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I opened the manila envelope and held the decree in my hand. The weight of an imaginary boulder slammed my knuckles against the cold granite. I couldn’t stop my hand from shaking, and as my fingers crinkled the paper I focused on steadying my breaths.
It wasn't a surprise; the slow and painful process had ripped my soul from riches to rags. Seeing my freedom as words on a court document was closure, but it didn't bring the peace I had hoped for. I expected a wave of relief followed by a joyous realization: I was finally free from the relationship that had unraveled my identity until I was hanging on by a single thread of self-worth. But neither relief nor joy came instantly.
There’s nothing unique about divorce. It’s overexperienced and exhausting. It leaves no emotions unfelt and no insecurities undiscovered.
Divorce knows no limits -- not of age, not of wealth and not of sexuality. It’s a beast that hijacked my hope for a happy ending and dragged its decaying carcass across my entire existence for a few short months that felt everlasting. Even now, the stench lingers in the corners of my mind I avoid visiting.
One day we shared a bed, and the next I was gone. Flashing back to the day I left, I remembered blankly staring out the window of the studio we shared in a D.C. high-rise. Those four walls enveloped our own tiny refuge in a big new city. The sun was setting and I could barely make out the quaint skyline I had found solitude in night after night as I sat at my desk studying, reading, or doing anything other than confronting the ugly state of my marriage.
I broke my gaze and looked to the last of my packed bags piled at the door. He wasn’t there to chaperone what I took but I tried to be fair as I did a final sweep of our books and DVDs. I left his handful of musicals and smiled because I wouldn’t have to pretend to like them anymore.
With one last glance to the window, I remembered the minute I realized I loved him and then the first time he said “I love you.” I closed my eyes only to see his, filled with hope as he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Without hesitation I said yes.
But that was a different time, and he was a different person then. My eyes fluttered open and filled with tears. My skin tingled as a familiar chill struck the room -- it was the same chill that followed the silence when our marriage shattered into a million pieces.
We married young and on a leap of what turned out to be ill-placed faith. I met him when I was 19 and from there we became friends. After months of trying to be emotionally unattached, I gave him an ultimatum and he surprised me by saying he wanted what I did. We got married at 21.
Our marriage lasted three-and-a-half years, two of which were almost blissful. Something changed by the third year. We both became unhappy and distant, and regardless of what we tried it didn’t get better. It became increasingly obvious that a mere commitment to making it through the third-year rut wasn’t enough.
Divorce didn’t sneak up on us. It was an idea that once verbalized quickly evolved into a reality. Neither of us dared to say the word, until one day it just slipped out. In the last six months before I left, our fights escalated until one of us finally screamed the word. Maybe it was me, maybe it was him, but as we stood staring at each other listening to the word echo against the walls, it didn’t matter.
“Maybe we should get a divorce. I can’t do this anymore,” I said maybe a half dozen times in those last six months. Each time one of us brought it up, divorce was tabled with talks of being more spontaneous and romantic, listening better, and the occasional suggestion of couples therapy. For a week or two, our relationship seemed to get back on track. Then with a single fight, we found ourselves back at square one.
We were fresh off the cycle, having fought and subdued the idea of divorce yet again, when he sat across from me at our dining room table and dropped the bomb that plateaued our future.
“I think I’m gay,” he told me.
I somehow opened my mouth but was unsure of what would come out if I spoke.
“I love you. And I’m proud of you,” I responded.
To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement. He looked me straight in the eyes and revealed a secret he had buried and hidden from me. It was a fundamental difference that destroyed any future I could have with him. In a few short words the remaining threads holding our relationship together were snipped.
I blinked and refocused on the edge of the table. How could I be so hurt and betrayed, but so proud of him? For a second longer, I tried to comprehend what this meant for him. He had confided his greatest secret to the one person he trusted the most; that person also happened to be the one person he would hurt the most.
“He doesn’t want me the way we both deserve,” I thought to myself.
In that moment I knew it was over. Divorce was no longer a decision we could make together. The fifty percent I shared in the decision was ripped from my hands and I had no choice but to walk away.
First, I blamed myself entirely. How did I not know? Did everyone know except me? Did I actually know all along, but was just unwilling to admit it to myself? When friends asked what happened I would simply respond, “It didn’t work out,” because I believed the mistake and fault were somehow mine.
Then the self-blame shifted to rage. We made a promise to each other and he unilaterally invalidated it with a time bomb -- his sexuality. If he was ever confused, why did he marry me?
It was finally his time to embrace and love himself entirely, and while I accepted his new identity and loved him still, it was in a different capacity. Regardless of his newfound identity, my own identity was shattered. With those few words whispered across a table, I went from being an equal half of a partnership to disposable and deadweight. Not only that, but I was suddenly an obstacle for him to overcome in order to live the life he really wanted.
Was any of it real? Did he ever love me?
I compiled a list of burning questions I knew would never be answered. As days turned into weeks and months, I learned I had a choice: I could come to terms with how disposable he made me feel, or I could fall down a rabbit hole of trying to find emotional and sexual validation through someone else. I was consumed by insecurity. My husband could throw me away so easily, and so could any man after him.
As it turns out, leaving was the easiest part. On that last day in our apartment, I glanced over the room and lingered on the table where we shared that last meal. I stepped quietly to not disturb the environment, or maybe to avoid any remaining landmines embedded in the carpet, and I picked up the last of my bags and walked out. As I felt the door shut behind me, I collapsed against it.
I couldn’t go back. There was nothing to even go back to.
Months later, shaking hands grasping the granite kept me from collapsing again. He didn’t need the decree to move on and he hadn’t bothered to shield me from his happier and more comfortable lifestyle. He had found a way to move forward while I stood completely still, too paralyzed by fear to share myself with another man.
I will be immortalized by my now ex-husband as a phase he went through, a misstep taken on the way to become the person he always dreamed he could be. But he would become a mistake I hoped to erase and forget. If our marriage never happened, I wouldn’t have to pick up the pieces as a broken twentysomething disillusioned by the so-called sanctity of marriage.
It’s true that the divorce proceedings and sparse interactions with a man who has now become a stranger have led me dark, hollow places. But it’s not the literal divorce that took a jackhammer to the foundation I laid for love and happiness. It was the moment I realized that the promise protecting a marriage could be revoked with a single sentence.