The Blameless Divorce

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BY SARAH IVENS MOFFETT

The resentment with which Suzie viewed her husband was all-consuming. If he dared to glance at his phone, or pick up a newspaper or, God forbid, if his arse ever touched a couch when she was doing housework or dealing with the baby, the eyeball rolling would start, swiftly followed by barked instructions.

“You lazy bastard. Don’t you think I’d like to read a bloody newspaper? I haven’t read a fucking book in a year,” she’d yell, while the child, who was invariably in her arms, a clingy limpet when it came to her mother, would continue sniveling.

“What do you want me to do?” he’d ask robotically every time she kicked off, jaw locked, eyes as black as the coffee they had both been forced to mainline since Stella’s arrival.

“Help, Miles!” she’d bite, fury erupting from her contorted mouth, child gripping onto the grubby fleece pajamas that had become her uniform, their colors faded and worn out. “Just help! I shouldn’t have to ask. This isn’t the fucking 1950s.” She wasn’t asking, she was shouting hysterically, but he knew better than to point that out. Last time he had she’d called his mother, half ventilating with dramatic sobs, and he’d had to endure an ear-bashing from her too.

Miles was well-trained in the art of taking her shit now. She’d try to start a fight most evenings and every weekend. Home wasn’t a sanctuary. It didn’t even feel like a home anymore, just a house he slept in at night. He’d long ago stopped imagining weekends away from the cubicle dullness of his office — the politics, the stress, and the vile canteen lunches — would mean freedom to be himself and relax. Or to have fun. When he’d asked Suzie to marry him six years ago, she had been fun. And he’d always loved kids, so he imagined having a child thrown into the mix would only make life more fun. He’d been wrong. His stomach now cramped in constant knots of fear, waiting for his wife’s next pounce.

Suzie had changed the minute she lost the first baby, two years into their marriage. She’d become jealous and odd, crying in supermarkets and refusing to socialize with anyone who was pregnant or had young children. This was limiting. Most of their closest friends were in their mid-30s and coupled up, so Miles often went to gatherings without her, for a couple of hours respite from her gloom. He’d explain away her absence by muttering a few words — work, headache, hangover. His friends would hand him a beer and then gossip as soon as he was out of earshot that there were clearly problems in his marriage. The women blamed Miles and his insensitivity. The men thanked their lucky stars they weren’t attached to a high-maintenance banshee like Suzie.

Pregnant for the second time after an unenjoyable two years of strictly regimented sex on specific days in specific ways and lots of pissing on sticks, the heavy coat of grief she’d worn since she lost the first baby still hung around Suzie’s shoulders. The entire nine months were filled with nightmares and urgent calls to the doctor. She couldn’t feel movement. There was a spot of blood. Her ankles were swollen. Nothing was wrong and Stella arrived, pink and squealing, on her due date. Perfect. Warm and solid. Presented to Miles like a little glowworm he’d thought, wrapped tightly from top to toe, while Suzie was being stitched up. He’d held Stella first. This moment had helped him fall in love instantly, but had wedged something new, something foreign, between him and Suzie that they would never be able to get rid of.

This first year of Stella’s life had been awful. It didn’t help that the baby refused to sleep and was constantly hungry. Suzie, an academic who was trained to over-research everything, knew that breast was best so martyred herself by enduring those dark, lost hours alone. She’d slump, in the tiny room that used to be her office, her books now boxed up and out of the way in the loft, exhausted and not seeing an end to it, a baggy shirt pulled up over one grotesquely swollen tit, then the other. Every night, as moonlight shone in stripes through the wooden blinds and onto the suckling piglet with her husband’s nose, Miles snored in the bedroom next door, oblivious to these nocturnal trials. “Fucking hog,” she’d mutter into her daughter’s cradle cap. “Useless twat.”

They’d met on a rare, hot summer’s day when Suzie was in a rare, good mood. A paper she’d labored over for a couple of months, “The Return to the Motherland: How women represent home and the impossible dream of a safe haven in Greek literature”, had been approved for a panel on Homer at a humanities conference in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a big deal for her career and standing at the university, and she’d been awarded funding. She’d decided, on that happy, hot summer’s day, to make a road trip out of it. She’d have a week of talking and driving, discovering new places and new people, tacking on a weekend in New York City at the end to catch up with a second cousin who had moved to the States to write for a magazine and slut around Manhattan.

Miles had noticed her immediately, smiling to herself on the packed commuter train as it pulled out of Paddington despite the fact she was wearing a long-sleeved Breton top and skintight jeans in the intolerable heat. Feeling confident, himself boosted by a recent promotion to marketing director at his advertising agency at the impressive age of 29, and just home from a week of successful flirting and pulling in Ibiza, he decided to make a move. She was unusually friendly and receptive — for her, not that Miles knew that then — and he loved that she wasn’t covered in a thick coating of makeup like most of the women he came across. In turn, she instantly adored the fact he was confident — the academics she surrounded herself with generally shuffled around her awkwardly — and clever enough to realize that it probably wasn’t the book she was pretending to read, the rather turgid Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, that was making her grin. He disembarked at Reading station with her number tucked into the pocket of his  unbuttoned-at-the-neck pale pink shirt and a date for that Saturday night in his diary.

At this point, he could not have suspected that this lively, chatty woman had had a history of depressive episodes since her early teens, and a melancholia that had erupted during the final year of her PhD three years earlier, when stress — and the discovery that her great-grandmother had been locked up in a mental institute and sterilized, her grandmother abandoned — had led to an intense period of isolation, contemplation, drinking vodka out of plastic pint glasses and sawing at her still-scarred arms with purple tweezers.

“I’m pregnant,” Suzie announced on a Monday morning as they passed in the kitchen, two days after Stella’s first birthday. Their toddler sat, quietly for once, in front of Nutella on toast and a Peppa Pig cartoon. Sugar and television, two things Suzie had sworn she’d never rely on before she became a mother. “I’ve been feeling shit for a couple of weeks and now I know why.”

Miles, who had been eagerly racing towards the front door, stopped abruptly. The space between them, across the granite island they’d had installed a few years earlier when they still believed they’d be that couple who hosted impromptu, informal soirees with friends, felt huge and thick. Miles knew the expected thing to do would be to rush towards his wife, hold her belly, which contained his child, and kiss her. He’d done this with the first baby, and he’d done this when he’d found out she was carrying Stella. But today he just stood there, leather satchel in one hand, car keys in the other, regretting the quick, nostalgic shag they’d had the day she’d got back from visiting her cousin in Los Angeles. She’d been sun-kissed and relaxed, almost back to the Suzie he’d first dated, after four nights of sleep, and he could sense she wanted to reward him for allowing her this slither of childfree indulgence. It had to have been then. That was the only time they’d done it in a year. Since the C-section had left her a body distorted by pouches and puffiness she’d rejected all of his physical advances. He stared at her face for a clue as to what he was supposed to say.

“And you’re happy?” he asked, tentatively.

“Ecstatic, darling. Of course,” she lied. “And you?”

“Of course,” he lied. Before they were married, they’d snuggle in front of numerous pub log fires and choose names for multiple children. They agreed they wanted four. “I’ve got to get going. Early meeting. I’ll call you at lunchtime.” He wouldn’t.

As he was pulling away from the house, his phone lit up. His mother.

“Suzie told me the news last night. A baby is just what you two need to sort yourselves out. Just don’t muck it up. Try for once in your life to be a grown-up. An adult, Miles. You’re not being asked to do more than is expected of any modern man. Pull your weight.”

He stared at the long road ahead, the grey pavements and grey clouds that would lead him to his grey office. Oxford, with its honey domes and caramel cobbles, was only five miles from their stained glass front door, but his company appreciated cheap rent over architecture that left you breathless so had rented 1,200 square feet of carpet tile in an eyesore of an industrial estate 11 miles towards Gloucester.

“Are you listening, darling?” His mother was Surrey’s very white version of Oprah Winfrey, something of a ringleader amongst her suburban set of entitled middle-aged, middle-class navel gazers in Jigsaw cardigans who spouted anti-male rhetoric whenever they could. At her book club, at her meditation school, while supping expensive lattes. All paid for by Miles’ dad, the worn-down Derek. “Suzie will really need you now.” She ended the call with an abrupt goodbye, shrilling something about a yoga class, and Miles decided in that moment, as he flipped on the windscreen wipers so he could see through the sudden downpour, to ask the 28 year old who’d been aggressively catching his eye over the last few months out for a drink that evening. He just needed a gin and tonic and a conversation with no judgement or yelling; just something to remind him his life wasn’t awful. No sex. It wasn’t the sex he missed.

It turned out this brunette lifeline, Guinevere, was newly-married and also feeling trapped. The panic attacks had started on her honeymoon in Mauritius. She’d press her fevered forehead against the Italian marble tiles of the cavernous bathrooms in the five-star hotel and dare herself to scream. But she never did. She just panted. She felt herself floating away, imagining herself as a tiny island on a big, dying planet, unable to anchor herself to anything, losing control. And she’d keep panting. “But I need to do a year,” she told him, as if talking about a prison term, through fast slugs of Pinot Grigio at the wine bar near the office where all the work-related dalliances seemed to take place, “so my parents don’t flip out about the white wedding for the ridiculous amount of people I insisted on inviting and how much it cost them. They need to save face, just for a bit longer.” They had sex that night in their office’s disabled loo. She had condoms in her handbag, a fact that would make him feel dirty when he looked back on that night a decade later. Those condoms, so quickly sprung from her Radley purse before they’d even kissed, made him feel less special and more like an interchangeable done deal, looking back. At the time he was just grateful that the gin and tonic and conversation had led to something he did, in fact, miss.

Guinevere wasn’t too demanding to begin with, even allowing him to cancel their regular Tuesday night screw to go home and comfort Suzie when she miscarried their child two months later, at 13 weeks and two days, on their chestnut dining room floor. She even asked how her rival was the following morning when Miles arrived, red-eyed and jittery, at the office. She didn’t think to ask how he was; everyone knew these losses were all about the mother — even mistresses.

Neither Suzie nor Miles were very upset at losing a child this time. This was a piece of cake compared with the first miscarriage. Susie secretly thought the fetus had taken one for the team, disposing of itself to give her the freedom to dispose of her useless and unfaithful — she suspected — husband. Miles secretly thought this meant they were both borderline sociopaths who didn’t deserve to be parents. But that night, although tears weren’t shed and words weren’t spoken, they still needed to be near each other, to mourn this quietly violent ending. They sat down next to each other, leaning against the oak sideboard Suzie’s mother had donated when they first set up house, fully clothed, Suzie’s skirt damp with blood, and grieved for the honesty and youthfulness and spontaneity they’d extracted from each other. Miles moved back into his childhood bedroom the next night. His mother admonished him while serving his favorite meal — shepherd’s pie. He asked for a second helping while his father busied himself loading the dishwasher. His appetite had returned. He’d done the right thing.

Eight years after the divorce, Suzie would find herself happy again, her confidence returned through a fulfilling work life and a handful of good, decent women who she could count on, paid for and otherwise. The fog she had often lost herself to in the past quickly dispersed now she had a routine she could control. Her books were out of the loft, dusted and re-read on the decadent Sunday afternoons when Miles took Stella out for the day. She realized on one of these occasions, in the bath with Flaubert slightly soggy in her hands, that she was happy. This shocked her, and made her even happier.

Stella was also content and doing well at school. Her mother-in-law had warned her the divorce would be the death knell to good exam results but she was wrong, as she so often was. Suzie had gone one step further than helicopter parenting and had decided to be Suzie’s best friend. “A child needs a mother, not a partner in crime,” her mother Elizabeth would regularly warn her, outraged that from Stella’s seventh birthday onwards the duo had weekly pedicures and cappuccino dates. “She needs to know who is in charge, not how to look pretty. I thought I raised a feminist.” Miles’ mother, always looking for a reason to get one over on Elizabeth, who she saw as a rival and threat, jealous of the fame she garnered as a novelist of “not even very good” romantic sagas, advised Suzie to ignore her, and treated her and her granddaughter that Christmas to a spa weekend, complete with makeovers. That same Christmas she’d given Miles a brushed steel handheld mirror “to take a good, hard look” at himself in. He saw a heavier jowl, dark circles under his eyes and the shadows of defeat.

A sex life was non-existent for Suzie since her divorce. She hadn’t done it since Miles had got her pregnant the last time, the day she’d returned from Los Angeles. But she’d been to an Ann Summers party the previous summer and bought a vibrator, telling the party host, the rather brash but fun mother of Stella’s best friend Jessica, who’d looked like she was being strangled by a feathery boa festooned with metallic penises, that she’d never use it but felt she had to “join in the spirit of the occasion.” This turned out to be a lie. She hadn’t stopped using it, especially on Sunday afternoons when Stella was with her father. She was even thinking of submitting an article to a feminist journal about why the Rabbit should replace a man. Jessica, who had become a friend, despite them having little in common except an overwhelming love for their daughters and sex toys, was now trying to persuade her to buy an upgrade. A super-turbo, glow-in-the-dark version with four speeds, or something. “It even puts the bins out without being asked,” Jessica chuckled inappropriately during an end-of-term dance recital. Suzie whispered that it sounded awful, while making a mental note to buy it online that night.

Eight years after the divorce, Miles would find himself in the same position, unchanged, just older and more exhausted, being barked at by a different tired new wife if he dared try to read a newspaper while she cared for their young baby, a boy named Arthur, or God forbid, sit down and relax. Guinevere was discombobulated, mentally and physically, confused about what she had become. Miles, once again, didn’t know what to do and his second wife wouldn’t tell him what she needed. Glimmers of information about Miles’ new predicament reached Suzie via Stella’s innocent reporting and, depending on what time of the month it was, she’d rock back and forth between pity and glee about her ex-husband’s situation.

Nine years later, Miles wasn’t shocked to find himself receiving more divorce papers, posted to his parents’ address. He thought it would be a fitting finale to this episode of his life to fill in the blank spaces in the wine bar near his office where Guinevere had first seduced him. After signing his name and sealing the envelope, he thought about all the women in his life who he’d let down, including his mother, who still despaired of him. When he’d sunk his third and final pint of bitter, he closed his eyes and imagined his younger self curling up on his old, single bed, looking up into the shiny, hopeful faces of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Linekar, three lions on their shirts, and waiting for his mum to call him down to dinner. Shephard’s pie and three veg. He felt better. He still had that at least. Even when she despaired of him, she still cooked.

Sixteen years later, and onto his third child with his third wife, and possibly his third divorce, Miles wondered if he made these women depressed or whether growing up in a house filled with self-help books and his mother’s confused notions of women’s lib had subconsciously drawn him to women who would refuse to be satisfied by him. He never asked his mother what she thought. And he never asked his wives.

His eldest daughter, Stella, would tell him he’d put her off men for life when she came to stay with him after her first term at Edinburgh University, holding hands with a woman called Shabnam. But she was kind enough not to say this in front of his latest wife. Or his mother.

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Sarah Ivens Moffett is a PhD student of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville, focusing on motherhood and changing female identity in marriage. Her nonfiction work has been published in Marie Claire and The Guardian and a book of essays, No Regrets, has been published by Random House.

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