TW: brief discussion of self injury and not-quite-suicidal thoughts
Five years ago this Friday, I started dating the woman who would be my wife.
Two years ago today, I married the woman I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with.
One year ago today, she asked for a divorce.
Today, I’m half a country and worlds away from where I was last year, and I’m doing so amazingly well.
Things all work out.
But what happened?
Thinking back over this past five years, it mostly feels like a dream, a hazy distant memory stretched like thin cobwebs in my brain.
I first met my would-be wife on OKCupid, less than a week after my last (brief) relationship had ended.
Up to that point, I had exclusively dated guys, but I had recently come out as pansexual to my parents when I started dating my ex boyfriend who was trans. Honestly, the whole trans thing just confused them, but my parents were happy they could still say I had a boyfriend.
But, while I was at home for a month before I moved to Chicago after grad school, I gave my parents the heads-up that I was interested in “dipping my toes into the lady-pond.” I was over dudes for a while, and thought I owed it to myself to at least “try” dating women.
They sighed. “But you’re still interested in men, right? You’re not a lesbian or anything, right?”
I assured them I still really liked dudes, explained pansexuality (which confused them with the discussion of non-binary gender identity) but I just wanted to do this right now.
I was sick of all of the disgusting messages I got from guys on OkCupid (this was before Tinder) and, listing myself as “bisexual” (the only option at that time on OKC) left myself wide open for lewd requests for threesomes and “you probably just haven’t met the right dick yet” comments.
So I changed my sexuality over to “lesbian” just to make them stop.
My now ex wife messaged me, and I was immediately captivated. She described herself as a “soft butch” who liked writing (erotica, mostly) and was raised partly by her Kentuckian grandfather so she was a bit of a “southern gentleman.”
When I confessed my awkwardness, she said, “I like shy people and making girls blush. That might be my favorite thing about meeting new girls.”
She was so charming and sweet and interesting and magnetic. We discussed animals and family and Red Vines licorice and coming out stories. She was nine years older than me, but that didn’t seem to matter.
We stayed up late into the night talking on the phone, me crouched on the arm of my bedroom chair in my parents’ basement, straining to get cell phone service (I called it “owling”) and she, lying on a bench outside the school across the street from her apartment. She still lived in her studio apartment with her ex girlfriend, even though they had broken up nearly a year before. She had slept on her couch for that whole time.
She had a nice voice. Super feminine and inviting.
I was moving to Chicago in a few weeks’ time, and we were both excited to meet.
We had planned on meeting the afternoon after I moved in, but I was too excited. I asked if we could meet up that night.
She later confessed that she was already in bed when I had suggested that, but she hopped in the shower and caught a cab (even though she couldn’t afford it) so she wouldn’t be sweaty on that humid summer night in early August when we first met.
Walking down the stairs in front of my apartment, I tripped. I had warned her I was clumsy, and she told me she loved awkwardness.
She smiled and greeted me warmly and hugged me. She had told me that her mother always gave her the assignment of giving 31 hugs a day, and that was kinda her thing.
All of a sudden, I felt the realization that I had never been on a date with a woman before. I had kissed a few, always fueled by drunken nights and awkward fumbles, but never a lesbian.
She suggested we walk to a bar called T’s in Andersonville…”GirlsTown” they called it. Where the lesbians went.
So there, on my first night living in the big city, she and I walked, gingerly hand in hand, through the muggy, darkened streets of Chicago, down quiet boulevards through sleepy neighborhoods.
At the bar, we had drinks and, for some completely inconceivable reason, I decided to clean out my wallet and show her everything that was in it, telling her about each coffeehouse loyalty punch card and business card.
And she followed suit.
We bared our souls by the contents of our junk.
I was the embodiment of awkward.
With a healthy buzz, we slowly walked back to my apartment. I paused by the side of a brick building and closely examined the vine that was stuck to it, fascinated by the little tiny tendrils with pads that affixed it to the wall.
And somehow, my kooky nature endeared myself to her.
Our first kiss was that night, up against the brick wall with iron bars of a cemetery. Her lips were the softest thing I had ever felt, and I felt her soul pour into mine.
And T’s closed within the year. It crossed my mind later that was strangely foreboding.
We quickly started dating. She had been seeing several other girls when we met, but the night we first saw each other in person, she told them all that she had met someone special.
I told my parents, and they accepted the fact, but were hesitant about it. They held out the hope that I would one day date a guy again. I hadn’t told my extended family. I knew that some of them would take it even harder than my parents. I wouldn’t mention it unless things got serious.
And things did get serious. Within a year, we had moved in together. (Which is forever in lady-couple terms.) She was the first partner with which I had ever cohabitated. It had always seemed so risky because relationships are so fragile, and if it goes south, you’re both screwed with your living situation.
But with her, it seemed like the natural next step. A logical progression.
With her, everything seemed natural. We had the same dark sense of humor, she was the extrovert to my introvert. We both even owned actual physical CDs of Europop giants Eiffel65 and Aqua. We both loved cats. We both loved weird and depressing movies. We had the same taste in furniture.
She knew I loved penguins, and soon into our relationship, she gifted me a small snow globe with penguins in it from the Shedd Aquarium. She confessed she had bought it for me before she had even met me in person.
And we called ourself Forever Penguins. “Pengwans” actually.
Everyone gushed about how adorable we were. How perfect. One called us her “OTP” (fanfic talk for “one true pair.”)
We did everything together when I wasn’t working or on my miserable commute. It did kind of wear on me, though. I was an introvert who liked my alone time, and she claimed because I was gone so much, she wanted all the time with me she could get. If given the option to go out with friends or stay home with me, even if I urged her to go ahead, she wouldn’t.
It was codependent and I didn’t really like it but I also felt guilty.
I had been off my antidepressant/anti anxiety pills for a while after grad school, but I had begun to realize that the scary feelings were back with a newfound fury. I spent weeks home from work, so nauseous from the anxiety and numb from the depression, trying to figure out my correct meds and dosage.
And she was there for me. When I was too sad or ill to move, she would bring me a cheese stick and some juice.
“I know you may not feel like eating this, but just try to have a couple sips of juice of you can, okay?”
And she would kiss my forehead and cheek and tuck me into bed snugly with so much love and care. She had spent a lot of her life caring for her mom who has struggled with severe mental illness. She had witnessed the devastation of mental illness on people she had loved for years.
And I would cry because I knew I didn’t deserve her. What did I do for her? I was selfish and sad and sometimes a bitch, and she was always so even-keeled and warm and sweet.
With my medication came a rapidly decreasing libido. I had always felt less confident being with a woman, but this aspect of our relationship had ground to a halt.
Where was that magical moment, early on in our relationship, in which we were caught in my car during a downpour in front of her apartment, so I climbed onto her lap and we made out to the sound of the pounding rain on the car roof?
I knew they were possible with her because I felt those movements of electricity before. But it had been so long.
I felt so guilty. I loved her, and I wanted her to know I did, but I didn’t want to do anything sexual. Even the thought of it with anyone, male or female, even the hottest people I could think of, made me feel sick. I hated being touched. It was devastating to me, because I had always been an extremely physical person with previous partners. And she somehow felt it was her fault. That it was her specifically that I didn’t want.
I felt so guilty that sometimes I would use my fingernails to tear at the skin on my stomach and my thighs, a remnant of self-injurious tendencies. And she would hold me as I bawled, and restrained my wrists as I struggled to punish myself, kissing my tears and telling me it was okay. She loved me no matter what. She wanted to be with me no matter what.
I settled into a deep depression. Life was a never ending cycle of waking up, driving at least two hours through Chicago traffic to work in the suburbs, spending 8-12+ hours at work and then commuting home. I would collapse onto the couch or in bed, watch a couple of episodes of a television show with her while we ate dinner, and then go to bed and do it all over again.
Nothing was new or exciting. I was just existing. It was exhausting and utterly defeating. I didn’t want to kill myself, but at the same time, I didn’t really feel like there was much of a point to living.
And here, during this slog of an existence, she asked me to marry her anyway.
She begged me to talk to my doctor and see about changing my medication, but I was too scared. I knew what it felt like to be improperly medicated, but I was in denial that I was already improperly medicated.
But she told me that, in mental illness and in health, she knew that she wanted to spend the rest of my life with me. I was her Forever Pengwan.
My life was a cycle of numbness and guilt and regret and gratefulness.
I’ve never been interested in weddings. In high school, when my friends would drool over wedding magazines, I rolled my eyes. I knew that I never wanted a white dress. I hated ceremony and tradition. I wanted pink hair and a black dress and high top Chucks.
If it were up to her, we would have had a huge, lavish wedding with tons of sparkles and spectacle and guests, but our budget dictated something much smaller. And I didn’t want spectacle. I didn’t want to be seen.
I barely did any of the wedding planning. I knew I wanted feathers instead of flowers. I liked black and teal. That was it.
My apathy frustrated her.
I just wanted to elope, but I knew it would hurt my family.
We ended up having a small ceremony with just our immediate family in attendance, officiated by our best friend.
We had a slightly larger reception, with 70 of our closest family and friends.
With our RSVPs, we had the guests check “chicken” or “beef.”
We served Hamburger and Chicken Nugget Happy Meals and Mexican Coke and Fanta and Sprite in the glass bottles with real cane sugar.
And I wore a black dress and had pink hair and wore black studded high-top Chucks.
And she wore a suit tailored by a friend with patent leather high-top Chucks.
Our first dance was to Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley.
It was sweet and joyful.
But, looking back on our wedding photos, I seem kind of off. Still stained with depression, trying to peek its way out my eyes. An underlying sadness.
There were still good days. Days when I felt nearly normal, days when we goofed around, when we were delighted in each others’ company, so in love. So grateful that we were going to be together forever.
We joked about how we were going to have cane sword fights in the nursing home, and how we would change each other’s diapers if it came to that.
And she told me that if I died before she did, she didn’t think she could possibly ever remarry. She didn’t know how she could go on without me.
We talked about all these things, and, as we prepared for my usual summer away from her because of my work, things were no different. She publicly gushed about me on Facebook through April and May, and, less than a month into my three month contract, 770 miles away from each other, she stopped talking to me.
There was a sudden, marked shift.
When I did get her on the phone, she talked about her sexual frustration. We had sex once in the nine months we had been married, and I felt so incredibly guilty and broken.
I had often struggled with the question of opening up our marriage so she could see other women. Only for sex, not for romance.
But then I worried about losing her. Just being my best friend, my “roommate,” wasn’t enough.
But I could tell that an ultimatum was coming. I could see the end, despite our vows, despite her promises that she would be with me no matter if things never got better.
In desperation through a tearful conversation in my little motel room I called my home over the summer, through bad cell phone reception, I caved.
“If…you think it could…save us…….I want you to see other women…” I gasped through sobs and frantic breaths, hardly believing what I was saying.
“Thank you.” She replied, so even and unfeeling. A complete stranger on the other end.
Almost as soon as the words left my mouth, I began to regret them.
This just sealed my fate. Once she got a taste of what she was missing, she would surely leave me. But I loved her enough to try.
And less than 48 hours after I had opened our marriage, I had closed it again.
She had already slept with two women.
And she later confessed she had continued to sleep with one of them after I had closed it back up.
I kind of figured it would happen anyway.
She was already gone.
I spoke with my boss and explained the situation. She told me that, if I needed to leave, they would figure out how to cover my position. Family is more important than any job.
I brought this up with my wife, and she told me not to bother. It wouldn’t matter anyway.
So I took it upon myself to get healthy. I made an appointment with a local doctor and therapist and began the task of changing medications and formulating a plan of action for whatever was awaiting me when I got back to Chicago.
She wouldn’t straight up say it. When I asked if she wanted a divorce, she would just tell me that she wanted to wait to talk with me in person.
Everything about her was different. I was no longer talking to the woman I married. I didn’t recognize this person, so cold and distant. Like a switch had been flipped and revealed some alternate reality. There was no warmth and love. Just unfeeling indifference. And it stung like a open-palmed slap in the face.
I arrived back to Chicago a few days before our first wedding anniversary. She greeted me like her estranged old aunt, woodenly.
I told her that I had been looking up marriage counsellors and sex therapists. That I had been on a new medication for over a month and I was doing well and starting to perk up a bit, and I thought maybe my libido was returning.
She told me about the women she had seen.
We awkwardly existed in the same apartment. It was so hot, and only one bedroom had an A/C unit, so we slept in the same bed. She tried to get me to have sex with her. She asked me to make out with her.
After a few days of vague discussions, we decided to go to IHOP as an ironic first wedding anniversary dinner.
And it was at that shitty IHOP that she told me that no amount of counseling would change her mind about us. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a divorce. The sooner, the better.
She told me that she had “fallen in love with a woman this summer: myself” and that she realized she had been trying to make me happy for years at her own personal expense. That she never should have married me. That she had doubts before the wedding.
And then, she handed me her phone. “Go ahead, swipe for me.”
She had Tinder open on her phone, and wanted me to choose her next girl.
She wanted to bring home these girls to our apartment. Our home for the past two and a half years. Our home, filled with everything we had chosen with each other. Our IKEA furniture. Our two fur babies DoomKitty and Winchester. Our collection of DVDs. Our photos of ourselves together. She wanted to bring these girls home and into our life we had built together.
And she couldn’t understand why I was so upset.
We had six months left in our lease, and initially, I thought maybe we could do it. I could work in Chicago for one more season, and we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a subletter. It was a large two bedroom apartment, and we had basically been “living as best friends” for years. But when I realized the incredible depth of her new surprising insensitivity, I knew I couldn’t.
Within a month, I had given my notice at my job, found another temporary job halfway across the country, packed up all of my belongings and the cat I “won” in our separation, and brought them to my parents’ home in Michigan.
I could have stayed in Chicago if I really wanted to. But my entire existence in Chicago was encapsulated by her. From my very first day to my last, there was always her. My Chicago didn’t exist outside of her.
I’m still not entirely convinced it does.
The healing was slow, especially complicated by the fact she had great difficulty finding a new roommate and that was the only way I could get my name off the lease.
We had to remain in contact and we resented each other: me for continuing to pay for her to live alone for months and my requests to get my name off our joint bank account and her for my nagging about it.
And every time we spoke, it would pick that scab off my wounds and expose my still raw flesh underneath.
She was able to find an affordable divorce lawyer who drew up some paperwork for us. With no property or money or children to argue over, it was a relatively simple and painless process. I didn’t even need to show up in court.
The divorce was finalized this March, and we no longer had any obligations to each other.
The last time I heard from her was a text the day before my 30th birthday this May. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have phone signal tomorrow,” she explained.
We’ve unfriended each other from all social media, but I will admit that I take a peek at what I can view publicly every once in a while.
I know she’s got a new lady in her life. One who looks even younger than me.
She seems to be having a good time.
I don’t think I cross her mind much anymore.
And to be honest, neither does she.
But today was a special day, and, in writing this, I’ve forced myself to confront everything once again. I’ve been half expecting to hear from her today, but mostly hoping I don’t.
This was all a huge blessing in disguise.
Even though we adored each other, on the other side I realize our relationship wasn’t exactly healthy. We had very different goals and outlooks on money and didn’t have healthy boundaries.
While I felt a deep, loving connection with her, I never felt the true spark of passion I have had with other partners.
If we were both mentally healthy at the same time, do I think we could have made it?
I think we could have. Maybe.
But is there something better out there for me?
At any rate, this past year has been one of growth, health both emotionally and physically, of introspection, of exploration, of professional accomplishment, and healing.
My skin is no longer pink and raw, but it has healed over. There’s still scars that will always remind me of what I have experienced, but I can live with them.