Divorce: The Ultimate Aphrodisiac
There's only one good thing about getting your heart crushed in a bitter breakup: You're about to experience your sexual second coming
by adam sachs
GQ, April 2008
i am on my knees, pretending to cry. My wife is standing above me. She’s got a suitcase, which isn’t a good sign. We are in the basement of the building we moved into six years ago. The ad in the paper compared the tiny space in a wobbly old carriage house in the West Village to a “Parisian tree house” (whatever the hell that meant), and we liked the sound of it and rushed in to buy it, though we weren’t even engaged. Behind a heavy gate, at the back of a green courtyard shaded by a lucky Japanese maple, our home lay outside the grasp of the world. Inside we chirped and whistled to each other in some made-up bird language that said nothing could ever go wrong. We baked salmon in puff pastry. We drank old Armagnac and laughed our asses off. We were warmly affectionate in that discreet but evident way that made other couples quarrel when they left our dinner parties. We flew to Paris and Tokyo and Capri and Sydney and Martinique and brought home exotic salts and jams, artisanal moonshine, and tins of jellied pigs’ trotters—whatever was precisely the least practical crap you could have, delivered to our fridge, where it remained unused, a climate-controlled gallery of preserved memories, best intentions, and harmless affectations.
We weren’t—I don’t think—total assholes about it. But baby, we were smug about love. We’d cracked the code. It was all so simple: Pick someone you like to do everything with and just be nice to them the whole way through. We were geniuses.
I can see it’s not her weekend bag. It’s the clunky rolling armoire, the fat one that’s always awful to coax up stairs and into taxis. You could fit a body in this bag. You could zip yourself in with a book, a flashlight, and a snack, and check yourself in for a long-haul flight to far away, which is exactly where my wife wants to be now: away, as soon as possible. Fleeing here, leaving me. I’ve always hated that bag. I hate this basement, too. Where I want to be is upstairs, where the light is warm, where our pictures and books and useless kitchen appliances are, where our history is collecting on the sloped floorboards: the thousand mundane things that add up to a life lived together, that keep piling up on top of each other until you get old and die together atop that mountain of shared experience. Or until somebody comes home one night and just topples the thing and walks out.
Knees bent, hands up (executionee-style), I ask her to reconsider. Let’s slow this down. The word please comes out of my mouth too often, too weakly, like the desperate fart of some terrified donkey. Everything seems off—the wrong film reel played at the wrong speed. There’s no continuity, no connection to the rest of our life. The number of conversations we’d had about this—about the possibility of things being over—was zero. For a month she’d seemed somewhere else, wandering through a fog of grief, troubled by thoughts she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. But over was not discussed. Over was not on the table. Yet here it was. One minute the faint rumble of thunder from two towns away. The next: lightning bolt to the groin! Fatal, a bad way to go, couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow. Except her speech to me left no room for niceties. Kindness was not one of its themes. Delivered wild-eyed in a voice I’d never heard before, it was all judgment, no plea, terms nonnegotiable: Bye-bye. All over. Move, now.
If I could beat her to the door and outrun this, I would. But it’s too late: An unbelievable thing is unmistakably happening. I know I should be crying, am in fact doing everything I can to get some kind of results in that department. I scrunch up my face, trying to wring hot tears from my skull. Nothing doing. Something’s jammed. Everything is coming out the wrong way. It’s a miracle I don’t shit my pants instead— though a good rock-bottom pants-shitting would be as apt and futile a response as any. Dry-eyed, I fake it. But the sounds that come out—of swelling outrage, of fear, of howling injured love and piercing what-the-fuck confusion—the sounds are real.
Imagine all the sweet, quiet things you say to someone you love. Now see that person buckled at your feet, a thing to be stepped over. The face of my wife—that new and unwelcome mask of rehearsed confidence—is suddenly distorted by abject horror. She looks at me and simply screams.
i always thought I’d be the one who’d fuck it up. Or feared that I could, anyway. As a travel writer, I live an easy, pampered life. And like many without real cares, I am not unfamiliar with the urge to drive the happy bus off the side of the mountain just to see what happens. Complicating this is that disease of the brain called chronic male horniness. I used to tell people that the world will never seem more teeming with beautiful, fascinating, fuckable people than on the sunny afternoon when you walk to the post office carrying a box full of your wedding invitations. It was a joke that, for me, contained some sorrow and more than the usual measure of truth. I never imagined that love and marriage would cure the body of its urges or rid the mind of its curiosity, but it’s a manageable affliction. You handle it. You don’t do what you often desperately want to do. Could there be a simpler definition of commitment and sacrifice? The point is: You make it to the mailbox and send those invitations despite the hotness of strangers and in defiance of the gloom of never kissing anyone new ever again. You do it because it feels right, because there is a satisfaction in going all-in, on betting everything on forever.
But then she left. The deal was off. And here is where I must thank the grunting, unkillable needs of my addled male mind. For all its ceaseless nagging—the pointless years of thinking, If I could fuck somebody on this subway car, who would it be?—the monomania occasionally redeems itself. During moments of trauma, an emotional endorphin kicks in to soothe the pain, and a little voice inside the little brain says: Now we get to see other people naked again.
Male friends wanted to talk about this. After the proper declarations of shock and compassion, and after checking to see that their wives weren’t in the room, they would delicately float the idea of a possible upside to the unraveling of my marriage. After much empathy, a married friend announced: “You were doing life in Alcatraz, and you broke out and swam to freedom.” A funny thing, this freedom. I was free to not know where my life was going. Free to recast, reimagine, regroup. Free to fail or flourish. Another friend (married, sane, kids) spelled it out explicitly: “To walk away with no ties, no guilt, no responsibilities. It’s the male fantasy.”
But it wasn’t my fantasy. I’d signed on for the cozy carriage house with the two songbirds building their nest. I didn’t want to be a divorced guy any more than I wanted to wear a guayabera or ride around on a Razor scooter. I liked being married, accepted its compromises because I believed in the payoff of long-term togetherness.
The night my wife left, I smashed a chair in our living room. “There is someone else,” she said, the pitiless cliché delivered less like an admission than a frantic alert about something she’d witnessed. There’s been an accident! Run, get help! The nearest thing was a wooden chair. It hit the floor and snapped (saloon-brawl style) into a half-dozen pieces. But all I wanted was to make things whole again.
That night, I fed the pieces of the chair into the fireplace and watched them burn and thought only: I will save this. I will make passionate declarations and write patient, beautiful letters that our children’s children will find and think, Holy shit, if this were any less dazzling or persuasive we wouldn’t even be here! I’ll be forgiving as a saint and deliberate as a killer. I will consult the experts, build coalitions and make bullet-pointed plans in motherfucking PowerPoint. I will outmaneuver this by superior wit and pure intention and be the bighearted superhero of love and—
And it didn’t work. What followed were the worst wintry, whiskey-chugging months of my mostly charmed life. We were on again and then off. I learned to cry. Mastered it. Had the stamina of a colicky infant on a turbulent transpacific flight. My friend Elizabeth said that every time she saw me, it looked as if I were trying to work out the world’s hardest math problem. I couldn’t solve it. But I tried. Someone fucked it up, and it wasn’t me. I was left with no alternative but to fill my life with new entanglements, new fascinations, new people.
So I went off to San Francisco to write, but mostly for distraction. An amnesiac trying not to remember. I played tennis all the time and drank beer and ate pizza and napped in parks and sat on benches outside coffee shops talking to strangers and generally tried to make myself better by making myself 18 again.
I started slow. I’d been jerked around so much that it took some time to reacquaint myself with intimacy and kindness. I met M., a pretty Tokyoite on life-hiatus in San Francisco. We had a chaste lunch and a couple of days later a drunken dinner. That night we ended up at a bar in the tenderloin. While M. was dancing, a stranger in a cowboy hat took me aside and urged me to action. “She likes you,” he said. “Now kiss her. Kiss her on the neck.” Thank you, wise Cowboy Hat Man, for recognizing the romantically rusty. We stumbled back to her place and broke all the vows I’d taken some years ago.
M. and I settled quickly into a quiet routine. While she was at work, I’d nap at her apartment and read Murakami novels. She would teach me Japanese words (wakinoshita, armpit), and I would watch her glide around her tiny apartment. I took great comfort in observing her slice okra, fill a glass with water, boil noodles. Whatever we were doing felt less like a passionate affair than like physical therapy—I was learning to walk again.
We spent an enormous amount of time in bed. In her shy, whispery voice she took to calling a part of me “Coit Tower.” (I’m sorry, but when your sincerest aspirations are meanly crushed by the person you trusted the most, there is nothing more essential to surviving the barely-hanging-on period than having a sweet girl address a part of your body by a charitable and ludicrous nickname.)
M. and I asked little of each other. One night, though, she said, “Are you happy?” It was an innocent question, but alarm bells sounded. Happiness was a dangerous-sounding thing, emotional hazmat that required expert handling. What business did I have messing around with happy? Hadn’t my marriage imploded only a few months ago? Lost, away from home, wandering through the still smoldering wreckage of life-as-it-was, I was comfortable with the image of myself as distant, distraught. But lying around M.’s apartment, my guest toothbrush hanging in the bathroom, I realized that the answer was, weirdly, unseemly, honestly: Yes.
This was the happiness of reduced expectations, of boiled noodles and the comfort of strangers. Transient, directionless, very possibly self-deluding. But whatever kind of happiness it was, I’d take it and take some more, please.
After my recovery period, I returned to New York and tried to relearn how to be single. I hadn’t dated in nearly a decade, and I wasn’t very good at it my last go-around. This time, though, it was different. I had a superpower of sorts, one which, like any other superpower, was born of some life-changing calamity. In a world of men who can’t commit, I’d committed and lost. I assumed divorce would mark me with a scarlet letter, an unmissable warning label announcing caveat emptor: this person has loved and lost—ask yourself why. But women seem unfazed. Some find it sympathetic, sweet, a turn-on in a way I find slightly necrophilic but am thankful for.
I am a lucky man. For better or worse and mostly by accident, I am a professional vacationer and food writer. I have fun for a living. In this I am well suited to the temporary immunities and sanity reprieve offered by divorce. There is velocity in escape. My plan was to go everywhere, do everything. Self-distract (not destruct) for as long as it took to feel I’d beaten this thing. I climbed mountains and raced cars and walked in the woods. I saw lions in the Serengeti, copulating ostriches in Ngorongoro Crater, and an angry grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies. In Bombay I ate goats’ brains off the hood of a car and went sandboarding in the desert between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. One day, horribly hungover, I ran into my soon-to-be ex-father-in-law on a street in London. We embraced and went around the corner and ate lobster omelets and caught up on things, like the fact that his daughter was threatening to sue me for divorce on the grounds of “inhuman treatment” (you read that right) and “constructive abandonment” (look it up for a laugh). It was a civilized, surreal lunch. What else could we do? We liked each other, and we weren’t the ones who’d fucked it up.
When I stopped moving, I would think about the wrecked recent past or the unknowable future, and I’d feel slightly sick, so I kept going. Much of it is a blur. In Miami, I meet a French Canadian who explained to me the importance of watching me kiss his young, lithe, coke-snorting wife in the bathroom of a South Beach hotel: that these controlled indiscretions are how the fickle flames of wedded bliss are kept eternal. So I go to the bathroom with his beautiful 22-year-old wife and do my part on behalf of the strength and longevity of their marital union and to keep my mind from the brevity and dissolution of my own. In San Francisco, I meet a girl who is studying for a Ph.D. in happiness. I give her a bite of a chocolate-chip cookie, and she leads me back to her apartment, where she has a yellow pillow on her bed that’s shaped like a star and says future celebrity, and I fear for my own future, for my sanity. I interview a Scandinavian minister of trade—and ask his pretty press secretary to dinner. I meet girls on planes and outside bars and at weddings (thank God for other people’s weddings!) and in hotel lobbies and, once, on a sheep farm. I am consistently shocked to be playing again in the rumpus room of the single people. I know I forgot how strange it all is: What people do. What they look like. The things they say. The carnivalesque variety, excitement, and sadness of it all. Thank God for the hope and the pleasures of the first kiss, which— no matter how porn-trained the world becomes— is what you miss most of all.
In South Beach, I lost the French Canadians around 4 a.m. and fell in with a Persian woman who came to my room at 7 and was rambunctious and loud but also polite and said thank you when she left at noon. In Sydney one morning I asked a departing stranger for her business card. “Is that your way of saying you can’t remember my name?” she asked. (It was a very unusual name.) At a nineteenth-century members’ club in London, I was propositioned by a divorcée with an admirable economy of words: “You, me, bathroom, now.” (I declined; there was someone else there I liked.) Closer to home, in fact just outside it, I said good-bye to a guest one morning. She walked in one direction and I walked the other to the coffee cart at the end of my block. The coffee man watched her walk away and smiled at me ridiculously. I told him that she was a part-time professional cheerleader for the WNBA, which was true. (I did not tell him that I’d prepared for her stay by washing down half a Viagra tablet with a can of diet Red Bull, which was also true.) Today, he announced, I would receive a special discount of twenty-five cents. We smiled at each other ridiculously.
it is night, late. I am sitting at my desk in the little office overlooking the red-leafed Japanese maple. The creaky old floorboards announce that somebody is awake and moving. I nearly whistle one of the old nutty birdcalls my wife and I would communicate with. I stop myself: That’s a dead language now.
There’s a knock, and a sweet girl appears at the office door. We don’t know each other very well, but well enough. She drinks my whiskey and has a habit of asking me in a vaguely dirty way who I am and what I’m doing here (in my bed). I used to fear that this apartment would feel haunted by the presence of the person I once shared it with, worried that it would always remind me of her exit, of broken vows and smashed chairs. But it doesn’t. A year has passed since our scene in the basement, and to my genuine surprise I didn’t even notice the anniversary until a few days later. I’d arranged to meet a girl at a birthday party who showed up late and ravishing. After everyone left or fell asleep, we stole my friend’s wine and ran back here—this is my apartment now—and talked until the sun came up, all worked up with the giddy energy of new things. It was, unplanned, a perfect day to mark a year in this uncharted territory. My friend Liz Gilbert wrote a book, Eat, Pray, Love, about the year of pizza and spiritual questing that followed her divorce. I had a different kind of year. My version would be called Drink, Fuck, Forget.
Part of the ugliness of divorce and deceit is that it can take away a sense of yourself, temporarily blind you to who you are. But a year later I was still me. It was a big day. A fuck-you-to-sadness kind of day. So this is the unasked-for second act.
Now the sweet girl is at the office door. She can’t sleep and wants to know what I’m writing about. So, for the hundredth time, the story behind this story keeps me from finishing it. The characters have a funny habit of announcing themselves, getting in the way, dropping by for a drink. The soon-to- be ex-wife e-mails with some bland, grim business. The divorce lawyers cook up some hideous homework for me. The phone rings. The doorbell buzzes. The second act continues to unfold in all its comic weirdness. And it is a kind of gift, isn’t it, to be consistently surprised by one’s own life? If I am lucky, I am also diligent, defiant, dogged in pursuit of the silver lining. Mostly, what I feel now is happy. That unlikely, welcome word again, and once again I’ll take it. This isn’t the life I chose or maybe deserve, but it is vivid, curious, and often thrilling. I’ll never thank my wife for subjecting me to the near-death experience of divorce, never forgive her lies or admire her idiotic choices. But I am happy to find myself afloat in the world, cured of commitment but not of love, without any clue what comes next.
adam sachs is a former GQ senior staff writer who frequently writes about travel and food.
Photo credit: Mauricio Guillen/My Best Fred