About the Feature
We had some money and we went to Rome. My husband had never been, and I’d just turned forty. It is not possible for me to write the name I called my husband. I don’t remember our endearments. My husband today—someone else—I call Sweetheart, but I didn’t use that term at the time. We left the children with a babysitter for ten days. This was expensive, but that was fine then.
On the first morning, my husband woke me with a kiss on my brow. He’d had a run along the Tiber and opened the doors to the balcony and sun fell over the bed. He said, “We are so lucky.” In our thirteen years I’d never seen this relaxed smile. It made me uneasy. I didn’t know if he meant something besides the obvious. I wasn’t talking much. I knew I didn’t want to be there with him. I missed the boys, but that wasn’t it.
We planned to wander that day, find a restaurant a friend had recommended. The high-ceilinged hotel room was more expensive than any I’d ever paid for, and a place you’d want to live. Small, elegant appointments lay around. Writing paper embossed with the hotel seal, gold leaf on the bed’s headboard. The night before, when we’d arrived after twenty hours of travel from Missoula, we held things up, saying, “Look,” to each other, as this sort of trip instructed. I listened from the bed to the shower running.
In the afternoon, we walked back from the Castel Sant’Angelo, the ramparts and golden views, against which my husband took photos of me. I wore a red pashmina around my neck. My husband didn’t like to be in pictures so the photos from that trip are just me. We crossed over the water, eating chestnuts from the vendor at the corner of the bridge. We talked about the children, our most expressive language, and eyed the women with bold walks and dangling square handbags and looked into the shops, the mannequins of men costumed in well-cut suits. “Let’s buy you clothes,” I said. My husband never shopped and I’d never had the sort of money to make such a casual, excited offer, but I’d earned this big sum with a book deal. “We’re here, we’re in Italy, look at that fabric.” I pulled my husband by the hand up a step from the pavement and into a store.
The shirts for him, the topcoat. The salesmen spoke English to us and brought out trousers and soft shirts, soft cottons, wheat-colored linen. We spent a couple thousand. It was a thrill. I stood by the table with the silk handkerchiefs and the belts, the creamy browns and velvety browns, the breath of luxury in the leather. “Get two,” I said. “And try this,” I said. Shy but pleased, my husband tried on the clothes, watching me watch, a joy shared, I thought.
We went back into the street. He wore the exquisite wool coat, a knee-length charcoal with a black thread, and the new tan leather shoes, which knocked gently on the pavement as the shop’s corded bag swung against him from his hand. “You look like an Italian man,” I said. I was flirting. Later, our eldest son started to wear the coat, though he was nine then.
In our years together, we’d been spare with money, a care I learned from my husband, our bank account balanced within tens of dollars each month. When we’d met, he denied himself while I splurged on better beer or fine bedding. But, in time, as couples will, we adopted pieces of each other, and I learned some thrift while he sampled, now and then, a book in hardcover or new winter tires for the bike.
This money had appeared all at once, a momentous rebuke of our modest reality, and then we just Had Money. Dazed, we established IRAs and college funds and paid off a car loan and replaced the roof and took the children to Belize and put in a garden I designed, which surrounded our house on four sides with fragrant bee balm and showy pink rhododendron and cascades of wild geranium, a pergola painted Greek blue, cobbled pavers to define a patio, planted with flowering thyme and moss. I bought myself citrine earrings and gave lots of presents. We fed ourselves. “You can’t live the rest of your lives on that money,” a friend said to me. But the money had changed our habits so completely, had smoothed the daily scratch, had dictated to us so confidently what life was to be, that I thought, This is always.
Of course the money ran out. It was a mirage. The trip to Rome, half-documented, stopped being recounted. The children, nine and five then, grew and graduated and moved to other states in their pursuits. The garden, fifteen years later, is rooted and blooming, from early spring to late fall, as I’d planned, with bright, opulent splashes against the creamy white house I adored, where my husband, with a new name, still lives.
In summers, I can see the Italian plum tree from the street, reaching up and spreading behind the cedar fence.
Is my marriage over? The question fluttered into and out of my head, at first quietly, around year ten, a secret I was unwilling to ask myself. Yet I would not imagine an end with this friend and partner, beloved editor, excellent parent, all our entwinements and family knowings, my mother-in-law. That is, I couldn’t imagine it. But the question demanded to be voiced around the time of the trip to Rome, our first holiday without our sons, or maybe a bit later. Why did I not want to share Italy with him? What was I holding away from him? On the trip one day we decided to split up in the morning and meet again for dinner, telling each other over artichokes and different pastas what each of us had noticed alone. My husband had gone to the Galleria Borghese and wanted to go back with me. I had explored a couple of dark churches, seen in a bookstore window untranslated (of course) Elena Ferrante, I giorni dell’abbandono. I found the Jewish ghetto and went into a busy bakery, crushed among people calling for what they wanted, and I bought bread and pastry and ate them in the street, cobbles under my feet dating to the sixteenth century. It was my favorite day, making no familiar conversation, freed from measuring my husband’s energy and mood, and mine. I could be myself.
Was I not myself otherwise? Sex was a problem—we were able to say so—and we had been working on it for years, together and with a therapist. But marriage is more than that; our marriage was more. And then, a few years after Rome, my husband agreed to an open marriage. Or rather, he agreed to try an open marriage, which I’d been asking him to consider for a while. We knew, or had been told and had read, that we needed to construct this agreement consciously and with respect, had to emphasize marriage rather than open. We both wanted to excel at the abstract notion we had introduced, this project, and a wonderful ease returned to us, long lost, because we stopped crying, stopped fighting over sex. I loved him fully again and felt loved. It was a relief of a magnitude as great as my love for my children.
We were still naming the details, carefully, with nothing arranged yet except a mutual understanding that we would decide together when to begin, when I left on business. Someone I’d met because of my book took me for drinks, then dinner. She loved my book, asked for more answers to questions that had occurred to her while reading. Her seduction wasn’t subtle, and I was loopy with flattery. From my feet up to my head, every part of me fizzing and alert, I craved any way to touch her, sitting across a white-linened table from her, aware of the white cotton hem of her skirt against her tanned skin, the way the folds gathered and sank a bit between her thighs as she sat down after she returned from the bathroom. The stormy force in me, so long dimmed and stultified, raged forward. I would not check it, gave over to glee. My legs slid together under my dress when I followed her out to her car, a mix of nervous sweat and primal arousal. My husband and I had settled nothing, but I went ahead alone. I went ahead.
There is no always. After we separated, when the boys were sixteen and twelve, I left my husband in the house and rented a new condo in a cul-de-sac I called Divorce Court. Each unit was occupied by a lone person, starting over. We waved from the newly poured driveways and didn’t chat. I liked my doors that closed in their frames with no leaks, my kitchen drawers slick with newness. I hung my art, shelved my books, painted the kitchen kiwi green, made stews of curried cauliflower or Moroccan chicken and served them to the boys at the new dining table. Between the three of us, the rhythms were jerky, either hurried or silent. I did not know how to reach them, only how to feed them, hug them, drive them where they needed to be. After they went to their rooms and closed their doors at night, I lay on my new bed in a state of great quiet and bleak business: Oh, remember to put garbage service in my name, remember about health insurance, check that the school has this address.
I’d been there about eight months, my husband and I forging an awkward friendship in which to hold the stunned boys, who moved from my house to the other and back again, week after week. It was August. A long email came from my husband, the title innocuous, the content mostly about music lesson schedules, lawyer information, as we were making our way toward our cordial divorce. “By the way,” I read in the middle, “I just wanted to let you know I told [our eldest] that I’ve started to wear skirts around the house, so that my external self better aligns with my internal self.” I read this sentence several times, noting the opening breeziness, the offhand favor of notice, the delivery of news to our son, and the content of that news itself. The reason, “so that . . .” Each one of these aspects repeatedly broke away from the rest so that I kept failing to integrate the sense of the statement. I called my closest friend, used the name I still called my husband, and read her the sentence he’d written.
We had agreed, my husband and I, to tell the children big things together, to cultivate togetherness in the brokenness, believing we could offer them something to hold on to. We did not consider that we had destroyed their trust. This was a big thing, wasn’t it? Why had our eldest been told first? Was he confused? Could I help him if I was confused? Because, as it seemed to me, my husband had abandoned our agreement, left me out. Angry blood rushed in my ears, and I stumbled over the point. I couldn’t focus. What I knew of him, of us, and counted on as real, collapsed oddly and suddenly. What else did I know, I now asked, that was about to give way?
My friend said, “He’s transitioning.” It is incredible to me that there was a time, just this many years ago, when I did not use this word daily, did not think of this every day. My friend was right, although my husband would take several more months to walk her unique stages of transition, to fully inhabit the newly freed self. I had to remind myself that we were no longer together, not to call her daily. I reminded myself she owed me very little now, when I still felt owed so much. Our divorce final, on better days I chirped to her about our new alliance, how possible things were, good for the boys. The next summer we went with the kids and my new boyfriend and his kids to a Decemberists concert, and we all sat on blankets on the grass, my ex-husband in the place she’d occupied beside me for almost twenty years, wearing a maxi skirt, her feet tucked under the hem. She had that look on her face, from Rome: happy, relaxed. It did not include me anymore, and my heart spasmed with rejection, which I kept to myself. We would do this, make our new selves connect again. But at night I dreamt I drove my car into her front porch—enclosed on all sides by the large windows I’d fallen for before I ever stepped into the house—and through her front door and let the car burst into flame. I did not know why anger engulfed me, why I couldn’t wriggle from its seething grasp. I didn’t recognize myself. Why hadn’t she told me earlier, long ago? “Why, why,” I asked over and over of my friends, my therapist, and myself. “I don’t understand,” I said. I said I wanted to understand, but I didn’t want to. What I wanted was an explanation. I wanted, enraged, to make her explain something she refused to explain and then to apologize to me. I wanted to know why she had waited until I’d left, why she couldn’t ever tell me, why we had labored through years of couples counseling. I wondered, with intense anguish, if I’d loved her badly, if she felt unsafe with me over so many years and had guarded against me. I couldn’t ask her, or even talk to her. We met for coffee and she spoke to me as if we’d just met, while I searched her deep eyes for recognition, but I was no longer held there. My anger was ravenous for answers, anger at having a reality of our marriage revealed to me that I hadn’t known about. The other parts of me went quiet—the compassion, the curiosity, my fierce faith in a person’s right to choose anything she desired—and for this silence I was also furious at her.
This is the story of a masked marriage, the infiltration of a deep, accidental con. We were never going to stay married, good friends though we were, beautifully aligned parents. Not because she is a trans woman, not because I cheated, but, as I see it, because we worked ferociously hard to be together while also adrift, each of us. I cannot explain to my sons, whom we hurt, who hurt still in their twenties, that before they were even born we had unconsciously agreed to Not Know things: you will protect me from having to say the thing I am afraid of. I know, from reading the words my ex posted and blogged, that she felt smothered by masculinity—she felt it when her father insisted on grade-school football; she felt it when I despaired at the disappeared erections and encouraged her to take Cialis. If I’d known that she was a woman, we’d have been in a different shop in Rome, dressing her as she wished to be seen, not as I imagined she wished to be seen. Not as I wished to see her.
After three nights and days of fucking the woman on the business trip, waking and fucking and sleeping and fucking, keeping my phone turned off, I went home, went to bed, waited until the kids left for school, and asked my husband to sit with me on the striped couch. Sunlight came through the plants that lined the southern window. I was sick, knowing that in the next moment I would change our life. Years before my husband had told me, “If you cheat on me, I’ll leave.” I had cheated: the past few days I had shrugged at responsibility and respect, unapologetic and so famished, with no wish any longer to work together. My body was tired from unfamiliar muscles used during sex with an unfamiliar person. I told. I was scared. She looked into my face with the kindness and warmth that had beckoned me from our first conversation and said, “We’ll work it out. We will.” We cried, we embraced, we laughed a bit.
I had cheated, accelerated our open marriage, pushed my husband faster than she was comfortable, but that had always been my necessary role, a reason she loved me. She didn’t like deciding things and had let me take the required stands; now, with her acquiescence, I was free to have sex with someone else, to be naked elsewhere with this new woman who wanted to be naked with me. Within a week I drove to meet her at an off-season resort, gorging on addictive orgasms and the layered perfume, the buttery metallic taste, the wildly different feel of a new lover. I did things I never did and reveled. The old me was shed. I would be only this now, true to my entire self, unhidden and fulfilled.
We were deluded, my husband and I. Perhaps she imagined that my sexual adventures would relieve her of my inspection, and that she could carry on, undetected and safe. I thought this lucky permission—I felt lucky—would solve the hungering that plagued me as I broke sex apart from love. When we had found each other twenty years earlier and fallen in love, we made the bargains required to be a couple. We silenced crucial aspects of identity until we’d forgotten we’d done so. But those selves, muffled for being troublemakers, house-burners, would have their say.
After the weekend with the woman, I drove home to my solid family and special garden, to my husband making risotto for us in the kitchen on Sunday night, to pouring white wine from the fridge and taking it into the bath with me before I came to sit at the table, where our children’s chatter and sly jokes warmed all of us. My husband seemed happy for me. I really thought so. I said thank you. That night we went to bed and held each other, certain that we had found the courage and means to make our marriage stronger.
About the Author
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of two memoirs, Her Last Death and She Matters: A Life in Friendships (Scribner 2008 and 2013). Her creative nonfiction has been included in the anthologies West of 98: Living and Writing the American West (University of Texas Press, 2011) and The Bitch Is Back (Harper Collins, 2016), among others. She lives in Missoula, Montana, where she teaches writing online.