Love, Divorce, and Moving on to Birkenstocks

How do the brokenhearted fall in love? Do they come together out of desperation or that funny little thing with feathers? Does pain just slowly vanish as lost pounds do, or will it always be felt like a phantom limb? When is the right time to find someone new — or change course with a person you already know?

He and I were never supposed to fall in love. We were family friends—that warm, benign status reserved for parents whose children play with one another in their shared surroundings, in our case an apartment complex in New York City — and, more to the point, I had been close with his wife. She wrote a novel that consumed me during the last days of my first pregnancy; months later, after a chance encounter revealed that we were neighbors, I felt an instant kinship with her off the page. We were both mothers to young girls, involved in bookish pursuits, and trying to achieve that fragile have-it-all work/family balance with our stay-at-home husbands. We prized, above else, time alone. When we couldn’t be by ourselves, because we had to find ways to entertain our children, we often chose to romp around with each other.

During those bleary-eyed, panic-filled days of early parenthood, our 
connection was a cure-all, a balm. Too exhausted for discretion, we let our real selves show early on and, in time, grew to trust one another with our most desperate secrets.

Mine: That the man I’d married was not who I thought he was.

Hers: That she planned to leave her husband for someone else.

One week after she delivered this news to me, she was gone from New York — and my life. Are you OK? I’d text. I imagine this is an emotional time, I’d add some days later. I miss you, any and all updates welcome. . .

I was hurt; I felt foolish. Why didn’t she cherish our friendship as I did? I could understand her need to detach from her old life, if that was indeed the 
reason for her silence. But didn’t my email to her, in which I disclosed the details of my own impending divorce, at least deserve a reply?

Instead, I started receiving text messages from her ex, who still lived in the neighborhood.

I heard you’ve moved out. Thinking of you and the kids. Hope you’re all OK. Xx.

What’s your schedule like this week? Xx.

Do you want to grab a drink next week? Xx.

No scenario I could dream up for a drink-grab felt at all right. Did he want to interrogate me for secrets about his ex? Would we cry into our beers together? Xx? I still felt an allegiance to my then-friend, and I worried that inching toward this man would be crossing a line; worse, a cliché. But I couldn’t turn him away, either. Months of casual and occasionally confessional texting followed. As newly-uncoupled parents, we were able to communicate in terms that even our nearest and dearest could not necessarily understand. He was amusing, comforting, and kind.

And handsome.

How could I say no?

I knew I was in trouble the moment we met. He kept his arm around me after our greeting, while we ordered at the bar; he told me that I looked striking, and was shining bright; he made me feel, after years of invisibility in a sham of a marriage, alive. Was I desperate for attention, affection? Sure. But he wasn’t the one to want it from. We said — hugged — a brief goodnight on the street, and soon he too left the city for good.

I watched his new life, in New England, take shape in the form of Facebook updates and, every so often, a sweet tiding via text. Never a big fan of social media, much less online dating, I kept a low profile while working full-time and caring for my beautiful and busy children. Romance was a faraway prospect, particularly during divorce mediation, until one Monday afternoon in late September:

Hi. In the city for a meeting. Drink? Xx.

My heart, never a good liar, did a jumping jack.

This time, after our hours-long drinks-date, we kissed goodnight — and 
relived the moment in the weeks of texting that followed. The jolt that ran through him; my fierce longing; the years of shared history that led us into each other’s arms. How could one kiss transform two middle-aged adult lives in such a way?

I am thinking of you — constantly. I am trembling as I type. Remember that time I saw you on the bus? Yes; it was raining, and you had the kids’ scooters. I loved how you looked that day, in that dress. Really, you thought about me in that way? I was always drawn to you. I was always shy around you. I always wanted to be near you. Now? Yes. I want to be with you now, too.

There are some things that are too good, or too true, to put into words. I wish I could set the scene of our first real date — the one in which there was no “goodnight” — and find a way to express the complete joy I felt the moment he walked through my door, and the events that followed. But I’m not a romance novelist, and I’m blushing as I type.

That night was the first in a series of biweekly visits — in keeping with our custody arrangements — in which he would drive to New York on a Saturday afternoon and leave early on Sunday. Time was always running out; when we were together, we made it stand still.

But real life was never far behind. There were kids to raise, bills to pay. I worked, and worked freelance, to keep my world in order. (I also received family support, without which I would surely perish.) He, on the other hand, had a pending book deal and no job prospects in his new city. Nor did he, an orphan with various half-siblings across the country, have anything close to a safety net. I filled that void, willingly. But I could only do so much.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife enjoyed great success with a recent book and was buying a home with her now-fiancé. I heard a great deal about the disparity between their two lives — and the legal battles that remained — and I began to realize that my original concern, about crossing lines and choosing sides between him and my old friend, was still at play.

Did she set his downfall in motion? Of course. Was she heartless in the face of his devastation? It seemed she had been. But I was also growing weary of my now-boyfriend’s rants about her, and, I had to admit, how he used alcohol to defuse his anger. It was painful to witness his self-destruction, and I was running out of ways to help him.

Above all, I felt guilty: For having an amicable relationship with my ex-husband; for having primary custody of my kids; for having a job; for having a supportive family; and for having violated an unspoken agreement among female friends, no matter how estranged, and getting involved with him in the first place.

Hi,__________ .

When you left NYC I missed you and all that we once shared, and felt sad that my attempts to reach out to you weren’t reciprocated. At the same time, I 
 understood that you were entering a new chapter, and was in awe of the new life you created for yourself. In many ways, your journey inspired my own. I never imagined it would lead us here. What began as a cautious friendship with __________ (for months I kept my distance, discouraged him from disclosing any personal details) only recently turned into a close connection. I care about him. I care about your children — and you. I keep asking myself: Is there any way that you and I could be friends?

Hi. I can’t help but wonder: Are you still wearing Worishofers or have you, like me, moved on to Birkenstocks?

Hi, __________. did your kids mention their visit a few weeks ago? I had not seen them, nor their father, for months. We all had a wonderful time, and our girls were impossibly sweet together. Just wanted to share. Photo enclosed.

I was naïve, and self-centered, to think that she would reply to these emails, and I cringe to reread them. “You have nothing to apologize for,” my friends tell me. “She left him,” my therapist says. She left you. You did nothing wrong.” Still, I’m anxious about whether she will ever come across this very story — and if it will infuriate or invite ridicule from her — but here goes nothing.

As for him:

We keep in text-touch. He has a better custody agreement than before. A new job. A less angry outlook. He is likely (unlike me) dating someone new, 
although we don’t discuss such matters of the heart. We do send each other love, a word that speaks to our once and future relationship as family friends. It’s a happy-enough ending to our story. Pain has wings, too. A new chapter awaits.