Since her own home fires seemed to roar so warmly, I was hesitant to hit Rachel with news of my breakup, and it is true that her first reaction was a degree of disbelief and horror even more pronounced than everyone else’s in our village of longtime marrieds. “But what about the children?” she wailed. I explained that since their parents had been in parallel motion since they were born, the girls appeared—on the surface at least—to be unfazed. On top of my musician husband’s roadwork, some years I’d logged 200 shows as a theater performer, carrying my babies in buckets to hotel rooms. In addition, when my girls’ cousins—at ages 6, 5, and 2—suddenly lost their mother, through illness, we had done an emergency move-in with my brother for two years (while my husband remained on the road), so my girls were more used to sitting down to dinner with an extended family tribe than with one father and one mother. Now elementary age, my children seem relatively content as long as they remain in their own house, their own beds, and their own school, with Mom and Dad coming and going as usual (and when Dad’s in the house, I pick them up from school every day so they always see me). Their most ardent daily fixations continue to be amassing more Pokémon cards and getting a dog named Noodles to add to their menagerie of five fish and two cats, Midnite and Cuteface.
But it is now our second Girls’ Night dinner since my horrifying announcement, and Rachel has eschewed Ian’s customary wine-club Bordeaux and is mixing some alarmingly strong martinis.
Leaning forward heavily across the bar, she swirls her glass and huskily drops the bomb: “I have to tell you—since we talked, I too have started thinking divorce.” “No!” we girls exclaim. With a stab of nausea, I suddenly feel as though now that I’ve touched my pool of friends with my black pen, a cloud of ink is enveloping them.
“You can’t!” Renata cries. “Ian—he’s the perfect father! The perfect husband! Look at this … kitchen!”
It’s true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian’s contribution to their union. He based the design of the remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course—carpentry being another of his hobbies—he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room’s marvels is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed—the hanging copper pots, the garlic press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker …
“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother—he says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”
The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.
Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.
Rachel had even asked Ian point-blank: “Do you want a divorce?” And Ian said absolutely not—they must show discipline and work at the marriage (again with the work!), since any domestic upset could negatively affect the boys, who were now facing a particularly fraught time at their new school, where they have an extraordinarily challenging roster of extracurricular activities and a quarterly testing schedule.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Ellen, after a moment of gloom. (Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18 years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s, and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys, and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr. Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.)