“Make sure to turn off the lights and lock the door,” I called from my bed. My body ached with exhaustion, and I said the words with my eyes already closed.
“I will,” he said as he walked into my room.
“I’m so tired it hurts; I was up at 4:30 this morning.”
He walked towards my window. “You have to get more sleep,” he said, closing the blinds and moving to the next window. “Maybe a darker room will help. Good night.”
I vaguely remember thanking him as he closed my bedroom door behind him. I heard his footsteps go down the hall to my two teenage children, who were in their own bedrooms getting ready for bed. The last thought that crossed my mind was that my ex-husband had just put me to bed.
We are unlikely friends. After nearly 14 years of marriage and two children, one day he told me that he had found someone else. A few months later, she gave birth to their child. Poof, our family was gone, replaced by another.
The pain was so deep, so visceral, it was almost like childbirth; you’d have to live through it to understand it. Also like childbirth, the recovery isn’t so straightforward. It feels like pulling a heavy cart up a hill and making progress, only to let go of the rope and watch the cart slide down again, crashing into things along the way.
It was never my intention to be friends with him. In the months after he broke his news, I decided to try and get along with him for the sake of our children. Because my husband lived and worked in another state during the week, driving for hours to come home on the weekends, I decided after a time to let him stay with us when he was in town. The change to our lives was traumatic and swift; I didn’t want my children spending weekends in some depressing hotel room.
In the beginning, I was either openly hostile or ignored him completely. If I got good news, I kept it to myself because I didn’t want him to have one moment of feeling good about me. I gritted my teeth and complained to friends about him, and silently reminded myself that I was letting him be in my life — and in my home — for our children’s sake.
Six years later we’re divorced, and he still drives up, alternating weekends between his new home and family, and our children. He arrives on Friday night or Saturday morning and comes straight to my house, parking his car and letting himself in the front door. When he calls out his arrival, the dogs rush to greet him, and my son darts from his room and into his father’s arms. When he arrives on Saturday, he makes himself a cup of coffee and we sit outside and talk about the week: how the children are doing, changes I’ve made to the house, the latest happenings at our jobs. Invariably, we fall into a discussion of the week’s news; dissecting the latest nugget of information from the Mueller investigation, or weighing the chances of various candidates in the midterm elections. We linger so long in these conversations that my son has to interrupt to remind us that his father came to see him, not me.
When he’s here, our home feels complete. For two weeks at a time, I am alone, struggling to juggle a full-time job with taking care of the children; driving my 15-year-old son to activities, trying to snatch a few moments of conversation with my perpetually on-the-go 18-year-old daughter. I do my best to keep up with the house, with cooking, with mowing the lawn, but I always fall short; it’s too much for one person. When he is home, I have a part-time partner to share in disciplining the kids or helping with homework. There is someone to run to the store for milk, or cook dinner. I am finally free to go to a movie or simply sit outside and write. In the afternoons I often fall asleep on the sofa reading a book. Because I can. Because my children have their father.
Our friendship evolved slowly. When we met in South Africa 22 years ago, I was a fledgling journalist, and he read every draft of every story. Over the years he became my best editor. Though a banker, he has a sharp editorial eye. More importantly, he knows my work. Invariably, he spots weaknesses in my stories that I can feel as I write them. Sometimes he’ll read something and say it’s not my best work; that I can do better. Just after he told me he was leaving, I applied for a communications job and had to write an article as a test. I didn’t ask him to read it because I was still so full of rage; I didn’t get the job. When I later read the piece, it was obvious that I had overthought it. He would have noticed that in a second. After that, I began asking him to read my work again, and no matter how busy he is, he makes the time; sometimes sneaking out of meetings to call and give me his notes.
There have been weekends when I have cried to him over another man, or over my fear that I’ll never find another relationship. After my last debacle, he texted that the guy was a man-child and I was better off without him.
It’s difficult for others to understand the relationship. It’s not the norm, friends tell me. I know this, and there are still moments when I feel pain and anger; sometimes I question if I’ve made the right choice. But our shared history is meaningful and has weight. I’ve realized that what started out as something I was doing for my children has turned into something I do for myself.
Over the summer, my daughter, who is going to college in Europe, got her dorm assignment and sent me a photo. It was a castle, literally. I immediately texted the photo to her father, and we had an extended text conversation about how excited we were for her. We reflected on her birth and all of our hopes for our little girl; about how proud we were of her, and how we had reached a milestone. It was a precious moment for me, and one that no one else could understand, except her father. My friend.