20 years

April 10, 1998 was a Friday. I put on these tight low-rise baby blue printed jeans I had with a slight flare below the knee. I put on my shiny white low-cut tee. I coiffed my bob and put on some Spice Girls-style platform shoes. I wore Cool Water perfume.

I had convinced my inner circle to go with me to the birthday party of this guy I was friends with in college. We were graduating from our program and loads of my school friends would be there. And it was becoming apparent that I had a total mega-crush on the birthday boy.

He was shy and awkward, but possibly the funniest man I’d ever met. His energy was infectious and when we talked about the music and movies we liked, we had so much in common that I wondered how we could have existed our whole lives liking the same things and not have known each other. One day, I got to my locker to find a VHS copy of Stand By Me in it. We had gone for tea and had an intense conversation about how much we both loved that movie. “Barforama! Hahaha!” The romantic gesture made my stomach flipity-flop as I scanned the halls to catch a glimpse of him so I could thank him.

He was slightly dorky, but muscular and bright, and if I’m being honest, beneath his plaid shirts and baggy jeans I saw the potential for someone great. He just needed a bit of work is all, like he was a pre-war cottage with great bones in an up and coming neighbourhood. Little did I know he was a money pit with archaic zoning laws.


The girl everyone thought he had a crush on was there too. She was wearing a crop top that said EVERLAST, the iron-on letters struggling against her robust rack. I thought for sure he was going to go off with the reigning queen of our program, but instead he sat with me, drinking beers while I downed Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

“So, you’re drunk enough, why don’t you go ask Melissa to dance,” I teased.

“Because… I don’t like her that way… I… I like someone else.”

I’m a bastard and prodded until he spit it out. “I like YOU, OK?!” Then we danced, I can’t remember the song but I’m sure there’s a journal in my possession that has it documented. I put the journals in a box with the wedding photo album. They are decaying in my parents’ garage, because I can’t fucking look at them without crying. They are the history books of this great nation that rose to power and then had its borders attacked. They are the Museum of Czechoslovakia and what was once one country is now two. The artifacts cannot reside in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, so they live in no man’s land.

When we danced he asked me to go out with him the next day, but I had plans to see Radiohead the next day, so I asked for a rain check (priorities!). “I’d kiss you,” he slurred, “But I’m too drunk and I don’t want it to be like this.” It wasn’t our first date, but we always marked our togetherness as April 10, his birthday, because we were inseparable from then on. Until we weren’t.


I didn’t mean to ask to take Theo to dinner tonight. I was actually just trying to get him to make his own plans with the kids and his family, but no one in his family has the sensitivity to think that there son or brother might be alone on his birthday and maybe they should do something for him. I knew that he would not ask his friends to do something. People learn from us. And he has spent a lifetime teaching everyone that he is OK on his own. He’s the subject of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock.”

Except he’s not. I asked him to do the Myers Briggs and he got an E for Extrovert, which surprised me. He pushes everyone away, but like anyone, he wants to be acknowledged and appreciated. So instead of going to see Tinder Nightmares like I REALLY wanted to, I found myself spending $200 and sitting at a table with our kids, the birthday boy and his parents. I even thought to invite Lars (of the peaches) and Zofia to join us.

I got the kids to pick out thoughtful gifts weeks ago. The girl one spent a sick day making a card and decorating wrapping paper that she made herself. I wrote, “Thanks for all you do for me and the kids,” in a card and when he read it this morning he smiled. Somehow the words resonated, which made me sad for all the depressive years when my appreciation could not get through to him.

I know that regardless of how many times I honour him on special days, the sentiment will not be reciprocated. Last year on my birthday, he showed up empty-handed, kids empty-handed, my first birthday with no one. He said, “I wanted to get you something, but I was waiting to get paid.” That’s OK, I said, like I say every year because I expect nothing and yet part of me hopes this is the year he does SOMETHING, a card even. “Yeah, I really wanted to get you a composter.”

Ummmm… why? So every time I take out the garbage, I think of you? How did we get from “Stand By Me in your locker” to “composter”?


When we renovated our first bathroom, back when we were one child in and still so very much in love, we found an antique clawfoot tub. When we flipped it over to paint it, the date embossed on the bottom was April 10, 1940. I’m sure relationships started and ended on that date too. I wonder sometimes about whether couples were happier then, whether expecting less from life was a good thing.

But I’ve only got this life to go on, and I know that we are both happier and more sane. I know that once he got rid of the wife he believed was making him miserable and the job he believed was making him miserable, he could see how much of all this depression was actually on him to own and take care of. He’s starting to do the work and that’s the only gift he can really give me at this point.

My Facebook memories today were mostly painful reminders of me posting birthday greetings to Theo year after year, joking about his disdain for Facebook and praising him as a father, a partner and my best friend. Was I faking it? Did I mean it? Was it real? I’ll never really know.

I spent the dinner feeling like I was in the Twilight Zone. Like everything about it was so familiar. No one in the damn restaurant would imagine we weren’t a couple in a real family doing really family things. We looked so NORMAL and I couldn’t help but think, “What was wrong with this?” I kept looking at my phone for zings from boys, but there was nothing and the kids could sense my discomfort and chastised me for looking at my phone during dinner. So I sat with it, the discomfort, the farce, the “for the good of the children.” I took an Instastory of my prosecco glass and toasted to my character and the high road. My kids were happy. Their dad was happy. And my happiness ebbs and flows, but it’s here goddamit, and I can finally breathe.


To give you a sense of how long a 20-year relationship is or feels like, have a look at this list of other things that will turn 20 in 2018.

Random thoughts from earlier this week that needed an edit

**Giving this another path because stream of consciousness dictating into your phone is not quite the technology it needs to be yet.

I have a Theo reunion fantasy playing in my head as of late. It might be because I’m ready to start dating again. Well, I’m not ready, but it feels like maybe I should give it a shot. Of course this coincides with Theo and I getting along better than we have in over a decade. Suddenly he is the thoughtful, appreciative, giving human being that I fell in love with. And I know it’s a trap. I know in my heart of hearts that this can only exist because we are not together. And that is so fucking sad. Because at our best we were magic. We were the mystical wonders who made two incredible human beings out of love.

So here is how my fantasy goes. He asks me out, simple. He takes me somewhere awesome, maybe our usual spot, a dark little bourbon bar that has great food. He does something chivalrous— a romantic, sweeping gesture like he did when we were first together. He’s assertive with the kids when they ask where we’re going. “I’m taking your mother out to show her that I appreciate all that she does.”

After dinner he walks me home and he tells me he can’t live without me. He takes me up to the top step, right by the door that opens into the house we bought together so many years ago. And then with me on the top step, with him down a step to even out our height difference, he tilts my chin towards his face and suddenly he kisses me in the way that only he knows how.

Suddenly I’m engulfed by the mouth I know intimately and by heart. This goes on for sometime. Weeks go by. We go to our social worker to get her blessing and surprisingly she gives it to us. He moves back in. We make plans to get a bigger place because suddenly he doesn’t fit here anymore. And this house is full of sad memories that the happy ones don’t quite erase. He makes me coffee every morning, like he does now, except he brings it down to my bed each day with a kiss and the look of tenderness.

Edited to add: Looking at this description again, I realize that none of it is about sex. If I read it back to myself, it’s about being noticed and appreciated just as I am. It’s about connection and value. And frankly, now that I will be exposed to more sexual adventures, I’m realizing that it’s not a priority for me. That, for me, good sex is a byproduct of connection and intimacy. It’s important but it’s not the tentpole. It’s just indicative of the health of a relationship.


We do nice things for each other now, and these days we actually notice them. So getting back together feels so natural in that way. But I have to remember that the reason there is no resentment is because we don’t live together. And yet when I look at him some days, and overwhelming desire to hold him in my arms and kiss his face takes over. And I’m so scared to say it out loud. Because we tried that for so many years and it only ended in heartbreak. And I can’t possibly imagine myself doing that again.

Today I realized I’m not crying as much as I was a year ago, and that was profound. I posted an Instagram story to commemorate that moment with that realization. I’m happy here, now. I feel it, and Theo’s happier too. Neither of us seems to be enjoying dating. Above all else he really misses his time with the kids. And I struggle when events happen with three of us that the fourth person can’t participate in because of the separation. In some ways it would be so easy to go back to how we were. Except, it wouldn’t. I know this and yet the fantasy lingers. I wonder if it’s the same for the kids.


My daughter is at that age where she’s getting pre-pubescent hormonal nightmares (she’ll be 11 this summer). She came down to my basement bedroom in a tizzy last night around 10:30. I told her to crawl into my bed, as there’s space to do that now that her dad is living in an apartment a 10-minute drive away.

“I’m feeling really scared right now,” she said in a small voice. I told her that I knew the feeling, that she is so much braver than I was at her age, that I had been afraid of a lot of things, growing up with post-genocidal anxiety that was handed from my grandmother to my mother and down to me. “I used to be scared of bees, animals, of my own shadow!”

“What are you afraid of now?”

“Well I’m always the most worried that something terrible could happen to you or your brother. The second thing I was always most worried about was that your dad and I wouldn’t be together. (Pause.) But that happened… and I survived.”

“You know what? You’re stronger since dad left.”

“How so?”

“Well you used to rely on dad to do lots of things for you. Because he was your man. He was THE man in house. But now, YOU’RE the man. You’re the man-woman.”

Whoa-man. Heart-swell. Kids say the darndest things.

My saviours

“How long has it been?” Our firecracker of a tween-age girl looked at us over Family Day dinner. “Since what?” I asked coyly, hoping she wasn’t asking what she was asking.

“You know, since the breakup?”

Their dad and I looked at each other. God she’s astute. Neither of us had acknowledged this fucked up anniversary. We broke up at the end of November, but it was February before he moved out. We both mumbled something like, “A year and a bit.”

“What month? What day?”

February 4th.

I quickly pivoted to talk of Family Day weekend the previous year, when we were painting their rooms, building IKEA furniture, getting ready for THEIR separation from each other after nearly a decade of sleeping in the same room.

But on February 4th, 2017, we were doing something entirely different.


On the morning of Feb 3rd, 2017, my daughter said, “I don’t want today to be over,” and started weeping. She had realized it was our last night as a family of four. I’d dealt with my own pain the previous night by going out dancing with a super fun colleague and her merry band of Polish friends and gotten stupid drunk, slam dancing to Lida Pimiento in a gallery. It was all so awful (the husband leaving, not the dancing) that I only have hazy details sketched out in my memory bank.

Dealing with my child’s emotional pain while nursing a massive hangover was not my finest moment. But that morning I was focused on letting them know we just had to get through it. The social worker had advised against letting them stay home, because that could create an ongoing issue, so I gently coached us out the door.

When I called home after school, it was clear that my kids were not in a good way. My son, who is not generally overly emotional, was a teary mess. I realized that I would circumvent the pressure of the last night all together by overriding it. I rushed home to get them and called my sister on the way. Sushi and sleepover, STAT! My sister is a successful adult human, but also an incredibly childish plaything for my kids, and going to her posh condo would be just the thing to distract us all.

She had a big glass of wine waiting for me and video games for the kids. Somehow it was fun, even though their dad was back home, packing for his move the next day. After dinner, I got the kids ready for bed and then I gently made my way out of Neverland and back to the house we all shared together. Why? Why did I go back to the marital home? I’ll never really know.


The boxes I’d procured for him to pack were sitting empty in the front room. He had done nothing and was sitting in the dining room, watching YouTube on his laptop. My memory tells me that I avoided making a snide remark to cover my anxiety over his lack of packing, but I can’t confidently say that this is true. I know I eventually went upstairs to our bedroom to pack up my own things from the dresser that he would be taking with him to his new apartment.

We must have slept in the same bed that night, but again, I have no memory of it. Did I weep on his bare chest, like I had so many nights leading up to that one? Who knows? That glass Inside Out memory ball is buried in that land where Bing Bong goes to die.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes, Theo and I. I don’t remember that final goodbye either. I could only begin to imagine what it’s like to leave the home your children grew up in and would continue to grow up in, just without you. But he wanted this, I kept reminding myself. He didn’t have the courage to just leave, of course. For years he just made himself absent by whatever means necessary. Now we were just making it official.


I had a fun day planned. I wanted anything but for my kids to have a memory of their dad leaving. I headed back to my sister’s and she took us for a super fancy brunch in a super fancy hotel. My mom called us at some point, to discuss how she’d been a mega bitch to Theo when he came by to get our old furniture out of the basement. She spoke in our native language so the kids wouldn’t understand. My sis and I giggled, knowing mom had my back.

Then the boy child went to a birthday party, while the girl one and I went to the nail salon with a bunch of her friends and their moms. The village I had carefully built over the years rallied together to support us. After manis and pedis, we retrieved the boy one and went to see Hidden Figures with a single mom friend and her daughter, who was my son’s classmate. We were completely distracted and when we exited the theatre, it was suddenly dark out. It had been a bright, crisp February day and to be hit with the dark was a reminder that we had gotten through the worst of it.

“Let’s call your dad,” I said quietly, “He probably hasn’t eaten all day. Let’s see if he wants us to take him to dinner.”


When we got to his new neighbourhood, the girl one didn’t want to get out of the car. “It’s so WEIRD!” she kept saying. And yeah, she was right. Theo was hurt, I know it, but he eventually coaxed her out. We had Thai, and as we sat around the table we raised our glasses. “To us!” we toasted. The 20-something girls at the table next to us made gagging sounds and rolled their eyes.

I was surprised by how angry this made me. I wanted to go over to them, in all their young, hopeful glory, and say, “THIS IS NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE! This family has been through the wars! We have survived the near death of that sweet girl over there, but our marriage didn’t survive the post-traumatic stress after her disease and surgery, and maybe it was long broken before that, but GODDAMMIT we are here today of all days and eating Pad Thai and Cashew Chicken and it’s a FUCKING MIRACLE!”

Instead I swallowed a spring roll and turned to the girl one. “How about after dinner we go see Dad’s place?” And that’s what we did. Except when we got to the corner, I made an excuse about having to buy cat food and took the boy one to the store with me while the girl one skipped down towards the beach where Dad now lived.

“We’re going to buy him some groceries. Just enough so that he has breakfast tomorrow.” Was it generosity? Was it needing to be the smug person on the high road/horse? Old habits die hard, and I always took care of Theo. It’s what my mom raised me to do. So we showed up, the boy one and me, with a bag full of a lesson. It was the kindest way I could imagine beginning this new life.

“This is so WEIRD!” the girl one exclaimed again. It was SUPER WEIRD. Seeing our stuff in a new home, breaking up a life woven together. If you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread as I walk away.


He came back to the house, I forget why. The shock of bare spots on walls where his concert posters had been removed. The absolute gut-wrenching blow as I walked into our bedroom to nothing but dust bunnies. I’d told him to take the bed, the mattress, the sheets. I didn’t want his energy on anything. I dragged the old futon mattress up from the main floor and plopped it down. When the kids saw this, they asked for their mattresses to be pulled in too. They flanked me, in a makeshift camp, little refugees ready to make a new life, but needing the safety of the maternal womb for the transition.

They saved me. For two weeks I destroyed my back on that floor, but they saved me. I was forced to go to bed early, forced to not cry myself to sleep, forced to accept that I was surrounded by a great love that had been born of the very person who broke my heart.

Exhale.

They are the bright spot in my day. They are the reason Theo and I are still friends. They are my reason for everything (except maybe this writing here, which I’m not sure is sustainable). They are the reason I only moderately fell apart in this last year. They are why I keep going. They saved me then and they continue to save me, one day at a time. I hope I am able to give them even a fraction of what they give me.

I’m not ready to date with my heart just yet, but spending time with Ali, I realize that how my future partner will gel with my kids is critical in my decision-making. For now, Ali is just for me and I don’t know that this will change ever. Ali… sigh… that’s a tale for another post.