We signed the divorce agreement over coffee in the lobby of a hotel in Downtown Brooklyn. And maybe it was the fact that the death of a marriage born eight years before in a flurry of excitement and fun and emotion would occur in the sedate, near-empty lobby of an anonymous Marriott in the midtown of Brooklyn; or maybe it was because endings that come after protracted, painful battles, where nobody really emerges as a winner, almost always feel anticlimactic; or maybe it was just because everyone thinks in clichés as they sign their divorce agreements, but as I wrote my name, I was unable to stop myself from drifting toward the comfort of the most banal of thoughts. I wondered: Could this really be it? And I laughed a little at myself. And I signed the papers. It was over before we even drank our coffee, but that didn't mean we'd let that go to waste.
He reached for my cup in the way he had done countless times before. He stirred the sugar into it before pouring in the cream, like he'd always done. He always put the sugar in first, so it would dissolve better, before the cream cooled the coffee down. He pushed my cup back toward me, but I couldn't drink it. I let it sit there, getting cold. I told him I didn't want it, he looked at me, and suddenly a cup of coffee was a metaphor for our whole relationship, and I realized things could only get better from there. Because he was looking at me as though what I was saying was that I still wanted him, still wanted our marriage, even though I had done everything I could to get out of it. And although up till that point, I'd had no problem being cruel to him, it felt wrong to be that way anymore; it felt wrong to tell him that I didn't want the coffee, that I didn't want the marriage, that I didn't want him. But I didn't drink the coffee.
There was a time when I thought my marriage would never end. I guess everyone thinks that, or wants to think that. I got married on a whim when I was 19, and I wound up feeling trapped by the time I was 26. The first thing anyone asks when you tell them you got married when you were barely 19 is, So you were pregnant? I wasn't. Instead, I was desperate to escape a life that I felt was too far gone to be saved, not realizing the real problem was that it hadn't really started yet. I'd graduated from high school at 16, dropped out of college by the time I was 17, and at 18 was making almost as much money a night tending bar as I would at my first editorial job more than a decade later. I wasn't sleeping enough and I wasn't eating enough and I was putting as many things into my body—none of them meant to sustain me for more than a few hours, none of them very good for me—as I possibly could. And I knew it couldn't last, but I didn't quite know how to make an ending into an escape.
So when I met a man who was so different from everyone else I knew, and who was just enough older (eight years, to be exact) that he was interested in impossibly far-off things like the future, I was suddenly able to imagine a different kind of life, one in which I'd be tethered to someone else in a way that grounded me. At that time, I wasn't so much afraid of being tied down as I was of drifting forever. And so when we drove across the country to get married in Las Vegas, it was wild and it was free and it was crazy, but hidden under all that excitement was the very real part of me that felt relief at the prospect of entering a life of domesticity, of having responsibilities to another person and eventually to even more people. I could see the future, and it looked safe and secure, two things I had never really felt before.
And that was what happened. My future became my present, and it was safe and it was secure. We had two children, three years apart. We had a business together. We lived by a park. We had a life that was only unconventional in that I was a decade—or two—younger than most of the other mothers I met on the playground. But here's a thing that seems obvious in retrospect but still surprised me when it started happening—I grew up. My kids started getting older and went to school. I didn't want to be only a mother anymore. I wanted to finish college. I wanted a career. I wanted all the things that it still stings to think that I didn't think I could have when I was 19, things that I thought wouldn't work out for me, things that I maybe thought I didn't deserve, as if anyone deserves anything. I was safe and secure enough in my new life that I thought I could start building another one, not the one I'd so abruptly cut short so many years before, but something new, something stronger. But this wasn't what my husband wanted. He wanted me to stay home. He wanted to have more kids. He wanted to know pretty much everything I was doing every minute I was doing it. By the time I was 26, I started to feel like my life was stalling again. Instead of worrying that my marriage—that my life—would fall apart, I started worrying about the possibility that it wouldn't. And once I started thinking that way, it was all I ever thought about, until, eventually, it ended.
It ended in a way more popularly used to describe falling in love or going into debt—slowly at first, and then all at once. When you're 26, eight years of anything, but especially of a relationship, feels like a really long time, and maybe it is: two kids, three apartments, four drives across the country, I-don't-even-know-how-many fights and fucks and falling into and out of and back into and out of love again. And then, in the last couple of years, there were the holes punched into walls, into doors, into the cable box; multi-week trips he took to other countries because I told him I couldn't be with him anymore and he thought all I'd need was a little break before coming to my senses; late night drives to nowhere with my kids bundled up and sleeping in their car seats as it became clear that I didn't really have anywhere else to go. Countless times coming back home, defeated, hoping that maybe this time it would be different, knowing that it would eventually go back to being the same.
Our marriage was all of those things, but there were other things too. There was knowing that there was someone else in the world who knew me as well as I knew myself—in some ways better and in some ways worse, but still, it felt like it all evened out in the end. My husband could tell you at just what point in a kiss my jaw would click and that I had to set three alarms for myself—the earliest a good hour before I really needed to wake up—if I had any hope of being on time for anything. He would touch my hair with a softness people reserve only for the things they love the most, the ones they're most afraid of breaking. And he knew exactly how I liked my coffee—with two sugars and a lot of cream. I don't remember the first time he made me coffee, but I do remember when I started to think that he made it for me better than anyone else ever had or ever would. It was when we were driving across the country, on our way to get married, and we stopped at countless truck stops along the way. At the first stop, he hopped out and told me he'd get my coffee for me, that he'd make it just the way he made it for himself, almost-too-sugary and almost-too-light. Before he started making my coffee for me, I hadn't really had one way I drank it. But he made it even better than the magical, toffee-candy style of bodega coffee, and then—just like that—his was the only way I liked to have it, the only way I could drink it for a long time.
When my marriage did end, it was all in one big sweeping crash: There was a broken laptop, there were shattered dishes, there was an accusation flung at me that I had started to fall in love with someone else, and there was the final, damning fact that I didn't deny it, and that I wouldn't, even if I could. But even though it had ended, it didn't really disappear. It still felt, in many ways, like we were on the same road, even if we weren't sitting next to each other anymore. There were the kids, after all. We weren't going to be one of those enlightened divorced couples you hear about now who remain best friends despite not being married—this uncoupling was conscious, yes, but it was also complete—yet we still had to communicate. And there was the divorce itself, which was not what you'd call easy, though in some ways it kept us close. We had to talk a lot, to see each other on opposite ends of a table, each with a lawyer at our side. Even though we were splitting apart, the divorce was one last thing we were doing as a couple, one last thing we shared with nobody else.
It wasn't long after our initial separation that I started to get shooting pains in my chest accompanied by crippling headaches. It was due to stress, yes, but my doctor also asked how much coffee I was drinking. Five or six cups a day, I said. She told me I had to stop. And so I did, for a while. The pains went away. And when, months later, I started drinking coffee again, I mostly drank it black. I couldn't stomach the sweetness anymore. There were a lot of things that changed in the more-than-two years between the time my husband stormed out and when we sat signing our divorce papers—I'd graduated from college, cramming my three unfinished years of undergrad into two; I'd reconnected with old friends that I'd lost touch with during my marriage, and made many new ones; I'd started writing; and then there was the way I drank my coffee.
I couldn't talk to him about any of those things, though, couldn't tell him how I'd changed without him. And so, in that hotel lobby, signing our divorce papers, seeing him make me that coffee, and make it in a way that nobody in my life would have made it for me anymore, was a relief. It was the metaphor I needed, even if I laughed at it. It was permission for me to admit to myself that it was really over, that who he thought I was had disappeared, and now I was only who I wanted to be.
In the years since we sat together over coffee signing our lives with each other away, we've spent a significant amount of time together only once: in a hospital room with our youngest son, who needed to have his appendix removed. It was strange at first, if only because it was so normal. At first, it was not like it had been at the end of our marriage, but rather what it was like at the beginning, when we knew each other better than anyone else did. We sat talking and joking, and there was a part of me that, for a moment, wondered if anything really ends, wondered if it's possible to excise the nightmarish parts of life and just connect the good in it.
And then he left, at one point, while our son was in the operating room. He went to get us coffee. I asked for it black, but he brought me a cup that he'd prepared the way he used to make it, the way he made it for me all those days we spent on the road together and the last day we spent together as husband and wife. I don't know if he had ignored what I'd asked for or if he thought he knew better or if it was just an old habit that had kicked in because of the general uncertainty of the day, but it didn't really matter; I couldn't drink it. I told him I couldn't drink it, that I didn't like it that way anymore. He said I was being ridiculous and that I should just have it, that it was good. I thought for a moment about pouring it down the sink, but gave it to the nurse-on-duty instead, and went out to get my own.