Relationships Moving Past Silence as One Relationship Ends and Another Begins
For a decade I’d tricked myself into believing I was happily married, never thinking there could come a time when the trick no longer worked.
A balmy day for December, and my two-year-old son, N, and I are about to step out. As I’m waiting for him to do the Montessori flip with his coat, my phone lights up with a headline about a forthcoming vaccine. Things could be back to normal by fall next year, an expert says. Transmission rates will decline, which means gatherings can slowly resume. Indoors. Unmasked even.
“Mask on,” N says, pulling at my free hand. “Mask on!” He means, Let’s go!
“One day,” I tell him, “we won’t have to wear a mask anymore.”
“I want to wear my mask,” he says cheerfully. And then: “We going to Papa’s house.”
On a Facebook group for neighborhood parents with kids the same age, I ask what the other toddlers have been saying about what we’re all living through.
“More hanitizer, Mommy.”
“Go away, people.”
“Masks go in the mask drawer.”
“Soap, soap, wash ya hands.”
“Need more space.”
While my son and his distanced peers have been collecting their first words, I’ve been in a state of quiet, eschewing Zoom gatherings and parties. Reaching out to people has been a tricky business since last January, before the lockdown, when I moved out of the condo I still co-own with N’s father. For many who knew us as a couple, the end of our marriage is a distortion, and I’m not eager to face their bewilderment. I’m in a bewildered state myself: For a decade I’d tricked myself into believing I was happily married, never thinking there could come a time when the trick no longer worked.
To make matters even trickier, I started dating—soon after moving out—the former partner of a close woman friend, which has led to more confusion in my social circles: friends taking sides, friends fleeing as if from the plague. “The sort of drama I wish would stay confined to novels,” I tell a friend, one who’s sticking with me. It’s August, and we’re sitting on her front lawn drinking tea. The last time we saw each other was at Christmas, in a crowded bar downtown.
“An Elena Ferrante saga,” she says.
Yes, we’ve reached the chapter where the protagonist, a seemingly put-together sort, upends her life and, as a consequence, the lives of those closest to her. I myself could never have predicted it. For others, it’s too much. Some hint that in self-protection they need to step away. Others simply ghost me.
The friend laughs. “Now that’s just middle school,” she says.
Maybe, but I can’t help wondering if this is temporary distancing or if I am to be a pariah permanently. Thanks to the invisible spiked protein spreading through the air, there’s no risk of awkward run-ins. I huddle in my apartment with my books, my writing, and the voices and faces of my students on Zoom. If I glimpse a familiar figure on the street or at the grocery store, there’s my mask to hide behind. At odd moments, I find myself composing inquiries to those giving me the cold shoulder. “What exactly does this have to do with you and me?” The emails linger in my Drafts folder, unsent.
I try to pay attention to how my toddler goes about acquiring language. As with sitting up, crawling, and walking, advances seem to happen in spurts. One day he’s pointing and saying, “Engwish moffin,” and the next it’s, “I want a big piece of English muffin with jam for breakfast.” Occasionally I catch a glimpse of N’s process. “What did you dream about?” I ask one morning. “Do you remember?” “I re-member,” he says for the first time, and then he proceeds to do a little exercise as if a language teacher had told him to practice the phrase and make things up if necessary. “I remember hippopotamus. I remember purple truck. I remember a panda eating a pie.”
I too am learning to say new things, words that used to apply to other people’s situations but not mine: separation, divorce, mediation, co-parenting. In India, where I grew up, divorce is a shameful thing, so when the travel restrictions were announced last spring, I was more than a little relieved to have an excuse not to fly home. Amid the curfews and closures, I practiced my new words quietly, in texts with a few confidantes.
I too am learning to say new things, words that used to apply to other people’s situations but not mine: separation, divorce, mediation, co-parenting.
Then in the summer, when my lover and I gathered with others outdoors, I had my first opportunities to use these words with strangers. “My son is with me half the week,” I say at a cookout, “and the other half with his dad.”
Saying these words aloud with my lover’s arm around me meant trying on a new identity, a version of myself I find unsettling because of the things it—I—did: broke up my family by walking out of my marriage, violated friend code when I followed my heart.
“That sounds ideal,” someone says. Others nod. Their matter-of-factness suggests I’m achieving fluency.
You have to let your characters make choices, I often tell my students, and then you have to let them face the consequences—otherwise, your reader will know you’re holding back.
In the quiet of the past year, as my separation and its aftermath have played over and over in my head, I’ve seen clearly the consequences of my own choices: the hurt I’ve inflicted, the upheavals I’ve caused. At the same time, I see the life I was living in my marriage and know I can’t go back. I’m programmed by my Indian upbringing, its emphasis on scolding and shaming, to see myself as the problem. But I also know that between any two people in a pairing, there’s a dynamic that each one can only partly affect. What will I tell N when he’s old enough to ask? What words will he use to describe his childhood in two homes?
“Why it’s dark outside?” N calls from the back seat.
“Because in winter it gets dark early.”
“No!” he says. “Because the Earth turns!”
This is another of his experiments: He asks the same question he’s asked before, to see if the answer will be the same. I’ve been going through a similar routine. My answers are always the same.
A question I’ve been pondering lately: After the vaccines do their work, will it be easy to come out of the quiet? I’m not eager for those awkward encounters I’ve so far been able to avoid. At the same time, I long for playdates and library hours, for live concerts in packed halls, and drinks at crowded bars. What words will break the quiet? Or will the silences simply continue as they would have anyway? If there are words we can say to each other, my friends and I, will we still speak the same language? Did we ever?
“If you want those relationships,” my lover pointed out to me last winter, “then you should reach out and have a conversation, say exactly what it is that you’re feeling. If you want them.”
It was a chilly March night, early lockdown days. Our beloved neighborhood pub was shuttered, so we drank beer in my kitchen. One year afterward, the pub patio is bustling, thanks to a newly installed heating pipe, and the emails to my former friends are still sitting in my Drafts folder, notes to myself from a different time.
“Yes,” I tell N in the car, “the Earth turns, and now we’re facing away from the sun.”
“It’s morning time?”
“It’s nighttime. But it will be morning time tomorrow.”