I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, to one degree or another; on a subconscious level for Twenty Years, but more recently it’s consumed my active thoughts with lucidity and specificity.
Twenty years ago, I was twenty-eight years old and recently separated from my husband of four brief years, but with whom I’d been in a relationship for ten. Our families had known each other long before we were born and having dated since our teens, we had long been expected to get Married, have kids, and allow our lives to unfold in the preset mold of upper middle-class southern manifest destiny. With one non-negotiable variable thrown in to derail the bucolic train from its droning tracks; my husband was gay. I did not know and would not have known given that our family did not discuss sex, how things did or should work, or even that homosexuality existed. I would not have even suspected or begun to investigate had my ex-husband not had the nerve in the 1995 deep south to – while we were dressing our not yet one-year-old son as a penguin for Halloween – blurted out that he wanted a divorce.
Even then, my only immediate, albeit unspoken thought was, “Thank God. So do I.” Though I did not even know why.
Less than ninety days later, my small son and I were on a plane, relocating to the UK as the result of the initiative of wonderful Taiwanese couple who owned the company for which I worked. “You cannot stay here; you’ll be eaten alive,” was the none too subtle subtext to their every exhortation that I should get out while the gettin was good, and before word spread as it inevitably would through our snobby little town and itself corrupt to the core country club. They owned companies in the UK, Canada, and Hong Kong and graciously let me choose. I had always loved Europe and longed for an opportunity to explore it more, so in almost breakneck time they had arranged housing, a visa, a bank account, business class tickets and a farewell dinner. I was blessed, and doubly so. I not only had wealthy and caring benefactors to enable my escape, but I had a husband who was decent and kind enough to facilitate the same for us both.
My ex is not a saint, to be sure, and is, in fact, a bit of a catastrophe on a scale not provided for any type of natural disaster. He is an attorney and is from a well-off family; a well-off family who makes Lindsay Lohan’s familial integrity seem as sound as the walls of Windsor. He is incapable of fatherhood, fiscally irresponsible and from what I gather from friends, just a bit of a whore. My best friend, sister – lots of people – question why I have remained so gracious to him over the years and the answer is more complex than I have perhaps, in the past, cared to probe, let alone expound. I do adore my ex-mother-in-law (who will someday be a book of her own) and she has continued to treat me and my son as though we were of her own blood. But I think and am growing ever more convinced that the real reason I maintain a patient warmness to him, and even increasingly so as the years go by, is because he had the balls to not live a lie, and to not tie me up in, or punish me with it; he set us free.
The first year we lived in the UK, I met a dizzying array of people. I was “the American” who had been chosen first as marketing manager, then director, then out of nowhere MD of the UK subsidiary of a global company. I was also, I might add, not unattractive though I wish I’d known then exactly how not so I was. Our bank, our accountants and our lawyers ensured I was invited to every event imaginable in order to network and facilitate growth and of course, to help me settle in and settle down. It was at one of these events that I met a man we’ll call Jakob. We’ll call him that because that’s what he’s called in my book and yes, that character is very much modeled on him. Jakob was – is – older than I by thirteen years. British, Jewish, good-looking, exceptionally, beautifully well-dressed. Fast cars, expensive tastes, and an insatiable hunger for anything blonde. Oh, and did I forget to mention married?
Having been raised by two of the most straight laced people who ever lived, and in an environment where girls hunted with the boys and my best man chose my wedding dress, to me, it wasn’t out of the question for boys and girls to just be friends. So very friendly Jakob just wanted to be my friend. I was sure. Until one day when he returned from a trip to Barbados and sent me an email which said simply, “I’m back. Wanna see my white bits?” I was floored, gobsmacked, speechless and scandalized. This is not how I was brought up and not how I would ever behave. Further, what had I done to lead him to believe I was remotely the type to entertain a proposition from a forty-two-year-old married father? But if I was outraged, I was also at least a little bit flattered if not intrigued. I had, after all, recently been thrown over by a man who preferred men, so my ego was bruised and hey, it was just a flirtation, so what harm could it do?
I won’t go into detail for various reasons to protect us both, but I likely already numbered twenty or higher on his list of conquests or attempts thereof when first we met, and there have likely been thrice more than that since. Except that the others were never more than once; always a one night stand, never repeats, never overnight and never, ever in public. And before you feel sorry for his wife, rest well in the fact that she knew; she knows. She allows it to keep the lifestyle to which she had by then grown accustomed as she has the IQ of a chickpea and the moral fortitude of a weasel. She’s never had a job in her life, has no education and could not take care of herself if her very life depended on it. So she looked the other way while he indulged his libido with one-offs, knowing all along he’d come home to her and that she might even get a new bauble of some sort as penance for his straying.
Then there was me.
To shortcut the innuendo of the dance which ensued, Jakob fell in love with me, plain and simple. I know this because, in November, it will have been twenty-one years ago since we met. And he just texted me less than an hour ago. But you see, he’s still married; still with her, still unhappy, still doing his best to convince me to give him one more try.
I wish I could say he was the only one, but Women like me are nectar for men like him. They have everything in the world, but they can’t have me, or at least that would be the easiest, most emotionally exculpatory thing to tell myself. The truth, though, is far more complex. They don’t really want women like me, because women like me are a risk, and these are very small, very insecure, very fragile men. I am smart, I am successful, I am pretty, I am funny, and I take absolutely zero shit. From anyone. So whereas he and those of his ilk may find this attractive, they find it in equal or greater measure to be a threat. Men like him can only pursue women like me with the safety net of women like her. And they would never, ever cut the cords of that net because then what would they be? Single, available and worst of all, vulnerable. Vulnerable to the strength, security, free will and exercise of choice they impose on others but to which they fear being subjected.
HIs best friend tried it on with me once as well. Then his investment banker. Then one of his partners. And since then three different male bosses at three different agencies. Then people wonder why I don’t believe in marriage. I once got on a plane and took my seat in first class while watching the man next to me wriggle his wedding ring off with using his thumb and then gingerly slide it into his pocket. I’ve written before about the men who’ve sent me photos of their junk or had me booked into their hotel to make me easier prey. I think I’ve literally seen and heard it all. I am the trophy, the one to win, but not to wed. Surely I’m a slut because, after all, I’m not married yet I travel the world, exude confidence, dress well, work out and can banter with the best of them. No. No, I am nothing remotely of the sort.
I simply chose – choose – to remain single because I prefer to be honest with myself; to honor, in some way, the fact that my ex-husband was, albeit only eventually, honest with me.
Last November I was in frozen Des Moines giving a speech to a board two days in a row, just before Thanksgiving. I had bitched about going, but the particular partner who’d requested me is someone I admired – admire – and I would never let him or his organization down. The night in between, we shared an average meal with strong drinks and I got the sense that some of the questions he was asking me were full of double-entendre, but in the most innocent manifestation of the term. It felt as though he was at a crossroads in life and was seeking answers from any source he could access, and drawing parallels to his thoughts and feelings from any life subject at hand. I did not push or even really ask. It was more than three months later after having missed several conference calls and even more emails that he finally called me and said, “You’ve probably figured out by now, I’m getting a divorce.” He went on to say that there was no one else on either side, but that they had grown apart, fallen out of love and that while they were both still in their forties and still had mutual respect, they wanted another shot at life; at love. He took it hard because men with big hearts like him do; he’s as genuine a soul as one can imagine, and a father to two children he absolutely adores.
Don’t get your hopes up; this isn’t leading where you think. He is a friend and a delightful man, but there’s no romance on the cards. What his decision and his directness with me about it did do, though, was go some way in restoring my faith and teaching me a lesson. I now know there are good, decent men who make the right choice – as difficult as that was and is – for the right reasons. I also now have a second example to contrast the Jakobs of this world who seek to have their cake and eat it, all the while lying to themselves, to the women they’ve married and to the next woman who happens to sit alongside them on a plane, at a bar or in a meeting. Twenty years later, I’ve finally learned it’s the weak ones who stay, and the honest ones who go. The right choice is never the easy one, and it takes a certain strength of character to foresee the pain and discomfort and proceed in spite of it. Which is exactly what my last text to Jakob said.