We locked eyes like two contestants in the battle round on The Voice, singing in unison, lyric by lyric, watching for the other to crack.
Marie and I stood on a red crash pad delivering an impromptu performance of “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. We were roped into harnesses, waiting for our turn on the indoor climbing wall in New York City.
We were there for her kids, Nicole and Tyler, who were racing each other up the sculpted rock face.
Marie and I were belting out the chorus when our instructor approached. “Hey, are you two sisters?” he asked. We stopped singing and froze. What were we indeed — besides speechless?
It had been two years since my ex-boyfriend (Marie’s ex-husband), and I split up. Marie and I could’ve gone our separate ways, but instead, we chose to stay in each other’s lives — leaving many close to us, scratching their heads. She had become my lifeline and the gateway to staying in the kids’ lives — something that I was not about to walk away from.
I was 39 years old when I met my ex, and up until then, my dating history consisted of younger men still living with their parents, older men, self-employed men with pensions, a brooding artist or two, but no divorcees with kids. And my knowledge about ex-wives came from portrayals I’d seen in Lifetime television movies like Wife, Mother, Murderer. If Marie turned out to be a psycho stalker out for revenge, I was prepared; I knew where to buy disguises and how to slide under desks to avert danger.
The first time I met Marie, we watched Tyler, who was eight, build a Lego airport in my boyfriend’s den. She had impeccable posture, and not a blond hair on her head was out of place — which made me looked like I’d just woken up from a hangover nap.
My belly fluttered with nerves while I inspected her; was that a pimple? Were those real? I was looking for any imperfection to tamp down my sudden insecurities.
Kids and motherhood were never a consideration or an aspiration, but standing in front of Marie, I questioned my life choices; did I want what she had? I braced myself for the once-over. Nothing — or maybe I was too naïve to notice.
“Tyler’s a great kid,” I said.
“Yeah,” Marie agreed. “I was going to give him away, but it’s easier just to keep him.” She wasn’t anything like the evil ex-wife — damn you, television.
I had followed my boyfriend to suburban New Jersey, where I begrudgingly participated in alternating weekend visits with his kids — or babysitting without compensation. When we decided to move in together and went house hunting, the first place we saw was perfect: a master bedroom and a second one for my office. Before I pulled out my tape measure, he interrupted.
“Where are the kids going to sleep?”
“Huh?” I sighed.
My boyfriend (and my humiliation) decided that my paper shredder would share the room with a futon and the kids.
It took a couple of years before I was able to unclench and settle into my amorphous role of a parent’s live-in significant other. And when my boyfriend turned against Marie, for reasons I didn’t completely understand, I fell in lockstep, absorbing his negative opinions of her as my own.
We stood on opposite ends of the soccer field from Marie, and we ignored her at Nicole’s prom party and Tyler’s eighth-grade graduation as if there was an invisible force field around us. I should’ve been relieved — one less drama to answer to, but I wasn’t. I wondered why we couldn’t be friendly for the sake of the kids. But I stayed quiet — I wasn’t the parent, what did I know?
By year seven, the kids had slithered and charmed their way into my heart, and I was crazy about them. I anointed myself the Girlfriend Mom. I had gone from locking myself in my office when Tyler and Nicole were around to eagerly awaiting their visits.
And then I was dismissed for a natural blond.
It wasn’t a divorce, and I wasn’t entitled to joint custody, but the kids and I didn’t break up. How was I going to see them? And how could I get over my ex if I remained in his kids’ lives? Was I supposed to walk away?
Neither my ex-boyfriend nor Marie reached out to me about maintaining my relationships with their kids. I sat curled up in a ball on the floor in my new apartment in New York, watching The Golden Girls marathons. I missed Tyler’s relentless yammering and his gap-toothed smile, and I ached for Nicole’s hilariously riotous teenage outbursts.
I missed my family.
The last thing I wanted to do was reach out to Marie, but the grief had seeped into my bones. After years of half-hearted waving to each other from the car when my ex-boyfriend and I dropped the kids off or picked them up at her house, I was going behind the curtain. Marie had always been somewhat of a mystery to me, and now it was like meeting Oz.
“Hi, Dani.” Tyler’s face radiated a rugged maturity, and my throat tightened.
I threw my arms around him and squeezed. Marie was going to have to fetch a crowbar to pry me off her son. Tyler and I weren’t strangers. Still, years of goofy jokes evaporated — we were starting over, and I was on a supervised visit. An hour later, I stood up to leave.
“It was good seeing you, Dani.” His deep voice was a reminder of a way of life that was over. I wanted to whisper, “Don’t forget me.”
I kissed him good-bye, and he ran upstairs.
“You know, it’s only because of Nicole and Tyler I didn’t move back to L.A,” I confided, my words shaky. Marie nodded and smiled, knowing exactly how I was feeling.
“It’s so silly,” she offered, “but once, Nicole came home from a weekend with you and her dad, insisting on something you’d said to her, and I had to tell her, ‘Dani doesn’t know everything.’ I was jealous.”
“You were wrong,” I sighed, “I didn’t know anything.”
For seven hours, Marie and I shared disjointed stories, vulnerabilities, emotional non-sequiturs, laying bare years of stifled self-doubts, and profound misconceptions. For the first time in a long time, I could breathe, and I inhaled her validations.
Before I had both arms in my jacket, Marie pulled me into an embrace.
“We did a good job co-parenting these kids,” she said.
I wanted to say something, but I was about to cry.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” she said, meaning my break-up with her ex-husband.
Her empathy made my head hurt. Her words were confusing. I’d spent years constructing narratives about her based on empty statements from our ex. And again, I was wrong.
“Thank you for loving my kids. They love you too. I hope you know that.”
I walked to my car, laughing. I wonder if I’m in for a lifetime of alternating weekends with Marie.
Adapted from my “The Girlfriend Mom A Memoir” available wherever books are sold. www.danialpert.com