The story I submitted was about my unusual relationship with my ex; specifically our yearly ritual where we go camping each summer at a folk festival. In fact, the story debuted here (in these very pages) and was met with unanimously positive feedback: “This story should definitely be published somewhere,” my readers gushed.

The original version I wrote was perhaps too heavy on the humor and light on the insight. So I worked and re-worked it in order to give the piece a stronger purpose and more specific intent. My good friend, who is an editor herself, gave me technical advice and professorly suggestions. In re-writing I came up with a line that rang so "emotionally honest" it seemed to sing right off the page and into the impressed ears of Times' editors: “Perhaps our annual tradition is about the simple fact that while I accept the death of the marriage, I’m not comfortable allowing our friendship to die.”

This essay submitted to the “Modern Love” column was, in my estimation, perfectly suited to their parameters: “Ideally, essays should spring from some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life. It helps if the situation has a contemporary edge, though this is not essential. Most important is that the writing be emotionally honest and the story be freshly and compellingly told."

What could be more “contemporary” than going camping each summer with my ex-husband?

My story, heartfelt and amusing, seemed like an absolutely perfect fit. I only saw, in my mind’s positive projection, a return email starting with the words “Congratulations”. I imagined telling friends the good news; I pictured David’s family reading my words over bagels on Sunday and thinking, “Hmm, she has quite a flair for snappy dialogue.”

That day, with my divorce finally sealed, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be incredible serendipity to have my story accepted today?”

So when I awoke, an hour later, bleary-eyed and still congested, I blinked dumbly at my inbox. There was an email from Daniel Jones, Modern Love’s chief editor. I thought that negative submissions were ignored and only positives were responded to – so with a pounding heart I clicked open the email and read the first line, “I’m afraid we’ve chosen not to include your essay…”

I was stunned. I knew that submitting to Times was shooting rather high and that thousands of writers, both amateur and professional, submit essays to the Modern Love column; but I was so sure - so thoroughly confident – that my words would be selected.

The day went on and I could not shake off the funk. Friends thought I was having a reaction to the divorce proceedings but I was simply profoundly disappointed. Perhaps the combination of the day’s “losses” made me think of my father’s recent death. Though I had expressed no outward display of grief I felt a hole in my core that day.

Similarly, on this day of unexpected bereavement, I felt that hole ripping through me again. Now the void contained pieces of parental mortality, marital demise, and a published dream dashed. I knew I’d rebound and attempt other avenues, but as my editor friend observed, “You deserve to feel crappy about this for a little while.”

And so I did and probably will continue to do so until my words find their way into print elsewhere.


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