By Lauren Apfel
I woke to the sound of my door rattling against the frame.
“I can’t open it!” my eight-year-old daughter yelled, swiveling the handle back and forth, back and forth again with increasing desperation.
“Give it a shove,” I said, stirring from sleep and assuming the door was simply wedged shut, had warped somehow overnight. “Put a little weight behind it.”
A few beats of time, a thud. But still no movement. So I heaved myself out of bed, before I was ready, more quickly than my back, always a tender thing in the early hours, would have liked and I tried it myself.
The door was in fact stuck, the handle failing to make even the lightest kiss of contact with the latch. And there I was, also stuck, on the inside of my bedroom—my four children on the outside, at large in the house without another adult in sight.
I live alone. Well, I live with my kids 65% of the time. This is a relatively new arrangement; my husband moved out a year and a half ago. We were together for 19 years, we lived together for the best part of 17 of them. Before that, I shared a flat with a friend in London. Before that, some other friends in college. One summer I squatted in my sister’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first and only time I lived by myself. Until now, that is.
At 41 it feels, by many standards, a strange time to be on my own. When I look around, all of my friends are co-habitating as couples. But these, of course, are friends I made when I was married too, friends I met through the dances we do with our little nuclear families. It’s not surprising they are still living the life I once did. With somebody either to be stuck in the bedroom alongside them, as the panic sets in, or there on the other side, ready and willing to break the damn door down.
The hardest thing about divorce, I’ve found, is not the being alone. It’s the being alone, all of a sudden, when most of the people you know and love and rely on have a first port of call that isn’t you. A spouse, an existence that includes you but can’t always prioritise you. It’s made me think a lot about the notion of primary relationships. Their point. Their purpose. When my husband and I were sitting in couples therapy, the two sessions we managed to turn up for, I said to the therapist: I don’t understand what he thinks marriage is for. It seemed a critical question in that moment. I never got a satisfactory answer.
I didn’t call him the day I got locked in my room. Even as it was becoming ever clearer that I couldn’t get out, even as the minutes ticked by to school drop off and my kids started slipping torn bits of paper under the door with scrawled messages like I love you! and We are going to be late! Yay! For the first time in my adult life, my husband was not my first thought in the face of such drama. My kids knew this, instinctively. The last note my youngest son fed through the crack ended with the injunction: “CALL ERIN.”
Which is exactly what I did.
Erin is my closest friend in Glasgow, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years. She is also, often, my first call. I have a handful of other wonderfully strong relationships in my life, I am lucky in that regard. But those people aren’t here. None of them can ferry me to a doctor’s appointment or pick up an extra pint of milk on the way home or spend a Wednesday night at my kitchen table killing a bottle of the plummiest red on offer just because I happen to be a little sad right then. Erin does all of that for me, as I do for her, but the fact is she has a husband too. She has a husband first.
Maria Bello wrote a striking essay about what it means to be a “modern family.” Perhaps what we will do away with, what we are doing away with, she argues, is this idea of a primary partner. It is a hallmark of modern romantic love that we invest heavily in a single chosen person to meet a variety of needs that were, at different points in history, far more dispersed. The spouse was never before the lover and the co-parent and the best friend and the confidant and the person standing next to you at the Mumford & Sons concert. It’s a lot to put on one pair of shoulders.
For Bello, the solution is the functional (and perhaps logical) one of divvying up the roles, of fostering fulfilment through a patchwork of intimacy. Sleep with X, parent with Y, tell your secrets to Z. Maybe you live with one of the letters, maybe you don’t. When the shit hits the fan, and you are trapped in your room with four youngish children climbing the walls on the other side, you can call any of them. Or even the whole lot of them.
I couldn’t get Erin on the phone that morning, but I got her husband, ever reliable. They both came over to spring me. She saw that my kids made it to school on time, ransacked the house for the few tools it held, and fought mercilessly with the door from the outside. He suggested looping a wire hanger around the latch from the inside, a wire hanger I only had lingering in the closet because that’s what my husband used to hang his clothes on. They pushed, I pulled, and, finally, the latch gave way. The door flew open, the three of us looking at each other in amazement—at the fragility of the situation, possibly at the fragility of life itself—and laughing, laughing with relief.
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