Isabel has been trying to imagine what her life would have been like if she hadn’t divorced Jack.
They were a year out of college when they married. It was 1972, the venue was Fairfax, in Marin County, and the rite wasn’t solemn. It was more serious than Isabel had imagined when she consented to marry Jack in order to live with him, but that was probably owing to the attitudes of family and friends and florist and photographer more than to any awe on the part of the parties. The fact was, they were young and sexy and wanted to sleep together in a big bed and share their post-graduate path.
They lasted ten years. A decade is a lot of time in your twenties, but it’s a mere drop in the bucket of enduring marriage. They were very busy, with apartment furnishing and grad school and then jobs when grad school didn’t work out, the purchase of their boxy house and the customary floor-refinishing and plumbing improvements there, the birth of their daughter Addison and their son Max, the establishment of Isabel’s consulting operation while Jack worked the engineering job. But they still had time to argue, especially in the mornings, and Isabel had plenty of opportunities to achieve a level of frustration that bordered on insanity.
Jack drove her nuts. He’d been an active, funny, cheerful, intelligent, original guy back in eleventh grade, when they first met as new kids in a snobby Marin school. They’d become friends then, sometimes with near-benefits, and they remained friendly at Cal. He was likeable there too, but Isabel was busy being in love with Carl during those years.
Carl. A lanky boyish red-haired fellow one year ahead of Isabel, majoring in English like she was. She thought he wrote like a dream. He was troubled enough to be the tortured artist in the bohemian fantasy she hosted then. They were like gasoline and a match when they first met, he on the periphery of a guy group and she amid a few dormitory friends, sparking into argument whenever they happened to converse. One day the other friends drifted off to classes, leaving Carl and Isabel alone and determined to settle some argument neither of them ever remembered. They started walking and talking and lost track of all else. By the time they arrived at a neighborhood where they could acquire refreshments, their dislike had morphed into attraction. They became a couple.
They were each other’s first lover. She was shy and he was inhibited; they managed to consummate their relationship regularly for the next three years, but the sex was never good. This was around 1970 and both were trying not to be sexually possessive. That meant Isabel experimented with a few other guys. Carl would have done the same except no woman invited him, and he never felt the urge to initiate anything. Isabel learned from other lovers, especially Jack, how much better it could be.
Carl and Isabel broke up when she graduated from Cal. He told her he wanted to have a relationship with another woman before he settled down. By then Isabel had accepted the disappointing sex. She told herself it would get better when they married; probably she wasn’t able to get off because of all the sex-shame her mother had tried – probably deep down that was inhibiting her from really getting into it. For she assumed they’d marry: she had visions of two struggling writers making their way through an eccentric life together.
Carl went out with the ex-girlfriend of a buddy. He told Isabel he’d always been attracted to Anne and she never forgot that. As far as Isabel knows, Carl and Anne dated and did the deed. Then Carl approached Isabel and said he wanted to reconcile.
By then, Isabel wasn’t sure. She’d recommenced sleeping with Jack, and she was enjoying the freedom of those frolics. There was nothing heavy about Jack. In the spirit of herself and the times, she told both guys she was seeing the other, and then flew off to Europe in a charter jet with two girlfriends.
Carl had a psychotic break while she was away. The crisis was triggered by the suicide of his mother, but Isabel later learned that his type of mental illness typically presented when the patient was in his twenties, and the symptoms did appear to be extreme versions of some of his pre-break conditions, qualities that had then been described as tortured or zealous or combative or mischievous.
Isabel got the news by telegram and letters. All from Carl and rocketing from desperate marriage proposals to accusations of abandonment to sober requests that she ignore the previous correspondence. She cut her trip short (a bit – she was low on funds then and had to beg the return airfare from her parents), and flew to Carl in his family home.
She tried to be there for him. She was, for four weeks. She kept telling herself she loved him and they were meant to be together. But she also knew she didn’t particularly like him, and she had a hard time with the way his father and sisters leaned on her. The visit was just too heavy. And it became oppressively so after Carl’s father took her aside and earnestly begged her to take care of his son.
Returning home, of course she saw Jack. She told herself she didn’t love Jack but she certainly liked him. She spent several confused weeks in that state before she admitted that she wanted to be with Jack and not with Carl.
They were married three months later. And divorced eleven years after that. The first was Jack’s idea and the second was Isabel’s. She’d had the idea in the sixth and seventh years of their union too, but it grew into a decision in 1983.
Why? Simply put, Jack was no longer fun. But the simple answer is never complete. The full answer had to do with his cold mother and mute father, and the hole in his heart that he tried to mend with mating. Isabel used to wonder what happened subsequent to the “happily ever after” that ended most fairy tales; she suspected that there were future fears and foibles worse than the challenges of the tale. Apparently Jack assumed that happily ever after really was the end, because once he acquired his bride he stopped striving, learning, and creating. He must have concluded that if he made sure Isabel got what she wanted, she’d stay with him and never stop loving him.
He became a nonperson in their home and a nonparticipant in their plans. They as a couple exhibited whatever mood Isabel happened to be hosting.
Isabel thinks that relationship dynamic can work for some couples. She knows it didn’t work for her. She didn’t enjoy all the emotional responsibility. But mostly she mourned the absence of a partner. She became increasingly frustrated. That led to regular yelling. No matter what she tried she appeared demanding and discontent, and he seemed browbeaten and resentful.
She was turning into a monster, in her eyes. She was concluding that she’d take lonely over crazed. Several times she came close to leaving the marriage, but single working parenthood was an intimidating future. When Bill swooped in and proposed they be each other’s second spouse, she consented. They stayed together for seven years.
Their marriage was swamped by stress and addiction. As Isabel said after Bill left (this time the divorce was not her idea – she’d never claim she had been happy, and Bill might have been correct when he accused her of not loving him enough – but she argued that because so many were hurt in order for them to get together, they owed it to their family and selves to try a little longer), all she got out of that second marital foray was escape from her first union and lessons in how to live with nonstop stress.
Jack found his second wife right around the time that Isabel and Bill broke up. Any chance for Jack/Isabel reconciliation was rendered impossible by that romance. Not that such a reconciliation was likely; Jack was still boring (and angry) and Isabel was still driven (and irked).
But what if Jack and Isabel had re-upped then? Or failed to divorce in the first place? Isabel knows how their paths played out over the ensuing thirty-five years. Now she’s trying to imagine how those years might have been, otherwise.
Would Jack have retired? Would Isabel have written? Would they have traveled? Moved? Cared for a dog?
She thinks the answers are no, no, no, no, yes.
Isabel is such a nester she has a touch of agoraphobia. She loved that first house. She would have cleaved unto it. And she liked the stimulation of travel, but hated to make the plans or leave home. Given that Jack’s life purpose seemed to be keeping her happy, Isabel thinks he would have coddled and indulged her nesting urge, and never pushed or planned a big outing. As if happened, she moved out of the first house because Bill moved in and couldn’t stand the ghost of Jack there, sold the second house after she and Bill broke up and then seventeen years later, having learned how stimulating a move is and having emptied the house of kids and pets, she made the last and most complicated move on her own and for herself. As it happened, friends occasionally invited Isabel to travel with them, and she mostly consented, so she saw much of the country and the world.
Jack concentrated on trying to keep his second wife happy. He may have tried even harder than he did with Isabel. There’s no evidence that he loved the second wife more, but the chronic depression in him – the quiet sadness that no one in school with him ever saw – became acute during the years between his marriages, and he was terrified about a relapse. His second wife was more agoraphobic than Isabel – she didn’t want to leave home AND had no friends except Jack – so Jack never traveled. Not with wife, not with kids, not even alone.
As far as Isabel knows, he retired in an effort to please his wife. He was employed as an engineer for a large firm and he said he couldn’t take the business travel any more. It didn’t hurt that his widowed mother had just passed, leaving him a comfortable estate. He turned away from the stimulation of the city and coworkers and the satisfaction of accomplishment, to stay home with his wife and watch cable television.
Isabel thinks Jack would not have retired if they’d remained together. She can imagine his complaints about the travel, but she established her own consulting business when they were still married and she was making a decent living by the time they split up; in the same way that Jack supported her during the first year of her self-employment, she would have staked him while he shifted to a different job.
As far as she can imagine, if she and Jack had lasted, they’d still be in the first house. They would have made substantial changes to it, but they wouldn’t have changed their address. They probably would have taken the kids camping. She doubts they would have done long road trips, let alone international flights. She’s sure they wouldn’t have booked any of the cruise vacations she has enjoyed.
Somewhere along their line they would have taken on at least one dog. Alone Isabel and the kids did. Jack and his wife did not.
And Isabel thinks she would have found a way to love Jack again. She thinks that, because she can’t imagine living through thirty-five years of hate. By the end of their marriage, she was hosting little fantasies about Jack’s death. She didn’t wish him pain or grief, but she was attracted to the idea of having him out of her life, and the cultural approval of widowhood.
It wasn’t good for her, to be getting into bed every night with a man whose face she hated. That was one of the conditions which helped her leave their marriage. Even now, when she sees a picture of Jack, she experiences a visceral shift to revulsion. Then again, he really let himself go. He used to be active and fit. Never classically handsome, in his youth Jack sported a genuine smile. Now he is age-spotted, hunched over, sedentary and out of shape. He is a grumpy bitter curmudgeon. At sixty-eight he has aged more than Isabel’s ninety year old mother. And his sense of humor has atrophied along with everything else.
When she began the thought problem, of imagining what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t divorced, Isabel thought the journey might bring her around, past paths of regret, to a conclusion that maybe she should have stuck it out. But the characters arrayed in her imagination are different from those she anticipated. Jack-of-the-enduring-marriage is an agreeable man, sweet to descendants, generally quiet, always ready to go along with his wife’s plan. Isabel-of-the-same-marriage is abrupt, busy, often petulant, frequently dissatisfied. A witness would like him and not her. One might even think Jack’s only flaw was his willingness to put up with her.
That’s precisely how Jack’s parents had always appeared to Isabel! She is momentarily stunned by enlightenment. She had loved her father-in-law, only wondering why he married and then stayed with Jack’s bitch of a mom. She’d hated her mother-in-law. Isabel didn’t even believe in hatred, but if there were two people so mean-spirited that her dislike for them rose to that word, those two were her mother-in-law and a second cousin named Nancy.
Neither Jack nor Isabel ever intended to mimic an ancestor’s marriage. And their eleven years together weren’t enough to reveal whose marital genes dominated. But as Isabel types this closing paragraph, she realizes with confidence that, if she and Jack had persisted, their union would have replicated the dynamics and resulted in the separate bedrooms of his folks.