…is not how the story ends.
The word gobsmack returns a peremptory “No results found,” when you search dictionary.com for its meaning. Okay, no problemo. Here it is, precisely, in my own words. Gobsmack is what your husband of twenty-three years does to you when you sit down opposite him on a Tuesday morning in late October at the breakfast table, and instead of discussing, as planned, the beautiful new space you are about to move your burgeoning young ballet school into—the space you have been looking at, dreaming of, and talking about for weeks, and for which you are about to sign a lease—he says these incomprehensible words to you: I think it’s time we think about a divorce. I think it’s time we think. About. A. Divorce.
Congratulations: you have officially been gobsmacked.
If you could translate this full frontal emotional assault into a physical action it would be tantamount to a whack in the head with a two-by-four. Or maybe evisceration by a Tolkien orc. Or being squished by a freight train, although that one would be more humane because you would never know what hit you, and it would just be over. This is worse because you are not dead; instead you are suffering horribly, and in slow motion. Kinda like road kill that is still alive, a little.
But wait, there’s more. Although you are finding it difficult to breathe, and you feel your knees could never support you if you decided to stand, and it is possible you are suffering a coronary event that might be shaving years off your life in a minute’s time, still you somehow summon the courage to ask him, Is there somebody else? Before he answers this question, you think, No, no way this man, who has been my trusted soul mate (key word there: trusted) and my rock in good times and bad (think, marriage vows), the father of our almost-grown child who is still so needy, dutiful son to his parents as they were ageing and dying, this man, this man would never, ever do that to me; there is some other problem, some inexplicable thing that is causing him to be so unhappy—whatever that is, we can figure it out. And the nanosecond it takes you to think those thoughts is enough for him to quietly nod his head and hold up two fingers. Without looking you in the eye.
It turned out to be many more.
<Insert Very Uncharitable Thoughts here.>
Thank the universe, I come from a long line of very, very strong, sometimes too-willful matriarchs—not all of them blood relatives. On that late October day, the instant he left for work, it was one of them who yanked my ass into gear. I called my mama, herself a veteran ballet teacher, still turning out young dancers destined for the stage even in her advancing years. I was incoherent, which pissed me off, making it still harder to hang on to what shred of composure remained (okay, none). HOW (I demanded through my snotty sobs) was I supposed to stand in front of a class of FIVE-YEAR-OLDS later that day and teach them BALLET? This was a question I had put to my husband moments earlier, and to which he had replied, There was never going to be a good time to tell you. That one statement so beautifully summed up his own character. Good time for whom?
In that one instant with my mom tossing me a lifeline I was reduced to a fifth-grader who was blubbering about turning in a social studies project on time that, in my juvenile estimation, was imperfect. I imagined my mom squaring her shoulders and tightening her grip on the phone. You listen to me, she spat. You are a professional. You get yourself together and go teach those children. THAT is what you will do.
I was talking to a tough-as-nails woman who had already lived this moment in her own life. That is what I did. I taught those children like nobody’s business. My young piano accompanist—who knew what was going on—gave me two thumbs up at the end of class, after I asked her, beseeched her, to tell me truthfully whether it was obvious that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
And then, after the last family left the school and I turned the deadbolt, I came completely, piteously, wretchedly, unglued. The performance had ended; the curtain was down. In so, so many ways.
And I was still standing, sort of.
I am still standing now, in earnest.
This is not how the story ends. It is instead how it begins. I had a moment of clarity recently, outside on a beautiful fall day in New England, a thousand miles away from the Southern city I have called home for three decades, amidst the terror and uncertainty that had followed me here, and it was this: had my husband not delivered that horrible blow about a year ago, had we continued down the path we had been on for some time, I might have wasted the best years of my life, which I am convinced now stretch out before me. In spite of lingering fear and uncertainty, to say nothing of a shrinking checking account and poorly insulated New England cottage home, I am happier than I have been in my life, ever.
And that is really something.