This is what I began to realize after a year of post-marital dating: ultimatums are women’s favorite form of gambling.
And the great secret pleasure of my newly divorced state was that I could finally call their bluff. Of course, it’s easy to be tough when the stakes are low, but that was another part of the intoxication: I actually didn’t care. The threats and and demands that had paralyzed me for years when I heard them from my wife had become mere annoyances, spoken by a these new girlfriends. I had written in my diary, “Lisa threatened me with divorce today. That’s like threatening Oprah Winfrey with a chocolate cheesecake”, but it was empty bravado. Divorce had seemed like an unimaginable abyss. Well, the worst had happened, I'd fallen in and I was fine. Broke, lonely, a little disoriented, but alive in the world, breathing free air, actually inhabiting my own life, for the first time in years.
The women were part of it, but a small part, and that seemed to bother them. “There’s no room for me in your life,” of them said. I said. “Find room or get out.” It sounds harsh and it was but the burn she felt was the caustic truth. I was raising two kids, writing a novel, working sixty hour weeks. All of those things were more important than she was. She said: “I need to come first.” I said, “You’re lucky to come fourth.” She said, “Then I’m leaving,” and that was supposed to stop the conversation; that was my cue to give in. I was supposed to say “I’m sorry, I’ll re-order my life for you, please stay.” What I actually said was a more polite version of “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.” And it felt great. I have to admit that. I had been so powerless for so long, this cheap ascendancy felt like the real thing. It was invigorating, like waking up from a long sleep, or stepping outside into the mild spring air after a long illness.
Another woman insisted I invite her to my house for Thanksgiving. I still did all holidays with Lisa and the kids. I had known this woman for less than a month. I said no. She said, “If that’s all I mean to you, maybe we shouldn’t be seeing each other.” I agreed and she was gone. This was so easy it was scary. Then there was the wealthy older woman who insisted I take fistfuls of cash to pay in the fancy restaurants where she wanted to eat. She couldn’t stand the thought of being seen paying for a man. She offered to subsidize my share of a fancy vacation; I had to explain that I couldn’t afford to miss the work. Old money people pretend they’re poor; new money people like this woman need to pretend you’re rich. But I wasn’t. So that ended. Another woman wanted total honesty. So I told her I was still in love with my ex-wife. Bye bye. Of course I was on the other side of that one often enough: I spent many whole evenings listening to various women cataloguing the sins of their former husbands, and flinching as I waited for the inevitable “You’re just like Larry” Or Ted, or Charles. One of them didn’t like my kids. She could tolerate them only in “small, highly structured doses.” I explained, they don’t come that way. They came in large chaotic overdoses, and that’s the way I liked it. “You have to decide. It’s me or them.” Seriously. Her or my kids.
It was almost funny.
So she was gone and I had my nights to myself again. But a funny thing had started to happen. Each time another woman vacated my life, I felt a little less powerful and less smug than the last time. The novelty of self-containment was wearing off. I had scratched the sexual itch, proved I was still a presentable middle-aged male person, able to go out in mixed company without embarrassing myself, proved I was still attractive to the somewhat diminished percentage of women (down to 28% or so from an all-time high in my surfing twenties of 43%). But I was sick of all the demanding, intolerant personalities, and I was sick of my lingering feelings for Lisa. The tarnished remnants of love I felt for her, mostly lust, I suppose, fanned by jealousy, tamped down by dread and regret, just weren’t nearly enough. They were an ersatz substitute – carob instead of chocolate, decaf coffee – that just sharpened my hunger for the real thing.
It was a kind of post marital purgatory. I realized what I really wanted was to fall in love again. I wanted passion. I wanted to have something to lose, even I wound up losing it all over again. But as the months wore on it seemed ever more unlikely that I would ever again be overwhelmed by real emotion. Maybe that was for young people only. Maybe it was a mirage anyway; many cultures don’t even acknowledge the concept of love – they don’t even have a word for it. My kids certainly preferred it when I was alone. Romance was time consuming and expensive; it was a dangerous distraction.
But I wanted it, anyway. I had told someone once at a drunken party that all I really cared about in life was love, and the art that described it. At that moment I had neither. The book was stalled and I hadn’t written a poem in months. Maybe that was why I started rummaging through my old loose-leaf notebooks, on a rainy April evening, looking for a little inspiration. It was late, I was on my second scotch, bored and drowsy, when I found the poem.
I read it over, set the drink aside, read it again, and found myself pacing the narrow living room, wide awake at midnight.
Sophie Zambarano: I had managed to forget about her, or at least set the thought of her aside – I was married, she was long vanished into a separate life, I hadn’t heard from her in more than a decade. But something was stirring and nothing had changed. Was she still living in Northampton? It wouldn’t be hard to find out. She was generally the only Zambarano in the directory. I picked up the phone, determined to call information for the number, but I set it down again. I was drunk. I was exhausted. I’d sleep on it, see how the idea felt in the morning, with a hang-over. I’d go slow, control the impulse -- show some prudence for once. But I fell asleep thinking about her.
And I knew I was going to make the call.